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!’



Dacks said...

Kudos Mr. Barclay - great article and an absorbing interview.

mmmbarclay said...

it helps to have a great subject.