The following pieces were published by Signal to Noise, a world-renowned journal based in Houston, TX, covering improvised and experimental music. They appear here as I originally submitted them. In posting them here, I’ve noticed an odd pattern for the first time. As a means of introduction, I seem to be obsessed with discussing the weather, days of the week, and the particular season that the article takes place in, I guess to provide a sense of place maybe? It’s kinda eerie and I will stop doing that from now on…
By Vish Khanna
Nathan Lawr is known for many things in Canada but the multi-talented musician is seldom counted on to concoct the warm, summery grooves that inhabit his new Minotaurs record, The Thing. An in-demand drummer who, in the last decade, has held the fort for indie-rock flavoured artists like Feist, Royal City, King Cobb Steelie, Jim Guthrie, Sea Snakes and the FemBots among many others, Lawr eventually stepped out to lead his own group, dubbed the Minotaurs. A charming singer and songwriter, Lawr has explored interpersonal dynamics in his lyrics, as well as any contemporary artist. And his musical aesthetic too has been clever yet comfortable, melding folk and pop accessibly, with sly twists.
Something changed tangibly for Nathan Lawr & The Minotaurs on 2007’s A Sea of Tiny Lights, where Lawr’s proclivity for political outspokenness and his earnest incisiveness infiltrated a gorgeous collection of angular pop songs. There was something insistent and worldly about this material, with less boy-girl romance and guitar strumming. Instead, there were weightier songs about escaped prisoners of war and social collapse, bolstered by hypnotic drums, keyboards, and horns.
All of this has led Lawr to re-imagine his Minotaurs with new players and create The Thing, a marked amalgam of cheery Fela Kuti Afrobeat funk and pop song structure, propelled by lyrics dripping with death, paranoia, and social critique. “This is me, running in the opposite direction of what I was doing before,” Lawr explains. “I was drawn to Afrobeat from the moment I heard it and that’s all I was listening to for a couple years. I felt like I was stuck in this ‘singer-songwriter’ thing and I don’t even know how I got there. All of the songs I was writing, the chords and words weren’t quite enough to hold my interest and I felt like I needed something else.”
As Lawr tells it, the new sound came about organically when he and noted producer/percussionist Don Kerr experimented with bridging the gap between Lawr’s knack for pop hooks and his passion for Afro-influenced jazz and rhythms. “We took a guitar-led folk song and put a funky Afrobeat under it and, lo and behold, it slotted together, which opened our mind to the possibilities. One thing that some people don’t get is that, if the general vibe is good enough, you don’t have to change chords or keys. Like Miles Davis on Bitches Brew or Kind of Blue, to some extent; it’s just one scale, or chord, or key and they hang on them forever. If the musicians and ideas are good enough, you don’t really need to move to anything else.”
Though Lawr had an incredible band of Minotaurs before, for The Thing he was compelled (and forced) to re-build the ensemble. “I was living in Sudbury and I wanted to try something completely different,” he recalls. “It wasn’t premeditated or anything. My old band was all spread out around different cities so I figured I’d just try a whole new thing.”
Drawing from star musicians in Toronto-based jazz and electronic outfits like Holy Fuck, Feuermusik, Canaille, and the Hylozoists among others, Lawr has assembled a mighty, jaw-dropping octet. And even as touring with large, multi-headed groups becomes more expensive, Lawr doesn’t see any expendable instruments in his line-up; his Minotaurs can’t be anything but big. “It has to be,” he says. “You can’t really do The Thing without one of the horns or guitars. There are no glockenspiels or mandolins in this band, being used superfluously.”
Armed with The Thing, Lawr hasn’t lost his emotional edge. If anything, much like the militancy that so pervades Fela Kuti’s music, Lawr’s thoughtfully observant new songs tactfully balance hip-shaking with his own call to arms. “I call it a protest record mostly because I’m sick of love songs but also because I don’t think there is any protest music now,” he reasons. “I’d be hard-pressed to name one song that is in any way popular that actually addresses the very crushing and cataclysmic things that are going on in the world that honestly keep me up at night. It’s a fine line to try and address those things without being preachy and pretentious but I try to tackle them just to put my own mind at ease.”
An indie-rock veteran in his mid-30s, Lawr has transcended artistic frustration to reach peace of mind with The Thing. After countless tours around the world and album releases that receive critical acclaim but sell modestly, he is doing his best to play it cool while sitting on his finest work, made with a wondrous group. “I have no expectations, honestly. I’m emancipated. When we get together, it’s gonna be fun. That’s the only thing I can control.”
music now. I’d be hard-pressed to name one song that is in any way popular that actually addresses the very crushing and cataclysmic things that are going on the world that honestly keep me up at night. It’s a fine line to try and address those things without being preachy and pretentious but I try to tackle them just to put my own mind at ease.” (Published in STN #59, Fall 2010)
- Sufjan Stevens
Highway to Health: Sufjan Stevens & Asthmatic Kitty Records
By Vish Khanna
The first day of October is brisk but it’s heating up inside of Toronto’s Lee’s Palace, a mid-sized venue which is packed to capacity and then some. More than just the resulting friction of an audience mashed together, the warmth in the room is a blend of expectant joy and unbridled devotion for Brooklyn’s Sufjan Stevens, one of the most respected and popular artists in underground music, who’s on a tour of intimate rooms. As his Asthmatic Kitty label mates in Cryptacize shuffle off-stage after a rousing set, an unassuming Stevens and his relatively small six-piece band arrive to set up their own gear for the night and, just by conducting this routine exercise, are greeted by whoops of delight.
What follows is a majestic yet self-consciously rickety set, comprised of music Stevens has written over the past decade. Fan favourites from astonishing albums like Michigan, Seven Swans, Illinois, and The Avalanche are rendered and received well but the night is most notable for the four, sprawling new songs Stevens unveils. He introduces powerful, realized things like “Impossible Souls” and “All Delighted People” with a kind of sheepish reluctance, practically apologizing for the jarringly strong “Age of Adz,” which he accurately tells us is representative of a recent “weird, Miles Davis-meets-Prince synth-pop” direction he seems to be taking.
Earlier in the day on his tour bus, Stevens is fully engaged in a wide-ranging discussion about his ambitious multimedia project The BQE, the history and condition of Asthmatic Kitty, the label he co-owns with his step-father Lowell Brams, and how all of this fits into the grand scheme of things. His points are thoughtfully eloquent and he exudes a quiet confidence even as his words convey a conflicted consciousness. “I don’t really have as much faith in my work as I used to,” he admits, after pondering the possible reception and musical content of some of his newest songs. “I don’t feel a certain kind of confidence that I used to. But I think that’s healthy; I think that’s good because I can’t really rely on it anymore. I don’t trust it anymore. I think it’s allowed me to be less precious about how I work and write. And maybe it’s okay for us to take it less seriously.”
Sufjan Stevens pauses. “I believe things are gonna change for the better but I think they’ll get a lot worse first,” he says and then chuckles.
Whether he realizes it or not, Sufjan Stevens is a young man who believes that size does matter. Since he emerged as a folk-based multi-instrumentalist/singer-songwriter with 1999’s A Sun Came, he’s been drawn to gigantic projects such as 2001’s Enjoy Your Rabbit, an intricate electronic music release inspired by the animals of the Chinese Zodiac, or his infamous ‘50 State album series,’ which, to date, has yielded remarkable concept records about his birth state of Michigan and also Illinois. His latest effort is a multimedia feat entitled The BQE, which consists of a visually stunning film, a stirring classical, orchestral soundtrack, an uncompromising essay ostensibly about New York’s Brooklyn Queens Expressway and hula hoops, and, in limited edition, a 40-page comic book about characters known as the Hooper Heroes. Stevens conceived of the whole extravaganza after being commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) to stage a new work at the Gilman Opera House in the fall of 2007.
“My first approach was pretty literal, which was to capture images of the expressway from all different angles, and I wanted to do that with moving pictures instead of photographs,” Stevens explains. “So I decided to hire a cinematographer [Reuben Kleiner] from Pratt, an art university in Brooklyn. He helped me with all the 16 mm footage, which was shot on Bolex. And I used Super 8 as well, which I’ve been using for years. And we just went around for a couple months and set up all these different shots, different angles, and tried different techniques. Some of it’s stop-animation, some is time-lapse, slow-mo, night and day shots. So that was just kind of technical, gathering information.”
The BQE is a stimulating and provocative kind of sensory overload that contains all of the pageantry and curious fascination with human ingenuity that Stevens has infused his work with in the past but the motion of it all is something new. “Looking at the footage, I would start to write movie soundtrack themes, ideas, and motifs that would accompany the images,” he says. “Because the BQE is such an ugly, concrete form that doesn’t inspire much, I decided to utilize other concepts including principles of Subud, which is a religious group that my parents were in when I was a kid, from which my name Sufjan is derived.”
“So I used that, which was pretty arbitrary but it felt like a weird kind of conceptual starting point because it’s so abstract. The group is about spiritual enlightenment and it’s not even a religion; there’s not really a deity. It’s about transcendent spiritual experiences, which they call latihan. It comes from meditation that you do in groups. The cosmology and the symbolism of that religious organization started to work its way into the form, musically, of The BQE. There’s seven rings and seven lines in the Subud symbol, so I started to focus on this idea of seven—as a time signature, as a number of movements, and as a theme and religious number. There’s also the lines versus the circle; conceptually it was about circular motion versus linear motion and the expressway represented lines and the transcendent mediation of Subud represented circles. There’s different rings that relate to different levels of enlightenment. And then the hula hoop fit into that, conveniently, just because of geometry! So, it was all just gathering for months—all these different, pre-existing conceptual foundations, and then working them together, even if it didn’t make any sense at first.”
For anyone on this planet, The BQE would be a lofty endeavour but Stevens in particular gravitates to this scale of artistic expression. Each new venture seems to top the last one in terms of conceptual construction and creative execution but, to hear him tell it, his plans begin modestly enough. “I don’t think I set out to make epic projects. I think the projects themselves become unmanageable in the process and I end up producing so much for a single project, that they end up taking over and becoming much bigger and grander than I’d anticipated. I never intended for this to be so drastic or extensive. In the case of the commission from BAM, I was definitely working within a form. The piece itself had to exist in an opera house seating 2,000 people and fill the space visually, orally, and conceptually. So I knew I had to work within that scale and that’s why I wanted these three images, a miniature orchestra, and live hula hoopers, because I felt like that was what was required! I had the grant so I had the money to see things through. And then after the piece premiered and it came time to condense it into an album, I was really frustrated by the inability to reduce it to an LP. That’s when I started to develop more of the expository parts of the essay, and that’s when the comic book developed. So, the whole thing was unwarranted of course, but was heedlessly enraptured by this conceptual ideal or grand idea of just venturing beyond what was normal or rational to capture it, and satisfy my creative desire to have a set piece that would represent The BQE.”
“I really work on a very microscopic level,” Stevens continues. “I really think in terms of the song or folk song, and I work within a very conservative frame of melody, accompaniment, and narrative. So really basic, simple forms and they just end up becoming hybrids or amended or expanded to form greater, epic, set pieces.”
One of the hallmarks of Stevens’ work is its scale, which is rooted in eclecticism, a drive for variety in even his most focused ideas. That same spirit of inclusiveness and a community of sounds can be found in Asthmatic Kitty, the independent label founded and co-owned by Stevens and his step-father Lowell Brams. Growing from a literal bedroom operation to a prolific and insistent force documenting oddly alluring music by artists like My Brightest Diamond, Castanets, Rafter, Fol Chen, Shannon Stephens, Half-Handed Cloud, Helado Negro, Jookabox, the Welcome Wagon, Shapes and Sizes, and about a dozen more, Asthmatic Kitty is now principally run by Brams in Wyoming, Stevens in Brooklyn, and A&R man (though he prefers the term “Midwest Wizard”) Michael Kaufman in Indianapolis.
Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, Stevens was five years old when Brams, an avid music lover, was briefly married to his mother. The two kept in touch over the years and happened to both live in Holland, Michigan when Stevens was attending Hope College and first started experimenting with the folk songs he’s known for today.
“The first music I heard that really impressed with me wasn’t the songs that he started doing later,” Brams recalls. “He would play these keyboard sonatas. He’d just make them up. When he was really little, like five, six, or seven, he wasn’t a prodigy or anything but his family got a piano for one of his siblings taking lessons, and he just started playing it. Later on he had these little keyboards and when he was maybe 13, I heard him playing these incredibly complicated pieces he’d made up on a tiny Casio keyboard. That was amazing; that was when I understood that he had a gift. And then when he was in college, I became more aware of him writing songs.”
While the general perception is that Asthmatic Kitty is Stevens’ label and began as an outlet to release his music, Brams clarifies that there was more to the label’s inception than that. “Sufjan was in two bands, one pretty serious, one like a garage band that was just for fun. Marzuki was the serious folk-rock band that went to New York for a while and played some faraway places in the U.S. And the other band was Con Los Dudes, which was a bunch of guys messing around. Both bands disbanded around the same time because members were graduating from college. We just knew a lot of talented people who’d been in those bands and others, and the idea was to put out music by them, not just Sufjan. He was the first one to make an album, A Sun Came, which came out in the spring of ’99. We were hoping to get distribution and that took a long time. We envisioned nothing like what’s happened—to be in a position to work with some 20 artists and have international distribution. I’m still surprised by it and I think Sufjan is too. We didn’t know what we were doing.”
After befriending him in New York, Stevens was introduced to Kaufman’s now-wife Liz Janes, whose personal songs intrigued Stevens, prompting him to strike up a creative partnership and release her music on Asthmatic Kitty. Kaufman began volunteering his services to the label and eventually parlayed this into full-time work, bringing artists like Bunky, Rafter, and Castanets into the fold. He is now essentially the label’s manager and shares a musical kinship with Brams and Stevens.
“I was a huge fan of Enjoy Your Rabbit and I still am,” Kaufman says of Stevens’ music. “That’s one of my favourite records of his. He actually played with my noise band Therefore a couple of times and was very supportive of what we were doing. His musical vocabulary and conceptual approach resonated a lot with mine. Even though our skill sets are light years apart, we share a sensibility towards deconstructing genre and thinking about context.”
The breadth of its leading men’s musical tastes places Asthmatic Kitty in an interesting position. Bound by no particular genre distinctions, it’s impossible to predict what any new release might sound like, even if it’s by a familiar artist. “I think early on it was mostly about songwriting,” Stevens says. “Now it’s really diverse and we’ve been releasing a lot of stuff and some of it is much smaller scale, as a modest enterprise. We’re trying to get away from being so insular and being just one thing. I think there’s a real effort to be open to other kinds of music, whether it’s electronic, instrumental, or programmatic music. Yeah, so it’s been fun working with other people. It’s mostly people we know; it’s very unusual for us to work with anyone we don’t know. It’s still based on relationships and I think a lot of the true, small, independent labels are still based on that. It’s still really small. I’m still the biggest selling artist on the label but there’s a lot more music, energy, and a lot more going on. I think it’s really healthy.”
There’s a great deal of self-reflexive contemplation going on within Sufjan Stevens and his partners at Asthmatic Kitty. It doesn’t seem like wasted concern either; this is an enterprise that’s driven by a sense of purpose—one that simultaneously questions the consistency and efficacy of that very purpose. For his part, Stevens tends to engage with such philosophical quandaries by both addressing and avoiding them.
The score he’s composed for The BQE is uniquely dramatic and, outside of some cool electronic flourishes, generally consists of instrumentation that some might associate with dreamy, pop-oriented orchestral music. With the hula hoops and superhero costumes of the Hooper Heroes, he’s reflected a fantastical comic book world within the context of his music that he’s really only hinted at previously via album artwork and eye-catching stage costumes and props. It all adds up to an emotive, pointed kind of escapism that Stevens often seems enthralled with.
“You might have a better perspective in assessing my motivation in all that, in creating a fabulous, fabricated environment,” he reasons. “I’m not really sure where it comes from. It’s probably just the fact that I believe what I do is artificial—that art is artifice and a fabrication. It’s not real; it’s a reflection or representation of reality but it isn’t reality. So, the colours are much more saturated in the artwork and the sounds are much more dramatized. There’s a kind of melodrama inherent in almost everything I do, whereas myself, as an ordinary, everyday human being, I’m extremely normal, ordinary, level-headed, phlegmatic, and I don’t have dramatic outbursts. Whereas my music is always clamouring for attention, and so I think it’s like an alter-ego.”
“It’s true for a lot of artists but my work is really animated; it’s the work of imagination. It’s the language that I use to represent very real, true, ordinary, and tragic events in every day life. For me, the BQE is a tragic object because of how it’s displaced people, the way it’s an obstacle, the pollution and noise, and the constant upkeep and the traffic and all that. It’s a very real, practical problem in my life every day and my way of rendering that through art is to transform it into a fabulous object. Into a transcendent, phenomenal experience that’s completely unreal, completely artificial. The Hooper Heroes come to represent all these issues—environmentalism, urban planning, and the plight of the pedestrian versus the monstrosity of the city.”
As he says, Stevens often delves into fantasy that’s rooted in actual things—states, physical structures, cultural markers, and of course, people—as though hyper-reality is the best refuge from the cold tangibility of life. “Yeah, maybe I have a utopian view,” he offers. “Maybe I’m an idealist in that way. Because I think in regular life, I’m a bit of a pessimist. I don’t necessarily presume the best in life for me. I expect things will work out but in my work, it’s definitely a heightened idealism. It’s weird how palatable the music really is. I don’t really make music that’s inaccessible necessarily. There’s bits of noise and discord here and there but generally, it’s actually very palatable and based on awe and wonder.”
While it’s understandable that, as its most prominent artist, Stevens is often viewed as the poster child for all things Asthmatic Kitty, Kaufman is eager to highlight the label’s community framework and multi-headed composition. Stevens’ music and opinions may be strong and uncompromising but, in terms of the label, his is one voice of many. “Asthmatic Kitty musicians are approaching their work and life from many different angles, philosophies, and perceptions of reality. In the early days, because of some of the Christian content in Sufjan’s work and that of the Welcome Wagon and Half-Handed Cloud, I would say that the perception of the label as a whole was extremely limited. I think we’re getting past it but even the bands who aren’t dealing with ‘Christian themes,’ are dealing with heady stuff that get into questions of the divine and the afterlife. Castanets for instance definitely deal with some very physical, immediate, and also transcendent spiritual concepts and how they intertwine.”
“So, I would say, ‘spiritual’ is not a horrible description, although that’s such a loaded word! But yeah, we haven’t forced ourselves away from that definition; we just want people to not have that be a filter that they view everything through. I used to be kinda resistant to it but, at this point, who cares; people are gonna respond how they’re gonna respond. Each record is its own thing and people will have hang-ups about different things that shape how they listen to it but those hang-ups are probably shaping the way they deal with everything. And we can’t change that.”
Beyond such lifestyle misperceptions, what’s more vexing are musical misinterpretations about a label whose catalogue is impossible to pin down stylistically. “There’s some indie twee-pop perceptions, which, I don’t know where those come from at all,” Kaufman laughs. “I don’t even know what ‘twee’ means! There’s this thing about the softness stylistically of what we do but the thing that frustrates me is that people don’t hear the incredible amount of experimentation that’s going on in the songs. Be it the songwriting, the content, or how we do business; I think some people get it but sometimes it’s so subtle, that’s what makes it interesting.”
Because they tend to work with friends and acquaintances and have developed a sustainable business model, Asthmatic Kitty is driven mostly by musical considerations and has been fortunate to avoid marketing jargon about label optics and financial bottom lines. “I would be most excited if, 10, 15 years from now, people are looking at our label and saying, ‘Wow, look at all that great stuff they were putting out over the years,’” Kaufman says. “I’m okay with things coming around a little bit later. The owners might not be because we may not survive that way! But I’m okay with leaving a legacy and part of that is continuing to work with our artists, believing in and supporting them, even if their first couple of records don’t sell great. There’s several records we’ve put out where I’ve thought, ‘This record is great but it’s not the pinnacle of this artist’s career.’ I don’t know how many labels think that way; I’m curious. I think some are excited about a record and how ‘it’s gonna sell great.’ The focus is on that release but, for me, the focus has always been on the artist. To the point where, we do stuff with some artists that isn’t necessarily beneficial to the label because, to me, if they grow and develop as artists, that will have reciprocal effects on the label.”
Such an outlook is well-suited to a richly ambitious roster that includes innovative musicians like Shara Worden who is best-known as My Brightest Diamond. Worden began her relationship with Asthmatic Kitty as a back-up singer and instrumentalist in Stevens’ touring bands and has since gone on to become the highest profile musician on the label after her occasional bandleader.
“They’re very hands off when it comes to the artistic side of things,” Worden says. “There’s no pressure of any kind from them at all when it comes to any of those decisions and I work really well that way! I know a lot of friends of mine have had their labels get much more involved in the studio process and it works well for some of them. But for me, I really needed to have artistic freedom and they’ve been super supportive of that. If it’s possible to be both hands off and really encouraging and caring at the same time, I think they strike that balance really well. It’s almost like they’re philanthropists or something!”
While he doesn’t believe his imprint is entirely altruistic, Brams thinks that it’s possible to run Asthmatic Kitty viably while retaining its penchant for artist-driven, adventurous music that people want to hear, though his inspiration might seem unlikely to some. “Elektra Records started out as a folk label in the early 50s and then, in the 60s, they started putting out all sorts of stuff,” he explains. “They had a subsidiary called Nonesuch, which put out classical music, what’s now called world music, and electronic music. They released a lot of artists that were ‘rock’ but there was nothing generic about them. People take it for granted now but there was nothing generic about the Doors; they sounded like no one else. Plus the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Love, and others who may not have been all that successful, but it was a lot of interesting stuff. They were just all over the map and I just really enjoyed that label. I may not have been as conscious to model Asthmatic Kitty after them but I think it was in the back of my mind; ‘Let’s do different kinds of things and things we like.’ Both Sufjan and I, we love different kinds of music and the fact that we jump around so much, it’s a reflection of that.”
Even though music’s been the bedrock for Stevens’ artistic expression and success, some cracks have begun to appear in the foundation. In a recent e-mail interview he conducted with former Marzuki bandmate and current label signee Shannon Stephens for asmathickittycom’s Sidebar section, he wrote the following: “For myself, I’m starting to fear that music is far too selfish, self-absorbed, and self-interested for the ordinary life. When I’m entrenched in a project, for instance, the dishes are left undone, the bills left unpaid, the house is a mess. I become sub-human. I begin to despise all my bad habits.” And that was just the preamble to a question.
In the same exchange, Stevens wrote, “I’m at a point where I no longer have a deep desire to share my music with anyone, having spent many years imparting my songs to the public. Although I have great respect for the social dynamic of music—that it should be shared with others, that it brings people together—I now feel something personal is irrevocably lost in this process.”
In his startlingly sharp essay accompanying The BQE release, Stevens suggests that car culture and the expressway itself really reveal the self-destructive nature of man. And so it seems as though he feels that anyone stuck in this moment of our cultural trajectory is, from his perspective, enduring a particular kind of existential dilemma. “I can’t speak for the culture at large or anyone else,” he explains. “But for myself, I definitely feel a kind of claustrophobia because of the excess in our culture and the availability of so much.”
Ironically the aforementioned statements from Stevens went viral, making headlines and fuelling speculation that he was subtly announcing his retirement. “Yeah, no, I didn’t intend to say that. I would never explicitly say something like that,” he scoffs. “But I definitely feel like ‘What is the point? What’s the point of making music anymore?’ I feel that the album no longer has a stronghold or has any real bearing anymore. The physical format itself is obsolete; the CD is obsolete and the LP is kinda nostalgic. So, I think the album is suffering and that’s how I’ve always created—I work with these conceptual albums in the long-form. And I’m wondering, what’s the value of my work once these forms are obsolete and everyone’s just downloading music?”
“And I’m starting to get sick of my conceptual ideas. I’m tired of these grand, epic endeavours, and wanting to just make music for the joy of making music and having it be immediate and nothing to do with the industry itself, which, y’know is suffering right now of course. And I think it has to do with a creative crisis too. I’m wondering, ‘What am I doing?’ What is a song even? I’m questioning, ‘What’s the point of a song?’ Is a song antiquated? Does it have any power anymore? The format itself—a narrative song with accompaniment—is really beyond me now. Like, I feel that The BQE is not really a song, it’s not really a movie, and it’s not really just a soundtrack. It’s so ambiguous and diversified, it seems to lack shape. And the expressway itself lacks shape, so I feel like it’s all related to this existential crisis: Me versus the BQE, or me versus my work, y’know? And I don’t think I can win; I feel like it’s a losing battle.”
It’s really difficult to reconcile the Sufjan Stevens who commands a stage with the one that reflects upon the rationale for how he’s chosen to spend his time. On record and in performance, he’s essentially peerless; there are few living artists with the stirring command of music and songcraft that Sufjan Stevens possesses. And, unusually, he’s actually adored and celebrated for his abilities by critics and a mass of fans alike.
“It’s a real blessing and a privilege to have an audience and positive critical response,” he admits. “But I don’t measure what I do in those terms because it’s important to continue looking forward, to remain near-sighted, and to honour the work. The work for me is the most important thing. I have great respect for my audience but I don’t feel any inclination to create for them. My impulse to create is for the work itself. But it’s funny; it seems that positive critical response doesn’t really do much for one’s ego in the end. That’s kind of surprising but I think I just have the disposition to not take any of that seriously any way. I don’t take it for granted and I’m very grateful for it but it doesn’t have any bearing on how I work.”
Indeed, without pretension or cockiness, Stevens’ thoughts reveal an honest resignation with his having perhaps exhausted the conventional song-form for all he sees it being worth. He’s saturated it with bubbling sounds and imagery while plucking banjos, fingering piano keys, or orchestrating sweeping string and horn sections to soar beneath his wholesome, angelic voice. ‘What else do I need to prove?’ he seems to be wondering now and perhaps rightfully so.
Shara Worden has worked with Stevens firsthand on several tours and projects and suggests that a certain kind of restlessness actually drives his methodology. “He’s a very complicated person in that way. He changes things to the last second of performances. I think that’s an interesting thing about the way he works. The last tour I did with him was in Australia and Japan and we’d be sound checking to the end of our allotted time. He would be making adjustments to the last second and he’s always been like that. I think that’s fascinating. It’s maddening to be playing that way because you feel like, ‘Aw man, I’m totally gonna screw this up.’ At the same time, being like that has allowed him to grow, change, and develop material. The arrangements are always evolving and even though it’s challenging as a player, it’s part of his creative process to constantly be tinkering, fixing things, and changing them.”
“It’s not surprising that he questions these things,” Brams explains of his stepson and business partner’s state of mind. “He’s a person who constantly examines himself and what he’s doing. I don’t think it means he’s gonna stop making music; I know he likes to make music, no question. And my impression is not that there have been a lot of bad experiences. But when you do what he’s doing and put it out there, sometimes things happen that you don’t particularly want to happen. You don’t want people to recognize you on the street and you may not be able to get too comfortable with being too well-known. He’s a quiet, private person and I think that’s more where that’s coming from. Among the things he’s thinking about is ‘What does all this mean?’ It turned into something we didn’t expect. I had thought, starting from when he was in college, that he had the potential to be a first-rank songwriter so, in a way, it hasn’t surprised me. But yet, it still surprises me!”
“I don’t believe that the world is going to end,” Sufjan Stevens says generally, after making some gloomy pronouncements about what his future as a musician might look like “I believe in a greater world and that society is just a convening of people and cultures. The city is a very special, sacred part of society but it’s impermanent. None of us are eternal. But I think, for me, I can break it down to economics. Music, on record, is so closely aligned to the commodification of art on an album in the culture of rock ‘n’ roll. This is all from the 60s and 70s and we’re still living in that structure. Those are outdated forms. So, I think it’s really more specific than ‘Society will fail’ or ‘It’s the end of civilisation.”
In his essay about the BQE, Stevens positions the expressway as a representative for a lot of what is wrong about contemporary societies and cultures. There’s so much rage in this work but it might be imperceptible to those watching the film and experiencing the score. But reading his thesis, it’s clear that The BQE, though full of humour and whimsy, is essentially a screed. “I think these forms aren’t sustainable, Stevens explains. “The expressway, the automobile—it’s obvious now that these things are contributing to our decline; the death and destruction of the natural world. So, that’s no mystery. But I don’t offer any solutions obviously.”
For their part, Asthmatic Kitty and Stevens have resolved to keep on keepin’ on, creating and supporting art they believe in, while hopefully contributing something valuable to an imperfect world that can’t stand long. “I think we’re trying to further expand the variety of voices,” Kaufman says of the label. “I’ve actually been looking at several artists from China. Sufjan and I have joked that we’re tired of hearing from white males. I mean, that’s easy for two white males to say but I’m just amazed how white-male-dominated music is and continues to be. And how, when something seems like it’s going to cross over and people are gonna be exposed to something in a new way, it’s often co-opted by white males. It’s just imperialism at its worst. Gender-wise, I think we’ve always been very well-balanced. I’d love to continue in that direction of being a diverse community but one that is built off of genuine relationships. It challenges all of us to operate outside of our comfort zones and grow as people. So, I think we’re at maximum capacity for a while and obviously if we get a demo from a white male that excites us, we’re gonna do it. But I do think we are trying to be more conscientious about opportunities for new and exciting collaborations and decentralizing those power structures.”
“Because of the economy and changes in the music business, we might slow down a little bit or we might not—I don’t know,” Brams adds. “The economy has affected everyone involved in music but there’s still a future in it. We can’t just stick with the business model that we had, say five years ago because too much has changed but we feel we can keep up with it. You have to be willing to try something new at any point. We’ve been very prolific lately and that was very deliberate. In the last year and a half, it was a reaction to the downturn in the music business. We were striving to keep going and I thought a little aggression was called for. I’m personally pleased with everything we’ve put out and I’m proud of it, and the basic philosophy will remain the same.”
As for Stevens, after all of the inner turmoil he’s released into the world lately, he too seems resolved to re-energize and assert himself as a musician. “Well, I’m trying a lot of new material on this tour and they’re kind of long-form songs—meandering, works in progress. I’m hoping that they’ll eventually find themselves on an album. So I think that all of that negative view of the state of affairs of the music industry and the demise of the LP and all this—it’s a recent crisis for me but one I feel that I’m getting around. I think that a lot of the new material that I’m working on is inspiring enough to get me to record it and maybe have a new record out next year.”
If the reaction from fans at Lee’s Palace and elsewhere online throughout this tour is any indication, then Stevens’ community of fans needs and desires him to be a part of their circle. For all his initial misgivings, his new songs are bold new points in the timeline of his career thus far and he’s right to want to see them through. Though he’s less certain about what the exact future of Asthmatic Kitty will look like. Stevens clearly has a focused idea of what makes it tick. ”Unfortunately, it’s very clear that the health and well-being of the label is correlated to my releasing music or not. So I think it’s important that I have a healthier view of my work so I can continue writing and recording. But we have a lot of incredible, incredible artists who are making great music right now and are actually reaching an audience. Like Shara from My Brightest Diamond has been really successful, working, touring, and collaborating a lot. I would like us, as a label, to be much more unified and more collaborative and more interactive instead of just being disparate artists and bands, working all over the states. It’s already inherent in the way that we run our label. People show up on other people’s records all the time, and we tour together. I’d like to see more of that and that’s gonna be healthy for us.” (Published in STN #56, Winter, 2010)
By Vish Khanna
Like others who’ve worked closely with Vic Chesnutt, Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto cannot say enough about the respected songwriter from Athens, Georgia. “Vic’s one of the most funny and profane people I’ve ever been around,” he exclaims. “You can’t imagine the things that come out of his mouth on the road; it’s really high-spirited and funny when we’re in the van. And I felt like Fugazi had a hard ethic about touring; Vic completely eclipses everyone I’ve ever been around, period. He’s tough, he’s about playing the show, and it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. The man’s in a wheelchair and he works hard as shit. He’s fucking gigging and writing constantly—the man lives music. And as a person, he’s the sweetest, most generous ever.”
Indeed, Chesnutt’s ability to overcome a severe disability and write his wondrous songs has inspired legions of fans and musicians over the past 20 years. He’s composed critically-acclaimed records, collaborating with the likes of Lambchop, Bill Frisell, Emmylou Harris, and more recently, Elf Power and Jonathan Richman. After urging from his friend, filmmaker Jem Cohen, Chesnutt visited Montreal’s Hotel2Tango studio in 2007 and made a rejuvenating record called North Star Deserter. Upon its release on Constellation Records, he toured the world with Picciotto and members of Silver Mt. Zion. The core group recently reconvened to create another astounding album borne of structure and improvisation in At the Cut.
“I wanted to make a carbon copy of North Star Deserter; that was my intention when we went in to make this album,” Chesnutt reveals. “It didn’t happen at all; it’s a totally different album. I think the main reason for that is because of our familiarity. The rest of the musicians understood the subtleties of my music and were very quick to join in on this sort of stuff.”
In order to determine what material best suited this collaboration, Chesnutt did something unusual. He arrived at the Hotel and, with his band and studio staff gathered around, proceeded to play through unreleased segments of his songbook, all on his lonesome.
“It was horrible,” Chesnutt recalls. “I was so nervous and scared and embarrassed. But the reason I did it was because we needed to pick which songs to do; simple as that. Some of these songs are very new and so I didn’t have the perspective that I sometimes do. I had no idea if they were good or not. But it was funny; everyone agreed on every song so it was very easy. Some songs, they’d be like, ‘No, no. Wait, that one, yes—we’re keeping it.’ And I’d be like, “I dunno about that one,’ and they’d say ‘We’re keeping it!’
“Vic is hilarious in that he always thinks he’s wrong,” Hotel engineer Howard Bilerman chuckles. “He’ll come in with an opinion and say, ‘I love it, but I’m always wrong.’ Or, everyone will like something and he’ll be like, ‘I don’t like it, but I’m always wrong.’ I assumed that this new record would be all new songs and, sure enough, ‘Vic, when’d you write that song?’ ‘Oh, 13 years ago.’ It’s like, ‘What?!’ ‘How does a gem not come to life until now?’ So he’s incredibly prolific and he just has this huge backlog of stuff he’s never recorded and he’s pretty amazing that way.”
In some respects, At the Cut is superior to its predecessor. While North Star Deserter possessed a stupefying intensity, the new record is equally vibrant but somewhat more dynamic. “I think the first record maybe had a bit more of people stepping on each others toes musically, so there was more of a cacophony,” Bilerman agrees. “Whereas this one, people made choices to say, ‘Well, this song doesn’t need me.’”
“I don’t know if it’s a product of the songs that Vic brought in this time, but this stuff sounds more like some country-rock record made in the mid-70s or something,” suggests Silver Mt. Zion guitarist, Efrim Menuck. “That was sort of surprising to all of us—that we were making those sorts of sounds with our instruments but the songs lent themselves to that treatment. We were all keenly aware of it and kind of making fun of ourselves, while that was happening.”
Chesnutt’s work in Montreal thus far has happened quickly, over relatively short recording sessions. The sudden creative spark this process requires has energized Chesnutt immensely, and he seems committed to continued collaboration. “I knew I was going to record a new album with Jonathan Richman producing and I wrote 15 songs in that week from the moment I got home from Montreal,” he says proudly. “I was so inspired by the whole experience—really, my heart and brain completely open up when I’m around these people.” (Published in STN #56, Winter, 2010)
by Vish Khanna
On a lazy Sunday night, Bell Orchestre’s Kaveh Nabatian is in the early stages of a dinner party at his Montreal home and, even through the phone line, things already sound boisterous. Last night his band played a show a few hours away in Kingston, Ontario, supporting their ambitious new record, As Seen Through Windows, and, while some members are aware of our interview appointment, there’s some sarcasm in Nabatian’s voice when I ask if anyone else from Bell Orchestre is kicking about.
“Two of them are, though neither of them are famous Arcade Fire people,” he says dryly. “Sarah’s on her way soon so, if you really want her, you can have her.”
While Nabatian’s joking, it’s obvious he’s used to being part of an ensemble that lives in the shadow of one of the most popular indie-rock bands on the planet. Richard Reed Parry and Sarah Neufeld might be best known for their membership in Arcade Fire but, some nine years ago, they and drummer Stefan Schneider quietly formed the explosive instrumental ensemble Bell Orchestre to create live soundscapes for dance theatre troupes. Pietro Amato of Torngat (also a one-time touring member of Arcade Fire) and Nabatian soon joined the fold and the five-piece entered Montreal’s Hotel2Tango studio with Howard Bilerman to make a record in 2003, just as Arcade Fire began to supernova.
When Recording a Tape the Colour of the Light was released by Rough Trade in 2005, listeners raved about Bell Orchestre’s debut album, embracing their tricky amalgam of chamber pop, post-punk noise, and improvised music. Even within the ‘Montreal music fever’ running high then, Bell Orchestre’s widespread acceptance was somewhat surprising, given that the band creates music they themselves have difficulty articulating. “It’s hell, yeah,” Nabatian says. “We’re very aware of not getting stuck in anything; that’s really important to all of us. We’re really excited about bringing new elements to the band and push ourselves to not get stuck in some kind of ambient, drfit-y, strings-and-horns thing.”
“We’ve been playing together for eight or nine years, but all of us influence each other because we learned how to play at the same time,” Amato adds. “We’re musically connected and created a little language for ourselves that’s our own.”
Keeping things fresh, Bell Orchestre welcomed new collaborators for As Seen Through Windows. Michael Feuerstack of Snailhouse and the Wooden Stars and reed wizard Colin Stetson each joined the band as regular contributors. A gifted guitarist, Feuerstack contributed lap steel to the first album and joined the band live sporadically. “We used to call ‘Les Lumieres’ ‘Feuerstack’ because it featured him,” Nabatian recalls. “He started playing more shows and on more songs so we just said, ‘Fuck, why don’t you just be in the band?’”
“As soon as we put Mike on that song, we were like, ‘Whoa, what is this new layer?’” Neufeld explains. “He comes up with these parts that sound like they’ve been missing; they glide through the weird tapestry that is us and knot everything together. Colin’s sort of the same thing. He really boosts everything because he’s just such a balls-out musician; we actually play better technically, with more action and spirit because he’s so ‘on 11’ all the time. When he plays the bass saxophone, it really blasts the low end in this exciting way; every time we hear it we’re like, ‘Yeah! Oh shit, it’s that thing that we love!’”
Looking to challenge themselves further, Bell Orchestre opted to leave Montreal and bring their latest songs to Chicago’s Soma Studios to work with John McEntire of Tortoise and The Sea and Cake. The mission: to make the most of working with a genuine hero and capture their elusive sound in a new way.
“We really trusted him because we respect him so much,” Neufeld explains. “It was like working with a mentor even if he didn’t know it; there was subtle fawning. We had a lot of ideas in terms of pushing the aesthetics and creating this cloud effect we get live, and he ran with it further. He was like, ‘Okay, you want it to be crazy like this? What about crazy like this?’ And he’d come up with exactly the kind of thing we were dreaming of but even more awesome; he’s really good at realizing these vague sonic descriptions.”
With As Seen Through Windows hot in their pocket, Bell Orchestre’s members must now meet the challenge of making time for each other, just as external considerations clog up their respective schedules. “It’s difficult but we just had a meeting today, which kinda confirmed that it’s really important to us, even if it’s difficult,” Nabatian says. “Everyone has a million things to do but this isn’t any less important than anything else. This band isn’t going anywhere.” (Published in STN #54, Summer, 2010)
- A Silver Mt. Zion, Photo by Herb Greenslade
Change We Can Believe In: Constellation Records
By Vish Khanna
On a warm Friday evening in mid-June, Montreal’s multicultural Mile End neighbourhood is relatively quiet, save for the crowded commotion on the sidewalk in front of two of the city’s most popular music venues. In the next hour or so, Casa del Popolo, a smallish vegetarian restaurant on boulevard Saint-Laurent, will host a night of ambient, experimental electronic music featuring Aidan Baker and Tim Hecker, and five or six people linger outside the front door. Across the street, however, a larger crowd has gathered around the entrance of Casa’s counterpart, La Sala Rossa, which was built by emigrant Jews in 1932, as both a dancehall and gathering spot or workmen’s circle where news of the war-torn old country would spread. The ballroom-sized space now sits a floor above a mouth-wateringly wonderful Spanish restaurant, and a local Spanish Social Club reserves tables for Friday and Saturday night functions. On this particular evening, a sign on Sala’s front door exclaims, “Tonight’s Vic Chesnutt Show is SOLD OUT” in both English and French, which, depending on whether they have a ticket or not, fosters great anticipation and disappointment among the assembled mass.
This Friday night fever can be attributed to the remarkable eighth edition of Suoni per il Popolo, a 30-day music festival that is bound by no genre specificity but features the work of many subversive Montreal artists, while inviting like-minded musicians from all over the world to participate and engage with this unique community. Suoni is the brainchild of Mauro Pezzente and his wife Kiva Stimac who together manage the daily operations and booking of both the Casa and the Sala, which they established in 2000 and 2001 respectively.
“At the time, there were quite a few lofts that had parties and shows, like the Hotel2Tango and others in Old Montreal,” Pezzente recalls. “They started leaving or getting kicked out around that time. There were no real venues other than Jailhouse Rock, which was a really crappy rock club.”
Pezzente is perhaps best known as the bassist for the currently dormant Godspeed You! Black Emperor, one of Canada’s most influential and inspiring ensembles who, upon emerging in the mid-1990s, became synonymous with their home city of Montreal for music fans around the world. Even as the band challenged musical conventions and expectations with its cinematic soundscapes and aversion to music-business-as-usual publicity tactics, a small army of modest revolutionaries quietly pushed them forward, looking to change and improve the material conditions for musicians in the city, starting with the establishment of artist-friendly performance spaces.
“There were other places on Saint-Laurent that started doing shows around the end of the nineties, and they all turned into discothèques, and to play there you had to pay like $250.00, and they were small—the size of the Casa,” Pezzente explains. “It was kind of strange and people at the time made a big deal of it, like, ‘Why are we having to pay to play at these places?’ But there was no other place. Then, at the time, when I made Casa free, everyone was like, ‘Whoa, that’s crazy.’ But that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
Operating his independent record store, L’Oblique, for 21 years, Luc Berard has seen it all in Montreal’s music scene. A fiercely passionate and devoted supporter of virtually every independent musician in the city, Berard truly believes a cultural shift occurred over the past decade, and that its most publicly tangible offshoot lies within the establishment of venues with an egalitarian sensibility that favours both performers and patrons.
“It was more difficult because the independent industry was not as well-organized as it is today,” Berard says. “Since about 10 years, places like Casa del Popolo and Sala Rossa—you can play; you just have to book and do the door—that’s it. Before that, it cost a lot of money to play and if there is not so many people in the room, you’d lose money. So, it’s better for independent music today because musicians were tired of having to pay to play and every big city now has a place like that, managed by musicians, for musicians.”
If there’s been one propelling, galvanizing force in this movement to challenge existing hierarchies and empower conscious musicians and music consumers in Montreal, that force is Constellation Records. Tremendous music fans venturing into an anti-commerce-based art-project, Ian Ilavsky and Don Wilkie established Constellation in 1997 with the release of a seven-inch by Ilavsky’s former band, Sofa. Since then, they’ve become one of the most respected and emulated independent record labels in the world, with a roster of artists that includes Do Make Say Think, Fly Pan Am, Silver Mt. Zion, Eric Chenaux, Sackville, Carla Bozulich/Evangelista, Lullabye Arkestra, Sandro Perri, Vic Chesnutt, and of course, Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
Ilavsky is from Winnipeg, Manitoba in the Canadian prairies, while Wilkie is from small-town Nova Scotia in the Maritimes and both men ended up in Montreal to attend university, experiencing their own respective sense of alienation and disillusionment back then. With his master’s degree in administration, Wilkie shuffled unhappily between Montreal and Toronto, desperately wishing to escape the boredom of button-down vocations. Despite being an exceptionally bright student, Ilavsky dropped out of McGill University to pursue music with Sofa, working at the Fairmount Bagel Bakery to make ends meet.
In 1995, Ilavsky and Wilkie met through mutual friends and stayed up all night talking about music. Trading tapes initially, within a couple more visits, they started contemplating working together and doing something serious.
“Escaping shitty lives,” Wilkie says simply.
Though glib, Wilkie succinctly articulates a feeling that fuelled the early days of Constellation and its fledgling community of musicians—this notion of responding to what was being provided with alternative ideas.
“We absolutely felt like there was a lack of any established artist-friendly space and our intention initially was to do that,” Ilavsky explains. “We spent nine months focused more on that and went about it, in retrospect, ass backwards in that we decided that we were nominally going to play it above board. We went down to city hall looking at zoning maps and trying to figure out where we’d be granted a performance space permit. As soon as you do that, you’re not only up against an extremely rigid definition of where noise can be made, but also the ‘showbar’ mafia who, as far we’re concerned probably helped write the new zoning rules to protect their own interests. All of sudden you’re down to these neighbourhoods with high rents in the Latin Quarter. So, we got as close as signing a lease on a place, only to discover that they hadn’t run the plumbing in 25 years and didn’t tell us that.”
Facing such obstinate obstacles, in 1997 the duo established their own live music series, entitled Musique fragile, which took place in an Old Quarter loft space, which also served as the first headquarters for Constellation, then literally a bedroom operation. Wilkie suggests that the series worked as a haven for delicate, quiet music performed in an intimate environment where people were actively listening, as opposed to the atmosphere in a typical ‘showbar.’ Despite the remoteness of the Old Quarter, hungry music lovers made the trek in from Mile End and beyond, which meant that Wilkie and Ilavsky had to completely reorganize the loft to accommodate the 100 or so visitors there to see early performances by Silver Mt. Zion, Chenaux, Sam Shalabi, and Alexandre St-Onge among others. It was here that the hopeful glimmer of operating a record label was born.
“We really expected our first releases would likely be compilations and live recordings that would be sold on-site initially, just to generate a local feel for stuff that was happening and then capture it,” Ilavsky explains.
Yet at the same time, louder rock-oriented shows were happening in another loft initiated by individuals who felt equally disenfranchised from the established Montreal musicmongers and took matters into their own hands. Among them was Montreal-via-Toronto resident Efrim Menuck, the catalyst for Godspeed You! Black Emperor and guitarist/lead vocalist for Silver Mt. Zion.
“I met the Constellation boys because me and Dave (Bryant) played in Godspeed. When Godspeed started, Montreal was a bit of a wasteland in terms of live music and decent recording studios. There was stuff going on but there wasn’t anything that folks like us had any entrance to; we felt kind of locked out. The easiest solution was to find a place to put on our own shows. Before the Casa and Sala, Mauro and Kiva rented this cheap loft space and called it Gallery Quiva. There were having shows up there but were burning out and passed the torch to me and Dave. We were all broke so even renting a PA was tough. We’d heard that Ian, whom we knew a little because we’d seen Sofa play, and a guy from Toronto named Don were starting a performance place and we figured we should meet them to make sure we weren’t treading on each other’s toes.”
“So we went for a beer one afternoon and that’s how we met,” Menuck continues. “A few months later, I’d moved into this loft space up on [avenue] Van Horne and we named it the Hotel2Tango and started to have shows there. They were promoting a Dub Narcotic show and wanted to do it at the Hotel and from that point on, it seems like we’ve always been doing stuff together. By the time Godspeed were making our first record at the Hotel, when we set levels but needed someone to hit ‘play’ and ‘record,’ it just made sense to have Don and Ian come and do it, and when the record was made, it made sense for them to ask us to put it out.”
It’s important to note that the alliance between musicians and Constellation at this point had as much to do with personal politics, as it did great songs or instrumental ability. While Ilavsky fondly remembers Godspeed You! Black Emperor developing into a full-fledged, powerful rock orchestra, it was a deeper understanding of what their work could accomplish that fostered a strong, collective affinity for one another.
“Certainly what attracted us to the music-making were also the terms in which people were doing it,’ he says. “What was doubly inspiring for us was the idea that we were making connections with people who clearly weren’t putting all their eggs in one basket, thinking ‘Okay, this is the band; we’re going to make a career out of this.’ They were clearly exuding self-organization and DIY ethics and we felt like we were building community consciousness with like-minded people and that was a massive part of the equation. So, the atmosphere in Montreal in ’95, ’96, and ’97 was a healthy combination of inspiration and disaffection that was driven in part by the cultural tension in the city. The vast majority of people we connected with early on were like us: Anglophones exiled from other parts of Canada. There was a reason Montreal filtered a certain cohort of people, both in and out. If you were an Anglophone interested in autonomous art and were coming to Montreal, you weren’t scared of the automatic marginalization that that entailed. You were going to be on the outside of mainstream culture and were clearly aware that rents were cheap, there was a lot of space sitting empty, and that it was a ripe terrain for people that had ideas about self-sufficient art-making. Montreal was an attractive place and many of those people who were around 12 years ago are still here and have created a slightly less marginal place for themselves. That was important for us because our point initially was to respond to local conditions and contribute something on local terms.”
If Constellation possessed any sort of curatorial mandate in its earliest form, it was never highlighted or spelled out specifically. “I don’t think Ian and I sat down with a stylistic reference for ‘Let’s do a label that’s focused on this,’” Wilkie states. “That was probably true to some degree but it was certainly unspoken. Even well before the label was ready to go, our collective musical references were common enough that there wasn’t even a question of whether we were both going to be interested in something per se. Probably more importantly, part of the motivation was the excitement at how much good stuff was happening in Montreal with very little outlet or infrastructure—places to play and record, labels that made any sense to us in Canada. So, it was a very ripe place at the time. That, as much as anything, dictated what we were going to be involved in and, because a lot of these issues were interconnected, it quickly fell into place.”
Buoyed by strong foundational principles and early, somewhat surprising success, Constellation Records moved from loft and uncontrolled rental spaces to rest in its very own multifaceted complex, a repurposed factory building in a former industrial section of Mile End. In its own way, the plain structure is a gorgeous monument to the toil and selflessness of a driven collective that tapped into a tradition of DIY and independent business practices, which just make plain and simple sense.
While external perceptions might still paint Constellation as the house that Godspeed built, the fact remains that an overarching sense of purpose among the musicians and facilitators within this particular social circle has accomplished something astounding artistically and viable economically without the aid of mainstream ‘indie-rock’ machinationsor compromising their core beliefs.
“That self-confidence still came after the fact wherewe realized, ‘Actually, this is a model that’s working and doesn’t necessarily have to be a dream.’” Wilkie suggests. “That’s a slow evolution where it’s hard to put your finger on a point where it actually happened. For sure, the early attention paid to Godspeed changed the equation for us but I think it’s important to note that we didn’t sit down at the outset with a master plan to build something that would evolve into what it did. It was very much a bedroom operation/labour of love; we’re doing something that we love to do and were fortunate enough to stumble into a group of people where it makes sense and everyone’s pitching in.”
Planned or not, Constellation’s early success was somewhat difficult to comprehend, given both the challenging nature of their post-punk, ambient noise-infused output and their virtual neglect of (and occasional scorn for) the media. In pondering the initial stages of the label and its relationship to the overground music industry, Ilavsky seems genuinely awestruck by how much attention Constellation’s most prominent band actually received in the late-nineties.
“Even by being media shy and mysterious, Godspeed were getting written about a lot and people were really connecting with them at live shows. This was pre-internet, post-Fugazi; Godspeed was one of the few bands in that ‘transition period’ with people keeping their ear to the ground and reading fanzines before the internet took over all of that word-of-mouth stuff. There was a period where it was like, ‘Wow, it’s still possible to mostly avoid publicists and advertising and just anchor yourself to a grassroots distribution network.’ While I don’t think we felt it at the time, within a few years we looked back and thought it was a really rare thing and a testament to Godspeed’s aesthetic power but hopefully also our own principles too.”
“It felt unique on a labour front,” Menuck says of both Godspeed’s and Constellation’s initial work ethic. “Like, ‘Holy shit, we can come up with an idea and actually make it happen.’ That got me jazzed at first; ‘Instead of talking about doing stuff, we’re actually doing stuff.’ And because we were doing it on our own, there was no self-consciousness in what we were doing. It was coming at it knowing that there was no way that a lot of people are ever going to like this. So, you don’t have to worry about anything. Just make sure it has some kind of structural integrity and its own logic but you don’t have to dumb it down.”
“Another interesting thing is that there were people coming to the scene from an avant-garde or jazz place, others from a singer-songwriter or punk rock place,” he continues. “There was a messy knot of a lot of different interests there and challenging each other, which led to something kind of great for a while. There’s many things I hate about the term ‘post-rock’ but the thing I hate the most is what we were doing in that fertile, three year period, I don’t know what you’d name it but it definitely wasn’t post-rock. It was something else entirely. And like any scene, most of that stuff went undocumented but it was still something spectacular.”
Even as Godspeed You! Black Emperor became this enormously popular, credible band that, for some, represented all that was great about Montreal’s music community, its members were initially too immersed in the music they were making together to really contemplate their resonance beyond their ever-growing audience.
“For myself, I remember the first practice with Godspeed, thinking, ‘Oh yeah, this makes sense to me, this is the kind of music I make,’” explains violinist Sophie Trudeau, also of Silver Mt. Zion. “There wasn’t even a learning curve. It was bringing people together and seeing what comes of it. We weren’t touring at that point or offered shows so there was no reason to do it other than to play together, which is where I see a problem in some bands, where you’re making music to sell your record or to tour. You hear and see it right away when the intentions are commercial, which we’ve never done.”
“I was totally surprised right from the very beginning,” Pezzente declares, referring to Godspeed’s sudden ‘it band’ status. “I knew and understood that we had these climactic songs and that people were energized by listening to these songs that climaxed. I can understand being full of excitement. But it wasn’t pop or popular music at all so yeah, I was really surprised.”
Ironically, it was the uncomfortable glare of the press spotlight that partially did Godspeed in, at least for now. In 2003, they went on indefinite hiatus. “There was a slow growth at first that made sense,” Menuck explains. “We resonated with other orphans; ‘We’re all lost, you like us because we like you.’ Then, as the band started getting written about, especially in Britain, that led to this other kind of growth that was kind of a confusing, difficult transition for us. We flew over for bigger shows and got covers of magazines we hated, knowingly entering interviews with a plan to challenge them. ‘Well, we don’t really want to do this so what’s the best way to handle this? We’re going to challenge these publications on what the hell they’re doing.’ We think the music industry is a stinking pile of shit so we’re going to talk about that. And we’re not going to be snotty kids; we’re going to talk about it earnestly, be very grown-up about it, and thoughtful.”
Though Menuck continues to oppose and struggle with his complicity in the cult of personality, as a public performer, the strain on the hard-touring Godspeed proved to be too much and they ceased functioning. It’s a particularly interesting circumstance for a group and community that was all but ignored by the local press in Montreal, even as they drew fans across the world.
“It was super validating because the weeklies were just so clueless,” Menuck says. “There was so much happening in the city, not just in our little scene. I remember there was a big Godspeed show at the Hotel and, that same weekend, there was this huge ska show. Don was doing the math and realized that there were 1500 people split between these two shows and none of it was being written about because the weeklies had their heads so far up their asses. So, it was validating to ‘conquer’ our little corner of the city without any of the standard support. Everything was word of mouth, handbills, and posters and we were kind of cocky about it. For formative years stuff, that’s still something I’m dedicated to; bypassing that stuff as much as possible and not using the press to hock records. That if I talk like we’re talking now, it’s because I have something to say.”
Of course one major offshoot of the increased media scrutiny meant more music fans were paying attention to Constellation, buying records, attending shows, and generating revenue for the label and its artists. After making sure they could pay their own bills, however, virtually everyone involved with Constellation has put part of their modest incomes back into ‘the company,’ as it were, sustaining a communal operation that has learned many hard lessons since its inception.
“There’s no question that the material conditions amongst a chunk of our community have improved since that time and that infrastructure has as well,” Wilkie asserts. “I think the primary reason is that, for the most part, all of the people who were involved in this broader venture from its earliest days and anybody who came into any significant money from those days, really did plough it back into local infrastructure, recording studios, venues, unrelated but related local shops and cafes. So, material conditions have improved but for very good reasons. People were down with that program of building infrastructure.”
One of the most impressive, physical manifestations of this commitment is the aforementioned building purchased by Constellation and closely associated businesses. The label’s office space and warehouse are on the top floor, while the basement houses Harris Newman’s Greymarket Mastering Studio and also the newest, and hopefully final address for the Hotel2Tango recording studio, which is owned and operated by Menuck, Godspeed and Mt. Zion member Thierry Amar, Radwan Moumneh, and one-time Arcade Fire drummer, Howard Bilerman.
As one of the few remaining all-analog recording facilities, the Hotel2Tango is a world-renowned studio where virtually every Constellation release, as well as records by Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade, and Basia Bulat among others were created and captured. When asked how H2T functions as a collective enterprise, Bilerman, is mock-perplexed.
“We’re still trying to figure that out,” he chuckles. “We incorporated when we bought the building, just because we had to for tax purposes. We put a ton of personal money into the studio and are slowly paying ourselves back. We’re going to build a second studio at some point and right now, we’re booked six or seven months in advance. That’s great but it is incredibly inconvenient if someone’s really excited about recording something in the next two weeks. So we know we need a second space.”
“Running any recording studio is by no means a smart business move. It’s pretty crazy. We’re incredibly fortunate that we have dedicated clientele, and also new people who want to come here. But even a studio like ours, booked way in advance, isn’t profitable yet.”
Bilerman states that his motivations for working this way have everything to do with the fact that he loves his job but it’s also proven to be a mission of sorts. Just as Pezzente helped break ground as a live venue operator, so to does the Hotel stand up against Montreal’s corporate-run recording studios by offering fair and courteous treatment to musicians.
“We all strive for a certain kind of honesty and all of us have chosen to work in ways that the larger industry doesn’t wish to sustain,” Bilerman explains. “Everyone would be out of a job if bands stopped making music and that would imply that the band is at the center cog of the wheel. The industry has proven that they exist to leach off the band and the artist. That’s something I try and keep in mind whenever I start working with someone; that they should treated like they’re the most important part of the equation. I think Constellation does that too.”
If there’s anyone who knows how major labels and the music industry treat musicians, it’s career artists like Vic Chesnutt and Carla Bozulich. Each have tried their hands with major labels and their subsidiaries but such marginal, non-commercial visionaries seldom get their due working within corporate behemoths.
So it was, that both connected with true blue fans in Ilavsky and Wilkie, who offered to not only respect their art, but to give them a real home at Constellation. In Chesnutt’s case, he trusted his friend and new producer Jem Cohen’s instincts that collaborating with Silver Mt. Zion, Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto, and the Quavers’ T. Griffin would inspire something great. The end result was Chesnutt’s latest album, North Star Deserter, and Cohen was exactly right.
“Well, it was Jem’s idea to make this record in Montreal.” Chesnutt says emotionally. “It’s a dream of mine; I love this city. I’d never met any of those people before except for Guy, Todd, and Jem. I felt welcomed into the family very immediately; it was a very warm and open group of people and I felt a kind of intellectual kinship with them almost immediately too. It was almost too good to be true. I love Constellation Records, I love a lot of their bands, and their packaging is the best out there. There’s no better packaging in the world than Constellation Records and I love their approach to music they put out. Very heavy, from folk-y to noisy; I really like that stuff a lot; very heavy, cinematic, and evocative. So it was a dream come true to be on Constellation Records.”
Bozulich is more direct and pointed about her feelings for the label. Critics hailed 2006’s Evangelista, her Constellation debut, as one of the albums of the year and a ‘return to form.’ Enjoying her work with Montreal musicians, Bozulich returned to the Hotel2Tango for this past spring’s Hello, Voyager—a mighty and emphatic follow-up. Still, when asked what keeps her coming back to Canada and working with Constellation, Bozulich is almost too overwhelmed to answer.
“I think a lot of it is because they like to be with me and work with me, and I do them,” she says finally. “I mean, I made Red Headed Stranger and, even though that had Willie Nelson on it, it took me years to find a label to put it out. I paid for the recording and it was done and I just wanted a label to pay me back for that and put it out. Even now that I have, the label hasn’t paid me one penny for all the years they’ve been selling the album. I just can’t tell you how incredible it is to be on a label like Constellation that’s conscientious, has a real connection to the music, really gives a shit, and loves me. That’s just the label! Then, when you get into the musicians, and Efrim at Hotel2Tango, and all that, it’s almost like ‘Pinch me, am I dreaming?’ It’s too great; I get choked up just thinking about it!”
“Both Vic and Carla, for different reasons, feel like they’ve become part of a larger community that is largely resident in Quebec,” Ilavsky offers. “That’s a bonus but it might not have been. I think it’s a testament to how we operate that these people feel like they’ve been able to expand their notion of musical company and have felt welcome not just by us as a label, but musicians and studio people here. Strictly from a ‘What does a label provide’ perspective, there is something that remains attractive not just to new musicians but from those who know what it’s like to have different relationships with labels over the years. That’s been validating for us too.”
As the Constellation community enters its twelfth year, it could rest knowing that it has affected great, positive change within Montreal and inspired many other people to follow their lead and think differently about their working conditions. Yet, there’s a profound sense that the label, its musicians, and like-minded associates are bound by no objective or timeline. Refreshingly, they seem keen to work towards improving the lives of artists around them so that wonderful, uncompromising music can have a rightful place in this world. The clichés about Constellation being pretentious and anti-media, or that their commitment to beautiful, hand-crafted vinyl records is a costly lost cause—it all seems so irrelevant when stacked up against the changes they’ve wrought just by behaving reasonably.
“At the height of its popularity, there was so much glowing bullshit written about the label, Godspeed, and a couple other bands,” Menuck says. “It was like, ‘No, it’s not all rosy here. We’re not crusaders.’ The same thing with negative stuff; we’re not tyrannical, anarchist ideologues, demanding that every band and label live up to some code of conduct. All that stuff is just noise. Then in the last few years, crucially, the bands and label are pretty much under-the-radar. The label and records don’t get written about all that much. And when I go on tour, people talk to me about Mt. Zion and the label, like it’s all one parcel. All I say is, ‘Well, anyone can do it; it’s not rocket science. You can earn an honest living producing records and making music.’ Not an extravagant one, but an honest living; you just have to be dedicated to a certain way of doing business, and, looking at the mess our world is in, it’s obvious our economies on the whole need to go through that re-alignment. That’s why it’s not special; a lot of people have come to this conclusion.”
From their own perspective, Ilavsky and Wilkie are at a point where they must occasionally ponder what drives them to work as Constellation any more at all. “A dozen years into this, for that question to not come up for Ian and I would be abnormal,” Wilkie admits. “Certainly as we approached that magical age of 10, we asked ourselves ‘Do we want to keep doing this?’ The answer, after digging deep, is that it has been a good run and we love our jobs. We continue to very much enjoy the collaboration that happens between us and the musicians we’re working with. It just feels like there’s still work to be done, like it’s an unfinished project. Even if there have been days in the last five years where we might think ‘Fuck this, I’m spent.” For me, those moments haven’t lasted anywhere near long enough for me to say, ‘I want out of this.’ I don’t know what finished will feel like but it doesn’t feel like this.” (Published in STN #51, Fall 2008)
By Vish Khanna
Feuermusik aren’t like everybody else. The Toronto-based avant-jazz duo conjures a wholly unique tension whenever they’re on stage, even as they engage in fascinating, congenial musical conversations, incorporating both the rudiments and sophisticated nuances of sound. Just as Jeremy Strachan continues to make his name as a rising star in the realm of woodwinds composition, respected drummer Gus Weinkauf has transcended the novelty of his bucket-kit set-up by producing stirring rhythms and textures from plastic and steel, while tastefully incorporating more conventional elements of percussion. It’s to the point where the ‘buckets-and-sax’ tag previously affixed to Feuermusik won’t really stick, as they follow their sharp instincts and take their music to a whole new plane.
After the palpable, near giddy exuberance of their critically acclaimed 2006 debut Goodbye, Lucille, Feuermusik return with a gorgeously artful sophomore effort in No Contest. Surprising and spirited, the first record bounced forward, with Weinkauf’s frenetic throttling balanced by Strachan’s expressive lines. In some ways the initial Feuermusik dynamic was the animated extension of Rockets Red Glare, the math-y, post-punk trio the pair were the rhythm section for between 1999 and 2003. Rather than Rockets’ tightly wound coils, however, Strachan and Weinkauf composed arrangements with space to improvise and, with more expansive and exploratory pieces, No Contest confidently pushes the inherent limitations of Feuermusik’s configuration in bold directions.
“In a sense, Goodbye, Lucille was more experimental because we didn’t really know what we were doing or what these instruments would sound like in the studio and what sort of songs we wanted to write,” Weinkauf says. “With No Contest, we were more comfortable writing these songs.”
“When we recorded Goodbye, Lucille, it was a strange process,” Strachan agrees. “We thought we’d be recording an album of duet material and then it became this interesting but laborious process of layering the songs. When we started No Contest, we had that knowledge with us and we came in with some fully fleshed out ideas but there were also things that came together in the same way. On the tune ‘Belles’ for instance, I just completely improvised and then Gus had the task of learning it.”
Building upon past experiences yet taking new risks, Strachan and Weinkauf have shifted away from their original vision of what Feuermusik would be. Renewed and reflective, they’ve accepted that their innovative objectives for this music have actually been met. “The ambition was simply to try something different,” Weinkauf says. “In a sense, it was a challenge musically. I was bored with playing in rock, pop, and hardcore punk-oriented bands with drums, bass, and guitar, which Jer and I took to a far extent in Rockets Red Glare. After that band, we felt like we couldn’t do much more so we both wanted to try something different.”
Interestingly, Weinkauf revisited one of his most formative musical experiences before moving forward. “My inspiration to play buckets is a jazz drummer in Toronto named Graeme Kirkland, who used to play on Queen Street with the same bucket set-up that I have—two plastic ones and one metal one. I actually met him once when I was 16 and there was this funny exchange where he actually let me play his buckets. Graeme’s personality is very confrontational and direct and he’d talk to you, make eye contact, and engage you. So we were all these skateboarders with baggy pants and I was singled out to play, and was terrible at it. Graeme didn’t have words of inspiration about my playing; he had some negative things to say and, furthermore, suggested that I should get a new pair of pants. Perhaps mine were too baggy and getting in the way of the buckets.”
Despite the relative trauma, Weinkauf was inspired, always keeping the idea of playing buckets in the back of his mind before calling Strachan in 2004 to pursue Feuermusik, which, essentially seemed like a theatrical busking group. With all manner of added percussion, wind instruments, and guitars bolstering their songs on the brilliant No Contest, Feuermusik sound less playful, determinedly infusing their uplifting tunes with weighty personality.
“I’ve been playing in bands for a really long time and this always seems to happen with the second record,” Strachan laughs. “You know, it’s like the honeymoon is over and now you’re in a relationship. That excitement and energy isn’t gone but it manifests itself in a totally different way. You’re comfortable in your surroundings and have more room to play around. When I think of all the bands I’ve been involved in, it’s just like the second generation of songs that a group of musicians produces tend to be a little more introspective but, as players, their clothes fit a little better and they can move around more easily.” (Published in STN #50, Summer 2008)