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!


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