Sunday, March 08, 2009

Gentleman Reg

You've seen his striking face at seemingly every show in Toronto. You've heard him sing on a dozen albums by the likes of the Hidden Cameras, Jim Guthrie and the Constantines. You may not know Gentleman Reg, but now—with the international release of his finest album, Jet Black, on Arts and Crafts—you most certainly will.

I've had the pleasure of knowing Reg Vermue for over ten years, when we both lived in Guelph. The first time I ever heard him was when he was hosting an overnight shift on the campus station CFRU; he was funny, had a distinctive voice, was extremely awkward and unprepared behind the mixing board, and was playing amazing music—probably a mix of the Breeders and Prince, two of his most formative influences. He later drafted me to play keyboards on his debut album, The Theoretical Girl; he was very green as a songwriter and guitarist and I was (am) a very meat-and-potatoes musician who needs to know what the chords are. We've both done much better things since.

The album was a decent debut, but he wouldn't start coming into his own until 2002's Make Me Pretty, by which point he was part of the vibrant and influential Three Gut Records scene (Royal City, Constantines) which helped revitalize Toronto's independent music scene. He was also an important member of the Hidden Cameras, providing angelic harmonies that were perfectly suited for the long notes of Joel Gibb's melodies.

But despite his visibility, Reg has always languished in the periphery; he's everyone's best friend, but could rarely get arrested for his solo material. And when you're in the circles of people like Final Fantasy, the Constantines, Jim Guthrie, Broken Social Scene and Stars, it's hard to live up to those standards.

Reg is nothing if not tireless, however, and he continued to improve his craft until people couldn't help but take notice. Each album has been a huge improvement over the last, and Jet Black has been well worth the five-year wait. It's his first album that has a serious push behind it, and it's the perfect timing for a proper coming-out party: it's by far his best work.

Because I know him personally, I know how frustrating it was for him to shop Jet Black around before finally getting the green light from Arts and Crafts—which is ultimately a perfect fit, seeing how all of his biggest supporters and peers are somehow now connected with the label. His dear old friend Liz Powell (Land of Talk) is the newest member of Broken Social Scene; BSS often invite him on stage to sing one of his own songs in their set; his fellow Three Gut refugees the Constantines joined the roster last year; Hidden Cameras are also part of the fold.

Whether or not Arts and Crafts came on board, however, I knew that Reg would never give up. In 1998, when he was still in Guelph, he was the hustler behind a compilation of local artists called The Goods, which was remarkable for maintaining consistent excellence, and is a perfect time capsule of the late '90s indie rock scene in that city. One of the artists on The Goods was the Valentines, a short-lived but legendary local band that featured a young Liz Powell, an even younger Evan Gordon (Sad Clowns, The Magic), James Ogilvie (now a sound engineer for Neko Case, Arcade Fire and others) and Coby Dowdell (Pussy Chute). Their contribution was a song called "Rewind," which Reg has been covering for years, and does on Jet Black as a duet with Katie Sketch of The Organ. It contains the unforgettable chorus: "There's no point in going back/ when our masterpiece is crumbling."

Except that Reg's masterpiece didn't crumble. It's out right now for all the world to finally hear.

Gentleman Reg plays March 11 at the Montreal House in Peterborough before playing Canadian Music Week on March 12 at the Horseshoe. He'll also be at SXSW.

Jet Black is streaming here.

Gentleman Reg
February 25, 2009
Locale: Semolina Bakery on Ossington Ave.

There a drum fill that opens the record, and then you jump right in. It sounds like you’ve been waiting five years to burst out of the gate.

It’s true. This went through so many track listings and orders. For a long time “When Heroes Change Professions” was the first track, but I didn’t want to start on a slow note. I wanted to really announce the opening.

How long did you actually work on the album? When did you start?

Darby and Joan came out near the end of 2004. In December 2006 we went into the studio and recorded the first beds. The first couple of months of 2007 we recorded and mixed. Later in the year we recorded “Rewind” and added “We’re In a Thunderstorm,” which I had done before anything. Then I spent 2007 shopping it around. Once Arts and Crafts picked it up, it sat around for almost all of 2008.

Did it not go through incarnations? Didn’t you re-do stuff?

Yes. In April 2007 it was done, but I thought, ‘Oh, it’s okay. It’s not amazing.’ It took a long time to get back to it, because [producer] Dave Draves is in Ottawa. That’s when I added “Rewind” and the dance song. I’d wanted to do “Rewind” for ten years. The band had played it as a rock version for a while, but it wasn’t until 2007 that I realized it needed to be more of a Cat Power version to work. We also cut a lot of songs down on the computer. The original version of the album was over an hour, which is way too long. It’s hard to have perspective sometimes, and you think, ‘All these songs are great!’ But a six-minute piano ballad is a lot to ask of people, even it’s an amazing song. There was another eight-minute song in there too, and where do you put something like that on a pop record?

Many young artists think that the first version of a song is the way it always has to be. This, however, sounds like a lot of ideas condensed and distilled. It’s also about surrendering your ego, having someone else in the room telling you that a certain part doesn’t need those two extra bars, or whatever.

I did let go of my ego a lot. I stopped thinking of these songs as precious things that couldn’t be touched. There’s lots of reasons for that. One is that the subject matter isn’t entirely autobiography; there’s much more fiction. When I had the original version of the album, I’d ask myself, why isn’t this amazing? With “Heroes” we turned a four-minute song into a three-minute song, and it’s way better “How We Exit” was written on guitar as a pop song, but once we started messing with it, we came up with this new wave, high energy bass line. That was me, [drummer] Greg [Millson] and [Ohbijou’s] Heather [Kirby, Reg’s bass player for a couple of years], and now it’s such a better song. For “We’re in a Thunderstorm,” Shaw-Han Liem gave me a beat with a couple of chord changes and a guitar loop, and I was told to make a song. I had to structure the whole thing, and it was a whole new way of writing that was exciting.

It’s more freeing when you’re not worrying about every chord underneath.

And because I don’t think of myself as a guitar player and I don’t know music theory, I get limited with chord progressions. I never would have wrote the “Thunderstorm” melody if he hadn’t given me that beat.

Was the sound of “Thunderstorm” one direction you were thinking of pursuing entirely? Would that be your own Hercules and Love Affair?

I wanted to do something different. I talked to a couple of DJs and producers. Most of them were interested, but couldn’t understand that I wanted to do something like early Bjork. I couldn’t verbalize it exactly. But then Shaw-Han Liem [I Am Robot and Proud] and I worked on a whole bunch of stuff. We have about five songs. It was fascinating, because his stuff is instrumental and not verse-chorus and it’s so much more out there. It was fascinating for him to hear me say, ‘Okay, this is the verse and it’s going to be that long.’ But it never went anywhere, until he gave me two more beats, and this was one of them. I’ve also been doing it with Dan Werb of Woodhands; we have a whole bunch of songs, but he’s very busy: he has a job and is in school and has his band. I’ve found that when people give me beats, I immediately have melodies and it’s very easy.

It seems like it’s been quite an odyssey to put this record out: first to make a version that you’re happy with, and then to find a home for it and find people who are excited about it. One of the things I’ve always admired about you since The Goods is that you’re someone who is very driven. Knowing what went into this project, I know how easy it would have been to think about giving up, and think, “Does anybody want my music?”

Well, that’s part of what took a long time. There was definitely a period there. We tried to work Darby and Joan for a good year afterwards, and I went through three different managers. Then I figured I had a bunch of songs, so I started recording again. But the band—the personalities—wasn’t working out. So once I dissolved that, there were definitely moments where I thought that Gentleman Reg was done and I would move on, or at least change the name. Maybe it was a sign that I’m not a good leader. I didn’t know what I was going to do. Then when I thought that if I don’t start recording, I’d just go crazy. So we kept the dates we’d booked and Greg and I went into the studio. It was weird recording just drums and rhythm guitar for a pop record. There was a lot of self-doubt, but I knew I would never quit playing music.

I can’t picture you doing that.

No, me either. But I really took stock of things. Because I can be quite introverted, I’m not like Joel Gibb, who leads a pack into whatever crazy thing he does. I don’t have that spirit. I’m not the natural egomaniac that you need to be. I’ve talked about changing the name Gentleman Reg many times—with every record I’ve put out, really.

I’m really happy that “Rewind” wasn’t recorded until now, when it’s among all sorts of equally amazing songs. Earlier albums had good songs too, but here that song really finds a home.

I think so too. There’s something about that song that’s really anthemic, that line: “there’s no point in going back when our masterpiece is crumbling.” How could I not want to sing that line?

Do you remember the first time you heard that song?

I think I do. I think it was upstairs at the Albion at a show. I remember freaking out—as I would at every Valentines show, because they were all different and so incredible. For years I wanted to record their song “Rivers.” I don’t know if you remember that one.

I don’t have any recordings from them other than the one song.

At some point James [Ogilvie] gave me four-track cassette of everything he ever made, solo stuff. It’s a shame—I could do a whole album of James Ogilvie covers, because they’re such classic songs.

Why is it co-credited as a traditional melody?

That’s a joke. I wrote him to tell him I was recording the song, and he said ‘fine,’ and then I sent it to him and told him it was going to be on the album and if that would be cool. And then I didn’t hear back (laughs). Finally I said, hey, I just need you to know that it’s going on the album and I need your blessing. He wrote back and said, ‘Yeah, it’s cool, I was never into our version of that song and it doesn’t mean anything to me, so do whatever you want.’ He said to credit it to the Valentines and made some quip about it being public domain.

What if it shows up in the closing credits of some film?

He’ll probably change his tune! I can see that happening with that song, because it sounds like it could be for the series finale of Six Feet Under or something. [note: Reg’s ex-bandmate and high school friend Tim Kingsbury did play on a song used in the series finale of Six Feet Under, Arcade Fire’s “Cold Wind.”] Somebody last week interviewed me and complimented me for being so vulnerable and personal on that song, which was interesting. I guess I relate to the lyrics, plus I’ve had them in my head for 10 years. There are really intense lyrics in there: “I will forgive it dad/ it seems that beer’s what makes you mad.” I love them because I would never write something like that.

How did you meet Katie Sketch, with whom you sing that as a duet?

My band toured with The Organ in Ontario. We did a bunch of tours with them. Katie sang on stage with us a few times. It wasn’t until she moved here that we started hanging out. For a while she’d come over once a week and we’d play guitar and try to write songs. Nothing came of it songwriting-wise, but we realized that our voices sound incredible together, because she has this low female vibrato and I’m in the higher register. Then when I thought to do “Rewind” as a song, I knew it had to be a duet with her.

I wanted to ask you about touring with Stars, who I know have upped their theatricality quite a bit lately.

Oh yeah. They throw fresh flowers out into the audience every night.

There’s been such an evolution in your songwriting over the years, and I wonder if touring with a band like that affects your approach to performance as well.

I’ve talked with Torquil about that before. They’ve brought me on tour so many times, and it’s because we love what each other is doing. I love getting dressed up now and engaging with the audience. They really appreciate that I do that, and I’m not just some guy opening for them.

Are you working on your stand-up?

Ha! It’s not self-conscious, but I am aware that it’s like radio when there’s dead air. I’m really comfortable on stage.

You weren’t always.

No, I know! I don’t know why it happened. I’m more outgoing and comfortable in general now.

We all survived the ’90s.

Yes, no more need for shoegazing. I love how Stars developed, and yet I know people who can’t stand that kind of performance. Now, I’m so critical of bands. I can’t watch a band with 18-year-olds, that’s one thing. I can’t watch a band that has nothing to say. And I can’t watch a band that isn’t trying. I can’t do it anymore.

It’s an age thing, too, and I’m the same way.

I don’t want to be bitter or jaded, but I don’t care about what an 18-year-old has to sing about anything, really. Not that it’s not valid, it’s just not valid to me. I want a worldly, Rufus Wainwright-ish perspective on things that’s over-the-top and elaborate and with intelligent humour.

And just being entertained, too.

Yes, you’re on a stage and people paid to come see you.

People who criticize a grand performance will say that the artist is vain, that it’s all about them. When really, it’s the exact opposite. Standing on stage, doing nothing and pretending the audience isn’t there is as vain and phony as you can get. You don’t have to be totally extroverted, but you do have to project something.

Well, look at Cat Power in the last few years. She did a show at the Phoenix that was amazing. She’s quite shy and introverted, but not in the debilitating sense anymore. She did this thing at the end of the show where it was done, and everyone was clapping. She just stood at the mic and lit a cigarette and started smoking. Everyone was thinking, what’s going on? But it was so amazing. Plus, she’s gorgeous. But then she started singing a cappella and it was an amazing moment. I didn’t think it was pretentious or set up; it was very natural and in the moment.

Have you had any other watershed moments while watching someone on stage or hearing a record and realizing something you’ve wanted to try or change in your own music?

Watching Leslie Feist, for sure, because I’ve seen her play lots. She’s up for the drama and the performance and the rocking out. And she’s had to be. Her audience has grown to such a degree, to a kind of audience that expects something. People who just know one song are coming to her shows, and they need to see a certain kind of show. But also, if you’re playing a stadium you need to do a little bit more if you want it to be successful. But I’ve seen her at the Rivoli and then at Lee’s and then at the Hummingbird and then at the ACC. She works in every situation, which is incredible to me. It’s such a testament to the songwriting, the arrangements, the band.

Tell me about your time on stage with her.

That was a moment, for sure. I was touring with Broken Social Scene in Europe, and they opened for her in Paris. I just went to the shows to hang out. On the second night, I was sitting side stage the whole time. During the encore I went backstage to get a drink, and Kevin Drew came rushing down saying, “Reg, get down here! Leslie wants you to sing!” I thought he was joking: “Fuck off.” “No, get down here right now!” It was at this gorgeous sold-out theatre in Paris, and I had no idea what she wanted me to do. Kevin said, “After this song you have to go up and sing ‘The Boyfriend Song.’ ” It just happens that Kevin and Brendan [Canning] had been backing me up on that song on the tour, so they knew it and suddenly I had a band. So she introduced me and told everyone that she wanted them to hear my song. It was crazy.

But not that crazy when you consider how often Kevin would pull you up on stage in Toronto and elsewhere.

True, but that was the biggest crowd I’d done it in front of. I was actually crying afterwards, because I was so emotional and freaked out by her kindness. It’s not like we’re best friends. I know her, but I don’t have her phone number. So for her to do that, why would she take time out of her show to do that? I still don’t really know.

Last time you made a video with lemurs in your bathtub in an igloo, and another set in an orgy. What do you have in store this time?

We did one video for “Thunderstorm,” and there’s a drag queen singing the song. Her name is Facelift, she’s local. It’s a party scene in a loft with a dance-off, a female breakdancer, no narrative really. There’s a group shot of the whole crowd singing the song. I’ve shot a couple. I did one for “Rewind” with Katie, which we shot in a motel on VHS; it’s a split-screen video. A friend of mine in Glasgow shot one for me, which was an arty thing. It’s for “To Some It Comes Easy.” I had so much time waiting for the record to come out that I wanted to do photo shoots and videos. And now we’re going to do one for “How We Exit.”

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