Friday, September 28, 2007

The Acorn, pt 1

This month's Exclaim has my cover story on The Acorn, the finest band in Ottawa, whose last record I reviewed here.

I first met Rolf Klausener when I found him on my kitchen floor, one morning in the middle of Pop Montreal maybe three years ago. He arrived with Jon Bartlett, whom I had given carte blanche to use my Mont Royal apartment as a crash pad for the Kelp Records crew. Rolf made a mean omelette and, as a big Notwist fan, was very polite when challenging me over a racist comment I made about all German music since Kraftwerk being inherently inferior.

That day he was hand-assembling copies of his debut CD from his new project, The Acorn, called The Pink Ghosts. I fell in love with it immediately, its haunting melodies set to a combination of Canadian folk music and bedroom electronics. It soon evolved into a proper band, one that features three of the more expressive and textural musicians you're likely to see in the indie rock ghetto; keep your eye on drummer Jeffrey Malecki in particular.

This interview was conducted after Rolf and his roommate Stef Power drove me from Guelph to Ottawa one beautiful August afternoon and proceeded to wine and dine me at the home they share with bassist Jeff Debutte. Thanks to Ms. Power for putting up with all our boring rock talk, to engineer Jarett Bartlett for an interview I didn't end up using, and to Rolf for his hospitality and for introducing me to his mom the next morning--she's the subject of the excellent new Acorn album, Glory Hope Mountain.

I'd recommend you read the Exclaim piece before wading deep into these waters--despite the fact that the paragraphs aren't double spaced there.

The Acorn
Rolf Klausener and Jeff Debutte
April 19, 2007
Locale: the porch of the Ottawa home they share with Stef Power.

Mr. Klausener, what do the following names mean to you: Rupert Allen, Brent Bambury, Tiffany Beaudin, and Guy Bérubé.

R: (laughs, suspicious). Uh, I don’t know the Tiffany name. Brent Bambury of course was the second host of Brave New Waves…

OK, but you don’t know their relationship to each other and to yourself?

R: No, I don’t.

You were all nominees for Ottawa’s Hottest Fuck at Les Prix Golden Cherry Awards in 2005.

R: (both laugh hysterically) Oh shit, that’s hilarious! I thought, why would you bring up Guy Bérubé? Why would you know him? How did you find that?

On the interweb.

Of course. Well, thankfully, and rightfully, Brent Bambury won that.

How did you get nominated?

I have no… fucking… idea. I think it was because I was doing the SAW Gallery’s website, and they held the event. [Acorn guitarist] Howie [Tsui] and I went to a bunch of their more racy events, this thing called Jizz that was based on this Toronto event (Vazaleen). I took off my shirt a few times, and of course that makes you fuckable or something. Whatever!

Around the time that The Acorn started becoming a band and playing around Ottawa, I heard someone refer to them as the cutest band in Ottawa.

J: Well, that’s true.

R: That’s how we got to where we are.

But did you not do well in Ottawa quite quickly, once it transitioned into a band?

R: I wasn’t playing that many shows on my own. The last show that I played on my own was an experimental music festival thrown by the Pleasure Through Sound folks. There’s something about when you throw a new band together in Ottawa and try to play shows, people will automatically take interest for at least the first or second show.

J: We had some duds in there, like the one with Les Mouches where eight people were there.

R: I think [Les Mouches’] Owen [Pallett, later of Final Fantasy] never wanted to play a show with us again or speak to me again. They were incredible, though. Someone gave me the Toronto is the Best compilation and I loved that band right away. I’d never heard of Owen before. I wrote to him and offered to put a show on in Ottawa for him. It was The Acorn’s third show as a band, and we were quite mediocre.

J: That was a weird night, though, because we had [Kelp Records’ Jon] Bartlett playing drums and [Recoilers’] Jake Bryce filling in for Howie on guitar.

R: It was weird. Then Les Mouches played a phenomenal set. Owen was so good and the projections were so incredible. Then they came over to my house and Owen seemed so completely disenchanted. They played Nintendo and Owen barely spoke to me all night. I thought, wow, I’ll probably never see any of these people ever again.

J: Having played in other Ottawa bands, I thought there was some nice attention being paid to The Acorn that wasn’t to other bands.

R: I’d been playing with the Recoilers for seven years at that point, and there was never any ambition to play outside of the city, or playing more than we needed to. Or booking our own shows, for that matter. I’d never booked a show before. I didn’t want [The Acorn] to play a show with someone that we didn’t want to play with. When I started my own band, I wanted to have fun and be with people I really like and play shows I want to play. That was my only ambition. The very first show we played was with Great Lake Swimmers and Barmitzvah Brothers, and the next show we played was with Julie Doiron. Then we did this art series...

And that was with Radiohead, wasn’t it?

R: Yeah, right. Radiohead and Pulp—it was kind of a weird combo. No, we only played with people we wanted to see. We weren’t very good at all. The Pink Ghosts is mostly instrumental and stuff I recorded in my bedroom on 20 tracks. It was never supposed to be done live. I think it took us a year and a half to get a footing as a band.

J: I still surprised people came to those shows, considering how bad they must have been.

R: I remember Samir [Khan of Kepler] coming up to me after the first show he saw us play, which was the Kelp 10th anniversary show at ZaphBebo. We played a pretty good show that night. He said, ‘You got yourself a good band, and that’s a rare thing.’ I think he was talking about the dynamic we had. I already loved everyone in the band plenty, but that was a nice outside justification.

What drew you to these three guys? Because they’re so obviously the right three guys, in terms of textural playing that they bring to these songs.

R: It was purely instinct and luck and coincidence. I’d seen Jeff play for years, and played with him as well.

You were in [Jeff's band] the Soft Disaster, yes?

R: Briefly, until they kicked me out. I didn’t have the attention span or the chops.

J: You were just in seven different bands at the time.

R: I was aware of how talented Jeff was, and I wanted him in the band but not necessarily on what instrument. He was one of the first people I thought of.

Howie was weird because we’d just started to get to know each other that summer. He’d just moved to Ottawa and we ended up at the same shows, and ended up talking about the same record labels and the same bands, so I knew we had some musical connections. At the end of one party, he whipped out this guitar and started noodling. I had no idea. He said, ‘Oh, I just dabble. I made a little EP with my friend.’ It was this beautiful, noodly, spacey guitar stuff and I thought it was great.

I wanted him in the band because the aesthetic was really similar, but also because I knew he wasn’t a typical musician. He doesn’t know G from F, he doesn’t know a tone from a semi-tone. And he certainly doesn’t know when his guitar is out of tune. But he has amazing instincts. I loved the fact that I got along with him—he’s incredibly funny—and his musical instincts are so natural.

And [drummer Jeffrey] Malecki was really strange, because I didn’t even know he played drums until a few months before I asked him to join. I was telling Colin Vincent that I was sick of playing by myself and was looking for a drummer, and he recommended him and told me he’d been playing jazz drums forever. So without ever hearing him, despite knowing him for years, I took Colin’s word for it and asked him to come over to my living room and play. It was incredibly loud and we had to stop after two songs, but instantly it worked.

J: That was my first time meeting both Jeffrey and Howie too.

R: That was weird. ‘Yeah, okay, so I’m not sure if either of you are real musicians or even know each other, but…”

[To Rolf] You were in five or six bands at that point, and from what I know about Ottawa, that’s not uncommon. But why did you [Jeff] want to join this band, when you already led your own?

J: Earlier, Rolf said that I was one of the first people he thought of. And that’s probably because every time he played a solo show, I’d be the first one to go up and talk to him afterwards saying, “Hey, yeah, so, if you ever need a band…’

R: I don’t remember that at all. I don’t remember you ever talking to me at a show.

And yet apparently he was aggressively campaigning.

R: Samir told me that you wanted to play.

J: He told me you were looking for other people. I thought the songs were great and exciting and I wanted to be a part of that. I knew Tim from Soft Disaster was moving to Boston, so I was looking for something else. And these were some of the best songs I’d ever heard anyone in Ottawa write.

Did you hear the Christmas thing? [The first unofficial Acorn release was a Christmas EP Klausener made, featuring a cover of Palace’s “New Partner”]

J: Yeah, he gave it to me.

R: I’d been playing with CuBase for three months at that point. I was so excited to do something on my own, and I gave a copy to everybody I knew, basically. I spent all night burning CDs the night before a New Year’s show at Babylon with 20 bands or something. My roommate Aaron played bass and his brother played drums and we did three songs. I ran around the club all night handing people CDRs.

[conversation interrupted by Jon Bartlett dropping by]

[resumes with Rolf trying to figure out how to turn the new album into soundbites, expressing his frustration with a recent interview that asked him little more than: ‘Why are there ukuleles and marimbas on the record?’—a question it took him 15 minutes to answer.]

R: Obviously she didn’t have much time to listen to the record and didn’t know me, but at the same time, we didn’t throw this together on a weekend. We spent two years making this goddam record.

But Rolf, you have thrown a record together on a weekend before [Tin Fist EP].

R: It’s true. When we first started talking about this album, I wanted to do it live in a room with 15 people—so unrealistic. I didn’t really think that I’d have to sit with the material, with my mom’s stories, for nine months before I could realistically start writing in a way that I felt okay about it. It took that long to absorb. First, the music that I was researching, and then letting the stories percolate and hone what the essence of them was, and what stories were key to moving the whole story along.

So this was two years ago—the Blankets EP would have just been released? Or when did you start thinking about this?

R: Blankets was out and we’d toured coast to coast. My dad had always wanted to write an autobiography, because he’s had an even crazier life than my mom. He worked for the UN in all sorts of secret military things that I will never know about. Based on how he talked about wanting to document that, I thought it would be neat to talk to my mom and learn more about her. I’d always thought about it, and one day at the end of practice I just said, ‘Hey guys, how about we record an album about my mom’s life?’ And they all said, ‘Yeah, cool.’ That was the extent of it. I was closing the door to the apartment as they were leaving.

I interviewed her and had the stories recorded, and then I started researching Honduran folk music. Which wasn’t the original idea, but the more I thought about it, I thought I wanted to do something more than drums-bass-guitar. But I realized it was opening a huge can of worms and it was going to take forever.

I think it was in March of this year, when I thought, wow, this album is never going to happen. We were listening to some rough mixes when we got back from tour and I thought, goddamit, this is nowhere near where I thought it would be. Then I got fired—and the whole album came together! So I’d like to thank my bosses at CHUO for firing me, because I spent the next month writing every day on this porch.

I spent two and a half weeks writing the lyrics to ‘Hold Your Breath’—which is pathetic. They’re not a major revelation or anything. I was very conscious of word choice and movement and pacing. I thought, I’m going to have to sing these songs for the next couple of years, and I want to feel good about the lyrics and care about them. I thought there were a few lines on Tin Fist where I didn’t feel that, where I thought they were a bit too melodramatic.

J: When we got back from tour, it sounded a lot like it sounds now. But for Rolf, lyrically, it was still skeletal.

What did you [Jeff] think of the idea initially? And what did you know about his mom?

J: I’d met his mom once, maybe. She didn’t come to our shows. My first initial reaction was: [raspberry sound] What the fuck???!! This is a really bad idea! [Rolf cracks up]. I thought, and not in a callous way, but: who cares about your mom?

Yeah, but who cares about your broken heart?

J: Sure, that’s even worse. But as the songs started to come about, I realized that it’s also about a lot of bigger things than just his mom, and she was a good way to talk about these things.

I don’t think people have to know what it’s about. The way we all listen to any music, there will be certain lines or phrases that impart meaning, whether or not we understand the lyrical intent or an entire narrative. And The Acorn has never mixed a record to sound like shiny pop music with the vocals way up front, so even other Acorn lyrics for me have been about certain lines or phrases. I don’t think I know what any of your other songs are actually about specifically. I respond more to the music. So I wonder how much of this album’s narrative will be apparent to people who don’t read this article or anything else surrounding its release.

R: I do wonder about that.

Does that make you hesitant to play it up, or is it integral to absorbing the record?

R: It’s there and I don’t want to pretend that it’s not the backbone of the record. That’s why I did spend so much time on the lyrics. It couldn’t be overtly narrative. The themes are really important. There were so many serendipitous moments while writing, connections such as: there was a river and a mountain in her hometown, and then she moved to Montreal, surrounded by rivers and with a mountain. Survival and perseverance threaded through the entire record. As I was writing them, I could see how so many of the themes permeated every story in her life. The highlighted stories were microcosms for her entire life.

Then I started thinking about how they reflected on my life. Towards the end of the record, as I was approaching being born in her life’s narrative, I could see how my life was tying into her stories. There were a lot of moments where a line would come out very spontaneously, and I’d have a little moment of shock, or a giggle, as I realized how much of them tied into my own life. Those were some of the best moments. It didn’t even feel like coincidence.

How many specifics of your mother’s life did you know before you interviewed her?

R: I knew she had a rough life. I knew she was orphaned until she was seven. I knew that her father was not a good father. I knew that she eventually stumbled into Montreal and met my father. But that’s it. Partially because my mom—she isn’t private, but she doesn’t want to talk about the hard elements of her life. But when she does talk about those things… When I was a kid and discovering drinking and drugs, my mother would tell me her own stories and there was full disclosure: ‘Oh, let me tell you about the first time I did heroin!’ [all laugh] Here I was in high school and I’d just got drunk for the first time, and here we’re talking about cocaine and heroin. Disclosure has never been an issue for my mother.

For me, it’s been a matter of taking the time to talk to her and ask her questions. And then she would tell me everything. Everything. The song ‘Oh, Napleon’ was a case where I couldn’t believe what she’d gone through. I alluded to the band what that song’s about, and it was disturbing and I was upset when she told me the whole story. I was amazed by the candour and honesty that came through, and how she took it all in stride.

I can only think of two things in my life that make me re-evaluate any hardship in my own life. One is the movie The Endurance, about the Shackleton expedition to the Antarctic, and the other is my mom’s life. Whenever I think about those two things I think I have it so fucking easy, it’s ridiculous.

The image of crooked legs runs through the whole record. What does that refer to?

R: That was a story about when my mother was back at her father’s farm for a few years. She was into the routine of being ignored, of spending time with the servants at the farm and doing menial chores. She was getting closer and closer to her adopted brother, Napoleon. Every night her father would get people to go out and tend to the sugar cane, because there was a refinery on the farm. When her brother was of age, her father asked him to go watch over the people working at the sugar refinery. He was terrified of the dark and refused to do it.

How old was he?

R: Fourteen or 15. She was about 12. He had polio and had a bum leg, and he had to ride a horse to do this. And if he fell off the horse, he would crack his skull open. So he was terrified to do this because he was scared of the dark. And there were no floodlights in rural Honduras in 1953.

The father was insistent, and so he took off his belt, which was sweaty and hot because it was a sweltering night, and whipped Napoleon, who wasn’t wearing a shirt. The belt wrapped around Napoleon’s waist, and when the father ripped off the belt, it tore an entire chunk of skin from around the torso. It was bleeding like crazy.

So my mother, 12 years old, runs to the shed and gets a machete. She runs at her father with a machete and climbs up him as if she’s going to slit his throat. She tells him, ‘If you touch him, I will kill you.’

Things calmed down after a bit. Later that night, after things had settled and Napoleon went to bed with bandages around his stomach, my mother broke into the farm’s safe and took all of her father’s money. She packed it all up and got on this dirt road and walked tens of kilometers overnight, from one in the morning until dawn, to Tegucigalpa, which is the capital, to the Catholic boarding school where she was staying until her father came to reclaim her when she was about six.

She said, ‘Here’s a bunch of money, I’d like to stay here for as long as I can.’ They asked her what happened and she told them the story. The next day her father came by and said, ‘What the fuck is going on? You broke into my safe.’ They talked to him about the situation and he was like, [makes a hands-off gesture] ‘Cool, fine, fuck you, whatever, stay here.’ He left her there. She was there for two years until the money ran out, and then moved out and started living on her own when she was about 13.

That’s where that story came about. There were a bunch of other elements that came into play when I started doing all this research on Honduran folk music, on the Mayan tribes. There’s a story of the firefly. There’s this wonderful element of ceremonial burials in the Kuna culture. One of the things they do is, the shaman would perform this three-day long funeral ceremony when someone would die. On the last day, they would take a firefly and bury it with the corpse, to represent the spirit of the deceased. I love that image, and I was looking for an image to tie together the city lights and the starlight. That tied into ‘Hold Your Breath’ quite well.

The firefly is in both bookend tracks, which both deal with her mother.

R: There’s definitely some artistic license there, when the brother tells her, ‘When you see fireflies, that’s your mom.’ I was thinking it would be neat if her brother was comforting her as she grew up with this firefly metaphor.

‘Hold Your Breath’ was more setting the scene, but ‘I Will Watch Over You’ was always meant to be her mother facing her own mortality and seeing her child being born. And my mother was a breached baby, so she was suffocating. She was pretty much DOA when she was born. ‘I Will Watch Over You’ would have been the inner monologue of what her mother was going through, imparting these words to her child that she would never see grow up. Those two songs bookend each other.

I also realized that there were elements that related to things my mother told me when I was growing up. When I would cut myself, my mom would grab my hand and start sucking the blood. I’d be like, ‘Ew, mom, gross!’ And she’d say, ‘What? It’s my blood going through your veins.’

Also, if you’re going chronologically, ‘I Will Watch Over You’ is a song that my mother could have theoretically sang to me when I was born.

That’s how I took it the first time I heard the record. And I thought, wait a minute, did she die in childbirth too? I’m pretty sure she’s still alive…

R: I didn’t want to make anything up, but it was too tempting. Once I started getting into it all, it was good to have fun with it and have some creative license.

How many of these stories were the band aware of? Did you have explicit access to the source material?

J: A lot of them, like ‘Lullaby,’ it was very explicit. Songs like ‘Hold Your Breath,’ we knew exactly what was going on. Some songs he just gave us a précis. A song like ‘Oh, Napoleon,’ he’d just say: ‘You don’t want to know.’ Probably 80% we were aware of, at least after the fact.

R: She was so open with me, and I’ve seen her be open with complete strangers. She never had a problem with me writing the record. But at the same time, she really doesn’t realize that people will listen to this and we’re going to do interviews where we talk about her life. I really didn’t feel it necessary to disclose everything. If people really, really want to know, I’ll tell them off the record.

Halfway through writing the record, I realized that a lot of them were slow, quiet and kind of sad. I wanted there to be some uplifting stuff on this record, because ultimately her story is really uplifting and beautiful. It was trying to find a way to talk about these stories and themes in a positive way, and not focus on how crazy and challenging her life was. Which was hard.

How and when did she end up in Montreal?

R: She was on a vacation in her early 20s in Miami with some friends, for a few weeks. She bumped into this wonderful Nicaraguan woman who lived in Montreal. They spent a week together, and this woman told her that Montreal was great: lots of Central Americans there, lots of jobs, so much opportunity, a beautiful country with snow. My mom was totally enraptured with the idea of Canada. At the end of her holiday she thought, ‘OK, fuck it, when is your train leaving?’ She packed her stuff…

Just the stuff she brought on vacation?

R: Exactly, and went on an overnight bus ride to Montreal. She got there, and the woman ditched her at the bus station. She said, ‘Oh, yeah, my boyfriend is waiting for me. I’m sorry. Here’s my phone number.’ She gave my mom her phone number, but my mom lost it.

So now she’s stranded in this country where she doesn’t speak French or English, and she walked around all night and went to a hotel. The chambermaids there were all Nicaraguan and Honduran, who told her there was this wonderful area on the north area of St. Laurent where there’s this community centre—which is now [restaurant/music venue] La Sala Rossa—where all the Hispanic people hang out. Just go there, and we’ll find you a place to live. So my mom called a friend in Nicaragua and told her to close her bank account and send her all her money. And she just stayed, and that was it.

What year was that?

R: ’74.

And she met your dad there?

R: After a few different roommates, she was staying with this woman who was pretty nice. They were both working all these crazy textile jobs. My mom got fired so many times because she was so charming and good at lying, that she’d tell them she could work industrial sewing presses and all this stuff. And then she’d get fired. Finally she found a job where she could scheme her way in and stay there.

She got this cheap apartment sharing a bedroom with a woman. Every night, after working for 12 hours, this woman would get all dolled up and go out every night. My mom would say, ‘How can you go out every night and party?’ And the woman would say, ‘Well, you know, that’s what I do.’ My mom didn’t think anything of it.

One night my mom wakes up in the middle of the night, and this woman is fucking some dude right next to her, three feet away from her. She’s like, ‘What the hell are you doing?! I’m right here!’ The woman says, ‘Gloria, are you retarded? I’m a prostitute—this is what I do! This is my job!’

My mom thought, okay, I’m outta here. She grabbed her stuff and left that night. She walked around all night, so depressed and not knowing what she would do. So she’s walking around Laurier and St. Laurent.

It’s morning, and she sees this nun about 100 metres away from her, and they’re walking towards each other. She comes up to her and looks at her and says, ‘Sister Margaret?’ They freak out—this was her teacher from Honduras. She was Canadian and had been in Honduras on some kind of Catholic internship exchange, and so this was her childhood teacher. She said, ‘I’m just over here at a Catholic boarding house. Come over, have some tea, we’ll hang out, there are some people leaving and we might be able to get you a room.’ She got a room and ended up staying for months.

One day, this UN social worker, Bernard Klausener was coming by, checking it out and doing the rounds. They introduced him to my mom, they hit it off, and they started dating.

I think I’m going to eat up all my tape if I keep asking you specific questions.

R: I thought about how to summarize a lot of these stories, but I can’t.

How many hours of tape did you get from her?

R: Eight hours. I still haven’t edited it all. She went into so much detail. She tells stories in such a crazy, fractured way, and I just tried to make sense of it all. It’s all from the first 30 years of her life.

-part two will appear soon-

The Acorn's upcoming tour dates are here, starting October 11.


Anonymous said...

I'm really enjoying this record.

Don't tell, but I had to download because I haven't tracked it down here yet. Eek.

p.s. I think I was on the floor that same weekend.

Anonymous said...

Great interview!

I was one of the 8 people at the Acorn/Les Mouches show. I think more people would have come if the venue wasn't so hidden. Regardless, it was a fun and memorable night. It will go down as one of those saw-them-before-they-were-famous nights.

I think I accidentally stole an Acorn pin.