by Sheldon Birnie
A dark, all encompassing emptiness is creeping towards the world. Society’s minders have grown complacent in the decades since the world’s last great challenge. Now, before their greatest challenge, the police, the firefighters, the army and the national guard can do nothing to stop the encroaching darkness. Where are the superheroes who saved the day so many times before? They’ve gone to fat in the pasture, crippled by their own anxieties, addictions, and lack of faith.
This is the world that Winnipeg’s Cantor Dust create in their latest epic, I Can’t Find My Cape. Soaring synths, choral ensembles, and a full accompaniment on percussion, brass, and strings bring this cinematic pop production to life over the course of nearly an hour. It’s a strange trip, let me tell you, buddy. But it’s one you won’t soon regret taking, and may even find yourself returning to again and again.
One cold and sunny January afternoon, Mark Klassen sat down with Stylus over a couple frosty pints to talk about the new record, and the impending return of Cantor Dust to the local stage.
Stylus: What is Cantor Dust all about? Can you give us some background on how the project started out, and what it has come to be over the years?
Mark Klassen: It started off very solo. I got a hold of some multitracking software and a synth, and started making music. I kind of couldn’t really stop it from happening. The songs started coming along, and I’d basic loop percussions. Initially, the lyrical content–and this would have been back in 1999 or 2000, so I would have been listening to a lot of Skinny Puppy and other industrial music, very heavily charged–so the songs kind of reflected that.
But as time went on, I don’t know what changed, but I started using music more as an imaginative vehicle. I found it harder and harder to write songs about deeply personal things. Not even using songs as metaphor, but using the imagination to tell a tale. I found that to be really rewarding. I could place myself in the role of somebody creating an environment, creating characters in some sort of wacky situation, and telling a story about it for the span of a 40-60 minute long album.
My background is as a pianist, so very soon after starting, I got myself a digital piano, so I could actually play the instrument I was most comfortable with. So, over the span of multiple years I started playing shows out. When I started, I would have never been able to conceptualize playing shows out. I thought it was too studio based. But I realized I could adapt the songs and make it work. So I started adjusting the rig, scaled the songs down to something I could do with two hands and using MIDI foot pedals, a loop pedal to add beat-boxing and vocal harmonies. So that was my thing for a while. But working with Jeff [Konwalchuk] was inevitable. We’d worked together in the early 90s. He’s a fantastic guy to work with and we wanted to work together again.
So that was about four years ago, with the last album Safaris I’ve Been On. I got Jeff and Natanielle Felicitas and Kelly Wruth, we did a very scaled down four-piece. The album had a lot of strings and horns and backing vocals. We scaled it back down, so that Jeff was just doing hand percussion, I was on a piano, Nat’s playing cello, Kelly on trumpet. So that’s been about three years that I’ve been working on these songs, the album is done, and I’ve got a little microworld that I’m happy with.
Stylus: The songs on I Can’t Find My Cape really do create their own world. What’s going on there?
MK: Well, it’s a world like any other: destined for destruction! [laughs] Basically, the world is about to end and we have these saviours that have taken us out of our peril in the past, these superheroes. But whatever their bodies might be like, they have these powers that have rescued us. I guess it had been some time since the last catastrophe where the heroes had saved us. Now, we have policemen and firemen to put out the fires. We don’t need guys in capes to put out fires, we’re doing OK as a society. But then, the real poo hits the fan, and these sort of creeping decay, these galaxy monsters, this inexplicable doom start coming towards the town. The town starts looking to its heroes, like, “if they don’t show up, we don’t know what we’re going to do.” Pan to that guy, he’s been drunk off his ass for decades, he can’t even get to the emergency Batphone kind of thing. He’s let himself go. And this goes through a couple different super heroes, one who during one rescue attempt society discovered his identity and he’s become paranoid with social interaction, he’s too anxious. One who, post apocalypse, won’t be able to get his performance enhancing drugs anymore. Another who simply cannot find his cape. It showcases those guys for a bit, then talks more about the innermost feelings people would feel as the end is nigh, then explores the fear of death, fear of not having a spiritual salvation in the afterlife. Like, have I missed the spiritual boat here, by not believing my whole life? It’s a heartwarming tale, following a number of different avenues. And it’s a look at superheroes, and why they’re ultimately not able to do anything to save the world.
Stylus: What is your process like for writing these albums?
MK: It changes so much from song to song. Sometimes, a lot of these songs started off instrumentally, but as I’d listen to the songs, they started to transport me to this world. I’d be walking down the street, listening to the mixes, and these lyrics would just come into my mind. I think the first one was “Black Circles,” the song is bizarre. It just formed as a seed, then it started growing at an exponential rate, and by the time I was home from my walk, the entire lyrical content was done. Sometimes, I sit down and write the songs, others are literally written in the shower or the garden. Like, oh man, I got a good riff I gotta go lay this down.
Sometimes it’s the lyrics first, but usually it’s the music and the lyrics kind of flow in. The names of the superheroes were kind of unavoidable. I mean, “Soup Loving Man”? How do you get away from that? It just kind of comes to your head. It’s a very organic process, very unpredictable. Sometimes it’s all encompassing, where it’s all I can think about. Other times, days or weeks go by and nothing happens.
Stylus: You have a few more people, rather than just yourself, performing on this record.
MK: Yeah. This is the second time I’ve done an album with any other musicians. I tell ya, it was monumental for me. I’d laid down a lot of the drum tracks, using MIDI and digital programs and stuff. To be able to say that I know one of the most competent drummers I’ve ever met, and that I could send him the songs and let him do whatever he wanted with them… The things Jeff did… I mean, giving your songs to someone on such an important level as percussion is a very humbling experience. It had to exist outside of my own brain. Next thing you know, his creativity has come into the mix, and the songs are so much more powerful than before, because he’s come at them from his own view.
I was also listening to a lot of music that has really big choral parts. Spiritualized is one of the bands I really love for that. They have these massive choral backgrounds. So, for some of these songs, I didn’t want them to be just 15 Marks singing different harmonies. I wanted different vocal styles. So invited a bunch of friends over to have a bunch of beers and get into the sound booth. I’m really happy with the way it has worked out.
A lot of this is sampled instruments, because I don’t have a string section at my disposal. But I know a very talented cellist, so interjecting that human element, the human emotion into a couple songs is enough to breathe a lot of life into those songs. Working with other people is fantastic. I’d recommend it to any solo musician.
Stylus: So, do you have a home studio that you work out of?
MK: I have a sound booth on one floor, and I have all my computers and keyboards in my den. It’s something I’ve always been interested in, and for someone who doesn’t make a lot of money, paying someone to do this… Ultimately, I’m probably a lot slower than an engineer, because I have no objectivity, but I feel it’s worth it in the end.
Stylus: What has the live aspect of Cantor Dust been, to date? You don’t perform a whole lot.
MK: That’s the thing. I guess we put a lot of thought into our set up. Our rig is getting pretty complicated, set up can take a good 20 minutes just to get everything set up and uncoiled. We have a hard time looking at playing shows, because everything exists so conceptually. So it’s kind of like we want to play the album, but once it’s done, we want to move on, try some new stuff so that 10 years down the road we’re not still playing Safaris We’ve Been On, as much as we loved it. So we don’t play a lot, which makes it hard because three years go by and you kinda fall off the radar. So when you have a new thing, and you’re looking to explore it, it’s always a bit of a challenge to get back into it.
Stylus: When can we expect to see Cantor Dust out around Winnipeg again?
MK: At our last practice, we unanimously felt like we were ready to play another show. We’re hoping by February to start booking shows. We want to get in touch with some of the bands we played with before, and we’re looking to put together a cool show– I guess it wouldn’t be a CD release, because the album is already out, but a celebration kind of thing in the spring. We’re going to have a bit of a choir in the back, along with some videos that are being made right not to accompany some of the pieces in the background. It’s fun. Being able to give the song to this guy, Tyler Funk, I basically just gave him the song and asked if he was interested. Being able to step back and give him the creativity to realize the song in his own way, that’s what you see out of it. It’s awesome to watch somebody else take your stuff and make it their own.
Stylus: Anything else to add?
MK: Well, when we last did our shows for Safaris I’ve Been On, we encouraged the crowd to get into the spirit of the thing, to dress up in animal costumes or whatever. So, we’re thinking, for these upcoming shows, or at least the “release,” to encourage the same, only a superhero theme. Bust out your best superhero costumes, your best Spandex and capes, and try to have a fully immersive environment. It makes it a lot of fun.
Listen to Cantor Dust’s new album, I Can’t Find My Cape, at cantordust.bandcamp.com, and get working on your superhero costume today in anticipation of the record release party later this spring.