A break from the recent Rheostatics posts, because today is the release date for the new Great Lake Swimmers album, Ongiara. Also out today is the new issue of Exclaim, which features my article on the band (link not yet available).
Oddly enough, though I’ve reviewed the band many times and got to know frontman Tony Dekker through various associations, this is the first time he and I have ever sat down to chat on the record.
I first saw the band at NXNE in 2002. My dear friend Lisa Moran (of Three Gut Records) had a job pre-screening NXNE submissions, narrowing down thousands of submissions to a shortlist that the festival organizers then chose from. In that crowded field, the one thing she was excited about was a CDR by the Great Lake Swimmers. Based on her recommendation and their fine choice of moniker, I went to their showcase and was immediately smitten with Dekker’s voice and songwriting. He was not yet comfortable on stage. Nor was his keyboardist at the time, who fell asleep on stage. Years later when I see them perform—especially unamplified shows at Zeke’s Gallery in Montreal or at the Track and Field festival outside of Guelph— I’m amazed at how far Dekker come as a performer, and he’s found a wonderfully sympathetic team of players to back him up (including, on occasion, Sandro Perri of Polmo Polpo on lap steel).
Two reviews I wrote of the first album (the initial review and then a year-end blurb) appear here, as does my initial NXNE review where I get the chorus of “I Will Never See the Sun” wrong.
A year-end blurb I wrote about the 2005 GLS album Bodies and Minds appears here.
This conversation took place on a beautiful snowy night on Roncesvalles in Toronto’s west end, a Polish neighbourhood near High Park, an artists’ enclave which is slowly being gentrified but hasn’t been entirely yupped up like College St. has. Dekker chose a signless, rustic hole in the wall that would have felt like a complete time warp if it weren’t for the Radiohead, Arcade Fire and Wilco on the jukebox.
Great Lake Swimmers
February 26, 2007
Locale: Intersteer on Roncesvalles
Tell me about this record. I have no notes, no bio, no nothing, so I actually know nothing about it other than what I’ve heard.
Oh, good. So you’re giving me a chance to explain myself here. We recorded it at the Aeolian Hall in London.
Was this with Andy Magoffin [who recorded Bodies and Minds, as well as Royal City, Constantines, Jim Guthrie, and many of the best records to come out of Ontario in the last five years]?
Yeah, he engineered it. We initially did some sessions with Dale Morningstar on Toronto Island, and had some plans to do some recordings in some of the historical buildings there. But we were denied access to those buildings, less than a week before we were supposed to start our session.
What were those buildings?
They have a church there, like a chapel, and an old schoolhouse. In particular, the one I was most interested in was the lighthouse on the island. A lot of history there, and an interesting, unique space. But we were totally shut down, so we had to rethink the whole project.
Was it approved and then retracted?
We had an understanding that it was good to go. Months and months ahead of time, and I had to co-ordinate a bunch of schedules to make it happen. Our drummer flew in from Vancouver.
He lives there now?
He’s studying the gray oak tree and its adaptability. He’s doing his master’s on it, so he’s there temporarily studying acorns. So we didn’t get entirely shut down, because we did do some work in Dale’s studio on the island. But I really wanted another ambient sounding location type of recording.
What were you expecting in the lighthouse? Where would you play, physically?
At the top of it. There was a really nice domed area at the top of it, and a spiral staircase. We were thinking of rigging it up at mics and playing in there on different levels of it.
That would either be beautiful or acoustic hell, wouldn’t it?
That’s exactly what I thought. Either beautiful or hell: a 50/50 chance. Either way, even if it wasn’t a success, it still would have been a good experience. So that having failed, we still did some work with Dale, but I really didn’t want to make a studio record. So we used that as pre-production, and then moved everything to London to the Aeolian Hall, where we ultimately recorded it.
Didn’t you do parts of the last record there?
We did that in a church in the Niagara region.
You went to university in London. Were you familiar with that venue then?
Yeah. I happened to be living in London for the first three installments of the No Music Festival, so I went to that venue frequently for events they put on. Back then it had a really nice organ in it, which is no longer there. It’s come into new management again, and turned into a really great, well organized space. They use it as a music school and a performance room for orchestras. And it’s acoustically beautiful.
What was its original purpose?
I think it was a town hall, like a meeting place. The original Aeolian Hall was somewhere else in London, but I believe it burned down so they moved the name to this place. The actual hall was a number of different things over the years. It was built at a time before there was electricity or amplification systems, so buildings like that had to be built with sound in mind, so that someone could be at the front of the room and orate and the sound would reach all parts of the room.
Like a church.
Totally. Even churches now have some amplification. The Aeolian Hall predates that. It was built somewhere around the 1800s. We don’t have too many old buildings in Canada, obviously, but that’s a particularly nice one, acoustically.
Who appears on the record?
Most of the backing vocals are done by Serena Ryder, and the core band is myself, Erik Arneson who plays banjo and some electric guitar, Colin Huebert who plays drums, and we also have Mike Overton on upright bass on a lot of it. He plays in St. Dirt Elementary School, the free-form klezmer band. He was also a mainstay at the Tranzac for a while. He’s played with the Silt before. He’ll be touring with us too.
Have you toured with a bass player before? Or is it always Almog covering that range with his left hand on the Rhodes?
He was doing bass/Wurlitzer for a while. We haven’t actually toured with a bass player proper, so it will be nice to have an upright bass player to fill out the live band.
I never felt the live band needed more filling out, however.
I don’t know, I guess that’s true. Maybe it will suck, I don’t know. I don’t think it will. It’s still tasteful and quiet. I still feel like I can pull the stuff off solo if I have to, and I’m sure we’ll do a portion of the set that’s just solo. A lot of the early songs are really stripped down and they sound nice like that.
This material sounds very balanced. I was very worried after the first record, which I loved so much, and I loved the continuity, the style of songwriting, the mood of the whole thing. But following that up is always a challenge: do you change everything, do you get stuck in a rut? What I loved about Bodies and Minds was that it progressed naturally from that without overwhelming what was so special about the first record. And this one sounds like a combination of the full-band sound of Bodies and Minds—and taking that further—but there at least four songs here that are just you.
Uh, yeah, three songs, I think. I think it’s balanced. There were songs that we added the band to and it just didn’t sound right. There were songs I added other instrumentation to and it wasn’t working. We ended up taking away a lot more than we added. The idea was to do what was best for the songs, do what they asked for. Some of them didn’t ask for anything, they were okay on their own.
There are some songs here that seem to be written with a band in mind: “Put There By the Land.” Has your writing changed the more this line-up becomes solid?
Leading up to going in and recording this album, we’d been on the road for a solid year and a half, as a three piece and sometimes a four piece. Especially with Erik and Colin, there was more of an intuitiveness. We were more synchronous, more naturally. We played some of these on the road, and there was more time and ability to work through them that way. I still think the songs could be okay even if there was no band on them. That’s a thing that I have: if it doesn’t sound good with just voice and acoustic guitar, then it’s not something I’ll pursue much further.
Colin is a really sympathetic drummer. I’m amazed you found someone like him who can be totally invisible while he’s playing, with this natural sense of where to be and when.
It’s the same idea as the music: sometimes focusing on what’s not being played being equally important. The silences are important; the breaks are important. Showing some restraint to best allow the songs to breathe. Colin’s also great because even if he’s playing the slowest beat ever, his body is very animated. It looks like he’s playing eight beats when he’s only playing two.
The writing on the first album was very circular: the verse and the chorus would have the same chord pattern, with different lyrics, and that was part of the hypnotic effect. Bodies and Minds started to get into more verse/chorus stuff, and on this one there seems to be more experimentation with structure. I love the last track here, “I Become Awake,” where all the verses feel like lapping waves, steadily consistent in the same pattern, before the chorus takes the song somewhere else entirely.
I never try to fit something into a structure. The structure of a song should serve the lyrics, and those two things should work together. That song, Bob Egan plays pedal steel on it.
I was wondering if that was Sandro Perri.
No, Sandro got really busy and wasn’t able to make it to the recording sessions. I would have loved to have him on this one, but he’s so busy with his own stuff and he wanted to go back to being a fan. That’s how he put it to me, anyway. We also shipped the tapes away to Sarah Harmer, who sang back-ups on that song as well.
Is that just her, or her and Serena?
No, just Sarah on that track. Serena is on the rest of the record, did the bulk of it. Having Sarah do it was an idea we had, and I felt it was a long shot. But she totally came through and found the time to do it. I had actually sung all the harmonies myself on the original recording, because I didn’t think it would happen.
Why did you think it was a long shot?
I don’t know, she’s a busy gal?
What, you think she doesn’t have time for you?
(laughs bashfully) I don’t know!
What is the title of the album and what does it mean?
Ongiara. I think it’s a hard “g,” because it’s derived from the word “Niagara.” Actually, it’s the origin of the word “Niagara” before it was translated into French and then Anglicized from there. It’s a native language. The name was taken from the boat, one of the ferries that took us over to Toronto Island with all our gear for the initial sessions with Dale. It’s one of the cargo boats. That’s when I first heard the name, and I thought it was mysterious sounding enough to be an album title. Then I did some research on the name, it’s the original name of the place I grew up. That was enough for me to make it all okay.
What was the town you grew up in? It was on Lake Erie, wasn’t it?
Yeah, in the Niagara region. Just outside of Port Colborne, this small town called Wainfleet, Ontario. It used to called Marshville, because there was a giant tract in the middle of it of swampland, where they harvest peat. (laughs)
When you were talking about being denied access to the Toronto Island venues, that didn’t stop you when you wanted to record in a silo in your hometown, did it? Wasn’t that covert and guerilla?
It was, actually. But there was no one around there to stop us. Initially. Over the course of that session, the owner of the property did come out when we had gone particularly late one night. At first he wanted to strangle me, because he thought I was, you know, trouble.
Yeah, I mean, who knows what he thought? He was pretty upset about the whole thing. But then he turned out to be a childhood friend of mine, and because it’s a small town, everyone knows everyone.
Did you know who it belonged to beforehand?
No, I didn’t. It’s an abandoned piece of land out in the middle of nowhere. We had to go really late into the night a couple of times, and there was no electricity out there, so we had to bring in our own lights and a power generator and had all that going and sheltered off for sound. We ran cables from there into the silo. I had descended on to this old, broken down farm and recorded the record there. But he was okay with it in the end.
Did you know about Lee Hazlewood recording Duane Eddy in a silo to get that guitar effect?
Someone told me that, afterwards. It’s not like I felt I was doing something particularly adventurous, though it was an adventure at the time. I was just looking for a space with good acoustics. I just wanted to capture the reverb sound in it. Afterwards someone told me about Lee Hazlewood recording in silos.
I didn’t think we’d be talking about your first record, but now that I’m thinking of it, did you hear about the Silophone in Montreal?
Someone told me about that, too. They have a website? Where you send sound into it? I gotta look into that again. It’s been a while since I’ve thought about that. I should send a whole record through that.
People would send sounds of themselves singing, or sounds off the television, or a saxophone, or anything. I wanted to ask you about performing in churches, which you’ll be doing for the Toronto CD release, and you made your last album in a church as well. And I’ve seen this happen a lot lately, when I was in Montreal last month with the Arcade Fire, at a church they bought and renovated into a studio.
How are they doing?
Good, getting ready for the big circus to begin.
I can imagine, oh God. I heard a couple of songs from the new record, it sounded good.
It’s interesting in Quebec, in particular, but here as well, that all these old churches are no longer in use and they’re being repurposed and turned into condos, but a lot of them are being recognized for their acoustic properties and using them for shows or recording. I know you likely made your decision primarily for acoustics, but is there a sense of it being a sacred space when you’re in it, regardless of your beliefs?
It definitely does. It’s hard to deny that. First and foremost in my mind are the acoustics, but churches… that’s a loaded place, in terms of speaking of imagery and history and electricity. Maybe not electricity. It is a place where people gather in a lot of ways to get rid of stuff, and absorb stuff, and people are talking about their fears and their worries and talking about their joys. Places like that have a certain charge to them, I guess. Maybe that’s part of the reason I’m drawn to those types of places. But as far as the music is concerned, it’s the acoustics first, and that stuff comes second.
I started thinking about this at a Pop Montreal show in the St. Jean Baptiste church, on Rachel near St. Denis, which is also where the Arcade Fire recorded the pipe organ on their new record. I’m a lapsed Catholic, but being in there almost made me want to come back! The majesty of the structure is such that it’s such a radically different experience from obviously a club, but even somewhere like Massey Hall or anything else. The church was once a social hub, a political hub, and—well, not necessarily an exchange of ideas, but they were a powerful place and the architecture was built to match that, with beauty and magnificence. And that can’t help but inform hearing music in there.
Church isn’t a place you go to get lost. Performing music in there enforces that. The good part of music, the part where it causes you to reflect and search yourself instead of using it as escape—which is fine with me, too, and music is well used as an escape—but it’s also a good mode of reflection.
The opening line of “Where in the World Are You Now” talks about searching in churches and searching in bars. The first time I heard the song I took it at face value and thought it was about a person, but to me it’s also a spiritual quest of a song. And the more I listened to it, I thought the narrator might be looking for the memory of a person lost or passed, or a guiding spirit of any kind. Do you want to speak to that song particularly?
It’s not about a person. It’s more about, uh, yeah. Yeah, seeking, uh, you know. Yeah! I don’t really have anything to say about that song.
In the song “Large Family,” you end the chorus by singing, “And that’s enough for me.” At first I took that as you saying, “I don’t need any more family, thanks. I don’t need to have kids. I have a large family already.” It could be about self-sufficiency. What went into writing that song?
That song is not about me having a large family. That song is about the large family that we’re all a part of. It’s a message of peace.
When listening to it, perhaps because there are other specific lyrical references to music on the album, it also felt like a camaraderie song about your extended musical family.
I haven’t really thought of that. That’s a bit of a coincidence. It’s a new thing for me to invite people in that I didn’t know very well, but that I had admired from a lengthy distance. To have them come in and do stuff was another big change for me. I’m a pretty solitary person by nature. Owen Pallett does the strings on it. Serena, Mike, Sarah, Bob Egan… Bob does the dobro on that song too, actually.
Whenever I hear Serena Ryder open her voice, she has this thing—not unlike yourself—that can communicate so much, she just has that light inside of her.
Absolutely. It was such a wonderful experience to be shown up by her completely. Having the opportunity to sing with her was amazing. She has such a powerful voice. It was a great melding of sound there. She’s such a great singer, and I was completely shown up.
But you weren’t. I wouldn’t have guessed it was her, because of the way she sings here.
The mix is very subtle. And she was very cool, she very modestly took a backing vocal role in it, not a duet role. That’s just a testament to her doing what the song was calling for.
Speaking of you and extended family and extroverted women, tell me about Carolyn Mark.
(laughs). We did a CBC radio show together called Fuse, which puts two musicians together, mostly from different worlds, and has them collaborate on songs for the afternoon, and in the evening they tape it. I think she described it best, when she said it was like ‘putting a scorpion and a mouse in a tank together and seeing what happens.’ (chuckles) By the end of it I was like, ‘Yes, Ms. Mark. Yes, Ms. Mark.’ It was actually a lot of fun. She’s another person I had admired her music from a distance for a long time, and when the opportunity came up I jumped at the chance.
Whose idea was it? Either of you or the producers?
The producers asked who I’d like to work with, and they matched it up.
I didn’t hear the episode. Did an original song come out of it?
We mostly sang on each other’s songs, and did some covers. She did a Jr. Gone Wild song, and we did a duet on a Tom Waits cover, where she played piano. “Innocent When You Dream.”
I’ve also heard you on two other occasions on the CBC in the last four months: once covering Joni Mitchell, the other covering the Dead Kennedys.
I missed that show last weekend. How was it?
I only heard the last part of the song. I was driving around Collingwood that weekend listening to your record to prepare for this, and when I shut it off that afternoon I turned on the CBC and there you were.
Yeah, that was for a program on censorship they were doing on Definitely Not the Opera, and they asked me to do a song.
What role did that band play in your musical development?
A pretty important one, as it turns out. It was a natural pick. I obviously don’t make the kind of music that the Dead Kennedys do, but that style of music was important to me in my formative years. The idea that anyone could pick up a guitar, that everyone should start a band and make music and be a part of music and music is in all of us. We all have a right to express that and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t. That attitude came from listening to music like that, even though in the end I wasn’t really drawn to making music like that. Dead Kennedys are a great example of that because of their politics and because they weren’t just delivering the message, they were the message. To fully believe in what you’re doing that much, to unflinchingly devote your life to it, I found inspiring.
Do you see political writing enter your own songwriting at all?
I’m not sure. The best political songs are love songs, I think. The best songs that are seen as political, aren’t overtly political, or could be interpreted in lots of different ways. It’s very difficult to do that well, to be political and say something specific about a very specific thing and a specific time, without being heavy handed and trite, without hitting it too hard.
And yet that’s exactly what the Dead Kennedys did.
No question about it. They were an overtly political band. But the politics were embedded in the music, in their personalities. Jello Biafra was walking the walk too, and he was very important to his community.
Covering Joni Mitchell is a very ballsy thing to do. [Dekker did "A Case of You" for a CBC live concert commemorating the 30th anniversary of The Last Waltz, hosted by Blackie and the Rodeo Kings.]
You think so? It seemed natural to me. She’s so great, and such a classic Canadian songwriter. I can’t play guitar as good as her or sing as good as her, but I have such a fondness for her music. It came easily to me.
Blue is one of my favourite records of all time, probably in the top three. Every time I hear it, I hear new things, they teach me something new—even though everything about it is so familiar.
There’s all those lyrical twists in there too, that’s what I really like it. I mean, the songwriting is brilliant, the arrangements are great, the way they’re sung and delivered are amazing, but it’s the razor sharp lyrics.
It’s a very individual record to her, though. Which is why I find it weird when I hear people covering her. Nobody else writes lyrics like that; the guitar playing is so unique. If someone can pull it off, then it’s the most successful kind of cover there is: to make something like that your own. What was playing that Last Waltz tribute like?
It was pretty huge for me, actually. I got a chance to meet Garth Hudson and his wife Maud, backstage. I felt like he was backlit by blinding light, you know? He shook my hand and it was a really cool experience. In general, though, it was a nice thing to be a part of, because of the level of talent there. I’m not used to that kind of thing, to be honest. It was nice to be in an environment where I could tell there were people really working hard at their craft. Kathleen Edwards, for example. I’d seen her at the Hillside Festival before that, we opened for her that night. And Colin Linden, Stephen Fearing, Tom Wilson, are all amazing players. It was more fun than I expected it to be. That version of “Acadian Driftwood” they did was really good.
When you travel beyond Canadian borders, do people respond to or even notice regional aspects of your band and your sound? Do they see it as part of a lineage?
I think so, actually. To a certain extent, there is a certain romanticism about it.
To other people or to ourselves?
Well, to ourselves as well. It’s such a young history, but we all arrived at the recorded medium at the same time. We just happened to arrive right when we were getting started. North American culture was just starting to happen when the Industrial Revolution happened, and the first early recordings speak to a hardship of being transplanted. It’s something that’s unique to North American culture, it’s deeply engrained in song, as far back as the first recordings go, and in folksongs even before that. That comes from England and Scotland, the history of it obviously goes a lot deeper, but it’s part of the romance of the North American folksong is that it comes from a pretty lonely place. It’s deeply engrained in our culture.
Are these things you thought about before you went abroad? Or has traveling developed those thoughts more?
Traveling to some extent. But also just broadening my musical horizons, and getting into more of the Folkways stuff and researching these old records and tracing back the lineage just for my own interest, really. Not for any other reason.
Is that from before this project started, or is that a more recent pursuit?
More in the last couple of years. I wouldn’t say that it informs my music, but it informs all music to a certain extent. I’m just tracing it back.
When you first decided on the aesthetic of the band, were there things you were thinking of? A certain mood?
The songs were the songs. It’s important to me to pay homage to a certain extent to your geography, your area, your community, where you are. That was important to me. I didn’t really think it through. Instinctively I was able to choose environments to record in that were indicative of the environment.
Your first two records, to me, felt very lonely and searching, whereas this one has more of a theme of acceptance, something sounds more resolved.
I think that’s fair to say. I didn’t really think that through. It wasn’t a theme I was going for. I was writing what I was feeling. It’s like, you go through a hardship or a hard time in your life, and you write these sad songs. Then time passes, and that hard time is over, but you’re still left with these sad songs. It’s no reason not to move on. I wouldn’t say that this record is completely moving on from that, because I don’t think that the implicit melancholy or sadness in them is necessarily acute. But it’s something that’s more of a filter.
[in the background the non-intrusive jukebox has suddenly become deafening, playing a Wide Mouth Mason’s guitar disco song where the chorus exclaims, “Change!”]
Did things change for you in the past two years personally? Did you come to some realizations?
Things have been evening out for me. Plus, I just spent a lot of time on the road, and time changes things. I would say I’m in a better place, but I’m moving forward musically and just trying to write the best songs I can.
So what will the next record sound like?
(laughs nervously). I have no idea!