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Once the yoga session was over at The Plant, things got a little loud. We shot the guys in Kurvi Tasch in the north Mile End space ahead of their POP Montreal show.
“Collaboration is the main thing. There was a lick that we worked off of and then a chorus came after that,” said singer and guitarist Alex Nicol of their song “Dead End.”
It’s the band’s usual way of doing things, layering their parts together to form a new song.
They’ve been playing together since the fall of 2011, born in a basement in Villeray that was a short-lived rehearsal space once it became clear they were too loud.
It’s when Nicol, along with bassist Mike Heinermann and drummer Oliver Finlay all lived together in that space that the band was really formed.
“It was really more out of convenience that we started playing together,” jokes Finlay.
Kurvi Tasch is no soft-spoken folk band. Furious drums, heavily effected guitar and lead bass lines drive their almost-new wave sound. In their performance at The Plant, Nicol’s voice gave a slight Morrissey impression, floating on top of the chords in drawn out tones.
In the next few months they’re playing shows on the East Coast of Canada and New York, and they’ve already been out to Alberta earlier this year for the Sled Island Music and Arts Festival.
“Everything’s sporadic, everything’s a demo. What we need is to put out a record,” said Nicol. “We just have to learn how to record ourselves, and that’s huge for our band in the next six months.”
There’s nothing like a 50-show tour to put a new band through its paces.
Viet Cong has rattled and clanged through half of the tour supporting Victoria shoegazers Freak Heat Waves, taking them through the United States and across Canada and back. It’s a daunting proposition for a band less than a year old, but Viet Cong isn’t exactly made up of a bunch of fresh-faced kids.
The band has the rhythm section of Women, the now-defunct post-punk prodigies that were a staple of Calgary’s music scene.
“The idea is to jump into it. It’s hard to feel like you’re doing anything when you’re stuck in Calgary playing the same venue over and over again. We needed to get out of there,” said Viet Cong singer and bassist Matt Flegel.
Flegel and drummer Mike Wallace are joined by guitarists Scott Munroe, who Flegel had played with in the Chad VanGaalen band, and Daniel Christiansen, previously from a Black Sabbath cover band. After extensive touring the strain started to show in Flegel and Wallace’s old band—a well-documented brawl at a Victoria show in October 2010 marked their last onstage appearance. Guitarist Christopher Reimer passed away in his sleep 16 months later.
In Viet Cong, Flegel and Munroe take main songwriting duties, their sound ranging from fuzz-laden drone to straight pop. Their self-titled cassette surfaced online a few weeks ago as a collection of mismatched home recordings, leaving impressions of the punk and shoegaze their old projects are known for.
But for Flegel those songs were just the orphans of the Viet Cong sessions, and the band is currently sitting on a cohesive debut record—they just need to decide who they’re going to put out the album with.
The new material also adds more synths and drum machines beats into the mix.
“We’ve been bringing that into the fold as the tour goes along,” said Flegel. “This is very much testing the waters.
“Monty is playing synth on almost all of it, it’s becoming more of a lead instrument.”
“There’s a different generation in Calgary making the best music. I feel that we’re old,” said Flegel. Everyone in Viet Cong is around 30 years old, but Flegel says all the best music in Calgary is coming from the 20-somethings.
“It seems like it’s getting better culturally in Calgary in general. It hasn’t always been that way, it’s been a kind of bleak place as far as culture for a while,” he said.
But for those who do stay, bands like Women, and now Viet Cong, show that it’s possible to make it as a band in Cowtown.
“The young dudes probably look up to us, but they don’t know how much we respect them already,” said Flegel.
It comes to you as if in a dream, the faint glimmer of manipulated piano brushing past as you sink deeper into the blackness. You’ll Never Get to Heaven emits ambient melancholy, remnants of pop vocals embedding themselves in murky haze and crackle.
You’ll Never Get to Heaven is anything but conventional. The duo, originally from the East Coast but now based in London, Ontario, have a penchant for the hiss and pops of vinyl, as well as deconstructing turn-of-the-century classical music.
For Chuck Blazevic, the instrumental half of the band, it’s a matter of constantly being challenged among a myriad of samples and plug-ins.
He’s been putting out ambient music since 2008 under the moniker Dreamsploitation, a project he describes as “learning how to work with pre-recorded material that does not just rely on the integrity of a single loop.”
The band’s self-titled record, released last year, is an exercise in this experimentation, with isolated moments from classical records and dub blending with electric bass lines and Alice Hansen’s far-away vocals. Each song slips in through another, its buried pop form slowly emerging with each listen.
You’ll Never Get to Heaven’s minimalist soundtracks are steadily becoming more polished, as the two begin to rely less on samples and more on their own melodies. They have a cassette’s worth of material they’ll be putting out in the next few months.
“We do everything at home, and that probably will never change because we have everything we need here,” said Hansen. The two have been partners for years and live together, their music emerging as a natural product of their joint interests.
Blazevic takes isolated kicks or snare hits from the dub records, then builds his own beat with recorded bass lines. Pulling melodicism and atmosphere from classical composers such as Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc is no arbitrary choice, either.
“A lot of that music has rich harmonies that we enjoy on a composition level, but the timbral aspects are achieved through sampling older vinyl,” said Blazevic. “All the pops and hisses and crackles give it an anachronistic sheen that we’re also fans of.
“If we need a chord off a particular classical record, we’ll isolate it. You get all these other aspects,” he continued.
“When you digitally process those harmonic overtones, you can get really nice ambient textures.”
It’s a process of using new tools and building new ambience. Now that they’ve found their sonic centre, it’s anyone’s guess how it will expand.
/// Day Five ///
The final day of POP had an early evening lull, probably to make sure we all had a breather ahead of an earth-shattering performance by METZ. Before we all became drenched in each other’s sweat in the church basement, I had some softer stops ahead of me with Patrick Watson’s “Songs of Darkness” and Moonface.
Watson had The Rialto for the night, and invited a troupe of friends to sing a collection of originals and covers revolving around the theme of darkness. Each song had a revolving arrangement and musicians, but harpist Sarah Pagé, Joe Grass on slide guitar, Becky Foon on cello and bassist Hans Bernhard set the tone of most the show. The gang of musicians took turns leading songs, including Little Scream driving an old Appalachian folk song and L’il Andy covering Leonard Cohen’s “Democracy.”
Then Mirror / Cult MTL columnist Johnson Cummins walks onstage in a wizard costume and we’re all baffled. He announces he’ll be reading spoken word by Bruce Dickenson, and my chuckles reveal my inner metalhead. He goes on to recite Iron Maiden’s “The Number of the Beast” with Pagé and Watson accompanying.
“Why didn’t we do this at Barfly?” jokes Cummins.
After that bit of comic relief I’m off to see Moonface, also known as Spencer Krug of Wolf Parade / Sunset Rubdown / Frog Eyes fame. It’s just him and a grand piano, playing his heart out and punctuated by self-deprecating jokes. Krug’s new project is deeply emotional, but I wouldn’t expect anything less.
But the mellow respite is short-lived, as I walk down to Cabaret Mile End to catch part of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. They know their so-straight-it’s-impossible-to-dance-to indie pop songs a little too well, singer Alec Ounsworth looking both bored and tired. He’s been doing this for too long and he seems sick of his own music. His vocal performance is spot-on, but it feels like he’s just going through the motions.
I catch a bit of Thus:Owls’s gypsy-indie flow at Casa before things start to heat up at the POP church. I’m ready for something loud, and the triple-bill punk show to end POP is just how to end this five-day marathon. Calgary’s Fist City warm up the slowly-filling church with simple rah-rah punk rock, and then Crabe makes me realize I need more beer.
Crabe is the first Francophone band I’ve seen in all of POP, and they’re fantastic shitheads. Their show is a raunchy comedy, the singer a young Ian Mackaye in a tye-dye t-shirt and without the talent. It’s doomey, noisey and for all I know they’re making up the songs as they go along. But it primes the mosh pit for METZ, with the duo ending their set by trashing their gear.
It’s a “spectacle de mass hysteria,” in the words of their singer. That’s certainly true.
The church only really gets packed when METZ take the stage just after 2 a.m. and are the loudest thing POP has to offer. I caught the noise trio’s late-night set at Il Motore last year, but since then these guys have exploded. They’re headlining POP Montreal, for Christ’s sake. All the hype is due though, because their furious brand of present-day hardcore is some of the best that’s out there.
Since last year their stage presence has skyrocketed, and the crowd eats it up. From the feedback-overloaded interludes to Alex Edkins ending the set with “Wet Blanket,” writhing on the floor with some kid’s jacket over his head. It’s the perfect end to this insane festival. By the second song I’ve gotten socked in the windpipe and someone’s glasses have been stomped. I hear later that someone lost a tooth.
The band does their duty however, bassist Chris Slorach telling the crowd to pick up those who fall on the beer-slicked floor, and urges a kiss on the cheek while you do it. These guys know their sound and after one record they’ve already perfected it.
I don’t stick around for much longer, and decide against asking Brendan Canning what he thought of METZ after spotting him in the crowd hanging with dudes in jean jackets. I came, I moshed, I POP-ed, and now with ringing ears and worn-out shoes it’s back to real life. Writing this final post my foot is still tapping, already anticipating the next show.
/// Day Four ///
The Nymphets get loud at Kathy & Kimmy. Photo Louis Longpré
Korn’s Jonathan Davis is holding a Grimes record on the event poster, but that’s not enough to keep me away from the POP Record Sale in the Ukrainian Federation basement. At 1 p.m. the place is already packed, a vinyl aficionado thumbing through each bin. I stick with the used stuff, scoring a ‘50s Fats Domino LP and some Motown. There are also a few stalls selling cassettes—one revival I’ll probably never fully understand.
After emptying my wallet at the Record Fair, it’s time for some non-POP/off-POP/anti-POP, or whatever you want to call it. POP’s roots are showing at these unofficial gigs, where festival and non-festival bands play and hope the cops don’t show up. And you couldn’t have asked for better weather for a B.B.Q. show.
When I get to The Shrine, Year of Glad are finishing their spine-tingling set. Frontman Alex Bergman is barely sitting on the edge of his stool, singing impossibly high falsetto. You can see only the musicians’ silhouettes, the single light source pouring in from the small basement window behind them.
I had never heard of Foe Destroyer, a Texas-by-way-of-Brooklyn trio that trade instruments and all sing, playing music ranging from punked up distortion to chilled-out. It was the best surprise of POP so far, and it made me seriously regret not checking them out Wednesday at l’Esco with proper sound.
I’m able to catch part of Victoria’s Freak Heat Waves before leaving, joining a crowd that’s clearly into it. The basement is packed, and the guitar work is more impressive than I’d expected from briefly listening to them the week before.
Leaving The Shrine my head is pounding, probably due to loud bands and that tasty St- Ambroise IPA (I feel you, Josh). Time to find some more festival fun along the Main.
First I’m led to Divan Orange for Milk Lines. They play bruised, drugged-up country, which is my kind of hoedown. The loud music immediately makes me feel better. I’ve become a live music junkie over the last few days—the only way to stop my head from pounding is to take in more shows. The two singers/guitarists have corn-coloured hair, she’s in a flowery dress and he’s rocking the classic blue jeans and T-shirt. They sing in simple unison, overtop of distorted guitar and well-placed twang.
The Worst Drummer of POP Award goes to Toronto’s HSY, who does little more than bang the floor tom while the band churns out heavy, one-note post punk at Club Lambi. Their new track “Cyberbully” had a simple-but-killer guitar line, and was for sure the heaviest thing I’ve seen so far at POP. But the garbage drumming stopped me from getting into it.
Then it’s another night at Casa for another Broken Social Scene member. Brendan Canning’s new band is playing their first show to a packed room, and his humility shows. Placing setlists and tuning his guitar, I think at first he might be a roadie. He’s shaved off his iconic beard to just handlebars. The band sounds alright, but it’s clear that this is their first show. They’re all a little stiff, and the opening numbers are all pretty slow. It’s nice indie music, but I want something louder to end my night, so I leave about halfway through.
You can find Kathy & Kimmy pretty easily because it’s the only place on Beaubien with a crowd outside. Local trio The Nymphets are just starting when I get there. It’s garage rock played by people in button-up shirts, in a sauna of a venue under blue light. They play furiously, and those who know them better sing back to them. My new normal is LOUD, and I expect METZ to raise my threshold even higher for Day Five.
/// Day Three ///
AroarA play to a packed Casa del Popolo. Photo Stacy Lee
Day Three started with an afternoon at Divan Orange. The early POP shows are always an interesting dynamic, with those looking to get a head start on their drinking and those still moving in slow motion from the night before sharing the venue. Valleys played into that middle ground, with mid tempo synth-driven jams gentle enough for those hungover but still lively enough to bob your head to. The last I heard of Valleys was that they had expanded into a trio, but it seems things have shrunk down just to Marc St. Louis and Tillie Perks again. The pair have been playing together for close to eight years, and their chemistry satisfied both those sitting in a state of hungover agony and those standing with a beer in hand.
Then it was up to the Mile End, where Soldout was playing at the Empire Exchange vintage store. Despite the mellow atmosphere and their god-awful band name, Soldout did their best to engage the packed store with their dancey electro tunes. Singer Charlotte Maison demands your attention, rocking a jean jacket and Raybans like half the crowd wishes they could. I was expecting to be underwhelmed, but they had me moving—even though we were in a clothing store and the sun was still out.
They were all smiles, with the two-piece of Matthew Murphy and Justin Lazarus now including a bassist, second guitarist and a drummer hunched over the kit like a young John Bonham Jr. The fun they were having on stage was contagious. Look Vibrant are a very new band, and their unpolished set was made up for in the energy and sheer catchiness of their songs. Their two-song Plateau cassette is a far more fuzz-laden affair than their set at Casa, which was noise pop with a heavy emphasis on pop. But it was thoroughly entertaining, and every song felt right. There was nothing dense to process, just a fun little set from a new band on the scene. It’ll be interesting to see how the duo’s sound grows now that they have a full band.
The best set of the night came from Ottawa’s Hilotrons at Cabaret Mile End. I arrived to an 11-piece band, which was a total shock, since The Hilotrons have normally played with a more standard rock setup. Their groovy indie pop was made larger than life by three percussionists, slide guitar and the occasional sousaphone, but things never felt overcrowded (although it’s likely one or two members could be dropped without a noticeable change in sound). Singer Mike Dubé stood in the middle of it all, resplendent in his sweat-soaked green Captain Kirk t-shirt. They’re one of the few Ottawa bands that non-Ottawans are familiar with, and despite the sparse crowd everyone was digging it.
Then it was back to Casa for the Club Roll showcase headliners, AroarA. Made up of Ariel Engle and Broken Social Scene’s Andrew Whiteman, there was more than a little witchiness in their set, their druid drone intertwining with electric guitar. The two became less stiff by the end of their set, but they never fully won me over. Maybe it was Whiteman’s supremely cheesy guitar solo, or the general lack of dynamics. Either way, it kind of put me out of the rock and roll mood. Shows on Van Horne and Beaubien suddenly seemed much further away, and beers and friends at Casa became far more appealing.
/// Day Two ///
Colin Stetson is a force of nature. Photo Susan Moss
POP invaded my afternoon with some casual Art POP, which I had pretty much all to myself on Thursday. A projected Minor Threat concert, spooky sounds and what I can only describe as a Videodrome installation were set up at Quartier POP. A projection of a woman walking through the building with an electromagnetic sensor gave impressions of a ghost hunting for other ghosts. All around creepy, and now I’m craving a killer POP Halloween show.
Later I trekked over to the MAC for a special Suuns performance featuring Radwan Moumneh. I had known better than to try to catch Braids at the Q show at Olympia, and figured this would be a safer bet. But the MAC has strict fire codes, and they were at capacity. Hearing “Music Won’t Save You” from outside the museum’s basement black box venue felt pretty appropriate.
I did have tickets for Tim Hecker and Colin Stetson, so a stop at Barfly along the way back north seemed in order. Fredericton’s The Trick was playing to a handful of people, with an unflashy new wave feel to his sound. Hecker was starting any minute though, so I didn’t stay for more than a song.
It was pitch black around Tim Hecker, all the better to swallow you whole with. He played cuts off his forthcoming record Virgins, out next month. Without the headlining spot the crowd didn’t give him the attention he deserved, but the sound was incredible.
I used all my good metaphors for Colin Stetson when I saw him in April, but this time I was only a few feet away from the force of nature, sweat and saliva dripping off him as he rocked back and forth, belting out his sax masterpieces. Stetson took a couple months off after breaking bones in his hand, but you’d never know it from his performance. It did prevent him from playing new material, but the promise of new stuff is amazing on its own. The third New History Warfare record built on the last two, his virtuosity with both the giant bass sax and alto expanding beyond comprehension. What remains to be seen is if his body can withstand his ambition.
As good as experiencing Hecker and Stetson at The Rialto was, something more rowdy was in order. I knew that Viet Cong at L’Esco would fulfill every such desire. The place was packed and sweaty, and as Viet Cong took the stage the crowd oscillated from mosh pit to waves of unintentional shoving. It was a packed punk show, and I expected no less. Viet Cong tore through their set, playing songs from their cassette to start things off before switching to new material. By the time they reached their last song, with a working title sharing the name of their current tour mates, Freak Heat Waves, the place was ready to burst at the seams. Their garage punk fury won everyone over, and I can’t wait to hear what they come up with next.
After Day Two, things are ramping up. After all, we’re just now getting to the weekend. But I’m ready for another night of ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ venue-hopping at POP—which sometimes means you end your night at Chez Claudette with bands from the SappyFest showcase (check out Mouthbreathers at Brasserie Beaubien).
/// Day One ///
It feels like Friday night at Casa Del Popolo.
Bands greet each other warmly and the place is nearly full. “Montreal’s greatest guitarist!” exclaims one dude outside Casa as the apparent prodigy walks his bike down the sidewalk of St. Laurent Blvd. There’s a buzz in the air; everyone knows we’re just getting started.
No Magic is playing when I walk into Casa’s backroom venue. They’re backed up by the guys in Look Vibrant. The jovial sound matches the mood, and reminds me of what Destroyer sounded like 10 years ago. Weird glowing syringes rotate on this strange contraption beside the singer strumming an acoustic guitar, who the Internet leads me to believe is from Brisbane, Australia. I don’t really get it, but I like it.
The crowd is digging it, although the band competes with conversation — but that’s more indicative that it’s a Casa show than the band’s failure to captivate. It’s early in the night, and we’re all just getting to know each other.
In true POP form, I’m attempting a Wednesday-night venue hop, so Sala Rossa across the street seems like the obvious next stop. I’ve also made it my mission at this year’s POP to try to find a black sheep musician playing onstage with a PC, instead of the ubiquitous Mac. But I’m not holding my breath on that one.
Empress Of are setting up as I pass through the sweet smell of tapas and get into Sala’s second-floor concert hall. They’ve apparently given up on having on-screen visuals during their show, as the sound guy is standing on a ladder in the middle of the venue turning off the projector.
But they don’t need it. Lorely Rodriguez’s emotion carries the performance without the accessory, dressed like a hip Elaine Benes with the kid from Dazed and Confused on keys. She’s either incredibly genuine or a stellar actress, because every modest dance move and quick jump to her console adds to the show.
She almost apologizes when she admits her band is based in Brooklyn. It’s incredibly endearing to hear her say things like “cool” and “okay” through her heavily-effected mic between songs.
She plays lush, slow-to-mid-tempo jams backed up by a solid rhythm section. And she has a great voice, using all the effects as an esthetic approach rather than a crutch. Apparently every song is a new one, and after this performance I’m definitely going to keep listening.
The next stop is Petit Campus, where The Legendary Pink Dots are playing (News editor Andrew Brennan’s POP Pick). As I climb the stairs off Prince Arthur, there are concert-goers mingling about, smoking, laughing before the band starts up. All pretty run-of-the-mill, except everyone’s over 30.
They’ve been around since the ’80s, so that explains the average age of attendees leaping up about 15 years at this particular show. They play rich, slow ambiences with Edward Ka-Spel speaking and singing in meditative tones. You can barely see the guitarist, the stage is so shrouded in fog and darkness. The venue becomes a sauna, though, and honestly I’m bored after a few songs.
Tomorrow’s highlight will probably be Colin Stetson, but I’m ready for anything.
The man behind Washed Out is not the hipster stereotype you’d expect.
He’s married and a homeowner, and has lived his whole life in Georgia. He speaks with a slight southern drawl, made indistinguishable in his reverb-laced vocals.
His name is Ernest Greene, Jr.
Greene made it big in the blogosphere at the beginning of the decade—the immediately-recognizable “Feel it All Around” is a blueprint for the lo-fi-synth-paired-with-reverb-drowned-vocals setup that almost every bedroom artist has giddily employed in the last few years.
You probably know it from Drive and Portlandia.
Washed Out was a pioneer of the now almost clichéd sound, the aesthetic a product of necessity—allowing the solo artist to put out music without the recording know-how (let alone a studio), while rejecting the guitar-driven sound the South is known for.
When he first took this approach, there was nothing trendy about it. Now his lush, chilled-out pop is bigger than ever—with live percussion and professional production.
“Session people tend to want to overplay a lot of the time, and that’s not really my style,” said Greene a few days before embarking on a fall tour of North America and Europe in support of his sophomore LP Paracosm. “But we ended up re-cutting everything.”
Despite his early reservations, the record is far more organic than anything Greene’s done before—all the better for his five-piece live band to flesh out onstage. Washed Out started as a bedroom hobby, with live performances the furthest thing from Greene’s mind.
But he’s since grown into his success, and its effect is abundantly clear on Paracosm.
“We don’t have to use drum machines or sequenced stuff that we had to on Within and Without,” said Greene. “To get that you have to play along with a computer, which isn’t very fun.”
Fellow Georgian Ben H. Allen gets production credits here, which explains Greene’s higher vocal range hinting images of Panda Bear. Allen has worked with the likes of Animal Collective, Deerhunter and Cee Lo Green, and his engineering prowess has resulted in the high-end transformation of Greene’s solo work.
Allen and Greene first worked together on the latter’s sub pop debut—2011’s Within and Without.
“For both of these records, it was like going to school,” Greene said. “I was just watching everything [Allen] does.”
The two learned to speak the same language, with Greene explaining his desired sounds in abstract terms to a well-versed producer with extensive engineering credits.
Once Greene had made demos of the Paracosm tracks in his home in Athens, Georgia, Allen and Greene rebuilt them in a studio in Atlanta.
“It was like hanging out, making a record for 12 hours a day,” said Greene.
While the new record is much more built for acoustic instruments, his writing style is still very much based on home demos. He works with MIDI as much as he can, adding and removing layers on his sonic canvas. It’s just the palette that’s different now—acid-wash replaced with floral pastel.
“I had so much built-up creative energy just over the last couple years travelling and playing shows,” Greene said. “I wanted to shut myself off and get as much done as I could in a short amount of time.”
His schedule doesn’t allow for the kind of infinite scrutiny that a bedroom artist enjoys. But his live setup, now more guitar-centric, does allow him to re-imagine his old stuff.
“I enjoy revisiting the songs. I’ve tried to alter them in a way that brings them closer to the Paracosm world,” said Greene. “It can make for a lot of work, but ultimately it makes things much more interesting for us.”
It’s also a near necessity, with today’s Washed Out being a totally different animal than in 2009.
“In some ways I miss working on the old stuff, the fact that it was really naive and simple. I think it’s great for a record, but if you’re playing in front of a lot of people for an hour and a half, which is what we’re expected to do these days, you have to have a lot more happening to keep it interesting for that long,” he said.
“All of that played into the new record and I definitely think this project is completely different than what it started from,” he added.
“It is just as much a live band now as what I do on the record, you try to honour that as best you can.”
It can be argued that all music is political, whether it wants to be or not. If родина—the latest project by Sam Shalabi and Stefan Christoff—is political, it’s because the record holds no simple feelings. The listener must navigate unfamiliar sounds to decide how it makes them feel.
The result is complex, emotional and more demanding than what everyday Western music has to offer. And it’s this complexity that drew Christoff to music in the first place.
“Most of my ‘20s I spent my time doing hardcore activism […] for me there was a whole range of emotions that was driving those campaigns,” says Christoff. “There were all kinds of feelings that couldn’t be expressed in a press release or on a banner.”
It’s early afternoon and Shalabi and Christoff are rehearsing in Casa del Popolo’s backroom venue when we speak. The three of us sit onstage and discuss their latest project across the street from Sala Rossa, where the record was tracked.
The album’s title is an old eastern European word for “home,” and features largely improvised pieces recorded live, with Shalabi on the oud and Christoff on piano. It’s an eastern-inspired record pulling from maqam, an Arabic melodic system, with abstracted hints of free jazz.
“The two instruments are kind of the equivalents in oriental and occidental music,” says Shalabi of their sound’s cultural hybrid. While the oud works with eastern quarter tones, by design the piano can’t produce those intervals.
“The piano is the mother, the one that people write on, that everybody plays. It’s the same for the oud in Arabic music.”
Shalabi and Christoff share the same philosophy of studying through oral tradition, learning the oud and piano respectively by listening to others. Their musical discourse, always based on spontaneity, is shaped by their shared interests—which leans heavily on their politics. The two met at a local awareness-raising event for Palestine over a decade ago, shortly after Christoff moved to Montreal.
They have been crossing paths in Montreal’s activist and musical circles ever since.
While they’ve been jamming together for five years, their first release was only last year, Shalabi playing on one track of Christoff’s Duets for Abdelrazik.
This new album was recorded on a cold December morning over a few hours, but the exact date is debateable.
“We were on a lot of drugs, mostly birth control pills,” jokes Shalabi. Over the years his projects have ranged from meditative to nonsensical, often in the same track.
He’s a veteran Montreal player, having put out a number of releases with Alien8 Records, a label that has played home to master of ambience Tim Hecker and now-defunct Montreal mainstays The Unicorns. More recently Shalabi orchestrated the Egyptian-inspired psych ensemble Land of Kush.
Shalabi now lives in Egypt, where his parents grew up. The two recorded родина during his last visit to Montreal.
“The thing about specialization in the West is somehow your emotions and your intellect are two different things […] What does it mean to do something with no emotion in it?” says Shalabi.
“In terms of popular music, to me the emotional content is like someone who hasn’t used their arm in five years; it shrinks and becomes weak.
“It’s validating people’s worst tendencies.”
If you think Buck 65 has been taking it easy for the last couple years, you just haven’t been looking close enough. In fact, he’s never been busier.
The genre-bending hip-hop cipher has several pots on the fire and a new LP in the can. And he’s in the midst of writing a novel—mashing his love of music, baseball and the history of his hometown of Mount Uniacke, Nova Scotia.
While it’s been a couple years since his last major release, he’s been working away at his home in Toronto, adding to his already huge catalogue.
“It’s the one feather in my cap,” says Buck 65, real name Richard Terfry. “I never sold tons of records, I never became super famous, I can’t claim all the usual measures of success that a successful musicians would have.
“The one thing I do have is a fairly large body of work coupled with longevity.”
Over the last 20 years Buck 65 has rapped over tracks ranging from scratch-heavy hip-hop to banjo-driven country, to dark ambience and simmering drum & bass. And while he maintains a sound that’s distinctively Buck 65, what that means exactly depends on which record you’re listening to.
“It drives some people crazy, but it’s the only way I can work. It’s almost ironic that comes across as schizophrenic. I just can’t make every song I make be a disco jam, or any other kind of jam,” he says.
It’s a testament to his restless work ethic, that he lives and breathes his music. Writing about any and every feeling and experience that inspires him, he doesn’t want his palette to be limited—and staying loyal to one sound is dangerous to his work.
“I try to express myself as fully and as richly as I can, as a human being going through their day. And that’s complicated, as it is for everybody alive,” he says. “Nobody is a one-dimensional thing, I would even dare say gangster rappers, even though we get only one side of them on most cases, have their moments of tenderness.
“When their sister has a baby and they smell its forehead. Nobody is immune to that.”
Buck 65 has had a major label deal for over 10 years, releasing a number of LPs under Warner Music, as well as re-releasing earlier work such as 2001’s dark, experimental Man Overboard.
But far from keeping to the simple model of a new full-length release every couple years, he’s been building up his catalogue with unofficial records and side projects. His last Warner release, 20 Odd Years, first came out as a series of EPs, and since 2008 he’s released three free hour-long mixtapes titled Dirtbike —holding some of his best work to date.
“I, along with everybody else, am trying to make sense of how this business is moving,” he says. “I’m always thinking about how my approach to this career needs to evolve.”
His most recent endeavour to alternate releases is SASS, an acronym for Short Attention Spans. It’s a 14-song record that clocks in at under five minutes —each song no longer than 30 seconds.
“If I’m listening to music in my travels, I’ll often listen to it on shuffle. I’ve noticed even if I really love a song that comes on, no song is as good as the excitement of hitting that button to the next thing, knowing you have something new coming next,” he says.
“I’m skipping through songs at this unbelievable rate of speed, and I thought how can you make an album that is going to withstand that test?”
It’s that idea, that we expect everything to be digestible in smaller and smaller bites, that inspired SASS. He’s been kicking around the concept for a while, and has already posted a second track on Soundcloud produced bylongtime collaborator Jorun Bombay.
“If you mention a song to somebody, like ‘Hungry like the Wolf’ by Duran Duran, you would sing the one part you remember,” he says. “When a song gets in your head, it’s never the three-and-a-half minutes of the song, it’s one part that will cycle through your head over and over again.
“So I thought, why not make a song just that? Is everything else just filler anyway?”
The Major Label Game
Despite regularly posting music online, it’s all been fairly low-profile since his most recent Warner record 20 Odd Years came out in 2011. But the next Warner LP has been done for months. The finished product, complete with name and album artwork, was sent to the label in November.
Despite it being done since last year, it may not see the light of day until early 2014.
“I don’t know and I’ll admit that’s utterly agonizing,” he says of the album’s mystery release date. “I was dying for people to hear that stuff the day those songs were mixed in November. They’re waiting until the best time, strategically, to put it out.”
His records are released internationally, meaning the pushers and movers at labels in 18 different countries need to sign off on the release date. And if the stars don’t align—if domestic releases clash with his prospective release date—then it sits at Warner.
One of the tracks, the hot, hook-heavy contemporary hip-hop of “Fairy Tales,” has been hosted on Buck 65’s Soundcloud. But in the meantime, the rest of the record, and its title, wait for the label’s official announcement.
“Labels like to announce it themselves, it seems that’s a thing now,” he says.
In the meantime he continues to work. He’s halfway through the next Bike for Three! album, his collaboration with Belgian producer Joëlle Phuong Minh Lê. The fourth Dirtbike is in the works, too.
The upcoming Bike For Three! record has been negotiated with Warner to be released outside the label, but some of Buck 65’s other work, like SASS and the Dirtbike series, is in a legal grey area.
“Technically it would be seen as a violation of my contract. It’s basically illegal what I’m doing, and if my label was a little more iron-fisted they could probably kick my ass for this sort of thing,” he says.
He works in parallel universes simultaneously—signed to a major label while putting out free music on the side. It’s a pretty rare scenario in the business these days, but Buck 65 isn’t like most major label artists.
“I had a way of doing things that was pretty grassroots, or underground or whatever you want to call it,” he says. His deal with Warner was struck after being independent for 10 years.
“The label doesn’t meddle in the recording process at all.”
And as such there’s something of a paradox in Buck 65’s catalogue. His success has allowed him to have his records distributed around the world—but on Warner’s time. So he balances that waiting game with what he puts on Soundcloud, what his fans can hear five minutes after he finishes the track.
He went outside the label for a recent vinyl reissue of Vertex, a “lo-fi left field artifact” from 1997, home to one of his earliest hits, “The Centaur.”
But word inevitably gets out, and demand came from all over—even though it was a Canada-only release.
“I’m selling it in Canada for $15, and then trying to get it in Japan would cost $50 without distribution—and I don’t want to charge $50 for anything,” he says.
“When the worldwide release does come out, a kid in Japan can go to their local record store and pay $15.”