Saturday, April 28, 2007

Magnetic Yields, spring 07

The current issue of Magnet, with Bright Eyes on the cover, marks my debut with the publication. Very little of their content is posted online, so today's post includes the reviews I penned in the print edition.

Also, I've updated the portfolio section to include audio interviews I did for last year. I didn't think you could direct link to them until now. I'm particularly proud of the Matmos and Yo La Tengo ones, which delve quite easily into the absurd. There are also links to Feist and Sigur Ros.

Last night's Amon Tobin show: loud. And very few traces of Foley Room. I was very glad I got there early, however, as Montreal live electronic rock band Plaster tore the roof off and had the audience demanding more... information from the accented francophones. ("Fucking A! What's your name?" "Can you spell it?")

And if for some bizarre reason the Samaritans are reading this, the ones who scraped me off Queen St. after being thrown from my bike thanks to wet streetcar tracks, the ones who did remarkably deft bike chain surgery, may I say that it made me happy to be living in Toronto the Good. It was my second strange street encounter of the night: entering the show, a fiftysomething guy with a young daughter (granddaughter?) innocently inquired what was going on at the Opera House, which led to a discussion of John Cage. Lessons learned: never underestimate the generosity and intelligence of strangers.

I digress. Here's some Magnetic reading.

National Anthem of Nowhere
A Little Place in the Wilderness
Side projects usually go one of two ways: either a limp, half-assed distillation of said artist’s day job, or a chance to boldly go where their own band dared not go before. New albums by members of Stars and Broken Social Scene help reinforce this dichotomy, even if their Canadian citizenship allows them carte blanche to bend the rules of collectives and cross-pollinating musical communities. Both album titles suggest a sanctuary that exists beyond borders. Both bands try to create their own sonic world. Neither sound aligned to any country, city or particular social scene.
Prior to becoming one of a dozen guitarists in the Scene, Apostle of Hustle’s Andrew Whiteman had a long, storied career in Toronto music, ranging from soul, spoken word, Latin and rock bands—divergent interests that fought for space on AoH’s dense debut, 2004’s Folkloric Feel. This, however, sounds like the album Whiteman’s been waiting to make his whole life: an electrifying emulsion of dirty rock and pristine pop, of raw electric guitars and sleek Lanois-esque atmospherics. Most importantly, this fuses Whiteman’s love of Latin rhythms into his experimental and rock backgrounds with the ease of the Latin Playboys, though with the expansive scope that comes with Broken Social Scene. In other words, this is what Calexico’s Garden Ruin could have been.
If Apostle of Hustle breaks loose from any expectations, Memphis suffers for having too many. It helps that Whiteman is not the principal songwriter in BSS, while Torquil Campbell is the attention magnet in Stars. Here he collaborates with silent partner Chris Dumont, who douses every song in washes of guitars and keyboards that tie in well with Campbell’s hopeless romantic persona, telling tales of lost souls who spend their lives in the cinema and recount ghost stories. But because his voice is so familiar, Memphis can’t help but sound like neutron Stars, splinters of the supernova cast adrift. It doesn’t help that “Incredibly Drunk on Whiskey” is his lowest lyrical moment to date. Considering, however, that the best song on the 2004 debut was a Pet Shop Boys cover, there are considerably more promising signs here to suggest that Memphis may yet find their day in the sun. (Arts and Crafts,; Good Fences, -Michael Barclay

Les Matins De Grands Soirs
There are those that will try and convince you that French is not a rock'n'roll language—including many francophones themselves who choose to chanter in the language of les maudites anglais. Thankfully, there are plenty of young Quebecois—including current critics' faves Malajube—who are happy to prove them wrong. Montreal's Les Breastfeeders play a brand of howling garage rock where lyrics barely matter, not when their three-guitar onslaught is commanding you to the dancefloor. Les Breastfeeders take on 60s garage barely leaves room for a breath, Singer Luc Brien plays the snotty street tough to a T, while his fille foil, mod dreamgirl Suzie McLeLove, swoons her way through the poppiest moments. They're beyond question a blistering live band, though the home stereo doesn't really do justice to their many charms. On disc, you may well wonder why they employ sixth member Johnny Maldoror to play only tambourine and hand claps; live, he's a shirtless dervish in a white fur vest and pinstriped pants, humping the stage and mooning the audience. Like any ambitious garage band, there are attempts at more grandiose gestures, but the bagpipes on the six-minute closing track "Septembre Sous La Pluie" can't salvage the song. At their best, Les Breastfeeders are worthy successors to their neighbours the late, great Gruesomes and Les Lutins. Xenophobes only lose out, left to cry in their Freedom Fries.
(Blow the Fuse,
—Michael Barclay

A famous progeny, fashion model and actress with a wafer thin voice releases a hotly tipped debut album with the help of all-star collaborators. Sound familiar? On an entirely superficial level, there’s little separating Charlotte Gainsbourg from Paris Hilton, other than an incriminating sex tape—oh wait, there are a couple of tone deaf and creepy videos she made with her dad 20 years ago, including “Lemon Incest.” But as she points out herself here, “You got the surface and the substance confused.” Coming from French pop royalty—Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, for all you Europhobes—and having a legitimate film career (The Science of Sleep, 21 Grams) already bolster her credibility, even before she calls in Jarvis Cocker, Air and Nigel Godrich to write and produce her album. These gentlemen aren’t merely slumming with star power. The results are everything you’d expect from the guys responsible for This is Hardcore, Moon Safari and Sea Change: a wonderfully weightless musical backdrop with lyrics ruminating on the perils of stardom, the disembodied mindset of the international traveller, hidden beauty and ghostly lovers. Gainsbourg herself is a whispery, transparent presence, to the point where one has to wonder if she sings that way because she wants to—in the best French tradition of cooing chanteuses—or if, like Paris Hilton, she has to. Either way, she still suits the pre-dawn mood alluded to in the title, a waking dreamstate where illusions seem all too real. (Because; -Michael Barclay

Drums and Guns
Alan Sparhawk has been overheard in public calling this Low’s hip-hop album. Hyperbole aside, it’s nonetheless a left turn for Low, with nary a trace of the crushing guitars here that defined Low’s 2004 cruncher of a coming out party, The Great Destroyer. In their place are plenty of mellotrons and other keyboards, the type that are central to the sonic architecture so characteristic of returning producer Dave Fridmann’s planetarium pop experiments. Neither the keyboards nor the crackling and lurching drum machines distract from the vocals; Sparhawk and Mimi Parker are front and centre in the mix, as if an a cappella album was surrendered to a Fridmann remix. Guitars, when present at all, are run through backwards effects, just another ominous texture to underscore the paranoia and dread that runs through titles like “Your Poison,” “Murderer” and “Violent Past.” Musical moods are communicated more effectively than lyrical ones. Especially such a prominent vocal mix, Sparhawk sounds mildly ridiculous stretching a metaphor like, “Let’s bury the hatchet like the Beatles and the Stones.” For all its bombast, The Great Destroyer also happened to be Low’s strongest collection of songs, which this is certainly not. Nonetheless, having stretched their previous formulas to the breaking point last time—both musically and personally—Drums and Guns suggests that there was a phoenix in those flames. This sounds like the first step; next time they’ll take flight. (Sub Pop, –Michael Barclay

Sex Change
Wow, that was an even shorter retirement than Jay-Z. Trans Am
announced their break-up in 2004, spawning the wheel-spinning
swan-song Liberation and a nonetheless exhilarating and epic
live set that left even casual fans screaming for more—a plea that
obviously registered. They reconvened in New Zealand: far from their
studio, far from the apocalyptic tenor of their hometown of
Washington, DC, far from their familiar gear and effects. This is the
sound of this power trio starting over practically from scratch, or at
the very least rediscovering their strengths and letting more of their
initial influences shine through: "North East Rising Sun" is a
one-chord electro incantation that channels "Tomorrow Never Knows,"
while "Obscene Strategies" rides a "White Horse" into the sunset. The
vocoder vocals are thankfully kept to a bare minimum, and even the
moments that resemble 80s sci-fi TV themes somehow survive any kitschy
retro stench. These kick-ass Kraftwerkians hit their stride when the
flowering analog synth chords bloom atop stadium rock riffs on
"Conspiracy of the Gods," which is also where drummer Sebastian
Thompson brings the hammer with enough roto-toms to make Neil Peart
jealous. Sex Change contains everything you've ever wanted from
Trans Am, and if you weren't paying proper attention, this could even
pass for a posthumous greatest hits.
(Thrill Jockey,
—Michael Barclay

The following two reviews were written for the "75 Lost Classics" feature, as this is Magnet's 75th issue. All considered albums had to have been released in the magazine's lifetime, starting in 1993. I was happy to provide the CanCon; Stuart Berman also wrote about Zumpano.

Pyrokinesis (Scratch, 2002)
Before they scaled mountaintops and coloured them pink and black with
newfound comrades in arms, East Vancouver's Steve McBean and Josh
Wells were still a duo dodging men in uniform, running with thieves,
and committing acts of corporate sabotage in the streets of their
crooked city. They searched for signs of love and hope underneath "the
bloody weight of history," and found some by letting others into their
strictly stuckist guitar and drums universe, including some dirty
keyboards they dragged from the dumpster. This is the wasted landscape
and deconstruction that was necessary for their rebirth as Black
Mountain, where they discovered optimism amidst increasingly sludgy
CATCHING UP: Shortly after this album's release, JWAB began adding
members and morphing into Black Mountain, whose 2005 debut on
Jagjaguwar marked McBean and Wells's worldwide coming out party (and
Coldplay opening slots). That band has since spawned a cottage
industry of spin-offs, including Pink Mountaintops, Blood Meridian,
Ladyhawk, Sinoia Caves and Amber and Josh.

Alone at the Microphone (Three Gut, 2001; Rough Trade, 2002)
Crawling through shit and mud to be with your beloved and your banjo has never
sounded lovelier. Like any classic album, Alone at the Microphone
existed in its own imaginary world, both lyrically and sonically. The
air in this particular universe is dank with death and loathing, full
of foul fiends lurking in stoney rubbish, spewing forth semen with
hurl in their hair. Guelph, Ontario's Royal City crawled out of their
spacy basement with dog-eared copies of the Bible and Milton to detail
the depths of the spiritually downtrodden, and in doing so set
themselves apart from their more polite peers, predating freak folk
and terrifying the alt-country set at the time. Not that it's a
fearful album: their journey through the profane includes glimpses of
the sacred, a realisation achieved with beautiful starlit arrangements
that dazzle to this day.
CATCHING UP: Royal City went on permanent hiatus in 2004 shortly after
the release of follow-up Little Heart's Ease. Singer/songwriter Aaron
Riches is now a theology student in Nottingham, UK; guitarist Jim
Guthrie continues to release equally captivating solo album, is a
touring guitarist in Islands, and has penned some of Canada's
best-loved TV ad jingles; bassist Simon Osbourne backs up drummer
Nathan Lawr's solo singer/songwriter project. A b-sides album has long
been rumoured.
‹Michael Barclay

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Amon Tobin

Amon Tobin's new album Foley Room is named after the recording studios that film companies use to record sound effects. Tobin has always been a sound sculptor of the finest order, but most of this album eschews his vinyl-based sampling approach and is instead composed from sounds Tobin gathered on field expeditions (lions, tigers, and wasps, oh my!) as well as asking his Montreal neighbours to attack their instruments with various metallic objects (swords, chains).

That's the hook to get people talking, anyway. But when I sat down and listened to Foley Room before reading the liner notes, I immediately fell in love with not only Tobin's world of sound, but his compositional sense and ability to create visual narratives out of sparse melodies and harsh textures. To these ears, it's head and shoulders above anything else he's ever done: I liked previous albums fine, but nothing hit me like a brick as this one does.

Plus, he uses my favourite Montreal drummer: Stef Schneider of Bell Orchestre, a wonderfully charming man who is dangerously talented and should be far more visible than he is. Hire this man now! (update: thanks to this great article by Sarah Liss at Now I found out that Schneider is playing with equally beautiful people Pietro Amato (Torngat) and Jessie Stein (SS Cardiacs) as The Luyas this Sunday at Wavelength.)

For my original review of this CD (written for a lay audience), go here. For my article in this week's Eye Weekly, drawn from today's transcript, go here.

Mostly I was fascinated by Tobin's shift in direction here because I've never fully understood why the DJ Shadows of the world spend what--to me--seems like hours scouring for records and then isolating the sounds they want, when they could just hire someone for a few hours, get them to play exactly what they want, and then dissect that all they like. The effort put into obscuring the original sound source (something I wish Shadow had done a bit more, after I finally heard the David Axelrod albums he plundered from) seems more labour intensive then just going out and getting the real thing.

Either way, I'm glad Tobin did, and I'm convinced it has something to do with why Foley Room towers over his other albums. Even though he disagrees.

Finally, comparisons to Matmos are obvious, but there is always something with Matmos that feels like work: like I have to know what narrative they're trying to create before I hear it; like I have to know what components went into it to appreciate it; like it's all an academic exercise. That's less true of last year's The Rose Has Teeth..., but I always feel like I should like them because: a) they're really smart and funny guys; b) they've been right-hand men to Bjork and c) did I mention they're really smart and funny guys?

With Tobin, even though we have mutual friends, I don't feel any obligation to like his music for any reason other than that Foley Room is totally enrapturing.

That said, having seen a DJ set of his before, I'm not convinced that tomorrow's show at the Opera House will be the bee's knees--7.1 surround sound notwithstanding (explained at the end of the interview)--but I'm still curious to see what happens.

Amon Tobin
April 10, 2007
Locale: phone interview, having just checked into his London hotel

As someone who previously only used elements sampled from vinyl records—why have you waited this long to bring in other elements?
I think there’s still a lot to be explored with vinyl samples. It wasn’t a compromise to use samples from vinyl. It wasn’t like I couldn’t get a hold of microphones.
It was really because when you sample something that was in a different musical context before, and you adapt that and change it into a new piece of music, there is an energy—I believe, anyway—that you keep from where the sound came from. When it’s put unnaturally into an arrangement with lots of other things pulling in different directions, there’s a dynamic that happens there.
It’s a lot to do with the fact that you’re taking someone’s finest hour, on say a set of drums, and you’re taking a few seconds of that momentum and then extending it. The way you program the rhythm to extend it, the energy of that tiny little second is stretched out as far as you like.

But how do you compare that with using the people you work with on this record, bringing people in for a day or a couple of days?
I go from one extreme to another. It’s the same with digital or analog. I always wondered which way I should go, and it turns out that a bit of both is the best for me and my experience.
I was quite militant about only using vinyl and only using samples. But it’s important not to get too trapped in your own ideas of what you should be doing. To be honest, it’s not so much about source material, because I’m pretty sure you could find anything I recorded on vinyl somewhere. People have recorded lions and tigers before, trains and robots and all that.
The bonus for me personally was that I was able to learn a lot more about the music making process and about recording from that startpoint. It was much more to do with a personal education, really, on making and recording music.

Do you feel like you have more control when it’s you pointing the microphone at the animals or the musicians? As opposed to trying to find a piece of vinyl that suits the thing you have in mind, you can just go out and do it. Does this approach have more immediacy?
To some extent. You win and you lose. There are things that you find by chance on vinyl that you never imagined, and vice versa when you go out with mics. A lot of emphasis is put on the origins of sound in sample-based music, and I really think it’s important, but it’s even more important what you do with these sounds: how they’re put together, manipulated and arranged. If you think about it, lots of people have said that I have a particular sound, which is odd when you consider that all my material comes from other places.

Not recognizably, though.
No, because I think my job, my creative output, is how it’s all put together. I think the sounds could come from vinyl, from musicians, from field recordings, but the reason I did it this way was for selfish reasons. I just wanted to learn about it. It’s not because I think it’s a better or more effective technique. I still go back to records for inspiration and sample material.

Does vinyl play any role on this album?
Definitely. There are vinyl samples in there too.

Considering everything you just said, for me as a listener—as someone for whom this process is very alien—there’s something very tactile to this album compared to your other works. There is something that sounds more hands-on. I purposely didn’t read the liner notes or watch the DVD before I heard the record; I just wanted to absorb it. And for whatever intangible reason, it really struck me right away.
That’s great. There are a few things that have played into that, as well as the sound sources. I think I’ve learned a lot more about production in the last couple of years. I know a lot more about engineering. I still have a lot more to learn, but I have had a certain amount of progress. I was able as well to plan ahead a bit more, as far as getting different elements and textures from different places with a view of putting them together. Rather than wrestling with extracting the things you don’t want from a vinyl sample, which is what I’d normally be doing.
Also, you can’t take away the fact that the musicians who were involved were very proficient and couldn’t help but add their musicality and their talent to the process. The record benefits a lot from that, and you have to give credit to people like Patrick Watson and Kronos Quartet and Sarah Page and Norsola from Godspeed and all these people. Even though I was trying very hard to get them to work objectively and do very simple things, they were all so overqualified for the role I was giving them, that they couldn’t help but put something extra in there. That probably comes across in the record.

From checking the liner notes, however, you take all the compositional credit. Did all the melodic ideas come from you, were you directing them the entire time?
Mainly what I was trying to get them to do was unusual things with their instruments, in ways they weren’t used to using them. So we got the Kronos Quartet to all play the same violin at once, all four of them. We got them to do improvisation, which they never do. They’re all classically trained, and improvisation isn’t something they’re into. Norsola was playing her cello with a sword at one point.
The idea was to get source material that was pretty basic. I got drones mostly from the Kronos Quartet. Patrick Watson gave me little piano melodies that I then cut up and re-arranged, and even mixed them with some vinyl piano to make different melodies from. It was all treating everything in the same way: a rock falling, a musician, a vinyl sample. All these were treated as an objective source, and then applying the arrangements and the creation of the music afterwards.
It’s also the reason I worked so much in a foley room with Vid Cousins, who was really a technical hand in the recording of this project. Because I don’t know anything about microphones! Vid was really the man who pointed me in the direction of these particular mics, for example. The idea was to give myself as much flexibility as possible after the recordings were made.
Everything was recorded in a very dead space, and I could then either place that sound in a cathedral or a small chamber if I wanted to. It left a lot of room. The same with the musicians. I tried to get them to do things that I could then manipulate and form melodies and make songs from.
Having said that, I did at times ask them to play specific melodies. Sarah Page, who played the harp, I asked her to play a melody that appeared on a record. That happened every now and again, but I felt that was a compromise on my part. I really wanted to think about the tunes after I had all the sounds.

How long was the time divided: how long recording versus treating everything later?
We spent about four months on the road recording everything we could. About a month or so just archiving the sounds. We did it all on tape, so that gave another element. There’s creativity with tape: you can manipulate it as it’s going into the computer, so there’s a bit of that going on as well. Then I put everything into different sections and could work with it. Then it was processing, and then it was the arrangements. I think I started that in January and it went to October.

Now, was that more intense than previous records?
Yeah, because it was all done in different stages. It wasn’t harder, but it was more time consuming. And it was really good fun, to be honest. I don’t think I’ve had that much fun making an album before.

It sounds like an inherently more social process than anything you’ve done before.
It really was. I made new friends. I got out of the house (laughs) and had some road trips.

Other than Kronos in San Francisco, how much of it was made outside of Montreal?
Not much. I used some drums from a session in Seattle with Michael Shrieve [sp?] and Kevin Sawka. We were trying to get to Texas to record the bats under the bridge in Austin. Also Terry Bozzio lives down there as well, and I was hoping to record some of his drums, because he’s obviously pretty wicked. But we did what was practical in the time frame we had. A lot of it was done in Montreal, in my flat.

Did you turn it into a dead space?
No, that was Ubisoft, actually [the Montreal gaming company that commissioned him to do the soundtrack for Splinter Cell]. They let me go in there after hours into their foley room to do the really clinical recording. The harp and some of the guitars and Patrick [Watson]’s stuff were recorded in my flat. There were a few things at McGill University as well.

The wasps?
That’s right, much to the dismay of John, who was having to cope with us coming in with various insects into his clean laboratory.

What did you learn from working with [drummer] Stef Schneider [of Bell Orchestre]?
He was perfect for this, because he’s like a foley drummer. He was playing drums with all kinds of different paraphernalia, and contributed an incredible amount to the record. He turned up with vats of water and various percussion we could dip into the water. He was throwing lentils and chick peas over skins of drums and playing with egg whisks, and having a blast, really.

Did most of that come from him?
Definitely. A whole ton of toys. He just rocked out. There were a whole bunch of things that we just tried, and then made some choices with the material that was there.

What was the most ridiculous thing you wanted to try?
The wasps were pretty silly. There was no need for that, really! We did some things that sounded like they would be great, but turned out to be pretty bad. We didn’t get much from that radar. It seemed cool, but I didn’t get the sounds I thought I would. That happens all the time, which is part of the process: trial and error. I have meters and meters of tape that weren’t used. Which I’m sure I could still go through and find new things.

How did you coax some of the animal sounds, or were you waiting around a lot?
There was an awful lot of waiting around. Animals aren’t always the most co-operative things. They have their own agenda. You turn up and hope they do something. There was a certain amount of coaxing, but we either got lucky or we didn’t.

Who’s playing the Hammond?
Actually, I played some of that. Oh shit, I wasn’t actually going to admit that. You caught me—I’m tired! But there are bits of Hammond from records as well. I wanted to make sure that when I did the liner notes I left things as ambiguous as possible. I didn’t want people to get all trainspotty about it. A lot of the musicians are actually confused about which parts they played, because the idea was to look at all these things as objective sources.

Does anyone come to you and say, “Where the hell am I? I thought I played on your record!”
(laughs) I was a bit worried about that, actually. I didn’t use everything I recorded, obviously, and I’m sure there are people credited that wouldn’t recognize their sounds at all. Partially because a lot of it was manipulated beyond recognition anyway, or mixed with other sounds. A lot of the sounds recorded were done with a view to mixing them with another sound to make something new. Particularly for brass stuff and some of the engines and robots and stuff. The recordings were made with a view to changing them in the first place.

I do love the wasp/guitar/motorbike combination. Did you learn more about instruments themselves, or trying your own hand at keyboards, percussion or strings?
Not really. I had such a wealth of talent around, I didn’t feel the need to jump in at any stage. I have my limits. I also appreciate the fact that people have a different outlook to give, and it’s best to give people room to breathe. I tried not to direct people too much. Maybe I’d have one or two ideas I really wanted to get across, but I spent a lot of time saying, ‘Here are some chains. Mess around with them on your instrument and see what happens.’

In my research, I found one quote of yours where you said that using session musicians would be settling for second best, compared to what you could plunder from existing vinyl. Has that impression changed?
Well, not really. I really think that if I’d gone in with a song, and said to people, ‘Let’s play this song. You do that beat, you do that bass line, and off we go.’ I don’t know if that would be as effective as trying to find these things on little slivers of vinyl. For me personally—please understand that I’m only talking about my own way of working, this doesn’t apply to everyone at all—I work most effectively like that.
The approach here with musicians was just to get basic source material. It was very different from getting a session player in to play a bass line. It was more like, ‘Go crazy on the drums, play whatever rhythm you want, because all I want is the sound and the tone of the drums and the different textures that I can then cut up and re-arrange later.’ Stef Schneider is an amazing drummer, but god knows what he thought when he heard the album, because the patterns are completely different. It’s all been cut into little pieces and re-ordered.

Compositionally, I find it different from a lot of your other stuff. Did Splinter Cell change the way you thought about composition, or did these sources effect the way you write? Or do you even notice a difference?
On some songs there were some familiar structures for me, where things start in one direction and then take a left turn and then resolve in the end. I like the big dramatic crescendos though, because I love a bit of drama! ‘Always’ has a verse/chorus thing and a bit of a pop sensibility to it. I always admire people who can pull that off. Every now and again I have a stab at it.

It’s interesting to me how that track is near the end of the album. It’s like going through this journey and then having this sweet at the end.
It was a bit of a fuck-you putting pressure on me for a single. This record wasn’t about that. As much as I enjoy three-and-a-half minute songs, I didn’t want that to be the second song on the album and then off we go into an epic number. I like doing it, but like you say, it’s a treat in the middle of some more obscure arrangements.

One of the other things I like about this album is its lack of concept, treating sound as an end in itself, leaving the narratives open for the listener. As much as I enjoy Matmos, for example, at times that does get trainspotty for me, or harder to appreciate without knowing what narrative they’re putting on it.
I was aware of all this when I was making the record, and comparisons would be drawn with other people using field recordings. It wasn’t too much of a hang-up. Basically, I want the music to come first, the satisfaction I get from making music. Whatever idea I have to begin with, I don’t want it to restrict where the song could go or how good it could be. I don’t want to be saying, ‘Well, I’d like to do that, but it doesn’t fit into my concept.’ It’s not going to happen. I want the music to be king, and everything else just facilitates that.

What do you think this project opens up for you? What comes next?
Who knows? I’m excited to try something new for myself. I have learned an awful lot. I hope I can apply these things I’ve learned to the next project I make and keep trying to improve and keep myself interested. I feel like my whole output over the years has been a learning curve. I focused on one area for a long time because there was a lot to explore. Maybe in time I’ll look at different areas.

What does a 7.1 surround sound DJ set entail?
It’s just a regular DJ set with better sound than normal. A problem I’ve often encountered is that you have this big stack at the front blowing everyone away, and at the back it’s all muffled and no one can hear it properly. Only in the middle do a few people get a decent sound. Considering that when I play there’s not much of a stage show, not much to look at, we’ve concentrated on making the event about the sound, trying to make it a different musical environment for people to listen.

But you haven’t mixed any of your own material in 7.1?
No, not at all. We’re using a system being developed by Dolby which is pretty effective. It takes things that are in stereo, or the higher frequencies and spreads them around the room. You can put any stereo signal through it. We’re using that in conjunction with a few other things that my soundman Vid has developed himself. It’s a pretty interesting effect. It’s a lot of bass, which is important, and a lot of detail that surrounds the room. It envelopes you a bit more in a three dimensional experience.

Had you seen other people do this, or did you just want to try it?
I tried it on the Splinter Cell tour in 5.1, and we had a few phasing issues while trying it out. A lot of those tracks were mixed in 5.1. We tried it, and it turns out that it’s better in 7.1, because the speakers aren’t pointing directly at each other. You have far fewer phase cancellation issues and it works a lot better.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Fred Frith

This week I conducted a brief email interview with guitarist Fred Frith, who has been reinventing his instrument for the past 40 years. I was a bit humbled to do this, as I'm certainly not familiar with most corners of his extensive discography, and some of my ignorance is evident below. But he's a fascinating figure and his history was a joy to explore.
Frith plays the Music Gallery in Toronto this coming Sunday with locals John Oswald, Anne Bourne and Owen Pallett. The first set will be the trio, with Owen and others joining for the second.
An abbreviated version of this appears in today's Eye Magazine here, along with a more eloquent introduction.

Nine years later, is this upcoming Toronto date a release show for your 2002 album Dearness, that was recorded in 1998?

You have had many ties to the Quebec improvisational scene for over 20 years now, but what is your Toronto history, if any?
Well, I performed in Toronto a lot between 1979 and 1985. The renowned promoter Gary Topp was hugely supportive and I played at the Isabella and other venues he booked: solo, with Phil Minton, with Skeleton Crew, and others I forget. But this is the first time I'll have played The Music Gallery. I've also had a long-standing relationship with Toronto-based filmmaker Peter Mettler. He was the first director to approach me for a soundtrack (The Top of His Head in 1989) and I've been working with him ever since, including on his 2002 epic (Gambling, Gods, and LSD) and numerous live video/music mix concerts.

What is your connection to Anne Bourne, John Oswald and/or Owen Pallett, and what is it about their aesthetic that appeals to you?
I wouldn't want to suggest that they only had one aesthetic between them. They don't occupy a single place in my mind, even individually!
I've known John for a very long time, and I've always admired his work on every level, and now that he is famous for the things he's famous for, it's fun to engage the side of him that he's NOT famous for—improvisation—because I think he brings something to it that very few other players I know do. I met Anne when working on The Top of His Head, and I love what she does. She's total. It's never about technique or style with her or John, it's about being right there and dealing with it. I think what we have in common is that we don't see improvisation as a "genre" with "rules", so it really IS improvisation and not some kind of newly minted academic subject. Owen I've never met and never heard, so that will be the wild card from my point of view. I hope he feels the same way! And don't forget there's Wilbert de Joode, who will also be there to play a little double bass, and he's a monster, and Matt Brubeck may be there too as far as I know.

How have you seen the audience for your work fluctuate over the years, or has it been constant? Do you think the audience for improvised music in general increases or decreases based on the socio-economic and/or political zeitgeist of the time?
I think the audience for my work has steadily increased. There are little surges, like when Step Across the Border was released, or more recently with my music for Rivers and Tides, or the film with Evelyn Glennie (Touch the Sound). They increased my profile dramatically in a short-term kind of way. But overall it just keeps growing. I saw people who came to my concerts in the 70s and 80s bringing their kids, and now the kids keep coming with or without their parents! As for improvised music, I guess there's a steady audience for it, whatever it is.

I’ve heard you say that you believe improvisation is not simply self-expression, but a form of communion with collaborators and the audience. How do you think that the stigma around improvisation has eroded over the years, both between audiences and performers, but between different factions of performers?
Don't know what stigma you're referring to. I've been improvising in front of audiences for 40 years, I'm not sure if it's what they call "improvisation" though. If the music is alive, it will connect to the audience. That doesn't make it better than other kinds of music, or more politically correct. It just means it's alive, and therefore has something to say to the listener. I don't know about communion. Sounds kind of religious. The music I like I tend to relate to storytelling, or traveling: you're always in the present and you want to know what will happen next, how it will turn out. You really want to know. And you don't know. Which is great!

Have you seen any of that manifest itself during your time at Mills? [the music college in California where he's been a prof since 1997]
Any of what? Factionalism? Not really. We tend to get on with it. In my improvising ensemble at Mills right now I have piano, sax, bass clarinet, mridingam, drums, flute/electronics, trombone, voice, two violins, electric guitar, and oud. Some players are from classical backgrounds, some from jazz, some from their own improvising traditions (Indian and Arabic), some from none of the above. They each bring what they have and we try to figure out how to communicate. From my point of view this relates much more to Peter Brook's ideas about theater than it does with what's the "correct" way to improvise. What do we have to say to each other? What's essential and what isn't?

What can you tell me about The Stone in NYC, and what went into your curatorial month there?
The Stone is a small club dedicated to the memory of Irving Stone, who, with his wife Stephanie, used to come to just about every gig in the creative music scene in downtown Manhattan, starting with Coltrane, but eventually gravitating around the East Village improvisers, like Zorn, Lesli Dalaba, myself, everyone. I seldom did a concert in New York where they weren't in the front row! And Zorn started this club, where there's no bar, no commercial interest. Just music. The musicians make 100% of the door, and the rent is paid by donations and also by benefit CDs. The latest CD is Chris Cutler and myself performing at the Stone last December. All profits from this CD will go to help keep the Stone going.

It's a simple idea, and very effective. And to avoid it always being the same people, John invites a guest curator to take care of each month, and these curators come from a wide range of musical backgrounds, so, contrary to what you may have heard, this is not about "friends of Zorn" but is really a huge variety of music, usually the kind of thing you won't get to hear anywhere else.

I was invited to curate the month of May 2007, and that's what I've done. And in the spirit of the club, I've tried to invite people who may not have an opportunity to present their work in New York very often. There are a number of groups from Scandinavia, a long weekend of music from Montreal, a lot of the younger generation of musicians from the West Coast, and some combinations that I enjoy that I seldom get to perform (like Death Ambient with Ikue Mori and Kato Hideki, and the home-made instrument duo Normal (with Sudhu Tewari), plus attempts to bring new groupings together to see what happens (with Pauline Oliveros and Elsa Storesund, or with Anne Bourne and Eve Beglarian, for example). And yeah, some combinations that are tried and tested and totally exciting for me, like the duos with Zorn and with Zeena Parkins. I had a blast doing this and I'm completely psyched about every night!

Do you think a business model like that could only exist in a world cultural hub like NYC, or could it be replicated elsewhere?
I can't imagine why it couldn't work in any reasonably large and culturally informed city environment.

I understand that Death Ambient is about to play its first New York City shows: why so long? Has this ensemble played live before?
We've played at Mills! And in East Germany. We're always so busy. And we have a new record coming out which is fantastic I must say.

Are most of your recordings these days culled from live performances?

How much do you utilize the studio as a creative tool?
Constantly, since 35 years. If you want to hear a recent example of what I'm talking about, try The Happy End Problem which just came out.

With a discography as extensive as yours, what three albums of your own would you recommend to newcomers?
Personal favorites, today:
Art Bears - Winter Songs
Massacre – Lonely Heart
Tomorrow it would be different.


Thursday, April 12, 2007

Review round-up April 07

Some reviews today, some new, some neglected.

A review of RJD2's The Third Hand from today's Eye Weekly.

A review of Low's Drums and Guns from the new issue of Magnet. I have other reviews in the print edition (my debut issue with them), but this is the only one online. Click here, then on record reviews and you'll see it; there's no direct link. Also: I contribute two reviews to their "75 Lost Classics" feature in the print edition (writing about Royal City and Jerk With a Bomb) but for some reason my byline isn't included.

A review of Tinariwen's Aman Iman: Water is Life from earlier this month in Eye.

A review of Vandermark 5's A Discontinuous Line from Eye back in Feburary.

A review of Deerhoof's Friend Opportunity from Eye waaaay back in January.

Some reviews from the mainstream daily Kitchener-Waterloo Record: Amon Tobin, Neil Young, Kieran Hebden & Steve Reid, Wayne Petti, Rheostatics Tribute Album.

Amon Tobin – Foley Room (Ninja Tune/Outside)

There are very few music makers who can lay claim to creating five albums in ten years without ever coming near a microphone. But Montreal turntablist Amon Tobin comes from the school of recombinant composition: every sound on Tobin's albums would be from a snippet sampled from an obscure vinyl release and morphed beyond recognition. Several different saxophone solos from different players might be spliced together and digitally processed to create something entirely new.

While technically impressive, the pressing question was always simply: why? Wouldn't it be faster to hire a few musicians for a day and cut up what they give you?

Tobin decided to find out, by inviting many of his immensely talented Montreal neighbours, including Patrick Watson and Bell Orchestre’s wildly inventive drummer Stef Schneider, to create sounds that he could then modify and shape into a beautiful and befuddling compositional concoction.

But sticking with mere musicians would make his job too easy, so Tobin set out to get sounds from various insects, safari animals, machinery and motorcycles to throw into the mix as well.Most of the process is shown in a gorgeous 20 minute documentary on an accompanying DVD.

All this makes for interesting liner notes, but Foley Room succeeds entirely on musical terms. You don't have to know what you're listening to in order to appreciate the unpredictable sonic narratives that Tobin spins here. He doesn’t play by any rules: not Tobin’s beat-splicing past, certainly not conventional songcraft, and not even the avant-garde world of musique concrete.

Crackles and growls and scrapes, oh my! Sometimes they coalesce around rhythms both jazzy and harsh, the likes of which Winnipeg breakbeat renegade Venetian Snares might unleash; sometimes they’re content to tickle your ear lightly with honky tonk pianos playing classical motifs, spy movie surf guitars, or the sound of the Kronos Quartet crawling inside their violins.

Foley Room is unquestionably dense, but it never feels like a chore or a conceptual exercise. Tobin is enraptured by the possibilities of sound, and Foley Room is just as rewarding at a low volume as it is when you magnify the minutiae he’s spliced into every track. (March 29, 2007)

Neil Young – Live at Massey Hall 1971 (Reprise/Warner)

No one needs another live album from Neil Young. The man has almost as many official concert documents as he does original albums, with scads of bootlegs to appease insatiable collectors.

Yet this live performance—surfacing now for its first official release—is one of those ultra-rare concert recordings that stands on it own: much more than just alternate takes of well-loved studio recordings, much more than for the historical context through which it's inevitably perceived.

We're so used to hearing Young with his various bands—Crazy Horse, the International Harvesters—that we picture him as little more than a perfunctory guitarist, one whose sloppy solos are more about soul than technique. Here, however, Young sits alone on stage, proving to be an impressively delicate self-accompanist on both guitar and piano.

Hearing songs like Cowgirl in the Sand and A Man Needs a Maid stripped down to just one instrument and Young’s plaintive voice is a revelation; even Down By the River, the most loathsome song in his entire discography, sounds tender and heartfelt here.

But the biggest thrill here is knowing that only six of these songs had been released before he played this show. This audience had never heard Heart of Gold, Needle and Damage Done, or Old Man. And until now, only devout bootleggers have heard the songs Bad Fog of Loneliness (written for Johnny Cash’s TV show) and the clap-a-long kitchen party hoedown of Dance Dance Dance.

Those bootleggers might want to snap up this official release anyway, because it comes with a feature-length concert DVD, with Super 8 footage of the actual show mixed in with home movies. (March 29, 2007)

Kieran Hebden and Steve Reid – Tongues (Domino/Outside)

Two musicians, two generations, two radically different approaches. Steve Reid is a drummer who started out at Motown (that's him on Dancing in the Street) and had many a musical giant stand on his shoulders: Miles Davis, James Brown and Fela Kuti, for starters. Kieran Hebden is a young Brit who's been remarkably prolific in the last ten years, first with the instrumental band Fridge, and then a flurry of captivating jazzy electronic albums under the name FourTet.

The idea of a collaboration is certainly intriguing, though with it comes the unlikely challenge of experimenting with laptops and banks of samples. Though the liner notes claim that this was all done live, without editing of overdubs, how spontanteous and improvisatory can Hebden actually be in such a non-physical environment?

To compensate for these concerns, Hebden vomits everything he has into the mix, while Reid sounds content just to play along with the ride. Whereas FourTet albums strike a near-perfect balance between abstract melodicism, abrasive density and jazzy grooves, here Hebden sounds mindlessly adrift while attempting to match a master.

At its best, it's mildly interesting. At its worst, you'll wish it actually was your CD skipping instead of an intended outcome. (April 5, 2007)

Wayne Petti – City Lights Align (Outside)

When Cuff the Duke released their debut album in 2002, it was a remarkable achievement for a band from Oshawa who were barely 20 years old, informed as it was by classic country music, 80s new wave folk and epic post-rock of the late 90s. That they pulled it off with economic arrangements and colourful textures only made it that much more astounding. To this day, it stands as one of the great debut albums from the last decade. (It’s recently been reissued on Outside Music.)

Sadly, very little of that invention was heard on the eponymous follow-up, which is why it’s such a relief to hear this stellar solo album from vocalist/guitarist Wayne Petti. Working once again with producer Paul Aucoin of the Hylozoists, Petti and Aucoin remedy much that went wrong on the Cuff the Duke album by recording quickly and sparsely. There’s very little instrumentation here, but Petti’s songwriting is strong enough that little embellishment is needed. His suburban cowboy melodies here sound stronger without a band behind them, his guitars filling every corner of the sonic spectrum on their own. We also hear the more haunting shades of Petti’s voice, and when he breaks into whistling or a tender falsetto, he’s never sounded lovelier or lonelier. (April 5, 2007)

Rheostatics Tribute: The Secret Sessions – Various Artists (

When they called it quits last month, the Rheostatics left a long legacy over Canadian music of the last 20 years. They inspired one of the most devout audiences imaginable, and along the way lent a helping hand to dozens of young bands and musicians.

So when it became known that the end was nigh, several of their highest-profile disciples rallied to surprise them with a parting gift of a tribute album. The cast assembled here, each of whom toured with or collaborated with the band at some point, is more than up to the task. With the exception of the Weakerthans and the Barenaked Ladies, both of whom play it straight with the most conventional Rheos songs, every other act reinvents the material to suit their own individual voice.

Prior to this I’m hard pressed to recall a single recorded Rheostatics cover, and with good reason: it’s not easy to do. The original performance of Shaved Head, for example, seems so singular and unique that covering it seems certain folly. Yet By Divine Right strip the song of its arching drama and make it more of a meditative mood piece, which suits the lyric just as well. Cuff the Duke pull off a similar feat with Claire, getting to the lonely heart of the song without any of the lush ornamentation of the original. Kate Fenner tackles the suburban desolation of Stolen Car with a rich, warm empathy, in one of her finest vocal performances in years.

Some of the Rheos’ peers reform for the occasion: Sarah Harmer’s Weeping Tile, The Inbreds, The Local Rabbits, and King Cobb Steelie all pay homage, while the recently resurrected Wooden Stars are also here.

You don’t have to be a Rheostatics fan to appreciate this; if you’ve ever enjoyed any of the aforementioned acts, then you’ve already absorbed a small kernel of what made this band so beloved. (April 12, 2007)

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Sunset Rubdown

I learned a long time ago not to trust first impressions.

The first few times I saw Wolf Parade live, back in 2003, I was immediately struck by the songs and stage presence of Dan Boeckner, and equally befuddled and annoyed by the songs and vocals of his co-frontman Spencer Krug, which I thought were aimless, proggish anti-pop. I think it was only after hearing their EP (the one that was consistently in print, unlike the earliest demos) that I started to come around, and by the time Apologies to the Queen Mary came out in 2005, I'd totally fallen for every aspect of Krug's songwriting: his way with melody and countermelodies, his penchant for minor keys, his way of conjuring what sounded like old sea shanties and filtering them through a fractured new wave lens.

That said, it also took me a long time to get used to his other songwriting outlet, Sunset Rubdown. The hodgepodge debut album, Snake's Got a Leg, was a soupy, lo-fi mess, with minor gems scattered throughout its generous tracklist. And when I first saw the project live, it featured a rock band line-up that just made it sound like a poor man's Wolf Parade, with all the songs deemed too weird for that band.

Once again, I was dead wrong. On both 2006's Shut Up I Am Dreaming and the subsequent tour, Sunset Rubdown carved out their own unique identity. The band was dextrous and inventive with its textures. Krug's songs were overflowing with ideas and pop hooks--often inside one single track--but never felt suffocating. Because it came out at a time when Wolf Parade was still building on its momentum, the album was unfairly shrugged off as a side project and sadly forgotten about by the time year-end lists and prizes were being doled out.

In the meantime, Boeckner's new solo project Handsome Furs arrived in my mailbox today (it's out May 22 on Sub Pop), Wolf Parade have started recording a new album, and there's a new Sunset Rubdown album in the can and set for a fall release. Currently, SR are touring with Xiu Xiu, which brings them to Lee's Palace in Toronto on Thursday. Hopefully we'll get a peek at the new material.

This email conversation took place almost exactly a year ago for this article in Exclaim.

Sunset Rubdown
April 17, 2006
email interview, conducted immediately before a Wolf Parade show in New York City

The name Sunset Rubdown goes back how far?
It originated on a beach about 7 or 8 years ago, when a friend and I were watching the sunset, and ended up petting this stray dog, describing it at the time as a “sunset rubdown.” Ever since then I’ve used the name for solo recordings and performances, no matter what the style of music. The origin is actually kind of wholesome and innocent, yet somehow sexuality or even perversion of some sort is hinted at in the phrase. I like this vagueness and contradiction. I’ve had people tell me that it’s “gross,” or “sounds like the name for music that you snort coke to.” I think that’s funny.

Snake’s Got a Leg was culled from different sources, no? How old was some of that material?
Yes, it was. There was a set of 5 mini CDs that I put together about two years ago now. Each cd was about 20 minutes long and featured a different style of music. One was acoustic guitar songs, one was distorted keys and drums, one was instrumental electronic, etc. I was doing them DIY, trying to put them in nice little packages and all that, so only ended up making maybe 20 sets because the process was so labor intensive. It was just a little project that I wanted to try and I didn’t hate the results. It was in doing those mini CDs that I became okay with the idea of putting two or more versions of the same song out there. I would write a song on piano, then rewrite it on guitar, for example, and often the results were different enough that I didn’t feel like I had to decide which version was better, but rather put them both out there. Hence the mini CDs of different styles containing different versions of the same songs. So in that way the project made sense to me and seemed like a fun idea.
But then Global Symphonic heard them and wanted to release the songs, and logistically it’s sort of impossible for a small label like them to release 5 mini CDs. So I had to try to make a sort of “best of” compilation of all the discs, and the idea didn’t translate. It was an annoying process trying to figure out what songs I liked best while still trying to represent the original idea, and then form it into a cohesive record. Basically it didn’t work. Besides trying to get all these different styles to flow nicely together, there was also the problem of differing sound qualities. All the songs were produced lo-fi, granted, but at least on the original mini CDs the sound quality, though poor, was consistent on each disc and in my mind created a mood. But trying to sequence all those different song styles together with all their differing production qualities just made for a really convoluted record. Snake’s Got a Leg is just all over the place, I know, and in the end I was really hesitant about putting it out there at all, but it ended just being one of those “fuck it” situations. So I wasn’t really surprised at the mixed reviews and actually agreed with what the more negative ones had to say about the record, but on the other hand I don’t regret it. It is what it is.
Anyway, most of those songs were written and recorded in 2003, with some of the more electronic stuff going back anywhere between a year and 3 years before that – old computer music I had laying around that I thought would maybe be okay to share (or maybe not).

I was surprised to see SR become a full rock band, which seems to invite obvious Wolf Parade comparisons—in a live context, anyway. Why did you want to go with that format?
Basically, I wanted to hear the songs live, and I wanted to bring some other brains into the mix. I like a lot of layers and I can’t do it all myself in a live setting, and bringing in other people obviously helps to push the songs to places that wouldn’t have occurred to me if I were working alone. So it started with just the four of us learning to play these songs live, then naturally there is a desire to record the material, so we made a full band record. In the future, Sunset Rubdown will probably continue to put out a mix of both solo and full band recordings, because I really enjoy both formats.
The most obvious question I guess is why not just bring these songs that I want to hear in a live setting to Wolf Parade. Sometimes I write songs that I want to hear in a way other than what Wolf Parade would do to them. That band is like a giant 5 man amplifier, most times. And with all the same components in place at all times, there is a certain sound that is unavoidable no matter what the original idea might have been. And that’s fine, that’s what Wolf Parade does, but I don’t always want to hear everything I write subjected to that same format. The song “I’ll Believe in Anything” is a good example of what Wolf Parade does to a song. The original Sunset Rubdown piano version is quiet and slow, and the Wolf Parade version is loud and blown out. And it’s not like I went to practice that day and said, “Let’s take this piano song and blow the shit out of it.” It’s just what happens naturally. Sunset Rubdown allows for different instrumentation, is consciously more dynamic and spacious than Wolf Parade, and in general, slower.
I enjoy both bands and what they do, as I believe both have their place, and I don’t mind if there are comparisons. There are and will be obvious similarities because I write songs and sing in both bands, but I believe the two bands are different enough to justify their coexistence.

I saw what I think may have been one of the first full-band Sunset Rubdown gigs at ZooBizarre, but I don’t recall when that was. When did you debut the line-up?
I can’t remember exactly. ZooBizarre was our second show. The first was at Casa del Popolo opening for Telefauna and They Shoot Horses… I think it was in June or July of 2005.

How is it that your band is mostly comprised of Victoria ex-pats? Did you play with any of them in B.C.?
No. I hadn’t even met any of the Sunset Rubdown kids until after I was living in Montreal. The fact that two are from Victoria is entirely a coincidence, or some sort of socio-political B.C. migration to anglophone / francophone segregated Mile End type thing that is not worth getting in to. I myself only lived in Victoria for a year. The Sunset Rubdown practices were the first time I had played with any of them.

Do you think keyboard players naturally write in a different style than guitarists? Do keyboards naturally lend themselves to different melodies, harmonics and arrangements?
It’s hard to imagine a song like “Swimming,” for example, on guitar. How often do you write songs on guitars?
Yeah. I mean, of course I don’t think that guitarists think any differently than keyboardists, but I think the instruments themselves – the physical layout – demand or lend themselves to different results, but not anything too drastic. For me lately I’ve been really interested in guitar, doing most of my writing there, but I almost always take what I write on guitar and rewrite it on the piano, or vice versa, and every time I make that translation I come up with something that I wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s really interesting for me to play with that difference in ideas that a specific instrument gives birth to, both in structure and in voicings of chords/ harmonies. I used to write mostly on piano, but like I said, lately it’s been a lot of guitar.
Shut Up is probably about a 50/50 mix. But I’m not a very good guitar player. I would be curious to see what a song like “Swimming” sounds like on guitar, but these stubby piano fingers just aren’t fast enough for that yet.

Re: your writing in Wolf Parade, you told the Montreal Mirror that “the only reason my stuff doesn't come off like totally inaccessible, pretentious synth prog is that Dan helps normalize it, so it creates a good balance." How is it that Sunset Rubdown avoids this
I’m not sure SR has avoided that fate. It’s not synth prog, because the song styles and
instrumentation are both too removed from that, unlike some of the rock stuff that WP does – synthy stuff balanced out with guitars. But if I had to say what band was more cerebral, it would be SR, and cerebral music can come off as pretentious sometimes. Wolf Parade is more of a straight ahead rock thing, not less intelligent, but perhaps less patient, but there is heart there. Sometimes I worry that a first time listener to SR will find a lack of heart in the music, because it is a little more convoluted. For me there is a lot of heart in SR, but a new listener might have to let it grow on them before they find it, if ever.

What do you think of Handsome Furs? What’s the status of it?
I’ve yet to see it in the fully realized way that Dan intends. I saw him do a solo show a while ago and it was good. He writes songs well suited to his voice and guitar style, but I know he has other things up his sleeve that I’ve yet to see. And I haven’t heard the recording yet, so I really can’t say what I think of it, but I’ll bet I like it.

Why does the glockenspiel appear in so many Montreal bands?
Don’t know.

I feel very torn about the role of vocals on this album. Normally I don’t like it when vocals are too high in the mix; I prefer when they’re on equal footing with the other instruments. The vocal melodies here are very strong, yet I feel I have to fight to make out your lyrics, which are often masked in reverb, and it’s all the more frustrating because I really enjoy your approach to wordplay and narrative. What was your intention with the vocal treatment, both here and on Snake’s Got a Leg?
I think the vocals on Shut Up are higher than Snake’s or the latest EP, which was not such a conscious and intentional thing. I mixed Shut Up very quickly, in 4 days, and probably would have ended up lowering the vox on some songs had I had more time with it. The high vox were apparently just my initial gut instinct, and you can read into that however you like. I find SR to be little more lyrically driven than WP, and so perhaps wanted to have them more out there, though I am still very uncomfortable calling myself a lyricist. It’s something that I’m now working on more consciously than ever, and hopefully they will improve with time. The distortion and reverb on vocals is simply an asthetic that I really like. With Shut Up I tried not to overdo it to the point of incomprehension, but then I have the disadvantage of knowing exactly what I’m saying when I mix the record, and so maybe give the comprehension of lyrics too much benefit of the doubt. I tend to like lyrics either very buried or way up, so I guess the latter is the way I steered with this one, but honestly never gave it too much conscious thought.

Do you like to write with narrative and characters?
Sort of, not really. I don’t know. My favorite songs are definitely NOT the ones where I write from some character’s POV, but I have done it and still play them. I like to write from my own POV in a way that is honest enough that I can live with it, yet not overtly self revealing, and so metaphors and wordplay come in, which are fun to work with. I don’t know. I’m still really trying to figure out what the fuck I’m doing with lyrics.

Why do you like recurring motifs and titles?
The recurring titles are simply the different versions of songs that I want to put out there, like I mentioned above. And motifs, I think, evolve slowly in a connected way that often overlaps. It’s a linear process where things overlap and lead to one another as a person grows as a songwriter. I don’t think it makes natural sense to be writing songs where topics sprout and have no thread within them.

Has Wolf Parade allowed you to be a full-time musician?

How does this effect your output and various projects?
It’s good. There is obviously more time to think about projects and writing, but the catch is that you can’t write on tour. Your brain goes numb. I’m writing this interview on tour and perhaps you can tell. I usually gush out a bunch of built up ideas between tours and get them into the practice space or on tape as fast as possible, before we go out again. But yeah, it allows a certain freedom that I don’t take for granted.

How old is Fifths of Seven? Is that a continuing project or was it a one-off?
It was a one off for me, that I did about two years ago now. They are continuing without me but it was never a “band.” It was fun but not enough down my alley to pursue any further.

Has it ever performed live?
Not that I know of.

What’s the status of Swan Lake?
Comes out in late 2006, no plans to tour. We’ll see how this first one goes before thinking of doing it again, but I imagine the three of us will keep working together in one way or another.

What is the instrumentation like?
Sort of what you’d expect. Guitars, drums, keys ... and a GLOCKENSPEIL.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Loving Arms

Some supplementary Rheos reading from the past week.

First off, a fine and affecting piece of prose from my dear friend and musical comrade Tristan O'Malley can be found here, illustrating one of the principal reasons I've always loved this band so.

I mentioned Howard Druckman's eulogy in Eye earlier (and the accompanying celebrity tributes), but in some ways I found Ben Rayner's piece in the Star more interesting, mainly because he's not the kind of fan that Druckman and I are, and he's honest about what he did and didn't like about the band--how ultimately part of their charm is that we weren't always supposed to "get it," that it was their ability to baffle and sometimes fail outright that made their highest of heights even possible.

Rayner also commissioned Bidini to offer a Veteran Warhorse tour of old rock'n'roll Toronto here.

And, not surprisingly, Bidini is never short on words when it comes to his own history, including anecdotes that even I hadn't heard before. Those can be found in this Globe and Mail piece.

Finally, has a nice photo gallery from the band's own archives.

The Whaleman has been keeping tabs on most of this, as has the fan message board.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Kings of the Past

Massey Hall pic with snow by Karla Livingston

“I have all your records. I’ve even bought some of them twice.”

The last song of the last Rheostatics concert was “Record Body Count,” played acoustically in the middle of the Massey Hall floor. The entire crowd sang every line, empathetically covering up the fact that Martin Tielli’s recovery from laryngitis had been preventing him from hitting the high notes all night.

It was a career pinnacle concert doubling as a loving farewell, and its conclusion proved that as the voices of the Rheostatics fade away, an eager constituency thousands strong are ready to carry on in their place.

“So we’re breaking up,” said Bidini on stage at the Horseshoe the night before, sounding decidedly unsentimental. “And it feels alright.” “The dinosaurs are dying each day,” he sang at Massey Hall, and while that line was originally written in youthful defiance of boomer nostalgia, now it may just as well refer to himself, retiring CBC DJ and Rheos champion David Wisdom, and the removal of Brave New Waves and Radio 3 from the airwaves. Indeed, there’s a record body count this year.

But this show was not a wake, and this was hardly an occasion to mourn. To quote the Trudeau-era idealism that the Rheostatics’ generation grew up on: the land is strong. The seeds have been sown. As the coming months prove, it no longer takes a beloved Canadian artist 27 years to get to Massey Hall. Arcade Fire did it in four, Feist in a little more.

Some of this weighed on the occasion. Bidini thanked “the Masseys for letting us play their hall” and talked about WWI soldiers, Hitler’s anti-fascist crusader of a cousin, Charlie Parker and Bon Scott all filling the hall in decades past.

But with typical Rheostatic self-parody, nothing summed up the affair better than the autobiographical “First Rock Show.” The song includes a verse about how Joe Jackson rescued a young dancing Dave Bidini from being manhandled by Massey Hall security guards, a scenario which was re-enacted in front of the stage, in wonderful period costume, by the comedy troupe the Imponderables.

Even the final electric song of the set was gleefully irreverent. “Dopefiends and Boozehounds,” perhaps their strongest encapsulation of suburban ennui as set to an epic rock backdrop, collapsed into a drum solo that included all three Rheos drummers, augmented by Bidini and keyboardist Ford Pier slapping on a pair of goalie pads.

If that wasn’t ridiculous enough, this somehow segued into the calypso instrumental “Alomar,” a throwaway track from Introducing Happiness celebrating the Toronto Blue Jays’ second baseman Roberto Alomar, before returning for the solemn coda to “Dopefiends.” The collapsing chords of the song’s final moments ended everything on a suspended note—after all, we all know that one can never say never again.

There was no more fitting venue than Massey Hall to hold the final Rheostatics show. As the most storied of Toronto’s very short list of venerable venues, it’s a vital part of Canadian music history. And of course, so are the Rheostatics. This band was Gordon Lightfoot and Bruce Cockburn, Mary Margaret O’Hara and Jane Siberry, BTO and Max Webster, DOA and Stompin’ Tom Connors, Neil Young and The Band. Anyone who ever mistook being “too Canadian” as a criticism needs only to look at that lineage to reconsider.

The Rheostatics have been the one band in the land that not only inherited those traditions, but could successfully absorb them all, modernizing them and mythologizing both the mountains and the urban underbelly, and singing their songs in pubs and art galleries. The Rheostatics are much more than a great Canadian band. They are/were/will always be The Great Canadian Band.

“Joey stepped up on a block of ice, put a rope around his neck, and fell asleep before he died.”

The week’s proceedings began last Sunday at the Starlight in Waterloo, Ontario, across the street from the site of the Rheostatics’ first ever out-of-town gig at the Kent Hotel. Then, they were opening for L’Etranger, who had just drove in from Toronto themselves after opening for the Dead Kennedys at the Concert Hall. Now they were going to play their last out-of-town gig ever, hastily assembled at the last minute, in front of a curious group of fans who had no idea what would transpire that night. Neither did the band.

Along with the ambiguous feeling one gets watching a self-conscious wake, the set was hampered considerably by the fact that Martin Tielli had contracted laryngitis the night before, rendered unable to speak or sing. This meant that many of the band’s moodiest, most expressive numbers were absent from the set list.

It also didn’t help that the four members had not played together as the Rheostatics in over a year, and there had only been one band practice earlier that week. Sadly, it showed. Much like the opening nights of their annual week-long Fall Nationals at the Horseshoe, this seemed more like a live rehearsal than a gig. The fact that this was the last waltz for many in the audience—on a sedated Sunday night, no less—only added to the weirdness.

The set opened with “Fat” from The Blue Hysteria, perhaps one of my least favourite Rheostatics songs, and one that usually only works when placed later in the set. The chorus features the lyric: “Bye bye Mr. No One/ Bye bye Mr. Woebegone,” a line that, back in 1996, someone tried to convince me was written about then-recently split drummer Dave Clark. I never understood why, as the rest of the lyrics never really added up to me anyway, but it was certainly an odd choice to open your final hat trick, especially when one member was principally responsible for pulling the plug.

There were plenty of unusual choices in the set list, which also included four songs from the latest album 2067. Despite it being the one album featuring my favourite Rheos drummer Michael Phillip Wojewoda, 2067 is also the one Rheos album that I can’t bear to listen to. I should have known that writing songs about WKRP and Ozzy Osbourne presaged an imminent end. In his fourth little song on this night, Bidini sang: “you’re only as good as your last song/ It’s better to burn out than to be proven wrong.” It was a sentiment that hung over the whole night.

Weirdness aside, there was nonetheless plenty to make it a memorable evening. Opener and longtime friend Paul Macleod told us: “Some people have their Beatles. Some people have their Gretzkys. We have our Rheostatics, and it’s one of the great privileges of my life to be on this stage with them tonight.”

He would return to the stage later that night as one of the substitute Tiellis, as one of the few male vocalists in this country who could pull off that formidable feat. Macleod sang “Fishtailin’,” “Jesus Was Once a Teenager Too” and “Record Body Count,” which turned into a long rock jam that found Macleod repeatedly yelling “Best Band Ever! Best Band Ever!” before nudging them into doing “Aliens” as well.

Selina Martin w/ Rheostatics at Starlight, pic by Michael Barclay

Tielli’s special ladyfriend Selina Martin was also up to the task, helming “Rain Rain Rain” and “Dopefiends” with more rock star charisma than the rest of the band seemed willing to conjure for the occasion. Finally, Wojewoda sang a cruise ship duet with his girlfriend Jennifer Foster on “Take Me In Your Hand.”

Keyboardist Ford Pier was—as usual, in any context—the most animated musician on stage that night. When Bidini called on him to lead one of the "Four Little Songs," Pier seized the role that former drummer Dave Clark normally would, coming to the front of the stage and getting different halves of the audience to sing an improv song called “Laryngitis,” one of the more deliciously loony points in the set.

Tim Vesely opened the encore with a solo version of "Row,” which was the only poignant moment of the night that suggested that the end was just beginning: “All the clouds get together and cry. All the trees in the wind wave good-bye. Good-bye.”

“Music belies one’s actual age.”

More than any other venue in the great dominion, The Horseshoe Tavern has been the Rheostatics' home base for the last six years or so. Around the turn of the decade, they moved their annual weekly residency there, after starting at Ultrasound in the mid-90s and continuing at Ted’s Wrecking Yard (both venues now defunct). One year they played there for a record 14-night stand, matching a standard set by Stompin’ Tom Connors.

Stompin’ Tom didn’t show up on Thursday, though they did cover his “Bridge Came Tumblin’ Down” in the middle of their own “Ballad of Wendel Clark.” In fact, very few guests took the stage, and in typical fashion, just as many audience members were summoned as were musicians. (Three musicians: Ben Gunning and Pete Elkas of the Local Rabbits, Paul Linklater of opening act Scribbled Out Man. Two audience members: Tawny Darbyshire and Mr. Anonymous on “Legal Age Life.”)

photo of Tielli at Starlight by Helen Spitzer

As usual, the set was over three hours long, and much more of a joyous encapsulation of their entire career than the Starlight show. Though they may have been the kings of the past, they were still moving forward: there were three songs that night that I’ve never heard before one of which (“New Science?”) it’s safe to say was written on the spot. [ed note: it's since been pointed out to me that this is a cover of "Radios in Motion," from the first XTC album.] (The other two were pointy political folk songs by Bidini: “Pornography” and a song about Tim Horton’s/ Chad Kroeger and Stephen Harper (“you’re killing us now”).)

For many, the highlight of the show was not a classic Rheostatics song, but one by DOA—the Canadian punk legends who, in 1987, played a benefit for the Rheos when they had all their gear ripped off in Vancouver on their first western tour.

In the middle of “My First Rock Show,” Bidini asked Ford Pier what his pivotal experience had been. Pier said he had snuck in to see DOA when he was a teenager in Edmonton. Which is not only ridiculously cool, but also prophetic: Pier would later serve time in DOA during the late 90s. Bidini refused to believe him until Pier qualified it by saying, “OK, what was the first concert that my mom knew I went to? Big Country.” With scant prompting from Bidini, Pier then led the band in DOA’s “Enemy,” with a wide-grinning Vesely on drums and MPW on lead guitar. Rather than a sloppy half-assed cover, it was spirited, powerful and just as raging as DOA themselves.

This was indicative of the lighter mood overall, which also led to a 10-minute scatological diversion that included stories about Geddy Lee, Colin Hay of Men At Work, and a fan in adult diapers and a short skirt who tried to steal Martin’s wallet from on top of his amp at the Town Pump in Vancouver. The details are too many to recount here, but are best summed up by a quip from Wojewoda: “Live and incontinent.”

The evening ended, as so many others at the Horseshoe have, with the band playing acoustically by the merch table, a move that appeared to have baffled much of the audience, though surely they’ve seen them do this before? They did “Bread Meat Peas and Rice” while everyone figured out what was going on, and then a profoundly moving version of “Northern Wish.” The last time I saw them do this they had a small string section and a clarinet player to help bolster the unamplified band. This time, all we needed was the whole crowd singing both the “Land Ho” back-ups and the barely-audible melody from an ailing Tielli.

Horseshoe pic by Michael Barclay

Until then, Tielli’s voice had been restored to about 70% its usual capacity, which meant that he could pull off electrifying versions of “Christopher” and “Self-Serve Gas Station.” Vesely, Wojewoda and Pier ably covered most his high notes and harmonies. Tielli couldn’t seem to be able to predict what notes would work and what wouldn’t, so by the time he tried to tackle “Saskatchewan,” he simply made it work to his advantage. By surrendering to his laryngitis, Tielli manipulated the melody into atonal realms that made the shipwrecked sailor of the song sound even more desperate and hopeless as the water consumes him. On a night when some na├»ve fans may have expected faithful renditions of old favourites, this song in particular was revelatory. Right up to their final moments, the Rheostatics were capable of extracting brilliance from seemingly dire circumstance.

“How can forever not last long enough? Move along. Can’t come back. Move along.”

At 7.55PM in front of Massey Hall, the ushers felt it necessary to remind people that “the show is starting on time in exactly five minutes. Five minutes to showtime, people.” For a band that’s never been particularly punctual or at the right place at the right time, it’s no surprise that most people milling about outside didn’t believe the stated ticket time of 8PM. I was waiting outside for a friend whose ticket I had, so I missed both Dave Bookman’s (undoubtedly eloquent) introduction and the standing ovation that greeted the band as they launched into “Saskatchewan.”

This was one of eight songs from 1991’s ten-song suite Melville that made the final set list, which made perfect sense. The rest of the Rheos discography is tailor made for rock clubs, beer halls, folk festivals and art galleries, but Melville is their one work that has always deserved to be heard in a hallowed hall such as Massey. It’s a near-perfect distillation of their art-rock take on Canadian folk music, with wide open spaces, operatic flourishes, and deceptively simple songs.

Walking into Massey Hall and hearing them play “Saskatchewan” wasn’t as moving or as historic as I imagined it would be: it just seemed natural. This is where they should be; this is where this song should be sung.

That was followed by “Me and Stupid,” a tale of cottage country summers, near-drownings and writing original new wave rock, with a passage from Al Purdy in the middle. Bidini stepped to the front of the stage at that point, as if he was hoping Purdy’s ghost would somehow start calling to him from the gallery. A few fans gladly obliged with the lines in question; Bidini, satisfied, said, “That’s what Al Purdy wrote. This is what we wrote,” before concluding the song.

From there, they sang suburban sonnets, songs “from the dark days of Ontario” in the Mike Harris era, and Western Canadian travelogues that all spoke to the band’s evolution, their lyrical grace and acute sense of place. The performance was proud and majestic, with nary a trace of the unrehearsed awkwardness from the week before.

There were also no guests, except for keyboardist Chris Brown, who hopped up on stage from the audience for two tracks (“Claire,” “Dopefiends”). The rest of the night was primarily Bidini, Vesely, Tielli and Wojewoda, with Ford Pier playing less than half the set.

The first of the three times I got choked up was when drummers Dave Clark (1980-1994) and Don Kerr (1994-2001) joined the core four to perform “Northern Wish.” I’d never seen all six of them on stage together before, and for anyone who has loved the band through all their twists and turns, it was a family portrait we’d waited a long time to see. (They stuck around for “Easy To Be,” and returned later for the final song, “Dopefiends.”)

Tielli’s voice was once again further on the mend, though hearing him crack on the line “once I get good/ once I get better” from “PIN” was heartbreaking to hear, knowing that even a note in the middle of his range was causing his ever-elastic voice to constrict on this night of nights.

But once again, he made that frustration work for him. To avoid wispy croaks, he was remarkably deft at improvising alternate melodies and harmonies on the fly—for that matter, so were Vesely and Wojewoda and Pier backing him up. And he was determined to have fun, acting as animated as I've ever seen him, and utilising as much of the stage as possible.

Nothing was more harrowing than “Shaved Head,” a dramatic centerpiece of their set ever since it appeared on their high water mark, 1992’s Whale Music. With a lyric about a cancer patient, it’s a dramatic song even on the sloppiest nights, but here it was rendered even more emotional while watching Tielli battle with his bug. He normally gets more physically expressive the more he loses himself in song, but such was his consumption that he completely “slipped in the clippings”—he wiped out and fell to the floor in the middle of a line, still clutching the mic stand and not missing a beat.

As at the Horseshoe, there was some things I’d never seen before at a Rheostatics show. Bidini took a bass solo in “Claire,” much to Tim’s chagrin; Martin mocked him by singing Yello’s “Oh Yeah” over top of it, a gleefully absurdist moment as the set was winding down, laughing all the way to the end.

For the first song of the second encore, performed acoustically at the front of the stage (seated on top of an oblivious security guard), they paged Dave Clark to lead the audience in percussive noises for “Legal Age Life.” Anyone who’s ever seen Clark at the Hillside Festival or conducting his Woodchoppers’ Association knows that he can extract magic from a willing audience, and this was no exception.

They then strolled into the middle of the Massey Hall floor to do “Record Body Count.” Before they began, Bidini spoke about how the audience was always the most important thing about the Rheostatics, how what has meant the most to them over the years are the stories of people starting bands and learning Rheostatics songs, or that their music helped people find their way out of the wilderness, sometimes literally.

The devotion always went both ways. Many of my favourite Rheostatics memories were the amateurs who took the stage with them, whether it was an 18-year old girl with a stuffed and mounted chicken singing “Aliens” in Polish, any number of random guitarists invited to take a solo, or as much of the audience that could fit on the stage of the Horseshoe sitting down for a 2AM lullaby. And on the night that my own band finally got a chance to open for the Rheostatics at the Horseshoe, I fulfilled all my rock’n’roll fantasies when they invited me to play keyboards on “Horses.” I could now die in peace.

They were also notoriously benevolent to countless new acts, many of whom return the gratitude on the new tribute album The Secret Sessions: Weeping Tile, Weakerthans, The Inbreds, King Cobb Steelie, Wooden Stars, Cuff the Duke and more. There was also the Peanuts and Corn hip-hop crew from Brandon, Manitoba, Veda Hille and Ida Nilsen in Vancouver, and Toronto’s avant-garde monstrosity Guh, whose Brian Cram would later go on to play with Do Make Say Think. The Rheostatics were—and always will be—a nexus where one can trace much of this country’s musical activity.

My friend and bandmate Tristan O’Malley wondered what would have happened if the Rheos had taken a poll at Massey Hall: How many people here have been in a band that opened for us? Or otherwise appeared on stage with us at some point? I’d guess at least 20 per cent. But even if those who showered several standing o’s on the band that night weren’t musicians, they still felt part of a community that precious few artists manage to cultivate.

In that sense, it wasn’t just the Rheostatics that we were cheering on at Massey Hall, it was all of us. And though they may be fading away for a while, we’re all still here, we still have each other, and there’s still work to be done.

I said earlier that I cried three times at this show, but never once was it out of regret or loss. It was out of pride, of joy, of vicarious accomplishment. This was our band, these are our songs. Everyone there felt the same way: this was our night.

“My days are my lungs, and my love for you is endless.”

Corrections to the following are welcome

Starlight, March 25, 2007: see here

Horseshoe Tavern, March 29 2007: (not in order)
It’s Easy to Be With You (opening number)
Introducing Happiness
In This Town
King of the Past
Ballad of Wendel Clark/ Bridge Came Tumblin’ Down (Stompin’ Tom cover)
Self-Serve Gas Station
First Rock Show/The Enemy (DOA cover, sung by Ford Pier)
Find Me Mookie Saunders
Song of the Garden
Radios in Motion (XTC cover)
Green Sprouts
Pornography new song
Tim Horton’s/Stephen Harper/Chad Kroeger new song
We Went West
Fan Letter to Michael Jackson
Loving Arms
Stolen Car
Joey 2
Legal Age Life w/ Elkas, Gunning, Darbyshire and some guy
Record Body Count w/ Elkas and Gunning (final electric number)

2nd encore (acoustic, in front of merch table):
Bread Meat Peas and Rice
Northern Wish

Massey Hall, March 30 2007: (not in order)
Intro by Bookman with guitarist
Me and Stupid
Bad Time to Be Poor
King of the Past
Northern Wish (w/ Kerr, Clark) (Tielli gestures to everyone on stage for the line “and find another band”)
Easy to Be With You (w/ Kerr, Clark)
First Rock Show (w/ Imponderables)
We Went West
Mumbletypeg (dedicated to the Bidinis)
Tim song from 2067
Aliens (Martin: “I didn’t mean this to sound like Bob and Doug”)
Feed Yourself
Shaved Head (second last song of regular set)
When Winter Comes (last song of regular set w/ snow falling on the coda. Martin: “OK, this is our fake last song, so let’s rock.”)

First encore:
Self-Serve Gas Station (dedicated to the Tiellis. Martin: “not all of this song is true.”)
California Dreamline
Horses (dedicated to Stephen Harper)
Stolen Car
Rock Death America
Claire (w/ Brown)
Dopefiends and Boozehounds/ Alomar/ Dopefiends coda (last song of 1st encore, w/ Brown, Kerr, Clark)

Acoustic encore:
Legal Age Life (w/ Dave Clark)
Record Body Count (acoustic on floor)