Interview – AK-747s December 9, 2010

This interview is proof positive of why 500 words is a little short for an interview, as I had about an hour of great stuff from a great band. They will sock your face with a fist. Watch out.

They make music under a kind of punk rock sobriquet rouge, insisted upon with pseudo-serious urgency. So, for all intents and purposes, up-and-coming local post-punk outfit AK-747s are violinist Chris Token, drummer Izzy Gibson, bassist El Viejo Verde and frontman Rob Nuclear. “Yeah, go with that,” says Nuclear, laughing. It’s an image that meshes nicely with the way the band operates.

“The goals have always been very, very small,” Rob says. A self-taught musician, his handle is shockingly appropriate. Taken to long, educated rants on a variety of subjects (which, during our time together, included Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, September 11, abortion, Edmonton, the end of humanity, ex-girlfriends and his father’s home improvements), Rob Nuclear embodies a kind of swagger and bombast lost on today’s frontmen, but with a pronounced blue-collar temperance.

As far as origins go, the original AK-747s’ lineup has all but imploded, Nuclear explains. “My drummer began disintegrating in a maelstrom of crack cocaine and cheap wine.” He’s not worried about them coming back for royalties. “They can drink a tall glass of suck my fucking dick.” The near band-ending break was a catalyst for the chemistry and cohesion of the new lineup, obvious over beers.

Izzy Gibson, drummer and experienced multi-instrumentalist, credits the band for being the most stable she’s been in. Formerly of the Living Deadbeats (“I think the lead singer is in jail now!”), Gibson is the longest-serving member aside from Nuclear. She remembers recruiting violinist Chris Token fondly. “When you first walked up, I said, ‘Oh man, I give it five minutes until we scare the crap out of this guy.’” Token, a classically trained veteran of local symphonies, had a sizable punk rebellion in his youth that gave new direction to his musical talents. “Being half-Chinese you either play the piano, clarinet, or violin. I ended up with the violin. I just wanna play the violin and have fun doing it.”

Nuclear is quick to praise his bandmates, but they all exonerate themselves from lyrical responsibility, saying any criminal charges belong to him.

“Some pretty dreadful things happened in my life, and I think that’s where a lot of the tunes came in.” Standout track “Loretta” chronicles a suicidal crying wolf in a gripping, taut four minutes. When asked if the song is semi-autobiographical, Nuclear smiles. “I’ll take the fifth,” he says, adding, “Yes. Drop the semi. That person is still with us.”

The history has given a sense of perspective to the band. “We’re not doing it because we want to be millionaires,” says Gibson. The dream isn’t dead, however. “If I could play music for a living, oh fuck yeah. By the time I’m forty I’m gonna have a guitar-shaped pool and biatches. And a grill. I’m gonna buy a grill for my mother.” If there was anywhere they were going to do it though, Rob maintains Vancouver is the place to do it.

“I love this fucking city and I’ll tell you fucking why: it would have been motherfucking impossible for me to pull this off anywhere but here. The openness and acceptance I have seen. By and fucking large, the people in this scene are open, supportive, they want to rock and get drunk and have a good time and that is fucking rad.” An Edmonton expatriate, he is explicit in his aims and uncensored in his conviction. “I’ll play fucking anytime, fucking anywhere for fucking anyone.” He continues, counting on his fingers.

“I’ll play your fucking house party, I’ll play your fucking bar mitzvah, I’ll play your fucking christening.”

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Interview – Nick Zammuto of The Books December 6, 2010

To use a tired term that I basically hate, The Books show up on a bunch of my bucket lists. I got to talk to them a few weeks back and got to see them live just yesterday. Their new album, The Way Out, fences with the latest Titus Andronicus record for my favorite of 2010. The best song from the album (in my honest opinion) is embedded at the top. Give it a listen while you read for optimal value!

Nick Zammuto is momentarily drowned out by the sound of a wailing child, and for a brief moment, it’s hard to tell if the sound is a sample, another digital artefact cribbed from years of being half of the sonic alloy foundry, the Books.

“Whoops, that’s just my two year old freaking out.” Fresh off a two-year hiatus that saw the release of their latest (and arguably most accomplished) record, The Way Out, it’s a timely reminder of why the Books continue, and why they briefly paused their work. “The long and short answer is children.” The time off, it seems, came as some welcome respite. “We were kind of burned out by working. Two years straight on stuff so it was time for a break.”

Zammuto and partner in crime Paul De Jong formed the Books at the turn of the millennium with their debut release, Thought for Food. Follow-ups The Lemon of Pink and Lost and Safe cemented their wholly unique sound: take two parts samples and curiosities from the world’s thrift and record stores, mix in equal parts original compositions surrounding those samples, shake well and garnish with a fierce awareness that permeates every minute. With the digitization of their findings, however, the creation process has changed.

“Paul loves the thrill of the hunt more than I do. He is a real collector and will go to great lengths to find things.” Touring has given new life to this treasure hunt. “He wakes up early and goes out thrift shopping. He’s amassed an unbelievable collection of raw material. We have a backlog of many thousands of tapes, both cassette and VHS. There’s no shortage of raw material. I think we both like going through it all, it’s very inspiring.” Sifting through the material to come up with gold has perpetuated their songwriting. “Things kind of start to make themselves at some point,” he adds.

The Way Out prominently features some sensitive material. Standout “A Cold Freezin’ Night” features samples from found TalkBoy tapes filled with the violent ramblings of a prepubescent. “When I first heard it, Paul delivered it as part of his sample library and I was like, ‘Oh my God, what has our culture come to?”

It’s a darkness that contrasts starkly to the semi-ecclesiastical wailings on mid-album thesis statement “I Am What I Am”. Both could be aggravating, but are dealt with a sincerity that seems hard come by. “When you take a sermon with a lot of attitude and content to it and you cut out most of that content and just leave this repeated phrase, it has this note of nonsense to it that could be interpreted as flippant or sarcastic. I think in general we are not interested in making sarcastic work. All you can do with that stuff is preach to the choir. We want to highlight and recontextualize information so you can see it in a different way.”

All the sampling and borrowing seems risky these days, but Zammuto is unfazed. “I think at this point it feels more like archaeology than stealing.” With ideas of ownership being challenged with more regularity, he feels being able to practise their kind of advanced pastiche is part of what keeps culture advancing. It’s worth the risk.

“I would rather get a cease and desist order and have to give up all of the royalties it ever makes for the chance for people to hear it.”

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Interview – Ade Blackburn of Clinic November 15, 2010

Clinic is pretty sweet! So is Ade!

Originally appeared in Beatroute Magazine.

Even through the thickest experimentation with static and noise, one could hardly call Clinic abrasive. They have, however, experimented with different types of abrasion, waxing thickly into extended guitar explorations that could sink less experienced bands. It’s for this reason that distinctly gossamer, glossy textures of their latest release, Bubblegum, come as much a surprise as the name of the record.

“We saw that it was a poppier, easier sounding album, but not approaching bubblegum status. It was a bit more accessible,” says Ade Blackburn, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist for the long-running Liverpool quartet. The shift in sound is no accident. The statement made from the first seconds of album opener “I’m Aware” sends ripples through its runtime. Though each Clinic album has faced accusations of pop sensibility, this time it was intentional. “I think it was more conscious on this album because that feel is consistent throughout the album. On previous ones it’s probably more abrupt. Static changes from one song to the next.”

That new sound required a drastic retooling of the creative process, says Blackburn. “I think that we started off doing songs on acoustic guitars, very simple kind of way. It didn’t feel like the starting point of any previous records. I think our previous ones we started around drums and rhythms. This is the first one where we really didn’t.”

The result is the band’s most contemplative and methodical to date. It puts distance between Bubblegum and the rest of their discography, but loses none of the potency. To break up the tone, tracks such as “Evelyn” act as up-tempo shots in the arm, compared to the acoustic picking and sultry vocals of Bubblegum crooner “Milk and Honey.”

“We could have just included all the acoustic and more ballad type songs on the album, but I was thinking about it and if we’re gonna play this line then we’re also going to want some edginess to it, something more up-tempo. It seemed like the right thing to do to include ‘Evelyn’ on the album.”

While always taking steps outside their comfort zone, from the spoken-word experimentation on “Radiostory” to the synth asides in “Freemason Waltz,” Clinic’s identity is one which Blackburn says the band comes upon naturally. “I think because we’re not technically great musicians, there’s always a roughness to it, which I like. We don’t try and give it too much polish. I think keeping in slower songs, something more melodic, they still have sufficient twists and turns to it, a kind of pace to them.”

Deep into their career, Clinic has an output that would drive many bands to contemplate the limitations of longevity. Blackburn is relaxed about the opportunities Clinic provides. “I’d say that it’s really important that if you use the exact same instrument and same approach each time, you would be limiting yourself. At the same time, you can’t completely escape the types of music you like yourself.” That satisfaction with longevity is self-perpetuation, with Clinic lasting into the near future. “The way things are, we’ll do at least a couple of albums. It’s still really enjoyable for us to do. But also, I think I’d like to do something quite ridiculous, like join a metal band. Something completely stupid like that would be quite good.”

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Interview – Davis Guggenheim November 11, 2010

I had a real “down the rabbit-hole” moment walking out of the hotel I where I interviewed Davis Guggenheim. All I could think about was how sometimes he needs to go to the store to buy polish for his fucking Oscar.

Originally appeared in The Peak.

Ripped straight from a particu- lar George Clooney film, Davis Guggenheim became success- ful because he got fired. Or so he says.

“I never wanted to be a docu- mentary filmmaker.” The screen- writer and original director of the 2001 Denzel Washington vehicle was thrown off his own project by the marquee star. The bit- terness lead Guggenheim to his true calling. “It was so arbitrary and stupid, so I bought a camera and made a film about people I like”. In the precursor to Waiting for “Superman”, a landmark docu- mentary about the faltering Amer- ican education system, Guggen- heim followed a group of teachers for a year and chronicled their struggles. The 2001 documentary, Teach, was the result, and the first step in what Guggenheim figures will be a long career document- ing education. “I think I’ll be mak- ing movies about education for- ever. Until we fix it.” Guggenheim, whose work became a household name with An Inconvenient Truth, has moved on from the Acad- emy Award-winning business of chronicling the fate of the planet to merely the fate of the United States. “From an American pointof view, it seems like the roots of all our problems come out of edu- cation, the roots of all our great successes come out of education. We are so screwed right now.”


Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and Guggenheim feels as if America has a lot to learn from its neighbors. “We read a lot about the system in Finland, Japan, and Korea. Finland is at the top of a lot of lists. What they do right and what we can learn from them is their emphasis on great teachers. It is very hard to get into a teaching program. When you finish, you get a spot. When you get a spot, you get developed and trained. When you’re done, you can get any job you want. In America, that’s the opposite of the case.”

It’s a labour of love for Guggenheim who sees the quest for better education in America as sacred duty. But it’s not without limitations. “Part of what drives me is emotion. When I feel pas- sionate about a movie is when I want to make a movie. You have to feel deeply about it and you have to care about the people in your movie. But you can’t cross certain lines.” Part of the film fo- cuses on a young girl attending a private charter school, but money for tuition runs out just in time

for her to be barred from attend- ing elementary graduation with her friends. Despite just wanting to pay the bill, Guggenheim exer- cises restraint. “It’s heartbreaking. You’re making the movie to help people but you’re not allowed, out of principle, to help. The hope is the movie will then encourage others to help.”

Despite the endless debate and hand-wringing over Ameri- can education reform, support behind Waiting for “Superman” is less than universal. “It’s very, very controversial. When I do this in Texas, there are a lot of peo- ple who are very upset because schools have to accept all these immigrants and illegal aliens. It gets more complicated. I hope it doesn’t. My great-grandparents are immigrants. They didn’t have any money and education was this great elevator, it lifted fami- lies up. I think America should commit to giving every kid a great education and not have a lottery to get on the elevator.” Major pro- ponents of the film include Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City (steward of the largest public school district in the country) and President Barack Obama, who levied criticism over intractable teacher tenure and the number of school days respectively in the wake of the “Superman” premiere.

Waiting for “Superman”, hav- ing dragged some taboo issues into the open, Guggenheim is quick to state the power of his medium. While others are sheep- ish and coy about pointing fingers at bad teachers and bad policies, Guggenheim is defiant. “If you can’t talk about them in a docu- mentary, where are you going to talk about them?”

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Interview – Sufjan Stevens October 1, 2010

Sufjan. MF. Stevens. Guys.

Originally appeared in Beatroute Magazine.


Many knew that Sufjan Stevens was making music before his breakout hit Illinois, but few knew if he would make music after. Stevens had grown tired of his voice and tired of trumpet. The soaring symphonics and veranda banjo of Illinois (characteristically more vegan raw than deep fried) took their toll and Stevens retreated, his output limited to a B-side collection and Christmas album. Before his latest EP, All Delighted People, which was released unceremoniously online in August, his only output was The BQE, an audio/visual suite about a highway. That project may have salvaged his career.

“It signalled a big sea-change for me in terms of my process,” says Stevens. Commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music and performed for the first time at the Howard Gilman Opera House, The BQE is in some ways a retrospective of his work to that point. He effortlessly nods at each of his major shifts in sound, from the sparse weirdness of A Sun Came to the electronic experimentation of Year of the Rabbit. It’s a trend that continues on All Delighted People, all made possible by the experience.

“(The BQE) kinda sabotaged the mechanical way of approaching my music, which was basically narrative long-form. It really opened things up for me. It also confused things as well. I don’t think I ever really fully recovered from that process.”

Though the pressures of success can grate on any artist, Stevens maintains that the fatigue he felt was an internal struggle more than a struggle with his creativity.

“I think I was getting tired with myself. My voice was really starting to get on my nerves.”

That creativity was and is identified by an incredible breadth. In his career, Sufjan Stevens has produced songs about flocks of birds (“Seven Swans”), Polish heroes of the American Revolution (“Casimir Pulaski Day”) and the flatulence of Superwoman (“Super Sexy Woman”), and he has imparted enough sympathy to a monster to make Milton blush (“John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”). For much of his career, these moments have existed within explicit frameworks. The BQE, a collection about the expressway running through Brooklyn and Queens in New York City, came on the heels of the aborted “Fifty States Project.” With Michigan and Illinois completed, Stevens said the project was “such a joke” in an interview with Paste Magazine. Regardless, for the first time in years, Stevens is working without a net.

“I think it’s really good for me. It was such a relief to just write a song on instinct and allow myself to be impulsive.” Of his creative past, he adds, “I think the enforced conceptual boundaries are really healthy and helpful, but they can be restrictive and can hinder exploration.”

The All Delighted People EP embraces that flexibility with Illinois-style quick hits (“Heirloom”) and BQE-reminiscent indulgences clocking over fifteen minutes (“Djohariah”). Whatever the form, Stevens seems to have finally come to equilibrium, and hints that any past misgivings are receding.

“I love denying myself the fundamental tools of the trade. I love giving myself obstacles. It feels like starting over. It never really gets old.”

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Interview – Dave Monks of Tokyo Police Club September 21, 2010

A little while back I got to interview Dave Monks. He was a cool person. I know I say that a bunch, but it’s honestly always surprising to me. I get all ready for people to be dicks and rock stars that even after all this time it boggles my head that most are just people. Strangers with wives and children, as a bard said.

Think about your accomplishments in high school. Tokyo Police Club took a slightly different path. Honour society, pep squad and Model U.N. are all noble bullet points, but they lack the panache of “rock star.” It’s doubtful your secondary school career sent you vaulting onto record store shelves on the legs of infectious anthems and hooky romps, and it’s less likely that ring put you on David Letterman around the time you walked the stage to grab your diploma. That said, their latest record, Champ, feels like the first step in a fruitful adulthood for the band.

Chrissy Piper

“Each record we’ve made was under really different circumstances. I feel like we’ve arrived somewhere more sustainable,” says bassist and lead singer Dave Monks. “They’re just the result of the environment we wrote it in,” he continues, recognizing the differences between albums, “as opposed to conscious decisions. Maybe we made conscious decisions to change the environment. But not the music that was the result.

“We had written (the first albums) in sort of a vacuum. There was no outside pressure,” Monks explains. “It was just us doing our thing. The next one came within all that, and those pressures reflected onto the record. I think Champ is the first time we cut some space out for ourselves.”

No one would accuse Tokyo Police Club of not being fun, and in some ways they up the ante on Champ. Tracks like “Bambi” and “Big Difference” clip along with the band’s trademark velocity and “Favourite Food” and “Favourite Color” explore catchy, inscrutable lyrics (with subject matter including Ike and Tina Turner, and the nostalgia of old movies played at max volume), a feat for a band that once wrote a stunningly casual song about robots. All of this on tracks that flirt with a previously-unheard-of four minutes, a sign of a reckless youth now a little further behind them. “Elephant Shell was a way more thought out record. It was kind of uncalled for, really. We’re just trying to feel it more than think it. I’m really proud of it.”

Tokyo Police Club grew out of adolescence with Champ. But can enthusiasm trump the transition from hobby to career? Monks seems unfazed. “It is a job. A job that I love.” The success and romance wears thin at times, but Monks understands that comes with the territory. “You totally fall into that trap sometimes. When the touring keeps going and you don’t really get time off, it becomes the main focus. I try to make sure I’m not in that zone when I’m writing. Even if that means not writing a note for six months.” It’s something necessary for the process, he says. “You just have to trust that you’ll get back to that place where it’s just an outlet for other things going on in your life.”

Being globally recognized rock stars at such a young age has been the narrative of the band since its inception and has always begged a question likely posed to child stars of other media: was this part of the plan? “We had always been in a band together. That was the plan: be in a band forever.” After high school, college was a fleeting feature of their lives. “I think I was at McGill for, like, a semester. I really wanted to give the band a shot. I turned nineteen and the record came out.” Monks knows his twenties are atypical, but his resolve speaks to the effort easily seen on Champ.

“I just want to be able to do this.”

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Feature – Black Mountain September 1, 2010

This originally appeared in Beatroute Magazine as a Vancouver cover feature. This was the second one I did for the magazine and it was a blast to do. Matt Camirand is a pretty cool dude, and the record is awesome. I couldn’t write “Let Spirits Ride is the best Iron Maiden song Iron Maiden wasn’t talented enough to write”, but I think the sentiment punches through.

It’s always roots versus ambition. Staying in one spot offers comfort and clarity, but can keep you mired, stuck. Ruts form. Ambition is the other side of the same coin, a scarier prospect where the risks and rewards are greater, if harder to attain. Black Mountain knows the ebb and flow of roots and ambition. The Vancouver rock outfit pays obvious homage to their roots, their sound anchored with a solid base coat of their rock god idols. But they, like fellow West Coast rockers Comets On Fire, similarly figured out what bands like Wolfmother and Jet can’t seem to grasp: that the base coat is just that; a little ambition is needed for the details. It’s appropriate then that bassist Matt Camirand and Black Mountain left home and roots behind and took the recording of their latest, Wilderness Heart, deep into Axl Rose’s “jungle.”


“In L.A., it was pretty heavy because we were recording at Sunset Sound Studios, and we had recorded there just to do one song previously. Doing a whole record there was pretty inspiring because the studio has been home to countless numbers of artists that all of us totally admire and worship,” Camirand says. The studio that would give shelter in part to the fugitive Rolling Stones for Exile on Main Street played host to Black Mountain, a band with deep roots in the lower mainland. Famous for members’ work in the downtown east side and the much overblown “Black Mountain Army,” their group of associated artists and acts, the trip down the coast to record was a significant venture. “Neil Young has recorded there and Fleetwood Mac recorded there. Innumerable artists have been there. The thing about it is that they haven’t changed the place very much since those days in the ‘70s and ‘60s.” The same wood paneling and equipment that gave birth to the sound Black Mountain makes sport out of improving upon was a good fit for the band. “The album was almost like recording at home.”

After the quiet roar induced by their eponymous debut and the tidal waves created by breakout LP In The Future, Camirand and bandmates Stephen McBean, Jeremy Schmidt, Amber Webber and Joshua Wells had more than a few big names interested in working with them. In part, they traveled to Los Angeles because “Dave Sardy had expressed pretty strong interest in producing the album.” D.Sardy (of LCD Soundsystem fame) and Randall Dunn (Kinski, Sun O)))) both took up production duties on the album. “Dave prefers to work at his home studio in L.A. and Sunset. He also has access to a shit-ton of old vintage equipment that are in miraculous condition.” The band has said in the past that they see production as another step in the creative process, but Camirand believes that learning to let go is a calculated risk. “That was stressful and it’s scary, but it’s exciting and we knew it would be like that.” Wilderness Heart represented a shift in philosophy with the recruiting of Sardy. “It was like, okay, let’s bring somebody in and shake shit up from the beginning. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, work with a producer, but never was able to afford to do it. It was a pretty big change but it was the only way to get good results half the time, is to take risks.” The result was a record that is unmistakably the product of strict creative control on the part of the band, but with the guidance of differently able hands. If In The Future was a hulking tool of heavy industry, Wilderness Heart is surely a precision timepiece; no less complicated, but cleaner and exacting.


The pressures of success can cause friction even in a group as practiced as Black Mountain. This pressure built ahead of the first attempt at recording In The Future, and caused a much-publicized hiatus that saw much of the original material scrapped in favour of new tracks. It’s a situation Camirand thinks they’ve overcome. “We planned ahead a little better, because we knew what was gonna happen. We knew we were gonna take a break just like last time. We kinda just set aside two months before. We went our separate ways to do a bunch of writing. Then we went to a rehearsal space every single day five days a week and spent the afternoon just kinda jamming and getting ideas.” The system they’ve created for themselves is one that Camirand believes has eliminated any expiratory date for the band. “I think it might have expired a while ago if we hadn’t figured out so quickly the routine we have for ourselves. I really like it. You can’t be stuck in a van and then a hotel room, then an airplane, then a green room at a venue with the same people over and over again, you know, for a year or two years on end without some kind of fighting. It just can’t happen.” He adds, “There’s five people in the van and it’s like I have four girlfriends.”

With competing side-projects creating the dynamic at work on Wilderness Heart – Blood Meridian, Lightning Dust and Pink Mountaintops to name a few – it would be no stretch to assume that creative competition causes a similar strain. Camirand is adamant they’re past such squabbling. “I think we’re all old enough now we’ve done this for a while that we realize that a great song, most great songs that you write, don’t include everybody equally, you know? There’s always someone taking the lead. There’s a give and take, like, we’re gonna write this song and maybe there will be no bass. You’re old enough to go, ‘Okay well that’s the best thing for the song’ and it’s not like a personal dig or whatever. You know on some other song you will be prominently displayed.” Despite a fierce inventiveness evident on a spin, the critical discourse on the band has been one of base lumping into genres, a chorus of “stoner rock” and “psych-rock” qualifications that fall painfully short. Camirand is unfazed, saying his “first instinct is to consider the people a little narrow minded.” He recognizes the nature of the beast, however. “It doesn’t really have anything to do with me. It’s not meant for me, those kind of comments.” As much as it is not tailored for him, Camirand cannot ignore the press. The deluge began far before the release of In The Future, but reached a critical mass after a track was included on the soundtrack for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3. Ahead of Wilderness Heart, he’s started reading the band’s mounting press all over again. “I’m as excited as anyone to see if people like it.”

As a seeming result of stepping out of their comfort zone, Wilderness Heart is an evolution in the sound Black Mountain has harvested from their predecessors and cultivated into something unique. “It’s certainly the biggest leap we’ve taken in terms of songwriting and production and stuff,” says Camirand. Opening with the southern folk licks of “The Hair Song” and falling into a compelling groove with the brooding “Rollercoaster” and the insistent and powerful title track “Wilderness Heart,” the record sounds more vital and punchy than previous output. Its focused delivery omits any analog to the problematic (if unduly maligned) In The Future epic “Bright Lights.” Mid-album standout “Let Spirits Ride” is a dynamite piece of prog metal that should have Iron Maiden nervous. “That one almost didn’t make the record,” Camirand says. “It grew on me. It wasn’t my favourite track when we were recording but when we were mixing, it kinda jumped out and took on a new level.”

With the formula for band success working in his favour and time spent working with residents of the downtown east side, Matt Camirand is striking the proper balance between roots and ambition, and it shows on Wilderness Heart. “It’s really important for me, aside from the other bands, to step back from Black Mountain and go back to work in the mental health care industry. I like going back to the residents I’m working with who are all acid casualties from the ‘60s and are super stoked on Black Mountain. And you know that gets exhausting and irritating too and then it’s time to go back on the road again.

“I’m really lucky to have that opportunity to keep refreshing myself.”

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Interview – Dan Werb of Woodhands August 9, 2010

Originally appeared in Beatroute Magazine. Woodhands put on one of the best shows I’ve seen this year. Playing ahead of the utterly insane (as mentioned) WhoMadeWho and (what I was able to see of) !!! was kind of a dream bill. Dan Werb is a stand up dude, both on stage and doing an interview in a less than ideal setting. Funny guy too.

“Kids in Toronto love music,” states Dan Werb, one half of the Toronto-based dance-rock band Woodhands. It’s an almost painfully obvious answer to an unlikely question: why is there so much good dance music coming out of southern Ontario? Werb tries to explain, saying, “They love to blog, they love to dress up, they love to party. They thought they loved indie rock but actually what they really wanted was to dance their fucking asses off.” Woodhands responded to that demand with a string of releases aimed squarely at those dancing asses, culminating in 2008’s Heart Attack and their newest this year, Remorescapade. Werb says that many of the dance acts together now came up in an indie rock world and saw a way to improve upon it. Despite some initial uncertainty, Werb thinks the success came from simply reaching the right number of people. “It was awkward at first but now that there’s a critical mass everyone is happy and satisfied.”


Woodhands stands out among a crop of peers with a hard-nosed propensity towards clear, punchy dance numbers that pop right off your speakers. While others are satisfied with fuzz and detachment, Werb and bandmate Paul Banwatt serve up crunchy guitars and tight dance beats, the latter courtesy of Banwatt, who also lends his services to similarly notable buzz band the Rural Alberta Advantage. Werb is aware of the cross contamination between the projects. “He often claims that he has a specific style of drumming that he takes with him to all the projects he’s working on. So even though the RAA is ostensibly a folk band, the drumming is totally dance-oriented. Check it out again; you’ll hear a ton of the dance influences in his drumming with the RAA.” While this is more than clear when comparing Woodhands tracks like “Dancer” and RAA track “Rush Apart,” the similarity is more obvious in the thrilling velocity shared by the two bands. While seemingly worlds apart, Banwatt’s talent links the two. “When you’re as good as Paul is at drums, you can basically do whatever the fuck you want whenever you want with whoever you want and it’ll sound amazing.”

A key skill for a dance rock band to have is the ability to transfer a certain amount of energy into whatever audience is presented to them. Inhibitions can only be brought down so far, something Woodhands seemed to learn when touring behind Heart Attack, writing their follow-up throughout. The result is an urgent and exciting work of pop that moves crowds, an effect that was crafted specifically. “They are definitely meant to hit hard live,” he says of their latest. While seemingly most at home in a sweaty, cramped bar or club, Woodhands has been popping up on outdoor stages at summer festivals for most of their career. It’s an environment that could shelve their imitable live presence, and is a risk Werb shows at least some concern for. “We love the festivals because we’re always making new fans and playing outdoors is so thrilling,” he says, adding, “We are torn though because our lasers don’t work as well outdoors and we do love our lasers.

“Did I mention our lasers? We have lasers.”

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Review – The Suburbs by Arcade Fire August 4, 2010

Originally appeared in The Peak. I caused a bit of controversy among a couple of my smarter (music wise) friends by because I implied I was underwhelmed with this record. This is clearly not the case. It’s incredibly strong, but those strengths only serve to make it’s missteps more glaring. I didn’t extrapolate much on a few key tracks due to word count restrictions, but those thoughts boil down to this: Empty Room, Half Light II, Month of May and Sprawl II off this record will enter any greatest hits package this band puts out, along with Ocean of Noise, Intervention, Crown of Love and Power’s Out. Arcade Fire were probably the Meat Loaf of my high school career (both in terms of noisy, commercially successful releases and in terms of popularity and musical grandiosity) so it’s nice to see that they didn’t similarly put out only one classic. I had a tough time with this record and review, but I’m glad I stuck with it. 2010 has been strangely sparse in terms of records I’ve latched onto, so maybe it’s faint praise to say The Suburbs is a highlight. I don’t think so, but maybe.

he Suburbs is an agonizing record. It’s agony to listen to and agony to ignore. For every moment you feel drawn to it, you have two of rage at the change of a formula that worked so well and one wondering whether Arcade Fire have improved upon it. Sandwiched between classics are songs sounding like single fodder, throw-aways padding what should have been Preakness in their Triple Crown. These stumbles may not matter.


For the most part, Win, Regine, and company seem at odds with the sweeping elegiacs that have thus far made up their fingerprint. They’re done with mini-epics and have moved onto a collection of cogent moments, leaving the album to be the singular experience, not single tracks. There are no lineal connections with their previous work, and though stompers “Month of May” and “City With No Children” channel “Antichrist Television Blues,” these references are passing. As such, comparisons have already been drawn to OK Computer. More poignant is the disparity between the latter album and Kid A. Little remains of the past, but it is unquestionably the work of them same band.

Bookending title tracks “The Suburbs” and “The Suburbs (continued)” give the album some narrative anchors, and discography highs “Empty Room” (sounding like a neon Bible b-side layered over grinding shoegaze, which is to say outstanding), and “Half Light II (No Celebration)” moderate missed opportunities in “Ready To Start” and “Deep Blue.” Only briefly do they abandon loneliness to revisit the apocalypse they’re so fond of writing about in “Suburban War” (with, again, reference to career best “Ocean of Noise.”) Contained in it’s a final movement as good as they’ve ever done.

Like the exurbs they discuss, The Suburbs is only frustrating and distant on first glance. Peering under a layer of static and despondence is a challenge with enough reward to merit the undertaking. Butler croons “The music divides/us into tribes,” something doubtless to happen among their fanbase. Their loss, it would seem.

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Review – Inception July 27, 2010

Originally appeared in The Peak. I come down a little hard on Inception here, I think. There has been enough fawning praise elsewhere that I think I was subconsciously pushed to point out what I saw to be it’s flaws. I’ll restate because I’m not sure I was clear enough: Inception is the best movie to hit theaters this summer (wide, at least. I hear Winter’s Bone was awesome, and as I’ve said I Am Love was awesome) and one of the best this year. I’ve seen it twice and would see it a third time in a heartbeat.

Christopher Nolan might not be the best director of our time (he comes close), but he certainly is the loudest. Fashioning a strong relationship with Warner Bros. — owner of one of, if not the most effective marketing machines on the planet — Nolan is their newly-minted golden boy in a tenuous situation: we have been talking about Inception for what feels like forever. That amount of hype would bend and break most films, but Nolan, no doubt steeled by helming one of the largest film franchises ever in Batman, just internalized that pressure and made what might be his masterpiece.

Inception is about dreams — the creation of dreams, the manipulation of dreams, and how those dreams can shake and shape us. Leonardo DiCaprio is Dominic Cobb, an extractor of the highest order. He can walk into your brain, steal an idea, and leave without a trace, all while you sleep. When Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe) hires them to leave a trace via a near impossible process called “inception,” the rewards outweigh the risk. “Don’t think about elephants. Now, what are you thinking about?” remarks Cobb’s partner Arthur, played to perfection by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Brick, 500 Days of Summer), explaining how true inspiration is impossible to fake. Christopher Nolan seems to agree.


What follows is a delirious trip into multiple planes of reality, a mind-melter that for better or worse will conjure memories of the recent Shutter Island. Cobb enlists the help of a new architect, Ariadne (Ellen Page of Juno, Hard Candy, and Trailer Park Boys fame) and a forger, Eames (Tom Hardy of Bronson, Layer Cake, and Scenes of a Sexual Nature) to break into Cillian Murphy’s (28 Days Later, Sunshine) dreams and convince him to break up an energy conglomerate founded by his dying father.

Inception is, unequivocally, this summer’s best movie (so far, that is — early reports call Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World a contender). It’s a dense, thrilling, highly creative film that gives the finger to “dumb fun” films in style. It’s the best money you can spend at a theater right now.

Comparisons to Fellini’s 8 1/2 will abound as it seems as likely an allegory for the filmmaking process as it is a straightforward action picture. Debate roars over the finer points of the film’s message, forcing attentive viewers to discuss the nature of reality, perception, and obsession at length. No matter the answers to the many questions it raises, that it elicits a response other than “that was crap,” makes it stand head and shoulders above this season’s crop.

While exceptional, Inception is not perfect. Complaints are similar to Nolan’s other offerings. The script is Christopher’s baby, with rewrites extending into the early part of the decade. The absence of writing partner and brother Jonathan Nolan is felt in the terse and at times oppressively serious tone of the film. There are a few moments of great levity, but they are few and far between. This becomes an issue during the trademark Nolan, needfully long exposition: gobs of information force-fed (albeit in an exciting manner) to an audience just to enable their enjoyment of the explosive third act. He makes films like a prog-rock song — bounding gallops out of the gate, settling into a lengthy digression on why he is more brilliant than you, frequent bursts of excitement through the fog and an end garnished with fireworks. The Mars Volta should be jealous.

That said, Inception so ably sucks you in you’ll barely notice the cold characterization and minor issues it has. From zero-gravity acrobatics to a homicidal Marion Cotillard flowing through Cobb’s dreams like an assassin, Inception lives up to every bit of hype.

At one point in the film, Ariadne remarks how building a dream is “less about the visual and more about the feel of the dream.” She wonders what happens when she alters the physics of the dream world. That world then literally flips upside down, a city folding onto itself, all spectacle and shock. Looking at what she has done, she says, “it sure is something, isn’t it?” to a similarly moved Cobb. “Yes it is,” he responds quietly. It sure is, Mr. Nolan.

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Review – I Am Love July 22, 2010

This flick was my first time at an honest to goodness press screening. Not going to lie, it was pretty great. I could do that often and have no complaints.

I Am Love will be one of the best films of the year that no one will watch. It has a lot going against it, Oscar-winning lead Tilda Swinton or no. It’s entirely in Italian (Swinton learned to speak the language with a character-specific Russian accent). It’s a two-hour hard drama, devoid of levity, and North American censors are notoriously squeamish when it comes to shots of female genitalia. Yes, shots — plural. It’s this abandon and seeming disregard for North American box office take that makes I Am Love not only a shocking achievement, but one of the most fearless dramatic films in years.

The film tells the story of Emma Recchi, an immigrant inductee into the powerful Recchi family of Italian aristocrats. Embarrassingly wealthy owing to a thriving textile concern, the film apes Tennessee Williams and joins them celebrating the birthday of the family patriarch who finds himself approaching death. While at this point it could easily devolve into a straightforward heir battle, the thread of the family’s future only serves as a frame to describe a situation where Swinton’s Emma will never belong. As her utility to her husband ends at her uterus, a chance encounter with her son’s chef friend draws her slowly into an affair. It’s a tale of life, death, renewal, and stumbling forward, clothed or not.

Director Luca Guadagnino has put together an impressive package with his biggest production to date. His direction of frequent collaborator Swinton is expertly done, an advantageous situation given that she forms the centre of gravity for the film. There is nearly nothing else in the film. I Am Love hangs its entire being onto her capable, angular shoulders and she responds to the weight expertly. His mastery of shot choice and his clear respect for cinematography makes I Am Love an absolute treat to look at, inspiring an instant desire to catch it again on Blu-ray (an odd trait for such a tense dramatic work). In another life, Guadagnino could direct food commercials: a good portion of this film imbues sensuality into food and cooking. This is a skill that most directors wish they could attach to their love scenes.

The script is incredibly strong, juxtaposing Emma’s lovers expertly. Her husband pointedly clothes her, zipping a dress, and clasping bracelets and other expensive armour, while her lover unwraps her like a present for the world and the audience to see and admire. In an effort to help along her journey into adultery, Emma stalks her prey like Gatsby (that is to say with class, not the creepy kind of stalking). Here, Swinton masterfully introducing a girlish fluster into her encounters. Sub-plots about another unwelcome inductee include her son’s fiancée, and the plans to sell the family business to foreign concerns at the cost of the company’s humanity weave into the narrative with ease. The affair unfolds with shades of Dawson’s Creek, the “will-they or won’t-they” factor becoming stifling right before its logical release (which sets up a hilarious visual gag that may be the film’s only funny moment). The unpredictable pacing of the film — plodding, with sudden octane infusions — suits the unpredictable nature sudden, traumatic family events, and sets up a climax that will knock you flat.

While it has flaws, they are nitpicks at best. A sub-plot regarding Emma’s daughter coming out as homosexual is tainted by the unintentionally hilarious choice she makes to cut her hair short, a cliché obviously meant to compare with her mother’s similar choice upon deciding to divorce her husband. Similarly, Guadagnino’s choice to make the face of the antagonist attempting to purchase and corrupt the family business an American Sikh is a blunt and artless comment on the changing economic and social face of the United Kingdom and the European Union. It’s a vaguely racist moment that comes from nearly nowhere. Combine those with what amounts to a huge amount of “Italy porn” — lavish shots boasting the natural beauty of the Italian landscape — and it results in comparatively minor gripes about a solid film.

I Am Love will have nearly no domestic impact commercially, but will continue the Oscar tradition of populating the “Best Foreign Film” category with some of the best work no one cares about until they get a statue. Swinton keeps marching quietly forward in her campaign to be regarded as one of the best actresses of her time with this challenging, awe-inspiring work she carries effortlessly. If she hasn’t already earned a star on the Walk of Fame, this will probably do it.

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Review – The Last Airbender July 15, 2010

This article originally appeared in The Peak. This was a major personal blow, really. People close to me know how serious I am about Avatar: The Last Airbender, and how often I call it one of the most enjoyable, well made pieces of fiction I have ever encountered. It’s funny, romantic, exciting and one of my favorite things ever. To see it so poorly interpreted was hard to watch.

M.Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender blows.

But seriously folks, to talk about this film is to talk exclusively about its utter failure. By now the entire planet has come down on Shyamalan and is loudly plotting his violent demise, both for committing a Hague convention-worthy crime against filmmaking and for the full-ceremony desecration of a franchise that many have strong feelings for. Those attached to both the series and to good filmmaking are going to be reaching for the nearest halberd and dialing for airline tickets post-haste.

Avatar: The Last Airbender was a series on Nickelodeon that ran for three seasons. While aimed at 10 to 14-year-olds, it is easiest to categorize the achievement of co-creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko (and head writer Aaron Ehasz) as a kind of small-screen Pixar. While aiming at a young demographic, they created a series that is not only completely entertaining, but empirically well made. Between its canny sense of humour, outstanding character work, and grand scale, it’s a fantasy series that not only deserves the title of Tolkien-esque, but demands it. Shyamalan managed to take something that would have been fine as a word for word reenactment with real people and sucked every ounce of life from it. It’s art murder and he is a criminal.

The Last Airbender tells the story of Aang (said like “hang,” which the director seemed to miss), a 12-year-old airbender monk born as the latest incarnation of a super-being that can manipulate, or “bend” all four elements — earth, fire, water, and air. Told far before his maturity level could have allowed him to understand his responsibility and rushed due to a worldwide military struggle, the plot finds its most ready analogs in stories of Superman and Jesus Christ: what did these messianic figures do before they became saviours? While that question is mostly understood with those two examples (according to Superman: Birthright, saved oppressed Africans to impress a girl and none of your God damned business, respectively), the original Nickelodeon series speaks to its audience by admitting the imperfections of his humanity. Aang ran away, and when he came back, he just wanted to have fun, be a kid, fall in love, and grow up. What follows is a painfully American tale, Aang bootstrapping himself to greatness with the help of his friend Sokka (said like the foot garment, which Shyamalan got wrong too) and primary love interest Kitara. While his birth had a factor in his greatness, it is a story of learning, failure, and a willingness to follow the structure of the original Star Wars trilogy almost exactly. It is also some of the best television of the last decade, and certainly a contender for best children’s show ever. I have to make all this painfully clear to explain the colossal failure Shyamalan’s adaptation is.

The film has no heart. The characters have no soul. There is not a single humorous moment in the live-action version of a show that is more than half comedy. The action is muddy and poorly shot. The romantic angle that dominates the story is castrated and non-existent. The script sounds like it was written by Dr. Nick Riviera, or maybe Michael Bay after a stroke. Any talent Shyamalan has as a visual artist (and he does, though that talent is buried time and time again under everything else being terrible) is buried by everything else being terrible. It’s an insulting, witless, and unacceptably bad interpretation of something great. While it could be argued that it’s difficult to condense eight hours of the first season into a feature film, there wasn’t even an obvious attempt. Shyamalan cut this one down to a mercifully short hour and a half, though I doubt it was his idea.

The Last Airbender possibly represents the end of big studio franchise starters, and not a moment too soon. Instead of deigning to the thoughts and experience of the creators and director (M.Night being an unabashed fanboy of the original series), the finished product seems like it took every note given by a suit with no experience with the material as gospel. If the original leads were mostly non-white, pretty much a Tibetan monk and some Inuit (they were), make them white. Villains are white? Make them brown. Heavy overtones of Eastern philosophy and religion? Soccer moms do tai chi, just make them do that. Then, because unrelenting grit is the current tone du jour, don’t include a single moment of levity. Instead of exploring the complexities of adolescence, just hire Industrial Light and Magic to make things look pretty (they don’t). Slap some of that terrible post-production 3-D on there to artificially inflate the opening weekend take. That’ll teach them to be optimistic.

The Last Airbender is the worst film to come out in a summer season full of total crap, and I doubt even Step Up 3-D could be worse. If it has a single success, perhaps it will become a silver bullet killing three awful things: adaptations without creator controls, cynical use of awful 3-D, and the career of M.Night Shyamalan. Like an abused spouse, this is it for me, M.Night. Cut all contact, delete from Facebook, hit the gym.

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Interview – Rob Lutener of Up North July 12, 2010

The following originally appeared in the The Peak. I got to talk to a buddy about a piece of documentary filmmaking he was involved with. Pretty neat stuff and a cool story.

t’s a cold, grey expanse. The sun rarely rises very far over the horizon and thick fog sometimes hangs like a veil over its entirety. You may go days without seeing a familiar face. The hard ground lets little grow, making the prospect of finding food a difficult notion at times. The people who love it stay and make it work, but time and change have driven as many away as it’s attracted. Man and beast alike struggle to adapt. Also, seemingly no one will let you use their phone. Stuck on SFU’s Burnaby campus with a dead mobile, student Robert Lutener plugs money into a payphone to answer a few questions about his award-winning documentary, Up North, a treatise on the effects of rapid change on one of the world’s most fragile social and environmental ecosystems.

“Up North is a film that documents the social, cultural, economic, and linguistic change in Canada’s Arctic,” says Lutener. He, along with collaborators Drew McIntosh and Aaron Bocanegra, packed a van and headed north from Edmonton, Alberta with a camera in tow to document a region he calls “a magnifying glass for how change affects human beings and the environment around them.” Through interviews with locals — community leaders, elders, artists — Lutener and company constructed an oral record of the Canadian North. “We wanted to let them tell the story of the North in their own words, as opposed to setting out with our own story. We wanted the people who populated [the North] to speak for themselves.” The result was a feature-length documentary that won an award for Best Art Documentary at the Mountain Film Festival in Colorado.

While taking the structure of an oral history, Lutener insists Up North is first and foremost a documentary. Exploring rapid and fundamental change in progress and being invited into their private lives, including the Council of the Yukon First Nations General Assembly and being allowed to document those proceedings were, for Lutener, “an incredibly humbling and powerful experience.” The lives of First Nations residents factors heavily into Up North’s observations, documenting “their reclaiming of their political and civil destiny.” From conversations with survivors of residential schools and Nation elders familiar with the Canadian government’s attitudes and policies governing the area, Up North paints a living portrait of the “past half century and beyond.”

“We knew there was a story up there, but we didn’t know what it would be,” he says, but describing how a lack of a political bent or message from the outset enabled the North to find them, not the other way around. “We discovered that much of the cultural impacts of development . . . has had a significant impact that was completely unexpected.” It was a life-altering experience for Lutener. “I cannot express the gratitude that I have for the people that invited us into their homes and their lives and their history.”

The enthusiasm to participate spanned their journey and came in the unlikeliest of places. “We were crossing the delta on a ferry and we met this woman, Kerry. She had her motor home with her husband and was selling snacks. She came out and asked us what we were doing and we told her and she said ‘Well I’ll talk, won’t I?’ looking at her husband. He says ‘oh yeah, you will!’. We were given the most amazing . . . to me one of the most important parts of the entire film.” Using the lens of her experience to describe what has happened to her homeland, her contribution is a microcosm for the film and an emotional peak in documentary with many such moments. The destruction of her way of life weighs heavily on Lutener, a personal anger that doesn’t detract from the objectivity of the film. “It’s a heinous injustice on a grand scale. It’s remarkably dreadful. The last residential school in this country closed in 1996. An apology and some cheques don’t necessarily equate justice. But a more determined and courageous group of people I have never met in my life.”

The film begins with a lengthy calculation of the carbon footprint inflicted by the production, and while mindful that a discussion of the Arctic usually finds its foundations in discourse on global warming, Lutener is emphatic about the lack of an environmental bias. “It’s up to the viewer, I think. We were asked the question on a continual basis, people asked us ‘What’s the bias?’, and the answer was always ‘Well, it’s your bias’.” Lutener hopes that the film can be used to make people better informed about change in the North and the world.

Armed with little but the money in their pockets and camping gear in a temperamental minivan, Up North succeeds in being a story of parallel journeys, the change evident in both those filmed and filming. It’s a compelling look at Canada’s uncertain northern land mass. Like Klondike forays into the Yukon, Lutener says the experience was well worth its trials. “We pretty much went out there blind, and we came out with gold.”

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Sled Island Post-Mortem July 5, 2010

Sled Island started hitting it’s stride right when I left it’s host city. I think if it had matured to what it is today, I would have been less likely to move away. Not much less, but a bit. The “island” bit of the title is it’s most appropriate, standing as this weird island, isolated in the calendar with the disintegration of the Calgary Jazz Festival and with a long stretch before the Calgary Folk Festival (who are really bringing it these days, even at the expense of their theme). The year is relatively dead, aside from a smattering of events spread so thin as to be nearly invisible.

Sled Island makes no sense really. I had a lot of fun living in Calgary, but for most people, the city is a “wasteland” (to quote Japandroids), a partially deserved qualification. But for a weekend in July, it’s the home of arguably the best music festival in the Pacific Northwest, if not the entire West Coast. Plus it gives me an excuse to eat my parent’s food for a weekend.

What I Saw, And How Good It Was (in chronological order, starting Thursday afternoon):

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Review – Star Wars: In Concert July 2, 2010

Did you guys know I like Star Wars? I do.


The problem with tributes and spinoffs is the added challenge of anyone organizing one to convince a person that their time and money is better spent on the derivative work than on the source. Star Wars in Concert tries to do that with an art form that has become as niche as it gets. Travelling with a full orchestra and outfitting GM Place with a set of giant screens to display appropriate montages from the films their music is taken from, the concert series is a compelling distraction but falls short of satisfying your Star Wars itch.

Star Wars is notable for many reasons, but the scores by John Williams are placed front and centre for this event. While some scores sit idle in the background of movies, it’s hard to imagine Star Wars being what it is today without the evocative sounds accompanying the action. Indeed, Williams’ contributions to the two trilogies are likely the most memorable suites in film history, and while others have gained similar notoriety (Vangelis for Blade Runner, Clint Mansell for Requiem for a Dream, John Murphy for Sunshine), none have the breadth to encourage a stadium event. From the “Imperial March” to the iconic Star Wars main theme, the songs he created have become shorthand for cinematic musical achievement.

Star Wars in Concert does its best to do justice to that legacy, and musically does so in spades. The orchestra travelling with the show put on pitch perfect renditions of every moment from the films. One wonders if any of the people (and children in incredible numbers) in attendance would ever experience a full symphony in their lives were it not for the films attached, so it’s a credit to the music’s popularity that it can pull in an unlikely crowd.

Stellar band aside, the production had its flaws. Ticket prices were on the high side ($41 for one adult) putting it fairly out of reach for students, and the exhibit of classic costumes and props were sparse, hardly justifying the premium. Anthony Daniels (the voice of C-3PO) acted as narrator and host for the evening, but his overenthusiasm bordered on mugging the entire night. Instead of providing any insight into the scores or the films, he opted instead for grandiose stroking of their brilliance, replete with sweeping physical gestures and out-of-place, “are you ready to rock?”-type pump ups for the audience. What’s worse is that the program ran canonically through the films, starting with The Phantom Menace. It broke off occasionally to play themes associated with various characters (Anakin and Padme, R2D2, and C-3PO, Luke on Dagobah), ignoring the obvious choice to put the brilliant Revenge of the Sith duel suite at any sort of climax and burying the series’ best musical moment. The montages played behind the orchestra simply made you want to go watch the movies, a problematic evocation as the music was already ripped from context. There was little to argue you should be there and not a home with a stack of DVDs.

Star Wars in Concert is a brilliant idea in theory, but the entire package cannot justify the ticket price. For half the price, it would have been incredible.

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Review – Year of the Carnivore June 28, 2010

I really meant the last paragraph of this. Hugely disappointing.


One of the best parts of Year of the Carnivore is the poster. A scene illustrated by accomplished Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown (Ed The Happy Clown, Louis Riel), it’s not only excellently realized, but philosophically appropriate. Where Brown took a comic strip biography about Louis Riel and made it into a subtle look into the nature of that figure’s neurosis and psychology, Vancouver filmmaker Sook-Yin Lee (Shortbus) makes similar observations about Sammy Smalls (Cristin Millioti). Like a twee and twenty-something answer to 2007’s Young People Fucking, Year of the Carnivore explores the nature of adversarial sexuality at an awkward stage of adulthood and at the same time makes a statement about the current state of Canadian film art. The result, however, is almost as confused as its main character.

Sammy Smalls lost partial use of her leg fighting cancer as a child. Her overbearing narcissist mother and weakling father want her to quit her job as a grocery store “detective,” thinking that running down shoplifters stealing flank steaks is too dangerous for someone of her stature. The film’s runtime is preoccupied with Sammy getting “experienced.” That is, she hops from one awkward sexual encounter to the next in the hopes of getting good enough to impress a boy, Eugene (Mark Rendall). While these encounters are filmed in an attempt at humour, they’re incredibly hard to watch and leave you wanting to give Sammy a shake and ask her what the hell she is thinking. While this could be leveraged as good drama, it’s instead an air ball lobbed and missing its target through an unfocused script. If the aim was to instill Sammy’s sense of frustration onto the audience, it’s mission accomplished.

To be blunt, Cristin Millioti deserves to be a star. The amount of humanity and depth she gives to an uneasily written character is admirable and to not walk out of the theater impressed with her performance would be impossible. Her supporting cast (including Will Sasso) are fairly strong, but Sammy Smalls is a star-making role. It is unfortunate then, that the script and film as a whole (as beautifully shot as it is) do not elevate a commendable performance.

Sook-Yin Lee made waves a while back for taking part in sexual acts on film in Shortbus, an act that royally irked her employers at the CBC and made her a news story for a couple of months. But while that film took all the eroticism out of sex as a stated goal to explore sex-as-mechanics, Year of the Carnivore does the same with a shudder-inducing lack of compassion, a detachment that edges on sociopathy. Each of the characters operates out of a strange, intense selfishness that totally breaks any connection with the audience and shatters the suspension of disbelief with uncomfortable scoffs. Its disconnect with actual sexual relations between young people is disturbing and its attempts to be iconoclastic take priority over being entertaining. Most egregious is a scene that is tantamount to depicted rape, but its implication is that if a female is the aggressor, the male will just enjoy it. Were this reversed, the backlash would be deafening. While the film makes a half-assed attempt to call this action immoral, it seems to do so with fingers crossed behind its back, some dialogue thick with shallow psychoanalysis a stopgap for actual emotion.

Did I say scene? I meant scenes. Plural. In an attempt to be unique and edgy, it comes off as creepy and objectionable. With each scene of torrid sexuality, a clear attempt is made for a condom to be applied. This restraint and modesty is horribly Canadian and turns the confusion of youth into the measured mistakes of an adult. It’s personally destructive performance art, the conscious martyrdom of Sammy Smalls. This is a Woody Allen film, courtesy of the new millennium. Be afraid.

It seems impossible for a film to fail with such an interesting leading lady, but Year of the Carnivore does. It tries to preach a muddled philosophy (I still can’t figure out what it was trying to tell me. Convenience conquers love? Change yourself to gain the love of others? I have no idea) and attempts to be an uplifting tale of a young woman exploring her sexuality, but instead rings out like an exploitative farce. I’ve never wanted to love a film more, and have never been so sad to see one fall short.

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Review – The A-Team June 24, 2010

The following originally appeared in The Peak. This movie was a quarter good. I really wanted to like it.


That this movie exists to be reviewed is a depressing fact, but that such a ridiculous premise could not be leveraged into a thoroughly ridiculous and entertaining package is even more so. The A-Team is an oddly appealing film, one that could easily be dismissed as yet another of this summer’s string of cinematic abortions, but defies becoming a total write-off. Unfortunately, being within arm’s reach of fun is just another one of its many crimes.

The A-Team follows the titular group — Hannibal, the idea man (Liam Neeson); Face, the charmer (Bradley Cooper); Murdock, the driver and pilot (Sharlto Copley of recent deserved District 9 fame); and B.A., the muscle (Quinton Jackson) — in what amounts to the exposition of how the group came to be the mercenary organization explored in the original television series. Their betrayal by the United States Army (represented by Jessica Biel, someone people keep confusing for an actress) and Central Intelligence Agency (moreover a rogue agent, played convincingly as always by a strong Patrick Wilson), force them to use their particular and varied skills to bust out of incarceration and clear their names, dismantling a shady conspiracy, and doing some spectacular property damage along the way. The central MacGuffin revolves around some thinly explained plates used to press greenbacks, but they serve only to facilitate a string of even thinner stunt set-pieces.

Perhaps even more perplexing than The A-Team’s existence is the way it entered kicking and screaming into the world. Helmed by the (previously?) promising Joe Carnahan (Smokin’ Aces, Narc), the film clips along in a familiar way: its lack of interesting plot developments is masked expertly by sharp editing and an eye for bombast. Neeson remarks that overkill is underrated, a tagline that clearly influenced the production, but after over 10 years of development hell that saw half of Hollywood take a crack at writing a script, that excess reads like too many cooks spoiling the broth.

The A-Team defies almost every expectation it could muster. First, it is not completely terrible; its entertaining moments come from some fairly ridiculous action sequences that take the material just as seriously as possible. While trying to weave in some sobriety, the film forgets itself. It is at its best when spouting one-liners and putting the charm and insanity of Cooper and Copley centre stage. The comedy and action are almost enough to plough through painful attempts at drama and a patently horrible final climax, but it falls just short of being dismissible summer fun. Further, Carnahan is totally wasted on the film. After having made a name for himself on the spectacular Narc and the confused but wildly compelling Smokin’ Aces, he dumps his trademark analog brutality in for some half-baked CG. On its own, this wouldn’t sink him, but it is compounded by the fact that he fails to be himself. The A-Team is an almost perfect xerox of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s films, but with enough Carnahan flair thrown in to defy the plagiarism charges. Right down to the excessive extended flashbacks to fill in twists, Carnahan phones in the direction and tries a bit too hard to be the arguably more appropriate director.

Neeson, Copley, and Cooper are all charming and suit their roles perfectly, but are failed by a production mired in its own excesses and greed. Part of that greed was to truncate a search for an actual actor to fill in Mr. T’s role as B.A. Baracus and instead try and tap into the UFC market with the casting of Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. He is a dead physical ringer for the character, but his screen presence peaks at grating.

Like so much this summer, The A-Team reeks of a bunch of well-meaning people working on a project their studios could care less about. They see an established franchise and decide that any amount of meddling is unlikely to affect the box office take. If there is any bright side in the release of The A-Team, it is that this is likely a major nail in the coffin of these quick cash-in adaptations. Perhaps we are only a few more of these types of summer movie seasons away from some original creations, or, at the very least, adaptations made with a little more care. We can dream, can’t we?

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Live Review – Friendship and The Fawn June 21, 2010

The following originally appeared in Beatroute Magazine. I first saw these guys play ahead of an acoustic set by Asobi Seksu (I know, I know, I may as well change the name of this blog to Goodnight Asobi Seksu) and they blew my damn head open. I’ve seen crooners and folk pickers open for big bands at The Media Club before and there is usually a dull hum of conversation, half the room listening and the other half just there for the headliners. These guys struck the whole room dumb. Maybe that’s their game, play so quiet everyone has to shut the hell up to hear you (it’s what Teller did and does). Whatever was going on, it stuck with me and I seized an opportunity to hear them play again. So should you.

Article photo by Sarah Kloke. Additional photography from the Asobi Seksu show courtesy Rachel Hurst.

F & F

The way they play, you would think they’re scared to break their instruments. So careful is Friendship and the Fawn with the strings of a banjo and the keys of a xylophone, you almost wonder if the instrumentars are heirlooms on loan from an obsessive relative who will inspect them later for wear. The result is an incredibly quiet performance, even with the aid of microphones and speakers. The library whisper of their sound, however, is in no way a negative. Instead, it stands as the fragile trademark of one of Vancouver’s most compelling groups.


The project of Merida Anderson and Lindsey Hampton, Friendship and the Fawn played a candlelit show at the Little Mountain Gallery. The effect was arresting and onlookers were struck dumb – not for fear of drowning the band out, but just so they could drink in every precisely chosen note. Hypnotic doesn’t scratch the surface.


The duo’s minimalist folk sound relied heavily on the talented vocals from both members, with plinking banjo a staple of their sparse soundscapes. They juggled instrumentation, playing tambourines with their feet, and used mallets and violin bows interchangeably on xylophones. This display of virtuosity was balanced out by deep emotion and moody climaxes.


For a band that sometimes opts to hum instead of sing and manipulates silence like some bands wish they could use guitars, Friendship and the Fawn never become boring or stale. Yuki Chikudate of Asobi Seksu once described them as “hauntingly beautiful,” but that description doesn’t convey the group’s warmth. It’s as memorable as Vancouver music gets.


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Review – Splice June 17, 2010

This originally appeared in The Peak. The movie is great, I wholly recommend it.


It’s great when good movies are failed by the marketing departments of their studio partners, as it always makes success all the more satisfying. Splice is thus afflicted in spades; its trailers and promotions billing are a lame science-run-amok horror cash-in with a low IQ, and the entire merit requisite that genre. While the former is mostly correct, the latter characteristics are absent, resulting in one of the most interesting and entertaining science fiction films since Aliens.

Splice follows the exploits of Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley), a scientific Brangelina and the current darlings of their field. Their work, involving the recombination of various animal genetics, has resulted in a viable new species that produces a commercially valuable protein of some sort. On the edge of even greater achievements and medical breakthroughs, their research is threatened with being turned into an expensive farming operation, their ambitions to work with human DNA being shut down before they start. In an act of rebellion, Elsa and Clive disobey the law and their company, bringing a life form with part human and part animal DNA to term. Their interactions with what they create, the sentient and semi-lethal Dren (Delphine Chanéac, heavily modified with makeup and CG) and their struggle with creating something they cannot control, form the basis for the film’s second and third acts.

Like the trailers, this summary is a poor reflection of what this film is. On paper, it reads like any other sci-fi/horror film, which is to sell it short entirely. In actuality, it is a deep, layered film exploring paternal and maternal interplay with the couple’s new “offspring.” While it occasionally falls short of delivering compelling dialogue between the characters, its subtexts and intricacies are enough to put you on the edge of your seat. Every moment comprises some instance where a lesser studio thriller would shy away, hiding behind banality to inflate box office take or reach the coveted PG-13 threshold. Splice revels in these moments of shock, but never comes off as exploitative. Each is surrounded by a disturbing rationality, its character failings and instances of sheer horror coming only on the coattail of a well-constructed logic. It is this understanding that director Vincenzo Natali (Cube, Paris Je t’aime) instils on his audience that makes Splice so terrifying. There is no moment of emotional or physical brutality that is senseless, and the audience can nearly sympathize (or at the very least see the reasons behind each, be they animal or cerebral). This makes for a psychologically chilling experience and one that will walk out of the theatre with you.

Polley and Brody picked a winner with this film, one that balances with ease its interest in Dren as the “monster” and the monstrosity of its creators. Both characters attack their roles and any frailties in the script dissolve in their performances. Polley expertly projects her character’s own mommy issues onto Dren: her motherly instincts taking on a frighteningly casual tyranny, the relationship between mother and teenage “daughter” finding a new, awful context. Just as deft is Brody’s struggle with a rapidly-aging Dren. An animal, an experimental subject, and ward of his protection, Splice shows its true fearlessness confronting him with Dren’s most problematic characteristic — the body and desires of an adolescent human female. Delphine Chanéac does exactly what is needed in her role, balancing a total animalistic streak with enough humanity showing through as to raise the question: Where does the animal stop and the human begin?

Its direction (and, particularly, art direction) are top notch, with the film’s drama never seeming tired and its action cohesive and smooth (take notes, Paul Greengrass). So tight is the experience, that to divulge much more than a brief synopsis is to start a domino effect of spoilers that would utterly undo its multiple satisfying twists and turns. Splice is science fiction without pandering, horror without restraint, thrilling without relying on pop-out scares, and infinitely exciting. It’s solid almost without exception and is one of the first truly great films of the summer. You’ll be shocked, disgusted, horrified, and happy with every cent spent on your ticket.

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Review – Champ by Tokyo Police Club June 14, 2010

The following was originally published in Beatroute Magazine. I like TPC, and I like this album. Adam Cristobal does not. He called this album lame. My head is filled with confusion.


Tokyo Police Club is a band haunted by it’s moments of greatness. Between the EP standout and de facto theme song “Cheer It On” and definitive tracks like “Your English Is Good”, it would have been all too easy to make their latest a retread of well formulas established on a couple of well received productions. The sad part is that while Champ represents a ton of excellent steps forward in the songwriting chops of the band, there may be elements of their fanbase opposed to this advance.

The Tokyo Police Club school of songwriting thus far has been to lay down a series of fuzzy hooks and energetic phrases to create moderately danceable songs that stand pretty much on their own, islands unto themselves. Champ does not fully reject the lessons learned doing so, but seems to badly ache for some sophomore maturity. The result is a more cohesive, dependent set of songs coming together to form Tokyo Police Club’s first satisfying full album experience. Tracks such as “Hands Reversed” take their time and represent a little a calm on the album, where “Boots of Danger (Wait Up)” provides a pop answer to such leanings, a trend that repeats on Champ. Avoiding any kind of sleepiness, they dial up the synth and speed on “Big Difference” and “Not Sick”, the latter finding new life in guitar theories examined heavily on Elephant Shell.

The vigor here not gone, it’s just different than their previous work. Champ lacks the kind of recklessness seen on the Smith EP and A Lesson In Crime, but is no less potent. They’re taking a breath and taking their time and are better off for it. Fear not though, because with “Favourite Colour” and “Bambi” effectively flanking first single “Breakneck Speed”, there is more than enough to satiate the craving for fun summer indie rock Tokyo Police Club has made a career out of providing.

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