Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Nathan Lawr

I've known Nathan Lawr for the better part of ten years, since he was a wide-eyed youngster who caught his first big break as King Cobb Steelie's drummer on the Junior Relaxer tour in 1997. After that, he sat behind the skins for Jim Guthrie, Royal City, the Fembots, the Hylozoists and many others. But in 2003 he shocked even some of his closest friends with his debut album The Heart Beats a Waltz, where he proved to be an incredibly melodic songwriter and a great singer as well.

Though he has many enthusiastic fans in Toronto's musician community, he still toils in obscurity and puts out amazing albums that can't seem to get him arrested anywhere else. Because I'm on a terrible computer right now after drowning my laptop--as well as being in a pre-CMJ flurry--I'll say little more and refer you to this review of his latest album A Sea of Tiny Lights, as well as this review of his last album Secret Carpentry.

I'll share my thoughts of last night's Springsteen show next week, long after it's likely relevant. But I will say this: when I saw him in 1999 he was ecstatic to be back with the E Street Band; in 2002 he was no doubt still excited and had new material to boot. Was he excited at all this time? Maybe it's just because it's my third time seeing him, but it seemed a bit rote. Don't get me wrong, it was still amazing--the new material is very strong, and hearing the one-two punch of pianist Roy Bittan's finest work on "Candy's Room" and "She's the One" had me screaming in ecstasy. But he's showing his age; last time he was all over the stage, and now he has trouble jumping up for a song's final note. Maybe it's for the best: last night's strength was the songs, not the spectacle.

Side note: not that my Springsteen piece in Eye this week is full of original ideas, but it sounds like Robert Everett-Green of the Globe and Mail read it before writing his review this morning of the Ottawa show.

And no, the Arcade Fire didn't show up at the Toronto show. But in the interest of a cheap segue to get us back on track, I should point out that it was Nathan Lawr who first invited the Arcade Fire for a weekend of Ontario shows back in the spring of 2003, playing the Rivoli in Toronto, the tiny Black Mustard in Guelph, and Call the Office in London--where the Arcade Fire played one song for the one person left in the audience and called it a night.

So back to Mr. Lawr, who has some shows of his own this weekend: Thursday at Supermarket in Toronto with Andy Swan and Kate Maki, Friday at the Spill in Peterborough, Saturday at the Velvet Elvis in Oshawa. More details here.

Nathan Lawr
June 6, 2007
Locale: phone interview from his home in Sudbury

My favourite song here is “There’s a Devil,” mainly because of the instrumentation: the distorted Wurlitzer and what I’m assuming is Jeremy Strachan’s horn arrangement. Was the live orchestral EP you did before or after the second record?

It was right after my first record.

Where do you see orchestrations fitting into what you do? Or do you prefer not to do it too much so that you can play it live?

When I was making the second album, I didn’t have the financial resources to dream of doing something that elaborate. So I went the total opposite direction, and tried to make it as stripped down as I could. I applied for an OAC grant for this one, hoping to do something in between: orchestrated while being lo-fi in a way. That was the idea on this one. Even now I feel like I didn’t really hit it. I’m already thinking of a fourth record.

Who’s on this record? I haven't seen the art yet.

Kristian Galberg on guitar; Shaw-Han Liem on most keyboards, though I play some too; Evan Clarke on drums, except for a couple of songs; and Simon Osborne on bass. Produced by Andy Magoffin, and Dave MacKinnon engineered some of it. Paul Aucoin plays on a song, Jimmy Guthrie sings on a song, Kate Maki sings on a couple of things. That’s about it.

There’s a lot more piano on this record than I remember. Are you writing more on it?

Yeah, because we got a beautiful old Heintzmann for 200 bucks. It’s a gorgeous thing. I play it all the time. All the new songs I’m writing now are all on piano. Every song on the album that has a piano was written on it. I did a bunch of demos, and Shaw-Han copied what I did.

As a drummer who learned how to play guitar and is now writing on piano, what do you like about it?

There’s that Frank Zappa quote that piano is just an elaborate percussion instrument. To get your mind around where the notes are on a guitar is rather abstract. Maybe it’s because I had piano lessons when I was young, but it’s easier for me to understand chords and scales because of the way it’s laid out. It’s more tactile as well. It’s the perfect combination of drumming and guitar.

You and I have talked before about what it’s like to go back to school and be invigorated with new ideas, but how does your musical education continue and expand?

It’s interesting that you ask that, because I’ve been doing this radio show at the campus station, and I’ve never listened to as much music as I do now.

That says a lot, actually, knowing what a voracious music fan you are.

(laughs) It’s true! There was a while when I wasn’t listening to much other than my own music, when I was working on it. But that can be detrimental. Suddenly I’m appreciating music I haven’t in the past, and hearing stuff that I never thought was possible. Have you heard this
CD? I can’t believe that stuff. Had I not been doing this radio show and consciously gone looking for interesting music, I wouldn’t have found that.

This all ties into moving away from Toronto as well, and getting away from the mindset that everything you do is going to be scrutinized by critics and peers. That can be overwhelming. Opening up new doors in the music I’m listening to has opened up new doors in my own music and let me relax in a lot of ways. All these records that I love, they don’t sell any records and most people I know haven’t heard of them. So if people don’t react to my music the way they react to the Arcade Fire doesn’t mean that I’m a bad musician or a loser (laughs).

Is that easy to think in Toronto?

It’s definitely easy to think now, when I’m trying to find a label and don’t get a response. ‘I guess I suck.’ But the more music I listen to, I realise that you have to do what you do and if people like it, they like it. With my new record, I think it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever done, but even my parents say, “Oh, I don’t know…”

I’m guessing most of your Toronto musician friends would assume you’d be more isolated living in Sudbury, not suddenly discovering more music.

I really think the internet blows that idea out of the water. I don’t go to record stores anymore. There’s only one in town and they have some stuff, but if they have to order something it takes them two weeks to get it and it costs me $20 because it’s an import or whatever. So I go on iTunes. I’m more in touch with musicians I play with now, in many ways, than I ever was when I lived in Toronto.

How so?

Just from the internet, email chat and all that stuff. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but I talk to people all the time.

You have to go away for them to miss you.

(laughs). You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone, it’s true.

‘I’m not going to call Nathan. He lives right around the corner. I’m sure I’ll see him.’

There’s a weird truth to that. In Sudbury we have a rule that anyone can drop by at any time, and people actually do. I lived in Toronto for a long time, and I don’t ever remember people dropping by for the sake of it. I don’t know what that says about Toronto vs. Sudbury.

I want to ask about some of these songs, particularly “Righteous Heart.” What’s with the freshwater shark?

Okay, have you ever heard of a guy named Alberta Slim?

Sounds familiar. You don’t forget a name like that after you’ve heard it once.

Royal City met him when we went to the Yukon. He was 98 at the time. Aaron [Riches] and Simon [Osbourne] went to have breakfast with him. He’s like a Stompin’ Tom guy, except he’s an incredible yodeller. I was reading some things about his life when he died. He was moving all over the country to be with his lady and wrote all these songs that became famous. The line in my song about the apple blossom hills refers to famous song of his called “Apple Blossom Time in Annapolis Valley.”

The song is sort of about him, but it morphed into something else. There’s a line about the San Francisco earthquake, which I was reading about: “Furniture and chimneys went dancing through my room to a seismographic subterranean tune.” It refers to a story I read about a famous Parisian opera singer who was in San Francisco when the earthquake happened, and he describes waking up in the morning and thinking he was in a weird nightmare because all the furniture in his room was bouncing up and down and moving across the floor.

Long story short, the freshwater shark line—there is indeed such a thing. But it’s such a weird image. The line is, “Lord above me, there’s a freshwater shark below me.” The idea is that you can never tell what’s coming your way. I have a fear of deep water, and when I’m swimming in a lake I’m always nervous about what’s going to be down there. The only thing that saves me is that I know there’s nothing down there that can do me any harm. Maybe a loon will bite me in the balls, but what are the chances? But if there was a freshwater shark, that would change everything.

Where do these sharks reside?

The metaphorical sharks? Or the real ones? The real ones are in Australia. I saw it on a nature show, where people were surfing and wakeboarding in this river thinking they were totally safe, meanwhile, there were sharks lurking in the depths. It’s the truth!

A carnivorous shark?

A real fucking shark! They come in from the ocean and can breathe in freshwater. That blew my mind.

Tell me about “Footsteps,” which is a rather morbid tale of desert torture set to a rather upbeat tune.

That is about James Loney. I read an interview with him. He was saying that the most difficult thing about his situation was that being a devout Christian was that he was obligated to maintain his love and appreciation for his captors. When he was trying to figure out a way to escape, whatever plan he devised had to include not harming them. He was talking about how that is the greatest challenge, not the discomfort. His benevolence blew my mind. And the fact that he was rescued, but the details of that are still mostly unknown. When he returned to Canada, he didn’t talk to the press very much.

One of the hardest tenets of Christianity for a lot of people is turning the other cheek and loving your enemy. I can imagine it’s even harder when you’re in captivity.

It’s profound in the deepest of ways, and it affected me a lot.

And musically, it’s quite happy!

It’s fun to juxtapose that kind of thing. I don’t want to be too much of a downer. I do want to talk about dark things, but not in a dark way. “There’s a Devil” is about that Gus Van Sant film, Elephant, which is about Columbine.

I wanted to ask about “If You Don’t Believe Me,” which has a line about people coming to cut our throats and how maybe we deserve it. What kind of a chickens-coming-home-to-roost song is that?

It’s exactly what you think it is. It’s a protest song, I suppose. I mean, really, what the fuck do you expect? How come we can’t put two and two together, and why is this such a taboo thing and not more openly discussed? Why do administrations—our country and the United States and Europe—refuse to acknowledge that conditions that are created because of the economic system in this world… [trails off] I think it’s clear. There’s a certain amount of religious antagonism as well. The people who do those things [throat-cutting] are not exactly reasonable… but I think that any kind of military violence is inherently ridiculous, and nothing can justify it in my mind.

How do you go about putting that in song?

Well…. I don’t know. (laughs)

The sentiment in that song is kind of clear, and yet I feel I have to ask, so it’s not hitting me over the head with anything, and it’s not so oblique that I can’t tell what it’s about.

In some ways, that’s one of my most successful songs because of that. It addresses what I want it to without being heavy-handed about it, and it’s loose-ended as well. I did want to take my songwriting to another level, because I do feel that my songs in the past have been too obtuse. At the same time, I hate it so much when songs are just: “I feel like this.” You gotta cloud it up and cover it over to be interesting.

What are your other musical activities?

I’m doing Fembots stuff occasionally, and that’s about it. We’re going to go do a writing retreat, the Fembots and I. I do the odd studio thing here and there. I play on that new Wil record. That’s about it. I’m not that busy, and I don’t mind it.

I hear [Lawr’s girlfriend] Kate [Maki] has a record coming out this year.

Yep, it’s pretty much done. She did it in Ottawa with Dave Draves and Howe Gelb. She’s looking to release that around Christmas time, and go to Europe.

Are you going to be involved in that?

I don’t actually know. It’s sort of up in the air. Part of me thinks that she should go do her thing and I should go do mine. There’s something to be said for playing music together, and there’s something to be said for having different experiences. We’ll cross that bridge when it comes.

Or just get another jamboree tour together. [They toured together with Ruth Minnikin and Dale Murray, ex-Guthries, where all played their own songs and backed each other up.]

We’re also talking about that, but we’ll probably do it under a band name this time. Though Dale is really busy, and hard to pin down. He’s doing Cuff the Duke, Nathan Wiley, and Matt Mays, and they’re all time-consuming.

How are you putting this record out?

I really wanted to attempt to find a label, but I’ve had no luck whatsoever. I’m giving it until the end of the summer, and then if nothing happens I’ll just do it myself, like I did with the other ones—which I was hoping to avoid. I’m not sure what kind of response I was looking for. But nothing I’ve done since my first record has generated that kind of response. I don’t why. I think I’m getting better! It doesn’t make any sense to me. But obviously I’m not the first artist to think that.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Springsteen: Mac McCaughan

When I decdided to phone Mac McCaughan to be a source on my Springsteen story (in this week's Eye Weekly; read it first), I knew he would have a few things to say. He covered "Bobby Jean" and "Growin' Up" in his Portastatic project; his label Merge put out one of this year's biggest Springsteen comparison points, Arcade Fire's Neon Bible. What I didn't know is how much he would have to say, and how much he refutes my theory that Springsteen was ever a love that dare not speak its name.

Quick side note: I fried my Macbook by drowning it in drinking water this weekend. Though the hard drive was salvaged, I wouldn't recommend the experience. That combined with pre-CMJ madness means we likely won't be back on track for the next week, though I hope to post an interview with Springsteen lookalike Nathan Lawr about his (Lawr's) great new record.

Mac McCaughan
October 4, 2007
Locale: cell phone from North Carolina

You were one of the first people I heard covering him about five years ago, after a lot of people didn’t really want to speak his name in the 90s. The 90s were a time when he was raising a family, his records weren’t that great, and he was relegated to the fringes.

Part of that is [the 1992 album] Lucky Town and, uh, and, uh, what’s the other one that came out the same day as Lucky Town? [Human Touch]

I think you’re proving a point about those two albums right there.

It’s funny, because I know the guy who runs Backstreets magazine [the long-running Springsteen fanzine] because his office is in Carrboro now. They did this thing where they had people write in about how they would make those two albums into one good album. There are really good songs on there. But he watered down his impact by putting out two records on the same day. I worked in a record store at the time. And the E Street Band wasn’t together.

[The 1995 album The Ballad of] Tom Joad is a really good record too, but it’s so low-key that it didn’t engage people in the way that The Rising is bound to engage people.

The 90s were a weird time in terms of his output and who was still following him. Obviously tons of people were, but it was a lower profile. He doesn’t lose fans, but there are times when they have more to talk about than other times.

During that time, even discussion of his old records was strained. It was like a secret that people would confess to me: ‘I hate to say it, but I find I actually kind of like Bruce Springsteen.’

That might be a Canadian thing. When I try to talk about Springsteen with friends of mine in other countries—England, Canada, wherever—it’s a little bit weirder. But me, I was never embarrassed about being a Springsteen fan. I think his image is a bit more nuanced here as opposed to how he projects to a foreign audience. A friend of mine from England had this impression of a flag-waving Born in the USA guy, without really knowing what that song or that record was about. So I think it’s the 80s and not the 90s that really put a bad taste in people’s mouths about Springsteen, especially people who didn’t care to look beyond the surface, which was probably a turn-off.

And he was so ubiquitous at that point.

Sure. I’m the first person to say that Born in the USA presented me, as a Springsteen fan, with some problems. I didn’t like the production, and he became so big and ubiquitous that there were all these people getting into Springsteen that I didn’t like. One of my great regrets is that I decided not to go see him on that tour. I was in high school, and I worked at the university after school, and all these frat boy meathead types were going to see the show in Greensboro. The whole vibe felt different to me, so I didn’t go. And I wish I had.

But myself and Jon and Jim in Superchunk were always fans and were never embarrassed or hid our love. Laura wasn’t a fan. But I think she doesn’t like saxophones.

Another big barrier for many!

That was one of the first things that Jim Wilbur and I bonded over, was Nebraska.

Which is the gateway drug for many.

For me, the gateway drug was weirder. I grew up in South Florida until I was 12, when we moved to North Carolina in 1980. I listened to the album rock station or whatever it was called then. So you heard “Born to Run,” “10th Avenue Freeze Out” and all the hits. But my parents took me to see the No Nukes movie. There are so many bands there and lots of it isn’t great. We went to the theatre when it came out. The Springsteen segment is so amazing and blows everyone else away. I think my dad went to see the Doobie Brothers or something, but the Springsteen segment is so incredible.

The River came out right at the same time, or shortly after. We bought the 8-track after that, and totally wore that album out. My only complaint was that with an 8-track there was always a song that got played twice in order to have all the tracks come out the same length, and the song on that was “Point Blank,” which is one of my least favourite songs on that record. That was a bummer. Other than that, I love it.

Win Butler just emailed me to say that he never really saw a difference between Springsteen and The Clash. And he’s what, 26? It made me think that maybe the reason why Springsteen’s name is dropped now, and why there are a lot of bands where you can hear a direct line to what Springsteen did, is because for this generation he’s just part of a massive 20th century discography: it’s not about punk or not punk, cool or not cool. London Calling came out in 1980, and so did The River.

Yeah, but both those records would be played on the album rock station I was talking about. I’d hear “Police on My Back” and “Train in Vain” on the same station. There were more blurring of the lines, and the DJ probably had more say about the records she was playing. At the time, a lot of people were probably listening to both.

I guess those lines were drawn more clearly when Born in the USA came out—which, for me, was when I was in Grade Nine. He was always very mainstream to me.

Right. Now I can go back to Born in the USA and really enjoy a lot of the songs on there, but at the time, the slickness of it turned me off. But other than Nebraska, it’s not like he’s ever been one for an indie lo-fi aesthetic. For me, one of his most produced records is in my Top Three favourites of his, which is Tunnel of Love. Again, that was a record that when it came out, I listened to it all the time. I worked at a pizza place and we were starting Merge. I feel that record didn’t get enough respect at the time, but some of his best songs are on there.

It’s also a record that ages better as you do. The older you get, you realize how terrifying some of those songs are.

It’s very dark. Maybe ten or 12 years ago, we sent a package of Merge CDs to Springsteen, stuff we thought he might like. And we wrote a letter saying, ‘Hey, you’ve been a huge influence, and maybe you’ll like some of this stuff, maybe you won’t.’ He seems like someone who listens to a lot of different things and has good taste in music. But the package came back. The address we dug up was not the right one.

Have you ever heard any feedback about your covers or the Crooked Fingers ones?

No, nothing like that. I got to meet him once, just incredibly briefly. When the Arcade Fire were nominated for a Grammy, I went out for that. There was a party afterwards, and we were about to leave when Bruce and Patti showed up. I knew that he was aware of the Arcade Fire…

Didn’t he order a copy of Funeral very early?

There was someone who worked at Tower in New York who knew Bruce’s guy, the guy who would go buy records for him, ones he would ask for because he couldn’t actually go to the store himself. So he called up one day telling us that this guy bought the Arcade Fire. So we knew there was some awareness there.

Win and Regine talked to him for a while. I talked to Patti for a minute. I was wearing the suit I got married in, and I sang ‘Two Hearts’ at my wedding with the wedding band. I told Patti that, and she thought it was cute. I didn’t really want to have a long conversation with either of them because I was afraid I was going to say something stupid. I shook his hand and said hi and just kind of walked away. But he’s someone that I think is fairly guarded in interviews and in public, but he still comes off as a warm person that you want to talk to more. He’s someone you want to know.

I remember [Arcade Fire's] Tim Kingsbury telling me that meeting him was the only good thing that happened to them at the Grammys. He said you can sense a warmth and a connection right away. When they were leaving the room, Springsteen waved from across the room and said, ‘See you later, friends!’ I’m curious, though, how you see his influence manifesting itself in Arcade Fire or other current bands. Is it because he’s making better records now, or is it something in the zeitgeist?

It could be that he’s been more productive himself over the past few years. Or it could be something about what you’re saying with people who are young enough not to even have lived through the Born in the USA era, who can come to the whole thing without any preconceived baggage about it. But the real thing is that in any era he’s going to be relevant. Production values aside, the songs are timeless—even when he was making them. Listening to his records from the 70s and 80s, if you can imagine the context of the time, when Born to Run came out you’re talking about putting out a 60s-style production of rock and pop and soul and R&B at a time when the two biggest things going were disco and punk rock.

Really? In 1975? I’d put both of those movements a bit later.

Right. So that came out, and then those two things became the biggest things ever, and then he followed it up by trying to live down the hype of those two magazine covers [when Born to Run was released, he was on the cover of Time and Newsweek the same week] with a record like Darkness on the Edge of Town. He was such a throwback at a time when people did not want throwbacks—they wanted the future, whether that was punk or disco.

And you look at people he was hanging out with at the time, it was people like Joe Ely and Joe Strummer. It was already out of time then. It’s not the kind of thing that will go out of fashion, because it is what it is. And he’s still referencing the same things on his new record as he was then.

I can’t explain why now as opposed to five or ten years ago, because to me he was equally relevant five or ten years ago. The kind of themes he’s talking about, bringing this dark element to pop music without it being dour, is something that Neon Bible does. There are depressing themes there, but the overall feeling of the record is not ‘you should just kill yourself now.’ Springsteen does the same thing.


Friday, October 12, 2007

Springsteen: Constantines' Bry Webb

Read this first.

It's my cover story for this week's Eye on Bruce Springsteen, about the shadow he casts over a new generation, a generation who came of age during his fallow years in the irony-laden 90s. For these acts (Constantines, Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade, et al), Springsteen wasn't the ubiquitous force he was for anyone over, say, 33 (old enough to have started high school after Born in the USA had run its course). That generation comes to Springsteen without any serious baggage, and they're finding plenty to love.

And for those who only discovered the man lately, they've actually had a recent decent discography that hints at his greatness: 2005's Devils and Dust, 2006's We Shall Overcome, and the brand new Magic--which is much better than I ever expected it to be. And, if they happen to have at least $100 to spare, they may even have seen the return of the all-powerful E-Street Band since their return in 1999.

Even when Springsteen was reviled by anyone in "alternative" or "underground" circles--a time period that spans most of my adult lifetime--those who discovered his 1982 album Nebraska championed it as a guilty pleasure and/or a gateway drug.

Which is odd to me, as someone who's been a huge Springsteen fan since day one--which was hearing that album's "Atlantic City" on 1050 CHUM in Toronto. As a ten-year-old boy, I loved how different it sounded from everything else on the radio, I wondered who the "chicken man" could possibly be, not to mention what that "little favour" was that he was going to do might be. And, being a morose little lad, I was intrigued by the line: "Everything dies, baby, that's a fact/ but maybe everything that dies someday comes back." Come to think of it, that could be applied to Springsteen's career and current comeback.

I've seen Springsteen twice. The first was at the Amnesty Internatonal concert at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1988, alongside Peter Gabriel, Sting, k.d. lang, Tracy Chapman and Youssou N'Dour. Needless to say, it was unforgettable. When he pink slipped the E Street Band the next year, it took a long time for him to win me back. In fact, I didn't care much what he did at all until they reunited in 1999 and I saw them at the Air Canada Centre--a show that had me weeping with joy from the first 60 seconds as each E Streeter took the stage. And it only got better from there.

Two other guys who were at that show were Steve Lambke and Dallas Wehrle, a couple of hardcore kids from Cambridge who would start a band called the Constantines the next year. That band's career took off after Eye's Stuart Berman wrote this article putting them in a direct lineage to Springsteen (along with Strummer, Fugazi and Sam and Dave). Every other rock critic in North America picked up on the Fugazi-meets-Springsteen comparison and ran with it; the phrase remains a minor albatross for the Constantines to this day--even if it remains somewhat accurate.

I called the Constantines' Bry Webb to see what he had to say about Springsteen. Tomorrow I'll run my conversation with Merge Records' Mac McCaughan, who not only covered Springsteen in his band Portastatic, but also released the Springsteen-esque Arcade Fire album Neon Bible on his label.

Bry Webb of the Constantines
October 3, 2007
Locale: his cell phone in Montreal

I’ve always been a fan, and never lost my love. But around the time your band started, I noticed people talking about him again. Especially when Stuart Berman’s quote went into every press thing I read about you.

We used to cover “I’m on Fire,” but we actually stopped playing it because that quote was on the loose. It was all that anyone said about us, so we decided to downplay it. But Springsteen was always one of those guys we could all agree on: him and the Clash.

I recall a time when Springsteen was not that people talked about or admitted to liking.

I know what you mean. When I was younger and playing in punk rock bands, maybe I was reluctant to admit liking Springsteen. I started liking Springsteen after I fell in love with the Replacements. [Webb has a tattoo with that band's song title "Left of the Dial."] They were this band that were writing really good songs and playing them loud and being a raucous live band with beautiful, sensitive songs and great lyrics. Then I realized that they were kind of doing a Springsteen thing. I saw Springsteen in a new light and actually started buying his records instead of just knowing the hit singles from Born in the USA.

Musically, you were drawn to it, but what about lyrically? Did that part attract you initially, or did it sink in later?

We sometimes get called a working class band or a blue-collar band, and I’m not sure what that means. And I don’t think Springsteen ever set out to be a blue-collar hero, either. He was writing about subjects that he was close to and knew vividly. That seemed inspiring to me, trying to write honest songs.

I think people turned away from him after Tunnel of Love and through the 90s—mostly because there are a lot of crappy records, Tunnel of Love not being one of them. His music slowed to a trickle and it wasn’t that great, but also the culture of the 90s was so steeped in irony, and there wasn’t room for an earnest, honest “working class guy.” Springsteen was not part of the 90s at all.

That’s the difference between the Replacements and Springsteen; there is a lot of irony and taking the piss in Replacements lyrics. Though I feel there’s a lot of stuff underneath what’s available on the surface of Springsteen stuff, other ideas and winks.

One of the main reasons he’s so successful is his empathy for his characters, even the most vile or trivial ones. There are those throwaway toss-off two-minute rock’n’roll songs on The River, and even there you really get a sense of those narrators and what their concerns are and even just how they get their kicks on a Friday night.

I’m not particularly good at writing character songs, but I’m definitely inspired by his interest in the way people survive. That’s a real theme that runs through his entire career, the way people define their environments. I tend to write more about people I know and try to

Also, I’ve been listening to older Springsteen stuff in the last year, older bootlegs, and I feel like he was a real champion of the underground, especially when he was younger. I read something about him being a huge fan of Suicide, and recently he covered “Dream Baby Dream.” I also heard him do that in the 70s, on a bootleg. And he wrote with Patti Smith ["Because the Night"] and played on [Lou Reed's] “Street Hassle,” so he has this weird vibe. And his early lyrics were so dense, whereas later on they were stripped down and more pop. But the early stuff was really strange and unconventional.

In the 90s I was really into hardcore music, and that got so heart-on-the-sleeves, and that also led me to appreciate Springsteen. I didn’t take too well to irony by the end of my high school career. That’s another thread between Fugazi and Springsteen.

A band like Fugazi has always been about their live show, but in the shambling 90s, a lot of people didn’t want to admit to putting on a show, there was such a rejection of any kind of artifice—which is an artifice in itself. Whereas Springsteen is such a showman through and through, who clearly enjoys himself on stage. As opposed to making everybody suffer through your art in a collective experience with the audience.

It’s an interesting cycle. I’m sure people will be basking in irony again soon. I haven’t heard the new Springsteen record at all, not even the new single.

I really liked the two songs he made videos for, but the first time I heard the rest of it I didn’t like it. And I really didn’t like The Rising.

No, I wasn’t a fan of that at all.

This sounded a bit like that at first, but the songs are growing on me, and they’re more Born in the USA-sounding. And the album gets better as it goes along: it opens with all these guitar-heavy songs where you wonder where the E Street Band is. But they come through later in the album’s second half.

So you like it more than The Rising.

I can’t listen to that record. It really bothers me.

Yeah, it doesn’t speak to me at all. But I like career artists. It’s exciting for me to look at someone who plays for 40 years, and their imagination is still going.

I liked a lot of Devils and Dust.

Yeah, I liked what I heard of that.

Where do you hear his influence today?

I definitely think that new Arcade Fire album has a lot of similarities to Darkness on the Edge of Town. I didn’t hear that on their first record, and I never thought that about their band in general before this. But “(Antichrist Television Blues)” has a real Springsteen element to it: the character element, and the way the song builds. I really like that record a lot.

What do you think is misunderstood about Springsteen, if anything?

I think people gloss over the disturbing side of him. When I look back at his older music, he does seem more counterculture more than his image now would suggest.

Lyrically, musically or politically?

All three. His persona is so iconic that people don’t notice the strangeness behind some of what he does. Covering “Dream Baby Dream” is a great example of that. There’s a mischief behind a lot of his songs and his persona.

There was the “41 Shots” song a few years ago, and there’s a rousing rock number on the new album with the chorus, “Who wants to be the last to die for a mistake?” Which, of course, was a John Kerry line from the 2004 campaign. You’ve seen him before, haven’t you? With your mom?

Yeah, that was on The Rising tour. [Because of that] it wasn’t the show I was hoping it would be, but it was still great. And it was so great to go see a show with your mom and be just as excited as her. I would have loved to have seen the tour before that, the E Street reunion tour. [Constantines] Dallas [Wehrle] and Steve [Lambke] saw that, and said it was one of the best shows they’d ever seen.

I saw that too, and I actually started bawling when they all came out one by one at the beginning of the show.

I like that too, that there’s this community there that he’s brought back to life.


Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Bruce Peninsula

Moments after stepping off the train from Ottawa, where I'd been interviewing the Acorn, I went from Union Station immediately to the Music Gallery--aka St. George the Martyr Anglican Church--where Toronto's new favourite band Bruce Peninsula were recording vocals for their debut album.

After rushing there and gushing falafel sauce ejaculate all over myself immediately before entering the church, engineer Leon Taheny let me into the sacred sanctum where the four men and four women of Bruce Peninsula were gathered around the altar to record their call-and-response vocals, with Neil Haverty and Micha Bower taking leads. I wrote about this experience for Eye Weekly in this article. Read that before you read this.

That church session coincided with Bower's birthday, and so when I went to wake up Haverty and BP founder Matt Cully the next morning at 9AM, they were operating on very little sleep. I had to catch another train to Guelph later that morning; our interview was so rushed that there wasn't even time for caffeine. And on top of all that, I spilled a glass of water all over both of them.

Despite these circumstances, both men were shockingly articulate--well, maybe not that shocking, seeing as how Haverty is a music writer himself. I first met him years ago when he was playing bass in the Ottawa art-rock band Music For Mapmakers; I was in a power-pop group that shared a weekend's worth of gigs with them, even though our bands were oil and water. If I recall correctly, I also got him started writing at Exclaim!--a gig I'm sure he would have landed with or without me. (You can read his cover story about Tortoise here).

Though I've always enjoyed his writing, Haverty and I have never had similar music tastes--for starters, I loathe math rock--which is part of the reason I was so pleasantly surprised at how instantly I fell in love with Bruce Peninsula when I saw them at the Track and Field festival this summer. I wrote about that here. Helen Spitzer wrote about it here. Refer to either piece for descriptors of their music.

Spitzer is bringing the band to Montreal for the first time tomorrow, for her showcase at Pop Montreal on Thursday night at Club Lambi, alongside Feuermusik (see interview here), the Luyas (Jesse Stein of S. S. Cardiacs/Miracle Fortress with Pietro Amato and Stef Schneider of Bell Orchestre), and Rhode Island's weird and wonderful accordion-wielding songwriter and soundscaper Alec K. Redfearn. Yes, this show is the same night as Final Fantasy, but how many times have you seen that guy by now?

If you're Montreal-bound this weekend, don't miss it. Just look at that beautiful Jack Dylan poster! But if you're stuck in Toronto, Bruce Peninsula will be opening for Ohbijou at Lee's Palace on November 9, and for the Acorn at the Horseshoe on November 24.

Bruce Peninsula
August 22, 2007
Locale: Neil Haverty and Matt Cully’s backyard on Ossington Ave.

How much did you get done in the last two days of recording?

N: Ten songs. A lot more than we reasonably should have.

How are your voices feeling?

M: Not bad, compared to when we did the instrumental parts. You could see it in my hands.

Is there blood on those tracks?

N: Blisters, for sure. We tried to do everything so that we didn’t have to overdub. I’d say 90% of it is one solid instrumental take and one solid vocal take. We’re trying not to cheat, but a little bit is going to have to happen.

What’s your timeline?

N: We’re not going to rush it at all. Why bother, really? Nobody’s waiting for it. The plan is to get it done by Christmas. [Vocalist] Micha [Bower] is in Moncton, so she’s got to come back whenever we’re doing things like this. Even this, it was hard for her to get three days off work.

Why is she there?

N: Her boyfriend programs casino games, or online video games, and Moncton is a hotbed for that kind of thing.

M: It was also the fact that she’s a writer and wanted time in the country to focus on that full-time, so that helped the decision to follow him there. [Ed note: she's recently relocated to London, Ontario]

But the rest of you are definitely all in Toronto? No more geographic dispersions?

N: No, not at all. Steve, our drummer, works as a production assistant for Tafelmusik, so once a month he goes out on tour with them.

Micha has lead on so many songs, at least the ones I’ve seen, so I was wondering what it was like playing without her.

M: In terms of the writing, it’s been an evolution from songs that focus primarily on Micha, or a balance of Micha and Neil doing the lead. We added members over the last year. Micha and I did one show, and then Neil joined us.

That was a year ago?

N: That was August 6, at Bummer in the Summer

M: With each new formation, it was a new experience.

N: At that show, Matt had this idea that he wanted me to sing “Rosie” and we got some other friends together.

M: Micha left just after Christmas, and that posed a problem with how we were going to continue. There were a few songs where Isla stepped up to the plate, and we’ve experimented with different people singing some of the leads. But there are certain songs that we leave for when Micha is around. But because we’re not a two-show-a-week band, she hasn’t actually missed many shows.

N: I think she’s missed two.

M: All the new songs we’ve written, we’re working towards less of a lead-and-follow and more of a group. The last song we wrote there are three leads and a constant group presence. I think that’s the direction we’re moving towards.

N: We have so many great singers that it would be a shame not to utilize them. If Micha was the leader and everyone else sang back-up all the time, it wouldn’t be worth their talents.

But it started initially with you, Matt?

N: It wasn’t supposed to be a band, necessarily. It was more of a variety night, where I played a solo set, and Isla played a set, and basically I got to listen to Matt and Micha practice for a few weeks and I knew I wanted to join the band. I think they did three songs at that point.

M: And all of those are still on the set list. They’ve changed a lot, obviously. It all arose out of our friendships. All the people in the band were in our group of extended friends. As it shifted from Micha and I singing these folk songs and writing into the three of us, and then the two of us [Neil and Matt] being the core of the writing, it started to be more group-oriented. We started to develop a method that exists today, which is this incubation process. We live together, and then we bring it to the people who play instruments, and then to the singers after that.

Who lives here?

N: Lou, who does Goin’ Steady [a soul DJ night at The Boat] with Matt, but he’s about to move out and we have a new roommate that we don’t know that well. Right now it’s a big empty room that I really want to record in.

M: And the basement here is a big part of the band.

N: We moved here in September—we got kicked out of our old apartment because we were too loud. We’d have noise rock jams at three in the morning, and the cops were called 11 times.

M: But they never came up to our door.

N: I think they just registered the call. They don’t always come. But we were pretty ridiculous. I’d have called the cops on us too. Having a basement has really made the band happen, just because we have the space to do it. At 587 Bathurst, we had this tiny room where me, Matt and Misha barely fit in it. Here, we can actually fit all 10 people into the room—almost. It wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t find this apartment.

My understanding of what I’ve read about the band is that it started mostly with covers of traditional stuff.

N: There was one original song at the first show.

M: It started out as an interest in Alan Lomax and field recordings, and my own personal interest in exploring and reading about it: the idea of the tradition of American folk and blues music, and passing songs through generations by oral tradition. Micha’s voice fascinated me. She’s one of my best friends. We’d quite often sing together as friends, and her voice reminded me of the voices I’d hear on those records: raw and untrained but with a lot of character. It has none of the trappings of someone who has practiced her voice to death or has any airs about what it means to be a vocalist. Then slowly, we thought if we were going to take this to another level and not just be arrangers—not that we’re going to stop doing that; it fascinates me to take an old song and make it our own; that’s integral to the philosophy of the band.

N: The Lomax stuff really permeated our group of friends, because Matt does a really good job of explaining why it’s so important to us. You can hear it [in the music itself]—you don’t really need an introduction, but Matt had a tonne of this stuff, and any time I wanted more of it he could dump it on me.

M: It grounded me in terms of an aesthetic, which still exists. We might not be putting records on and saying, ‘Oh, we need another great spiritual!’ We built into camps of singing and rhythm. Even melodically in our guitars and the bass, it’s all about rhythm. That way it goes back to African music, as much as we don’t have any experience playing African music. It mobilized us, that beginning period, and it still exists in our writing. Obviously Neil has his solo record and it could very easily change into Neil writing songs and us backing him up like a Motown thing, rather than finding a way for each of us to exist in the song and ensuring everyone is at their optimum level.

N: Once you understand that, you don’t bring those kinds of songs to the table. I won’t bring a fully-formed one anymore. Maybe initially I did that; it’s a strange situation, because we don’t have much chance to practice. Above all, that’s why Matt and I take charge, because we live together and have plenty of opportunity to work on this stuff. A lot of times we have some grand idea of what’s going to happen…

M: But more and more it’s shifting into a group effort. It’s important to everyone, because everyone wants to feel involved. Reaching that level of communication to ten people, though, I don’t know if that’s even possible.

With a band like this, the investment that people put into it will be different than if they just happen to be part of a large group of people doing it. There’s such a spiritual element to what it is, and it’s very evident as an audience member.

N: That’s what we get out of it. That’s why we do it. It’s not at all about chops, which is why we can get away with practicing once or twice before a show. It’s a primal thing. Once you’re on stage, we have no doubts that everyone in the band will channel that.

What’s your connection with the spiritual nature of the traditional stuff? Does it resonate directly with you, or more metaphorical?

M: That’s an answer that’s very individual for every person in the band. For me, it’s not a religious connection that I have with the content of what they’re singing about. We sing a song now called ‘Lift Him Up’ which Micha sings, and it’s by Washington Phillips, who was a preacher. The one we sang at Track and Field was also by Washinton Phillips: ‘What Are They Doing in Heaven Today.’ I’ve always been interested in contrary ideas, like secular gospel, or the material and spiritual colliding.

I was talking to Micha about this last night. The spiritual element that I find in music brings me a way to deal with problems that we’re all dealing with in our own lives currently, because we’re always up against some adversary, or dealing with modernity in general. You can extrapolate from your own problems—I don’t want to go to work, I want to make music—and your spirit wants to extend itself into it, but it’s being pushed back inside. And then in the lyrical content we’re adding to it, we see it connecting to people in the musical community, in the arts community, in our friends just trying to get by, it’s the same context for where you’d need this spiritual uplift.

N: Whether we believe in God or not, we believe in the energy of those songs.

M: There are lots of recordings of people singing in Baptist churches and that kind of real connection that they’re getting to the music because they believe it’s connected to something higher. That’s so central. The higher has no name, necessarily. The higher is just as confusing as the problem itself. There are no metaphysical answers there.

I think for anyone who plays music together—if you do it well, and you’re communicating—there’s this bond between musicians that few non-musicians—or non-participants, anyway—can understand or partake in in the same way. There’s a communion there with each other, built on the energy that’s being channeled. That can be achieved in any kind of music, but with this kind of music there’s more of a direct line—and not just lyrically, either. And I think that’s evident for everyone both on and off stage.

N: When Matt says that we wish we could be playing music all the time, it’s because that’s the most euphoric moment in our lives. When we’re downstairs and we’re doing that, you don’t think about any other crap.

M: So it functions as a religious gathering.

How does that differ, if at all, from other musical projects you’ve done?

N: It took me a while to realize. For a while, when you’re learning, there’s—not a paint-by-numbers—but you absorb your influences. Now it’s not really about your influences, it’s about the feelings we can put out there. Personally, it took me a long time to just start playing from me, and not from all these external forces.

From all your records.

N: Exactly. And it’s such a good feeling. Whenever I’m playing something now, it’s not like I’m wondering whether it’s somebody else’s song—it’s my song because there’s some conviction to it.

M: Since the beginning, Neil has come a long way to become more comfortable and I don’t hear his songs in the songs. I hear obviously his voice, but he’s slowly become the front person—or one of the front people, in the band.

N: Even my voice, in the last year, because of this band—I mean, before I played solo acoustic, and that just wasn’t happening before, you know what I mean? The band needed somebody to holler, and I thought I could do that. These help a little bit (gestures to cigarettes)…

Yeah, but those won’t help forever.

N: No, and I definitely feel it after two days of singing. There’s a definite change in the last two years of how I perform.

M: For me, I was never in a band before. I played music all my life.

More socially?

M: Yeah, but I put on shows and was involved in the community in other ways.

N: Matt [booked] Poor Pilgrim [an indie music series].

M: I guess it took me a long time to settle on being confident enough to take all the ideas I had to another level. This band has allowed me to come out of the basement. It’s my coming out party.

N: I forced that confidence a bit. I’ve been playing shows ever since I started writing songs. Micha and Matt weren’t looking at it as a band, but I don’t know how to be in a band any other way. I wanted to play shows and make a record. But I never faced any opposition. The great thing about this band is that you have [vocalists] Casey [Mecija of Ohbijou], Katie [Stelmanis], Isla [Craig] and me who have played regularly in the last five or ten years, and then you have Carrie and Micha and Matt for whom it wasn’t about being part of a band, it was about music being a part of their lives.

Is it coincidence that it’s an all-female choir?

N: A bit. Our group of friends has a large amount of females in it. They can all sing. There was a moment when we knew we had to utilize that.

M: I don’t know if it was meant, but it fell into place that way. It wasn’t meant to be: guys are playing instruments, and girls are singing. And it won’t be like that. It’s a matter of practicality at this point. Singing is an instrument, and it takes a lot to get it to the point where it’s comfortable. We do choir practices and we do band practices. It wouldn’t be weird if a guy joined, but we’ve kind of capped off (membership)—though we might have a new girl playing mallet instruments.

N: The idea is that the girls will eventually have drums. Katie and Isla are
amazing pianists, and why are we not using that?

M: Katie was playing Bach fugues at the Music Gallery, and I thought, man, we have to work on this. But any group activity is an organizational nightmare, and this isn’t an army: people have their own wants, desires, plans and goals.

N: That’s been humbling for me. With math rock, we used to practice five times a week, and we wouldn’t dream of playing a show if we didn’t feel practiced enough.

M: We played a few shows where some of our members hadn’t even met before they got on stage.

Most women in the choir have something else going on, so I’d understand if the choir practiced less often than the band.

N: That also has to do with the fact that we don’t have a P.A. system, and Steve is a really loud drummer. Now we do an acoustic practice with the girls on the porch, then have the guys over the next day in the basement, and then hopefully rent a P.A. for one practice altogether before a show.

How do the neighbours here feel about those acoustic porch practices?

N: After our experiences at the last place, surprisingly no one has complained here yet.

M: I don’t know, would you complain about six people singing? These people (gestures to one side) have a mix tape of soft rock that they play all day…

N: The same one every time! Like ‘I Will Always Love You,’ over and over…

M: ‘Like a Rock.’ ‘Take My Breath Away.’

N: Our landlord is a green thumb, as you can see, and he spends a lot of time back here. But I think he likes it.

M: He gave the girls each a rose the last time we practiced. I think he does like it.

Now that you’ve finished recording, what’s next?

N: We’re going to play Pop Montreal, some big shows with Ohbijou and The Acorn in November. I want to do this right. That’s why we’ve spent way more money than we have. It’s all on credit cards. I want it to be as big as I think the band is. When it comes to putting out the record, we’re going to take our time until we can find someone who can help us. There’s ten of us, and I can’t imagine organizing a tour. I’d lose all my hair. If that means the record doesn’t come out until spring, that’s the way it goes.

M: We’re all such music geeks who fetishize records, so if we’re going to make a record, it has to be the one that goes above the mantelpiece and that we’re really proud of and have no regrets.

N: Because we’re all friends, it’s important to look at it as a yearbook, so that when we’re 70 years old—whether this band implodes right after the record or lasts 10 years—this is the last year and a half of our lives and it’s going to be in glorious surround sound.

Speaking of surround sound, what were your reasons for choosing the Music Gallery as a recording space?

N: We’ve all been big fans of the Music Gallery since we got here—I say that because most of us are transplanted from surrounding cities. Playing the Music Gallery was such a big deal for us.

M: We booked it eight months beforehand, right after we played our third show. I had this idea beforehand that we would teach the audience some of the songs and then record them at that show.

N: It was a great show, but we all felt that the drums and stuff was a bit overwhelming in the space, but we knew the vocals would be great. Plus, [engineer] Leon [Taheny] had some experience doing the Final Fantasy record there. And because we know [the Music Gallery’s] Jonny [Dovercourt], we had some nice ins.

M: It added to all the performances, and you’ll hear that on the album. We were humbled by the space, and that added to the performances. Everyone was a lot more focused and willing to work. Hanging out in that space and hearing other people sing is different from hearing Micha do a great job in an isolation booth while we’re eating nachos on the street or something. Instead, we were in the church pews. It’s what I’m going to remember the most about making the record. It’s a character that will be a part of the record.

What also struck me was the convergence of purpose. It’s a church on Sunday and during the week the weirdos take over. So where else would Bruce Peninsula make a record, really?

N: I really want to go to Sunday service there to experience that place differently.

M: There’s an obvious thematic thing that led us there, with this type of music we do. I went to church growing up, and there’s something about the sound of a congregation singing. It’s hardly professional, but there’s always one guy harmonizing—actually, my dad’s that guy.

N: His dad is part of the police choir.

M: You hear grandmas singing and children singing and the sound it produces is one sound, and that’s an aesthetic ideal for us.

N: The last couple of days were my first experience of that. I’ve never really been to church. The one time I went to church I got into a car accident and had three stitches in my lip. So I didn’t go back!

Obviously a bad omen. I was talking to someone yesterday about large stadium shows and how we don’t go to them anymore, for a variety of reasons—mostly because artists we like don’t play those venues. And they said that they don’t like seeing people in that size of a venue, but I actually do, and part of it is the communion with that many people. If you love the songs as much as everyone else there, it’s a beautiful thing to experience that many people singing.

N: It’s a shame that can’t come without a $70 price tag! That’s why we don’t go to stadium shows.

And it’s probably why artists like that do cocaine—because they just got off stage where 20,000 people were singing their song and they feel like a god and how do you possibly follow that up?

N: We certainly have aspirations to play to bigger crowds and sound systems. I really feel that the bigger the surroundings are, the better the band will sound. When Casey [of Ohbijou] and Rolf [Klausener of The Acorn] asked us to play Lee’s and the Horseshoe, we said, yes, absolutely, because we want to hear it through a bigger soundsystem. We love the Tranzac front room, don’t get me wrong, but the sound system isn’t exactly banging.

Which is why Track and Field was really an ideal venue for you—set in the trees, modest but decent P.A., and an audience that fell in love immediately.

M: Playing outdoors has been great to us. People are a bit more open. It hits them in a way that it wouldn’t if it was a five-band night at said bar.

N: We’re lucky because the outdoor gigs we’ve done have been in front of people that would like us: Track and Field, Dog Day Afternoon and Dufferin Grove. Whereas if we were playing something like…

M: Mix99 fest? Actually that could work…

N: Track and Field, you felt this real desire to discover these bands. People were amazing to us there, because we were a surprise. I don’t think a lot of people knew who we were. How amazing is it that there were 300 people there who like this stuff and got to hear us? And Casey gave us a good slot, too.

Anything else we should know?

M: We could talk about the next record.

N: Bruce Peninsula sounds this way now, but with nine people who are as creative as they are, I think we have four or five records planned that are not this.

M: Part of making this record is, like he said, the yearbook aspect. It’s closure, it’s done, it’s based on these ideas we had. But there’s another level that’s more our own that I see coming from the talents in this band. Maybe less of a rock band and more of a chamber ensemble, an ensemble of people who are trying to compose works that operate in a… what’s the word? Rock is about riffing and jamming, and none of our songs come out of jamming. They’re conceptual ideas and then they’re refined.

N: With that primal need at the centre, you can play any kind of music you want. It’s not about the style of the music; it’s about the delivery. I think we’re so lucky. At one point in my life, I wouldn’t listen to anything pre-1990 (laughs), but we all know people who are like, ‘I listen exclusively to garage rock.’ And there’s nobody in this band like that. And living with DJs, I hear so much, from Van Halen to Bo Diddley, and all of us are so exposed to everything that saying we’re going to be one kind of band is just a death.

And that’s the making of a great band right there.

N: Let’s hope so!


Monday, October 01, 2007

The Acorn, pt 2

To mark the one year anniversary of Radio Free Canuckistan--as well as the 100th post--we have the conclusion of my lengthy conversation with The Acorn, featured in this month's cover story in Exclaim!.

Part one is here.

Cross-Canada tour dates are here.

Note to JW in Seattle: I don't think Glory Hope Mountain comes out in the U.S. until later in October. Perhaps someone reading this from Paper Bag can clarify.

Unrelated: The funniest post-Polaris press gaffe I've seen yet is here, complete with pictures. Congrats, Mr. Wilson! Thanks to Bartlett for the link.

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

What do you think of indie rock emo boys who only sing about their broken heart?

R: That’s totally fine. I don’t think the content of this record is any more valid than anything else. It’s just what we chose to record.

So many lyric writers have such interesting lives around them, people in their own family whose stories they don’t know, or people in their own community. When I hear stories like [your mother’s], it makes me think of how featherweight or inconsequential or self-absorbed most of those lyrics are, because lyrics are often the last thing that musicians think about—because they’re coming at it as musicians, not as poets or storytellers. They don’t invest into what they’re singing as much. Is this something either of you have thought about before?

R: I hear what you’re saying. On a personal level, I didn’t feel like writing another record that dealt with my inner turmoil, or insecurities, or paranoia. I really wanted to get out of my own head and explore a story and do something narrative. I’ve always been a huge fan of Andrew Vincent’s writing and Andy Swan’s writing and how effortlessly narrative their stories are. They’re so good at painting pictures. And Miche [Jetté] from Flecton [Big Sky] was a big influence too, how he can take stories and make them into something musical. I just didn’t want to write a record that had to do with broken hearts. I was really bored.

Same thing with the instrumentation. I knew we were perfectly capable of writing a record with great rock guitar lines and rock drums, but I had no interest in doing that again. In the way that Blankets was really different from Pink Ghosts, I wanted to do something different. I knew we had these grants and we could take our time and do something stimulating. In a way, it was kind of selfish.

I remember at the time when we were getting close to the last leg, in last March or April, and I was hammering away at the lyrics. The Arcade Fire record [Neon Bible] came out, and I remember reading articles about how they wanted to get away from things that were close and personal to them, and talk about a global perspective. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is the complete opposite. This is about one person’s life—two, maybe—and how unsexy that was.’ Here’s a time when the world is focused on global issues and the environment is in every newspaper, every day, and World War III is pretty much going on right now. So to take a vacation from that and write a story about one person’s life seems really inconsequential and selfish.

But as I told you earlier, I have a friend who works for the David Suzuki foundation who told me: some people choose to try to save the world, and other people celebrate it. That really, really hammered home the whole reason why I was doing this. Why is her story not as important as anyone else’s?

[stops, pauses] Why am I shaking so much?

J: It did seem selfish, because we had a band thing going on where we all had set roles, and when Rolf told us he had this idea for the album it was like, ‘I don’t know what you guys are going to do.’ It was a challenge for all of us to make it our own vision, too. That’s why it was so fun. We all had to re-evaluate how we were coming at things musically and add our own parts. It was so hard, but so rewarding.

R: There were many challenging moments in the recording process. For [Jeffrey] Malecki, he’s a great drummer who is so idiosyncratic. To yank him out of a lot of the songs and replace him with these group percussions, of course he was going to feel like he didn’t have a huge part on the record. But he did: he laid the groundwork for a lot of the songs.

J: There are a lot of tracks where there is so much going on percussion-wise, but if you pulled him out, the whole thing would fall apart.

Rolf, your family lived in Mali at some point?

R: Yep. We were there for a few years. That’s where [my parents] really fell in love after they had me. Their relationship is a whole other thing. But that’s when my mom was exposed to all this African music. She was the one—I didn’t realize this, because I’d always credited my father for this. He loved the music too, but my mom was the one who bought all the records and went to shows and record stores and would collect them from friends. So I have this wonderful treasure trove of records from East and West Africa that are all my mom’s.

When Rolf talks about consciously not making a guitar-bass-drums record, I’m wondering how the rest of the band felt about that. Were you all in a similar mindspace?

J: It scared the hell out of me at first.


J: Because we’d never done that before.

Did you feel self-pigeonholed because you’ve only ever played in rock bands? You studied music at school, didn’t you?

J: I’ve played jazz and contemporary stuff. I wasn’t worried about the technical standpoint, but from a group standpoint, I was wondering how we were all going to pull together and do this. I wasn’t totally sure we were going to be able to do it.

How do you [Jeff] feel about Honduran folk music?

J: We’d listen to it and I thought it was great, but I wondered: how does this relate to anything we’ve ever done? And how the fuck are we going to bring these two things together? We had some test exercises where Rolf and I got together with a microphone and some of these records and just dissected stuff, and tried to play together and build up bigger percussion things. I didn’t get it totally, until Rolf played ‘Flood Pt. 1’ over one of those rhythms. I knew that if we were going to do this, we had to do a really good job, or it was going to be horrible.

R: Jeff was really critical of the process, and when I would throw out certain ideas, Jeff was one of the first people to say, ‘You can’t just take this and put a guitar line over it.’ Of course, invariably, we’re not stupid. There are so many examples of popular music that do this thing—Graceland being an obvious reference—where there is this marriage. And we’re not going to assemble Ladysmith Black Mambazo to come play on this record. And I didn’t have the budget to fly down to Honduras and meet native players.

There’s a big refugee community in Montreal, I hear.

R: There is. And there was this wonderful moment last summer when I went to see Konono No. 1 at the [Ottawa] Bluesfest, and I was so excited to see them. There was this opening act, which turned out to be a Garifuna band from Honduras. He was more of a contemporary, new-age-y, highly-produced musician, but his drummers were all Garifuna drummers. I was in the distance drinking beer with friends, and I heard him say in broken English: ‘We are from Honduras, and we play Garifuna music.’ I was like, ‘What???!!!’

I went backstage after, and I can barely speak Spanish and he can barely speak English, but I found out he was on this Stone Tree record label from Belize. That turned out to be a wonderful contemporary reference. I went home, looked them up, and found all these wonderful contemporary examples of Garifuna music. They were so much more a refined version of the Smithsonian recordings I’d been listening to, and put them in context. Because I could not make heads or tails of a lot of these field recordings from the 50s. But when I heard them in a more contemporary sense, I could hear all the base elements: the heart drum, where it sat in the mix, and then I could go back and listen to these Smithsonian recordings and understand them more on a musical level.

Did you not think you could do that? Were you daunted by the Smithsonian recordings?

R: I talked to John Higney about it a little bit. Higney, being a music professor at Carleton, said, ‘You don’t have to copy this stuff. Listen to the cadence of the singing. Listen to the accents of the rhythms. There are things you can access there.’ He didn’t say much, but he really made me realize that you don’t have to borrow it all. You can find a bit of inspiration and direction and find a new way of looking at things. You can listen to as many rock records as you want and end up copying a lot of that aesthetic verbatim, but you don’t have to do that. You can find inspiration in tidbits that you attach yourself to. That was a big revelation.

‘Flood Pt. 1’ does that with guitars that sound West African to me, and rhythms that I weren’t aware were Garifuna rhythms. Earlier today we were talking about Bruce Peninsula, and how I heard a lot of First Nations voices in what they do, whether that’s conscious or not, and I also hear that in the ‘Flood’ vocals—which probably has more to do with my frame of reference as a Canadian.

R: What I discovered was that there was a slaveship in the 17th century that capsized off the eastern coast of Honduras and Nicaragua. This huge slaveship of 500 West African slaves ended up escaping and settling on the coast. They mated with the natives, and that became the foundation of Garifuna. So you had this oral chanting tradition of the natives, which is also tied to native Canadian and Mayan oral tradition, mixed with these West African rhythms, and that is Garifuna music. Which is kind of what we’re doing—not that we’re mating with any Garifuna people. Yet.

Yet! Wait until you tour Honduras.

R: I was actually thinking of sending the record to Stone Tree, to see if they wanted to release it in Belize!

What kind of stuff do they normally put out?

R: Contemporary recordings of Garifuna bands. Some of it is almost Afro-Cuban. If you like any of the stuff on the World Circuit label, then you’d probably love the stuff on Stone Tree. It’s similar, at least aesthetic-wise. But they’re much more heavily produced and have a more contemporary vibe to them.

Sometimes when people speak conceptually about cross-cultural stuff, I think we’ve all heard some fairly mediocre records where the term Canada Council becomes a pejorative. (all laugh). You can tell that someone wrote a grant and made it sound really sexy, and they get the money and then you hear the record and—what the hell? This is just a peanut-butter-and-chocolate combo, something that might have seemed like a good idea for a folk festival workshop but doesn’t work at all on record. It can be a very daunting thing to not make it cheesy and not make it a government-funded project about cross-cultural communication.

J: When I was thinking about it, it was important for a lot of reasons that it wasn’t just bringing in a sitar player and claiming to play Indian music. It’s a typically Western thing. Obviously, it’s a bit different because Rolf is half-Honduran, so it’s a part of his heritage. For me as a random white dude, I didn’t want to feel like we were just taking some Honduran elements and sticking it into our sound and getting to talk about how influenced we were.

R: In defence of our common whiteness, I barely speak Spanish. I’m kind of brown in the summer time, but I’m pale in the winter. All this was totally new to me. I was glad that the whole time Jeff was reminding me that we were not out to make a Garifuna record with English lyrics. It was good to have that reminder. Sometimes I felt like, ‘This stuff is so cool. It would be neat to just do it and sing on top of it.’

But there’s so much wonderful creation that happens when we get together, that there was no way it was going to end up being that. I didn’t want it to be cultural appropriation for the sake of grant money or anything like that. Again, researching the Honduran music was an afterthought, way after I’d interviewed my mom and the idea for the record was starting to take shape.

J: You did write the grant application based on the Ontario Arts Council…

R: I did allude to it in the Ontario Arts Council grant, but it was more of an afterthought after I interviewed my mom. The Ottawa grant proposal had a lot more of that in it and included a lot of the research I had done. Which was all from pretty standard ethnomusicology books, like the Garland Encyclopaedia of World Music. That’s a basic starting point, like looking up a word in the dictionary. There are 100 pages about Central American music there. Beyond that, I ended up speaking to an ethnomusicologist. But I knew that no matter what I did, we didn’t have enough time. In a way, it was Graceland vs. Rhythm of the Saints. There was going to be a mix, but not a situation where we had a pure Garifuna song married perfectly with lyrics. It was never going to be that. Once I let go of that idea, the songwriting and the amalgamation came a lot easier.

This band has many core strengths, many things they can do very well, and you wouldn’t want to chuck all that.

R: No, totally. I’m reminded of that every time we sit down to write.

J: Especially with [guitarist] Howie [Tsui]. I have a degree in guitar performance, but I couldn’t begin to come up with his guitar parts. He’s one of the best guitar players I’ve ever seen, and I look up to him a lot. When we’re making a record, you have to let him do his thing, and it’s part of what’s made our music interesting up to this point.

That’s an interesting qualifier: ‘up to this point.’ (all laugh)

R: I’ve played in enough bands where it’s either been an incredibly democratic process, or, in the case of [Greenfield Main’s Jon] Bartlett, it’s: ‘here’s the song, play my song.’ With this band, it was interesting over the last few years, how much positive influence their egos have on the band. I present things, and there is no way it will end up the way I had it in my mind’s eye.

J: Uh, sometimes you do put your foot down.

R: A very gentle, slipper-laden foot. We recorded ‘Oh, Napoleon’ three times to get it right. The first time was this dreamy, atmospheric thing with fourteen guitars strumming, kind of Eno-ish, Julie and the Wooden Stars feel to it with spare drums. I wrote it in a more Appalachian style, and listening to that take a whole bunch of times I knew it was wrong. The night before we left on tour, at three in the morning, I recorded a guitar/vocal/banjo version. We listened to it in the mountains of BC, and I knew it was how we had to do that song. I rarely want to say, ‘This is what has to happen,’ but that was one. We really had to drop our egos on this record and realize what the song was, what the lyrics were, and where the music was going. That was a huge challenge.

One of the simplest songs, ‘Plateau Ramble,’ was a fucking nightmare, just to get Malecki to not play like Malecki. In the initial recording process we spent four hours on it. It’s a fingerpicky acoustic song that’s a foot-stomper, and Malecki was trying all these crazy syncopated beats. It was so hard to tell him to just play the kick drum. He admitted later on how hard that day was, how frustrating it was because I wasn’t letting him do his thing. But he knew that’s the way that song should be.

These guys are smart, talented guys, and I am not as smart as most of them. It’s intimidating, because I really look up to them, and there’s not much I can do sometimes. I feel like they’re on a different plane. Jeff is so smart, and Malecki is another level of humanity that I’ve never experienced. I feel so frayed, scattered and unfocused sometimes trying to relate these ideas to these articulate guys.

[another visitor drops by]

“Biting your tongue” and “words we never say” are recurring lyric themes in many Acorn songs, and yet none of you gentlement ever seem to be struggling for the right words, whether it’s your quick wit or deeper thoughts.

J: Talking a lot is different than communicating.

R: I am by far the least articulate person in this band. You get older and you read enough song lyrics and you get embarrassed by things you wrote in high school. Now when you write something you want to make sure it’s something you can live with for years. Obviously there’s a lot of personal agency and care and concern with the subject matter of this record. But it was as good as I can write at this point in my life.

I read plenty of other [lyrics] and think they’re so good. Andy Swan wrote 30 songs in a week and most of them are better than anything I could write, and it’s so depressing. You listen to the shit on the radio, and a lot of the shit on great independent radio and CBC, and you think, ‘God, did you not even care about that line? Or not think that there might be another rhyme that would go with the previous line? Maybe spend an extra hour writing the line? Do you care that more people than you and your bandmates are going to listen to this record in the next few months?’

That’s why it takes John Samson four years to write a record.

R: He’s a great writer. It’s got to the point where I’ve realized a lot of the music I love is written by people who take care with the words they use. People like Bob Dylan and Miche Jetté find this great synergy between spontaneity and conscious decision, and there’s no reason why you have to make any compromise. I spent a year figuring out the lyrics to ‘Hold Your Breath.’ But ‘Glory’ was the first song I wrote for the record, verbatim. I came home from a Flecton practice where Miche, of course, got us all stoned. I opened up my notebook and it just came out. There was no music, just the words, and it has not changed since.

Is ‘Dents’ [from Tin Fist] a prelude to the whole record?

R: Yeah. It was written around the time I was starting to feel comfortable with the ideas of the record. I wrote that in July of last year, right before we went into the studio. A lot of the stories hadn’t taken shape. If you look at ‘Glory’ it’s more of a feeling song; there is no narrative. ‘Dents’ is the same thing. I was thinking of my mom’s stories all the time at that point. I was looking in the mirror one day and noticing faint lines appearing around my eyes, and I started thinking about the same lines in my mom’s face.

J: When we did that EP, there were three songs we were going to do, and then Rolf showed up with two more. And I remember thinking, what are we doing? These are gold! Let’s put them on the album. That one and ‘Brokered Heart.’ Why are we throwing them on here?

Is part of that not taking the EP format seriously? Both of your EPs and several others in the last five years or so have re-invigorated the format: 20 minutes or whatever, get in, get out, no filler, it’s more than a single, and it distills many of the best things about a band. Often I like a preceding EP better than the eventual album. And you chose to put out two EPs in between your two albums. Did you not think those songs were good enough to attach to a larger project, or did you like the brevity of the idea?

J: A bunch of them didn’t fit thematically on the new record that we thought were good songs. Not to disparage that EP, because I’m proud of it, but we kind of threw it together. This one, we meticulously assembled it, so it’s hard not to disparage the EP in a way.

R: I think a lot of it on our end is our subjective experience of the recording process. We can’t help but feel like Glory took way more out of us and was much more of a challenge. But I listen to Tin Fist now and I think it’s wonderful, and I don’t think about the fact that it took us three days vs. seven months for Glory.

Everything we’ve done with the records, we’ve been conscious of the themes and the sequencing and the story that each record is trying to tell. Whatever record came out at a particular time represented us at the time. I love the brevity of Blankets, but there’s also the sad, logistical fact that we just didn’t have any other songs to record, truth be told.

That was one of the hardest things about Glory, was that I had all these skeletons of songs that these guys didn’t even hear. Or I had a bunch of songs I’d bring to practice and five minutes in I realized I was the only one playing them. No one was playing along. ‘They must fucking hate it!’

When I was in university I was so jealous of those fucking nerds who would say, ‘Yeah, I know the essay was only supposed to be ten pages, but I wrote 15 and then I whittled it down.’ And I would have barely made it to nine and a half with double spacing. It was weird to have that experience with a record where I had to throw things away.

Throughout this conversation, when you cite influences, many of them have been local people from Ottawa. And on the Pink Ghosts reissue there are covers of Chris Page, Flecton and Snailhouse. That community obviously informs so much of what this band is, and some of you grew up here as well and observed what’s happened here over the years. And I know what a big thrill it was for you to be Snailhouse’s backing band. What lessons do you learn from those people?

J: When Blankets came out, one of the key things people kept saying was that it sounded like Ottawa. I don’t know if we reacted negatively, but we were like, ‘Uh, yeah, thanks.’

R: What does that even mean? We sound like the Parliament buildings and the canal?

J: Some of the songs on Tin Fist are like a reaction to that. ‘Hey, why don’t we sound a bit more Toronto here? Handclaps, perhaps?’ We were trying to think of any other Ottawa bands who had been on the cover of Exclaim!, and we couldn’t think of any.

I’m pretty sure you’re the first.

J: It would be nice to give back to those people who helped shape our musical sensibilities.

When I think of Ottawa bands I don’t think of a sound. I think of Wooden Stars, Furnaceface, Greenfield Main, Recoilers, Jim Bryson, Kathleen Edwards, HiLo Trons. I don’t think most of those bands sound alike.

J: I don’t think most people, if you ask them, could identify any bands from Ottawa.

My question was more about how you’ve been influenced by the creative people that are here. Because you [Rolf] play in Greenfield Main, Recoilers and Flecton—and certainly none of those sound like The Acorn.

R: I’ve talked about Werbo in a lot of interviews. They’ve long since disbanded. Flecton used to play in that band, as did Jeff Kines, who I think works at Songbird in Toronto. In some of the Werbo songs on their Lakehead Tragedies album… I was just getting into the music scene at the time. Recoilers were just staring, and I went to see Werbo a bunch of times.
Hearing them sing about Sandy Hill and Centretown and streets that I knew—I guess I could have heard that listening to Westerberg sing about Minneapolis, but where I heard it was listening to Werbo sing about Ottawa. Suddenly I felt completely validated. Here was a band who romanticized a city I thought had no romance in it whatsoever. I’d sit on the OC Transpo and the city looked differently to me, listening to that music. You can write and be influenced by the people around you and it’s just as valid as listening to the Beatles sing about Penny Lane.

On a personal level, I’ve always felt very low on the songwriting totem pole of this city, when you have people like Feuerstack and Bryson and Miche Jetté and they can encapsulate all these wonderful sentiments and ideas. I spend just as much time listening to those records as I do anything else. I say this without a hint of irony and sarcasm that that music is just as important to me as anything else.

If there are some people who know about Ottawa because we went out and toured, that’s great. It’s neat to think that people think of Ottawa when they think of us. And we’re not shy of talking about Ottawa when we’re on tour. That said, I don’t think Ottawa is any more special than Kingston or Guelph or whatever. It’s about how much subjective weight you put on the songwriters around you.

I get starstruck pretty easily. Going to see Werbo at the Hi-Fi with 50 other people there, I felt like I may as well have been at some huge stadium seeing U2 in 1987. I remember pissing next to Mike Feuerstack in the Hi-Fi bathroom, and this was the first conversation I had with him. I think I said something like, ‘I was really nervous about talking to you for the first time, because I really love your music.’ He just looked over and said, ‘Huh! Well, that’s stupid.’ [all laugh] That kind of changed everything. But as well as I’ve got to know him over the years and as much as we joke around, behind his back I still look at him with stars in my eyes and go ga-ga when I hear his songs. But he doesn’t have to know that.

J: I’m just wondering when Rolf is going to start sounding articulate.

What was it about the Wooden Stars for you?

R: For me, it was the craziest music I’d ever heard, and it was being written around the corner. I don’t know what’s so special about that actually: seeing or hearing a mind-blowing work of art and then realizing it comes from the same city. The Wooden Stars are an example of people who could take two guitars, bass and drums and do something completely different with it. Much like what someone like Deerhoof do, in a way. The Wooden Stars weren’t a massive influence, but in a weird Sonic Youth way: no one really sounds like Sonic Youth, but everyone claims them as an influence. The Wooden Stars were proof that there are no rules. A lot of people in this town made me realize that there were no rules. Jim wrote punk rock songs with country music in the background. Mike Feuerstack wrote poetic lyrics with music that didn’t make it sound totally cheesy.

J: Or totally hilarious set to heartbreaking, gorgeous music.

R: There was a time when Blankets came out and we were touring and I was so disenchanted with Ottawa, and the fact that not many other Ottawa bands were touring. A lot more people are touring now. But we were so far down the totem pole in terms of our live show. You could go see the HiLo Trons at Barrymore’s, and they’d sell out the club every time and put on an amazing live show. And yet no one knows who they are, and lots of people know who we are. It’s incredibly frustrating. Not to invalidate what we do.

And I only realized in the last couple of years since I started playing music with him, but Miche is an amazing songwriter. At practice, he can’t remember his own lyrics after smoking so much dope, so he’d give us the lyrics so we could follow along. I’m reading his lyrics, and I’d say, ‘Wow, how did you write this song?’ ‘I don’t fucking know, I was drunk one night, I just, fuck, wrote it down, whatever, fuck.’ Over the course of writing this record, I spent a lot of time with Miche’s lyrics and seeing how he paints wonderful pictures in his lyrics.

Ohbijou talk about how much they love Brantford, and when you get to the point in your life when you’ve lived in your hometown long enough not to move away, or you realize that it’s valid, when you get over that hometown mentality that your hometown sucks, you can see the beauty in it. Luckily, I started seeing the beauty in Ottawa at a time when I wasn’t totally jaded.

Speaking of rules of recordings, I really like the way the acoustic guitar sits in the mix on this record. It doesn’t sound the way acoustic guitars sound on most records: it’s big and huge in the forefront and used texturally in the background, and it has this folk fingerpicking inside rock music. And I don’t know if this is entirely just geographical association with the Ottawa Valley, but I also hear a bit of Bruce Cockburn in the approach.

R: That’s how I grew up playing guitar, was listening to fingerpickers. I was listening to early Paul Simon. My friend David got me into this really amazing Bruce Cockburn Christmas album in the early 90s. I remember seeing the video of him playing ‘Joy to the World’ or something, and realizing what an amazing guitar player he was. In Grade 12 I played a coffeehouse and tried to play ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ on an electric guitar and vowed to never play electric guitar again for as long as I live, because I’m horrible at it. It’s so out of necessity.

But The Acorn do not sound like acoustic guitar music.

R: It’s interesting what you say about the mix, because I’ve always liked acoustic guitar players who can bring that instrument to the forefront and not make it sound like a cheesy folk record. It’s an obvious reference that comes to be via Flecton, but Tim Rutilli [Califone, Red Red Meat] does the exact same thing. He can take a piano and an acoustic guitar and a violin and make them sound just as big as 20 guitars on a My Bloody Valentine record.

Jarett [Bartlett], our recording engineer, really hit that point home when we were recording. We were trying to layer 20 guitars or something, and he just said, ‘If I just record one guitar, it will probably sound a lot bigger than 20 guitars or an electric guitar.’ It’s about the timbre of the instrument.

There is a weird side of me that Jeff manages to stifle, where I think that acoustic guitar is so “real” or “raw” or “natural.” But what’s natural about a hand-crafted instrument with a big resonating body that’s any more real than something vibrating through a big speaker? There’s a weird subjective bias that I have about the acoustic guitar where I think it’s more valid, but it’s not.

Many people have that problem.

R: Yeah, like: ‘Yeah, you’re playing folk music—you’re getting to the root of it.’ But when I listen to a live recording of Buddy Guy playing electric guitar in a blues club in 1967, that sounds as fucking real as anything else, and about as raw as you can get. Every instrument can be toyed with in the mix to make it sound more interesting, and I think Tim Rutilli does a great job of that.

When did ukulele and banjo enter the band?

R: Jake [Bryce of the Recoilers] brought those to the Tin Fist sessions and just started playing along, and we decided that it ruled. For ‘Brokered Heart’ I wanted these very percussive layers of acoustic instruments and have it sound really full. Jake had been playing ukulele for about two years at this point. I was expecting to do everything on classical guitars and acoustic guitars, and then I found this other great instrument that has a totally different range and timbre that was perfect for the song.

[Keyboardist] Keiko [Devaux] joined when? I remember seeing a show at the Green Room [in Montreal] where she was sitting in.

J: She played some shows, then not for a while. Then she played on Tin Fist and Kelp Records put out a press release letting her know she was in the band.

Who wrote the press release?

R: I think I did. But I did ask her if she wanted to play with us in the fall. She had worked through ‘Maplebees’ with me and I knew it sounded nice with a piano. When we were recording, she was originally just going to play on that song. But she started arranging parts on other songs while she was in the studio, because she has a wonderful ear for that, and ended up playing on five of the six songs. Once we brought her on tour, she quickly became indispensable. On this record, she was amazing. She has an incredible ear for subtlety…

Which the rest of you don’t?

R: When we were first getting to know each other, the music that we talked about and both really liked, she always hit on the same points that I thought was really special, in music like Rachel’s and Califone, things like dynamics and choice of instruments. Her taste and aesthetic alone were enough to make me curious about her being in the band. It’s not always super obvious how important some of her compositional choices were, but ‘Glory’ and ‘Hold Your Breath’ are two examples of how spare but how important her parts were.

And she’s an incredibly emotional person who invests so much emotion into songs. She’s told me so many times about a live performance, or even just a practice of a song, will make her high, where she can’t express in words how moved she is by a particular performance of a song. That bridges the gap between the technical prowess in the band and the emotional decision-making in the band.

I’ll confess that I really loved Pink Ghosts, and the next couple of times I saw the full Acorn band I felt that the special, intimate nature of the record was not there. And I was worried that The Acorn would become just another two-guitar-bass-drums band, albeit a very good one. This proves that it’s not just that.

R: I’m not 21 anymore, and as you get older your tastes grow wider and you start to see how wonderful the world of music is and there are no rules and anything is possible. I remember thinking, does Paper Bag know that this is the record they’re going to put out? I don’t know that we’ll ever be popular, but I love the idea that it was a bit of a coup.

J: I remember when we sent the first few tracks off to Paper Bag… [both laugh]

R: We sent them ‘Flood’ and ‘Crooked Legs,’ which are the most ‘raucous’ songs on the record. I love looking at labels like Constellation and Rune Gramofon and it seems like there are no rules there. I love that we expressed ourselves as truly and honestly as we could, and regardless of genre or cohesiveness or homogeneity of the record, it is what it is. Take it or leave it.

J: We assumed, wrongly it turns out, that they wanted ‘Spring Thaw’ times 12. That’s what I thought made us attrractive to a label. But instead, they got zero of those—times 12!

We've been talking for almost two hours now. What else should I know?

R: This project was so all-consuming in so many ways. It’s kind of scary, because I hope to god I can do something this special again sometime in my life. There are times when I listen to it and think that I won’t.

You probably won’t do something that means this much to you.

R: I hope something does. I’m sure my mom does. But I remember thinking that even if I never record another album again, I’ll be happy knowing that I recorded this, at least. I hope this is just another step in the process. I felt like with this record I was finally writing songs I could be proud of, that these lyrics meant something to me, and I want to do more of it.

J: You didn’t feel that way after Blankets? Because that’s the way it feels every time I do a new album. ‘Finally, we’re starting to feel it! The next one will be so good!’

R: I had this simultaneous pride. You did talk about the idea of writing songs just about a broken heart and how that might be trite, but there are sometimes when I do feel like, why not write about something really intense and special? Sometimes listening to pop music I don’t feel like I hear that enough. I don’t mean this in any kind of superior way, but I do think there isn’t enough special music out there. Maybe it’s just a matter of context, and I don’t know the background. But I want people to know the background behind this music and know that there’s something intensely personal here and it’s not just about a relationship that went sour.

J: One of the things we were setting out to do was to make something that sounded unique. I don’t know where this fits into what’s going on [in music trends].

Which is the last thing you should be thinking about.

J: Of course. But now that it’s done I’m thinking about it. And I feel good about the fact that we made something really unique.

R: And then I saw Bruce Peninsula and I thought, oh well. I saw them at Track and Field and I thought, ‘Wow, this is awesome. Let’s hump!’