The following is a letter / first-person-bio I wrote to explain the state of things during the band’s touring hiatus from late 2012 through early 2015. Now that we’ve announced the imminent release of Club Meds, I felt it was time to retire it. That said, I didn’t want to just delete it, so I’m posting it here for anybody lurking around the site who might find it interesting. Ciao.
Musician bios are often rife with language of grandeur. The truth is that most bands start out the same way. Most bands get their first gigs in a similar fashion. And most bands that weave themselves into the larger social fabric of their era do so by more pedestrian means than we, the audience, would like to believe.
All of my favourite bands played the long game. Stayed in process. Didn’t get greedy or lazy. I admire musicians with a longstanding body of work that, at each phase, tested and warped the boundaries of their contextual environment. Bands fall ass-backwards into acclaim and attention, but nobody stays relevant for a long period of time by mistake.
The story that has accompanied me to a rewarding and somewhat-sustainable career in music is that I was a DIY guy. A hard workin’ nice guy who paid his dues. People like to root for the underdog, and I’m not slagging it, either. Though it does drive my crazy sometimes. It takes over the conversation. Most times, I’d rather talk about the intention behind the music than discuss the story around the music.
To some extent, the story is true. Mostly, I think I was lucky a lot of times in a row and I was too stubborn to quit.
I took to the road in my early twenties because I was terrified of the banality of a “real job”. I had a hunch that there was this exciting world of touring bands and desperately wanted to be a part of the action. There were fantastic images in my head of dingy bars and arguments with promoters. It sounded awesome.
I had grown up listening to my parents’ LPs and was first given a guitar as a young kid. I started a band in highschool. We were terrible, but the experience was suitably thrilling anyhow. During one of our shows in the basement of a community centre, a friend crowd-surfed atop an audience of less than twenty people. That story seems embarrassingly cute at this point, but the feeling on the stage when it happened was like a drug that I wanted to do over and over again.
Just after narrowly finishing an undergrad degree, I recorded a short EP of acoustic songs. It wasn’t very good. I got a lot of constructive feedback from the world and I listened very carefully. When the time was right, I managed to con a line of credit from my local credit union, pulled together some musicians and made a full-length album called Postcards and Daydreaming. It was a little bit better. Again, I got a lot of constructive feedback from the world and I listened very carefully.
It still felt like I was trying to emulate the images of grandeur in my head, though. It took a long time before I felt like anything I was singing about was mine. The greatest gift I had at that time was an understanding of how little I knew. The good (and bad) news is that, at least for me, this feeling never goes away.
I began to tour. Anywhere that would have me. At the time, I was enamored with the idea of the travelling troubadour. I toured around Europe by train, playing small cafes and bars. I wanted to be thought of in that light. I toured alone in a borrowed station wagon throughout the United States and Canada. I even made it to Australia.
I got cocky, then deflated, then over-confident, then destroyed. It was a grueling process. I basically rambled around like a disheveled hobo but it helped me feel really alive. It was, at times, pretty dire, but also very eye opening. I had a beautiful excuse to just travel around all over the place, bumbling gig to gig like a smoker goes pack to pack.
Nobody grills you about the real world when you’re a student. Maybe that’s why we have career students. It’s kind of the same thing when you ask your manager at the restaurant for three weeks off every month because you have to tour the UK, or Manitoba, or Vancouver Island, or wherever. Though the reality of the circumstances is a slog, the story carries just enough mystique that people are generally supportive.
I read a lot of books. I dove ambivalently deeper into debt. But even when I was completely broke and exhausted, there was always just one more reason to have another stab, and one more exciting thing to look forward to.
I wrote a lot of songs. I even began to get a small following in a few select pockets around the world. I was invited to play large music festivals. As I mentioned before, even though there were tough times, I also got lucky a lot. People seemed to want to give me the benefit of the doubt. At times, I felt if I were idle for more than a few minutes, the horseshoes might fall out of my ass. Momentum is a strange thing.
As I started to prepare to make a second album, I looked for musicians from Vancouver’s more experimental music scenes to help me flesh out my newest songs. I was tired and lonely from all the solo touring and wanted to be a part of an ensemble. Finding the right players was, in hindsight, an incredibly important part of this story.
I wanted to find people who would push me musically. I wanted to be the least proficient musician in the room. I met Kenton Loewen, who I had previously seen play drums in a band now known as Mother Mother. Through mutual friends, I also found John Walsh and Aaron Joyce. The four of us traveled to Toronto to record an album called Nice, Nice, Very Nice with a producer named John Critchley. The title was in reference to Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, a book that is still very dear to my heart. This was in late 2008.
The album was still sonically rooted in the acoustic folk genre that I’d first embraced, but it had flashes of something more distinctive also. In my opinion, Nice, Nice, Very Nice could be best described as charming. I don’t mean to sound so dismissive. The album changed my life. It was a stepping stone for me in many ways.
The best thing for me about that album was that I was beginning to find my own unique way of writing songs. I wasn’t trying to emulate vague icons of present-day nostalgia like I had been before. I was inside my own voice. I wore influences of all kinds, but I didn’t hear any other bands or musicians who wrote songs from quite the same vantage point. And I began to get noticed.
2009 was a year of great changes for me. Nice, Nice, Very Nice was released in Canada by a small independent record label called FU:M, based in Vancouver. It was embraced by pockets of Canadian radio, particularly the CBC and college stations. By some process of miracle, I won “Artist of the Year” at the Verge Music Awards – an accolade from a satellite radio station that came with a $25,000 prize. I paid off some debt and bought a van. My face landed on the cover of weekly arts papers in a handful of Canadian cities. My mother was proud. Shit was getting real.
Nice, Nice, Very Nice was long-listed, then short-listed for the Polaris Music Prize. The song “Robots” won the CBC3 Bucky Award for “Song of the Year”. It was a cute song with a very memorable and repetitive ending that became a bit of a spectacle at our live shows. I often get asked if I’m sick of that song now. I’ve been singing it for many years and we pretty much have to play it most times we perform. Though I think we now have much better songs to offer, I cannot dismiss the connection some people feel to “Robots”. I just never want it to feel like a recital of days-gone-by. I want every song to feel current and alive and laterally relevant to the moment it exists in. Hopefully, we still play it in that way.
There were shuffles in the band. A few good friends and players went on to other things. Kenton Loewen brought in guitarist Gord Grdina. The two of them had a long history together in the avant-garde experimental jazz scene throughout North America and Europe and gave the ensemble a newfound credibility within that realm. Doors opened to collaborate with other out-of-the-box players like Jesse Zubot, JP Carter, Peggy Lee and Tyson Naylor. I had fallen into the hands of musicians that tugged and challenged me in new directions and I loved it. I have learned so much from my band, I can’t even explain it.
There were more tours and more festivals. Considering the lift my universe had received from Nice, Nice, Very Nice (including a newfound signing to my favourite Canadian label, Toronto-based Arts & Crafts), I felt some pressure to really deliver with the next album.
The band and I worked with Colin Stewart on what would become my favourite offering to date. We called it Oh Fortune. I asked a mutual friend of the band, Eyvind Kang, to write orchestral arrangements for a handful of new songs, many of which had been test-driven on the road.
The lyrics were less cute. The arrangements were sweeping and, at times, grandiose. The band sounded more like an intricate rock band than an indie-folk band. These new experimental influences had taken a rooting in the songs. Nice, Nice, Very Nice had fit quite nicely within the world of Canadian independent music at the time of its release, but Oh Fortune didn’t lend itself to being as easily sonically pigeon-holed. That was exciting to me. The only through line between all the albums seemed to lie in my vocals, which had been whittled and weathered over the years into a gravelly off-timed timbre and cadence.
There was some anxiety that the new direction would disinterest what following we had amassed. Fortunately, the stars aligned once again and when Oh Fortune was released in late 2011, it quickly received more attention than its predecessor. In 2012, it even won JUNO awards for “Alternative Album of the Year” and I awkwardly accepted a “New Artist of the Year” award on behalf of what, in my eyes, had truly become an ensemble. The album was long-listed for the Polaris Music Prize. Critics seemed to like the album, but what was even more rewarding was that I liked the album. I no longer yearned for constant external reassurance that I wasn’t making complete crap.
Support slots at festivals turned into headlining slots and clubs turned into concert halls. Through relentless touring and a strong ethos of letting go, we had become a band that people in the business could generally count on to ‘bring it’. Again, I cannot give enough credit to the band. Through every insane experience of ambitious travel itineraries, physical/mental exhaustion or rough hangovers, I always walk on stage feeling cradled by dedicated and capable hands.
After a half-decade of touring six to nine months of each year, we decided to take 2013 away from the road. My wife was due to have a baby, the rest of the band had been back-burner-ing their other musical projects for far too long and, to be honest, we all just needed a break.
I was offered a new kind of gig that I could work on from home in Vancouver while on tour-hiatus. I was asked to score a feature film called Hector and the Search for Happiness starring Simon Pegg, for which I asked Jesse Zubot to help with the orchestral arrangements. The film is scheduled for release in 2014, as will be our next album. In December, we’ll get to work on our fourth studio attempt. Once again, it seems a sonic left turn is well underway. These newer demos don’t sound much like anything I’ve done before.
This year has been so important to me in countless ways. I feel re-energized and ready to take the next step. I became a father, which is a role I do not take lightly. Throughout this journey, another factor that I haven’t mentioned is the person I was coming home to. Kirsten was my girlfriend through seven years of ups and downs, and has now been my wife for just over one year. I don’t know if any of this would have been possible without her constant support and guidance.
In any story of perseverance, I think there is a tendency to give too much credit to the protagonist for persevering. Too often, we overlook all the help we’ve received and how many head-starts we were given. I have had and continue to have more than my share. You should know that your attention is very much a part of my good fortune. Thank you.