Thursday, June 30, 2011

Bon Iver Exclaim cover

My interview with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver is this month's Exclaim cover story.

Bon Iver

Imaginary Places

By Andrea Warner 

"I just don't give a shit if I make a record that everyone hates if I love it."

Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, is a few weeks from launching his highly-anticipated second album, the eponymous Bon Iver, Bon Iver. It's been four years since he self-released For Emma, Forever Ago, a painfully beautiful debut with a compelling mythology surrounding his now-infamous heartbreak. The blogosphere was almost united in singing its praises, building such strong word-of-mouth that it was re-released a year later by indie label Jagjaguwar.

Between then and now is the stuff of a surreal, Hollywood-styled fairytale – complete with a cameo from hip-hop's crown prince, Kanye West, and falling in love with a famous musician he'd idolized. But, the 30-year-old singer-songwriter has no interest in succumbing to the glitz and glamour. For example, rather than sitting in some board room in an office building in LA or New York, Vernon prefers to fulfil this press obligation from the normalcy of his pre-fame existence: walking around his hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, killing time while his "shitty car" gets a tune up.

I can't seem to give up the ghosts in this one," Vernon says. He's referring to the car, but it's fair to say the sentiment has broader implications.

The first time Vernon was in this position – waiting for his record to drop – barely anybody knew For Emma was coming and very few people cared. Four years later, the situation couldn't be more different. "It's kind of weird, to be honest with you, sitting here and doing interviews at this time and having the album not really be out there," Vernon admits. "The first record, I just made and it was just out there, it could do whatever it wanted to, I didn't have to sell it. I feel a little bit of like we're selling it now, but whatever, I'll live and learn. It's the waiting and like, marketing plans and shit for your record. It's what everyone does, I guess."

The stakes are higher this time around – he has labels, management, and those pesky marketing plans – but Vernon tried not to think about it when he sat down to make his second record, resolute in his convictions: art first, fuck business. And his commitment to his craft has paid dividends. Sceptics worried about a sophomore slump, or those concerned about Vernon's transition from DIY-indie to label-indie, can take a seat. Bon Iver is big, bold and beautifully orchestrated. It's a more challenging, sonically complex album than For Emma, that Vernon says, start to finish, is even more personal.

"The first thing I worked on, the riff and the beginning melodies, was the first song on the record, 'Perth,' back in early 2008," Vernon recalls. "The reason I called it that right away, is because I was with a guy that I didn't know very well. In the three days we were supposed to spend together – he's a music video maker – in those three days, his best friend [Heath Ledger] died. And his best friend was from Perth. It just sort of became the beginning of the record. And Perth has such a feeling of isolation, and also it rhymes with birth, and every song I ended up making after that just sort of drifted towards that theme, tying themselves to places and trying to explain what places are and what places aren't."

The entire album carries that theme, each song crafted and named for a specific place. "Beth/Rest," the album's risky closer is a glorious summation of the album's numerable '80s flourishes – electronic keyboards, vocal distortion, moody saxophone. The Decemberists' Colin Meloy is such a fan of the song, he shared via Twitter that it "never fails to evoke fifth grade me, desperately making out with the crook of my arm." Vernon laughs at the one-sentence review, but also feels compelled to defend it with the earnestness of someone who can't quite take a gently teasing compliment.

That song is like I bit off a lot because I'm going to have to chew on it for a while," he says. "People – and I don't really blame them because I'd probably be doing the same thing – but for me, living with that song and writing it when I wrote it, and putting it at the end of this album that I'm so, so proud of to be truthfully honest, the song doesn't come from some kind of ironic push. I don't know how to explain it. It's like, deeply serious." He laughs at himself, but continues. "All those sounds... have been crafted by engineers and people trying to be cool, but I don't give a shit about being cool. I definitely recognize using the sounds that I did in that song might seem like I was trying to do something to not be cool, but that's just how uncool I am, I guess."

He may be deeply sensitive, but it's hard to argue he's uncool. If his reluctant celebrity status doesn't afford a certain level of cool, then his starring role as Kanye West's right hand man last year does. Their collaboration on West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was the stuff of a hipster's wet dream, and Vernon himself sounds like he still can't quite believe it was real.

"We'd heard that he was interested, but I was working on my album and said, 'Well, if Kanye wants to work together, have him come out to Wisconsin," Vernon recalls. "But then his flight got cancelled and we ended up having a really long conversation on the phone and he's just like, 'Dude, it's fuckin' cold in Wisconsin. Let's hang out in Hawaii.' So we did the Hawaii thing for about three weeks."

Vernon's fame got him on Kanye's radar, and it's also partly responsible for the new love in his life: Toronto-based alt-country singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards. According to published reports, the two struck up a professional friendship, which quickly turned personal over a year ago. He's also co-producing her upcoming fourth album. One can easily hear Vernon's grin as he talks about how important she's been to him, even before they knew each other.

I've been a fan since 2003 when Failer came out and meeting her last year, it's just been one of the best relationships, you know?" Vernon says. "It's been so fun and easy and just being such a fan of her music – I'm like beyond a fan of her music. Like, her music was my music for many years. Like, it was just crazy how much I needed her records to be in my life."

Statements like these echo the appealing foundations of Bon Iver's music: an unguarded sincerity that should seem fragile, until one realizes how much strength there is in honesty. It's what his fans respond to, consciously or not. Vernon admits that his heart-on-his-sleeve approach has made parts of his life difficult, but it's preferable to the industry's status quo of manufactured bullshit.

He credits his first industry friends, Kelly Crisp and Ivan Howard, the couple behind indie rock band the Rosebuds, with showing him the importance of being genuine as well as negotiating the move from DIY to label artist. Back in 2007, when he was deep in the mire of his pre-For Emma existence – reeling from the dissolution of his band, DeYarmond Edison, and his romantic relationship – Vernon found himself alone and far from home in Raleigh, NC, contemplating the remnants of his tattered life. He had few friends and nowhere to go, until he met Crisp and Howard.

They'd heard I kinda knew how to record stuff and produce so we kind of went out on a limb to work with each other," Vernon says. "We didn't really know much about each other, but I ended up staying there for about six weeks making a record [Night of the Furies] with them. They were really my first friends who were in a professional band that toured... I was in awe of them and learned from them. They were so kind and so do-it-yourself, like truly indie and independent. And watching their relationship with Merge blossom – I don't know. Going right from there to going to work on my album – it was actually during that six weeks that I wrote my first song, 'Flume', for my record and then I took that and went up to the cabin. It was my last time in Raleigh before I went off and made that record, so it was a really, really big deal."

After For Emma came out, Vernon could have just blended into a sea of similarly bearded folkies, but his falsetto and the layers of lush harmonies and distinctive chamber-folk rhythms were a stark contrast to his genre's brethren. People responded to his unique sound, possibly in part just celebrating diversity in a fairly conformist, commercially-driven industry.

"Even really good people who are in A&R departments across the country – they are, unfortunately, not in a job of creativity, they're in a job of trying to match artists with a market," Vernon says. "We can sit around and talk about it, but guess what happens every ten years or so: somebody comes along and changes the entire game with their music. It's important for an artist to have some knowledge of that sort of thing, if only so they know they should be concentrating on music and nothing else."

The maelstrom of changes between then and now have inevitably taken their toll. While he's grateful for the luxury to afford making the kind of record he wanted to, there are other demands with which he's still struggling, such as the business of self-promotion.

There's this New York Times article coming out this week and there's nothing in it that isn't true, it's just that the little facts that were chosen to try to like, oh, what is it called, amplify the writer's wishes, or like, the editor trying to make something 'sexy' or something," Vernon says. "It seems so obvious to me. It just feels like Sesame Street to me, you know. But at the same time, that's how everything is, that's how all things are minus a few random artists or writers that choose to not play those games. That's what we were talking about early on with Kelly and the Rosebuds and DIY. Don't play the fuckin' games."

Keeping company with Kanye and falling in love with Kathleen are also indicative of just how surreal Vernon's journey from no-name to brand name has been. But, in part, it's Vernon's contempt for the hype machine – which has caused more than a few egos in the music business to self-combust – and his Midwestern sensibilities that have helped ground him. It's also provided some much-needed perspective about his new album, successful or not.

You start to believe for a quick second, like, oh man, maybe I am weirdly chosen for some weird fuckin' thing, but luckily I realized that's just totally inappropriate and self-involved. I'd much rather just have a life that I get to choose and change and adapt and grow and love and die, you know?" he laughs. "It's much more enriching for me, and I feel much more healthy in the relationships with the people around me as opposed to what you could end up feeling like if you follow that other path down the road. With that sort of attitude, I just don't feel any pressure. I'll just sink back in to my Wisconsin-y vibe and keep doing what I always did."

Colin Stetson

My feature with Colin Stetson is in this week's WE.

Colin Stetson
Colin Stetson
Credit: supplied

Sax man toes the line between indie and avant-garde

Those who think they’re too cool for school and — by extension — ­too cool for the saxophone can move along. Colin Stetson is having none of it. The Montreal-by-way-of-New-York transplant has wielded his bass sax for over a decade, playing with a variety of high-profile acts including Arcade Fire, TV on the Radio and currently, Bon Iver. Finally, in 2008, Stetson made his debut solo album, New History Warfare Vol.1, the first in a planned trilogy of experimental jazz records that show off his talent for musical contortionism, using creativity, his body and the studio to manipulate and reinvent the scope of his instrument. His recent follow-up, New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges was just nominated for the 2011 Polaris Prize longlist, and he’s now in the middle of his Vancouver International Jazz Fest residency, conducting workshops and playing a variety of gigs throughout the 10-day festival. Stetson spoke with WE from his home in Montreal about his solo career, his high-profile side projects and the sax’s reputation as the pop culture joke that just won’t quit.

WE: What does the Polaris nod mean to you?
Colin Stetson: It’s a really amazing welcome to Canada for me. I’ve been really enjoying living here and being a part of this scene, especially the music community in Montreal. And to be acknowledged as a part of that community, along with so many of my friends, just feels really special. But then also, just the response to this record has been overwhelmingly good and I’ve been really happy with that.

The record is amazing: so complex and it’s not straightforward, I’m just kind of delighted people get it.
Yeah, that is my main delight as well. (Laughs) I don’t see it as being so difficult or out there. When I hear it, I hear it as being very straightforward songs. Of course, the songs that are creating them are not mainstream or conventional. But, to me, it kind of plays out very cinematically and more or less as a story. But, I’ve grown accustomed to always having everyone else’s ears hear it in a different way. With this record I think I was finally able to get that point across more clearly, so others could actually see what I was seeing, which is what I’ve been after. I’m just getting better at it, I guess. (Laughs)
Cinematic is a good descriptor, since I felt like I was watching a movie.
That’s fantastic. That makes me so happy, right in my heart, ’cause that’s really where — the hugest part of the foundation for this music is in visuals for me. I think very cinematically when I go about writing individual pieces, while constructing them into the over-all arc of the record and in seeing this as a trilogy of records, too. As an ongoing, unfolding narrative, so it pleases me to hear when people are also on board with me with that one.

You didn’t put out your first album until 2008. Were you enjoying a long education process, or did you not feel ready until then?
It was never a focus of mine. I was doing maybe one solo show a year, if that, over the course of 10-15 years. They were always more rooted in the tradition of avant-garde improviser, free jazz route. I was dealing with some thematic material, some of the stuff that ended up on Volume One but it was much more amorphous... I didn’t start to get inspired to straighten it up and put it on record until Volume One. I’d started to do a few more solo concerts and compose more and I’m not sure what the impetus for that was, but — actually, no, I do. I was in New York City, it was really hard to get things done and pay rent, and I remember having a conversation with my best friend Stuart Bogie, who’s an amazing musician. At that point, we were just doing the hustle, playing with everything and I remember him saying, “What are you doing?” and I listed off all the projects I was a part of, and he said, “Well, what do you want to have time to do?” And I said I wanted to be able to do something of my own, and the band I was leading wasn’t able to rehearse as much as I wanted, so it was getting more and more difficult to have that be what I wanted and he said, “Well, quit everything except one band of somebody elses and do your own thing and see how you feel.” So, I did and then I made Volume One and I felt great.

Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, let me know that when I see you in Vancouver, you’ll melt my face off.
(Laughs) Yeah, I’ve reportedly melted Justin’s face off several times.

Now you’re going on tour with Bon Iver, right?
Yeah, I just got done with a week-and-a-half’s worth of rehearsals. I just got home from that.

You can straddle the line between being the indie rock guy and the avant-garde guy.
Yeah, I’m really fortunate right now that I can play my own music and have it be something more than just a side note, or something I do for my own shits and giggles. To the point where it’s sometimes hard for me to imagine committing so much time and effort to another group because of how much I have going on solo-wise right now. Which is just fantastic to have that be a problem. I haven’t had to work another job since I was 30 years old. I haven’t had to take any music gig I didn’t want for the last five years. Now, my only problem is that I have to say no to someone like Laurie [Anderson] which is fuckin’ horrible! (Laughs) Like, “No, I wanna do it so bad but I actually committed to this band Bon Iver...”

Everyone’s talking about the sax’s comeback. Its reputation took a beating, but you rode that out.
It’s just fashion. It’s just what people like to say to each other to feel like they’re all in the same club. Why does everybody hate the sound of the saxophone? Because the ’80s went out with a bad taste when the ’90s came in, and in the ’90s, Kenny G made the saxophone do something that everybody thought was super cheeseball. Those are the reasons. But now, every other aspect of the ’80s have been back in for years and there’s some sort of weird stigma on the saxophone because of what, Kenny G? It’s kind of horseshit. I don’t really buy it and whenever anybody says something like that, I just think either we don’t agree about music or they’re just not telling me the truth. They’re just saying something because they think they should be saying it to be cool. What are the memorable solos? Saxophone solos from the ’80s and all throughout rock music, since back in the ’40s, it’s been the stuff of popular music and rock music. For me it’s never really gone away, but with the indie rock explosion in the past decade, everybody’s been going very far into the orchestral realm. It’s been cool to use things like french horns and oboes and it’s cool to do all that shit because there’s something untouched and something that remains kind of pristine about orchestral instruments, but there’s something tainted about saxophone. Maybe because it already had its super heyday in popular music and maybe the chamber music side of things never had it. Now we’ve seen that take its course in Arcade Fire and even more out than that with the Dirty Projecters music becoming more mainstream. I think people’s ears are opening back up and saying, let’s just listen to what it sounds like and judge it based on that. At least I hope.

Colin Stetson plays several shows throughout the Vancouver International Jazz Festival. To July 3 at various venues. Schedule, tickets and info:

Monday, June 27, 2011

Steve Earle

My cover story for this week's WE: Steve Earle

Vancouver International Jazz Fest headliner Steve Earle.
Vancouver International Jazz Fest headliner Steve Earle.

JAZZ FEST: Steve Earle’s personal chords

Steve Earle has logged a lot of miles throughout his career, but it’s the path between his head and his heart that’s gotten the most wear and tear the last few years. Over his turbulent career, the outspoken singer/songwriter has cultivated a reputation as equal parts rebel, sage, activist and recovering addict. Musically his songs have bridged a multitude of genres — mostly folk, country and bluegrass — but it’s what he does with words that’s made him an iconic, and occasionally controversial, pop-culture figure.

Now, at 56 years old, Earle has made his most personal art yet. Three years ago, amidst one of the most artistically demanding moments of his life — writing both a book and a new album — his father died. The two works ended up sharing the same title, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, borrowed from Hank Williams’ famously last-recorded song and both explore themes of spirituality and mortality. They are snapshots of his pragmatic tenderness, and hauntingly beautiful in their own fractured ways. In advance of his headlining gig at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, Earle spoke candidly with WE about his relationship with his dad, his recovery process, getting in Ice-T’s face and his love of Harry Potter books.

You can really feel the energy on the new album.
Thanks. There’s something to be said for just getting some guys together and playin’ with a few microphones in front of them and flipping the machine on. It used to be all records were made that way. Most of my records have been made close to that way, but this is maybe the livest ever, you know. Everybody was up in the studio playin’ at one time.

The album took you quite a while to write, whereas the recording time was really short.
Well, it was just, it was written over a period of three years. You know, I was writing a book too and I sort of had the luxury of taking three years to write it, whereas normally I’m like — my last record [Townes] was a record of somebody else’s songs [Townes Van Zandt], so that had a lot to do with it. This stuff went back to like, the first two songs I wrote for Joan Baez’s record, “God is God” and “I Am a Wanderer” and then I just kept writing. There was one other song which was written for another project. “Lonely Are the Free” was written for a film called Leaves of Grass that Tim Blake Nelson wrote and directed. I was in it, so I wrote that and recorded a different version because it had to be done, so I just did it on my ProTools rig. Then I re-recorded it for this record because I liked the song and thought I could push it a little further. But everything was sort of wrapped around finishing the book, and then when I got the book finished, I started concentrating on the record again; trying to figure out what I was going to do about recording it and tracked T Bone [Burnett] down. I recorded “The City” in May separate from the other tracks because it had to be ready for the last episode of Treme. So T Bone flew in for that and Alan Toussaint wrote the trombone part. It’s all New Orleans guys on that except for Jay, who did play drums. And then the rest of it was made in five days. I took a little longer to mix, but I didn’t overdub any vocals, it’s all pretty much live. The only vocal I replaced is where I punched in one line where I sang an incorrect lyric.

The album and the book share the same title. Was it your intention that one would inform the other, or was it accidental?
It was accidental. The book was always I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. I didn’t name the record that until — I recorded the song, but I just sort of did it on a whim and thought, ‘well, we can maybe use it for an extra track,’ you know, the Hank Williams song. But I didn’t decide until T Bone and I were mixing and we made the first sequence of the record, which ended up being the one we used, and sat back and listened to it and it just dawned on me that the songs were kind of about the same things that the book’s about, when it comes to the big theme stuff. Spirituality and mortality as it relates to spirituality and vice versa. And mortality not as necessarily a morbid or negative thing, but just a part of life. My dad died three years ago and that has a lot to do with it. Between the book — well, the last half of the book which was written since he died — and all the songs on this record, I think I made the only art I could have made. Looking back at it now, I made the only art I could have made following my father’s death.

Did you have a lot of chance to reflect on your relationship?
We were pretty close. He didn’t quite understand why I’d moved to New York. My mom and dad moved to Tennessee to be near me and my sister, Stacey [also a musician], she lives in Nashville, too. And, my brother had moved there because he was my tour manager for a long time. So, they just had a lot of kids who lived there and my mom’s from there originally, and they moved to Tennessee like, 13 or 14 years ago. He didn’t quite understand why I felt the need to go to New York. I just need to go to New York. Alison [Moorer, also a singer and a part of Earle’s band] and I got married and we just kinda wanted a place where neither one of us had any history, have a little bit more time to ourselves, and just wanted a place to start fresh. I don’t regret that. I understand why it upset him a little bit, but other than that we got along fine.

Normally when kids leave home at 18 their parents get a little upset. I like that even leaving home much later in life, they still feel a little resentment. That’s sweet.
I left home when I was 16, but I was pretty close to my family. We’re a big, close family. It took a hit when my dad died and it hasn’t quite recovered, you know? Everybody goes through this process differently. My brothers and sisters didn’t necessarily see this the same way I did. I hated seeing him the way he was the last couple years of his life. He died of emphysema and congestive heart failure. He struggled for breath every day and couldn’t walk across the room. He was kind of a wanderer, he liked trips and to go for walks and it was just a really low quality way for him to live. I was relieved, I have to admit, I was relieved when he finally passed away. For him, not seeing him have to struggle for breath anymore.

As you mentioned, one of the album’s themes is spirituality. Do you identify with a particular ideology?
Uh, my spirituality’s pretty simple. The closest thing I have to a spiritual system — I don’t belong to any church. I’m not Christian, I’m not a Muslim, but I do believe in God. I don’t think that Christians are wrong, they’re just gettin’ to God differently than I do. I hope they think that about me, but if they don’t, I’m okay with that too. I just believe there’s a God and it ain’t me, and that’s about as far as I’ve gotten. It’s all in the song [“God is God”].

Is your spirituality part of your recovery process?
Sure it is, because my spiritual system is a 12-step program. That’s my spiritual practice, because I still go to meetings and call my sponsor and I work steps. That’s what I do.

It’s fascinating to me to see people who don’t maybe have that spiritual anchor and go through 12 steps anyways.
I think it works fine. I didn’t have any aversion to it, but I’ve seen people who do. This is my only spiritual system. I don’t practice any religion, I meditate, but I kinda learned to do that since I got clean.

This likely comes up in every interview, and I don’t think it’s always a salacious, gossipy thing when people ask you about your addiction issues. Rather, it’s fascinating and hopeful to talk about getting clean. Are you tired of talking about it, though?
Well, I get kinda tired of talking about it sometimes, but I don’t get tired of talking about it to people who need a program. There’s lots of restrictions about how much I can talk about it within this situation, you know. There are traditions that state I can only go so far talking about it in press, radio or films or TV, any kind of media stuff. And there’s reasons for that. It’s about the anonymity more than anything else. But, anonymity to me has never really been about me... Most people know I’m an addict and most people know I’m in recovery. If anybody doubts I’m in recovery — you’ll know when I stop going to meetings. You’ll start reading about me in the paper again.

How has your songwriting narrative changed over the years? People associate you with having such an interesting life, so what stories are interesting to you?
I don’t know. I like Harry Potter books. I love’em! I’ve been in mourning ever since they ended. I grew up reading Tolkien and that kind of stuff. I read a lot of hardcore hipster literature, but I think J.K. Rowling’s a great storyteller. I found out about those books because I lived with a woman who had a 10-year-old girl, and when Azkaban came out, I took her when they opened up the boxes at midnight and I saw kids lined up around an entire mall to buy a book, which I found pretty amazing. So I thought, ‘I must be missing something here’ and I backtracked and bought the rest of them. I’m still heartbroken they’re finished. (Laughs)

I heard rumours today that there might be more Potter on the way.
Really?! That’s interesting. That made my whole day.

Your acting career has taken off in the last few years. Eric Overmyer [The Wire, Treme] came to Vancouver last year and listening to him talk about characterization was amazing. How has working within TV affected you as a songwriter?
As an actor, I’ve never said any words that weren’t written by David Simon, Eric Overmyer, Richard Prize or Tim Blake Nelson. When you read words written by people like that, you get to be a better writer. It’s helped me a lot as a writer and in all the stuff that I do. I had a blast doing The Wire and I’ve had a blast doing Treme. And I get called for stuff and I go out and read for parts. I actually like television, because I think some of the best stuff being written today is for television.

What kind of parts do you get to read for?
Well, when Simon called me about the character in Treme, he said, ‘OK, you’ve been officially typecast.’ It is very similar to my character on The Wire. It’s a mentor figure. But in my one feature, the Tim Blake Nelson movie, I was a bad guy. I was the bad guy. I’m readin’ for a thing where I’m a villain in a couple of days, just on tape, so that’s fun to do, because I haven’t done much of it. I’ve been good guys far more. I did do a Law & Order: SVU where I played kind of a hippie-dippy teacher in Riker’s Island. It was a really fun scene that got cut up and didn’t make that much sense in the show. The way the scene was originally written, I got into Ice-T’s face and quoted Tupac and he backs me down. But Tupac’s estate wouldn’t clear the lyrics, so they had to cut that part out. That’s why I did it, because that scene was hilarious, but getting to do different things is — I’m gonna read for my first real, live sociopath in a day or two. I’m looking forward to that.

Steve Earle performs with the Dukes (and Duchesses) featuring Allison Moorer at The Centre on Sunday, June 26, 8pm. Tickets $48 from Ticketmaster.

Lost Fingers

My interview with the Lost Fingers is in this week's WE.

Lost Fingers
Lost Fingers

JAZZ FEST: Lost Fingers find success in the ’80s

When Byron “Maiden” Mikaloff’s father brought an Iron Maiden album home from the library for his teenage son, he couldn’t have possibly imagined where it would lead: a gypsy jazz cover band that’s traveled the globe and then some.

Mikaloff’s now one-third of the Lost Fingers, a Quebec City-based trio that’s found unexpected success delving into the back catalogues of ’80s pop-rock acts like Soft Cell and Samantha Fox. Its first album, 2008’s Lost in the 80s, was certified platinum in Quebec, just months after its release. Since then, the band has released two more albums, and toured ceaselessly, beckoned as far as Dubai and Colombia. The scope of their success is astounding, even to the band members.

“This is whole project was kind of like an accident, so everybody is always surprised,” Mikaloff laughs.

It was the happiest accident imaginable. Mikaloff, a trained classical guitarist, was coming off the dissolution of his electro-pop band, One Ton, which had found moderate success with the one-hit wonder “SuperSexWorld” and got trashed by MuchMusic staple Ed the Sock. He and Christian Roberge, the Lost Fingers’ lead singer and fellow guitarist, began playing afternoons in a coffee shop, mostly classical pieces until they discovered gypsy jazz.

“The classical — not that it makes people sleep, but it’s really hard when you have people talking and it just doesn’t have the swinging vibe that the gypsy jazz has,” Mikaloff says. The pair started mixing in covers by the likes of Sade and Stevie Wonder, with a Latin or jazz twist. But it was a chance visit to a gas station that really helped the Lost Fingers find their way.

“Samantha Fox was playing on the radio and I went to fill up the truck and Christian sort of jammed along with it,” Mikaloff recalls. “Then he sang ‘Touch Me’ when I came back in the truck and I just friggin’ laughed. It sounded good, you know? Then we looked at each other and the whole project came together. We started trying to find the coolest ’80s tunes that weren’t necessarily the biggest songs but that have these icons that people related to.”

The pair added Alex Morisette, double bassist, to the group, and named themselves the Lost Fingers in a winking ode to famed gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, who lost two fingers in a fire. Though it could have come off as a novelty act, critics couldn’t help but appreciate the technical skill that went into the Lost Fingers’ arrangements and dazzling musical proficiency. Plus, damned if the trio can’t put a smile on the sourest of faces.

“It’s rare these days! The last good-time band was like, the Barenaked Ladies back in their heyday. That’s good time, smilin’ music,” Mikaloff laughs. “But this — it’s witty. I find it Monty Python-ish or something.”

And, though all three are classically trained musicians, Mikaloff says that reinventing already-established songs actually gives them more freedom — even more so than one of Canada’s most famous and powerful singers.

“We’re able to express ourselves fully as musicians,” Mikaloff says. “It’s a really rare project when you can do something with pop and yet get away with all this cool stuff. Like, the musicians that are playing with Celine Dion are playing with maybe 25 per cent of their potential because they’re restricted, they’ve gotta back this woman up... But, everyone has restrictions, I guess. We played with Celine once and she just thanked us for letting her scat. And she can scat like crazy! We knew she was a phenomenal singer, but her music is just too corporate. This one, she just let it all out and it was crazy.”

The band’s already working on their next album, which Mikaloff anticipates coming out next year, and those who come to the Lost Finger’s show during the Vancouver International Jazz Festival may get a preview of what’s to come.

“We were thinking about a one-hit wonder vibe, but we might save that for a little later,” Mikaloff says. “Now we’re thinking of doing rock classics and hair bands. Motley Crue, KISS, Guns ‘n Roses, Aerosmith, those are already done... “One” by Metallica, it’s this awesome, epic version, a waltz. And, of course, Iron Maiden.”

Lost Fingers play the Vogue Theatre (918 Granville) on Friday, June 24, 9pm. Tickets $28 from Ticketmaster.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Fish & Bird

My feature on local folk band Fish & Bird is in this week's WE.

From left: Adam Iredale-Gray, Ryan Boeur, Ben Kelly, Zoe Guigueno and Taylor Ashton
From left: Adam Iredale-Gray, Ryan Boeur, Ben Kelly, Zoe Guigueno and Taylor Ashton
Credit: supplied

Folk band Fish & Bird find their way home

At a time when most people his age are either graduating college or working at their third or fourth McJob, Taylor Ashton is already a seasoned veteran of the music industry. As a co-founding member of Fish & Bird, a nomadic indie-folk band loosely based in Vancouver, the banjo player has logged more time on the road than most long-haul truckers, spending much of the last five years navigating the open roads playing a host of festivals, concert halls, house gigs and even recording a special for CBC.

But now, with Fish & Bird’s third album, Every Whisper is a Shout Across the Void, which will be released at the Cultch this Friday, June 17, the band is negotiating a significant growth spurt: going from a duo (Ashton and and fiddler Adam Iredale-Gray) to a quintet, adding guitarist Ryan Boeur, drummer Ben Kelly and bassist Zoe Guigueno to the mix permanently.

“It was totally different, going from me and Adam to being in a five-piece band,” Ashton says, over the phone during some rare downtime in Victoria, where he temporarily calls home. “The challenge was really in writing and arranging songs together, which was only the case on half the album. This album kind of shows you us in the process of figuring out what it means to be a five-piece band, instead of a duo with a band. It was a challenge letting go in a way.”

Which was easier said than done. At the ripe old age of 22, Ashton has been toiling at Fish & Bird since he was a teenager. In fact, Ashton was just 17 years old when the band released its eponymous debut. Since then, the band’s received plenty of praise for its work ethic and live performances. Critics have offered favourable reviews of the band’s albums, specifically highlighting Ashton’s songwriting prowess, which he calls his first love, above and beyond the guitar and banjo.

In a funny twist of fate, this upcoming show at the Cultch will be a full-circle moment for Ashton: as a teen, he won a playwrighting competition at the beloved East side venue, which gave him the confidence to eventually move into songwriting.

“I’m really excited to play at the Cultch,” Ashton says. “There was a few years stretch where I was performing at Youth Week at the Cultch. I did a lot of my early growth as a performer there. Winning that contest when I was young was like, ‘Oh! I can do creative stuff and people are actually going to care about it.’ It meant a lot to me growing up, so it means a lot to me to be playing there on Friday and releasing the CD there.”

Fish & Bird perform June 17 at the Cultch (1895 Venables), 8pm. $16 from 604-251-1363 or

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Bon Iver Exclaim online news piece

My online news piece can be read at


Justin Vernon Talks New Bon Iver Album and Its Heath Ledger Connection

News breadcrumbsplit Jun 15 2011

Justin Vernon Talks New Bon Iver Album and Its Heath Ledger Connection

By Andrea Warner

Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, hasn't been twiddling his thumbs since the release of his critically acclaimed, self-released 2007 debut For Emma, Forever Ago. He was Kanye West's unlikely accomplice on the hip-hop artist's last album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. He founded Chigliak Records, his own imprint on his home label Jagjaguwar. He's also co-producing Kathleen Edwards's upcoming album with Arcade Fire studio whiz Craig Silvey. And, of course, writing and recording his own remarkable follow-up, the wildly inventive and sonically ambitious Bon Iver, streaming here on Exclaim! this week.

The new self-title album is a gorgeous confluence of '80s influences, from synthesizers to saxophones, with Vernon's trademark falsetto leading the gentle charge through his own orchestrated wonderland.

"It came from building sounds in the studio... It was music and melody and taking it one step further, kind of calling it vocal sound, like vocal sort-of ramblings dictate melody and also which vowel I'd be using. You basically sing until you've written a song in non-English, if you will." Vernon laughs in a recent Exclaim! interview. "And then I sit down and basically try to dictate what it could be, and then I spend a year taking those dictations and trying to make them into something that would work as a piece of lyrics."

But it wouldn't be a Bon Iver album if there weren't a deeply personal story at its source.

"The first thing I worked on, the riff and the beginning melodies, was the first song on the record, 'Perth,'" Vernon says. "That was back in early 2008. The reason I called it that right away, is because I was with a guy that I didn't know very well, but basically, it's a long story, but in the three days we were supposed to spend together -- he's a music video maker -- in those three days, his best friend [Heath Ledger] died. And his best friend was from Perth. It just sort of became the beginning of the record. And Perth has such a feeling of isolation, and also it rhymes with birth, and every song I ended up making after that just sort of drifted towards that theme, tying themselves to places and trying to explain what places are and what places aren't."

Every song on the album takes its title from a city or a town, and Canada's represented beautifully by "Calgary." It's a sweetly soaring number, and Vernon admits that the Alberta city has been long-romanticized in his mind, even though he's never been there.

"Just being from the upper Midwest, I think there's an affinity [for Canada] with most folks that I grew up with," Vernon laughs. "I've never been to Calgary, still, and I've always imagined Calgary and, like, thought about Calgary, but the song's kind of like a wedding vow song between two people that haven't met yet, you know, sort of making promises to each other and I think that's what that's about. There's a danger and a beauty to envisioning a form, in this case love, or a place where love exists or can come from."

This kind of sincerity is evident throughout Bon Iver, which is in keeping with Vernon's desire to ignore the trappings of fame and focus instead on making music that makes him happy. Despite the massive differences in his life between releasing his first album and now -- Kanye on speed dial, label support, money -- Vernon had just one goal for himself when he began working on his follow-up.

"I sat down to make it and I was just like, I'm just gonna pretend -- no, not even pretend, I'm going to assume that no one's going to give a shit, 'cause why would they?" Vernon asks. "I'm gonna be making a record that's just for me and my best friends and try to make us happy, because that's all I can really do or experience or understand."

Bon Iver is set for release on Tuesday (June 21) via Jagjaguwar. You can currently stream the record here on and view the project's upcoming North American tour dates below.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Oh Susanna

My interview with Suzie Ungerleider, aka Oh Susanna, is this week's WEVancouver feature.

Oh Susanna

Oh Susanna follows the ‘Birds’ back home

Many musicians leave and never look back, but Suzie Ungerleider can’t quite quit Vancouver. The alt-country singer-songwriter, better known by her moniker Oh Susanna, was raised here, then moved to Montreal, came back for a few years, and left again for Toronto in 1997. Now she’s back for a quick visit in support of her gorgeous new album, Soon the Birds, on a co-headlining tour with singer-songwriter Matthew Barber (brother of Vancouver-based chanteuse Jill Barber). Ungerleider spoke with WE about being at the forefront of the alt-country revival, her Vancouver baggage and drunk cycling.

WE: This is your sixth album in 10 years. What’s changed for you on this record?
Suzie Ungerleider: Well, I was listening to a couple of records that I was thinking about their vocal delivery. One was by Amelia Curran and the other was Sarah Harmer. Not a specific record, but I was thinking about how she sings. And, this other woman, Martha Scanlon who is from Montana, all three of them have this way of singing that is very relaxed, not a lot of ornamentation, very understated. I don’t necessarily sing that way, but I was thinking about how that made it so that you thought less about — like, the voice allows you to enter into the song, but it doesn’t distract you from what is being said or sung.

Do you consider yourself a more narrative songwriter?
Absolutely. I write as a first person, but I pretend it’s not me.

So you’re not “drunk as a sailor”?
No, although I was riding my bicycle home drunk one night and I was like, “Oh, this is so fun!” So not responsible... But one night I was riding my bike a bit drunk and I swear that kind of feeling, I brought it into the song. I didn’t write it that day, but I think that kind of feeling of abandonment riding my bike around, I wanted to get that mood in the song. I don’t think about taking things so literally from my life. Some people can do that amazingly well and make it poetic, but I’m a little bit too guarded, maybe, to do that. Also, I like being a voyeur and I like to step into peoples’ shoes. Music lets me do that.

Well, if voyeurism is part of your personality, music’s the safest way to express that. Otherwise it’s prison.
Yeah, and I’m a creep! (Laughs) Or, I’m a gossip.

You were raised in Vancouver but you relocated to Toronto. Why?
Well, I had some really amazing experiences when I came here [to Toronto]. I hadn’t done a lot of music, just a little recording, and people wanted to help me out here. It felt like there were less opportunities in Vancouver. A lot of people were playing the music I loved out here. When I first began, it was right before there was that big alt-country resurgence. To me it felt like I was really into this music that was rooted in the past and that, yes, there were people doing it, but it was behind the scenes. Then I started hearing about all these bands, like Wilco, doing these same things. In Toronto there was more of that happening and people understood what I was doing. In Vancouver — I didn’t have a lot of musical experiences to be fair — it felt like it was a very small pocket of what was going on in Vancouver. Vancouver was really, like, a DJ town... And, I love Vancouver, but I was a teenager there. I’ve got all this baggage.

Do you feel like one of the forefathers, as it were, of this alt-country genre?
Ahh, I don’t know. It’s sort of a passé thing now. Even when it was happening, people were like, “Oh, no, don’t do that. It’s going to be this phase that’s so late-’90s.” It’s funny. I didn’t really think about it, but someone in Halifax was saying... “She was doing this before I even heard of alt-country.” And, I thought, “Oh, I guess that’s right.” I didn’t really think about it all that much, but yeah, I’m old enough now to be considered someone who was there in the past doing something that was old but new again. It would be way better if I was world-famous and could say that, but now it just sounds bad. Like, I was doing that and I’m still doing it! (Laughs) And, then it sounds a little bit pathetic if you’re going, “Yeah, me too! I was doing that too! Give me recognition!”

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Winter's Bone band

My interview with Marideth Sisco about the Winter's Bone band is online at

Marideth Sisco and Blackberry Winter Bring the Music of the Ozarks to Canada on 'Winter's Bone' Tour

News breadcrumbsplit Jun 02 2011

Marideth Sisco and Blackberry Winter Bring the Music of the Ozarks to Canada on 'Winter's Bone' Tour

By Andrea Warner

It's been about 60 years in the making, but Marideth Sisco is finally where she always wanted to be: on stage in the spotlight, out in front of the band, singing. If it sounds like something straight out of a Hollywood movie, well, it is. Sort of.

Sisco's sudden stardom is all thanks to a brief but memorable scene in the Academy Award-nominated film Winter's Bone, a bleakly dazzling coming-of-age drama set in the isolated Ozarks mountains region. During her scouting phase a few years before filming began, writer/director Debra Granik asked to hear some traditional Ozarks music and met Sisco and her band, collectively known as Blackberry Winter. Now, four years later, the group are embarking on the Winter's Bone tour, an international adventure that will take them out of the Ozarks and throughout North America. Sisco admits that even now, the whole experience is still as surreal as when it started.

"We were just playin' in some body's house and these folks came in, said they were doin' a movie and wanted to hear some Ozarks music, so we played 'em some and they went on their way and we didn't hear a peep from 'em for two years," Sisco laughs during a recent interview with Exclaim! "Then one night I got a call and they said, 'We just can't get that one song out of our heads. Could you do it for the movie?' And I was thinkin' record it for the movie and said, 'Yeah, I guess I could do that.' They said, 'That's good, 'cause we got a scene written in the movie for you.' I said, 'Oh my god.' That's how it started. It just never quite quit."

It's a rapid rise to fame after a lifetime spent resigning herself to not making money from her music. Sisco was three when her great uncle taught her to sing, encouraging her to perform on the spot whenever she could. She studied classical music in school, but found herself bumping heads with sexist '60s sentiment.

"I decided I would go into orchestral work, but then the school I was going to told me that was nonsense, I was a woman, I'd never be able to make a living at that, so I would have to be a music teacher," Sisco recalls. "I said, 'To hell with ya!' and left school and went to California and played music for about ten years."

But her career never took off and Sisco is matter-of-fact about the challenges.

"I discovered, after long soul searching, that I was never going to be pretty enough to be up front and I had way too much ego to be in the back, so I better find myself something to make a living with that I could actually do and be happy with," she says.

Sisco went back to school and pursued a degree in journalism, eventually leaving California and spending 20 years as a newspaper reporter. But she never forgot about her first love and didn't need to look far for someone who shared her interests. At the desk across from her was sports editor Dennis Cryder, her longtime collaborator and friend, who played guitar in the film and is a part of Blackberry Winter.

"I've always needed to sing, I've always needed to be absorbed in music one way or another, so that was a way of keeping me happy and doin' what I love the best, but it wasn't anything to make money with," Sisco says. "I just sort of forgot about the money-makin' side and concentrated on being able to put together some good music. The only time we would play out in public is this old time festival in June here, until the movie."

The movie's soundtrack renewed interest in traditional music, not unlike the revival sparked by the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack in 2000. Now, the band are fresh out of the studio, having crafted their own album, which Sisco hopes to have in hand by the time they reach the Waldorf Cabaret in Vancouver, their first Canadian stop, on Friday (June 3). She's jokingly named this the Amazing Geriatric Hilbilly tour, but she admits she's excited to bring the sounds of the Ozarks to the rest of the world, one city at a time.

"Two years ago if you told me I'd be doin' this, I'd of laughed out loud," Sisco says. "It's a pretty ambitious undertaking for a bunch of old folks, but we're sure having fun at it."

You can see Blackberry Winter's entire North American tour schedule here and get more information about the Vancouver concert here.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


My interview with Sloan appears in this week's WE.

Sloan (From left: Jay Ferguson, Andrew Scott, 
Patrick Pentland and Chris Murphy)
Sloan (From left: Jay Ferguson, Andrew Scott, Patrick Pentland and Chris Murphy)
Credit: supplied

MUSIC: Canada’s power-pop icons Sloan turn 20

Seeing the Tragically Hip, Blue Rodeo or Sloan has become as much a Canadian rite of passage as catching Stanley Cup fever or throwing one’s first curling rock. With the release of their reliably catchy, earworm-ridden tenth album, The Double Cross, Sloan celebrates a rock rarity: 20 years together as a band. The former young pups of power-pop have moved gracefully, even defiantly, into their forties, surviving the industry’s tumultuous changes, evolving tastes and pop culture fickleness. Jay Ferguson spoke with WE over the phone about how Sloan has beaten the odds.

WE: Congratulations on two decades! How does it feel?
Jay Ferguson: It’s funny when you say two decades. Like, 20 years isn’t bad, but two decades is like, “Oh my god, that is a long time.” It doesn’t seem like it, I guess. I don’t feel totally old and decrepit. I feel grateful that our band is still intact and we can still make music and hopefully make a living doing what we like and hopefully continue to make good records.

There’s a presumption that, since you guys have been together for 20 years, of course you would make a living as a band. Is that still a question?
To be honest, sometimes it is. You never know. Like, what if we put this album out and nobody cared and we couldn’t get any shows and nobody wanted to book our band? Then you have to question, well, how are we going to make money? ‘Cause it’s a realistic thing. Everyone in our band is in our 40s and everybody has kids or a mortgage or both, so you have to look at it realistically. The thing about Sloan is we do, thankfully, we can earn a living by being in Sloan, but by the nature of our band, we don’t tour 360 days a year, so there’s often a lot of downtime or we can organize our own lives to go and do other things. Everybody has extracurricular activities. I did a show at CBC Radio3 for four months and Andrew, our drummer, is a painter but he also produced the new Luke Doucette record. Chris worked on a film set [Scott Pilgrim vs The World] for a while, teaching the band to make it look like they were realistically playing their instruments, and Patrick writes a blog for Simpatico or something like that. There’s all sort of things we can do to make ends meet if we need to. They’re not necessary, but why not take advantage of it? But certainly it’s on our minds. Our band was never a million-selling band or anything. We’ve had a very horizontal progress over the years. (Laughs) It’s not like, “Wow, we were millionaires and now we’re broke.” It’s just a very straight line, but I’m also grateful for that, because I know most of the bands we started out with are no longer here.

You’ve lasted longer than most marriages. How do you guys make it work?
We share all the household chores, it’s a different person’s turn to get up in the middle of the night to sit with the kids when they’re not feeling well. Basically that’s how we make it happen. (Laughs) Oh, and by the way, split the money four ways.

That helps.
Yeah. Also, our band is kind of an outlet for everybody in the band. There’s nobody who’s disgruntled, like, “I have a song that I wrote!” and we’re like “No” and then they go make a solo record because you don’t have a voice in the band. Everybody in our band sings and writes and our albums are a forum for everybody in our band to express themselves, without sounding cheesy. Everybody has an outlet in the band to do what they want and I think that keeps a band together as well.

Sloan plays Friday, June 3 at Commodore (881 Granville), 8pm. Tickets $25 (RC, Z, H,

Samantha Bee

My interview with Samantha Bee is in this week's WE.

Samantha Bee is prepared to go pants-less.
Samantha Bee is prepared to go pants-less.
Credit: Supplied

STAGE: Samantha Bee faces tough opposition from Canucks

She’s been living in New York City for eight years, immersed in the business of exposing the ridiculousness in American politics, pop culture and media as a correspondent for the satirical fake news juggernaut The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, but Samantha Bee never forgets her roots. The Canadian comedian/actress knows this is hockey country, and unfortunately, her visit to Vancouver coincides with the second game of the Canucks’ Stanley Cup playoffs. As the centrepiece of French-language theatre company Theatre La Seizieme’s June 4 fundraiser, Bee is already feeling the pressure to make sure people show up to her evening of funny stories and side-splitting tales. She took a break from her pre-show jitters to do a phone interview with WE, discussing Canadian and American politics, socialized medicine and pondering the possible allure of hosting a pants-less affair.

A fundraiser for a French theatre program in Vancouver feels quintessentially Canadian.
I know! It’s run by a very dear friend of mine, [Craig Holzchuh]. Oh, hopefully there won’t be any French people there. I’m joking. But I don’t actually speak French! But I’m thrilled to do it. He’s a great artistic director. If you like theatre, you’d probably like his shows even though they’re in another language. People should dip their toes into those waters.

I’m glad to see them getting support.
Me too, but I’m really nervous there’s not going to be anyone there because of the hockey game. Like, I’m really nervous. When you do a fundraiser like that and you’re like the thing that is happening, like you’re the event in a weird way, it’s like having a party and there’s a real possibility that no one will come to it. It’s weird. I’m terrified.

What kind of night are you planning on hosting?
I can’t remember what he’s calling it [An Evening with Samantha Bee — Ed.], but it’s basically just an intimate night (said in a breathy voice). If people come I’ll — I don’t know, maybe it will be pants-less. It’s going to unfold with hilarity. And, I have a lot of crazy stories to tell about him, so he’ll make friends.

You’ve been in New York for a long time. Do you feel compelled to have dual citizenship, or are you resolutely Canadian?
We haven’t pursued citizenship yet. [Bee is married to fellow Daily Show reporter and Ontarian Jason Jones] I don’t have a real desire to do that and I don’t think there’s a real reason to do it. I’d like to do it for my children who are American-born... I do feel a bit guilty, I have to say, because I focus so much on the elections and then I cannot vote in them, so to some extent I’m in it but not of it. But, what can I do?

Did you have any feelings about the outcome of our last election?
It’s pretty interesting. It’s very interesting... What were your thoughts? It was something that got a lot of coverage down here which is not really typical.

I was not expecting Conservatives to take a majority.
Right, but the rural population kind of screwed everybody else. (Laughs) Ugh, you rural people with your conservative ideas! That was a little surprising to me as well, but I’m sure it didn’t surprise them.

Stephen Harper will have to commit bestiality before anyone takes him out of office.
(Laughs) I know, I know. Well, cross your fingers!

There was coverage in New York though? That’s rare.
Well, not a lot, but there definitely — you could follow it. And it was such a huge upset with the NDP coming in to form the official opposition, it was exciting. I think people down here were a little confused by the Bloc Quebecois, like, “Oh, it’s gone? They really seriously wanted to leave — what? Ohhh, you people with your health care. You so don’t have big problems.” (Laughs) They have such fundamental problems just getting health care for their families. It’s so hardscrabble just getting your kids covered that when you’re in that mix and you look at Canada, you go, “What are you guys fighting about? Jesus Christ! What are you talking about? My kid’s got diabetes and I can’t medication for him. I just can’t.” It puts everything in perspective a little bit.

Does satirical news affect change?
None of us think that it’s affecting change. I think it’s cathartic for people for sure, it’s a really nice way of distilling the day’s news. It’s effective in helping me channel my outrage, but I don’t think it really changes peoples’ minds about things. People believe what they believe. It’s really hard to wedge people out of their comfort zones, in either direction.

What are the main things causing you outrage right now?
Hmmm. Newt Gingrich is kind of at the top of my list. Mostly I’m just fascinated at how the Republican party is scrambling to find some leadership. I think it changed a lot of peoples’ minds when Osama bin Laden was killed. People made their decisions based on that, a lot of people are dropping out, people they thought would be in the mix. It’s interesting watching the field narrow and seeing who’s left. It could be very comedically — it could be a cornucopia is what I’m saying. I’m expecting it to be just unicorns and rainbows.

There was so much momentum behind Barack Obama and then turning of the tide where everyone was very critical. Was that surprising?
It’s pretty amazing how fickle people are. I kind of marvel at that. Literally people were disappointed in him three months in. People gave him about six months to solve the problems of the entire nation and what he was tasked with doing was just utterly impossible. I know he has let people down on very specific issues, but look at the alternative? (Laughs) I don’t see how you can — I don’t know what people are wishing for.

Samantha Bee appears June 4 at Vancouver Playhouse (Dunsmuir & Hamilton), 8pm. $44.50-$55 from