Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Man Man

Now that it's the end of January, thankfully all the best of 06 lists have been put to rest. The final shindig was Eye Weekly's cross-Canada critic's poll, which put my long-lost cousin Gnarls Barkley on the cover last week. Although, I just saw the cover of the latest Punk Planet yesterday and almost screamed. For reasons much more than musical, I have absolutely no desire to relive a minute of the year that was.

When I unleashed my own bloated sheep-chasing list in late December on this here space, I worried that it was too conservative. Much to my surprise, many of my favourites didn't actually materialise on others' lists, and I, for one, don't give a rat's ass about The Hold Steady, The Knife or Jenny Lewis. And I thought that Neko Case album was her weakest--obviously I'm in the clear minority there.

When asked to rank my Top 10 numerically, I always put Man Man's Six Demon Bag at the top of my list. Not just because I knew that it wasn't going to be the most popular critics' choice and that therefore I had to vote strategically. Not just because their live show was perhaps the best I saw last year. Perhaps because the gruff melodic hooks they extract from such cacophony seemed like a bizarre audio metaphor of the twists and turns of my personal life last year. Man Man acted like primal scream therapy, assuring me that beauty could emerge from such confusion. This album hit me in the gut like nothing else. And yet I only saw it surface once in a year in review: #20 on Pitchfork's list.

Portions of this interview appeared in this article for Eye. Here's my review from Exclaim, in the March 06 issue:

Man Man are mustachioed men in white who hail from Philadelphia, but the image conjured up on their second full-length is that of a lycanthropic madman leading a band of gypsies from Bulgaria to hijack Berlin’s Kit Kat cabaret. Carnivalesque melodies sung by rowdy group vocals compete with instrumental twists that sound like Deerhoof reinvented as a klezmer dance band. What should be an impossible formula works miraculously well, even more so here than on their brilliant yet occasionally bludgeoning debut album, 2004’s The Man in a Blue Turban With a Face. The intensity is taken down a notch, allowing more subtleties to shine through and making it an ultimately more rewarding listen. With an overhauled line-up of men men behind him, including drummer Christopher “Pow Pow” Powell on loan from Need New Body (a band now on permanent hiatus), the vision of neophyte bandleader Honus Honus has resulted in one of the most delectable and wildly unpredictable American bands in recent memory. (Ace Fu)

Man Man are heading into the studio this month in Chicago to start work on their third album. As good as Six Demon Bag is, I don't have any doubt that they'll take it up another notch this time out--seeing as how they're now a real band, as opposed to the uncertain future they faced last time out.

Man Man

Ryan “Honus Honus” Kattner

February 12, 2006

Locale: phoner from his house in Philadelphia

I want to start by saying that I’m a huge fan…

Oh, that’s unfortunate for you.

I’ve only seen the band once, at CMJ last year. The audience was a good combination of people who knew what they were getting into and people who were totally stunned.

That’s usually what it is. That was our first show in four months, and the first one with a new group of dudes. [long tangential talk turns to Frog Eyes and Wolf Parade, for some reason. He’s a huge fan of both]

Tell me about your new dudes. What kind of a revolving door was it?

I want to clarify something. It’s not because I can’t hold together a band. If anything, it’s because none of us expected to be in a band. They all left on relatively good terms. They’re all amazing artists in their own right. Steven [Dufala] is an amazing video artist, and that’s first and foremost what he does. He thought, ‘Well, I have all these gallery shows I could be doing, or I could be touring and making no money and sleeping on floors every night and losing girlfriends because of that. Do I want to keep roughing it or just make art?’

The first album had a core trio. Are either of those guys on the new record?

Steven is on a good part of the record. The visual art side just won out over playing in an uncool underground band. He wanted to do the record, but I knew he couldn’t tour. He played a lot of horn and guitar. It was nerve wracking because I was in the studio recording and knowing that I had to have a new band together to take on the road. Where the fuck am I going to find someone who can do all the crazy stuff Steven does that also has their own idiosyncratic vision? I lucked out. I found someone, I knew them before, and they had time to do it. It’s my friend Russell, who is also in Coyote.

The new drummer came from Need New Body, correct?

Pow Pow. He’s awesome. I needed to find someone I could write with who also had their own confidence and style and idiosyncratic take on things, and Pow Pow is the top dog. I lucked out. He did the record and eventually signed on. Need New Body is on permanent hiatus right now.

I found an old quote of yours where you talked about how none of you were music school guys, and that this was your first band. Yet listening to the complexity of the arrangements, I find that somewhat hard to believe. What is your musical background?

Pow Pow is a drum wizard, the rest of us are self-taught. We’re trying not to be a straight-up rock band set-up. That’s boring. Unfortunately, these other things get foisted on Sergei, which is great because he’s very creative. I think we’re just creative people. I just started playing music for this band. It was a way of dealing with my undealable life. I’m not even exaggerating. I had a lot of bullshit, and thought it would be funny if I started a pop band. I never saw it going beyond playing some local shows. I thought it would be great to do a record, and then there was such a response to it. People responded to it in a way that one can only wish they would.

You didn’t play piano before?

When I was very shorter, my mother tried to make me play the piano. I think that lasted six months. Then she realised that there was a passive aggressive reason why I’d start practising at 11 o’clock at night on my little Casio.

When did the band start then?

Probably around 2000. I did play a bit of guitar before that, but nothing really. I play guitar on a couple of songs on the record, but I’m by no means a guitar player in the same way that I’m by no means a keyboard player. The trick I’ve learned is that if you surround yourself with people who are way more talented than you’ll ever be, everything flows a lot better.

One of the things I really like about the band is the downplaying of the guitar, which makes it sound much less like a conventional rock band.

I’m so tired of going to see guitar rock bands. Also, I don’t look that good playing guitar, so it boils down to that.

You can hammer a keyboard much more effectively.

It’s hard to play guitar very well with your face and your elbows. Some people play with their teeth, but I can’t.

When you were conceiving what the band would sound like, what did you have in mind? I hear Eastern European music, I hear klezmer, I hear New Orleans, I hear a bit of musical theatre...

Oh god, I’m wincing when you say musical theatre. I knew what I didn’t want to do. I feel really lucky because I’m playing music, even though I’m still hestitant to call myself a musician. I play the music that I always wanted to play, even before I was thinking about playing music, and I have really supportive musicians helping me do it. It’s organic… in a ‘granola bar with razor blades in it’ kind of way. When I’m ego surfing the web reading my reviews, some people write us off as overly knowledgable music kids. I mean, we’re music lovers, but we don’t sit down and say, ‘This song will sound like this genre of music, or this one will sound like Naked City.’ I don’t see why any band’s songs would all sound the same. There’s such a short attention span these days.

I think that speaks much more to the way a music critic might start a band and get crushed for being overly conscious about it: ‘here’s our Phil Spector moment, here’s our Beefheart breakdown,’ etc.

It would be interesting to have that kind of resource, but I feel like the more I learn, the worse it’s going to become.

Your first record opened with a children’s choir, and the second song on this album has a nursery rhyme built into it. Do young kids get into your music?

You know what a nightmare that would be, with release forms?

No, I don’t mean join your band, I mean listen to it!

Oh yeah, that’d be great. But if we ever played something where we could reach an insanely retarded amount of people, it wouldn’t hurt to get a children’s choir on one song. It’s all a matter of economics at this point. When the band started, I wanted it to be raw. I don’t want it to not seem genuine. We have a sense of humour, but we’re not a silly band. That’s something that a lot of people miss. They write us off as a goofy, jokey band. So be it. Those might be the same people who go to Starbucks instead of their local coffee shop. I don’t want them. We put a lot into this, because we like making music. By no means are we paying the bills doing this.

The first record was done guerilla style. Did you have any more resources this time?

The main difference was that I didn’t have most of the band in the studio for the first record. We actually had less money to work with this time.

Yeah, who knows, man? Because when some people depart a band they take the marimbas with them. I had to reconfigure things a bit. If I told you how much we paid [producer, now member] Mizzle to make this record, it’s laughable. We did it in his warehouse space. We had an extra month and a half to make this record. At least with the first situation we had air conditioning. You can only imagine what Philadelphia’s Chinatown smells like in the summer.

Probably not unlike Toronto’s Chinatown.

I like Toronto. Toronto reminds me of Philly, with less violence. The kind of kids there, and the fact that we both have equally successful sports teams.

Toronto is quite violent these days, though. There’s been a lot of gang shootings in the last few months.

A friend of mine, a nice looking little white girl, got punched in the face the other day by a dude just on the street. She and another friend of mine and a couple of guys were walking through this neighbourhood that used to be cool but is now yuppie bullshit. There were a couple of bullshit yuppies there having some kind of intramural snowball fight, which escalated into some guido dudes punching this girl in the face and actually knocking her out. These aren’t even thugs, just trashy dudes knocking out girls. But, uh, back to your question.

Speaking of bludgeoning, your first record really grabbed me by the collar and shook me around. This one still has that at times, but it’s brought down a few levels.

Were you disappointed?

No, I like it more.

You might not understand everything I’m saying, but you can hear what I’m singing, for the most part. I think that got lost on the first record because of the way it was recorded. There’s some sad stuff on the first record. But I don’t want to be a total downer. I’ll wrap those sad songs up in some kind of raunching barroom art star thing.

I enjoyed watching people react to you for the first time. How does that change as more people come out to see you?

Now we can play shows and kids don’t necessarily want us to immediately get the fuck off the stage. We just played a show here in Philly and it’s always special for us because we’re from here, so we can usually play wherever we want to. We did this show in the straight-up ghetto. I’m not talking artist gentrified, I’m talking ghetto. We were expcting maybe 50 kids. It was a fundraiser, $5 a kid, and 450 kids came out. It was awesome. It was a warehouse space, all-ages. There were 14-year old kids crowd surfing. Bizarre.

I don’t know how things are in your wonderful part of the world, but Philly kids do not move. They can be loving a show, but they will not move. But since the addition of Powell to the band, he has some kind of mojo in him that sparks something, and kids are now moving and responding and it seems geniuine. When we’re up there playing and sweating – and probably not looking that good when we’re sweating—we’re not thinking about how we look. That’s why we’re wearing all white, we’re playing a show. It’s great to see kids not be concerned about looking like an asshole, and just dancing and letting their bodies freak out. We’re seeing more of that and it’s very rewarding.

But they’re also coming to see you, as opposed to you being the opening band for the Arcade Fire, for example [which they did in New York City and Philly just as AF was taking off].

That was interesting. We got some hate mail after these shows, let me tell you.

I know the band themselves really liked those shows.

They’re great kids and the way I feel about it is if that kind of immediate thing is going to happen to anyone, they’re the perfect people because of their personalities. It’s great that it happened to them and not to some postured douchebags. Those were great shows, but the audience was not that receptive. Some of them were, but the rest were just “GET THE FUCK OFF THE STAGE!” To our credit, the first half of our set was probably more abrasive than it needed to be. We definitely probably could have played a chiller set, but we figured we’d play the same set that we’d play for kids who came out to see us in a club with 50 people in it.

There’s something to be said for a band that gets such a love/hate reaction.

Any other band could probably have used those shows as a major jumping off point. (laughs) We just weren’t thinking like that. We thought, wow, these are great shows with a band that we like, and we’re going to shit out these gigs. I got an email from one kid who said, ‘I wasn’t into your stuff and no one around me was. But let me tell you that I think that you guys will do okay in a couple of years if you just stick at it—if you had any talent, which you don’t. You suck.’ Which was so weird, because the guy was like, ‘I’m not trying to be an asshole, but I’ll probably check you out again if you’re in New York.’ What is that?

He covered all his bases!

Yeah, and came back around. So I wrote him back, because the tone of his email was really awful. I said, ‘Thank you for your perspective. It’s good to know that there’s people like you out there, and we’re going to win this war in Iraq.’ Thanks, kid.

Do you have a lot of touring planned?

That was the thing with the first line-up. We didn’t expect to have to tour. We didn’t expect anyone to like it, let alone hear it. And it was really roughing it, on tour. When the new guys came in—and they’re by no means hired guns. I have the fortunate position to pick the people I wanted in my band, who I wanted to spend time with on a daily basis. So we’re going to hit the road.

I was impressed how well you were able to reproduce the record, even though the record has all kinds of crazy instruments on it. Having so many multi-instrumentalists on stage helps.

We’re not concerned about sounding like the record. But you gotta bring the marimbas and everything on stage, because we certainly aren’t bringing big guitar amps. Everything we have is broken. All the players are broken! I would like it to be much different, obviously. It would be nice to tour with more horn players or a violinist.

Are there strings on the record?

There’s violin on “Skin Tension” and “Van Helsing’s Boombox.” That’s the thing. We know that on one song, Sergei is going to have to play a bongo, as awful as it looks to carry a bongo around. I, for one, am not going to carry the fucking bongo!

Is there any direct Eastern European or klezmer influence for you?

Well, I love that music. In some ways it’s kind of ingrained in my head from a lot of movies, like Underground. I feel like that stuff is a lot more honest. I like the gypsy stuff in Eastern European music. You can really taste the music, if you know what I mean. It’s really raw, which I appreciate. I also like playing waltzes, which are easy for a primitive piano caveman like myself. It’s easier to disassociate my hands from my throat on those songs.

[solicits my personal opinion of the record in depth, which was mostly musical, as I only had an advance of the record for a few days before the interview]

I went through some personally traumatic experiences, that I won’t ever really go into depth about. A lot of songs were written as a coping mechanism. A song like Van Helsing, I had crashed and burned out and was going through a very tough period when I wrote that song. Then a song like “Push the Eagle’s Stomach,” there’s a choral break that goes “We start shrinking when we hit that grill/ you know we will.” We got that from a Wendy’s training video from the 80s. We’ve never seen the video, but we borrowed a van from a band once that came with that song on a cassette tape. So yeah, cut to two months later when Man Man gets sued out of the water by Wendy’s… although I guess it’s parody, because we didn’t sample it, we played it. You know, I discovered my inner girl on this record.

How so?

A lot of the female backing vocals I did myself on this record. I can’t do them live, though. I can’t do the falsetto because I sound like a gravel pit. And I did get some girls on the record to make it work.

But you were just feeling feminine.

Yeah, it was kind of disgusting. There were times when Mizzle had to leave the studio, because he was strangely drawn to me. Nothing to do with the Man Man name at all.


Monday, January 29, 2007

Rock Plaza Central

I first heard Chris Eaton of Rock Plaza Central play in an Irish pub in the tiny university town of Sackville, New Brunswick back in 1997. I was playing in a seven-piece folkestra at the time; he was a solo singer/songwriter opening the show. It's a night I'll never forget: largely because my band had survived a 12-hour death-defying battle with a broken accelerator in our van in a brutal Maritime white-out blizzard. The hospitality and enthusiasm of Sackville was the perfect cushion to land in, and the town's residents--many of whom are inspiring, both as artists and people--have always had a warm place in my heart.

Now that I've been a slow convert to his new album, I'll admit now that I wasn't a fan of Eaton's music back then: though he was obviously a clever, thoughtful guy, I felt his songs tried too hard to include as many chords as possible, his voice always went to the same strained high notes to convey drama. He gave up music for years, landing in Toronto and working as a copy writer in an advertising company while penning two novels on the side.

Ten years later, Eaton is fronting a seven-piece folkestra himself--still called Rock Plaza Central--and his songwriting has improved leaps and bounds, largely by simplifying its chord structures and allowing his band to weave themselves in and out of the songs at will. Things were looking up on the 2003 album The World Was Hell To Us, but the band has been thrust out of obscurity thanks to its late 2006 release Are We Not Horses?. A rave review by Stuart Berman in Eye likely tipped off his other employers at Pitchfork, who gave the band not one boost but two. Online orders and MySpace visits increased astronomically. A Canadian deal with Outside Music followed. Last week, the band announced that they had signed a US deal with Yep Roc to re-release the album, and they'll be venturing south for the first time this month. An irreverent, drunken country reworking of Justin Timberlake's "SexyBack" has helped as well, something I focused on in my article in this week's Eye.

A large talking point with this album is that it's ostensibly a concept album about robotic horses and their war with an army of angels--though that's really only there if you want it to be. You can take a line like "I am an excellent steel horse" any way you like, not necessarily literally. Musically, the band made the wise decision to hire Dale Morningstar of the Gas Station studio, located on Toronto Island; Morningstar (of Dinner is Ruined) has a lengthy discography of sculpting sense out of chaos, which is what Rock Plaza Central can certainly be during live shows at times. [It's a common pitfall of seven-piece folkestras; I know this all too well from experience.]

I saw my first Rock Plaza Central show in years a few weeks ago at the Tranzac. It was Eaton's annual anniversary show; he and his wife Laura were married in Sackville on New Year's a few years back, but they held a reception doubling as a rock show in Toronto the first week of January, a tradition they've maintained ever since. (The show this year was also notable for an appearance by Deep Kisses, the awesome rock'n'roll soul revue featuring the Lullabye Arkestra with members of Jon Rae & the River, including powerhouse vocalist Ann Rust-D'Eye. Book them now for your own love-in! Catch them this Saturday Feb 3 at the Boat.)

This interview is edited slightly; I shuffled the "SexyBack" part of our conversation to the front.

Rock Plaza Central

Chris Eaton and Fiona Stewart

January 15, 2007

Locale: Tequila Bookworm, Queen St. W, Toronto

I came across something really strange while researching today. Your Wikipedia entry says, “After a pair of glowing reviews from the influential music website Pitchfork, Rock Plaza Central recently came to prominence as a major indie rock band.” Do you feel major?
C: Wikipedia is a strange place, eh? Did you notice that there’s a footnote on every second word there? Whenever I’ve been on Wikipedia before, nobody cites anything. ‘Here’s the history of Russia, whatever I say it is.’ But this one footnotes everything for only two or three sentences.

F: I do find it entertaining to be in Wikipedia. Only because most of my students think it’s acceptable to use it in the research.

My girlfriend’s 12-year old daughter asked me something the other day, something that every grown adult should know, and I went to Wikipedia to research a simple answer. She caught me and said, “You can’t check that! People just make stuff up on there!’

F: Well, she’s well ahead of lots of people in university.

C: The best is when you go on looking for something, and someone’s erased the entire entry and just wrote: ‘Steve is gay.’ That happened once to me. But it’s usually corrected within minutes. I’m sure if someone changed ours, though, that it would be wrong for a long time.

This record came out in September 2006, and the album before that was in 2003. What do you notice has changed in that time, especially in terms of people finding out about this album much more quickly? It’s not like the internet wasn’t around three years ago.

C: I think it’s a better record, and that’s part of the reason it’s being noticed. It’s something I can’t really explain, though. We’re still trying to break even on the first one, but the second one, we’ve printed 5000 copies already.

Are you more internet-savvy?

C: No, but other people are, and they’ve probably heard it on MySpace. Even Pitchfork three years ago was still really just getting off the ground.

F: Blogs have been a big help.

C: Especially for the ‘SexyBack’ cover. I did a blog search this morning, and found this gay porn site full of explicit shots and right in the middle of it they say, ‘Hey, check out Rock Plaza Central’s awesome cover of ‘SexyBack!’ Things are showing up in really weird places. We have a review coming out in a magazine in the States who described themselves as being ‘in the spectrum between Maxim and Playboy.’ (laughs) That was their own self-description.

Which means what, they show half-nipples? I know you recorded the cover for the Coke Machine Glow site. But surely you must have known that by covering such an incongruous song, one that’s a huge hit, that it would get a lot of attention. Is that part of your grand marketing scheme?

C: It was the only one that worked out. We thought of several songs to cover, but most of them didn’t sound so much different than us, so there didn’t seem much point in doing them. We ran through the song five times and recorded it immediately. The whole song is in A minor, and I actually added a second chord.

Many times, the first time you might hear of a band is through a cover, especially if they take something very well known and do it totally differently, usually acoustically.

C: Most of the time I hate that.

F: I don’t. If it’s a band that’s good and they do an interesting cover, changing a song and re-arranging its elements you can really see what a band is capable of. That’s what interests me about those kinds of covers. Doing ‘SexyBack’ was us taking something unexpected and really putting our own stamp on it.

C: It sounds like it could be on our album.

F: It was an exercise for us, rather than a savvy marketing ploy!

C: I’ve been fascinated with covers for a while. I started a night at Sneaky Dee’s a couple of years ago called Forced Undercover, which was getting bands to come in and I told them what songs to play. Dave Clark had one of the best ones. He did ‘Go For Soda’ and ‘Faith.’ And on top of learning the covers, he took piano lessons and decided he was going to do it all on piano.

F: Sandro Perri’s was great, too. He did a Fleetwood Mac song, which he still does live.

C: It was this fun exercise of taking people out of their comfort zones, and doing songs that they would never think of doing but that I thought they could do a good job with. Most people took it and made it sound like they had written it. Jon Rae did this awesome Modest Mouse cover.

F: Reflectiostack [her other band] did a cover of ‘Enter Sandman,’ and we still play it.

C: Our band did ‘Eye in the Sky’ by Alan Parsons, and two lines of that song ended up in one of our songs.

F: Really?

Your last novel was based on Thomas Hardy’s Pair of Blue Eyes, and you billed that as a “cover version” as well. Did that help bring attention to it?

C: I think so. I’m not sure whether it was in a good or bad way. There were some interesting reviews where people decided they didn’t like it because it wasn’t really a cover or wasn’t that similar to Thomas Hardy. In a song context, when you do a cover, the last thing you’ll change in the lyrics. They’ll change the instrumentation, or might change it from major to minor, but the lyrics and the melody are often the same. Whereas obviously in a book, you have to change the words. It’s about working with tone and theme. There’s one awesome review that one woman wrote saying that if Thomas Hardy had lived through post-modernism and pop culture, he might have written this.

When Zadie Smith’s On Beauty came out, she talked explicitly about it riffing on Howard’s End. And that got her some mixed reactions.

C: I did this reading once out east, and this old man came up afterwards and said, ‘So, when are you going to come up with some original ideas?’ (all laugh) He said, ‘I liked your reading, but are you planning on exploring any original ideas at some point?’ There’s something about constraints that appeals to me. In that book, I knew there were certain plot elements that had to be there.

Now that this album is getting a lot of attention, are there plans to play more outside of Toronto?

C: There would be, but there’s been a lot of new children recently. Three new ones in the past year, and then another the year before that. You don’t want to go away for long periods of time. Fiona and [guitarist] Rob [Carson] are both working on PhD’s, which means regular teaching gigs. We can do long weekends, but doing a real tour is hard. We decided as a group that it’s more important to be together as a group than anything that’s expected of us from a label. A couple of labels told me that I could go on the road myself and get a pick-up band, but that just wouldn’t be the same thing.

How many are you officially?
C: Seven full time people.

Do you play gigs without some of them?
F: We do have some subs ready when people can’t make it. Sometimes we don’t mind having someone different, sometimes we want to preserve the feeling of the seven of us playing together. That’s the ideal situation, but we can do it minus one or two people.

C: We’re going to New York for a weekend in February, and ideally all of us will be there. Same with SXSW, which we’re doing this year. Those are the ones that are most exciting to me.

F: Local shows are sometimes hard to organize for us, but out-of-town shows are booked well in advance.

C: I’m pretty sure local shows are always the seven of us.

F: I’m sure I’ve missed a couple.

C: Oh, really? See, I didn’t notice.

F: Gee, thanks. Maybe you should go on the road with a pick-up band!

The first CD was in 1997, and then there was a six-year gap.

C: In a nutshell, I stuck with the same name because I’ve done it with a lot of different arrangements and different people before. I always thought about it as me with whomever showed up that night. Shortly after the 1997 album, I thought it wasn’t working for me the way I wanted, and I stopped for four or five years and didn’t play much music at all. In probably 2001 I felt I had to do it again, and started playing with whomever I could convince. One night it turned out to be everyone who’s in the band now except Fiona, who was in the UK at the time, and we immediately realized that it was the new band and it wasn’t going to change—other than bringing Fiona in. And apparently Scott knew from that moment that Fiona was going to be in the band too, even though she was on another continent.

When I listen to the new CD, considering how many people and instruments are on the album, it’s often the violin I hear playing the lead parts. Is it consciously the lead instrument, or are you just bossy?

(both appear baffled, laugh)

F: I think that’s totally unintentional. I think people will hear different things. The melody goes through all the instruments at some point. Scott plays a very melodic bass. It depends on how you listen to the record and what strikes you.

C: Or the frequencies on your stereo. I always thought of the band as seven people soloing at the same time. People almost never play a chord. It’s always little patterns. Maybe Fiona’s come out more because she’s swooping in and out of the general pattern.

F: People have commented that it’s contrapuntal to the rest of what’s going on, but it’s not a conscious thing. Anyone in the band would say the same thing. There’s no competition in the band over who’s playing when. Different night, different people will take different solos on different songs. Often me and [trumpeter] John [Whytock] will look at each other and say, ‘Ok, you go.’

C: We don’t have anything set in stone. The best thing is when two of them—and it’s always two of them, not me—are doing something together that’s totally unplanned, coming together and coming apart. There was a show we did in London not too long ago with Don [Murray] on the trumpet and Fiona on the violin, and it was like this other instrument combined.

How much do you cede to your bandmates in terms of arrangements? Do you ever tell them to reign it in?

F: Nooooo!

Not even in the studio, because the album sounds more focused and consistent than that approach might suggest.

C: I think we’re all just that person who reigns it in. Nobody is very show-y.

F: Even the end of ‘Joyful’ when the violin and the crazy electric guitars come in, it sounds totally unhinged, but that was initially a joke. Dale and I were sitting in the control room saying, ‘Oh yeah, that’s gotta be in there.’ The guitarists were saying, ‘No, that was a joke!’ And we said, ‘No, that’s your take. It stays!’

C: It’s amazing to me when we play live that we all end together. Maybe not on the exact same beat, but everything comes down at the same time.

That’s the sign of a group as opposed to people who just find themselves on stage together.

F: Considering a lot of the songs came together in the studio, the arrangements came together while we were playing them. Rob and Scott are more focused on arrangements, so they’d be the ones saying, ‘This is where the horns should come in.’

C: ‘Joyful’ we had been playing for a long time before…

Is that an older song? Because I thought most of these were arranged in the studio.

C: Not much older. Maybe a few gigs before we went in the studio. But I remember having a conversation that this should be a shorter song, because it doesn’t have many lyrics in it. I thought it should be a three-minute song, but it’s six.

F: Maybe that’s when I did elbow everyone aside, because I do hijack that tune a little bit.

C: I think it was largely Blake.

That sounds like one of the more focused songs here, more specifically arranged, maybe just because there are very punchy horns.

C: That would be the overdubs, too. We try and record as many people as possible in the off-the-floor stuff, but horns are always added later.

How did your writing change? A lot of songs here are one or two chords, distilling itself to a smaller thing projected onto a larger canvas. As opposed to your earlier songs, which were…

C: Purposely complicated and convoluted? Yeah. Those first songs were written to play solo. When you’re up there by yourself, it’s important to change around a lot so people don’t lose interest or focus on you. For two reasons, I started writing one-or-two-chord songs. One, it’s easier to follow if you’re playing with different people all the time. And also, when you simplify that stuff, it frees up people more. It took me a long time to learn that!

F: It’s a nice thing when you have a couple of chords that people can play around on. You can listen to everything as it unfolds and not worry about following. Also, that makes it different every time, because you don’t ever want it to be the same.

What role did Dale Morningstar play in all of this? His whole aesthetic is about reigning in chaos, and the idyllic setting of Toronto Island also seems more conducive to letting accidents happen.

F: Dale is a personal favourite of mine. I’ve made many records with him. Now that the studio is on the island, it’s a really wonderful place to be. You can stay over there. It was really nice when you’re in the closed space of a studio working really long days with seven people who are rather opinionated about things…

Go out in the canoe!

C: I was told that, actually. ‘Go take a walk on the beach!’

F: The beach was like the child’s chill-out room. ‘Take a breather in your room.’ And it did wonders. You’d come back fresh and decompressed. Dale has amazing ears, and he comes into his own in the mixing process. With us, that’s really important because of how much is going on in every song. He was really able to sculpt something out of that and make everything sound great. He bides his time before he puts his mark on it. He listens and gets to understand people, and then says, ‘That note might not be the best.’ He was important in making it sound both live and structured.

Considering how opinionated you all appear to be, did you leave it to him to mix it, or were you hovering over his shoulder?

C: I was there, but it was mostly just Dale. People gave me notes, but—I don’t think I’ve told anyone this—I’d say, ‘This is kind of what people are thinking, but do whatever.’ What I like about Dale the most is that he’s really unobtrusive. We’d go into the room, start playing, and he’d just walk around and start setting up microphones.

This might be an obvious thing to say on an album with the song “My Children, Be Joyful,” but this does sound a lot more optimistic and joyful than your previous CDs, more extroverted. I don’t know if there are less minor keys or what.

C: Definitely not that. I think there might be even more minor keys. There’s probably less sevenths or something. Often when the songs are written, they’re not even chords, just a couple of notes, which allows the band to go off on whatever thing they want. I might think of them as being major in the beginning and they might end up being minor. The last album was a sad album, and I knew I couldn’t do that.

I’ve read you talking about how before you met your wife you mostly wrote sad songs. And on the last record, even the supposedly happier titles—“The Things That Bind You,” “I Hope You Live Long”—and they still sound like laments.

C: Half of those songs were about a bad break-up before that. Some of them are about her. But even the ones about meeting somebody are sad, in that early confusion of not knowing where things are going yet. I think you need that. A song that is just sad is really boring. There has to be some kind of glimmer of hope in anything to make it complex enough to listen to. With this record, there was a thematic idea that I wanted to leave behind writing about me, leave behind writing sad songs about me, especially.

Is that a 20s affliction?
C: Probably, yeah. I needed to do something else. The robotic horse thing happened by chance. The idea came one day, and it was one of the best things that ever happened. For something that’s so ridiculous, it opened up all these possibilities to address things that I think are universal—even though in this case they’re robotic horses.

I had a very funny moment at your wedding anniversary show a couple of weeks ago. I was standing in the back within earshot of your wife. Every time you’d introduce a title that sounded like a love song, one of her friends would ask loudly, “Laura, is this one about you?” To which she’d respond, “I told you before, they’re all about HORSES!”

C: (laughs) She told me about that. But they’re also about love and loss and dreams and being happy with you are. The songs that sound the happiest often have the saddest words, and vice versa. The chorus ‘We Will Not Be Defeated’ is in a song called “Song For the Already Defeated.” It’s almost a metaphor for the U.S. military right now. ‘We can win eventually!’ You feel so bad for people who believe they have to keep going. Yet it’s also a joyful thing to have hope.

F: When people say, ‘Oh my god, why don’t they give up already? They don’t give up!’ There’s a strength and a wonderful thing there even if you can’t understand it.

It likely depends on how much you sympathize with their cause.

C: Exactly. So in the case of the U.S. military…

But do all these songs actually tie in with the concept of robotic horses battling an army of angels? Certain songs definitely would suggest that, explicitly or otherwise, but there are others that don’t appear on the surface to be directly related at all, or don’t contain any obvious signposts that would link them.

C: Well, the blackout song, ‘Let’s Make Love Until the Lights Go Out,’ I’d say that’s the only song that wasn’t intended to be about anything other than the blackout. But there were so many other songs with images of lights in them. In ‘Glad For,’ there’s ‘We won’t stop running until we get to the lights.’ In the story in my head, they’re trying to get to this place off in the distance and they can see the lights and they’re running towards them, but the lights are just stars so they never get there. They can’t ever get there.

Do the metaphors ring through the entire record? Do they shift in different songs?

C: Like do the lights always mean the same thing? Not entirely, no. This applies to when I write fiction as well: using similar words, even if they don’t mean the same thing, makes a connection so that people can make their own links.

Does it make a connection or does it confuse them? ‘I was sure on the last song the animals were the U.S. military, and now I think they’re 19th century suffragettes!’ And you didn’t print a lyric booklet, so we can’t read the fine print to find out.

C: It’s really about involving people in it. If people want to create their own connections and decide what those mean, I’m happy with that. It’s kinetic meaning versus potential meaning. If I meant it to mean X, that’s kinetic, but there’s a lot of potential meaning that could take it in any direction.

F: Some people don’t care about the horses, they just like the music. But some people are really, really into the horses.

C: I had an interview with Alan Neale last week, and he asked me all these questions. Nothing about the music at all, all thematically about the horses. He’d say, ‘So in the first song, this means this and this means this.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeeeeeah…! This is awesome!’ He had some neat ideas about stuff that I hadn’t thought of but that made sense to me. It’s not like it’s a linear story. It’s little glimpses of parts that can be connected. Some people think it’s a happy album, and I’ve had many emails from people telling me that as soon as the album was over they started crying, telling me it reminded me of their dead friend. That’s what I enjoy about it.

How do you see those reactions in the microcosm of the band? Do the people in the band have a range of interpretations themselves?

C: There was a debate about the order of the songs, largely based on what they said about the story. It went on forever.

F: There’s a big emotional range in the songs. Whether they’re about robotic horses or about humanity, they run the range of different experiences. Depending on what order you put the songs in, it effects the emotional tenor of the record. Some orders made it really dark and disturbing, and others were really joyful. This one has enough of an overall arc, a unified experience.

If you didn’t end with ‘We’ve Got a Lot to Be Glad For,’ how would the story turn out?

C: That was the one thing I was adamant about. I knew it had to end there, because it really brings it together. It’s saying, ‘It doesn’t matter what happened in the first 11 songs. No matter what shitty things are going on in your life, there are good things too and you should be happy for what you’ve got. Don’t worry about what you are.’ Whenever I do interviews about this album I feel like I’m starting a self-help group!

Did you have any conversations with Laura Barrett before you wrote any of this? [The Toronto songwriter has a song called “Robot Ponies” that you can hear here]

C: No. I was living in Panama the summer that she wrote that song. Someone came into the coffee shop that Fiona was working in and started talking about this band who was writing about robotic horses. She assumed it was us, and we were all shocked when we found out there was someone else. It’s different thematically, but it’s certainly weird that they both surfaced at the same time.

There’s a split 7” in there somewhere. I’m also curious about anthropomorphism, Watership Down, Animal Farm… do you enjoy that kind of fiction?

C: Watership Down is awesome.

F: I was traumatized by it as a child. Did you ever see the animated film? Oh my god. My parents gave me the picture book. Can you imagine, the stills of the bad bunnies ripping apart the good bunnies?

You could do a graphic novel of this album, I’m sure.

C: There’s been talk, actually. We’ve been approached by some weird people.

F: Not weird!

C: Right, they’re all normal, nice, well-adjusted people, which makes it weird that they’re approaching us. There’s a theatre company in B.C. that does theatre with animals.

Can you explain that?
C: They involve animals in their theatre. Often horses. We’ve never seen a show by them, so I don’t know exactly how that works, but they’ve been doing it for at least 20 years. We just met her on the weekend at a show in Ottawa. And there’s a guy who’s an illustrator for the Fantastic Four who is thinking about graphic novel stuff, and his wife does kids books. And somebody got a tattoo of the album cover recently.

Is that a friend or relative?

C: Uh, no. She lives in Vermont! It turned out beautifully, actually. But the anthropomorphism stuff allows you to write about stuff and get away with a lot more things. You can be more melodramatic. When you sing a melodramatic song about people, that’s one thing, but there’s something about anthropomorphized animals that becomes more majestic.

F: Orwell was able to deal with a lot more subject matter in that form than if his characters are people. It’s something that artists and writers have done forever.

C: Horses in particular are seen as being really proud, so having an identity crisis as a horse is a big deal.

We don’t picture horses in therapy. I was at a dinner party the other night, where someone was complaining about the tendency of literary songwriters—people like John Darnielle, Colin Meloy, et al—to over-enunciate when they’re singing, and your name came up as well. Does your approach to lyrics effect your vocal delivery at all?

C: Not really. I’m not concerned with that, otherwise I would have put the lyrics in the album. When I sing, for the most part, because I am by far the weakest musician in the group, I want to do something as interesting with the delivery of the vocals as everyone else is doing with their instrument. I think the way I play guitar is interesting if only because I don’t know what I’m doing; I think I’m quite spastic, and couldn’t strum if I wanted to. When we’re recording, if I lay down my vocal track first, it will confuse other people because I don’t deliver things on the beat and stretch things around. Maybe that’s the opposite of what you’re talking about.

F: I think that person’s concern was that some singers are more interested in the story than the melody. In the case of Dylan, he’s a poet and is very particular about the way he delivers, but it’s also more of a rhythmic thing. But for [Chris], I think it’s more of an emotive thing.

C: There probably are similarities with John Darnielle or Colin Meloy. I just don’t know what they would be.

When I think of Darnielle, I think of a very uptight, clipped delivery.

C: He’s emotive.

He is, but I’m really not a fan, and I’m the only person I know who’s not. Meloy is much more melodic…

C: And he stays at much the same volume and tone. He doesn’t really lose it.

Although I do think both of those guys over-enunciate.

F: I don’t think you over-enunciate. There are a lot of times that, until we go into the studio, I have no idea what you’re singing about. We were all watching The Last Waltz the other day and having some fun at the expense of Van Morrison, and how unintelligible he is there. And the suit, of course.

I think he’s fabulous in that: so over-the-top and ridiculous, especially by the time he starts kicking. But you also know that he’s totally lost in it, and oblivious to anyone else or the importance of the event or anything, he’s just totally in the music.

C: I think a lot of my delivery, in terms of being off the beat, comes from Van Morrison. I used to listen to him a lot. And when he does a song live, you might not even know you heard it.

F: I always loved how he uses his voice as an instrument. I’ve never thought about the similarity before, but with Chris, he uses his voice more as an instrument than as a vehicle for the words.

Just some fact-checking: I know you moved here from Sackville, are you from there originally?
C: I was born in Moncton. My family lives in Sackville now, and I went to Mount Allison. I originally came here in 94, went back for a couple of years, and came back here in 97 to go to York for a master’s degree.

You went back this summer to play Sappyfest?

C: Yeah, it was weird. I hadn’t played a solo show in years. It’s not something I would have normally done, but [co-organizer] Jon [Claytor] asked me to do it. He told me a lot of people were doing solo stuff, which there were, so that was fine. They paid me a bit of money so that I could come home and visit my family.

Did you feel lonely on stage after all these years with the band?
C: Oh yeah. It was so weird. I said something in the set about ‘screw the band, bla bla bla,’ this whole rant. Then some blog the next day wrote that Rock Plaza Central had broke up.

F: I’m glad I didn’t see that. I was in Europe at the time!

C: That’s when I decided we were a ‘major indie band,’ because people were speculating about our break-up.


Friday, January 26, 2007

Brent Bambury, 1995

Following up on the death of Brave New Waves (an update and link to a recent Patti Schmidt interview can be found here), here is a transcript from a 1995 interview I conducted with Brent Bambury for Id Magazine, a southwestern Ontario alt-weekly (bi-weekly, actually) where I was an editor (and more) for six years. The occasion was the tenth anniversary of the program, an event I don't recall being celebrated anywhere else. The show itself looked back by replaying the passing-of-the-torch episode where founding host Augusta LaPaix ceded control to Bambury.

Bambury would leave BNW within months of this interview. Patti Schmidt became the new host, and a few years after that she became its executive producer as well. Bambury moved to television to co-host Midday, a show that was cancelled in 2000--ironic, considering how BNW has flirted with death from the beginnning, and yet it outlasted the big gig that Bambury made the leap for. He spent a couple of years in the wilderness; I once saw him co-hosting a featherweight film review program on Rogers Cable. But he bounced back on CBC Radio, at one point hosting three radio programs, including the Ottawa drive show and a Saturday morning variety show called Go. The latter is now his main concern, and he's once again one of the most beloved radio hosts in the country with an entirely different demographic than the one he cultivated with BNW--though no doubt there are plenty of that show's old fans who are more in tune with Saturday mornings these days than they are the dead of weeknights.

After all these years, I still have never met Bambury, other than a fleeting, unidentified nod in the green room when my vinyl geek girlfriend was a guest on Go.

Much of this interview was later quoted in the 2001 book I co-authored, Have Not Been the Same, in the chapter detailing the importance of BNW, its weekend sister show Night Lines, campus radio and MuchMusic, and how they all facilitated a new climate for independent and creative Canadian music.

Brent Bambury

March 1995, Brave New Waves 10th anniversary

Locale: phoner from the BNW office in Montreal

What what is like hearing the passing of the torch between you and Augusta LaPaix?

I remember that evening clearly. I felt awkward being here anyways, because that was really Augusta’s night and I knew that people adored Augusta. People don’t like change, and for a lot of people, I wasn’t Augusta and I don’t deny that. And of course I was a big fan too, and to pretend that I was going to take over her throne was a strange thing. The show was a lot goofier then. Remember, when we were live then, there was a sense not of structure, but of play. We were live for six hours a night, and it had a different feeling to it. The show has evolved, and so have I.

Did you really step up from the mail room?

I came in here with radio experience. My first job was at CBC in 1979, five years before this show went on the air. I was a sportscaster at a regional station. I knew how to cut tape, how to do field pieces, research and current affairs stuff. When this show was created, I happened to be working with one of the original producers before she moved on to this show; I heard about it and thought, o my god, that’s exactly what I want to do. At the time I was a university student, 23 years old. I didn’t know anyone at the network; I knew a lot of regional people. When the show was created, they brought me in a few months later to work part-time doing odd jobs, basically things like answering mail and setting up contest prizes. Eventually, on the first anniversary of the show, it was my job to put together clips from the first year. Shortly after that, they brought me in to guest host when Augusta was ill. That was the first time I was on the air in a host capacity. So in some ways, it was a bit of a cliché, but I did graduate from the mail room and I did have an ambitious streak in me when I showed up here. Because they knew that I loved the show and I loved the format, I liked the material a lot, it was my culture.

Is that why you’ve stayed for eight of the ten years?

I’ve been here for eight and a half years now, but it’s a difficult thing. There have been other opportunities presented to me that I’ve turned down to me on the CBC.

Variety shows on Friday night by any chance? [ex-Night Lines host Ralph Benmergui had recently flamed out with a much-maligned late night TV talk show on the CBC]

He-he, uh ,no. I think I know when my reach exceeds my grasp. Mostly radio opportunities, which I turned down. Partly because one of them involved moving to Vancouver, which is not so bad for some people, but if you live in Montreal it’s a difficult thing to do. If I lived in Toronto I might be more serious about it in a way. But I like living here and there’s not many jobs like this one. There isn’t another job that gives me this much freedom and that dovetails with the other interests in my life like this one does. I love radio, and I’ve done other radio programs, like I did Cross Country Checkup last month. I like doing research outside of my fields of interest, and I like being able to facilitate and allow the engagement that happens in radio with material that’s not necessarily the stuff that’s most interesting to me. In some ways it’s really easy for me to come in here and talk to comic book artists, novelists and filmmakers – because it’s stuff that I would talk about anyway. This isn’t far away from stuff I’d be interested in discussing with you or with someone I pick up in a bar or whatever. These are things that interest me and that go on in my life.

Are you surprised at the longevity of the program in the face of cutbacks?

I really am. It’s been a battle, too, it’s not been easy. Over the years we’ve had enemies – we continue to have enemies in high places. It’s not like the show is everybody’s cup of tea, especially at the managerial level. A lot of people just don’t understand what we’re doing. A lot of people have no idea that it’s not just a punk rock show. That’s fine. We still like to come on like a punk rock show in the first 40 minutes of the show. And by punk, I don’t mean strict, 1977 school, but music that sits outside the accepted commercial standards of even alternative music. Something that’s outside of whatever might be the mainstream. People think that we’re so defiantly in-your-face that there’s just no way they can connect with us, and in some ways that’s the image we like to keep in the first part of the program because I think it works and we don’t want to mess with it. But on the other hand, it makes us enemies. If people could get past that and listen to the whole show, they’d see the context. People have come to us from management and said, ‘Why don’t you just soften the first part?’ We go, ‘Yeah, well, we could, but why would we? It works!’ We don’t want to program for management. There have been a few times when the show could really have disappeared quite easily. There have been times when we’ve had fewer friends in high places than now.

What do you consider the mandate of the show? You mentioned on the anniversary special “explaining fringe culture to a comfortable mainstream audience.”

Yeah, but I don’t think our audience is mainstream. I think it’s out there, or at least adventurous. I think it’s more about making fringe culture more available, rather than explaining it. And what is fringe-y to people in a small town might be more familiar to those who live in urban areas. But for a lot of people who listen to us, we’re the only contact with things that go beyond whatever’s on the alternative hour on MuchMusic. A lot of places don’t have campus stations; a lot of places have bad campus stations. A lot of places have really good campus stations, though, and they give us a run for our money, and that’s fine. I learn a lot from listening to the local one here, CKUT.

Have you met campus radio folk who consider you competition?

Oh yeah. A lot of campus radio folk hate our guts, and I don’t blame them. I would if I was in their place, because we get paid to do what we do. We’re professionals and a lot of them are volunteers who work really hard at being volunteers. Sometimes they do shows that are better than ours. But I think we represent a standard for campus radio, and the best campus programs can exceed that standard, and other ones can reach for it. Basically, we’re paid to know what we know, and we had better be good at it. I think we are. I certainly don’t feel guilty when I take my cheque home!

How big is your research department?

There are two people who do music research for the show full-time. Every night they program four hours of music, and they program it, put it together, make sure it fits together with what we’re talking about, and they research it. All the information comes from them. I carry around some aspect of the information we talk about, because I have to put it into context and make it flow from night to night. And a lot of it is music that I listen to, but I’m not a statistician. I’m not the kind of person who can tell you how many albums Seam have. I try to make the information relevant.

How do you stay on your toes interviewing a diverse range of guests?
That I find easy. I love talking to people. For me it’s a real pleasure to read a book or see a movie and think, wow, that was great, let’s get the person on the show. Usually it’s not a problem. But one of the problems is talking about music, because music is difficult to talk about. A lot of kids, especially in young bands, don’t understand what an interview is for. They’re faced with me, I’m faced with them, and we kind of look at each other. A lot of time I want to take them aside and say, ‘Look, now this is not about you being really bright or anything, this is about getting people to remember your name and buy your record, so be as outrageous and funny as possible! But if you give us attitude, no one is going to notice.’ It’s part of our mandate to expose new music and Canadian music, and we’re somewhat stuck with that. It’s my least favourite thing to do if people don’t want to talk. But on the other hand, when they’re engaging and fun, it’s great to see these kids having a great time with their life and doing what they most want to do.

Do you often find yourself faced with someone who has nothing to say?

You want to know who was a classic bad interview?

Andrew Eldridge? [of the Sisters of Mercy, a legendary grump and one of my favourite awkward BNW moments from high school]
I liked Andrew, actually! I had a good time with him. He was surly as hell, but I could see that for him it was some kind of intellectual game, so I just gave it back to him. No, for me it was Yo La Tengo. I think they don’t want to give up anything about what they’re doing, like it will all unravel if they talk about it too much. If you get Thurston Moore, who’s also a really bad and jerky interview, if you know real technical stuff about music, then you can engage him on that level, but it’s so boring to listen to! It’s like a Guitar magazine interview: what kind of strings do you use, what were you tuned to. It’s like talking to a mechanic about how they souped up their Camaro, I mean, who gives a shit?

Has the mandate of the show changed with alternative culture’s assimilation into the mainstream? Has it become tougher to program the show?

No, because what happened with the assimilation of alternative culture, I find, is two things. One thing is that the compact disc created a mini-rebellion. It didn’t kill vinyl, it brought it back. Small independent units started producing their own vinyl 7” singles and making them available and putting stuff on them that’s just so outrageous that there’s just no way it could be assimilated into corporate alternative culture. The second thing is that it encouraged people to do things themselves. Nirvana is a punk band, basically, and what they did is make people believe that they could do it themselves. There’s a do-it-yourself ethic in music making, not just in music merchandising, but in music making. People are making things that are far more in-your-face and do-it-yourself now than it was five or six years ago, when I think music was a lot less interesting. That’s another thing about being here for eight and a half years, is that there are definitely good periods and bad periods for music. I think we’re in a really good time right now and there’s a lot of great indie stuff happening, stuff that’s really out there and challenging.

How do react to the loyalty of a lot of BNW listeners? Is it a bit unnerving at times?

It’s really flattering. Radio is a great medium for fans. They don’t know what you look like.

What do people tell you after they see you on Midday?

Oh, I know. They say, ‘I can’t believe you look so NORMAL!’ But I’ve been recognized by my voice, which is strange, people say, ‘Oh my god, are you Brent Bambury?’ That happened to me in New York of all places. But the fact that people like the show, because it’s on at such an odd hour, we strive to be eclectic to the point of being absurd. It does mean that the people who listen to it are a really special breed. When people tell me that they’re a really big fan and I find out they’re talking about radio and not television, I always feel so much kinder towards them, so much better about it.

What about the effect of people’s subconscious as they fall asleep to the radio?

Ohhhh, no, not really. It’s not something I think about. People say, ‘Oh man, my dreams are really strange coz I fell asleep with the headphones on.’

What kind of negative lettters do you get?

I think the CBC mandate requires that you respond to these letters. We got into hot water a lot and we’re still in hot water, over a couple of things that we broadcast recently. In some ways I think we’re not doing our job if we don’t do that. We have to put things out there and then we have to be prepared to defend them. I think if we’re not defining the extremes, then we’d be getting no letters, but the fact that we are means that we get them all the time. Right now we’re doing an interview with Todd Phillips, who made a documentary about the life of G.G. Allin. We’re not on safe ground right now, and I don’t know what the consequences will be.

Why couldn’t this program happen in America and why didn’t it?

It did for a bit. We were on National Public Radio in Philadelphia, on WXPN. It was delayed in starting there, because they needed some insurance attached to the agreement. They needed to spend money to buy insurance in the event that they might be sued, because the FCC guidelines in the U.S. are much stricter than the CRTC guidelines. It’s a very litigious society, and people have been successfully sued over odd things that have been broadcast. And WXPN, being a public station, needed to work out some kind of insurance deal with the lawyers here. We had a very complicated legal agreement that they put into place before they could take us. They took us for a year and a half, and then the station opted out of National Public Radio, who supplied the lawyers for the legal agreement in the first place, and they became an independent public station, like a college station, and they could no longer afford the legal advice. That’s why we were dropped. We got a lot of letters from Philadelphia listeners who were really disappointed.

Did you find the whole episode strange, or is it easy to be smug?
We got a lot of publicity about it. It was great having that audience in Philly. We got a lot of black fans out of it too, which was interesting, because at that time there was a lot of great hip-hop happening; this was ‘89-’90, which was the peak of a lot of great hip-hop, and we were playing it. It was a good experiment for us. Somebody told me that the NPR station in Washington was playing excerpts from our program. So it’s still out there and and still having an effect in the U.S. and I’m sure they think it’s a very strange show.

What have been some of the better or worse moments in the last ten years?

That’s a tough one. (polls the office). I did an interview with Arto Lindsay which has to be one of the worst ones we ever did. He was not forthcoming and it was awkward. We did a panel at McGill on the theme of diaries. People brought in their diaries, and talked about why they keep them and they read from them. It was electrifying, actually, that was interesting. It was nice because we went out into the public, and people really wanted to see us. The same was true in Winnipeg, where we did a panel on cyberspace. Those were both this past fall. There was a really positive reaction to it. It validates what we do, it makes me think that people want to hear this because they’ll come and see it live. David Wisdom was talking about a show he did out of Windsor one weekend, from a bar, and he said, ‘People came to see me! It must have been the embarrassingly boring thing in the world to see live!’ And in many ways it is, but people just wanted to see Dave. I have to imagine our audience every night. Some nights it’s easy, and sometimes it’s not.

Who have you always wanted to interview?
Elvis Costello, because I think he’d be difficult. I think he’s a brilliant guy and would be a wonderful interview. For years I wanted to interview David Byrne, but then I lost interest in him.

Who was your first big one that you had trouble drooling through?
I don’t know. Maybe Laurie Anderson. I’ve done Sonic Youth twice, and neither of them was a picnic. I don’t tend to think about people as, ‘O my god, this person is a huge star.’ One of my fill-in hosts talked to Anthony Hopkins right after Silence of the Lambs; that would have been fun.

Do you feel the audience has grown over the years?
I have no idea. I’m still amazed that we’ve been on the air for ten years and so many people have never heard of us. We’re still pretty obscure. We’re still a best-kept secret. And that’s okay, I’m not in this for glory.