Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Feist Exclaim cover

My interview with Feist is also Exclaim's October cover!

Feist - New Beginnings

"I didn't want to play music anymore. I needed to think maybe I was gonna open a bookstore or learn how to surf and never come back."

It was 2008 and Leslie Feist, Canada's indie pop darling (and occasional Broken Social Scenester) was ready to quit being Feist. For seven years the road was her home, thanks to non-stop touring in support of back-to-back platinum-selling albums Let It Die and The Reminder. During that time, she taught Elmo her famed "1234" song on Sesame Street, provided a soundtrack to the great iPod explosion of 2007, and won a Grammy (as part of Stephen Colbert's 2008 A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All).

"I just wanted to stop and be in one place for more than a day," Feist says. "It's like the way some people take a vacation and travelling to them is a novelty. They cram all their curiosity into seeing something they've never seen, or unwinding and laying still or whatever you seek out in your vacation. To me, coming home and trying to be domestic was equally alien. I still haven't figured it out. I just came back from France and I was home for about two weeks before I noticed, like, why is there no food in my house, why are there are no groceries? There are spiders in the sink. I still don't know how to live in a place even when I'm living in it."

She didn't become a homemaking goddess during her self-imposed exile, but Feist managed to achieve a certain domestic bliss: she sewed, harvested and devoured at least one crop of tomatoes, and adopted two dogs so she could bask in the warmth of "furry love crawling all over" her. Though she eschewed the road, she indulged in periodic side projects: a documentary about the making of The Reminder called Look At What the Light Did Now, recordings with Wilco and Beck, and an experimental choral piece using puppets with visual artist Clea Minaker for Casteliers, Montreal's contemporary puppet festival. Despite the soil on her fingertips and the bounty of distractions, she also found herself engaged in a lengthy staring contest with her guitar, which sat perched in the corner of her room.

The guitar won.

Metals, Feist's fourth album, hits stores October 4. Some of its influences sound familiar, but there are dramatic forays into thumping beats, shouted choruses, and punched-up rock riffs. This is what her time off wrought: a fresh start.

"When I first got off the road, it was of the mindset that I don't care about the future, I just care that today I am not on tour anymore," Feist says. "I'm not picking up that guitar over there and it's sort of squinting at me and I'm going to squint back at it but I'm not going to play it. It's not that I hated music – I wanted to do other things, some normal stuff. I took enough time off that there was a fresh, mental clean slate. That guitar I was squinting at, eventually I picked it up. Eventually I got curious about it again. And then not only was I curious but I got completely ignited and I was back."

Feist wrote the album last fall, locking herself inside a derelict garage in her own backyard. She soundproofed the space and covered up the windows, creating her own deprivation tank in which she erected a little altar decorated with postcards alongside her piano, a floor tom and a broken, vintage Sears Roebuck guitar and amp. It was a guitar she didn't know very well, but after years of treading water – revisiting the same music, songs, and her beloved Guild Starfire – she felt it was time for a new conversation.

It was in the autumn that I really started, in September or October 2010, when the film [Look At What the Light Did Now] was done," Feist says. "I was so sick of looking at the past, via that film, that I really was much more curious about looking into the future, which I've never done. I'm pretty nostalgic. I've never been interested in the future, but I just got whiplash from too much looking back."

For some artists, moving forward means working with new producers and collaborators, creating new conversations with actual people, not just guitars. But, when one's long-time collaborators and friends are the chameleon-like musicians/producers Chilly Gonzales and Mocky, vocal shorthand can spark a much wilder reinvention.

Of all the people on the planet, I knew they were the last two on earth that would want me to recreate Reminder-type tones," Feist says. "Like, 'Yeah, The Reminder, that was ten seconds in the total story, so why would we?' I knew there was going to be the chance to really begin again. This record is not about recreating a past or reacting to it, too much."

Metals definitely indicates a forward momentum. Sonically, it represents the connective tissue between Feist's past and present, with echoes of whisper-light whimsical pop and jazz, and achingly beautiful moments of piano threaded with crunchier guitars, throbbingly sexy drums, and twinkles of flute.

Gonzales has nothing but praise for the ways in which his old friend has grown as a musician. In an email from his home base in Paris, he offered his analysis of Metals: "The songwriting is less conventional than before. She's being much bolder about getting away from default song structures than I could probably ever be. The songs sound simple but are actually more complex than one would think. She would play me a sketch, and I would feel as if I had understood the song – but when I tried to play along, I noticed a lot of counter-intuitive details. Her singing and guitar playing are just off the charts now since she toured so much. Having so-called 'credibility' – my fingers can hardly type the words – and big success is a huge boost to her confidence. Between the first two albums she went far into 'owning' every note of the album and was rewarded by all that love – so the leap between [The Reminder] and [Metals] is a bigger and more sure-footed leap. The wind is at her back now."

The only person who might not know that is Feist herself. After all, this success is still relatively new. And worldwide name recognition can't eliminate the inescapable truth that creativity is a tempestuous mistress and she never knows when, or if, inspiration will strike.

Every song I write I think is going to be the last one," Feist admits, laughing. "It's as if I'm of ten minds and I'm standing in a circle and each of me takes a tiny baby step closer to the centre of the circle and each of me is holding something in their hands until we all get to the very centre and we all converge and it's sort of hard to know what the hell is going on. Sonically, thematically or a little totem, an oracular totem that I kind of superstitiously fill with meaning – all the things that sort of converge to become a song, are weirdly, totally unknown. Of my minds, it sort of seems to be a collective process in terms of the way I – I'm totally alone, but it's not a quiet, calm place when I'm alone. There's a lot of ruckus in there."

Occasionally the din is coupled with old-fashioned self-esteem issues, which surface even when she's working with two of her closest friends.

I don't know music theory," she says. "Mocky and Gonzo both have degrees in music and they would roll their eyes if they were to read this – I mean, I know what both have achieved has nothing to do with the fact that they know theory – but as someone who's never learned it, it's an intimidating skill to not have in a room full of people who have it, even if they aren't consciously accessing that stuff. Say I'm showing them 'Graveyard,' a song I wrote alone in the room, they have their interpretive conference like, 'Yeah, on the B minor we should probably not have the F sharp because that will make it too major,' where all I can contribute is, 'Wait that resolves it too much, no, no, that sounds like an unfinished thought, this has to still be a question by the end!'"

She laughs as she says this, but Gonzales insists that Feist's intuitive approach to songwriting is a credit, not a detriment.

Leslie has a huge part of her creativity that is feeling-based so she pushes me to get to that emotional intensity," he offers. "She was the A&R for Solo Piano, what we called 'PrePro RepCon' for pre-production repertoire consultant. She helped choose the songs, which takes of the songs, and the album order. The whole thing was strongly under her influence and it's my best-loved album, I think, and that's largely to her credit."

Feist calls it speaking in purples and mauves, and she's grateful to have this shorthand between them. She believes that while she may write the songs, they're really just a starting point, a common ground for the three of them before they begin arranging.

It's why I credit the arrangement, because between the writing and the producing there is that part of things," Feist explains. "When you're a solo artist, you're bringing people in who don't normally play with you, so those decisions on what the bass is going to do and how the drums are going to interact, all of that stuff, is kind of a much more conscious effort of arrangement. Not in a write-it-down-on-musical-staff or something, but it's definitely a conscious part of the equation. That's inventing the landscape, which we did together."

After arranging in January, Feist, Gonzales, Mocky, percussionist Dean Stone and keyboardist Brian LeBarto holed up in Big Sur, California, and recorded the album in a little over two weeks. From embracing music again to wrapping Metals, it took just five months – a privileged position for any musician. And Feist's good fortune is not lost on her. Her gratitude and delight at making another record is genuine: 15 years ago, she didn't know if she would ever sing again due to major vocal cord strain from her five years touring with all-girl punk band Placebo.

"Other singers, we roll our eyes about it all the time because there isn't a formula to make it all work out: You have to take flights, you have to sleep in the wrong kinds of environments, you have to maybe not sleep at all sometimes," she says. But instead of lingering on the what-ifs, she clings to a realization she arrived at many years ago on the road. "I was in Manchester, that drench-y, cold place, sick and unhappy and playing a solo show at some university. I remember having the conscious thought that there's nothing I can do right now except use whatever's left and use it with the same intention, which isn't necessarily about hitting notes. It was just a moment of freeing myself from any type of precision-chasing."

But, that threat to her livelihood and her main creative outlet remains a very real ghost that – fresh start or not – lingers over every decision she makes to this day.

I think about that a lot [not being able to sing]," Feist admits. "There's a kind of helplessness you feel, like why do you wake up one Tuesday where I just can't [sing], I don't have it. I'm exhausted or been in an air-conditioned room and I'm just rendered completely hobbled. It has so little to do with what I can control. It's made me obsessively into guitar tone because you can touch something and move a knob and you can control it with your hands. It's just a freedom. I always say to people in my band that they can go out and have a conversation and drinks or whatever and I'm kind of like the maimed, lonely singer, drinking tons of water, watching some movie in the bus, because it is something I have to be careful about. I don't know what I'd do if I couldn't [sing]."

Kaitlin Fontana

My interview with Kaitlin Fontana about her debut book Fresh at Twenty: The Oral History of Mint Records is in this week's WE.

Kaitlin Fontana is the author of Fresh at Twenty: The Oral History of Mint 
Kaitlin Fontana is the author of Fresh at Twenty: The Oral History of Mint Records.
Credit: Supplied

Music in Mint condition

Kaitlin Fontana has been juggling the multi-hyphenate life of a working artist for years: Improv actor-comedian-student-freelance writer (full disclosure: her work appears semi-regularly in WE). Now she adds author to the list with Fresh at Twenty: The Oral History of Mint Records. It’s an illuminating and thorough flashback examining the hard work and dumb luck of one of the most important periods in Vancouver’s music history. Mint gave the world the New Pornographers, Neko Case and established itself as a major player in the emerging, soon-to-be-thriving, indie-rock scene.

Helping Fontana tell Mint’s story are a bevy of famous names including the New Pornographer’s Carl Newman, the Evaporators’ Nardwuar the Human Serviette, the Smugglers’ Grant Lawrence and cub’s Lisa Marr. Fresh at Twenty recounts the perfect storm of talent and hubris, friendships and rivalries that made Mint what it is today, reaffirming its place in history as the little label that could. Fontana spoke with WE about the New Pornographers, missing Neko Case and how ‘90s punk band Gob became the villain of her book.

Did Mint’s roster play a role in your music education?
Definitely the New Pornographers. Mass Romantic came out just before I moved here and it was still a big deal, still something that was talked about by the indie-rock nerds I was meeting at school, and I became a big fan of theirs because of that record. It’s still probably my favourite record Mint has released, though some of the Pack a.d. stuff is up there. That record had a crazy effect on me. I wasn’t really into that kind of music at that point. I grew up listening to straight-forward, classic rock. Being a small-town kid, that’s what you get on the radio and it’s what I was raised with.

Whenever I put on a New Pornographers’ album, no matter what the weather, the sun seems to start shining. It’s magic candy.
It’s candy, but it’s also that secret candy that has vitamins in it. I feel like it’s the kind of pop music that only a band that’s lived in a climate like this could make in that it’s sunny but there’s sort of a darkness behind that disposition. You sense that to get to the sunny, some shit had to be slogged through. I feel that way about cub and a lot of the other bands that landed on Mint.

Some bloody ink is spilled in Gob’s direction. Have you had any feedback?
I’m sure I’ll hear from them. I tried to interview them. I told their management that there were some stories about them in the book. At first I just said I’d like to talk to the guys because they had a brief history with Mint and it would be nice to have their voices in there, and it was like, “Yeah, we’ll get them on the horn for you or whatever.” Then some time elapsed and I [reached out] and it had flipped: “No, no, no, never mind. We don’t want to talk to you anymore.” That happened a few times throughout this process. I do think it’s that barrier where people start to think about it too much. It’s their youth and there’s a lot of youthful energy that made Mint what it was, [Mint founders] Bill [Baker] and Randy’s [Iwata] included.

Neko Case didn’t participate, but she’s well-represented as this shining light of Mint. She sort of gets the folk hero treatment in the book.
I kind of just let details accumulate. Some of them are telling of her level of maturity at the time and some are a bit mythical because she serves as that. Bill’s direct quote is “Neko was the phoenix.” They were about to collapse as a label and she sort of swooped in and saved them, not intentionally — she just wanted to put out a record and she wanted to do it her way and she knew these guys would listen to her. I think that’s an ethos about how she lives her life as an artist: she wants to do things her way and she doesn’t want someone else to have the reins at all.

The Fresh at Twenty book launch takes place Oct. 6 at W2 (111 E. Hastings), 8-11pm with bands, special guests and DJ Cam Reed (aka Babe Rainbow). Free admission. Info:

VIFF PICKS, week 1

My picks for must-sees at VIFF is in this week's WE

Japan's Tatsumi is one of our VIFF picks
Japan's Tatsumi is one of our VIFF picks
Credit: Supplied


Put on your popcorn-eating pants: It’s VIFF. The beloved film festival celebrates its 30th anniversary with more movies than most people can possibly see. So, over the 17 days of VIFF’s run, WE will provide our picks, previews and reviews of the films that thrill us the most.


Starring Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya
Directed by Pedro Almódovar

Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almódovar specializes in crafting soap-y, enthralling melodrama with more twists and turns than a corn maze. His latest, a loose adaptation of  Thierry Jonquet’s novel Tarantula, is a psycho-sexual horror film that returns Banderas to his native tongue as a plastic surgeon holding a young woman captive, which, oddly, is the least disturbing bit of the film. Sept. 29 (7:00) and Sept. 30 (1:30) at Vogue Theatre.


Starring Olympia Dukakis, Brenda Fricker
Directed by Thom Fitzgerald

Canada comes out strong with this flick about 80-year-old lesbians forced to flee Maine for Nova Scotia after vulgar, fiery Stella (a feisty Dukakis) springs her lover of 30 years, sweet, blind Dot (Fricker), from an old-folks home. It’s funny, heartfelt and full of foul language — and indeed a story everyone needs to see. Oct. 1 (6:45pm) and Oct. 2 (4pm) at Empire Granville 7.


Starring Bessho Tetsuya, Tatsumi Yoshihiro
Directed by Eric Khoo

Part celebration, part ode, Eric Khoo makes his directorial debut with this animated feature, a tribute to the work of famed artist Tatsumi Yoshihiro, the man who invented gekiga in 1957. Gekiga is a style of manga that fuses darkness and realism, and essentially gave grown-ups permission to view manga as high art instead of kids’ stuff. The film’s base is Yoshihiro’s own award-winning manga autobiography, A Drifting Life, fleshed out by adaptations of five of the artist’s most famous short stories. It’s a visual feast. If you think animation is just for the little ones, see this and get the snob slapped out of you. Oct. 2 (2:45pm) and Oct. 4 (9:30pm) at Empire Granville.

Andrew Bird Fever Year

My VIFF cover story for WE features an interview with Xan Aranda, director of Andrew Bird: Fever Year.

Despite years of friendship, it took filmmaker Xan Aranda plenty of coaxing to go behind the scenes with reclusive musician Andrew Bird.
Despite years of friendship, it took filmmaker Xan Aranda plenty of coaxing to go behind the scenes with reclusive musician Andrew Bird.
Credit: Supplied

‘Fever Year’ marks directorial debut, Bird in hand

Welcome to the biggest week of Xan Aranda’s life. Her directorial debut Andrew Bird: Fever Year, a concert documentary about the reclusive indie-rock violin virtuoso, makes its international premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival on Oct. 8. That’s just five days after it makes its world premiere at the New York Film Festival. Excuse her if she’s freaking out just a little bit.

“The first festival to take it was Vancouver,” Aranda says, over the phone from her home base in Chicago, where Bird also resides. “Before [VIFF] and the New York Film Festival came along, I was just wigging out, thinking we would work so hard on this film that we like, but that people would be like, ‘Oh man, another music doc.’ I really hoped to make something that would pull outside of that.”

It does.

Fans of Bird know little about the man himself, other than what they glimpse through his carefully constructed, lush folk-rock songs. Since 2003, he’s released four solo albums and several live records, amassing a devoted cult following that grew in legion as chamber pop and his practice of violin looping caught on with the more mainstream indie rock crowd. His live shows reveal a genius-like approach to detail, both sonically and visually. But Bird’s not an accessible, knowable musician like his peer Owen Pallett (formerly Final Fantasy). Interviews are rare (he declined to participate in this story) and he’s not big on social media. His identity as an artist is carefully controlled. On the surface, it’s not a lot to work with when crafting a documentary.

But Aranda isn’t just any filmmaker. She’s been a friend of Bird’s for almost a decade, working with him on a variety of short film and music video projects over the years. When he came to her for a consultation about filming his final two concerts of 2009, Aranda saw the potential for something more.

“There’s no point in doing a concert capture,” she says. “That’s only for the fans and they’ll watch it once and put it on the shelf. I really wanted to make a film that — I don’t know if I captured his essence, but gives you a chance to be with him. He’s a very private person and I don’t think that this film really tells you who he is, but you do get the chance to be with him and that was a goal. I very much wanted this to be story with music and music with story and for you to kinda not realize when one is happening and then the other, just the next thing you know 80 minutes went by... I know he’d talked to a lot more directors who were more experienced and famous than I am, and ultimately he said he wasn’t comfortable with that.”

Admittedly, as Aranda discovered, Bird wasn’t always comfortable with her approach either. He proved reticent throughout about the documentary aspect to Fever Year, but Aranda kept pushing.

“It took a lot of coaxing,” she laughs. “Andrew would be very happy to only have the on-stage be what he shares... It was very collaborative, but lots of reluctance. We tried one direction for a while, but ultimately we both watched it and were like, ‘This is so stilted!’ I’m 100-per-cent a fan of verite. I told him I wanted to shoot more with him. I’d call him and be like, ‘Hey, what are you doing today?’ And he’d say, ‘Oh, I’m recording.’ We’d say we want to come with you and he’d be like, ‘Okay, you can come by between two and three.’ And I’d be like, ‘Well, when are you getting there?’ And he’d say, ‘Nine.’ And I’d be like, ‘Ok, I’m going to meet you at your house.’ That was hard for him. He’s so focused. He doesn’t want his recording messed up, either... My first and foremost concern was that it honor his pace as a human. Imagine an MTV version of Fever Year. Andrew is really deliberate, he’s really thoughtful, he’s very careful in everything he does. It wasn’t hard to just look at who he is and honour that; and, it’s the style of film I wanted to make, so it wasn’t a stretch for me either.”
Fever Year takes its name from the unidentified illness that daunted Bird throughout his tour in 2009. In the film he estimates he had a fever of about 103 degrees at least 150 days out of the year. He also ends up on crutches at one point. Aranda immediately says “No,” when asked if she was worried about her subject and friend, then laughs.

“It sounds really callous, but I wasn’t worried about him, because I knew it was cresting soon, I knew what his schedule was,” she explains. “I always describe him as a frog in hot water. When you tour, you just take it moment-by-moment. It’s not until later you realize, holy shit, I just had a fever for 150 days. He was alarmed and towards the end of the year he saw some doctors, but there’s so much frenzy involved, you don’t even realize. But he does say in the film that he’s only not had a fever for three or four shows, and I like that he’s laughing when he tells you that. I wasn’t worried. He’s fundamentally very strong. But, I know what it’s like even in my own work — it really does take one to know one.”
For both the filmmaker and her subject, Fever Year is the culmination of over a decade of hard work, seizing every opportunity with dogged determination.

“I know what it’s like — and this does bring me both pause and calm — to be at a heyday that’s a result of 10 years of really hard work, and knowing that you have to respond regardless of what your physical resources are,” Aranda says. “And there’s a tragedy to it. Because if you didn’t take a bite out of every pie, you would be okay, but it’s everything you’ve worked for. I’ve been a producer for 10 years. I’ve worked my fucking ass off,” she laughs. “I was busy when Fever Year came around. I was tired and broke. It wasn’t the best idea for me, but I had to do it and I’ve never been sorry.”

Andrew Bird: Fever Year screens at VIFF Oct. 8, 10, 14. Tickets and showtimes:

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Drawn Ship

My interview with Drawn Ship appeared in last week's WE.

Drawn Ship
Drawn Ship
Credit: supplied

Drawn Ship embarks on its maiden voyage

Most people emerge from a break-up 10 pounds heavier or lighter, depending on which side of the dump/dumpee divide one falls on. Lyn Heinemann, formerly of indie jazz outfit Portico, came out on the other side with a new band and a new album. Drawn Ship is Heinemann’s collaboration with ex-Hinterland drummer Gregg Steffensen, but the bruised-and-beautiful songs on the duo’s debut, Low Domestic, are her own. The album is part break-up record and partly inspired by Heinemann’s emotionally gruelling work as an addictions counsellor in the Downtown Eastside. WE spoke with Heinemann in advance of the band’s CD release party, Sept. 24 at Artbank.

I’ve been listening to the album a lot and it makes me want to cry, both because of its beauty and its deep sadness.
People keep saying that. I guess I didn’t notice when I was writing it. When I started I knew I was making a break-up album, which isn’t always happy, but I didn’t know it was going to turn out to be so down. It’s pretty dark in the end, hey?

It is... Writing it all down and having people on the other side say, ‘hey this is dark’ would be a bit of a surprise.
It’s kind of like going to work and your boss says, “oh, you look really tired” and you’re like, “thanks, I actually slept all right.” (Laughs)

Can you provide some insight into the different breakup stages you went in the writing process?
I didn’t really start writing a lot of the songs until the break-up was more or less over. It was in the early I hate you / don’t talk to me / we need space stages. I’d never really had a bad break-up before; it was always kind of amicable. This is the first time it was really shitty, and obviously it really bugged me. Most of the break-up songs on the record aren’t about my own direct experience, but it just got me thinking about all the shitty ways that two people can part. So a lot of them are totally fictional and don’t have anything to do with my own particular circumstance. Lots of adultery and wife-beating, that kind of thing, on the record, not in my life! (Laughs)

Does the narrative structure give you the necessary separation to be an observer?
Totally. And more than that, I feel like it’s a bit more interesting. Telling your own story over and over, for me that would be really hard to do over 13 tracks. My life isn’t all that interesting.

You work with people who need a lot of help. How has that bled into your creative process?
My job — it affects me a lot. It can be pretty tough day-to-day. There’s tons of light moments and really amazing things that happen. It’s not all bad, that’s for sure, or I couldn’t do it. But I guess in the last couple years there’s been some really hard stuff. I’ve lost three clients to overdose or drug-related illness, so a lot of that had to come out in a way. My own feelings towards my job are pretty mixed. This is maybe a longer answer than you want. (Laughs). It’s just tough. I’m part of a system, right, and ultimately I’m working, I’m being paid to help these kids that need so much more than what I can provide, or even what the system can provide. They need a family, they need a home, they need a mom. And at the end of the day, I go home. There are boundaries set up for a reason. I’m grateful for those boundaries, but then in writing those songs on this album that are about my job or about the clients, it’s kind of a way to excuse myself a bit from being part of a system that’s doing something, but it ultimately falling a way short, I think, no matter how much the individuals care about each other.

You also have a minor obsession with Louis Riel?
He’s such a compelling character. There’s so much drama in his life and his story. The man was kind of half-insane. My friend [singer/songwriter] Lee Abramson, she and I came up with this plan to write a musical biography of Louis Riel’s life. I don’t know why, we were just hanging around and thought that’s a great idea! So we did. Collectively we have 10 or 11 songs, we totally chronicle his life. Maybe someday we’ll put it all together, but we’ve just been typical slack musicians and haven’t done that project yet. She’s released a couple songs from that Riel series and so have I. There’s one on our last Portico record and one on this one. I’m hoping one day we can get our act together and record and release it all.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Next to Normal

My review of the Arts Club's Next to Normal, on now.

Warren Kimmel and Caitriona Murphy battle their demons in Arts Club's production of Next to Normal.
Warren Kimmel and Caitriona Murphy battle their demons in Arts Club's production of Next to Normal.
Credit: Supplied

STAGE REVIEW: Next to Normal

In 2009, New York theatre-goers found themselves slapped in the face with something rarely glimpsed on Broadway’s staid, old stages: mental illness, pharmaceuticals and an abundance of F-bombs. Next to Normal proved anything but with a catchy, pop-inspired score, dark humour and a careful balance on the razor-thin line between melo- and drama. That it went on to win two Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize only solidifies what audiences had already learned: Like, Rent, Next to Normal stands to become a defining musical for a generation.

Creators Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey recognize that a picture-perfect family is an intangible, Rockwell-ian dream for most people. Next to Normal’s characters feel that pain — and then some. Diana (Caitriona Murphy) is bipolar and unhinged by grief, while husband Dan (Warren Kimmel) struggles to live happily-ever-in-denial. Meanwhile, their overachiever daughter Natalie (Jennie Neumann) fears she’s turning into her mother.

Done right, Next to Normal is powerful and riveting, digging deep inside you right from the opening number and wreaking havoc on your heart and mind well beyond the final curtain. This Arts Club production applies a glossy Desperate Housewives-like veneer over what should be a more nuanced production, like, say A Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Where there should be tension, ferocity and bleak humour, here there’s a mostly flat anger. This is particularly true of the relationship between Diana and Natalie where the bittersweet parallels between mother and daughter never transcend the songs.

This isn’t to fault Murphy or Neumann’s portrayals (both acquit themselves well), but, oddly, the female characters are relegated to supporting status here rather than the leads. Through either Bill Millerd’s direction or Kimmel’s commanding performance (or a combination of both), Dan becomes the focal point. His emotional reckoning is Normal’s sole cathartic climax rather than another aspect of the devastating collateral damage wrought by spiraling mental illness and long-buried grief.

This production’s massive shift in focus reveals new layers to a husband’s stubborn, possibly selfish, devotion, but it does so at the expense of the story’s larger themes: what is mental illness; the efficacy of psychiatry; and survival. But, thanks to strong source material and Kimmel’s award-worthy turn, this trade-off only dilutes Normal’s powerful message rather than diminish it entirely.

Next to Normal runs to Oct. 9 at Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage, 8pm (Wed-Sat), 7:30pm (Tues). Matinees: Wed, Sat-Sun, 2pm. $29-$65 from 604-687-1644

The Pack ad

My interview with the Pack a.d. is in this week's WE.

The Pack a.d.

The Pack a.d. to rock the roof at Olio

The last time Becky Black and Maya Miller, the two halves of garage-rock whole the Pack a.d., were driving along the Oregon coast, it was all sun, sand and um, a dead walrus. This time around, Black is more hopeful. She and Miller are en route to Arcada, Calif. on the eve of the release of their fourth album, Unpersons (in stores Sept. 13). It’s a blazing, bruising collection of emotionally charged rock ’n’ roll, with deviations into blues and punk. It’s the East Van pair’s best offering to date and we’ll get our first taste when they make their Olio Festival debut Sept. 24.

You’re driving on the Oregon coast. Did you stop at the Sea Lion Caves?
Becky Black: No, but one time we stopped at the beach and there was a dead walrus. It was such a beautiful day and then there’s a not very beautiful smell happening. Live seals, that would be better.

They smell bad, too, even the live ones. Those caves just smell like poop for miles.
Well, they’re just sitting on rocks, sunbathing and pooping all day long.

Are you two trying to kill yourselves, releasing so quickly?
Is it that quick? When was the last one? Last year, yeah. We release every year. For us it’s not that hard to come up with songs and do an album. It’s almost better because then we can start playing new songs and dump the old ones. We have ADD; the older songs get boring after a while. Is that kinda soon? I guess.

Many bands take two or three years between records.
Yeah, that’s true. I guess we just shit them out like seals.

Are you writing together?
It’s split pretty 50/50. But quite often I’ll write and song and not finish it. I don’t really finish a lot of things in my life, so it’s good to have a partner who can help me finish things. That happens with the songwriting, too. I’ll have the first verse or the chorus and Maya will fill in the rest. Or, she’ll write a whole song, it’ll be like a poem, and we’ll write the song around it. We kind of had a theme going with animals and — actually, well, things that aren’t human, ghosts and demons, and then a few break-up songs.

What’s the most personal song?
Maybe “Pieces.” That song’s just kind of about me. Some songs we’ll write a story about a break up but it didn’t actually happen in real life, like it sounds personal and everyone can relate to that.

Unpersons sounds more confident, more polished. This sounds condescending somehow.
No, it’s good. Everyone hopes to improve over time. Yeah, we feel more [confident]. When we started this, neither of us had spent years in other bands trying to figure out what we really wanted to do. We just started this band on a whim, kinda, and recorded an album pretty soon after that. So, every year after it’s just been all the touring and album after album, it’s just been a learning curve. We’ve just naturally, hopefully, improved.

What is rock ’n’ roll to you?
It’s not really about the getting wasted and fucked up and being that kind of — I mean, I know that’s the epitome of being a rock star and people kind of idolize people or look up to them even though they’re messed up. I don’t know what it is. Maybe people just like to watch a train wreck — that makes a person more interesting if they’re unwieldy and messed up. I prefer to just enjoy the music part of it.

Have you played the Olio Festival before?
We’ve never played Olio before and I think it will be cool. I think we’re playing on the rooftop of a clothing store. It seems like we barely ever play Vancouver. I always enjoy hometown gigs.

The Pack a.d. plays the Olio Festival on Sept. 24. Tickets and full schedule:

Monday, September 12, 2011

Yukon Blonde to Pleasure Cruise: Local faves

My recommendations for five local acts this fall in WE this week.

Yukon Blonde

Last week, I looked ahead at the autumn concert scene and offered my five picks from the slew of visiting acts — tho ones not already sold out! — headed this way. But I cheated, see, because there’s a veritable treasure trove of local bands playing hometown shows this fall. Herewith, my picks for this season’s best home-grown talent. YVRocks, anyone?


This year’s Olio Festival features that crazy guy who made The Room and some of the best indie rock bands in Canada, but nothing has me as excited as seeing The Pack a.d. back in action. The East Van rock duo eviscerates exes of all sorts on their new album, Unpersons, a fiery mix of punk, blues and garage-rock sounds that takes aim right at the jugular. Olio Festival runs Sept. 22-25 at various venues. The Pack a.d. play Sept. 23 at No Limits (68 W. 5th), 12am. Free with $25 day pass from


Vancouver’s newest super group Pleasure Cruise is comprised of some of the city’s finest musicians: singer/songwriter Jody Glenham, drummer Dustin John Bromley, guitarist Quinn Omori and bassist Kyle Bourcier. The indie-pop band makes its debut as part of the Biltmore’s new monthly party night, Junior High. Sept. 29 at the Biltmore (391 Kingsway), 9pm. $5 cover at the door.


The Belle Game were one of those sought-after festival revelations, a happy accident one hopes to stumble upon at a sprawling music fest. This double bill with The Ruffled Feathers essentially offers two-for-one chamber pop at one of the best venues in town. Tickets have yet to go on sale, so I don’t even know how much the show costs, and frankly I don’t care. Gimme some of that. Oct. 20 at the Railway. Info:


The easy-going indie rock band (pictured) has been hard at work putting the finishing touches on their new EP, Fire // Water, a hook-heavy, harmony rich, four-song ride under a sunny sky. Their music is the perfect blend of pop and personality. Nov. 10 at Biltmore (391 Kingsway), 8pm. $12 from Red Cat Records, Scratch, Highlife and


Power punk is alive and well in the frenzied, fairly-named Invasives, a blistering, body-jerking band who have crafted a sound that surely incites crowd surfing. It’s a fitting double bill with post-pop band Beekeeper, whose cleverly controlled rock scarcely contains the blissful chaos at the heart of every song. Nov. 26 at the Media Club (690 Cambie), 8pm. Tickets TBA.

Five fall faves from Austra to Vagabond Opera

My fall picks for visiting acts to Vancouver appeared in WE a few weeks ago. 

Credit: supplied

It’s been over a decade since I experienced a regular school year, yet September is still more about the anxiety of fresh starts and not-forgotten failures than any drunken New Year’s Eve. If you’re like me, the sweet sounds of fall concerts should help banish those back-to-school blues (real or phantom). Skip sweating over the sold-out shows from Bon Iver, an imploding Kings of Leon, Opeth and Jay-Z/Kanye and, instead, take a chance on these five visiting acts that will help soothe even the most savaged of spirits.


On one level, George Lewis Jr., aka Twin Shadow, is another dude crafting songs alone in his bedroom. But the Brooklyn-based beat-machine isn’t making music for the maudlin introvert — he’s all about the solo dance parties. As is his opening act, the brilliantly fun Diamond Rings, Toronto’s one-man-electronic band. Sept. 28 at Biltmore (390 Kingsway), 8pm. $17.50 from Red Cat Records, Scratch, Highlife and


If Neon Indian and Com Truise’s electro and synth-heavy songs are any indication, the early ’80s never actually ended — the first part of the decade just took a prolonged sojourn in outerspace wherein it bashed away at the boundaries of bleeps and blips with New Wave hammers, biding its time until the perfect storm hit: advanced sound engineering and the threat of grunge’s return. This night all but guarantees a chill-out dance party and at least one or two scrunchie sightings. Oct. 4 at Venue (881 Granville), 8pm. $20 from Red Cat Records, Scratch, Beatstreet, and Highlife.


Sucker for a spectacle? The Vagabond Opera also has the talent to back it up. Featuring classically trained opera vocalists and musicians, this cabaret-inspired group takes its inspirations from pan-European bohemia: Parisian jazz to Ukranian folk-punk with heavy doses of klezmer, accordion and violin. It’s probably unlike anything you’ve ever seen this side of the Atlantic. Oct. 12 at the WISE Hall (1281 Adanac), 8pm. $15-$18 at the door or


As two-thirds of Sleater-Kinney, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss helped put a lot of the “grrr” in the riot grrrl movement. Now they’re bringing back that much-missed vibe with their new punk rock super-group, Wild Flag, with Helium’s Mary Timony and the Minders’ Rebecca Cole. Thick, scuzzy guitars and pounding drums set against deceptively sweet vocals? Yes please. Nov. 12 at Biltmore (391 Kingsway), 8pm. $16 Red Cat Records, Scratch, Highlife and


A band’s best friends are sometimes all one needs as proof of awesomeness: indie electro-pop outfit Austra is tight with fellow Torontians Diamond Rings and Fucked Up. Need more proof? The trio’s stunning debut Feel It Break is a jarringly beautiful collision of influences and sounds — digital chamber pop that’s cinematic in scope. The album’s garnered gushing praise from major media outlets around the world and landed the band a coveted spot on the Polaris Prize shortlist. They’re a band destined for big venues. An intimate show like this will be one to remember. Nov. 16 at Electric Owl (918 Main), 8pm. $14 from Red Cat Records, Scratch, Highlife and
Next week’s MUSIC column will focus on five local acts rocking out this fall.