Canada’s most underrated overweight entertainer, B.A. Johnston, performs songs about B-movies, pirates and Nintendo on a rickety old guitar and Casio keyboard. Although the live-antics legend has released multiple albums, shared the stage with many top performers including the Rheostatics, the Constantines, Cuff the Duke and the Silver Hearts, Hamilton’s favorite son has yet to reach his ultimate goal of moving out of his mother’s basement. Following a hilarious recent set in Winnipeg, Johnston shot the snot with Stylus. Continue reading “B.A. Johnston”
“In general, we’re all just feeling a bit more brighter,” says Christopher Bear, drummer and vocalist for Grizzly Bear, describing reasons for the sound of Veckatimest, the band’s latest release. It’s a record that sees the Brooklyn-based folk rockers take their melancholic, quasi-traditional Americana style and brighten it up. And why not feel brighter? In 2006 the group released Yellow House, their second full-length and first as a four-piece, to critical acclaim. This set off a whirlwind of unanticipated events: tours with the likes of TV on the Radio, Feist and, more recently, Radiohead as well as the release of another solid disc, the Friend EP, for which the band reworked a number of its older songs with grander instrumentation and production. Things are most certainly coming together for the band, and with Veckatimest it’s clear that the band’s enthusiasm and excitement is making for some blissful pop music.
Veckatimest features sonic textures and lyrical themes the band has yet to fully explore, but it doesn’t sound out of place among the band’s previous works. Grizzly Bear began as a solo project of guitarist/vocalist Edward Droste, who put together a moody and heartbreaking song cycle in 2004’s Horn of Plenty. It was a record that, backed for the most part by guitar and the occasional splash of drums and keyboards, portrayed the hidden beauty of broken and despondent relationships. Soon after its release he added Christopher Bear, multi-instrumentalist Chris Taylor and guitarist/vocalist Daniel Rossen to the mix, paving the way for the sounds found on Yellow House and the Friend EP, sounds which were much larger and more polished.
With these additions, the band faced new challenges and possibilities in regards to songwriting. “Starting Yellow House, a lot of the songs were fully written before we recorded,” Bear explains. “It was less focused on how we write together and more focused on how we record and arrange songs together. Friend came about because we were touring for a long time, and there were things we started to do live that were different than on the record and we wanted to capture that, just because after playing so many shows the band was really starting to change.” The band was in transition, shifting from its original DIY, bedroom-recording aesthetic to a fuller and more complex sound.
With Veckatimest this transition appears to be reaching its fullest potential yet. “I think we are more familiar with how we play live,” says Bear. “A lot of this stuff came about in a live setting. Songwriting wise, the songs were in everybody’s hands at a much earlier stage.” The band members were collaborating in new ways. “There really are a lot of different permutations of people writing on different songs, which gives Veckatimest sort of a different story. It certainly feels much more organic, a sort of growing together.”
This new approach to songwriting—giving each band member more say in the whole process—has resulted in a sound more stripped down than Yellow House’s yet still very complex. Whereas previously the band would add layer upon layer of instrumentation and vocals onto their tracks, the songs on the new record are sparser, allowing more space for the band’s primary instruments—guitar, piano, drums and voice—to work with. “With Yellow House, we continued to stack more onto each song. At times it felt like we were throwing the kitchen sink onto every song, which was really exciting for us at the time,” Bear recalls. “We were figuring out how we work together and what certain textures we were fit to explore. I think with Veckatimest we were using a lot of the same things we learned, but focusing it more, not afraid to do a song with just piano and voice, or just a single vocal track.”
For example, “Fine For Now” features instrumentation that is much simpler than what we have grown to expect from Grizzly Bear. It consists of nothing more than drums, guitar and vocals with some occasional splashes of keyboards. However, the way the band works together, playing on each other’s strengths, the song remains equally, if not more intense than much of the band’s previous material. Grizzly Bear has made good writing music that sounds simpler than it actually is, freeing the music from clutter.
This more open sound is evident in the record’s poppy moments, such as Rossen’s song “While You Wait for the Others,” the bouncy “Cheerleader” and the album’s centerpiece, “Two Weeks,” a stunning track that features Droste at his best, backed by captivating “whoa-oh-oh” harmonies. And it’s these pop hits that will first draw you in.
But it’s the album’s darker moments that really exhibit how creative the band is. On first listen you might say Veckatimest reveals the band becoming less melancholic. “There are some brighter tones to the record; there still is also some more moody material that feels more spacious,” says Bear. Songs such as the lead-off track, “Southern Point,” and “All We Ask”, both which feature string arrangements by Nico Muhly, hold the record together, demonstrating command of lyrical themes and sonic textures.
Perhaps it’s growing together as a band that’s informed much of the record’s lyrical content, as the songs, for the most part, deal with the struggles and joys inherent in the developing of relationships. On “All We Ask” the band chants, “I can’t get out of what I’m into with you.” On “Ready, Able” Ed Droste repeats, “Before we go, I want you to know, what I did.” Relationships are instrumentally or lyrically at the fore.
Veckatimest has been one of the most talked about and hyped-up records of the year and it’s well-deserved. Rarely does an album display a band collaborating so effectively—taking on specific themes and ideas without being afraid to leave things ambiguous in the end. It’s a fascinating listen.
Elliott Walsh has carried a notebook every day since 2004, but today he isn’t. The Winnipeg wordsmith’s new album as Nestor Wynrush, Trinnipeg !78, is done, released and so he’s taking a break from saving notes for lyrics. “The writing feels agonizing,” Walsh says. “What feels agonizing is getting out that feeling exactly. It’s not just in your brain. It’s weighing on your heart.” Continue reading “Nestor Wynrush”
Unless you’re living under floorboards or have your privacy setting ramped up on Facebook so you’re not bombarded with event invites, you probably know about Haunter. And if you don’t you should. I think they’re the best band in Winnipeg since Duotang, so let me tell you!
Haunter is Matt Williams and Jory Hasselmann on guitars, Marie-France Hollier on bass and Ryan Coates on drums. They play with the sound and fury of those old (and I use the term loosely) bands like Pavement, Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth: mulchy, naive experimentation comes together with a hooky pop sense to make something refreshing and highly addictive. Taking these risks has its rewards. The band is packing venues around Winnipeg, has played alongside Women, Land of Talk and Handsome Furs and has a new, fast-selling 7” out and a Western-Canadian tour with Mount Royal that’ll end with a showcase at NXNE.
Haunter blessed me with a meeting over beer and tequila at Carlos & Murphy’s just days before Hasselmann’s Italian sabbatical. Continue reading “Haunter”
On the strength of their self-titled debut EP, Winnipeg roots quartet Oh My Darling are going places, fast. So fast that I couldn’t nail them down in person and had to conduct our interview on Facebook while the band was touring western Canada. Fiddle player Rosalyn Dennett—who is joined in the band by Allison de Groot on claw-hammer banjo, Marie-Josée Dandeneau on upright and electric bass and Vanessa Kuzina on vocals, guitar and mandolin—filled me in on the past, present and future of the group. Continue reading “Oh My Darling”
Their name will be forever linked to that song—you know, that whistling one—but Stylus readers should know Writer’s Block had more substance than one hit single. With jaw-dropping and catchy singles like “Objects of my Affection,” “Start to Melt” and “Amsterdam,” Peter Bjorn and John’s breakthrough album remains one of the better pop records of the decade. However, even many fans of the Swedish trio didn’t realize that it was their third release, not their first. And now they’re back with their fifth release, Living Thing, a return to pop after the quietly released and mostly instrumental Seaside Rock. PBJ’s drummer John Eriksson talked to us on the phone from his apartment about their path up until now, and what’ll likely happen in the near future.
Stylus: “Young Folks” was a song that popped up everywhere in 2006 and 2007. It was in commercials, on the internet and even on Top 40 radio. How do you feel about it when you hear it now?
John Eriksson: We heard it at an afterparty the other night, and we… we were so surprised at how good it sounded. [Laughs.] You know, when you hear a good song through a sound system of that quality… We just hadn’t heard it in a while. We felt so proud of it.
Stylus: Before you play it live, do you feel that your fans are expecting something?
JE: Well, I’m not really sure what our fans want. Fans go to see for different reasons, and that depends on the band. Some people watch certain bands to be surprised, and some fans go to see the same old show.
Stylus: What kind of band would you rather be: one that surprises or plays the same set over and over?
JE: I hope we surprise people… I mean surprises are good in everyday life. They’re what make everyday life fun. And besides, we can’t be AC/DC. [Laughs.]
Stylus: How have you guys dealt with your fame since the release of Writer’s Block?
JE: When everything happened, there was also a lot of surprises every day, and we didn’t even think about it. We’re not for the fame, or to meet celebrities. The only difference is that we’re doing this full time now.
Stylus: Living Thing has a noticeably stripped-down sound to it. How did that come about?
JE: We wanted to make music with lots of space in it—something that sounded like a ghost house, like it was spooky. So we didn’t try to take away from our sound, we just thought it was more important to make the drums and beats sound really good. Thing is, we tried to have a stripped-down sound with Writer’s Block but we just didn’t do it.
Stylus: Were you influenced by any particular artist for this album?
JE: This time we were listening to ’80s pop, but last time we were listening to a lot of ’90s indie rock.
Stylus: So what are Peter Bjorn and John’s plans heading forward?
JE: Well, first, we’ve got one year of touring. And then after we’ll get together and talk about making something different. We’ll probably just get together and record something when we’re drunk. [Laughs.]
While it isn’t a jazz band in any sense of the word, the Sea and Cake, like many other contemporary Chicago groups, is highly influenced by the genre. Sam Prekop formed the band in 1994 with bassist Eric Claridge, guitarist Archer Prewitt and drummer John McEntire. Fifteen years, eight records as a band and two solo records of his own later, Prekop’s bringing the band to this year’s Jazz Winnipeg Festival. Both his solo projects and a significant part of the Sea and Cake’s material show numerous jazz-like elements: Brazilian rhythms, jazz voicings and simple song structures reminiscent of 1950s model jazz. Sam Prekop may exist outside of the jazz vocabulary, but he’s most interested in its aesthetic. Stylus spoke to the front man of the not-jazz band to talk about his love of jazz and how it has impacted his work with the Sea and Cake.
Stylus: The Sea and Cake will be playing at the Jazz Winnipeg Festival. Is this the first time you will be playing in such a setting?
Sam Prekop: I think it is, yes. We’ve played other festivals with a broad territorial concept behind it, but never a specifically jazz festival. We’ve played with Fred Anderson (a tenor saxophonist, who founded the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago) but it’s not something that we’ve ever really pursued per se. Jazz has been an important part of my listening career and has had an influence on my career, but technically we’re not really playing jazz.
Stylus: One term sometimes used to describe the Sea and Cake is “post-jazz.” Whether or not this is accurate, it is fairly clear from songs like “Lamont’s Lament” or the more recent “Down in the City” that jazz has been a driving force in your own songwriting. Where does this interest of yours stem from?
SP: I think a lot of the aesthetic of jazz has sort of leeched into what I would like to try to hear in our music. It’s just sort of whatever I’m into at the moment, what I’m really loving at that point, impacts what we play.
Stylus: Are there any particular albums that you’re thinking of?
SP: I’ve always cited Sun Ra as a huge influence on me, [the] melancholy melodics that [are] unique to his writing. That’s always been influencing what I write, you know, trying to sound simpler than it actually is, an unadulterated beauty. Model jazz, even stuff like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, that type of structure has been influential. It’s pretty linear and subtle. That would be construed as a definite jazz element of the Sea and Cake, the droney model type of song structures we work with. The one thing [that] usually defines jazz is improvisation, which is something we don’t do a whole lot of. We’re still a tacked-down rock band.
Stylus: For sure. I mean, with you guys it’s always been more about the composition than it has been about improv, something that is different than most jazz, but still not unlike the likes of Sun Ra or Miles Davis. What about the use of electronics, something you have explored a great deal as a band? Do you see a relationship between the Latin rhythms you employ and electronics?
SP: We use electronics sort of in the same way as we use the guitar. But it has always been part of our language and is an important element of our sound. The Brazilian element, I feel like that has sort of ebbed a bit lately. It’s hard to incorporate those types of things without sounding like a bit of a stylist. Treacherous territory.
Stylus: Definitely, and that is certainly noticeable with your most recent record, Car Alarm, which is more of a straight-up rock record. Earlier you mentioned that it’s often what you are listening to at the time that most influences your sound. Is there a specific sound or style that you want to explore further with the Sea and Cake?
SP: Well right now I’m working on a solo electronic album that is very rooted in early musique-concrète stuff, and I have a feeling a lot of those ideas will eventually leech into the Sea and Cake stuff. But the stuff I’m working on right now is pretty unrelated to the Sea and Cake.
Stylus: Has that happened to you in the past with your other solo efforts?
SP: Not as intensely as this time. I mean this stuff is really different, and a lot of people could be shocked if they new it was me making it. It would be hard to make the connection. At least that is how it is in my mind, and I could be completely off the mark. People could find that it sounds like everything else I’ve ever done. I think the sensibilities between the two are not unsimilar—beautiful without being pretty, I hope.