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?’


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a great freakin' interview. Glad I found it.

We'll mention it on our Accordion Noir show on Co-Op Radio somehow: