Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Timber Timbre

I know many a hardcore music geek who professes to love every single genre except the blues. "Yeah, yeah," they protest, "I know it gave birth to rock'n'roll, but I can't listen to the same 12-bar pattern ad nauseum." When it's minimalist, they argue, the blues is too boring; when it's maximalist--think Blues Hammer in Ghost World--it's beyond obnoxious.

And yet there's a reason why it continues to be such a strong thread, and why--for musicians--it's easy to fall into those patterns. There's a reason why the term is so universal that it's been rendered meaningless by corporate branding: House of Blues and the Ottawa Blues Festival have next to nothing to do with the ghosts of Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters.

I'll leave it someone more scholarly than I to explain that reason in print. But listening to a band like Tinariwen, from the Saharan desert, or to an artist like Timber Timbre, from southwestern Ontario, it's refreshing to see that it's still possible to make the blues continue to sound mystical, enchanting and raw.

Timber Timbre is one man, Taylor Kirk, and he performs solo guitar with help from harmonica and occasionally a looping pedal (very tastefully and transparently executed). His music is haunting, to say the least, an adjective that rings even more true after you watch this video.

To date I have yet to see Kirk play in a regular rock bar. That may well be one of the reasons he's been so entrancing every time I've seen him play: at first, a brief glimpse around the campfire at the 2005 Track and Field Festival; later, a show at the converted church that is the Music Gallery; later still at a loft party curated by The Burning Hell; and more recently at a church on Toronto Island in the middle of a rainstorm. Sadly, I arrived too late to see him play in the basement of the house belonging to my friends in Bellwoods, Ohbijou.

Both of his albums to date have been location recordings. I'm not sure what he has up his sleeve for his latest, due out this fall on Out Of This Spark (D'urbervilles, Forest City Lovers), but you can catch a preview at this awesome music festival in Guelph happening this weekend.

Other dates are here:
2008-09-27 : Orono ON @ Cow Palace Festival
2008-10-16 : Hamilton ON @ Pepperjack Cafe with Great Lake Swimmers
2008-10-17 : London ON @ Aeolian Hal with Great Lake Swimmers
2008-10-23 : Peterborough ON @ Montreal House with Great Lake Swimmers and Don Brownrigg
2008-10-23 : Wakefield QC @ Blacksheep Inn with Great Lake Swimmers and Don Brownrigg

Timber Timbre, Taylor Kirk
November 15, 2007
Email interview

The most basic question first: How did you get (into) the blues?

My first introduction to blues music was through bands like Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and the Animals, etc. but I never wanted to hear anything more pure than that. In fact, for a long time I never wanted to hear or play anything that sounded remotely "bluesy." Blues-rock really killed it for me. But more recently I stopped trying to be so deliberate with my writing and allow myself to fall into progressions and meters that sound more traditional and this is where it's taken me.

Do you consider what you to do be blues? It's a much-maligned genre: who are other modern blues artists whom you think do it right?

I suppose so, but I would normally say that I make folk music if anyone asks. I'm weary of accepting it as my genre because when I listen to blues era recordings, it sounds to me like one of, if not the purest form of musical expression. And like you say, presently "the blues" is quite a different thing. I couldn't even tell you about any current blues musicians. I'm mostly listening to the old recordings now, like Son House, Leroy Carr and various Blind Willies.

Have you been in bands before this? What were they like?

Yeah, I used to play in a few rock 'n roll bands around Toronto. I played guitars and synths in an pop-rock group called Codename Laurentians. I also played drums for a few years in a rock group called the Black Napkins. It was tons of fun. I miss playing rock'nroll music sometimes. People don't dance at Timber Timbre shows.

Have you played to more traditional audiences outside of the indie rock circuit?

I played the Peterborough Folk Festival this past summer and it was mostly a more mature crowd of whom I suspect were the local folkies. My set was very well-received which made me think I might do well in that circuit. I've tried to make contact with some of the different folk societies but they won't return my emails. I'm gonna grow a ponytail though, which should help me get my foot in the door. And I already have a dobro so I'll be good to go.

I understand the first album was recorded in a barn near Bobcaygeon. Where and how was [the 2007 album] Medicinals done?

Yes, it was an old timber-frame cabin actually. That's where the name "Timber Timbre" originated. Medicinals was recorded in my Toronto apartment. I'd half moved out and was using the space as a studio. I recorded the beds in empty closets and even some stuff in the bathroom. Medicinals is a digital recording while Cedar Shakes was an analog four-track job. I spent a lot more time on the new one with overdubs and mixing while the first record was kinda like guerilla recording, recorded and mixed in two days.

What's the story of the "It's Only Dark" video? What is in your harmonica attachment?

That video was made on a lark. I was up in Dunchurch, Ontario working on a documentary film with my friend Andrew and his partner Annabelle. We saw this delapidated cabin deep in the woods en route to the home of our subject. I think it was Andy's idea to sneak back there at midnight and film me playing that song. It was a great setting and we were all totally spooked being out there in the pitch black, trying not to fall through the floor. I'm playing a train whistle in the harmonica holder.

I saw a bit of your set at Track and Field, where the outdoor setting really suited your set-up. Have you done much of this?

That was so much fun. Very few of those kinds of things have come up. I know there are some folks around Toronto who throw shows/parties with live music in remote locations of the city. And Ryan McLaren, the guy behind the ALL CAPS! shows had me play a show in his backyard which was really nice too. Those are my favourite venues to play. I'd be quite happy to never play another nightclub ever again.

Why does "O Messiah" incorporate "Twist and Shout"? How does it fit thematically? Have you heard the Mamas and the Papas version, which yours kind of resembles?
That song is about the dismantling of a cult called the Ant Hill Kids commune near Burnt River, Ontario. When I was writing that song, I didn't have all the words worked out, so I was using that "Twist and Shout" bit as a kind of placeholder and I ended up keeping it in. I liked the juxtaposition of pairing something really sacharrine and celebratory like the Beatles with this dark subject. It's the light at the end of the tunnel. The happy-ending. I've never heard the Mamas and the Papas version. I'll have to track that down.

Devils, ghosts and death inform most of the songs here. Where does that come from—films, literature, your personal life? What attracts you to morbid material?

I used to write very literal kind of lyrics. Very personal, romantic, heart-on-the-sleeve kind of sentimental stuff. Those sentiments are still there, but now I prefer to shroud those ideas in imagery that I find interesting as a means of separating myself from the music a bit. I've always been attracted to work that's emotive in a visceral way and that fearful symbolism yields a power that I really like to exploit for that purpose. I like scaring and being scared. I think that's also why I perform; it scares the shit out me every single time.

This might be a stretch for a fogey like myself, but are you familiar with the first Cowboy Junkies album at all? (Whites Off Earth Now) If so, do you see any similarities?

Not that record in particular, but my folks were always into Cowboy Junkies so I heard their music a lot around the house as a teenager. I think they're really good. I'm sure it made its impression.

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