Friday, December 28, 2007

Secret Mommy

Following up our slice-and-dice composition stories of late, this is a discussion with Vancouver musician Andy Dixon. For the past four years, Dixon has creating playful sound art as Secret Mommy: first by plundering pop songs beyond recognition--not unlike the early work of John Oswald--and then by working with thematic field recordings. The Hawaii 5.0 EP was constructed of sounds from a Hawaiian vacation; the Very Rec album was composed from sounds of various sports, such as tennis balls and sneaker squeaks.

For his 2007 release, Plays, Dixon assembled several of his musician friends--he himself plays in a Vancouver band, Winning, and his label Ache puts out other artists near and far (they released the vinyl for Konono No. 1's Congotronics album and Death From Above 1979, as well as 7" singles by Matmos, Four Tet, Hot Hot Heat and Hrvatski). Inviting them to improvise, he then assembled melodies from the raw material, treating the music just as he would any of his field recordings or plundered pop songs. Much like Amon Tobin's Foley Room (discussed at length at this space here and here), it's not a coincidence that the result is a Secret Mommy album that functions as much more than simply a nifty gimmick; indeed, it's one of the finest electronic albums of the year, on both an emotional and aesthetic level. (Like all of Dixon's work, it's not a dance album--just in case you think "electronic music" is code for "house.")

As we discover in this conversation, Dixon is using it as a springboard into other projects: The Secret Mommy (live) Orchestra, and his new solo project--one where he's extremely hesitant to label himself as a singer/songwriter.

Andy Dixon, Secret Mommy
November 1, 2007
Locale: phone conversation from his Vancouver home

Was all your previous work solely from field recordings?

No, it was mostly sample-based. The first couple of records were Top 40 style. Then the middle area involved more field recordings, especially Very Rec. But it depends on your definition, because I also did specific recordings of tennis rackets and balls.

I guess my general use of the word means non-traditional musical properties, which I guess is wrong.

Right. I was distinguishing between studio recordings and an environmental one. It was definitely non-conventional instruments, sometimes in the studio and sometimes not.

Did you also add any musical instruments to those tracks?

Just peppered through a bit. Mostly I tried to get melodies out of non-conventional instruments, but once in a while I’d use a guitar riff somewhere, or my friend Pierre would play a bit of cello just to give it a bit more emotion (laughs).

This album is obviously very emotional, then.


Is it a mix of the two approaches? Or is it all culled from the musicians’ sessions?

No, it’s all culled from the hours and hours we did. We recorded non-stop for two days, but probably not more than five hours total.

What kind of direction did you give them?

It depends. There are two songs on there that were actually based on a riff.

Of yours?

Yes. Just to break the ice initially, because everyone was sitting around scratching their heads. So I said, okay, I have this guitar thing so let’s start with that. That’s the very first thing you hear on the album, actually. That song was the only one based on a predetermined guitar part. Then there was one other song where I wrote a riff on a ukulele during someone else recording something. But generally it didn’t matter. I just wanted sounds. I purposely picked people with all calibers of musicianship. Jesse Zubot is a Juno Award-winning fiddler, and then my friend Matt played trumpet in my high school band.

What made it on to the album? Other than the riffs that you directed, are there melodic motifs that remain intact? How finely did you slice and dice?

Not really. I sliced and diced a lot. Even the riffs that you hear are made by me. Or I liked a run that Shane did on the clarinet, three notes in a row, and then I’d put that at the beginning of something else.

How much melodic intention comes from you as opposed to the players? Is it an issue in sharing songwriting credit? It sounds like you are constructing every melodic motif.

I would do that case by case, obviously, depending on how it works. But I did not share the SOCAN stuff, for reasons I just outlined. Every one of them is an amazing musician, and I’m not trying to undermine that. But I literally pieced every note together to make the melodies. I consider them tools.

I’m assuming you’re paying them as session musicians then.

Well, that’s another thing that’s probably different than what Amon Tobin did. Everyone that played is one of my closest friends. It wasn’t an issue. We didn’t talk about it. I’ve come to function under the assumption that I’m never going to make any money anyways. It was more like a friendly jam session. Everyone was just hanging out drinking beer.

Yes, but what about the millions of dollars you’ve made as a result of this album?

Well, don’t tell anyone about that! (laughs) People are starting to question my Hummer and my mansion. Maybe I’ll rethink this if something did happen and I made money; then I’d share the wealth. But there’s no money to even debate right now.

But you then assembled the Secret Mommy Orchestra. How did that work?

I brought back a handful of the people who recorded it and we now play live. We had to figure out the parts that they technically played at one time that I then chopped up. It’s confusing, but fun. I like that chicken-and-egg thing.

How many people in the band?

Five. I play guitar and percussion and laptop. Then there’s Greg Adams, who does all the male singing on the album, and he plays guitar as well. Meredah Anderson plays accordion, Sarah Jane Truman plays flute and bells, and Shane Krauss who plays clarinet.

You’ve played in “rock” bands before, and Secret Mommy was obviously designed as a sideline to all of that. Are you interpreting earlier Secret Mommy material as well, or just this record?

I am interpreting it—but no one else is. The laptop might grab from that catalog while I’m flipping around in there, but the four other people are playing the new material.

Are you sticking to the compositions, or are you stretching out?

Compositionally it’s not there at all. We do play a song from Very Rec, but it’s a medley of that and a song from Plays. I like the live performance to be something different, even if just to illustrate that I am playing the laptop and not just pressing play on an iPod.

I’m trying to remember now if it was just the first Secret Mommy record where you plundered pop songs.

The first two, actually. The first one was Babies That Hunt, and the second was Mammal Class.

How did you approach those in terms of licensing?

I didn’t. That was the thrill of it. I wasn’t an electronic musician at that point. I was a punk musician. I was in an obscure art/punk band playing guitar. I started to get glimpses of stuff like Kid606 and Lesser. Something about it jumped right out at me—probably the punk spirit of it. I think the spirit of punk is—or it used to be—taking a non-commercial approach to music. That’s what I equated it with. We were all big on anti-corporate music, so when I heard Kid606 I was really excited and inspired and started doing my own collage. I sent it to this label in San Francisco and they put it out. That was before I ever played a show or even thought of it.

Did you get tired of that kind of pop plundering? Why did you shift?

I don’t usually analyze these things. Maybe I felt like I had done what I needed to do. But Hawaii 5.0 is a missing link there, because there is a tiny bit of that in there. There’s a 50 Cent sample at the beginning. Then on Very Rec it just wouldn’t make any sense to include that kind of stuff.

On those early records, if you hadn’t dropped major hints in the song titles, I wouldn’t have known what you were plundering.

The titles were fun. On Mammal Class, I did put in the names of everything that I sampled, and obscured it slightly by removing the vowels. But it’s pretty obvious! For me, I’m functioning under the idea that I’m never going to make any money. If EMI or Universal knocks on my door and tells me I sampled whatever without their permission, I’d invite them to take the money I made on the album—which is nothing. If they want me to stop selling it—fine, I don’t care. It’ll be on the internet.

Were you familiar with John Oswald [of Plunderphonics] when you started doing that?

No, actually. When I did the album, I didn’t know much about electronic music at all. I had a couple of Mouse on Mars records that I loved, but I was still kind of against the whole thing in a way as a hardcore punk guy. Then I sent it to Orthlorng Musork, which is owned by Kit Clayton, and he liked it and put it out. I was thrown into this scene that I didn’t know very much about, which was quite thrilling. So [John Oswald’s] name came up, and I’d never heard of Matthew Herbert at the time. People kept telling me I did stuff that sounded like them.

I was thinking that this approach is kind of the reverse of dealing with session players in Motown or Nashville, where someone comes in with a song and get the people to play it. And maybe a guitar lick that some session dude comes up with on the spot becomes the most identifiable part of the song.

How does it work with that?

Well, usually they’re either on a payroll, or they’re being paid for that one session with very clear terms in the contract excluding them from songwriting credit. One the other end of the spectrum, you have Miles Davis albums where he gets all the songwriting credit, but everyone on there is equally responsible for those improv compositions.

I play in bands too, and we always split everything evenly for SOCAN. I would never say, ‘Oh, I wrote 80 per cent of that song.’ We’re a band and a unit and any money that could be made, in my opinion, should be split between us. It’s a different process to me [than Secret Mommy]. I curated this whole thing. We weren’t a band. I got some people together and it was my idea, as opposed to everyone’s thing.

What is your band history?

When I was 11, I was in my first punk band called DBS. We played for almost ten years, and we were on Sudden Death, which is Joey Keithley’s label [of DOA]. We broke up in 1997, maybe, and then I was in Red Light Sting. That’s about it, and now I’m in a band called Winning.

So the orchestra has only played BC?

Yes. We’re going to do a European tour, and we’re thinking of breaking up the flight and making some extra dough by making a pit stop in Montreal and Toronto. That would be in April [08], but nothing is set in stone yet. I’d love to do more, but getting across the prairies just sucks.

What about new material? There’s been a Secret Mommy album every year so far.

There is some, but I don’t know what I’m doing and there is no big picture. I just finished an album that I’m going to release under my own name. It’s different than a Secret Mommy record, and now we’re interpreting live versions of those songs with most of the same people as the Secret Mommy Orchestra—which includes two members of Winning as well. The album is being mastered now. I feel like I’ve painted myself into a bit of a corner as Secret Mommy, and I’m not sure if this is a new direction—if Secret Mommy is a band now and if we should write songs together. I don’t know.

So this is your confessional singer/songwriter phase?

Kind of! In a way. It is singing and songwriting, but I’d certainly stay away from that term (laughs). You’re not that far off, though.


Thursday, December 20, 2007

Handsome Furs

Dan Boeckner and Alexei Perry have had a wonderful 2007: not only did they debut as Handsome Furs and tour, with opening slots for Arcade Fire and trips to Moscow, but they got married (and toured to Fargo as a honeymoon) while Boeckner also worked on the much-anticipated second Wolf Parade album.

Handsome Furs play Lee's Palace in Toronto tonight; Call the Office in London tomorrow, and a free show in Guelph--near Perry's hometown of Elora, ON--on Saturday at Jimmy Jazz.

Their album Plague Park was underwhelming at first, but its Springsteen-meets-Suicide vibe gets better every time I return to it. The strength of Boeckner's melodies and Perry's drum machine programming adds much more to their synth-y, slightly goth-y vibe than the skeletal arrangements first suggest.

I woke Boeckner up to interview him for the K-W Record (article here); this is the full conversation (re-ordered somewhat) where he talks about their shitty sound, border troubles on either side of the Cold Warriors, urban alienation, Vancouver, rural BC, a Wolf Parade update, and why the next Handsome Furs album will be called Face Control.

P.S. Following up the slice-and-dice story, the Secret Mommy article will run after Christmas.

Dan Boeckner, Handsome Furs
December 12, 2007
Locale: phone call, minutes after waking up at his home in Montreal

I’ve read you talking about this record and saying that you’re surprised that people find it dark or with a paranoid sound to it, when you thought you were writing pop songs. How do you react when people tell you they hear those elements in it?

It’s been out for a while now, so I do see that it’s a dark record. But honestly, when we were writing it, I thought we were writing these quaint little folk songs, even if they were in a minor key. I thought it was the most accessible thing I’ve ever done! But it really isn’t.

I think melodically, it may well be, and part of that is the simplicity of the chord structure. The songs all hang on melody. For myself and others, I think the first time we heard it, it seemed very bare. But it really grew on me. And the drum programming really works for me too, because they’re not cliché, cheap beats. Someone isn’t just pressing play on a drum machine as a backing track.

When we were writing it, Alexei and I were listening to a lot of electronic music. I really like The Knife record. One thing that puts me off about electronic music is that if you’re using the most up-to-date equipment—because a lot of people who make this music are gearheads—your record had this weird lifespan window where it will sound totally ahead of its time for six months. Then you have ten years of waiting around before people throw it on again for a retro vibe. Right down to the individual drum sounds, we wanted them to be the most basic, unaffected sounds. We projected a lot of them into a room and recorded them, so they sounded a little more box-y.

Don’t take this the wrong way, but I love the way your guitar sounds like shit.

Oh, thanks! (laughs) That’s totally on purpose.

Having seen Wolf Parade from very early days, all of your equipment was always glued together. But it really works here because the drum machines sound thick and fat, and there’s a contrast with the tinny guitar.

When we were recording it, we didn’t want the guitar to take up much of the frequency range. We tinkered with different chains of effects and amps. Then we thought, what if we just use Boss pedals? Just standard-issue pedals, like I used when Wolf Parade started, and chain as many of them together as possible, and that would give it a crappy enough sound that would cut through.

I know this comes up all the time, but I am curious about division of duties—especially lyrically. Does Alexei write all or most of the lyrics?

She will come up with a drum pattern, I’ll come up with chords for one segment of the song—either a chorus or verse. We play that over and over again, write a few more parts, pare it down, and start writing lyrics. I might start, she’ll edit them, I take them back, she edits again.

There are distinct themes running through the record, and I wasn’t sure if that was one person writing or if you were just on the same page thematically.

We were both on the same page. We had written a bunch of the songs, but the lyrics hadn’t coalesced. Which is the same thing that happens with Wolf Parade. There will be a chorus, and then everything else—when we’re touring the songs for the first time—will just be off the top of the head. Then when we record, we solidify them. So there was a point when we decided what the theme of the record would be, and that it would be sonically and lyrically linked.

How would you articulate that theme? I know what I think it is, but what do you think it is?

We really wanted the record to sound icy and isolated. We were also moving around a lot in the year leading up to when we recorded the record. We were in Vancouver and touring a lot in Finland and Eastern Europe. We both saw a lot of parallels between those isolated countries in the EU and the small towns that we both grew up in. The theme we hit on was culture shock, moving between urban and rural environments.

“We hate this city” is a recurring theme throughout the whole record. “We hate this place here/ it is our home…” “We’re burning it to the ground…” It sounds rather restless. Where is the ideal home? Have you found a city you enjoy enough to live there? Is all your loathing directed towards Vancouver?

No, I have problems with Montreal too! But I really like living in Montreal. I think our enjoyment of Montreal is primarily the neighbourhood we live in. The neighbourhood itself becomes a small town, and then has the same small town problems. Everyone is in each other’s shit.

But you’re not chased around Mile End by people in pickup trucks.

No, no. That problem doesn’t exist here. Where did you grow up?

Scarborough, Ontario. So I had the suburban isolation.

My grandparents lived in Scarborough from the time I was born until they passed away. I remember going there as a kid. Coming from Cowichan Lake, we had a library downtown that I spent a lot of time at. When I visited my grandmother, she was living in a tower block somewhere—I don’t really know the geography of Scarborough.

Well, that is much of the geography of Scarborough.

One day she took me to the library there, and it was in a fucking shopping mall, which really blew my mind. But Scarborough seems to have changed since then. The last time I drove through there it seems to have decayed a bit.

It’s getting more isolated, I think. There was an article in a Toronto magazine recently about how it was ideally--though unintentionally, of course--set up to be a ghetto, with a lot of tower blocks that were constructed quickly and are now falling apart. The middle class is leaving and parts of it are really scary—though nowhere near as scary as it’s made out to be. But there are certainly tensions there.

That’s one thing that I never had as a kid, which was the isolation of suburbia. There was certainly no suburbia in Cowichan Lake.

Where is that exactly?

It’s northwest of Victoria, about 45 minutes west of Duncan. There’s one thing I notice about Scarborough which I fucking can’t stand about Vancouver. I mean, other than the fact that Vancouver is such a health-conscious city, quite obnoxiously so, and many people have a chip on their shoulder about living in that city. But the people who don’t have IT jobs and live in condos, they live in places like the Kingsway. When I first started seeing Alexei she was living on Broadway, which was where I lived when I first moved there. That part of the city has this feeling that it’s not built for humans or pedestrian traffic. That really effects the psychology of the people there.

It’s part of the bubble: I will leave the bubble that is my apartment with its satellite television; I will get into the bubble of my car; I will drive to work in my bubble of a cubicle.

And I drive to the IGA for my groceries. There’s a lot of opportunity for some totally sketchy shit to happen.

That’s also where most new immigrants end up, and trying to adjust to a new culture and a new community when everyone lives in those bubbles is really difficult, which leads to all kinds of tensions because people don’t mix or bother to understand each other. Everyone sticks to their own.

You look at a place in Vancouver like Richmond. I used to drive out there because there’s a Hong Kong style mall there, which has this great Japanese dollar store and some great restaurants and a night market. I lived in Taiwan for a while, and it was exactly like the one there. It was totally great. But driving through that community, it seemed totally antithetical to the idea of a melting pot in Canada, that gets pushed a lot in popular media, that Canada is this ethnically diverse country. Meanwhile, we have these satellite communities where people don’t speak English. And for all its leftist leanings, Vancouver has this really mean streak of anti-Asian racism. Especially from the lower middle class, who are not living in the same city they may have grown up in.

That happens everywhere in the country.

True. But Vancouver is definitely the catalyst for the “We Hate This City” song. Not because of that, but because of the rampant, disgusting poverty on the east side and the ignorance of people living there.

I thought it was interesting that the record is named after a park in Helsinki where there is a mass grave under the park. Is that correct?


People have festivals and parties in this park. Whereas Vancouver to me is very much a city of the living dead, where I’ve had terrifying experiences with walking ghosts coming up and shaking me. I’ve never seen that anywhere else: not in New York City, not in San Francisco.

Funny you should mention San Francisco, which has one of the most saturated crackhead and lunatic populations of all the American cities.

And it’s a port city, like Vancouver, so that attracts a lot of homeless.

They can live outside for most of the year. One thing that really exemplifies this blind eye attitude in Vancouver—and also liberal guilt at the same time—is this project that the Olympic committee put together. Have you seen these Spirit Bears?

I think so. Mascot things?

Yeah, they’re all over the place. These statues keep springing up every week. The people on the committee decided that it would be the mascot as a nod to indigenous culture on the West Coast. Each Spirit Bear is tailored to fit whatever store paid to build one. So in front of HMV there’s a Darth Vader Spirit Bear. It’s a native, totem-pole style anthropomorphic bear dressed as Darth Vader, urging you to come inside and buy CDs. It’s disgusting.

Come to the dark side!

It’s really unpleasant. That sums up Vancouver for me.

Toronto did this weird thing about ten years ago with moose. It was supposed to increase tourism, if we just put up moose statues around the city and painted them. This was from the same mayor [Mel Lastman] who wrote to the Spice Girls, begging them not to break up when Ginger Spice left. It was an international embarrassment. Vancouver has its strange city politics too—I keep meaning to see that NFB documentary [Citizen Sam] about the current mayor.

Vancouver has become really bizarre. I’m friends with a lot of the people in Black Mountain, and they worked with Wolf Parade’s tour manager downtown in the east side at this hotel called the Portland, which is a men’s shelter and recovery centre for addicts. Talking to these guys, they told me that a lot of people are hiring private security.

Businesses? Homes?

Block associations. Because the VPD and the RCMP don’t take care of their shit down there. It’s ridiculous. Of course, the private security are people who couldn’t become police officers…

Is this going to be the Blackwater of Vancouver?

Basically, yeah.

Where is the Wolf Parade album at?

We have two more days of tracking overdubs, and then we’re done. We mix in January and it should be out in March or April.

You did this all yourself at Mt. Zoomer?

Half of it we did at the Arcade Fire church, which was pretty great. We went there for a week. Nobody was there except for us. We did an east coast tour and decided we needed to re-record some stuff, so we did it at Mixart in Montreal. Then we did all the overdubs at Mt. Zoomer.

Is Sixtoo involved?

Completely. He sleeps 50 feet away from where we track the vocals. It’s a studio and his living quarters.

Is this the old Arcade Fire apartment, where Win and Regine lived?

Yeah. We completely remodeled it, by building another room and an isolation booth.

What can you tell people they can expect?

It’s a lot different. There is no “Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts.” There’s a ten-minute song on it.

Is that the Holy Fuck tribute song?

What’s that?

When I saw you at Wolfe Island this summer, there was this crazy long song with this Kraut keyboard passage in the middle.

That’s the one. That’s evolved into a total psych free-for-all. It’s scary putting this record out. With the first one, Spencer and I were writing stuff really separately compared to how we’re doing it now. This is a more collaborative effort. We sing on each other’s songs, though we still split the lead vocals. Which, (sighs), I’m sure will re-ignite the internet debate about who’s better at what.

Haven’t you shut your computer off by now?

I don’t look at anything anymore. I don’t even look at Pitchfork. Spencer and I were talking about this on the last tour. That is singularly the most depressing thing that’s come out of Wolf Parade. It bums both of us out. It’s really sad.

The competitive questions?

There’s a very specific demographic: the forum nerds. They really want to quantify who likes who better, and get into the minutia of it.

What possible minutia is there?

Spencer’s songs have more chords—that was one pro in his favour. My songs have less chords—that was a pro in my favour. Shit like that! I’m more punk rock; he’s more intellectual. It gets reinforced by press, too. But hopefully less so with this record, because I think our songs are closer to each other aesthetically. There was also a lot more input from Hadji and Arlen at the songwriting stage on this record.

Because I know Wolf Parade were writing and recording this year as well, how often did you get to tour with Handsome Furs?

We did a pretty good job. The first tour was an aborted East Coast tour to Philadelphia, Boston and New York. We got busted at the border. Sub Pop had told us that we could travel on my Wolf Parade visa. I have a P1 visa for Wolf Parade, and their immigration lawyer told us that there was a 99 per cent chance that nothing would happen and that we should travel down separately to play some shows. I crossed in a vehicle and they let me in, which I guess was a mistake on their part. Because you’re not allowed to play shows with anyone but the band that the visa specifies.

So even if you played solo, as Dan from Wolf Parade, that wouldn’t be kosher?

Yeah. It’s the same coming into Canada, too. I know Jeff Tweedy of Wilco had trouble coming into the country to play solo shows. Anyway, I was supposed to meet Alexei in Plattsburgh, NY, where she was getting off a train. But she never showed up, and the station agent told me that a girl had been pulled off the train, and suggested that I go back to the Canadian side because they were about to send border patrol down. So I had to go back into Canada and loop around back into the States to pick Alexei up. I was with two friends of mine, one of whom is a filmmaker that works for Al Jazeera’s English channel.

There you go!

But this guy, Brendan, he made a film called In Fallujah and he had a Syrian visa in his passport. They didn’t bat an eye at him when we got to the American side. Meanwhile, they interrogated Alexei for three hours. After they had let me through, they realized their accident by Googling my name. Handsome Furs’ tour dates came up on Pitchfork, and then they found our Myspace page and saw Alexei’s name there.

I’m so glad they’re so vigilant about the most important security issues of the day.

Yes. We’re taking away money from hard-working American bands.

Not only that, but you’re taking away valuable border processing time from hard-working terrorists.

Exactly. It was a total debacle. They threatened me with a ten-year ban from going down there on any visa. They were also threatening to charge Alexei.

Any lasting ramifications?

No, but we had to pay an enormous amount of money to get our visas.

What a shakedown!

When we got back, we found out that the Bush administration had recently—two or three days later—had a press conference where, to deflect news about bodies piling up in Iraq, said that what they needed to do was to crack down on illegal workers in the States because they were sucking the economy dry. So they sent a memo to Homeland Security—which is taking over for Customs and Border Control—and said, ‘This is what you’re watching for right now: terrorists and people working in the States.’ And apparently there’s no distinction between terrorists and musicians. But to answer your initial question, we did a tour out to Fargo, North Dakota, after we got married—which was kind of our honeymoon. And we did a long West Coast tour and Wolf Parade finished some dates out there. We went to Europe twice this year. The last one was 32 shows, ending in Moscow.

How was Moscow?

It was fantastic—one of the strangest experiences I’ve ever had.

Why is that? Had Wolf Parade been there?

Wolf Parade had an offer to go there, but that band has a hard time getting our shit together to take people up on these one-off show offers. I was really intent on going to Moscow. We ended the first leg of the European tour in Finland, and we had to bribe Russian customs to let us into the country. But compared to the amount of shit we got at the U.S. border, all we had to do was go to the Russian consulate in Helsinki and repeat the words “expediated rates” over and over again. Then they came out with a slip of paper that said: if you want the visa in three days, it’s this much; if you want it in six hours, it’s this much.

I’m assuming there’s no official document for the six-hour process.

No, they didn’t even give us a receipt. We paid them cash, and they held our passports until the morning. I keep up on Russian politics, and I found out that Putin had changed the visa laws. If you were from North America, you were not allowed to apply for a Russian visa outside of your home country. But they let us do it anyway, because we paid them to.

How was the actual show?

Great. I didn’t think there would be anybody there, because we don’t have any distribution in Russia—mainly because of bootlegging issues there. It’s the same reason record companies don’t put out records in mainland China. It was the weirdest crowd I’ve ever played for in my life.

How so?

We were playing a fancy fashion district in Moscow, so there was a table of fashion models, with all their bodyguards at the next table. They were all sons and daughters of oligarchs—extremely rich people.

What’s the appeal of Handsome Furs to that crowd, do you think?

The appeal would be that we are one of a handful of indie rock bands that have ever played there. Prior to this, to play a show in Moscow, you were either playing a small punk show or a 5,000-10,000 capacity rock show. Western acts don’t usually go there. It’s a cliché to say, but the internet really opens things up.

Speaking of clichés, there are musical properties of Handsome Furs that remind me of Eastern Europe: something about the antiquated drum machines, the minor key melodies, the guitar sound—I could see it going over big there.

It really, really went over well. It helps that the two most popular forms of music for young people there are trance—but really, really bad mid-90s trance—and industrial music is really huge. I was worried, because Russian audiences are nothing like European audiences. When we started, everyone was sitting down at their tables, and it took two or three songs for people to get up.

Ever since I first heard Handsome Furs, I’ve wanted to ask you if the band Suicide were an influence at all.

Oh yeah, definitely. I love that band. I’ll take that as a total compliment. We’re actually working on a new record right now—the writing stage, anyway. When Alexei and I got back from Russia we were going to do an EP, but we’re also going to do a full album of new songs because we have so many. It’s going to be different than the last record. You know that band No Age? It’s kind of like that meets Spank Rock. (laughs) Maybe not, but it is different. The last one was so intense and heavy in one direction that we wanted to do something different. We found out about this thing called Face Control in Russia.

What is that?

If you want to reserve a table at a bar in Moscow, it’s $5000—and that’s at a normal bar. You do it through PayPal or you can do it by cash. Then when you go to the bar, there’s no guarantee you’ll get in because there’s this thing called Face Control. You line up and if they don’t like the way you look. We became obsessed with this idea. Being in Russia for a couple of days—I’ve always been fascinated by Russian politics. We wrote three songs on the train back, and that’s turned into a whole album. I’m really happy with it.

So all those supermodel daughters of oligarchs pass Face Control every time, I’m assuming.
Some of them do. We were told by Greg, the promoter—who also just did a show with Frog Eyes there and it went over great—that the most notorious Face Control bouncer in Russia works at a club around the corner from that one that Greg runs, and is famous for denying Russia’s most famous supermodel no less than three times. This is a place where it costs $15,000 to reserve a table. There is so much money there. We were walking by an advertisement for Toshiba, and it’s the most expensive advertising I’ve ever heard of in my life. Apparently that billboard costs $2 billion US a year to rent this one space near Red Square.

Who has money there other than gangsters to buy the products?

There’s an emerging upper middle class there. But there’s also Ukranian teenagers living in portable toilets. We were walking down one of the only pedestrian streets in Moscow, Arbat Street, and there was a 20-year-old Ukranian woman with all of her belongings living in a portable toilet.

Is it true you were in an early Jerk With the Bomb film?

I’ve never heard that.

I was told that when you were a teenager, you were in a film shot in Duncan, BC that was projected behind Jerk With a Bomb on their 2000 tour.

That’s entirely possible, but I’ve never seen it. I’d like to see that.

I’m trying to remember who told me that. Maybe Colin Stewart. Or Josh Wells.

If it was Josh Wells it could be true.

It could have been Warren Hill.

If it was Warren Hill, it’s definitely true.

So you’re confirming my sources, but not the story.

I have no idea.


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Amon Tobin vs. Simon Angell

Yesterday Amon Tobin told us why, on his 2007 album Foley Room, he takes all the songwriting credit after using improvisations from hired musicians to construct his melodies--a question I posed in this article. Today, we talk to one of those hired musicians: Simon Angell, guitarist in Patrick Watson's band.

I've said before that I think the individual talents of everyone in Watson's band--including Watson himself--supercedes anything they do together, something I'm sure will change with time. In the meantime, both Angell and Watson are a huge part of what makes Foley Room such a fascinating listen. Here, Angell explains how it worked.

Simon Angell
November 4, 2007
Locale: cell phone from somewhere in England

I mainly want to talk about your involvement with Foley Room.

I’m proud to have been part of it. It’s a big achievement.

Did you recognize yourself on the finished product?

I did, because I have specific sounds that I’ve been working on in the last year, trying to find my own sound on the guitar. People who have hired me in the last couple of years want me to sound like me and do a specific thing. I would lay down parts and he would cut them up, but not necessarily change the sound with plug-ins and shit. A lot of the sounds were done live.

When I did the session, it was with Sarah Pagé the harpist, and he would give us little melodies and tell us to go off on that. We’d do improvisations on that melody, and then he would overdub and cut it up. But the sound was true to what we did. I was surprised. I thought he would take it apart to the point where you wouldn’t recognize what we did.

He told me that basically took tones as raw material and constructed melodies later.

He did have a short, small melody in mind, maybe four notes. It can be heard throughout, but he would also turn it into different melodies and harmonize as well, using it in different ways. I was blown away that a guy who doesn’t necessarily have any musical training was able to hear music that way. When he was showing us the melody, he was trying to sing it to us the first time, but he couldn’t really sing. After about half an hour, he said, ‘Oh, if I do it on the piano do you think it would be easier to learn.’ ‘Uh, yeah, that’s probably a good idea!’ It went a lot smoother after that.

When I first heard the record, there’s a surf-y guitar line which I’m assuming is you, and then there’s a piano melody that I assumed was Patrick [Watson]’s. And I thought, why is this album written by Amon Tobin if the most melodic thing in certain tracks comes from a distinct player?

It’s a fine line. I’d say it’s what he’s done with those lines. At this point composition is not as cut and dried as it used to be. You don’t just say, ‘You wrote the melody, and you wrote the lyrics.’ On tunes now, the drumbeat can be the driving force of the tune. Patrick has some tunes that our drummer Robbie [Kuster] essentially wrote, just from his drum part. The lines are a lot more blurred than they used to be.

It’s a very Western notion that songwriting is merely melodies and chords.

Another thing I learned recently is that you can’t copyright chord changes. I learned that from Marc Ribot; I was taking some lessons from him.

When you think about how hip-hop has changed songwriting and how producers are king there—a producer can lay down a drum track and that is, essentially, the song.

Exactly. In hip-hop and electronic music, it’s the producers. In hip-hop they’ve got it a bit more. They’ve revolutionized—though that’s a bit too strong a word—the fact that the producer makes the track and then just hires a singer to do their stuff.

I was also thinking of jazz albums where a Miles Davis album is credited entirely to Miles Davis, whereas everyone who played on that album is just as much a part of the composition as we know it.

Miles was a known tyrant for that. There are a lot of tunes that he claimed as writing—and I don’t mean the improv, but tunes that Bill Evans actually wrote. I think “All Blues” from Kind of Blue is all Bill Evans. But Miles was like, “It’s my record! My record, my song!”

You’ve done a lot of session work in general, haven’t you?

Not so much in the last year because I’ve been on the road with Pat, but in the three years before that, yes. A lot with producers. I did a lot with Rama Sutra. Last year he was the reason I was able to pay my rent!

Does songwriting enter into any of the session work you do? What creative input do session players have, and does that ever result in a songwriting credit?

The thing I’ve learned about doing session work, is that the best session players are the ones who are best able to interpret what the composer/ producer/ artist wants. Not all producers or songwriters say: okay, this is the chord chart, this is the melody, etc. A lot of times you go in with just an idea. They’ll say, ‘I want it to sound like a house burning down, and there’s music coming from an old radio from the 40s inside the house. I want something that sounds like that.’ One producer actually told me that once.

It’s all interpretation. From my experience, I’ve been lucky by either surpassing their expectation or giving them exactly what they wanted.


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Amon Tobin vs. the law

Not having been a big fan of Amon Tobin’s previous work, I was shocked at how much his 2007 album Foley Room sunk its teeth into me—I mean, real teeth, as the sounds of snarling lions suggest at one point. Elsewhere, buzzing bees and industrial machinery interact with warm, earthy instrumentation as filtered through Tobin’s various electronic textures and jazzy beats.

I wrote about Foley Room extensively earlier this year, when I chatted with Tobin for an Eye article (no longer available online, inexplicably). But there’s one thing that I don’t think that Tobin—who has built his career sampling from vinyl, and branched out to record live musicians improvising this time out—answered sufficiently last time.

The question is this: there are beautiful melodies heard here as played by some of Montreal’s finest musicians, such as Patrick Watson, Watson’s guitarist Simon Angell, members of Bell Orchestre and others, and yet all songwriting credit goes to Tobin. Why? Who wrote the melodies? Does it matter?

I pitched the idea to SOCAN, the copyright collective for Canadian songwriters, who put out a newsletter and web magazine with articles relevant to anyone interested in the mechanics of songwriting and royalties. The article also touched down on the Secret Mommy album Plays, which we’ll discuss shortly. The piece can be found here.

I put the question as directly as possible to Tobin, after an opening softball question that allowed him to contextualize his compositional process.

Amon Tobin
November 1, 2007
locale: phone, from his Montreal home

Did working with live musicians change your compositional process?

To answer properly I have to put it in a bit of context. My whole approach has to do with transforming sounds and rearranging whatever people do rhythmically or melodically, and working with existing material to make new music. I’ve spent the last ten years or so working exclusively with little fragments of vinyl, and making music with that. I see my role as not creating sounds, but re-ordering stuff.

It’s a bit like building a house. I don’t make the bricks; I put them in an order to make the house I want.

With this last record, I wanted to try and see if it would in fact have a massive impact on the way the music sounds in the end, if I paid less attention to where the sources originated and just concentrated on manipulating the sound. I had no rules whether I was only going to use vinyl, or only use field recordings. I tried to treat all the things I recorded objectively. They all had the same importance as far as composition.

It’s no disrespect to the musicians—who, by the way, were all way overqualified to do what I was asking them to do. I was asking the Kronos Quartet to make drones and play their instruments with elastic bands and swords. From my point of view, I wanted to emphasize that it was about the choices you make with your raw material and how they’re processed and re-arranged, and less about where these things come from.

People obsess about where you come from, for instance, as a way to categorize music and musicians. ‘You come from here, so you must make this kind of music.’ It’s not that I’m setting out to challenge anything. I’m more interested in exploring this. For me, it is about using musicians in a way that is clinical and objective. I’d ask them to make a tone or a drone or something simple. Because they were people like Patrick Watson and Stef Schneider who were so talented, they couldn’t help but add colour to what I was asking them to do.

I wouldn’t characterize a lot of your music as specifically melodic—it’s not the point of it, really—but there are songs like “Bloodstone” where there is a very distinct piano melody there. Is that something Patrick played as is?

See, this is exactly what I’m talking about. There’s a tendency for people to focus on this kind of thing as if that’s where the importance of the music lies. I think it’s elsewhere. Patrick and Kronos Quartet have all the credit for that piece of music. Just as in everything I’ve ever done, I don’t take credit for any of the sounds I’ve used, only for what I’ve done with them. As far as the piano part, Patrick recorded a whole bunch of different stuff on piano which I then took and sliced and mixed with other bits of piano, too. Parts come from Patrick, a few notes from vinyl.

At what point does it shift from being a recording collaboration with him to a songwriting credit?

It’s a complicated area.

Because this album says “written and produced by Amon Tobin.”

For me, writing and production are about the choices that you make and what you do with the sounds you’re presented with. Going back to the brick analogy, it’s unfair to qualify what Patrick or the other musicians did as mere bricks. But when you’re breaking this stuff down to single notes, or even a whole passage—if you take something and recontextualize it to the point where it reaches a different musical significance. I don’t know what you’d call that credit.

If you took something by Beethoven and put a techno beat behind it—for some peculiar magical reason, the marriage of those two things did something that neither of those two things did, but which also couldn’t exist without those two elements. There is a credit to making that decision that those two things together make something else. But you always have to acknowledge that it wouldn’t have existed without the original sources.

The way I see it, honestly, in terms of a moral question, is that we’re all working with narrow parameters of music. No one is inventing any new chords or any new notes. We’re all working with this scale and re-arranging these notes and chords. The raw material is pretty much the same. All you ever do as a musician—whether you’re playing it yourself or sampling it—is reinterpreting or re-ordering these notes and chords and rhythms. That is what I see as the role of the artist, or the musician, or the composer or whatever you want to call it. I couldn’t say that I own C major or any other chord. I can’t take credit for those things, just for what I do with them.

Because your previous albums were comprised entirely of vinyl samples, did you ever deal with licenses? Or were all your samples unrecognizable to the point where nobody would bother with licenses?

You can draw a division between something like Puff Daddy’s famous rendition of “Every Breath You Take,” where the song is being carried by the sample and isn’t really being re-interpreted. It’s merely being released again with another layer on top.

Okay, I can explain this better… The distinction can be drawn by your objectives as a songwriter. If your objective when you’re writing a song is to end up with something that sounds like something you’ve heard before—whether you’re sampling or playing the guitar—if you’re trying to emulate something that exists already, then you’re plagiarizing and I don’t think there’s much merit in that.

I see sampling—when it’s done properly—as being the opposite of that. You’re starting with things that you gravitate towards, and you’re trying to transform those things into something completely different. You’re going in the other direction. I might start with something very recognizable, like, say, a Count Basie bass line. If I want to take that and turn it into something entirely new and different, that’s the opposite of me playing a melody on my piano and trying to steal a little bit of that magic: what I really want to be doing is playing that Count Basie line, but I can’t, so I’ll change a note or two. My objective is completely different there.

When researching this, I also came across the famous case of the Beastie Boys vs. James Newton. Do you know about that?

I don’t think so.

James Newton is a jazz flautist who was sampled on “Pass the Mic.” It was a large case, but ultimately the Beasties won because a) they legally obtained the mechanical license from Newton’s record company, and b) they took three notes from a non-scored jazz piece, and used a six-second loop of it throughout “Pass the Mic.” The court ruled that it’s unrecognizable from the original composition, and it’s not enough of a sample to warrant compositional credit—as opposed to whatever that De La Soul case was based on 10 or 15 years before that.

We’re on shaky ground there, because then it becomes a subjective argument: is it six notes? Seven notes? This is the problem with arguments about sampling, is that people talk about it in these terms. It kind of has to be that way, but it’s not making it any easier for anyone. How many bars is okay before you’re ripping someone off? How close is too close? It’s very subjective.

I asked you earlier and you didn’t answer directly: have you ever had to license things directly because you’ve used too much of one thing?

This is an area I won’t even go into. Not going there. But basically, from a musician’s point of view, I’m not concerned with the legal aspects of making music. That’s for lawyers and publishers. I’m concerned strictly with music. For me, all that really matters is whether or not I feel I’m doing something that I feel is worthwhile and has integrity.

That’s why I come back to what the musicians’ objective is. Is your objective to cheekily steal someone else’s music? Or is your objective to take that music and make it something of your own? Even then, the language I’m using isn’t accurate enough. The notes and the chords you’re playing belong to everyone. We have this keyboard with these notes and we all work with them. No one can claim ownership of this or that. The only thing you can claim ownership of is the physical recording, and that’s when you get into publishing and mechanicals and all that.

Another parallel I thought of was the session players at Motown or in Nashville. Someone comes in and has written a song with a melody and chords, and a guitar player there might have a lick that opens the song that ends up being the most recognizable part of the song. Is he a co-writer then?

It’s the decision that was made that should be credited. Whoever decided to put that lick at the beginning of the bar or wherever that makes it recognizable—the producer, I guess. He can’t take credit for that lick, because he paid the musician for it. The musician was free to make that decision himself, had he wanted to. He could have made his own track with that lick, but he chose to do something else with it.

These cases tend to pop up years later. Last year the organ player from Procul Harum decided that he had written “Whiter Shade of Pale.”

There’s a lot of money to be made from these kind of arguments. That’s why it’s almost a separate issue. What you can prove legally depends on the definitions in the law, and they’re too crude to be applied to the intricacies of music. A few basic rules have to be applied to a wide spectrum of different shades of gray. It’s the way it is because it can’t be any other way. But you shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it’s not quite accurate enough. One rule shouldn’t apply to something else that isn’t similar enough. The law in general has to be broad. When you’re dealing with something as complex as this, it’s hard to take a moral standpoint based on definitions in the law.

What did you tell your musicians coming in to the session? I’m assuming there was a very clear understanding from the beginning as to what was going on.

Oh, yeah. We all had contracts. I know these musicians personally, and they’re all very familiar with what I do. I don’t feel like I need to rip anyone off, personally. I’m not in that position. My input is in arranging, transforming and decision-making in terms of what goes where. All I’m doing is collecting source material and trying to build these musical structures out of it. I don’t really take any more credit than that for what I do.

From a legal perspective, things could be argued many different ways, especially when I sample from records. In my past, I’ve taken longer bars than just the occasional note here and there. There are times when I’ve made them completely unrecognizable. But, if I didn’t have that one piece of source material, the song may never have materialized. I don’t know. I’m repeating myself now.

When your album was done, how much of themselves did the original musicians hear on the record?

A lot of them couldn’t hear them at all. I felt a bit bad about that in some ways. They’re so overqualified. I had a whole brass section come in and do stuff, and I doubt any of them can identify where they are on the record. Others did stuff that is clearly identifiable, like Kronos, Patrick or Stefan. I was nervous playing things for some of these musicians. I didn’t want to undermine their talent or the importance of what they do. But from my point of view, it was a very clinical process. Stef is an incredible drummer who did these intricate and great drum patterns, which many times were re-ordered to such an extent that I’m not sure he would approve of what I did with his drums. You’d have to ask them.

Ask them I did. Tomorrow, a brief interview with Patrick Watson's guitarist Simon Angell, who also played on Foley Room.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Jim Guthrie

Jim Guthrie has it all.

Most musicians dream of being able to make music all day long for a living, without having to embark on rigorous tours or do anything to compromise their credibility.

Jim Guthrie writes ad jingles for a living, which has given him a financial stability that he never knew as an indie four-tracking solo artist, or as guitarist in the much-beloved Toronto band Royal City. At the same time, he’s free to pursue his own solo material at his own pace, without selling of his “personal” material to the ad company.

Those close to him have always known that Guthrie is a quiet genius, able to make awesome music even with the most limited means. That reputation was sealed with the release of his debut CD, A Thousand Songs, in 1999—though it was composed of material culled from a series of cassettes that he put out in his hometown of Guelph, Ontario up to four years prior. The follow-up, Morning Noon Night (my personal favourite) featured more heart-on-the-sleeve songwriting—no doubt influenced somewhat by his friend Aaron Riches, of Royal City—set to electronics that Guthrie programmed on his Playstation.

Guthrie’s most recent solo album, 2004’s Now More Than Ever, found him employing Owen Pallett (Final Fantasy) to arrange string sections (work which caught the attention of Pallett’s future employer Arcade Fire) and making a breakthrough on daytime CBC radio, as well as garnering a Juno nomination (for whatever that’s worth). And as the namesake of Three Gut Records (Guthrie = gut three), he plays an integral role in laying the groundwork for Toronto’s current indie boom.

None of this has made Guthrie particularly famous. Instead, his mainstream breakthrough came when he was the anonymous author of a little ditty called “Hands in My Pocket,” which was solicited by an ad agency for a Capital One campaign. It became one of the most-discussed jingles of the last decade, spawning legions of YouTube spoofs—and even one by CBC-TV’s Rick Mercer.

Since then, Guthrie’s work has been heard in many ad campaigns—including one for quintessentially Canuck coffee chain Tim Horton’s—while he compiles material for his fourth proper album. In the meantime, he also has his four-track fuckery with old friend Stephen McCuen, The Mandrills, and is working on a duo project with Nick Thorburn of Islands (another former employer). Both that and his new album are due in 2008.

He also scored the acclaimed documentary The Bodybuilder and I, which opened theatrically last month.

Meanwhile, no one seemed to notice that Guthrie got a co-writing credit on the album by Canadian Idol winner Eva Avila last year, something he discusses in-depth below.

Samples of his commercial work can be found here.

This conversation was conducted for this AOL article about musicians who score big with commercial jingles, including Major Maker and Andrew Vincent.

Jim Guthrie
September 23, 2007

How and when did the first commercial come about?

Yael Staav is a video director who did stuff with Hayden and knows Howie Beck and all those guys. She shot ads for the ALS society and had put some of my music in the temp versions. Then she contacted me and told me that everyone had donated their services and asked if I would if they used my music. They looked beautiful, more like a short film [than an ad]. One song, “Trust,” was from one of my records and the other was a half-baked song I had for the ad where the guy hugs the tree.

Not long after that, she knew the Perlorian Brothers, the guys who were doing the “Hands in My Pocket” ad. They’ve done a lot of big stuff and they have a real aesthetic. The ad was going through the agency that I do most of my work for now. I said that I’d never done this, but they got me to write demos and told me to sing what I see.

They didn’t want any subtext. They wanted it to be funny. I did three different demos. They didn’t tell me to say “hands in my pocket.” They gave me a list of things I could maybe say, from the writers who wrote the ad. One of them was “something don’t feel right.” I tried different songs like that; two songs that didn’t say “hands in my pocket.” When I did the “hands in my pocket” thing, I wrote the melody almost out of frustration, almost making fun of the process. I didn’t really care. I’ve learned since that I can’t take anything personally when I do this.

Well, it’s work for hire.

When you first start it, you spend time on something and it might work, but it’s just not what they want. That can get frustrating, but it doesn’t frustrate me now.

So the name of the campaign was not “hands in my pocket” originally?

No. The name of the ad is actually “Anthem.” And even then, people up top thought it was too campy, or something was wrong. But then they sent it to focus groups and it scored really high. People thought it was funny and catchy. That was my first job as work-for-hire, and then they asked me to write for them on staff.

Do you think that’s because they liked your work specifically—like your records before this—or because that ad in particular became such a phenomenon?

They had seen the ALS spots I’d done. With “Hands in My Pocket,” all the ingredients were there, and I could do something that was very close to what I did.

I like to think of it as experimental pop music. It’s really me—it’s not that many steps from what I would do in any musical setting, but it wouldn’t be made in any other context. I think I’ve done a good job of being myself and being able to write for someone else. If it works, it works, and when it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I’ll get asked to do an ad, and I’ll write a demo. If they like it, it’s not like I have to redo it: it’s just not a demo anymore, it’s the song. You get paid to do a demo, and if it doesn’t get picked you still get paid for that. But I’m on salary there, so I just get a paycheque every week and they take the money I get and put it towards my salary. If I make more, then I get bonuses.

The guy who hired me actually told me that my name is used as a style of music now. Like how when people listen to music for an ad and they’ll say, ‘No, that’s too porno’—meaning, of course, this dirty sounding wah-pedal or something. Now, they say, ‘Could it be a bit more Jim Guthrie?’

But of course you don’t get any residuals from those other Jim Guthrie ads.

No, not at all! People always ask me, ‘Hey, did you do that ad? Because it sounds like you.’ And often I didn’t. I don’t think anyone’s actually trying to sound like me. I think it’s just coincidence.

How soon after that ad did they put you on salary?

Right after that. It was in January 06 that I started. The ad aired in September/October the fall before. This is now the second full year of me working there. They told me I could go on tour and do whatever; I was with Islands at the time. The first year was tough because I tried to do both.

What’s your stance on using existing material? You’ve only done that once, correct?

Yes. I wouldn’t do it now, because I can write faster and better new stuff for this. I’ve only done it twice: once for ALS ["Trust"] and once for Mobility cellphones [“Turn Musician”]. Now, unless they offered something ridiculous like a quarter of a million dollars—which, by the way, I’ve heard thrown around with other artists. And let’s not talk about how much someone like Feist probably got for the iPod ad. [Feist briefly played in Royal City with Guthrie; they also launched their debut albums on the same night at the Rivoli in 1999.] But then some people turn that down because they can afford to.

Before, I always wanted to do music for film or TV. And if you look at my first record, it’s essentially song ideas that are shorter and weird and just me experimenting. Now I’m actually learning a lot about how to structure things, and learning how to make music in the 30-second world. I have to think about arrangements and voices and fit the right number of bars into 30 seconds, what the BPM is and all this stuff. I never went to school for any of this, so a lot of it is guesswork. I never knew that all the four-tracking I did with my toe on the machine and playing two instruments at once was actually the training I needed to pull off stuff like this.

I’m up for this challenge. And I feel like I’ve made more music since, uh, well, since I stopped making music. I want to make a new record, but I’m stimulated and challenged right now. I think whether or not you’re selling out is a very personal thing that only you know what’s right or not.

I think there’s a difference when you take a song that has particular emotional resonance to you…

And then sell diapers with that.

Yeah, as opposed to something that’s been commissioned for a client.

You’re right. Because of the short film nature of the first couple I did, and because they were for a good cause, I felt they were really powerful. I got a couple of great emails from people. As my first time doing ad work, it was a great experience. Now, to have your music in a video game—18-year-old kids lose their mind and strive for that. I don’t know what kids rebel against now, because we all have iPods and drink Starbucks. Maybe I’d be saying the same thing if I was 34 15 years ago, I don’t know.

This could be a whole hour-long discussion.

Sure. But if we’re talking about coming from the indie-rock world, it is liberating. To be successful as an indie artist takes a lot of things. It’s lucky, and there’s a lot of great music that will never become popular and who knows why. Then there’s good music that does become popular because it’s so great that nothing can hold it back. Where I come from, I had a certain amount of success, but never to the point where I could plan for the future. When you get a day job doing ad work, it’s really liberating. For me, it’s been really pleasant, because I’ve been asked to be who I am and nobody else. They don’t phone me up…

To do a Bon Jovi track.

Though there was one Molson ad I did where they wanted to mock the kind of Bon Jovi beer ad. That’s the only one that makes me cringe, that I kind of wish I never did. I think it’s ridiculous, but I thought it was a good idea at the time. That was in the first half of the first year I was with them.

What kind of attention has come back to your solo material because of this? Especially when something like “Hands in My Pocket” became this big YouTube hit, with dozens of people making their own videos for it. Is your name associated with the ad? What kind of trickle-down has there been?

It’s hard for me to tell, because there is no Three Gut Records anymore, so no one is making more copies of my records.

Can you still buy them?

No, I don’t think you can. Last time I got numbers from Outside [distribution], maybe there are 200 copies left in the warehouse of Now More Than Ever and maybe 40 of A Thousand Songs. And I emailed Dave at Zunior to ask how many digital downloads have been sold, and it was 12—and that’s all three records put together. I did get a lot of emails from people who wanted the MP3 of “Hands in My Pocket.” There was a version of it up online at the Capital One website for a while. And I wanted to put it on iTunes. I did the 30-second version for the commercial, and then a full song.

The full song is what most of the YouTube parodies were of, wasn’t it?

Yeah. There’s the hook that everybody knew, and then I put in these verses because I thought it deserved a song. But what the hell would the verses be about for a song with the chorus “hands in my pocket?” I made it about a song about a guy walking around daydreaming. It was a fun exercise, starting with one piece of the puzzle.

But I didn’t get paid to write the song. I got paid to make the ad, and this was before the ad was big. It wasn’t like everyone knew it was going to be this big thing. So I couldn’t sell the song, because they owned it and they didn’t want to [sell it]. I put it up on my site, and they asked me to take it down. I mean, they’re a bank, and they’re really protective and want to control their own image.

They don’t want you to make a porn video for it.

Exactly. I was a little frustrated, but you learn. If I knew it was going to be so big, I might have tried to keep some of it in my court. But I didn’t know anything about any of this. I’m this naïve indie artist who does something for kicks, and it ends up being this big deal. I got a lot of emails about it, and if I had to guess I’d say maybe 200 people total connected me with the ad and went out and bought or downloaded my record. And then I’m sure there are people who heard “Hands in My Pocket” and then bought my record and said, “What’s this??!!”

“This isn’t funny!”

”This isn’t Weird Al,” or something. The only thing I can say for sure is that the ad guarantees me work in the ad industry for a while.

I don’t know how aggressively you’ve tried to get a new label or find someone to fund your next record, but has this work brought any of that closer to you?

Nope. I have no idea who will put out my next record. I’m going to pay for it, and it’s going to be cheap. I’ll probably spend two or three thousand dollars making it, and most of that will be paying my band. I’m doing it at the Arcade Fire studio, and they’re not charging me for time. But I do have to pay Mark Lawson, the engineer, his daily rate. So that and a van rental for a week will be a lot of money. I was going to try and get grants, but I didn’t want to be tied to the contract of the grant. When we go to the church we’re just going to record and see what works out. It may or may not be an album, maybe just a couple of songs. Earlier on I put pressure on myself, thinking that this has to be the session that is the record. But it doesn’t have to be. And when it’s done I’ll shop it around.

What’s been the best fringe benefit of all of this?

Just getting paid. Having a steady job. Getting some RRSPs. Getting a nice computer. It’s the novelty of having a regular job. That’s the biggest perk.

On a more personal level, it’s knowing that I can do this. As an indie artist, I think a lot of people have this mentality of walking around, kicking the ground—isn’t that a Kevan Byrne quote [from King Cobb Steelie’s “One’s a Heifer”]? You’re cool, but not cool enough, and there’s not a lot of confidence there. To be able to go off on my own without any peers when I started doing this, at a time when I didn’t have a band and I was going to start playing with Islands, it was this great window where I could do or be anything. I realized that I had the skills to pay the bills, which I didn’t know I had. And that was a big deal for me.

I hated going on tour for a month and coming home with only $300. And the only reason I could do that was because I lived in a tiny room and paid $150 in rent. You always find a way to live within your means.

I also wanted to ask you about co-writing a song for Canadian Idol Eva Avila [the lead-off track and second single from her album, "I Owe It All To You."]. Did that happen via your own music or through the ads or how?

That came about through Wayne Petti from the [Cuff the] Duke boys. The girl he’s dating works for Sony/BMG. She emailed me saying that they have a songwriting camp every year, a month before they crown the winner. She and Wayne were talking about it, joking around, and she said, ‘You know what? I think we should get Jim Guthrie.’ And he said it was a crazy idea, but that I’d probably do it. So she called me. When someone asks you to do something like that, my first reaction was to say no. But I thought, well, what are my reasons for saying no? It’s a crazy new experience. It turned out to be really interesting. I learned on the first day that I couldn’t participate in a way that I wanted to, in a hands-on songwriting way.

Why, because it was directed by one or two people?

You get into smaller groups, and you realize that they’re writing songs you would never write, songs that you don’t even think are great songs. You think, ‘No, I don’t want to rhyme “dove” with “love.” I don’t want to do that.’ It’s a bunch of older men—myself included—writing songs for a 19-year-old girl that we know nothing about. The camp starts the day after the winner is crowned, so you do know who you’re writing for at that point.

She came by at some point to the studio we were working at. The majority of the camp was at a studio north of the city, somewhere the Wooden Stars were mixing their record. We met in the hallway and had a big laugh.

I would get in these groups, and was kind of sarcastic and cynical. But after the first day I knew that I couldn’t stay there and bash the process. I’d either have to leave or contribute somehow. I actually met a lot of cool people, and realized that my strengths were saying things like, ‘Let’s go to the minor here.’ I didn’t contribute lyrically at all. I helped steer it in a direction where I thought it was musically strong. There were a lot of super-talented people there, and I was out of my league in many ways.

Who else was in the room?

Twenty or 30 people. You get into groups of three or four every day, and then they rotate you the next day, so you’re never with the same people. You have to write a song every day, and record and mix it. At the end of the day you hand in a demo, and the demo quality is pretty fantastic, in that slick way. I have the CD of every song; it’s like 60 or 80 songs.

The weird thing is that I worked all week from 10 in the morning to 10 or 11 at night. You don’t get paid to be there; you get lunch, and the opportunity to be on the CD. But even when it gets on the CD, you get paid mechanical royalties. I got a cheque for $1200, and that’s for a week of 10-hour days. Initially I thought I’d be getting a down payment for a house. It’s money, it’s good money, but it’s not change-your-life money.

So I was up north all week, but they were also working at the Sony studio downtown. There were people there from Sweden, Norway, Nashville, Vancouver, it was crazy. These are people who are hired by the publishing companies to write, and the companies fly them out here.

Did you recognize anybody?

Nobody. The one guy who was supposed to be there was the guy from Loverboy, Mike Reno. But he wasn’t; I was disappointed. It turns out that on the last day my friend [and Mandrills collaborator] Steve [McCuen] was coming in on the train from Montreal, and I asked to go to the downtown studio so that I could leave early and pick him up. So it just so happened that that day I was in a group of people whose song was picked.

Total chance.

Yeah, and I didn’t contribute to that one, either. I get one quarter of the credit because I sat in the room with them. I met this one guy from Nashville who said, ‘Yeah, I probably write 350 songs a year.’ It’s what they do, and they do it in these groups and just kick out the songs. If you’re in the room and you don’t say a word, you still get credit. Unless it’s for a huge artist, then there’s more control. This Nashville guy had done some big stuff; I think he co-wrote something for Shania Twain. The whole thing was this ridiculous opportunity that I felt I had to take. And I’m really glad I did it.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Eyeful of live reviews, fall 07

There is much housecleaning to be done before the year-end: expect interviews with Jim Guthrie, Secret Mommy, Amon Tobin (bonus round), Weakerthans and Handsome Furs in the next week or so.

In the meantime, here are some live reviews penned for Eye Weekly's web site, in reverse chronological order. For scrolling reference, here is: Spiral Beach, Tunng, Black Mountain, Beirut and Suzanne Vega.

SPIRAL BEACH, Run With the Kittens, Donlands and Mortimer, Friendly Rich and the Lollipop People, Sister Suvi @ Centre of Gravity, December 1. link

Lots of great pics here

How’s this for a hot Saturday night: a five-band bill in a black box-y room in the depths of Toronto’s east end featuring bands barely out of high school. But immediately upon entering the Center of Gravity—which, for you scientists out there, is at Gerrard and Greenwood—it was obvious that this was worth braving the season’s first serious snowfall for. Colourful curators Spiral Beach are a band that take the tired term “CD release party” very seriously, rather than just another random gig where a new album happens to be for sale.

It wasn’t just the grilled cheese sandwiches on offer for a toonie at the dry bar, or the mountain of coats on the floor as an ersatz coat check, or the tire swing in the corner, or the neon face painting, or the tricycles—though all these elements made a world of difference in transforming the space into a welcoming atmosphere. The fact that every band but one (Run with the Kittens) had a distinct calypso influence in at least one song only added to the festivities. Anywhere else, it would stick out as the least likely indie rock influence imaginable. Here, it was imperative to the fun factor.

The real indicator was the early sight of gawky teenagers dancing giddily to the intense ukulele-driven art rock of the opening act, Montreal’s Sister Suvi. There was equal enthusiasm for everyone and everything on this bill: everything but jaded cynicism and blurry boozing. There’s plenty of that on West Queen Street West, where many of these bands haunt Elvis Mondays at the Drake. This show was for the real-life kids of Degrassi Street, the spawn of boho parents and arts schools, the next generation who will take the Torontopian torch and run with it. In other words, Whitney, the children who are our future.

Friendly Rich was happy to play the token fogie on the bill, if only because it gave him a chance to play up his dirty old man image. “Back when I was in high school, I would have sex with cantaloupe,” he informed us. “Any of you kids do that?” He was greeted by a small round of cheers—slightly less so when he told us, “I’d touch all of you if it wasn’t illegal.” Nonetheless, the fedora-adorned ringmaster had no trouble getting the crowd two-stepping to songs about Toronto boxer George Chuvalo and Afghani warlords, with his lovely Lollipoppers on harpsichord, trombone, bassoon and banjo. The gig poster had promised “circus acts” that didn’t materialize; by merely being himself, Friendly Rich more than compensated.

After the old dudes shuffled off stage and went home to bed, the kids took over. The boisterous six-piece party Donlands and Mortimer are considerably more exciting than the non-descript east-end intersection they’re named after (although it does sport a spiffy dry cleaning joint). Ridiculously talented and good looking, both guitarist Carmen Elle and drummer Steven Foster have plenty of stage charisma to burn; they trade off lead vocals and own the stage as if it were their birthright. The rest of the band are no slackers either—including a tight horn section—but there’s a clear sense that this is more of a group of friends than a real band. Several have their own solo projects that will likely begin to take precedence, but in the meantime D&M’s exuberance goes a long way. It’s a bit like Most Serene Republic—only good. They got the largest crowd reaction—if only because the crowd had dwindled somewhat by the time the equally ecstatic Spiral Beach took the stage at 12:30 a.m.

Run With the Kittens took advantage of the venue’s day job as a circus training centre when singer/guitarist Nate Mills—clad in a Santa suit, as were his bandmates—entered on a harness, elevated a good fifteen feet above the stage, while his rhythm section plowed through a Primus-y medley of “Phantom of the Opera” and “Kashmir.” Mills’s flailing legs suggested that a few more dry runs with the stage hand might have served him well, especially when he was unceremoniously yanked around—seemingly unexpectedly—in the middle of the set. The bizarro theatrics helped distract from the band’s mid-90s frat party music, complete with a terrible rap called “Let’s Make Fuck” that even Ice-T (he of “Let’s Get Buck Naked And Fuck” fame) wouldn’t chuckle at.

Spiral Beach didn’t need theatrics in their own set—their music is a new wave circus unto itself. They’ve always been an exceptional live band, but in front of a packed house fuelled by teen spirit, bathed in strobe lights and egged on by their peers, Spiral Beach made it clear why they will be the first band from their graduating class to conquer the world. Airick Woodhead is morphing into a guitar hero and a much better vocalist; brother Daniel balances the push and pull between prog and pop, bassist Dorian Wolf has toned down the mugging and lets his instrument do the talking; and keyboardist/singer Maddy Wylde is easily the most magnetic female stage presence in the country. Too bad, then, that one young girl decided to face the crowd and dance on stage right in front of Wylde for most the night—the show is not about you, honey.

The main attractions called it a night at 1.30, though the venue remained open until dawn, with a pancake breakfast promised for the stragglers. Outside was a blustery wind, some serious snowfall, and the sight of streetcars slowing to a crawl. Staying inside with Spiral Beach kids all night seemed much more appealing.

Live Eye: Tunng @ the Horseshoe, October 28. link

Listening to Tunng’s third album Good Arrows—where they transform from a promising folktronica band to a bonafide pop outfit—you would never expect their live show to be a visceral experience.

And for the most part, it wasn’t. By the time a rousing and rabid audience called them back for a well-deserved encore, it was easy to forget that most of the audience walked into the Horseshoe well prepared for a subdued Sunday night show observing six somber hippies quietly enacting their 21st century Wicker Man pageant. Yet from the moment they took to the stage, the smiling troubadours of Tunng were quick to replace any mystique with full-on geek, courtesy of their jovial stage banter, which dwelled on their fascination with Toronto’s many charms—especially our black and albino squirrels (“Wot, do you play chess with them, then?”).

With their gorgeous four-part British folk harmonies and three acoustic guitars, Tunng may well have been playing Hugh’s Room for Fairport Convention enthusiasts. It’s their electronic touches—loops, drum machines, and live manipulations—that likely got them signed to Thrill Jockey in the U.S. (home to Mouse on Mars, Trans Am and all things Tortoise) and a crossover to a slightly cooler, non-boomer crowd. Though the modern embellishments provide lovely Four Tet textures on CD, in a live setting they proved to be minor distractions, especially when clarinetist Martin Smith’s seashell percussion was just as effective at providing creepy crackles as Phil Winter’s laptop machinations (though Smith should lay off the g-damn windchimes). There were times when the electronics seemed downright gimmicky: during the somber murder ballad “Jenny Again,” Winter injected an incongruous sample of a man exclaiming “Jenny!” For a split second, it actually seemed like they might break into De La Soul’s “Jenifa Taught Me.”

Though the not-so-freaky folk is their core strength, the beats do transform Tunng’s material on the dancefloor. By set’s end, the cross-armed chinstrokers in the crowd were clapping along and dancing to the current single “Bricks”—a song that fulfills the pop potential of the long-lost Beta Band much better than that group’s current spin-off The Aliens manage to do.

But it’s not because they can pull off a pop song that places Tunng in a position to be much more than a footnote to the fading folktronica fetish: it’s because that’s only one of their many strengths.

Live Eye: Black Mountain @ Horseshoe, October 5. link

If it’s too loud, I am without a doubt too old. But for the record, I wasn’t the only one plugging my ears while Black Mountain tried to peel paint off the back walls of the Horseshoe on Friday night.

Sure, there were occasions when the visceral punch was welcome—as on the one-two punch of “Druganaut” and “Don’t Run Our Hearts Around,” two of only three songs they played from their near-flawless 2005 debut, which remains a vibrant mélange of psych rock, glam, gothic garage and stoner soul.

The other old favourite was the set-closing “No Hits.” It was an apt choice, seeing as how the bulk of the two-hour set was devoted to material from the forthcoming In The Future [isn’t the future always forthcoming?], due in January. As a showcase for new material, however, little of it connected—and the bludgeoning volume didn’t help.

The most welcome change is the increased presence of vocalist Amber Webber—who previously played second fiddle to guitarist/songwriter Stephen McBean, and shines on her own in Lightning Dust. The set opened with an ambient number that allowed her to play with her vibrato, but even that powerful tool soon wore out its welcome. Instead of swooning at her Grace Slick stylings, we were left wincing while Webber’s wails lacerated our eardrums.

On the other hand, McBean’s guitar playing does benefit from that volume, especially on new tracks “Tyrant” and “Lake of Fire.” And he’s become a better player—if not a better soloist, as some of the more extended (read: jammy) passages betrayed.

But what was truly missing from much of the new material was powerhouse drummer Josh Wells. His propulsive fills were key to the grooves that made the first album so exciting; now he seems content to lay back and play it straight. On one of the only new numbers where he was let loose—with several bars of a drum solo at the conclusion—the audience let loose the loudest roar of the night.

Who knows—this was early in the tour, and maybe these songs came together better in the studio, which is how the first album was written. And maybe they’ll be easier to appreciate without our individual pain thresholds entering into the equation. Hopefully Black Mountain can still be a land of mystery and beauty and awe, rather than the scorched landscape we saw Friday night.

Live Eye: Beirut @ Danforth Music Hall, October 2, 2007. link

The ukulele has taken a beating over the years. After all, it’s hard to recover from an association with such an iconic figure as Tiny Tim. And other than Beirut’s Zach Condon, the only modern singer daring enough to redeem this poor instrument is Stephen Merritt of the Magnetic Fields, who may well be using those dainty strings only as a perverse counterbalance to his deep baritone.

It suits Condon’s confident crooning style to a T, however, a feat that may well make him the only man capable of making the ukulele sexy. The only instruments that inspired more screams of adoration at this sold-out show were Beirut’s trademark, triumphant Balkan horns. They served as a rallying call for dancers, who—as usual—were deterred by ushers. Halfway through the show, it was becoming obvious that a typically Torontonian reserve was what restricted Beirut from delivering a great performance as opposed to a perfunctory run through songs from 2006’s Gulag Orkestar and the brand new album, The Flying Cup Club.

And so at just over the halfway point—and in an exact replication of last week’s Devendra Banhart show at the same venue—the band gestured the audience to not only get out of their seats, but to join them on stage. Soon enough about 100 people flanked the band and cheered them on—except for the incredibly awkward dude who planted himself directly in front of the drum set and looked nonchalant with his hands in his jean pockets. If you’re so bored, buddy, why on earth did you rush the stage?

Condon and his crew were delighted by the newly charged atmosphere, but they didn’t alter the set list to play up the momentum. Indeed, it was remarkable to see that no matter what the tempo was—or how many of them are waltzes—Beirut songs were consistently stirring and anthemic enough to cause inspired wig-outs from hippies and preppies alike. And there are few stranger sights than seeing how early track “Postcards From Italy”—powered by little more than ukuleles, mandolins, and Condon’s soaring voice—was received like a rock’n’roll rave-up.

The other citizens of this Beirut are well-assembled: other than the accordionist, the violinist and the drummer, each of whom stayed put, everyone else traded off on guitar, bass, ukulele, mandolin, brass instruments, clarinet, flute, saxophone and keyboards. Owen Pallett ran on stage, without a violin, to sing “Cliquot” from the new Beirut album and then promptly disappeared, re-emerging only for the encore to play some horn and dance with the hordes.

Colleen opened the show with her electroacoustic loops of acoustic guitar and cello, which works much better in the studio than on stage. Maybe it’s because her loops take too long to accumulate—especially when she’s standing alone on stage with a set of wind chimes—but her payoffs aren’t worth the wait. When listening at home, her music suggests all sorts of fantastic worlds. On stage, the mystique evaporates quickly.

Of course, that’s also true of Beirut: mystique was a big part of their early appeal, when Gulag Orkestar came out of nowhere to become a word-of-mouth indie hit. But stepping out from behind his ukulele doesn’t detract from Condon’s charisma, and when those Balkan brass lines kick in, one can’t help but think of that old Waterboys line: “Your love feels like trumpets sound.”

Live Eye: Suzanne Vega @ Mod Club, September 26. link

Six years after her last album, 11 years since her last Toronto gig—not to mention a divorce, a remarriage, a label change, a battle with depression and a death in the family—the 48-year-old Suzanne Vega hasn’t aged a bit. Not her poetic, observational odes to New York City, as heard on her strong new album Beauty and Crime, which is vintage Vega. Not her style, which inspired one lady listener to heckle, “You’re still a total babe!” And not her stage presence, which can shift from engaging storytelling to a steely-eyed glare, as on her classic teen alienation anthem “Left of Center.”

The set touched down on all corners of her catalogue: the sexy slink of “Caramel;” six songs from her first two albums; seven songs from Beauty and Crime, including the peppy pop song “Frank and Ava” and the haunting “Ludlow Street.” Many were introduced with brief stories or statements that only a songwriter of Vega’s stature would dare get away with: “I was walking down the street pondering the nature of desire—as I often do,” she chuckled.

Her four-piece band arrangements are more vivid than those heard on Beauty and Crime, though they did lean heavily towards her 80s sound: string patches for the keyboards and flange and chorus pedals for the electric guitar. There was no denying that the secondary star of the show was engaging bassist Mike Visceglia, whose dextrous playing provided the lone accompaniment for Vega’s vocals on “Blood Makes Noise” and “Left of Center.” No wonder he’s been in her steady employ for over 20 years.

Obscure tracks from her back catalogue were greeted with cheers at the opening chords, yet the most obvious song was met with relative silence. After she introduced the band and started “Luka”—which we assumed would close the set—it felt like the room took a deep breath and thought, “Oh right, this one.” It’s simultaneously her biggest hit and her most depressing lyric. No matter how great a pop song it is, no matter how stirring the chiming guitar solo still is, its frank character sketch of an abused child still casts a pall over a room.

As on 1987’s Solitude Standing, Vega bookended the set with “Tom’s Diner,” arriving on the stage to sing it a cappella—only to discover that the audience was determined to interrupt her by singing the coda as a chorus, as it was on the early 90s dance remix. She closed with her own band’s take on the remix, where the polite and poised songwriter took the mic in hand and awkwardly danced around the stage.

“I could see some of you getting worried there for a moment,” she deadpanned after the dance. Really, the only thing we were worried about at that point was the prospect of another 11-year wait for her return.