Interview – Olga Goreas of The Besnard Lakes September 22, 2011

The Besnard Lakes have deserved to win two of the last four Polaris prizes. This is a true fact.

Only a Canadian would not only work on their vacation, but do work that required them to talk to a member of a demographic who put them within arms reach of the Polaris Music Prize twice and arguably robbed them of it. Olga Goreas fought a weak cell phone signal after a short vacation to her namesake.

Not really to her namesake personally, but to the namesake of her band, The Besnard Lakes. “The people who run the joint, they know us. They’re well aware that we’re in a band of the same name,” said Goreas. “They’re very welcoming and nice to us. We just like to go camping and fishing. It’s good.” The break was likely needed. Touring almost non-stop since the release of their last LP, The Besnard Lakes Are The Roaring Night, it stands to reason that a little relaxation might be nice.

The husband and wife vocalist/instrumentalist duo of Jace Lasek and Goreas so often play with themes of loss and solitude, it also stands to reason that being hounded by fans on vacation might be a bit of a drag as well. Goreas disagreed.

“It’s always kind of surprising to us that people could know who we are. It’s always such a thrill and a joy. Canada is a pretty small country when it comes to it. There’s only so many people. There’s way less than 6 degrees of separation. It’s been great so far.” The size of this country might only be matched by the sheer amount of countries the band toured in the last year. “The last year was completely amazing. We went to Australia, we played in China. That was definitely a first and I don’t know if we’ll be allowed to again.”

In the short spans not filled with touring, the band has set its sights on scoring film and television. With expansive, moody textures and compositions on their records, they seem like a sure fit for a certain kind of movie. The band caught the attention of actor and new director Mark Ruffalo and scored his directorial debut, Sympathy For Delicious, which picked up a Special Jury Price at the Sundance Film Festival upon its premiere. With one more upcoming feature and a National Film Board gig scoring the web documentary Welcome To Pine Point (which will spawn a companion EP), Goreas says it’s an experience she is keen to revisit.

“They were both amazing experiences. I like the process of scoring a movie. I like having something visual to follow,” said Goreas. “There is a little bit of a difference between the albums we put out and the CDs we release. I enjoy doing both of them a lot, I would definitely see (us) doing them again.”

Heading back out onto the road with songs already committed to albums and new ones not yet fully formed, a sense of unease with where the songs were left must (and does, in some bands) fester. Goreas disagrees with this as well.

“I’ve never really had that feeling,” she said.

“The song does sometimes become something a little bit of its own and it has its own power and purpose. I’ve had people come up to us after shows and say ‘Man I love your record, but seeing you guys live is just beyond what the record is.’ That’s cool with me. I like that you can keep adding to it to make it something powerful on it’s own.”

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Interview – Zach Condon of Beirut August 5, 2011

This is one of those interviews where I’m dry. Dry mouthed, dry witted and dry with my questioning. I don’t try to be, but I’m so intimidated by a major figure of my adolescence that I freeze up. I always think it might be to deprive whichever purveyor of Clinton-swooning of the opportunity to be a dick and shatter my fantasies about them. Luckily, Zach Condon of Beirut (who wrote my second favorite song of all time and one record in my top ten) was not a dick. Quite the opposite. Coming fresh off a stand overseas and probably jet-lagged to hell, he gave a great interview, despite my efforts to sabotage it with nerves. Originally appeared in BeatRoute Magazine.

“It’s a tender moment when you reveal your new song,” says Zach Condon. The leader, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist behind the bedroom-project-turned-group-effort Beirut has returned to touring after a long hiatus following his well received sophomore album The Flying Club Cup. Exhausted by the rigours of an extended tour, they’re supporting their latest LP, The Rip Tide, with renewed energy. “Flying Club Cup and the other things took me for a ride and I knew if I was going to do it again I was going to need a rest.”

Their first LP since 2007 and separated a half decade from the breakout Gulag Orkestar, The Rip Tide represents a culmination of sorts. While Gulag Orkestar, The Flying Club Cup and the 2009 EP March of the Zapotec were preoccupied with regional sounds, The Rip Tide compromises that conceptual thread in a gluttonous way – it combines everything. “I knew about a year ago what I wanted the album to sound like. I’ve flirted with a lot of styles. Musical growing pains,” says Condon. Through all the variation, he recognized there were commonalities in his work. “I just noticed that there’s a thread that connects all of them, even if I’m recording with an 17-piece marching band from Mexico.” In that sense, The Rip Tide had a harbinger in a single the band released in 2007. “It has a similar melodic feel as ‘Elephant Gun’ does. I just though with this album I wouldn’t try to fight it and just try and remain as true to that sound as possible.”

Along with the broader sound comes broader cooperation with a band for Condon. “When I started writing music, I didn’t have peers that wanted to play what I wanted to play, that wanted to share my vision,” he says. Now, with the help of a group including Kelly Pratt (Arcade Fire, Team B), Condon can realize what was impossible just a few years ago. “Even though I wanted an orchestra, I was stuck with only myself. Now I have that orchestra and it would be a shame not to use it.”

Another first for Condon is releasing this LP on his own label, Pompeii Records. He insists, however, he did not experience an angry break with his previous label partners. “I really liked the labels I worked with, and that might have been the problem,” says Condon. He explains the desire to do it on his own. “You get into these relationships and friendships with these people that you work with on a day-to-day basis with these labels that you work with. There’s pressure from above and they will have to betray that relationship on a daily basis, asking you for favors that you and they both know you don’t want to do. It becomes a stressful thing trying to please everybody and not feel used. I realized I could either be cold hearted and distant or do it myself.”

The Rip Tide finds it’s climax with the track “Vagabond,” which breaks with Beirut tradition and eschews the foreign for an seeming foreign to Condon – home. “I’ve been going home a lot recently, to see what it feels like as an adult. I felt complete isolation from the city culturally. There was always this sense that even the city I was born in, I didn’t belong in. I felt culturally adrift. I think that’s why I ended up travelling so much, to try and find a home.” The image of a drifting vagabond is apt. “I just have the tendency to run from situations of authority. I have all my life. It’s kind of embarrassing now that I’m an adult, but it goes all the way back to me dropping out of school at 16,” says Condon.

“You can’t run away from yourself.”

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Interview – John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats June 30, 2011

Unfortunately not reflected in this interview is the 20 odd minutes Darnielle and I spent talking about the Stanley Cup playoffs and his love of the Carolina Hurricanes.

By now it’s pretty much accepted that somewhere after Dylan on the mythic “Important Songwriters” list, John Darnielle’s name pops up. In that vein, over the last decade of making music he’s created somewhat of an Electric Dylan controversy for himself -instead of switching from acoustic to electric guitar, however, he’s graduated from solitude to team-building. The man who used to walk on stage alone and wryly introduce himself as “The Mountain Goats” can now justify the plural, adding Peter Hughes and Jon Wurster to the permanent roster, and their latest album, All Eternals Deck, reveals the fruit of those changes.

“We like playing together. It’s underreported,” says Darnielle. On the eve of a European tour behind the new album, Darnielle maintains that the change has been a welcome one. “And I don’t want to say that because I’m grateful for any reporting I get – but people don’t seem to notice that we’re a good band now and play well together. We do a thing that is musical. It’s not just about me doing my lyrics. About three guys playing together. When I have no voice, we can still play, and we can do the thing.” Darnielle admits, however, that a great deal of the band’s appeal still comes from his lyrics and singing, but not his voice. “People aren’t listening to me for my voice,” he says. “Half the reviews you read lead talking about how bad my voice is. The timbre of my voice is a take it or leave it proposition for most people. Singing and phrasing I feel I’m pretty good at.” It’s this reason why he does not insure his voice like many vocalists. “If my voice goes, I will still be able to do what I do. If I were a real singer, if I were Liza Minelli, I would insure the shit out of my voice.”

Though it might go without saying for an artist that has been making music solo for longer than many bands exist, playing with a group doesn’t make playing live a more comfortable prospect. “I’ve always been comfortable on stage. I enjoy being on stage. From the first time I stepped on a stage, I said ‘I like this’.”

Set to burst into the mainstream with his new film, Looper, director Rian Johnson has a few sterling credits to his name – the gritty high school detective noir Brick, the colorful international caper flick The Brothers Bloom, and a somewhat unlikely team-up with The Mountain Goats, Johnson’s favorite band. “In 2003 or 2004, my wife and I went to see Brick. Great movie, and the credits are rolling, the credits attribute the music to the “Hospital Bombers Experience”. And I was like, ‘Wait just a fucking minute here! I made that name up!’ And my wife was just like, no, no, no, I think that guy wrote to you at some point. And I was like ‘oh no, somebody I forgot to write back to!'” The experience was a positive one, resulting in the live performance film The Life of the World To Come. “You have all these names who are legendary names, but Rian is one who is a legendary name who isn’t legendary yet.”

All Eternals Deck is another riveting record from Darnielle, with all the lyrical eccentricities his fans have come to expect. But even with all the new changes, some things will always stay the same. “The lyrics, that’s still between me and the spirit of the universe. It’s very much a mystic pursuit with me. I don’t ask for anyone’s advice on the lyrics,” says Darnielle.

“I sit there with my thoughts and images. I do feel freed to write lines with more space in them.”

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Interview – Sex With Strangers June 25, 2011

Sex With Strangers is killer. I can’t wait until my schedule lets me dance like there’s ass in my pants at one of their shows at long last. Their new record is a blast, and they’re some super nice guys. I had almost an hour and a half of interview here and it was a tough time cutting it down into a paltry 600 words. Always a good sign. Bandcamp embeds are tricky for me, so listen to this while you read.

There was a shift, somewhere. Disco died and rock decided that candy pop and Britney Spears were not going to have the a new monopoly on the dance floor. All of a sudden, boy bands were washed up and guitars were marshaling parties all over again. LCD Soundsystem was hitting big and the airwaves were saturated with House of Jealous Lovers. On the west coast, that torch is borne in a big way by Sex With Strangers, and their mission to get you dancing and thinking about….robots.

“I’m a pretty shallow person,” says Hatch Benedict, Sex With Strangers’ vocalist and frontman. Coming off a trilogy of records ending with 2009’s Tokyo Steel, Sex With Strangers puts to bed one narrative arc involving sexy robot ninjas and start something new. “I’ve always been kind of uncomfortable doing songs about me and my life, my friend here and his life, and stuff like that. I’ve always been fascinated by telling stories.”

Their new record, Frontier Justice, covers some new, familiar ground, a sort of Road Warrior story set in the Pacific Northwest. “These kinda two tribes that are battling each other for possession of the land or whatever. In between these two lovers, a man and woman with these mysterious powers and they’re basically going to these villages, driving up and down the coast and when they come to a village, bad things happen. Then these two tribes sort of realize ‘Okay, I know we’re battling but these two people are doing something crazy.'”

It sounds eclectic, but you shouldn’t think too hard about it. Hatch isn’t. “When we’re writing songs, I don’t take the the lyrics seriously. So I put together kind of sketches and ideas of songs and I’ll come back with all the words and say ‘Alright, here’s ten songs with lyrics, now make a story out of that.’ So it’s kind of a reverse thing. So I won’t go necessarily in there with a story. I’m always like ‘Oh shit, I need to come up with a story.'”

The lyrics don’t seem to matter to the man who writes them, but they matter on the dance floor. That lyrical quality that cuts through the fog of sweat and cologne, that pushes through and stands between you and whoever or whatever you’re grinding up against is present throughout Frontier Justice and the entire Sex With Strangers discography. It’s the “All My Friends” effect: the heat of the moment might wash out the context, but nuggets slice through and elevate the proceedings. Not that the musical base needs it, but it’s welcome.

Co-founder Mangus Magnum talks about the production of the new record. “This album we tried to get a more raw feel. We increased the focus on bass. This is our first album with live drums. There’s no real master plan.” No plan. Not taking it seriously, but serious music coming out. So what’s the secret? Benedict and Magnum answer simultaneously.

“Jack Daniels.”

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Interview – Tyson Vogel of Two Gallants June 21, 2011

I love me some Two Gallants. The Throes is one of the best records of the last decade. Originally appeared in Beatroute Magazine.

Once, a band break-up was terminal. Any amount of time passing where news was unforthcoming about material in the works was another grain in the distressing end of an hourglass. Fortunately, the industry moved past the bonded church marriage stage of band interactions and embraced with open arms civil unions – shacking up and open relationships that let bands wax and wane rather than smash their head against a console until The Spaghetti Incident came out. Record, tour, relax, do other stuff, come back. Boomerang musicianship is the new norm, and just as their “comeback” tour ramps up, Tyson Vogel of blues rock duo Two Gallants reflects on coming back from what used to be the brink.

“We’re pretty excited about the whole thing. It comes naturally with a mixed bag of emotions. It’s been kind of a long time,” Vogel says. As the most dedicated-to-a-vision member of the Saddle Creek roster, news that Two Gallants would be taking some time apart after a string of lauded releases was cause for some concern, even if that concern did not penetrate the band itself. “We went off and did our thing for the past couple years and came back with like, a totally new understanding of ourselves and music in general and the music that we make together. It’s really invigorating and kind of intimidating.”

The break commenced after touring behind their 2007 self-titled release – like The Throes and What The Toll Tells before it, a bourbon soaked blues marvel, with rich narratives and six-gun smarts – didn’t go exactly as planned. “We hadn’t really planned on taking so much time off. Everything with Two Gallants has always been really organic for us. So I mean, the last three years had been really intense.” Personal issues and the demands of touring led to the prolonged absence. “We kinda needed to just step away and try to like, regroup a little bit individually so we could keep things healthy.”

Contributing to the hiatus was a string of unfortunate occurrences and a couple of loud, distracting events. Van breakdowns were just the start of it – album standout “Long Summer Day” on What The Toll Tells met a string of critics ignoring it’s southern fried narrative and instead vacantly decrying it’s use of the word “nigger.” Around the same time, a noise complaint was served by a Houston police officer that chose to physically stop a Two Gallants show, assaulting both members of the band. “It was never like really shy of strange happenings. Those were just one out of quite a few bizarre experiences. It definitely added to it. When the Houston thing happened, the events kept leading to pending disaster. We had to sort of step back and take a good look at why we were inviting such shaky things.”

Their time apart invited the other new norm of band life – side projects. Vogel flexed his compositional muscles with Devotionals while partner in crime Adam Stephens cracked out a solo record. “I think it was really necessary for him as well. The songs he wrote on his own were very different than we would have written. I think we both achieved something that way. With the new understandings, there’s a new quality.” Those new understandings, Vogel says, light the way forward.

“We want to do things differently because we don’t want it to happen the way it did before. We weren’t very healthy individuals when we took a break. We both have gotten over some hurdles and want to keep it in the past.”

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Feature – Neon Indian May 15, 2011

I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Neon Indian before I was asked to write this story. My previous listens were too flippant, I think. Psychic Chasms is certainly not what I reach for, not at the top of the party stack, but it is pretty incredible.

Stepping in to research though, this fake “chillwave” discourse washed over me. It was really incredible the way people frothed at the mouth to slap the label on his stuff. There was no discussion of the incredible maturity of the record, just about how cool it was. That’s really what it all came down to: it was cool. Oddly, the person making that cool record is so far above all that bullshit it’s scary. Does that make him transcendently cool? I think probably.

It’s a conversation involving everybody except those involved. The genesis and subsequent disavowal of chillwave all took and takes place online, a preening mass of genre argumentation and classification concerning the heavy hitters of a sonic Furby, too trendy to sustain itself and destined to collapse under the weight of its ironic baggage. But these are the shrill inventions of commentators, as evidenced by the deep calm of the fake genre’s favorite son, Alan Palomo. The Neon Indian himself, he’s mentioned in any worthwhile breath on the subject. Wise beyond his 22 years and a scarily thoughtful individual, he breaks with the loud lo-fi chorus by starting most sentences with the words “I think,” and instantly convincing you that’s true. Recording his follow-up to the 2009 breakout hit Psychic Chasms, Palomo doesn’t let those voices affect him as much as they’d like to.

“I think for the longest time I told myself, regardless of the way things might unravel that I will just follow the same trajectory. I mean obviously influence is always going to be there,” says Palomo. Fresh from recording a collaboration with The Antlers on a yet to be released track and speaking from his home in Bushwick, Brooklyn, he admits that his influences are much more personal than aesthetic, but his past success still informs what he creates. “I try not to think about it, but there are those moments when you come up with something unusual that you might like but you might wonder, well… I’m sure there are some people that would appreciate some more sonic nonsense, and others that are just looking for the clear cut single. I get the most joy out of music when I play with that impulse and see what people project onto it.”

The yet-to-be-titled sophomore release from Neon Indian led Palomo away from the New York breeding ground that claimed it to an unlikely Scandinavian cradle. “I did most of the writing in Helsinki. I have a little studio or an efficiency apartment up there with all my synths and I set up a little work station in the living room and got into the headspace of making music there.” The locale caught his eye during an extended tour in support of Psychic Chasms. “There was something always really bewitching about that city that made it a… I don’t know, just a really suitable place to take some time off. I had spent most of the year touring and the notion of kind of being in solitude for a little while in the winter months sounded like a real placid way of stirring up some new ideas for the record.” That headspace wore itself thin, however. “I think people tend to romanticize solitude. I think it was more conducive to personal development than album writing. It kind of ended up getting dark at certain moments just because of the lack of sunlight and the negative Celsius weather.”

The danger with any sophomore release seems doubled lately. Artists have their entire lives to work on their first great masterpiece, and then just a year or two to follow it, undertaking complex baker’s math to innovate while not alienating their base. Palomo is attempting just that in the age of the buzz band and the “Best New Music” tightrope, aiming for a new, dynamic sound. “The first thing that really came to mind as far when you think of lo-fi records with dynamic, a lot of post-punk comes to mind. It is like, in a way, an electronic post-punk record.” This is not to say that the frigid European north turned Neon Indian into a completely different animal, he says. “I think a lot of the influences are still there, but I think when I got there I was listening to and revisiting a lot of post-punk records, enjoyed previously. In my head I was coming up with these songs that were essentially guitar songs but I don’t really play guitar (laughs).” Like most things, Palomo is calmly aware of the dangers of a sophomore reinvention. “It’s a little bit more of an expansive sound, which in some ways can obviously come off as kind of a cliché when somebody is talking about a sophomore record. The idea right from the get-go was, I definitely am somewhat rooted in lo-fi recording and get some pleasure out of that aesthetic as far as the sonics go, but I definitely wanted it to have more dynamic because there was some sounds I was hearing weren’t translating.”

With all the expansion, it helps to look back at where he’s come from. Neon Indian caught ears with it’s innovative soundscapes but kept them with honest emotion. The moody vocals and stained-glass nostalgia colored Psychic Chasms, but the idea of writing specifically about a scene or event in his life is lost on Palomo. “I think obviously when I write a record, at least lyrically, I have to shoot from the hip. I can’t write lyrics based on any kind of abstraction, or I can’t write a song about a rock in a pond, you know? I think the music definitely reflects my current disposition and that is definitely in and of itself a scrapbook or a document.” That too will undergo a change with his new record. “I think that idea is still the same but I don’t think it’s necessarily as nostalgic.”

The lo-fi, bedroom-recording aesthetic runs up against a certain philosophical wall after a successful record and tour. Does the destruction of the poverty aura surrounding the movement become a concern of authenticity? Does the sound ring false if money can be spent on its curation? Palomo is unfazed. “I think, obviously this time around I do have more resources and to just sound exactly the same would not be entirely representative of some of the things I could do. I don’t necessarily think it’s contradictory, it just depends on what the equipment is and what it’s meant to do, or what it’s not meant to do, more importantly.” Lo-fi chic is another abstraction Neon Indian just doesn’t subscribe to. “I think playing with fidelity is an aesthetic choice to begin with. I think if I wanted, if originally Psychic Chasms was meant to sound better or different it would have. I think because my background before Neon Indian was kind of more rooted in dance music which is just kind of obsessing about production.” That stifling attention to detail is what attracted Palomo to the “kind of aloof, carefree take on the arrangements and sounds,” Psychic Chasms made gospel. “The ideal was to never slow down the momentum,” he says. “This one, by design because I’m trying to make sounds that are a little more focused or are used a little more strategically, any way you cut it, it was… you would have to sit and really tinker with the sound. You would get to a point where the initial spark of it wasn’t there.”

What is it that allows someone so young to ride so firmly in the eye of a storm created around him? The coping mechanism could be credited to another musician in the family, the Palomo patriarch dabbling in Mexican pop music before Alan was born. Making music accidentally perfect for pissing off squares and one’s parents (a distinctly retro and seemingly forgotten notion), Palomo insists they’re open to his endeavours. “The comments I hear are like ‘why is your voice so obscured? You have a beautiful voice! You shouldn’t put too much effects on!’ The kind of stuff where you’re like ‘Daaad! It’s supposed to sound like that!’ ” Their interest is probably more parental than musical though, Palomo figures. “I think because I’m doing it, they definitely try to branch out and really listen to it. My dad’s done music his whole life, so the bridge isn’t that wide.” The acid narratives are another story, though. “I guess that’s just the kind of thing you don’t talk to your parents about.”

A savantish, centered 22-year-old riding the eye of a manufactured sensation, Palomo translates that advanced maturity into his work: it endures, and will endure when their chillwave enters the elephant graveyard alongside ragtime and trip-hop. “I didn’t really set too many tangible goals or expectations, it was just, they’re all rooted in the music itself. There’s nothing I can be prouder of than whatever comes out.” The hyperventilation is not his, and the quick route to cool is a selfish dedication to the art, one he navigates easily. Its future?

“I’d like to be hanging out in Texas, eating tacos with my friends.”

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Interview – Honus Honus of Man Man May 9, 2011

I god damn love Man Man. I’m biased. Six Demon Bag is in my top ten records of all time, so talking to Honus Honus was a real bucket list moment for me. Their new record, Life Fantastic, comes out tomorrow and is incredible. I can’t wait for people to hear it.

“For the tenth time, I have no idea what you’re talking about.” It’s as odd a way as any to be greeted on the phone, but not for Ryan Kattner, better known by his pseudonym Honus Honus and as frontman for the experimental psych-pop band Man Man. Whether this was purposefully zany, an attempt to put me off my guard or a successful attempt to inspire an opening paragraph such as this, I never found out.

On a break from near constant touring on the eve of the release of their fourth album, Life Fantastic, Mr. Honus reflected on the new record.

“I’m really psyched about it. I’m excited to see how it’s received. I really hope people listen with open ears instead of being like ‘Another Man Man record!’ We put a lot into this one. Not that we didn’t with the other ones, but a lot of different energy on this one.”

Starting with the 2004 release of The Man in a Blue Turban with a Face, Man Man has traded heavily in bizarre, catchy baroque pop and a live show that sets word of mouth and blogs blazing. Like an energetic, (more) inscrutable Mr. Bungle in dayglo warpaint or the score to a David Lynch world conquest, their breakout 2006 release Six Demon Bag may have finally been bested with their latest. “I feel like we’re getting better and better at what we’re doing,” says Kattner.

Teaming up with Mike Mogis, of Bright Eyes fame, as producer, Life Fantastic puts front and center the elegant songwriting and emotional depth that made Six Demon Bag a critical and cult darling. Their first time working with a producer, Honus Honus sees it as a positive experience. “We needed to have some outside ears, and someone with a chainsaw to attack our songs.”

The new focus is apparent. “Dark Arts” is a marvel; its piano ambush intro melting into a frenetic, hellish tango, with Honus Honus crooning “These days I feel like a pariah/an albatross with my feathers on fire.” Its contrast with the soda shop sing-along “Piranhas Club” and the career high “Shameless” is stark, but all three represent the core of the Man Man philosophy: intimidating musicianship producing challenging pop with a deep melancholy that never bogs down the dance floor. It’s a trapeze act with no net and Man Man navigate it like Flying Graysons (without the fall, naturally).

“It’s the whole reason why I got into playing music,” says Kattner. “It was to get these things out of my system. It can be transformative. For me, it’s getting some baggage out, but for some people that could be a fun joyous song. I appreciate the challenge of a melancholy center being wrapped in birthday wrapping paper.”

Central to Man Man’s growing legend is their marquee live show. “We have fun playing music together. And we’re really fortunate to do it as long as we’ve have and that there’s people that support what we do.” The stage climbing, diving and intense bandmate interplay of their shows has been the sustaining force of their career. “We feel like, even four records in, we’re a word of mouth band. It’s the gospel of what we do.” Kattner insists. “We don’t wanna get complacent. You gotta have the hunger.” It’s something he’s keen to do for the foreseeable future.

“Fuck, I don’t know what my marketable skills would be at this point. I don’t know what the demand is for someone who wears dresses on stage and looks like a maniac and sings sad songs.”

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Interview – Leigh Wannell/James Wan of Insidious/Saw April 11, 2011

I really loved that first Saw flick, so I jumped at the chance to talk to the guys behind it. Insidious is flawed, with a ton of startle horror, but at it’s core has great practical effects and filmmaking techniques. It’s the most fun I’ve had at a big horror flick since The Descent.

Like most revolutionary horror franchises that push past the boundaries of a trilogy (and even moreso the ones you can’t count on both hands anymore), people forget just how groundbreaking they were. Certainly Saw will be remembered alongside Friday the 13th and Nightmare On Elm Street, but where those franchises fell to camp, Saw fell to blood. Giving rise to a slew of “torture porn” pretenders that peaked last year with the fascinatingly abominable A Serbian Film, Saw was a revelation in a stagnant genre. Somewhere along the way, however, the focus became the gore and blood, the two least frightening parts of Saw. The creative team behind the revolution, screenwriter Leigh Whannell and James Wan attempt to capture the riveting psychological horror that set Saw apart with their latest film, Insidious.

“I think that’s partially what I want to prove with Insidious is that it’s possible to make a scary movie without blood and guts,” says Wan. With his partner Whannell, Wan has crafted a horror film that is mindful of convention, but aggressive in it’s subversion of those tropes The story of a young boy’s mystery coma and the spiritual infestation at the root of it pulls the very best of Poltergeist into the the modern shell of The Ring caliber art direction and bowstring suspense. He claims the Saw sequels missed the true horror core of it’s origin. The fear in Saw never came the blood, but the simple query “do you want to play a game”; the use of a bandsaw to cut off a limb was never near as scary as the threat of it’s presence. “There was scary things in the first Saw film that people now forget. All they can remember now is all the traps and the blood and guts of the sequels. That was never the focus of the film. I wanted to go back and do something that was scary again, but without all the trappings of what Saw had.”

That the partnership between Whannell and Wan that started in film school is obvious. The academic attention to horror detail and history is plain in Insidious, and is in some sense a return to Hitchcockian suspense techniques and tone seen in Saw. Starring Patrick Wilson (Watchmen, Hard Candy) and Rose Byrne (Damages, 28 Weeks Later) as the doting parents who must contend with the cleverly realized spirits harassing their family, Insidious is as inventive and flawed as their previous work. From the brilliant throwback title card to the daring sequences of terror in broad daylight, Insidious plays fast and loose with hackneyed horror. “We want you to be uncomfortable in all scenarios. We don’t want you to take a breather when morning comes,” says Whannell. “You know a film is good when it has you scared in the daytime.” While one horror trope Insidious does not eschew is tripping on the hem of it’s dialogue, it’s effectively plotted, it’s startle-moments and aural stingers balancing nicely with eye-popping fever dream art direction.

Working with a budget even less than that of Saw, Insidious flaunts ever dollar on screen, becoming the best major horror production since The Descent graced screens. Wan and Whannell claim the restrictions enabled that success. “Leigh and I wanted this to be a low budget film. This is way smaller than Saw, and Saw was small. I actually find that when you have a finite amount of tools and toys and budget to play around with you actually make a scarier film,” says Wan. Whannell adds, “The difference I saw with James is that with Saw, he was frustrated with the lack of budget because it was preventing him from getting all these shots he had in his head for years. On the set of Insidious, he was reveling in it. He was reveling in the spirit of the thing. I think he was sick of development hell. I think that instilled in James a sense of ‘I just wanna go and shoot something!” It’s an adventurous attitude that bleeds into the film. “So instead of saying ‘oh man, I can’t believe we can’t get that crane shot’, you’re just like, fuck it. Let’s just grab the camera and do it.”

He continues, laughing. “Film school. Film school spirit.”

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Interview – Murray Lightburn of The Dears March 9, 2011

I used to listen to The Dears a bunch, but one song in particular. When my hetero life-mate Tiffer and I were making a video together for our high school graduation, I was of the opinion that it should have been an upbeat affair ending in a devastating montage to their track “We Can Have It”. That never materialized, but I remember summer nights with the windows rolled down listening to that song. Not particularly good times, but good memories. I was pretty excited to do the interview, is what I’m trying to say. Originally appeared in Beatroute Magazine.

There was no finger tattoos reading “ELWOOD” or jail time that threatened and disbanded the previous version of The Dears. But the resurgence of the Toronto rockers and their shiny new line-up came about in a decidedly Blues Brothers way. Talking just days after the band’s second appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman and the release of their fifth LP, Degeneration Street, frontman Murray Lightburn notes a marked difference from the new group and the one that years earlier experienced a messy mutiny almost took down the band from the inside.

“The spirit of the band is significantly renewed. The band that was on Letterman a few years ago was feeling quite defeated. The spirit of the band was feeling pretty down.” The problems within the band threatened to end the way the band was, but according to Lightburn, never threatened the band directly. “You always hear about some bands not getting along, but they still go forward, or they break up. For myself and Natalia it wasn’t really a choice to end The Dears. We didn’t feel like we had that right. It wasn’t really entirely up to us.” So, the pair did like Jake and Elwood and put the band back together.

The new lineup for The Dears isn’t coming in completely fresh. With the exception of drummer Jeff Luciani, the group all have some tie to the band’s shared history. “[Robert] Benvie toured No Cities Left, [Patrick] Krief toured No Cities Left, Gang of Losers, played on Gang of Losers, and everybody played on Missiles. There’s a deep connection. Roberto played the very first Dears album.” The new blood doesn’t stick out, Lightburn says, remarking that Luciani has “been amazing, an amazing addition, he fits right in there in spirit and attitude”.

Getting the right people into position wasn’t a simple prospect, however. Each member had some hurdle to clear before they could be added to the roster. Benvie was the most fortuitous addition. “We kind of saw the writing on the wall. The bass player that committed to playing on Missiles quit. So when she quit, we needed a bass player for the North American tour. So we said ‘for kicks, why don’t we ask Benvie, that could be fun’. So we talked to him, and as luck would have it, his job and commitment was ending the very day our tour was beginning in Toronto. So he quit his job and went straight to sound check and got on a bus for a six week tour.” At the end of that tour, Benvie expressed interest in joining the band proper.

Roberto Arquilla was long a de facto member of the band, but never consummated the partnership. “When I sent him a text, it was funny. We said ‘look man we got the crew together, this is it, are you in or out’ and he said ‘at the moment I have to say I’m out’. So we get this other guy in, send him an email saying ‘welcome to The Dears’ and literally 24 hours later Rob comes over and I’m like, ‘what’s going on here’ and he’s like ‘alright, I’m in!’” His addition to the band was a personal victory for Lightburn. “I’d been waiting for him to say that for about a decade”.

With the pieces back in place and on the legs of a brawny, demanding new album, The Dears might not be on a “mission from God”, but are ready for anything “One of the things I learned after making Missiles was that The Dears could withstand pretty much anything.” Lightburn includes time in what they weather.

“I’ve committed myself to being the lighthouse keeper until…until I’m gone.”

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Interview – Vince DiFiore of Cake February 2, 2011

I have a few choice memories of my cousins Owen and Ethan. I found myself at their house a lot when I was a kid, and for some reason there is always music of the moment playing in the bacground of those memories. I can remember being incredibly young and satirically reenacting Spice Girls videos (this explains a lot, I realize). I can remember pained recitals of City High’s “What Would You Do?” and similarly impassioned renditions of the classic duet “Forgot About Dre”. Mostly though I remember screaming the lyrics to Cake’s “Short Skirt/Long Jacket” over a television at max volume displaying the video for that song that seemed to be just about everywhere.

Cake would run through my life in a number of ways after that — car sing-a-longs at 3 A.M. to “Comfort Eagle” spring to mind — so interviewing a member of the band and working my way back through their discography was a heavy dose of nostalgia.

Originally appeared in Beatroute Magazine.

There are a few things most people note on their calendar. Anniversaries, birthdays, religious holidays, major album releases by recording artists that have not put out a proper LP in seven years. That sort of thing. So it stands to reason that Cake trumpeter Vince DiFiore would have a major album release – his own – on his mind the day it came out.

“God, is that right? This is the day! It’s like it’s my birthday and I didn’t even remember!” Of course he’s spaced on the release of Showroom of Compassion, Cake’s first album in the better part of a decade. Released essentially by accident on New Years Day, the occasion (now remembered) has allowed a founding member to reflect on his time in the legendary ska pop band.

“It feels really good. We’ve been through this before. We know the highs and lows of it and understand the significance of it, and it’s really that much more interesting for us and more of a life experience. It’s something we did all under our own power and with our intention.”

Indeed, the general Cake vibe with the new record is one of great satisfaction. Recorded in a studio owned by the band, the self-produced album features Cake at their most thoughtful. While some songs are in sharp contrast with even their Pressure Chief days, it’s nothing seven years of maturation and reflection can’t explain. It’s put the quintet in a good place. “Everything was something we needed as a band and wanted to do as a band. Everybody in the band is happy with their contribution. I believe everyone is happy with the record. Everybody had a really good part in it.”

Upon completing their recording contract with Columbia in 2004, DiFiore and company reflected before signing another dotted line, opting to go it alone instead. “We thought, ‘Well, maybe it’s better if we just do things on our own with the Internet.’” Through their working hiatus, the Internet became more than just a marketing vehicle for the band as it kept them mindful of each other and their goals. “The website is something that really kept us connected as individuals. It kept us on the same wavelength, and kept us developing our worldviews together.”

That wavelength is one that prevented them from releasing anything less than an album in the interim. Discounting a B-sides and rarities collection, the band shied away from singles or EPs. “I’m in love with the album idea – I love it when an album comes out. I guess everyone feels like that because we didn’t think twice about it when we started.” Far from assuming the album format is dead, DiFiore thinks participation in the format is beneficial. “If you make a solid album, you’re perpetuating the idea that the album is the way to go.”

Playing against a career spent cultivating bounce and sway, Showroom of Compassion is a sharp veer into a singular, cohesive album experience — arguably a Cake first. Launched to popularity on the mainstream back of a few gargantuan singles (“Short Skirt, Long Jacket”) and some enduring classics (“Comfort Eagle”), Showroom is a clinic in musical growth. “I think we threw caution to the wind and did crazy things, like put reverb on the vocals,” DiFiore says laughing. “I think we’ve been afraid…we always wanted a really dry sound, and this time we went ahead and used some of the resources a studio has, like that fancy reverb knob.” It’s a change, but a welcome one that will please fans and newcomers alike.

The Great Cake Hiatus resulted in some welcome consequences, but it’s something DiFiore is not keen on repeating. The band is primed and ready to get back to the studio, albeit on their own schedule. “We hope it’s more like two years than seven years this time.”

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Feature – Destroyer January 7, 2011

Do you know how much I listened to Twin Cinema in high school? How about Streethawk: A Seduction. This was pretty cool, to say the least. Originally appeared in Beatroute Magazine.

“It feels about 10 times longer than anything else,” Dan Bejar says with no obvious hint of fatigue. For a man requiring more fingers and toes than the average person has to tally his pressed musical output, one would expect the two years invested in his latest album, Kaputt, to feel like a lifetime. Released like so many others under his ostensible solo banner, Destroyer, Kaputt is another in a string of reinventions Bejar has introduced into his many projects. Retreating from the idiosyncratic rock core that has centered his work since 2001’s standout Streethawk: A Seduction, Bejar and his collaborators are readying a jarring LP for release in 2011 that owes more to the jazz and R&B worlds than the indie rock one in which Bejar has thrived. The casual pace, Bejar says, is just part of that new sound.

“Usually, these things take a couple months max. I never work around the clock on a record, but this got off to a pretty slow start, a pretty scattered work schedule for the first while.” Interspersed with releases by the New Pornographers and Swan Lake, Bejar marshalled a long list of regular and new contributors in the seemingly endless recording process. It’s an assault on the primary myth of Destroyer as a Dan Bejar solo project, the man in question quick and liberal with his deflections of credit. “The albums are a testament to that. They don’t sound like someone sitting down with a guitar for the most part. I’m not like Prince. I’m not orchestrating these things all on my own, especially on this album, where I barely did any singing and I brought to the table just a couple melodies. My hands on a musical instrument at any time was scandalous. I was practically like a curator.”

The album title Kaputt serves to put another bullet in the gun of those who would flippantly toss the words “literary” or “pretentious” as careless descriptors of Bejar’s songwriting style. “With Kaputt, I had this book that someone lent me. It had never really dawned on me that the letters ‘k-a-p-u-t-t’ was the word ‘kaputt’ that gets used once in a while in English or something, being kind of collapsed or over.” Written by Italian dramatist and writer Curzio Malaparte, the book title Kaputt struck a chord with Bejar. “It just looked like some strange, cool looking word…maybe because they used the German spelling. I think even when I decided that might be a cool title for a record that someone else had to point out to me what that word was. I thought it was a word in a foreign language.”

While New Pornographers partner A.C. Newman has succumbed to Canadian musical brain drain and moved south, Bejar keeps strong ties with his hometown of Vancouver. “I’m here. I was born here. I’m a son of Vancouver. I mean, I’ve moved around a little bit but I’ve clocked a lot of time here and I mean, who’s to say I won’t move again.” He is grounded in his admiration, however. “If you’re asking me if there are a few reasons why someone shouldn’t move here, I could name a bundle, but I’m not going to get into that.”

After living in Spain and touring heavily, Bejar is aware of the pressures of touring, while keeping a positive perspective on the base unit of a musical career. “I’m still trying to act semi-professional. Destroyer’s mantra is kinda ‘keep it semi-pro.’ I’ve failed to really hone any other bankable skill in my last 38 years of living, so you try and figure out another way of, you know, another way of living. All that talk makes it sound like I’m gonna be onstage rolling my eyes and pouting, which isn’t at all what happens. People say that I do but I don’t think that’s what I do.”

Working once again with longtime friend and Zulu Records proprietor Nick Bragg, and again adding the producing and musical talents of John Collins and David Carswell (of JC/DC Studios fame), Bejar works hard at dispelling any auteur delusion. “It’s always key to Destroyer. There’s no record where it hasn’t been yet… I mean, Don and Dave played a huge role on this record. When I listen back to it, in a lot of ways it sounds more like Don’s record than mine (laughs). It’s not something to get glossed over.” The JC/DC partnership is a prolific one for Destroyer, and Bejar has come to value their contributions highly. Of John Collins, producer and New Pornographers compatriot, Bejar notes, “There is a certain pace that he has. A feel, which I do think comes shining through on the record. I knew that going in and that’s why I wanted him to be involved as heavily as possible from the get-go because I thought it would be a real strength.”

Bejar attests that the recording process was almost casual, and mostly consisted of collaborating artists “coming in and blazing all over what we have and then leaving.” Odder still is the aural blinders Bejar applied to them. “I didn’t want other people to hear what the others were doing. Any kind of illusion of that is part of the mixing process, really.” The forced conclusion is that Kaputt is, then, a marvel of production, as while the process seems like that of a jam band, each track segues seamlessly into the next, each feeling more like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle than a haphazard Pollock splotch. These factors result in a new, welcome distance from the material for Bejar. “What I like about the songs on Kaputt is that I don’t know how they go for the most part. There are like two or three songs with a conventional song structure and then there are some that are just like, jams that I sing over. And then, there’s ones that are neither.”

The first major sea change in the Destroyer sound since the artistic leap forward displayed on the 2006 critical darling Rubies, Kaputt learns as much as possible from the worlds of acid and ambient jazz. A notable addition: actual trumpets, bleeding in and out of the background, waxing from mournful to playful in a heartbeat, all Red Shoe Diaries without the sleaze. “I don’t think there’s ever been trumpet on a Destroyer record besides from the fake bullshit that you can hear on Your Blues.” Realized indoors on GarageBand and perfected in the studio with actual players, the shift is impossible not to notice but is absent the mid-career bloat endemic with similar movements. Fans can breathe easy, as Kaputt packs on the extra instrumentation with poise, more Pet Sounds than The Soft Parade. Early album standout “Blue Eyes” walks softly with crushing vocals, “A Song For America” threatens stationary hips everywhere and a possible incongruity with rare lyrical collaborator Kara Walker forms a prime centerpiece for the ambitious LP.

Through a collaboration on a Merge box set, visual artist Kara Walker discovered Bejar and the Destroyer back catalogue and set in motion a peculiar partnership. Known as a formidable lyricist, one could imagine that the most presumptuous of pitches to Bejar would be lyrics. Walker took the chance, and the resulting product forms the basis of “Suicide Demos for Kara Walker.” With a moody, ambient introduction giving way to evocative poetry, her fingerprints are as obvious as the modifications Bejar made and the JC/DC production value. Begun as a series of rough demos, the song title became less aspirational, transforming into what Bejar calls “maybe an educational video on how Kara Walker could kill herself.” The smooth vocals are a significant distance away from the wailing on “Jackie Dressed In Cobras” and bears only passing similarity to the intentions peppering Streethawk through Trouble In Dreams but are somehow unmistakably Destroyer. That is, channeling Pet Shop Boys in a world where synth is illegal. Walker’s impressions were positive. “She’s heard it. She gave me the go ahead. She says she liked it, which is cool because I want her to like it.”

Kaputt also marks another in a series of collaborations serving as the professional end of a long friendship. Nick Bragg and Bejar have been friends for roughly two decades, and Bragg’s role as the de facto lead guitarist of Destroyer is seemingly both a minor and major part of that relationship. “It’s like a little blip of time compared to the amount of normal time we spend. He’s kinda played lead guitar in Destroyer for like nine years or something. It’s not like I go to him…there’s not a lot of dialogue. I’m basically like, ‘Go home and shred all over this stuff and if you feel like it, come into the studio and do some more.’” In the same way as with his other collaborators, Bejar is again quick to deflect much of his praise to Bragg. “His playing has real fangs, and a lot of this is based around softer sounds and textures. I wasn’t sure if he would be into it, if it would be his cup of tea. I find most of the cathartic moments on the record come from his playing.” Bragg is similarly vocal about their relationship, both in and out of the studio. He remarks that Bejar is “more of a friend than a musician to me” and that he derives great pleasure from watching his friend grow in that respect. “People talk about how stylistically or sonically, concepts he’s playing with have changed over the years but I just look at it how he’s continued a series of ideas and kept refining them to the point where they are now.” For Bragg, however, the huge shift in concept and tone on Kaputt is something he welcomes from Bejar and Destroyer. “When you boil it all down, it still becomes essentially a Destroyer record. No one would expect him to make a record of quiet storm, late-night R&B songs. I don’t know if it’s the record he wanted to make. No record ever really ends up exactly where you want it and that’s probably part of the fun.”

While Kaputt instantly eliminates any accusations of sloth or inattention to detail that the word “casual” may impart, one could posit that of a recording process that shares more in common with an impromptu Super Bowl potluck. Along with the oddly final album title, one wonders if these are the last days for Destroyer. Bejar figures there is really no metric for when it’s time to quit. “I’ve never tried to write a song. I don’t know if I know how to go about trying. I don’t think it means that once you have to start trying, it’s as simple as you should stop or quit. There is a whole school of songwriters that I really admire where tedious craft is part of what they do. It would probably be good for me to have like, some kind of ethic like that, like a work ethic like that. Toil instead of just rooting over weird things in my brain.” It’s a sentiment he explores on “Blue Eyes,” singing loudly “I write poetry for myself/I write poetry for myself.”

Still, retirement is something he cannot immediately reconcile. “I haven’t really thought of all this kind of Jay-Z retirement stuff. Yeah, I definitely wouldn’t feel like naming (Kaputt) something as ironed out as that.” The action intrigues Bejar, however. ”I have no beef with that whatsoever. I love people who retire in general. I always find it really admirable rather than just punching the card for the rest…” Bejar trails off.

“Punching the card, is that the expression?”

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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 – 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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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 – 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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