Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Neon Bible

My week with the Arcade Fire last January will be touched on in an article for AOL next week. In the meantime, here's a review of an album I've had the immense pleasure of immersing myself in for two months now.
Cheeseball ending, I know.

Arcade Fire – Neon Bible (Merge)

When your first album sells half a million copies—independently, no less—there’s an acute danger of everything changing for the worse by the time you finish the follow-up. For most bands, this means a variety of potential pitfalls. At the top of the list would be a capitulation to expectation rather than furthering your original vision.

Arcade Fire are not ‘most bands.’ For starters, they’ve stayed independent and produced the album themselves: two decisions that tie in directly with the fact that Neon Bible maintains the mystique that was so central to the sonic success of 2004’s Funeral.

There’s obviously a bigger budget in play, and they’ve upped the fidelity while still managing to break all the rules of modern hit radio, While still very much a rock record, the world of Neon Bible is one where all the lines bleed into each other, alien sounds hover in the background, traditional instruments sound otherworldly, and you never can tell if what you’re hearing is a human voice, an orchestra, a guitar or a synth. Hell, it might even be a hurdy-gurdy or a treated mandolin.

When it comes to certain sounds, however, there’s no mistaking that they’re playing a massive pipe organ on “Intervention” and “My Body is a Cage,” or that they’ve employed an old-world orchestra (from Budapest, no less) to add to the grandeur of “No Cars Go” and “Ocean of Noise.”

Other big bands would use these tools simply because they can, and then compress these sounds in the mix, making them indistinguishable from any non-descript synth patch. Here, however, the physicality of the acoustics is profoundly evident—which, for a band whose principle strength has always been their live show, makes the bombast more intimate and undeniably more powerful.

There are good reasons why Bruce Springsteen and U2 are outspoken Arcade Fire fans, and on this album’s finest moments, these Montrealers easily manage to match the majestic grandeur of their musical forefathers, likely teaching them a few youthful lessons in the process.

But knowing what kind of stadium-size expectations are being heaped upon Neon Bible, it’s almost as if the Arcade Fire wanted to subvert those by placing their weakest three songs off the top of the disc. “Black Mirror” sounds like a b-side of “Rebellion;” a similar pulsing beat is awash with bended guitar notes and ghostly backward backing vocals that substitute for a serious hook; it’s not until the orchestra comes in two thirds of the way through, playing scales, that the song offers a remotely memorable moment. “Keep the Car Running” doesn’t fare much better, and the hushed title track evaporates after a fleeting two minutes. Intentional or not, those three tracks do a brilliant job of deflating the crushing hype the Arcade Fire never asked for in the first place.

But as soon as the pipe organ announces “Intervention,” a hymn-like wartime folk song, the curtain finally rises and the show truly begins. From that point on, Neon Bible is a gripping thriller, right up to the point that the same pipe organ ends the whole affair on a terrifying suspended chord, at the conclusion of “My Body is a Cage.” In that song, Win Butler asks repeatedly to be set free, but the way that chord lingers and decays, his fate sounds less than optimistic, frozen in a state of uncertainty and questioning.

It’s a mood that is underscored by the lyrics throughout, which paint a portrait of a volatile, uncertain world, ruled by delusion and deception, framed by security cameras and pyramid schemes. Forgiving and forgetting isn’t an option. Families and countries are left behind. Illusions and greed determine our fates. Names are unspoken. Bombs are falling. Black waves are rising. It’s too bad their labelmate M. Ward already used the album title Post-War.

It’s a marked contrast to the neighbourhood portraits and familial self-reflection of Funeral. If that album was about coming to terms with concepts of family and home, Neon Bible is about leaving home and trying to make sense of what the world reflects back to you (“Black Mirror”)—which, more often than not, is a world of twisted theology, crooked politics, and disasters both natural and man-made folly. An “Ocean of Noise,” indeed.

Even if that doom and gloom colours nearly every lyric, thankfully it isn’t the predominant musical mood here. The revamped “No Cars Go” proves exactly what the addition of dextrous drummer Jeremy Gara has done for the band, by taking a tricky, relentless rhythm and upping the tempo and intensity. It’s the one track where optimism reigns, a promise of sanctuary away from the horrors waiting at the windowsill. Tellingly, it’s also the oldest song on the album. The closing, wordless vocal chorus builds to a rapturous climax as the orchestra circles around it, the kind of transcendent musical moment most artists can only fantasize about “between the click of a light and the start of a dream.”

Equally joyous is “The Well and the Lighthouse,” which inverts the structure of Funeral’s “Crown of Love.” That song started as a stately three-step and erupted into a disco closer; this one begins as a thumping, insistent rock number before collapsing into a woozy waltz.

All the stops are pulled out for “(Antichrist Television Blues),” which loads up a 12-bar blues progression with the following: a gospel choir, tap dancing, an omnichord, an insane guitar solo that sounds more like Régine Chassagne screaming through an effects pedal, massive handclaps, violins that swirl and swell into the stratosphere, and a piano that sounds like it was lifted from ABBA’s “Dancing Queen.”

On top of all this Spectoresque splendour, Butler loses his breath and buries his voice under reverb while snarling through the album’s longest set of lyrics, about a Faustian father praying for a progeny whose stardom will liberate him from his humdrum suburban existence. For a band that spent the last year trying to avoid the public eye, this is the one time the perils of fame surfaces as lyrical material—another sophomore cliché successfully sidestepped here. Fortunately for all of us, Butler is simply not vain enough to use his second album to vent about his own celebrity (see: Bloc Party).

Comparisons to Funeral are inevitable, and one knock against the new material is that it largely lacks the singalong melodic lines that defined earlier triumphs like “Rebellion,” “Tunnels,” “Haiti” and “Power Out”—the eight-bar hooks that are entirely independent of the verse or chorus melodies, the ones that curiously become soccer chants in the hands of a hungry live audience, who continue to sing them long after the band’s actually concluded the song.

Other than “No Cars Go,” the only time that happens here is at the end of the ominous “Black Wave/ Bad Vibrations,” which begins as a buoyant new wave ditty about escape, and collapses into a fearful coda with descending glockenspiels, crashing guitar chords and thundering drums. Weaving its way around this is a captivating chorus that could be a choir from a Morricone soundtrack—perhaps a cross between The Mission and one of his Italian horrors.

Just like any other kind of bible, this one is a lot to absorb: sometimes too literal, sometimes too opaque, and hard to grasp at first. Most importantly, it’s certainly not another version of Funeral or even an extension of it. It has its own story to tell, its own mysteries to be discovered. Their lightning blots are still aglow, no fear of being drowned out by the radio.


Just a quick note to link to this article I wrote on the Toronto band Germans in last week's Eye.

Being a self-loathing Kraut (my mother's maiden name is Kuntz, which might have something to do with it), my suspicions of a band called Germans were successfully allayed by this absolutely brilliant video. Even if you don't read the rest of this post, watch it now!

But these Germans have a lot more going for them, namely the fact that it's led by two fascinating local heroes. Leon Taheny is Final Fantasy's right hand man in the studio, and was also behind the boards for some of Ohbijou's lovely debut album. His latest gig is drumming for Sebastien Grainger (Death From Above 1979) in his new solo project, which is opening for Bloc Party this month. The other kaiser in Germans is Aidan Koper, who is not only a celebrated contortionist, but the chaotic keyboardist behind Oh No the Modulator, who were big favourites around the Brave New Waves office. Also involved are two members of We're Marching On and Michael Rozenberg of Better Than Everyone.

To my initial chagrin, all of them showed up for the interview. As a general rule, I try to never interview more than three people at once. Anything else descends into chaos, snippets of overlapping sentences, and very little I can use in an article.
Because they're affable, entertaining and intelligent men, the beer-soaked conversation went far better than I expected. That said, it's not worth transcribing for you here. All the best quotes are in the article.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Brampton Indie Arts Festival

I once played in a rock band that insisted on practicing in Brampton. Partially because of that, I quit the band and haven't been back to Brampton since. That was 14 years ago.

Thanks to the wonderfully charismatic Friendly Rich and his Brampton Indie Arts Festival, I found myself there five days in the past week covering the event for CBC Radio 3. Nothing much has changed, other than the fact that this fabulous event gives me great joy by nurturing non-conformity in the surrounding suburbs of Toronto.

My four-part report--including reviews of Marc Ribot, Trevor Dunn & Shelley Burgon, Final Fantasy, Andy Kim, Geoff Berner, Polmo Polpo, Kids on TV, Jon Rae and the River, Ohbijou, The Acorn and Istvan Kantor--can be found here: Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Evalyn Parry

First, a tangent: My report on the Brampton Indie Arts Festival this week starts with today's CBC Radio 3 blog entry here. I'll be posting a review there after every night of this event, which is well worth the drive to Brampton--and how often do you get to say that? Tonight's line-up includes Final Fantasy, Marc Ribot, Polmo Polpo and others.

Today's Eye Weekly has a brief Q&A I conducted with Toronto singer/spoken word artist/ playwright/ actor Evalyn Parry. Space consideration only allowed for two brief questions; here is the full text of our lengthy conversation, which was one of my favourites in a while. Not because I'm the biggest fan of her music--I much prefer the sound art she uses to accompany her Meryn Cadell-ish spoken word pieces--but because she's thoughtful, funny and sharp, with her writing offering plenty of food for conversation. She's also the sister of Richard Reed Parry, one of my favourite people from my time in Montreal, who shares all the same qualities.

Evalyn Parry's new album, her third, is called Small Theatres. Her Toronto release show is this Sunday, February 18 at the Gladstone. Other dates can be found here.

Evalyn Parry
February 11, 2007
locale: phone interview from her home in Toronto

Which came first—were you performing songs before theatre?
I went to Concordia in Montreal for theatre school. When I graduated I moved to Toronto, and I had just barely started doing spoken word and songs. It was the kind of thing I’d do occasionally at a cabaret. When I moved to Toronto I started looking for acting work and figured out that I didn’t really want to audition for people, that I wanted to make my own work.
I started some theatre projects with people I’d gone to school with who were interested in similar stuff. That original project involved Anna Chatterton, and now we have a company together. We were working with poetry as our text, and doing unconventional physical theatre stuff. At the same time, I was starting to play out more on open stages.
The spoken word and the music started simultaneously, and I still feel they are these parallel forms. My live shows are always a mix of the two. Even when I’m doing a spoken word festival, I manage to throw in a few songs. And vice-versa, at a music show. Both forms allow different ways of expressing.

You separate the “songs” from the “spoken word” pieces on two discs here, but there are pieces on each disc that could go either way. There are some that are predominantly spoken and then break into a chorus at the end, and there are some that are more developed and arranged musically which have a spoken cadence to them.
It’s true.

Did you always want to separate the two?
On my previous two albums, I’ve mixed in a couple of spoken word tracks with the music. When it comes to other artists, I feel like I listen to music and spoken word quite differently. Even my own recordings, I feel like the spoken word tracks are the ones I want to skip over when listening to the whole record. I wanted to be able to make one record that you would listen to over and over, and have a musical experience, though there are obviously elements of storytelling that cross over there. I wanted to be able to approach the spoken word parts however I wanted, to make each piece work in their own way. It turned out many of them turned out quite musical. Some of the pieces are more novelty pieces that you might only want to hear a couple of times, not over and over again.

Do the spoken word pieces allow you to write more directly? There are certainly direct lyrics in the “songs,” but how do you balance the abstract and the direct?
Spoken word as a form allows you to be more direct, in a way that it would make me cringe if I tried to put it into a song. Which is not to say I don’t stand behind the words of the spoken word pieces, but that form allows a different kind of political expression.

Normally directly political writing doesn’t do it for me, but the topics you focus on here are often topics that I don’t feel are being discussed, are not part of a larger discourse. It’s not like: here’s the headline, here’s the song. With a song like “Bottle This,” I’m appalled that I don’t really read about the politics of bottled water and the larger ramifications of that anywhere in the media.
That’s kind of it. Partly it’s the rage—or outrage—about certain things that there’s a directness to how I feel about it, or how I’m relating to the information, and to my sense of urgency. That piece is a case in point: if I tried to make that into a song, it would be terrible. I think. Maybe it wouldn’t. To rap it out is way more palatable somehow.
It’s interesting performing that piece—it’s relatively new—and it gets a big audience reaction. I don’t know whether I can articulate yet what it is about the form of spoken word, but I guess it translates some of my passion for the subject, and allows me a way of addressing the audience where there’s very little between me and the audience and the subject. It feels like a very potent way to talk about something—and better than giving a lecture.

I have heard it done well before. I’m thinking of Sarah Jones—do you know that woman?
Yeah, she’s great.

There’s the piece she did with DJ Vadim, “This Revolution,” which was not rapping so much as it was a spoken word poem set to music. There were other touchstones I thought of when listening to this. I was a huge fan of Meryn Cadell’s work in the 90s.
She was definitely a big influence from an early age on me.

You grew up in Toronto, at least partially, didn’t you?

Did you ever see her?
No, never! I’ve never seen her—or him, now—live. But definitely the early albums, the first two, were in constant rotation in my cassette player.

You take a very similar approach to sound art as a backdrop for the piece, which is something she did very well. And John Switzer produces here, and there are other moments here that remind me of his work with Jane Siberry.
I definitely had a really fun time approaching the spoken word pieces. There was a real freedom and excitement over the production, thinking, ‘How will we do this?’

Was his work with Siberry any influence on why you hired him to do this?
Not directly. I do love Siberry’s early work and the stuff he produced with her. I was looking for the right producer, and kept asking people who they would recommend. I was originally going to work with [her younger brother] Richard [Reed Parry of Arcade Fire and Bell Orchestre], actually, but his life got a bit too crazy. John’s name kept coming up over and over, so I figured we should meet. I was familiar with a bunch of his work, including his more recent stuff like Nathan, this band from Winnipeg that I really love. We met and it was a sympatico situation. It was a long process of recording, partly because we were making two separate things, and partly because all my theatre stuff was happening at the same time. We’d work in chunks and then take time off and come back to it. It was probably the most patient project I’ve ever worked on. It required patience to allow it to take the time it needed to take.

How long are we talking, from inception to conclusion?
About a year. Maybe a little more.

Compared to…
Oh, my last one I did in two weeks. It was a much faster job.

One of the most striking pieces here is the December 6 song [about the 1989 anti-feminist Montreal massacre]. When I first heard it, admittedly my first thought was, wow, wasn’t that, what, 17 years ago? One the one hand, it seemed like an old historic topic, yet as you point out in the piece, so little has changed. The song is self-explanatory from that standpoint, but what I’m wondering is what reaction do you get from younger audiences who might not even remember the actual event? I don’t know, outside my political circle, how commemorated or remembered the event is.
That was in fact part of my reason for recording it. In younger circles, it is something that is relatively forgotten. I had this experience last year of going in to Guelph University to be a speaker in Sky Gilbert’s first year theatre class. Anna Chatterton and I were there to talk about feminist theatre. We asked the class—of about 40 people, and mostly women, maybe 30—how many of them identified as feminists. One girl slowly, sheepishly raised her hand.

Both of us were so taken aback. I don’t know how representative that is, but it made me think that I don’t know what university would have been for my own experience without a really deep analysis around gender politics and queer studies and women’s studies and all that stuff. That’s just one example of encountering a different generational approach to some of those issues. I originally wrote it for a December 6 ceremony at Ryerson University, where I was invited to do something.

For what year?
It was two years ago. I wrote it for that and then re-wrote it significantly for the album. In a way, my primary motivation for working on the piece is how personally affected I was by that event, and continue to be, and continue to feel this connection to the reality of gender politics in the world. There was a secondary sense of wanting to keep some awareness alive about how that event is a very significant date in Canadian history, and so controversial. People don’t want to touch it with a ten foot pole. The reaction around it is very polarized. It was a scary piece to put out. I’m still intrigued to see what the response will be. It’s not a piece I perform very often. I performed it at a bunch of December 6 events. And unlike a lot of my work, it was a piece that I couldn’t approach with humour. That’s kind of a scary thing.

You don’t have that defense.
You can’t be sly and sarcastic about it.

When it happened in 1989, it was such a different time culturally. I can’t help but think what would happen today, what kind of reaction there would be to the language of that event—especially when only one woman in a theatre class at the University of Guelph, of all places, will call herself a feminist.
It was interesting while we were recording that piece—we were mixing it the week of the Dawson College shooting. It was wild to suddenly have more attention placed on that date again, because there were all these parallels with what the police response had been, and how they based it on what had happened at Ecole Polytechnique. It was obviously a different context, but I too wonder what would happen if it was the same.

One of the lines I quite enjoy here is, “ignoring the facts doesn’t make them less true.” Which I think a lot of people would take issue with.

We live in a time rife with revisionist history, and several administrations have proven that if you ignore the facts that that actually does make them less true. What were thinking when you wrote that line?
I guess it goes along with the sense for me that is often connected to writing more impassioned political spoken word pieces. The outrage of what the facts are. As you say, the administration has proven that—or have they just made fools of everybody for buying into it?

But do people care anymore if they’ve been played for a fool?
I think a lot of people care. In the United States, I perform there a fair bit. I’m mostly preaching to the converted, but the sense of people’s shame and wanting to distance themselves from what the other half of that country’s politics is, is pretty intense. It’s weird times we live in! (laughs)

I’m curious about the differences on either side of the border. I grew up proud of the country I live in, but the older I get I find that we as a country are incredibly smug about who we think we are. I find that when you go the States and you talk to activist people there, they’re far more vigilant about it—because they have to be.
They’re living it, they are the empire and have this sense of responsibility. Whereas Canadians find it easier to distance themselves from it.

We’re happy to shuffle off responsibility.
Absolutely, I agree.

We’ll never have to defend ourselves…
Yeah, except we might—for our water!

True. How do you see the political culture of both countries in your audiences?
People tend to react in equal measure to the more out-there political pieces. Those tend to elicit a response in kind in both countries. It’s interesting—I have a piece that’s not on the CD about the war in Iraq and the colour coding system of alerts, that I wrote while I was travelling in the south a couple of years ago. I started the piece when I was down there, and first performed it in Canada when I got home. It got a really great response, but I was really nervous about playing it in the States. I thought it was too risky, too critical of the whole country. But people looooove it there! It gets an even bigger response there. It was insane, and much more intense.

You might suspect that even if they were sympathetic, there would still be this sense of, ‘Well, who does she think she is, walking in here and telling us what to do?’
In that piece I do acknowledge my own position in it, as I tend to do in a lot of the pieces I write. Especially the more overt pieces where I’m making an opinionated statement. I think it’s part of my post-modern whatever that I do try and position myself outside as both an observer and the writer acknowledging the perspective I’m coming from, like in the “Blue Moon” piece. Maybe I’m doing that as a defense, maybe it’s a way to build a bridge between me and the audience.

I suspect the latter.
I do too. Erase that first comment!

In “Once In a Blue Moon,” it’s a very frank portrayal of a writer’s relationship to her artistic inspiration. Which is rare. Most singer-songwriters with guitars don’t write about Bob Dylan. Most cock rockers don’t write about Led Zeppelin. It’s taboo—“don’t tell them that’s what made you pick up a guitar. Put a lid on it!” What went into writing that piece? Is it partially a way of addressing the albatross that Ani DiFranco can be for women doing spoken word with acoustic guitars?
In a way, I think. It’s unavoidable for my generation of girls with guitars.

Of 90s post-modern feminist queer…
University educated, etc., yeah! (laughs) That piece is not a fictional narrative; it unfolded as I wrote it. There was such an irony to me, reflecting on that albatross as you call it. I don’t know if I’d call it an albatross, though. That might be going a bit far. But there is the phenomenon that Ani DiFranco is and she kind of coined a new genre in a way.

Yet as you say, “Everybody’s hoping not to be compared.” I know a lot of people—in any genre—if there’s one name at the top of influences on a certain genre, then they really don’t want to talk about it. It comes up in every single article, because that’s how music journalism works—let’s relate it to something people already know.
It’s funny because I definitely acknowledge Ani as a major inspiration as an 18-year old discovering her. And, as that piece alludes to, I haven’t really followed her career in recent years. I don’t own any albums after Little Plastic Castle.

That’s probably a good place to drop off anyway. But that coincides with you picking up a guitar yourself, doesn’t it? That’s quite telling.
Sure. Absolutely. The way she mingles the personal and the political—I don’t feel my music is all that derivative of her muscial style, but there’s definitely something in the identity politic and the independence that undoubtedly have been pretty influential on me and many of my colleagues…

The Girls With Glasses? [a touring songwriters' revue Parry takes part in]
Sure, but all of us of this age that grew up… I don’t know, post-Ani?

There’s a scene in your piece where you’re eavesdropping on “Ms. Orange Hair and Ms. Blue Hair,” and it’s a very funny moment for any thirtysomething person: sitting in a university coffee shop and listening to the next generation discover the same debates and believe they’re the first person to make bold statements like “gender is a fluid thing.” I also wanted to talk about the song “Radio,” and the line, “Losing another hero to love.” If I’m reading the lyrics correctly, it’s about hearing a once-favourite political singer sell out with love songs to get on the radio.

Are love songs not in your future?
I’m in a really great, happy relationship, so I don’t tend to write love songs. It’s not where my anxiety is. It’s around other things that motivate me to write. I’m not going to mention who that song is about… [off the record reveals all. Contrary to my assumption, it’s not about Kinnie Starr.]

I have to tell you that I, like most music nerds, was obsessed with love songs while my personal life was in turmoil, but ever since being in a solid relationship, that’s kind of disappeared.
Interesting, eh?

My relationship with all those Magnetic Fields songs just vanished. I still like them, but they certainly don’t ache like they used to. But, uh, tell me about the song “The Stars.”
I was on a little tour out west on Vancouver Island, when the Arcade Fire played in New York and David Bowie came. I think it was also around the same time as the Time Magazine article and all the craziness. I was talking with my brother and hearing about all this. I went for a walk one day when I had a day off and wrote that little song. The refrain came to me as this sweet little double entendre. There’s that strange connect/disconnect of being far apart from the people that you love, and then the added layer of the surreal world that my brother and his band found themselves in.

Knowing your history and your family, do you think it was inevitable that you’d both end up on the stage?
I guess so. I don’t know. Our parents didn’t push us to be on the stage.

What about the Parry family Christmas shows at the Tranzac?
(laughs) Yeah, okay, there was that! That was once a year and it was always a stressful event. Nice, but stressful. We were encouraged there, for sure. I think both of us liked performing from a pretty early age. Maybe it was inevitable. I don’t know, how do you know these things?

How close were you to really being Anne of Green Gables? [one piece on the album mentions that she auditioned for the 1985 television adaptation, losing out to my high school crush, Megan Follows]
Not close enough! (laughs) But that’s a true story. I did audition, but they auditioned a lot of people. In my heart, I was very close. I did get a call-back!

What brought you to the Yukon a few weeks ago?
That was the theatre show I co-wrote with my theatre colleague Anna Chatterton. We have an independent company together called Independent Aunties, and the show is Clean Irene and Dirty Maxine. It’s been touring for a couple of years. We had a big production of it at Buddies in Bad Times last spring. We went up to a comedy festival in Whitehorse, and got to do it in Dawson as well.

Is that show three or four years old now?
About that. The new incarnation—which keeps changing—has been at least three years.

How many of those theatre projects do you have on the go at any given time? Do you have several pieces in repertoire?
That’s the main one that’s toured. We have a couple of things in the works that we hope will be more of a repertoire that will tour. At the moment we have two different projects in progress. One will be produced in 2008 at the Theatre Centre, and one of which is a small-scale family theatre piece that will run in the Dufferin Grove park in the summer, at a festival there. Those are new projects in development. Clean Irene is going off to London… Ontario, in March. In between I’m doing some more shows with Girls With Glasses, which is a songwriters-in-the-round travelling show. And I’m going out to the Calgary Spoken Word Festival in April. I don’t usually try to wear all my hats at once, but I am right now.

You express a fear in “Once in a Blue Moon” of returning to waitressing, but it doesn’t sound like that’s going to happen any time soon.
No, I guess not. I wrote it a couple of years ago and I feel I have a bit more of a foothold at this point.


Friday, February 09, 2007

Geoff Berner: Wedding Accordionist

Following yesterday's installment of Geoff Berner Explains It All To You (or, Everything You Wanted to Know About Klezmer But Were Afraid to Ask), here is a more recent conversation I had with the Vancouver accordionist and songwriter.
Half of the interview is about his brand new album, The Wedding Dance of the Wedding Bride, and features some colourful wedding stories.
The other half was commissioned for a piece in Exclaim magazine, in their Music School section, which usually focuses on an instrumentalist or gear hound of some kind. Ironically, Berner is the furthest thing from a gear hound, but that doesn't mean that he's void of useful tips for frustrated accordionists (are there any other kind?) like myself.

Last fall he wrote a pamphlet called How To Be an Accordion Player. Here's a short piece I wrote about it in Exclaim at the time:

Vancouver’s sultan of sardonic satire, Geoff Berner, has written a book called “How To Be an Accordion Player.” Okay, it’s more of a booklet than a book. And, er, there don’t appear to be any actual tips to bring to the reader any closer to actual squeezebox mastery. Instead, Berner prefers to share his wisdom through alcohol advocacy and political advice (“No country that has committed genocide can make decent accordions”). All those bass buttons are meant for playing “Louie Louie,” but this booklet is populated by Arab poets, Zulu Emperors, paranoid schizophrenics and Canadian prime ministers. Most importantly, remember that any musical mistakes you make on your learning curve will always pale next to the time that Josef Stalin inadvertently massacred everyone on the guest list for his daughter’s wedding. –Michael Barclay

Unlike his mostly fictional tips in the pamphlet, I pressed Berner for some real life tips in this conversation.

Geoff Berner
January 10, 2007
locale: on his cell phone somewhere in Vancouver

What reaction have you had to your book, your instructional pamphlet, this novel you’ve put out called How to Play the Accordion?
It’s been universally positive. Even the Germans find it funny!

Do you often get people approaching you about accordion playing? Do they want to get the goods? Or are you not the kind of guy they go to, to get those goods from?
That’s why I wrote the book. There’s a stock bunch of questions that people ask you, and I’ve been answering them for five years. I figured I’d put that one to bed.

Well, let’s expand on it a bit. When and why did you start playing accordion?
I was a piano player as a teenager. My friends all got into punk rock and playing guitar and stuff. They could go out on the street and busk. After a couple of times taking the piano downtown on the bus, it was hard on the back and you had to pay at least one extra fare. I was drunk at a party and was threatening people, and told them, ‘I’ll show you guy, I’ll go out and get an accordion!’ Then somebody who lived at the party house said, ‘Well, I’ve got one. My grandpa died and gave me his accordion, and I’d love to see it played.’

How long did it last?
It was a beautiful tortoise shell-blue accordion. As any musician in Canada knows, part of becoming a professional musician in Canada involves getting your gear stolen in Vancouver. It’s a rite of passage. That’s what happened to that one. Somebody snuck in at load-in and got it, some mentally ill junkie who didn’t know to pick up the guitars or the amps. I had already been going for repairs to Lorenzo at the world famous Accordion House in Vancouver. If you want to talk about accordion gear, he’s the guy. He instructed me to purchase Estella.

Which you’ve had ever since. How long ago was that?
1998. I’ve only had two accordions in my life. The one I made all my records with and played every show I’ve ever done—for money—has been Estella. It’s a Girrini, made by the Girrini company in Cast del Fidarto, a city in northern Italy that’s an accordion town. Lorenzo Farro, the guy who runs Accordion House—which is his house, full of accordions—is about 85 now, and he used to work in the factory. In Vancouver, he made his own brand of accordions for a while and had a shop. I always do what that guy says. He’s the one who told me that German accordions were no good.

Which you were ready to believe anyway. How hard is it to find a good accordion guy? You say this guy is 85 years old, and I worry that it’s a lost art, that it’s harder to find people who know how to take care of them. When you’re on the road is it hard to find people?
There’s always a guy somewhere. I have not encountered a female accordion technician yet. I’m not saying it requires testicles, I just haven’t encountered one yet. They’re usually old guys, but like with the playing, there is a new generation that’s interested, in the last five years, I’d say. I have no idea how I found out about Lorenzo. I was under the impression that Linda McRae had told me. I had mentioned that to her a couple of years ago, and she had no idea who I was talking about. I had opened for Spirit of the West and quizzed her about it, but she had no memory of that at all. I think it was God Himself who led me to Accordion House.

Do you do repairs yourself when you’re on the road, or do you have to find people to do it?
I can open the thing up and look at it. It’s a modern instrument, made in a factory, but it’s also an organic instrument, in that addition to plastic and steel, it has leather and beeswax and stuff like that. You don’t want to fuck with that too much if you don’t really know what you’re doing. If it was an emergency, I could probably do things like file a reed down a bit or melt the wax with a Zippo and hope that I could re-adjust it. I’m just not into stuff like that.

How often do you have to replace reeds? Watching your style of performance, I’d guess often.
Never. The thing is like a tank. There was one time when it fell, a few years ago. It was on a chair and it fell. The reeds rattled loose. Lorenzo just got some wax and put them back in.

But you’ve never yanked the bellows too hard and got whispering reeds? You haven’t broken a reed in nine years?
Nope. It’s a miracle. It’s some kind of accordion Hannukkah or something like that.

When you started playing it, was that in [your first punk band] Terror of Tiny Town or was that only once you started playing solo?
The blue one I started playing in Terror of Tiny Town. It was largely inaudible, thank god, because of the drums and big Marshall amps. It would occasionally be heard. I don’t think I really got down to work on it as a serious singer/songwriter accompanying instrument until I got Estella. That’s really what it is for me. I would say that my technique as an accordionist is comparable to Neil Young as a guitarist. I’m not gonna be setting off any fireworks with my fingertips anytime soon.

Is drunk accordion much more difficult than playing drunk piano?
Hmmm. [repeats question several times] I’m going to have to think about that.

So having played accordion both in a rock band and solo, what’s the best way to mic it? Did you ever run it through pre-amps and amps, or have you always stuck microphones on it?
I would not dare to give people advice on that. I’ve seen lots of different set-ups. I tour solo a lot, and I have a suitcase and my accordion. The less ‘other stuff’ I have with me, like microphones, pre-amps, pedals, all that nonsense, the better. I don’t really want to have someone rummaging around in there, drilling holes and installing electronics, either. I’m fine with just two standard 58s, one on either side. The one thing you get is a lot of rock sound techs who have no bloody idea what they’re doing when it comes to an accordion. What they’ll do is put up the 57s, because they’re instrument mics. But they’re unidirectional, for putting in the sound hole of an instrument—like a guitar, say. And that’s all most rock sound techs know how to mic, which is an acoustic guitar. And you’ll have this discussion with them and say, ‘Actually, 58s work better.’ They’ll pull the whole ‘I’m the sound tech here’ thing.

And you do the ‘I’m the guy who’s been touring as a solo accordionist for seven years’ thing.
Inevitably you get screaming feedback, immediately, as soon as they turn the rig on. I try not to insult them by actually putting my fingers in my ears before sound check begins. But I’m probably working on a mild case of tinnitus because of it.

So you’re suffering in order for these sound techs to learn their lesson.
Once again, I’m suffering for humanity. Another Christ-like aspect of my career! As if any further were needed.

In the song “Light Enough to Travel,” you wrote the line, “I had to throw down my accordion to get away from the police.” Have you ever, in fact, had to abandon your instrument in an emergency situation or while subject to persecution?
There isn’t actually a fifth amendment in Canada, is there? I’m taking the fifth.

What’s the worst mishap you’ve ever had playing the accordion?
It’s usually what I’m ingesting while I’m playing the accordion that causes the mishaps. Again, miraculously, I’ve never fallen with the accordion on and landed on it. There was just that one time when I put it on a chair and it leaped off somehow.

So Estella doesn’t have any battle scars. No one has attacked her or thrown her out of the back of a moving van…
I was on a TV show in the spring, and the props person said, ‘Oh, it’s a Disney TV show and we can’t have any brands.’ So they taped over the chrome and said the tape would leave no marks. They lied! You can still see some tape marks on the damn thing. It serves me right for going out there. That’s what I get for acting with Ed Begley Jr. and working with the Disney corporation.

How many other solo accordion singer/songwriters do you know of? Len Wallace from Windsor?
There’s tons, actually, I’d say in the last five years. Right around the same time I was coming out doing my thing, unbeknownst to me a guy in Seattle was emerging. His career is thriving and he’s making a living, touring the world, and playing his own songs. His name is Jason Webley. He also has a following in Russia. There’s Anna Bon Bon. There’s Saskia Hummel in Peterborough. There’s a guy named James Plouffe in Peterborough. The people who are out there doing it full time include a guy named Duckman down in the States. There are a couple of amazing women from Czech Republic whose names escape me right now that Helen [Spitzer] gave me. There’s someone else there doing that too. There’s a woman in Australia who calls herself Trixie’s Undersea Adventure. It’s really great to see all this happening. It was fine to get some press at one time because what I was doing was unique, but at a certain point as a songwriter, it becomes irritating for people to act like your instrument is some kind of gimmick—when it’s just an instrument that a lot of people play.

So you don’t get as many novelty-type questions anymore.
You can really see where a town is at culturally. The ones who are a bit behind will still ask me the Weird Al Yankovic question. If I play in Regina, I’ll still get that question.

Have you been asked to play at many weddings? Do you think you’ll get more gigs after this new album [The Wedding Dance of the Widow Bride]?
Me and Rae Spoon played a wedding in Fort McCloud, Alberta last year. It was a fan who hired me. I’m getting offers now, based on this song “Weep Bride Weep.”

The conjunction of that song and the Whisky Rabbi album have led to people asking me to perform the ceremony as well as sing “Weep Bride Weep.”

Did you ever envision that happening?
Absolutely. Like they say, I’m available for weddings, barmitzvahs, funerals, brisses, all that stuff.

Have you yet to play a bris?
I have yet to play at a bris, yes.

Do you have a song for the occasion?
It’s in the development stage.

You wouldn’t play “Lucky Goddam Jew” at a bris, would you?
I certainly would! If I played it in Berlin, I can play it at a bris.

What is the worst wedding you’ve been to?
Undoubtedly it was a born-again Christian wedding. It was a terrible occurrence in respectable, decent West Side Vancouver. Tragically, this family sent their twin daughters to UBC where they were taken in by fundamentalist Christianity. I guess they were just weak minded. One of them got married and the speeches were interminable. Each member of the wedding party gave a speech, and each one mentioned how great everybody was and how they were so happy that they were going to live their lives in the light of Jesus Fucking Christ. Meanwhile, we haven’t eaten! This is diametrically opposed to the Jewish wedding. We would have been fed hours ago.

Did you register protest?
I allowed the eight-year old beside me to drink some of the champagne and become noisy and unruly. He was screaming by the end of it. He was crashing out from the sugar high of alcohol.

And not being fed, it went right to his head.
The kid went bananas. It was great.

What role does music play in Jewish weddings? What role songs would these songs play?
I suppose you could design a three day Bacchanalian ceremony around these songs and others in my repertoire, along the same lines as the three day traditional ceremony that is really not very widely practiced anymore. Some of the songs are based on these forms that exist. “Weep Bride Weep” is a real type of song to make the bride weep. There are different variations on it.

Are these variations the same song musically, with different lyrics? Or completely different songs?
They tend to be similar musically, especially in terms of the rhythm and lyrical content. There’s a lot of regional variations. I was in Germany in December and some Turkish girls told me this idea was part of the Turkish ceremony as well. Also, a song to reconcile the inlaws song is part of the deal, too. There are all sorts of others: songs to bring in different relatives, songs to play at the end to get people to leave.

Are a lot of them a roast, meant to be funny or provocative?
I can’t get a good handle on that. I get different stories from the old guys, depending on their sense of humour. I think often they were meant to be funny. The figure of the toastmaster, the MC, he would usually improvise the lyrics and they would be directly related to the actual people in the family. This is a role some Jewish comedians played, like Woody Allen, apparently. So sometimes it must have been funny. Other times it was poetic and sad. I’m going for both at the same time. Which is kind of my deal.

Musically, do any of these new songs reference traditional music or stuff you discovered on your Bob Cohen travels?
I’m kind of obsessed with the melody of the Kaddish when I went to synagogue at Beth Israel in Vancouver. That’s the tune of “Volcano God,” which I put on my last two albums. Variations of that tune sometimes pop up here and there in a lot of my stuff. There are references to other tunes, but nothing that’s actually legally actionable.

Do you believe in marriage, yourself?
What do you mean?

In the concept, in the institution, is it something you aspire to?
I’d say I take a Marxist interpretation of the institution of marriage. It’s state-sponsored prostitution. And there’s a place in society for prostitution.

And we all have to do it sometimes, apparently. [Berner has a song entitled "We've All Got to Be a Prostitute Sometimes."]
Very true. I also like the Dolly Parton quote about same sex marriage. She’s asked if she’s in favour of it, and she says, “Hell, yeah. Why should we be the only ones to suffer?’


Thursday, February 08, 2007

Geoff Berner: Ashkenaz

I have so much to say about Geoff Berner that I don't know where to begin: on the surface, he's a Vancouver accordionist and a sardonic and satirical singer/songwriter who will have you laughing with horror or weeping while laughing... or simply weeping. He's just as entertaining off-stage as he is while confronting an audience, and is one of the most well-read gentlemen I have the pleasure of knowing personally, which has resulted in many whiskey-fuelled conversations that have gone well into the night and into breakfast the next morning.

His brand new album, his third proper full-length, is called The Wedding Dance of the Widow Bride, and he's currently crossing Canada to promote it. He's in Southwestern Ontario next week, including a stop at the Brampton Indie Arts Festival. Full dates are here.

I wrote this article in today's K-W Record (only available for free today; it's a subscriber-based website) and an article in this month's Exclaim (that doesn't appear to be online yet). Transcript from that conversation will run tomorrow.

This conversation, where I get my goy on and get deep into the Jewish Romanian roots of Berner's music, was conducted for this article in Eye Weekly when Berner performed at Toronto's Ashkenaz festival of Jewish culture last September.

Geoff Berner

August 21, 2006

locale: cell phone at his home in Vancouver

What are your thoughts on playing Ashkenaz?

I wasn’t sure that we would be legitimized by the Jewish culture so quickly. Because we had a wee problem at the Vancouver Chutzpah Festival a few years ago, and I’m glad that didn’t blackball us. We were playing at the Jewish Community Centre where I learned to swim, and I got word that Jews for a Just Peace were banned from the JCC. So I had this guy from the organization do a spoken word rap thing in the middle of one of my songs. It made them somewhat irritated.

Who are Jews for a Just Peace?
They’re the mainstream peace movement, an organisation based in Israel. They’re Zionists who don’t support any of the Israeli policies in the occupied territories, which is in line with my views.

Could you tell me what exactly the word Ashkenaz means?

Ashkenaz is an ethnic branch of the Jewish people. There are two main ethnic groups, the Sephardic—who are Mediterranean and Arab—and the Ashkenaz, who are largely from Eastern Europe. The Hasidism, the ultra-Orthodox guys who dress like it’s 1799, they’re Ashkenaz. It’s really an ethnic label, so to speak, and that’s about it. There are many people who are part of the diaspora who are Sephardic, and they look different. They tend to be darker, more Mediterranean. Ashkenaz is my ethnic background, and klezmer music is an Ashkenaz form.

My understanding of klezmer is that it was wedding music played by Jews and Roma together.

Yes, it was mixed ethnicity. Those guys would never have called what they were doing as ‘klezmer,’ but they would call themselves ‘klezmerim,’ which is a kind of folk tradition that was generally passed down from father to son, or daughter sometimes.

And they weren’t respected members of society, you just hired them to play your wedding.

Yeah. The guys we met in Romania, until very recently, they would walk to the other village to play the gig, carrying their instruments. In the snow, sometimes!

Because they were too poor to have transportation, or that no one would give them a lift?

A bit of both!

When I think of klezmer today, to secularists or lay people, it’s become…

A marketing term for Jewish music. But really, the stuff that most people think of as klezmer, is part of the wedding ceremony and ritual, the party. Parts of that were overtly religious, and parts of it were just part of the understood structure of the party.

What was your relationship with klezmer before you went to Romania? Or even before you played the accordion?

I was raised as a Jew here in Vancouver. It’s a bizarre experience, because there aren’t that many Jews in Vancouver, and I didn’t live in a Jewish neighbourhood. I did go to Hebrew school and had many old relatives who practiced. I had a bar mitzvah and did a lot of study. There’s so much more to Jewish music than the traditional wedding repertoire. At Hebrew school and synygogue, we were exposed day in and day out to a vast range of music: Jewish sacred music, the new Israeli folk songs of the kibbutzim movement, klezmer, and some modern Israeli pop. As well as the ordinary Canadian secular pop culture at the same time.

Did you enjoy playing it, or did you go back to it later?
There’s no denying the power of the sacred music. I really enjoyed some of the Israeli folk songs. The bizarre back door socialist indoctrination. It was a conservative congregation, but because they were Zionists, they believed in the kibbutz, or a socialist farm collective. You wound up with a lot of socialist farm collective indoctrination that the parents would not have endorsed in any other context. They wouldn’t have endorsed socialist farm collectives in Saskatchewan. There was all sorts of stuff that I was enthusiastic about that they were exposing us to, not simply the style, but the lyrical content was always a big deal for me.

I went away from it a little bit as a teenager, but I really came back to it through touring with alt-country people like Corb Lund and Carolyn Mark. I saw how they were punk rockers who had taken the music of their own heritage and applied their own aesthetic to it, which turned out to be way more authentic than what was largely being marketed as country music. It seemed like something that ought to be done with klezmer. From what I could see, I couldn’t find it out there. When we went to Romania, Bob Cohen showed us that the roots of the tradition are much more profane and dirty and sexy and fun and partying and drinking, than maybe much of the klezmer is marketed as.

I was under the impression that the word “klezmer” didn’t exist as a musical genre until the 70s, when it was rediscovered.

The New York and Eastern American Jews were very, very involved in the archiving of Americana. They were out there in Louisiana and the Ozarks with tape recorders and guitars and fiddles—the Jewbillies! Bob Cohen, in the early 70s, he was up in Cape Breton documenting fiddle tunes! One day, one of those guys was out in the bayou, and some Cajun was like, ‘Well, Mr. Horovitz, what about the music of your people? Why don’t you document that?’ That led to an epiphany, and they started turning in towards their own neighbourhoods in Brooklyn and digging up these old guys who had been largely ignored for decades. For them, it was a matter of trying to save a music that they thought was going to flicker out at any moment.

But you’re not a fan of a lot of the music that produced, though.

Well, 99 per cent of every style of music is crap, just because of the way the need for polite music in middle-class society tends to suck. There is that effect on Jewish music as well. There’s nothing about what the preservationists did that I would say is wrong or bad. I understand what they were doing. They said, ‘We have to make sure this doesn’t disappear. We have to try to reconstruct what it was so that we know.’ The other thing was, ‘Hey, this is not disposable. This is important culture. This is respectable music.’ Sometimes it had the result of being played as if it was classical chamber music, or sugar-free jazz. You could totally understand the motivation.

I don’t think we should get rid of that stuff. I think that here’s what I as a songwriter can bring to the table: not preservationism, but I’m going to try to contribute the canon, to the repertoire, if I can. Adding new songs is an essential component of what happened in the great explosion of klezmer music in the 20s. If we want to have a living, breathing culture here, we can’t just have albums full of traditional stuff, and then the odd original thrown in there for kicks. We have to have people who are working on adding to the repertoire.

But when I think of the material on Whisky Rabbi, if klezmer music is primarily wedding music, I think of your songs as mostly more songwriter-y. Where do you think your songs fit into that?

So few of the classic klezmer records are 100-per cent wedding music. The latest The latest Di Naye Kapelye album is called A Mazeldiker Yid, and the title track is a Romanian Jewish socialist youth group song, about how much this young Jewish boy loves his tractor. There’s so much more to Jewish music than wedding music. There’s nothing to fight against here. It’s totally understandable why they need a word to market this stuff that’s kind of complicated to explain what it all is.

If you were to be perfectly accurate about what I’m doing, I’d say I’m writing new Jewish drinking songs. There are an awful lot of Jewish drinking songs in the traditional canon.

I’ve heard you say that you’d be delighted if the fundamentalist musical purists found your material blasphemous. Is that a misrepresentation?
No, that’s basically correct. I was put on a bill a while ago with a guy who was one of the great traditional accordion revivalist guys. He said, ‘Please don’t take this the wrong way, but how can you call this klezmer if you’re not singing in Yiddish?’ And I told him that Shane MacGowan doesn’t sing in Irish Gaelic. Yiddish was the lingua franca of a people, and it’s great to preserve it and it’s a wonderful language, but the fact is that it’s not the lingua franca of Eastern European-descended Jews anymore. In order for me to have the same effect and meaning that klezmer songs had for an audience in the 20s, you have to actually sing in the language that the audience can understand. It’s really important to preserve these things, but it’s not where my skills lie, in faithfully representing something with the utmost scholarship and most precise technical reproduction.

You do revel in blasphemy, do you not, sir?
Well, uh, blasphemy can be fun! It can be healthy, too. There’s a serious intellectual and cultural motivation behind what I’m doing, and part of it is that the cultural agenda in our lives has been seized by fanatics. Not just in the Jewish world, but in every major religion. It’s very important for those of us who like to drink and screw and swear to stand up for ourselves, and say, this is our culture, too! We can’t abandon Jewish music to the Matisyahus of the world, who get away with playing third-rate reggae because they’re observant Jews.

I know you’ve played “Maginot Line” in France, and I imagine you’ve played “Lucky Goddam Jew” at Jewish festivals.

I do get a little trickle of walk-outs, but only a trickle. There’s always a little trickle of complaints. But I really think that’s really healthy in music. If you’re not eliciting that kind of response from people, then you kind of suck. You’re mediocre. You’re making music that everybody kind of likes. Who would want to do that? It just washes over you like air freshener.

Back to the tradition of blasphemy, I get the impression from a lot of Jewish writers and comedians, that tragicomic satire is a great Jewish tradition as well.

Oh yeah, absolutely. I love the short stories of Shalom Aleichem, I’ve read much of Mordechai Richler’s stuff and Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. There is that tragicomic tradition in Jewish storytelling. But also, amongst the musicians, the clarinet—which is the instrument which people identify with klezmer, but which by the way was not big in European klezmer, it’s essentially an American innovation—the clarinet you have two main giants who represented the Dionysian and the Appolonian. Naftule Brandwein was the Jimi Hendrix of the klezmer clarinet. He was endlessly inventive, often rough, he drank like a fish, didn’t keep the Sabbath, turned his back to the audience so they couldn’t see his tricks and rip them off, and he died relatively young and in obscurity. Dave Tarras is much more technically perfect, and played wedding music that people liked, that never got too impolite in its style. He continued to do well and lived like a middle class guy who happened to play clarinet for a living. Tarras lived into his 90s and taught Andy Statman who are the revivalists. His style is predominant in the revival. But my allegiance is to Brandwein.

When are those Bob Cohen recordings [field recordings he made with Berner in the backwoods of Romania] coming out?

People come to him and he lets them buy him drinks and he decides if he likes them or not, and then he will sometimes let people have some. He’s very suspicious of klezmer pilgrims. It took a lot to win his trust. We have doubles of everything. We brought a mini-disc recorder, so we got it.

What are you going to do with them?
Well, we don’t know what we’re going to do with them! There has been press all over the country and in Europe about us having it, and no one has come knocking, looking for it. I try to make a living as a musician, so I don’t have a lot of time to shop these things around to libraries to see if they want me to give them to them.

In the meantime, they’re safe. It’s these 80-year old guys saying, “Here’s the tune” and then playing. Then we say, “Is that a Jewish tune?” He says, “We play it this way at a Jewish wedding, and this way at a Gypsy wedding, and this way at a Hungarian wedding.” Then he gives us a lesson in the differences in style in the different European musics. People categorize it all as Balkan, and if anyone wants to play in G minor they can either call themselves a Balkan group or a klezmer group, but they really are pretty big differences.

It’s pretty great to have this stuff, but so far nobody’s come asking for it. And actually, we’d have to ask Bob if it was okay before we’d put it out. It’s him, he’s the one. He’s been going there since he was in his late teens, and he’s now in his early 50s. He has godchildren who have children in these villages. His Hungarian wife left him in Budapest, and a clan there began saving him prospective wives. He is connected.

This guy Wexler, who is 89 or whatever, the last Jewish fiddler in Romania, people go looking for him and he’ll tell them that ‘that guy is dead. You must be thinking of my brother.’ We sat there and drank tea with him for an hour, while every once in a while Bob would try to get him to pick up the violin. He’d say, ‘Oh no, I don’t play anymore.’ Bob would tell him one filthy Yiddish joke after another until it warmed him up and he started playing. And he had clearly been playing every day. He was not rusty at all. He would play wedding music, but there’s also this huge tradition of Jewish musical theatre.

The whole thing with ‘are-you-really-playing-klezmer-Geoff’ is that it’s always been a convenient lie that makes sense when all these klezmer albums are just pure Jewish wedding music. So he played all these songs, and then new songs that he had written, new songs in the old style—arguably in the old style, because he’s an old guy.

Did he sing as well?
He did a bit of singing, but mostly he played the fiddle. He sang some apparently very funny, very filthy songs.

Where does [Berner’s violinist] Diona [Davies] figures into this? Is it part of her heritage at all?

Diona is a direct descendent of Sitting Bull. So there you go. What more do you want in your band?

Was she playing with these guys too, or just helping you record?
She had the fiddle in hand, and would get them to show her stuff. After a few minutes of hearing her copying their stuff, they would have a groom picked out for her. We had to basically start telling everybody that [his percussionsist] Wayne [Adams] and Diona were a married couple, because everyone wanted to find a match for her.


Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Gordon Downie 2000

As a CanCon chronicler since I was a wee lad, Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip have loomed large over my musical education. In high school, they were visceral rock'n'roll believers who provided the soundtrack to many a summer night. Their riffs cut to the gut, Downie was a manic frontman, Paul Langlois and Gord Sinclair's harmonies tapped into a Canadiana of the times (see: Skydiggers, Grapes of Wrath, Blue Rodeo, 54.40 et al), and they wrote unassailable classic rock songs to rival the boomer bullshit forced down our throats. I have many fond memories of seeing them at a mid-day slot at Molson Park in Barrie, at the Ontario Place Forum, at the Concert Hall when Road Apples was released. Each of them were defining moments of deliverance for me.

By the time I hit university, they were the biggest band in the land, and therefore totally inacessible to me. Maybe I was too busy exploring new avenues, but I fell off around the time of Fully Completely. One of their best loved albums, I nonetheless found it grossly overproduced (see: Concrete Blonde), neutering the band's raw edge in favour of a radio-ready sound. Yet even at their worst, Downie was still nothing short of compelling. No other lyricist of his day conveyed the same sense of playful poetic mystique, never settling for the obvious, always ready with an unexpected turn of phrase.

The next time I saw them was Canada Day, 1994 at Molson Park (the rest of the line-up: Daniel Lanois, Rheostatics, Jane Siberry, Eric's Trip, Change of Heart, Spirit of the West, etc.). What struck me that day was not only the musical abstractions they were exploring with the material that would form Day For Night (one of three essential albums in their discography), but how Downie had tens of thousands of people reciting his decidedly non-rock'n'roll poetry back to him, like a massive recitation of Al Purdy... or something. Add to that the ease with which he incorporated forgotten or maligned Canadian mythology--both real and imagined--into his prose, in a way that a precious few of his contemporaries (or predecessors) dared attempt.

Since then, like many fans, I've had an on/off relationship with The Tragically Hip. 1999's Phantom Power was another high water mark, but nearly everything else in the last 12 years has left me cold. Much greater pleasures were to be found in Downie's two solo albums, 2001's Coke Machine Glow (my review in Eye, a personal favourite, is here; the album title is now better known as the name of one of this country's most popular blogs) and 2003's Battle of the Nudes, where he collaborated with Dave Clark (Rheostatics), Dale Morningstar (Dinner is Ruined), Josh Finlayson (Skydiggers) and Julie Doiron, among others.

I've interviewed Downie three times. Once was in the summer of 2000, in a hotel room in a decaying cylindrical tower in downtown Syracuse, NY, with my co-author Jason Schneider for the book Have Not Been the Same. Downie gave us over an hour of his time, and was generous, funny, articulate and humble. You know, Canadian. We later roped him into writing the forward to the book, which he insisted on doing in verse--much to the confusion of our publishers, who were hoping for something a little more... normal?
That pretty much sums up The Hip's relationship to the Canadian media since 1990. Gord himself was amused that the publisher put his name in a bigger font size than the authors of the book.

Gord was also a gracious secondary source for this story on his old friend Sarah Harmer.

I'm happy to report that after years of indifference--six, in fact--that the new Hip album, World Container, is a joy to behold, containing many of their finest moments since Phantom Power. [However, listening to 2000's Music At Work today, it's not nearly as bad as I remembered. In fact, shockingly, I liked it more today than I did was I was ostensibly a bigger fan of the band. Take the first seven tracks and the closer, and it's almost as good as this new one.] Particularly worthy is "Family Band," an amusing ode to weekend warriors and nascent rock'n'roll dreams.

The conversation below was the second time I'd interviewed Downie in 2000, this time for an article in Eye in advance of a Hip show at the Air Canada Centre. Earlier that year, prior to our book interview, I penned this less-than-flattering live review. Part of their touring band at the time were our mutual friends Chris Brown and Kate Fenner.

So, to celebrate the man's 43rd birthday today and The Tragically Hip's umpteenth appearance at the Air Canada Centre this week, here's one from the vaults.

I don't know where the original tape is, and my original transcript opened with brief notes that had something to do with demagoguery. I wish I knew what my questions were and what his complete answers were. They're still on tape somewhere. Nonetheless, the rest of the conversation remains intact.

Gord Downie

November 24, 2000

locale: phone interview from his house

Some of the lyrics on this album suggest an overall mood or theme. “I’m starting to fail to be impressed.” “I’m starting to choking on the things I say. “I’m starting to fail to know what’s best.” “Talking in whispers again. “Presaging pell mell. “Everything you thought you sought is uncovered.”

What do you think those themes are? As you list those quotes I was trying to come up with a psychological profile. What’s it saying – is everything alright?

There are hints of frustration or finality.

Oh yeah? Yeah. Hmmm. ‘Starting to choke on the things I say.’ I don’t know. That’s more like a self-deprecating comment on your way out. If you’re going to say to someone, ‘I’d practically kill not to be afraid.’ Then you have to say, ‘What do I know? I’m starting to choke on these things myself.’ Regarding ‘I’m starting to fail to be impresed,’ I like the idea of not really failing, but beginning to fail, which to me denotes an out. It’s reversible, perhaps. That would contradict what you’re talking about, in a way. ‘Presaging pell-mell’ is a phrase I like a lot, especially with ‘augers’ and ‘presages’ in the same line. You might as well call that song “Thesaurus.” I didn’t use one, by the way. My Thesaurus At Work.

“Tiger the Lion” quotes John Cage. Have you been reading John Cage theories lately?

I was trying to figure out why I chose to do that, why I chose to take that phrase and paraphrase it and stand on stage and deliver it with oratorical flourish which it demands. Because you can’t dance to it. I get to the “simply to wake to your life” part and it feels like a good thing to say to someone. In doing that, you can discover as much as anybody about yourself and what you can do and how you can express yourself and how what you express is totally valid.

There are people who start playing rock’n’roll at the age of 16 and they continue to play it at age 50 for the same reasons, then there are people who start playing rock’n’roll at 16 and move on to other things entirely.

Rock and roll is not unlike love. You find it oddly strangely comforting that no matter how old you get, when it comes to matters of the heart, you’re always 15 inside. I know an 85-year old with boy trouble. That’s a strange and comforting thing to me. As we move towards resolution and understanding and greater serenity in all aspects of our life, love’s pretty elemental and that’s nice to know. I think rock and roll is the same. I don’t pretend to understand it; it feels confusing and frightening and wonderful.

I’m sure there are moments when you feel like the 16-year old and moments when you feel like a man creating something that a 16-year old could never envision.

Yeah. But I’d rather be a 16-year old. You’ve got the very potent combination of naïvete and energy and hormones. It’s a good way to get things across. If you can stand up there like a 16-year old and lay down some half-assed John Cage theories, I guess they’d call you a prodigy!

How does the presence of Kate Fenner on stage [in the 2000 tour] colour the stage show? What does her feminine presence provide to what was previously an impenetrable fortress? It seems very different.

I think both she and Chris [Brown] have had a ripple effect, and over time those two have managed to eke out an existence up there [on stage]. I’m proud of what they’ve done, because it’s not easy. In terms of singing, it suggested a whole new universe to me, and allowed me to stretch out – stretch out to the point where I don’t even know what song I’m in. Which is maybe a testament to my bad memory. I can get pretty lost. There’s certain songs where if I try anything remotely new, like singing the melody even slightly different, it will rise up and say, ‘if you’re going to be like that, we’re not going to tell you what song you’re in anymore.’ You can stand in front of all these people and try to find your way back, and that in and of itself is part of the waves of entertainment for everybody but me, whose cables of his heart have been cut and the elevator is careening towards defeat. But I feel pretty happy and supported. Since the beginning of the tour, I’ve had people tell me that they expected to see a guitar band, and now it’s a singers’ band. And I think we can absorb that and accept that growth. It’s taught us a lot. Generally, emotions and thoughts and feelings and morale are pretty high, based on the work we’ve done and sticking with the decisions we made.

The other recent female addition to the band is Julie Doiron’s presence on the new record, who I understand is also working with you on your solo album.

I’ve always liked her writing. She came in and worked on the Hip record, and I was impressed with her work ethic, the way she approaches a song or a line or even a note. She has an incredible musical memory and she’s a great technician, which is not to say she doesn’t have heart or emotion or these vital things – she feels things very deeply. It was a great thing on our record, and I look forward to the songs that she sings on when I listen to the record. And it begat another decision and advancement in our world.

Now that you have a book of poetry coming out soon, does it change in any way the way you approach lyrics and how they relate to the written word?

This makes me think of John K. Samson of the Weakerthans. I was looking at the booklet for his last record before hearing a note, and thought, ‘wow.’ It was interesting even the way it was laid out: it had a sensibility with which it spoke, that of a poet or someone who thought about how to lay this out without music. It seemed like prose, and I read it accordingly. Then hearing the music and hearing where the rhymes fell and where the obvious line breaks where, it altered it and changed it a bit. That was part of the permission process for me. In the early stages of any project, you’re looking around for permission to proceed. I think I’m a better writer now, and this process has been beneficial and a huge success. Working with an editor has been really illuminating, in terms of looking at how stuff goes down on the page.

A word that came up often in our last conversation and that’s come up again today is “permission.” Do you feel like you have to ask permission? Is that a Canadian thing?

Oh, I knew you’d say that. It’s not like I’m standing there saying, ‘Can I do this? Can I say this?’ I usually say it all and let time strip away what doesn’t need to be said: the obvious or the profane or the proclamations that age like limburger. Permission comes in weird forms. I remember hearing Pavement for the first time. Stephen Malkmus seemed to eschew lyrics and make them seem like they’re less than meaningless, but they’re so obviously not to me. They’re so beautiful and strange.

Did that feel like a validation of sorts, of inarticulated thoughts you may have had?

I’m not saying that I assume someone else has to do it first, but I’m certainly not ‘not assuming’ that.

What’s interesting to me is that you can hear these things at work and they seem like sketches—or sketchy, if you will.

Like, not formed?

Like this is going to lead somewhere else.

And doesn’t?

It holds things to be explored further. I don’t know if the writing process was different or if you’re at a point in your discography where you ask, ‘what can we do next?’

Is that what you’re asking?

Well, where do you think it fits into your discography? Is the album a statement? Is it a question?

I think it’s the end of a line, of one particular line. But I don’t really know, to be honest. I don’t think about where these things sit once they’re out. We finished the album a long time ago now, and for better or worse I’m happy with it, given that it’s the best and most succinct expression we could make of our collective idea about making records. It’s not easy.

In terms of the lyric writing, I think certain things are really strong and others are not as strong as I’d like them. In terms of where it sits in our discography, it tells me that it was time to shake things up and go somewhere else and learn a new language in terms of expressing ourselves.

On stage, I don’t know when I’ve felt more relaxed and comfortable and worth it. That’s primarily because I know I’m on a new track. I want to become a better writer. I’m glad I arrived at that conclusion at the end of this than the opposite, which would be, ‘Hey, I’m a hell of a writer! I won’t change a damn thing!’ This is what I respect about Neil Peart or Johnny [Fay], drummers or dancers who work every day and at 60 decide they decide to need to study a whole different way of drumming, because they know what the instrument is and they know how ancient it is. They know you only have so much time on this earth to scratch the skin of that instrument. That’s what I really admire. That’s what I aspire to.

There’s the old idiom of people who played for years and then they say, ‘One day I sat down at the drum kit and pretended that I didn’t know what it was.’ Or with the guitar, saying ‘I know have no idea how to play this.’

Oh, I do that. It doesn’t stop me. It’s good to pick up a guitar and play it the way it’s tuned, which is the Joni kind of way – not really think about it, just see what the guitar wants to say. That’s a salient observation on my part because I’m just realizing it now and I’m glad I arrived at that conclusion.

There’s a line here that says: “You’ll be serving the song/ when you find out you won’t change.”

Exactly. I thought it meant one thing originally and now I think it does mean another. We used to say that a lot, “We’re just serving the song. We’re just letting the song be what it wants to be.” I think that was a very normal way to try and answer the unanswerable. Serving the song, if you’re not careful, can put you into roller skates with A&W root beer gliding out to the station wagon to see if they need any more ketchup. Serving the song can become very militaristic.

Well, all your songs are about war, I understand. [Downie made this remark on-stage at a Winnipeg concert benefitting WarChild, if I recall correctly.]

Did I say that? Well, they are! That’s an interview-stopper if there ever was one. ‘They’re all about war. That’s all you need to know.’ That was part of the WarChild thing. That was a rare opportunity and only the second time I can remember in our Hip history that I felt like that on stage against a very ugly historical truth.

What was the other one?

Mayday in Holland. May 5th we played a festival in Harlem. There were kids and grandkids and great-grandkids who remember the war. It was an outdoor free festival in Harlem, Holland and they remember Canadians quite fondly. That’s what I sensed, at least. We were headlining the show. It was such a powerful feeling to sing these songs and have them be injected with this whole different spirit of meaning. The ability to use your songs and have them function for people as a tool for memory. I don’t know what the songs were doing, but I felt an honor and a privilege to be able to do this. To stand up there and say, ‘Since I was a little kid I’ve been afraid of war and it’s occupied my nightmares.’ I think all of us are the same that way. Then the WarChild one in Winnipeg was the same sort of thing. Getting to stand up there and say, ‘I think this is atrocious. This is a crime.’ There’s no pretense of rock posing or career advancement or any kind of personal wish fulfillment. It’s more saying that I’m a soldier up here and this is what I do.

Even worse, there’s no irony, which is often the only vehicle those motivations come to light.

After a show like that you’re resonating in waves and aftershocks where you think, ‘What was that?’ It’s moments like that when you feel quite lucky to do what you do. At least I do.

Do you feel like a demagogue then?

No, that’s just a wet suit I slip into before the show. I can’t walk around with swim fins on all day, Michael. I won’t get anywhere.

What should we expect from the solo record you have coming out soon?

It will be equal parts curious, confounding, and entirely predictable.