Friday, July 31, 2009

Quintron and Miss Pussycat

My interview with eccentric New Orleans electronic organ and puppeteer duo, Quintron and Miss Pussycat.

Quintron and Miss Pussycat.

Quintron and Miss Pussycat.

By Andrea Warner

Pop music is no stranger to curious duos — Sonny & Cher, Captain & Tennille, and Wham! come to mind — but few can match the oddness of the organ-driven, dance-happy, puppet-pioneering indie-swamp-rock pair, Quintron & Miss Pussycat.

Their monikers sound like the names of characters in a twisted fairytale — which, as it turns out, isn’t far off the mark. Quintron is the mad inventor who spends his time wielding soldering irons in his underground lair, crafting futuristic musical instruments like his famous Drum Buddy (more on that later). Miss Pussycat, his wife and collaborator, is a chipper puppeteer who thrives in a world of make-believe, the kind of woman who says in complete earnestness when one phones for an interview, “Hold on, I have to go through the trapdoor to get Quintron for you.” Come one, come all to the circus of the Spellcaster Lodge, otherwise known as Quintron and Miss Pussycat’s home (and secret nightclub), nestled defiantly in New Orleans’ 9th Ward.

The couple are about to embark on a cross-continent tour in support of their new album, Too Thirsty 4 Love, a mixed bag of dizzying, booty-scootin’ indie-rock that mixes elements of punk, techno, pop, and funk. Quintron, who’s cultivated a reputation for being infamously facetious with media (he once did an interview from a wheelchair, claiming he’d been injured in a fall from a roller coaster at an amusement park), is currently hard at work repairing the damage done to his invention, the Drum Buddy, on a recent flight.

“We just went to play [the Sled Island festival] in Calgary, and good ol’ United Airlines destroyed my Drum Buddy,” he says, by way of explaining why he’s holding a soldering iron in one hand and the phone in the other. “I invented and built it, and it’s very rare and precious, and United Airlines played basketball with it, so I’m having to rebuild the entire thing before this tour.”

The Drum Buddy is almost more legendary than the puppet shows that kick-off the duo’s gigs, and Quintron sounds like a proud papa/total nerd while describing his creation. “It’s a light-activated analog synth,” he says. “It kind of has some of the same design elements that a battle DJ mixer would have, like for really, really playing vinyl as an instrument. But instead of a rotating record, it’s a rotating can, and as the holes emit light into the receptors, it charges and discharges these oscillators. It’s also sort of akin to an old-fashioned music box.”

Though he offhandedly attributes his love of music to autism (he had a “compulsive need to rock back and forth and hum”), Quintron’s sound is deeply rooted in the eccentric vibe and rich history of New Orleans, a place that he’s grateful to call home.

“When you’re entrenched in some place, you get things done faster,” he says. “I know where everything is, I know everyone. It’s kind of a good-ol’-boy town, and I’m a good ol’ boy, and that fuckin’ sucks, but it sure makes life a whole lot easier when you’re one of ’em.”

Quintron credits that phenomena with keeping life a little bit simpler; knowing the courthouse clerk will help one bypass the queue, or avoid getting taken for big bucks trying to get the car fixed. New Orleans has been Quintron and Miss Pussycat’s home for a number of years, and the pair’s Spellcaster Lodge was among the casualties of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but has since been resurrected. Quintron’s voice takes on a weary tone as he bluntly states he’s “sick of New Orleans being defined by this one tragedy.”

“New Orleans has recovered remarkably well, given the degree of destruction,” he says. “There are areas that have not come back, and that’s really tragic. But, all in all, the parts that are doing good are doing really, really, well. New Orleans grew more than any other American city [in the last census year], so people are moving here and things are happening. That said, it’s still totally fucked up and crazy and lawless and falling apart, and there are still hurricanes and termites that eat your house, and I think we’re also the murder capital again this year — good for us, hurrah, hurrah. So there’s all those things. You gotta be faced with death to love life as much as New Orleans people love life, I guess.”

Quintron & Miss Pussycat play Saturday, Aug. 1 at the Media Club (695 Cambie), 7 pm. Tickets $15 from Ticketmaster, Zulu, and Red Cat.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Summer Theatre picks

WE's theatre highlights for the scorching summer

An orgy of risqué delights awaits late-summer theatregoers, like Shine: A Burlesque Musical (pictured), opening later this month.

An orgy of risqué delights awaits late-summer theatregoers, like Shine: A Burlesque Musical (pictured), opening later this month.

STAGE: Vancouver theatre’s long, hot summer

A gay old time awaits at the city’s crazy, sexy, cool

For most Vancouverites, Bard on the Beach is usually summer’s hot theatre ticket — and it is. But there’s also a frenzy of both fresh and familiar faces under the spotlights on other, more intimate stages. From brash burlesque to two takes on Macbeth, here we call your attention to some of the city’s most brazen theatre treats. And, we’ve included some Pride-ful picks — like the Broadway smash musical Rent, an ode to Edith Piaf, and some Human Remains — to help put a little more gay in your day.


It’s all in the name, really. Jonathan Franzen’s translation of the taboo 1906 German play tackles sexual repression among an insatiable group of teens who pay the ultimate price for their religious upbringings. Originally labeled “obscene” and “shocking,” Spring Awakening still quakes with relevance in society’s abstinence-focused approach to young people fucking. (Please note: This is not the Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater musical.) To Aug. 1 at Havana Theatre (1212 Commercial),

7 pm (Wed-Sat). $12-$15 at the door.


Edith Piaf’s tragic life (highlights of which include childhood abandonment, busking on the streets of Paris, and eventual success that was tragically derailed by drug abuse and abusive men) places her firmly in the canon of 20th-century divas. This critically acclaimed one-woman touring show stars the incomparable Naomi Emmerson, whose portrayal of La môme (the Kid, as Piaf was called) has garnered rave reviews around the world. To Aug. 2 at Firehall Arts Centre (208 E. Cordova), 8 pm. Matinees: Sat and Sun, 2 p.m. Tickets $32-$40 from 604-689-0926.


The musical that immortalized just how many minutes there are in a year (525,600, to be exact) launches its first-ever Canadian regional production. Jonathan Larson’s rocking reinvention of Puccini’s La bohème is populated with heroin addicts, AIDS victims, performance artists, drag queens, and slackers galore, all surviving on New York’s Lower East Side in the early ’90s. Aug. 4-23 at Presentation House (333 Chesterfield Avenue, North Vancouver), 8 pm (Tues- Sat). Matinees: Sat. 2 pm. Tickets $25-$30 from 604-990-3474 or


The teens from Carousel Theatre’s Summer Shakespeare Program sink their teeth into the Bard’s meaty tale of betrayal, guilt, and madness. (The Goth spin and “guyliner” hint at a somewhat more mature approach than in previous summers.) For its part, Theatre Conspiracy offers up a brilliantly macabre interpretation of the “Scottish Play,” with the aptly named Graveside Macbeth, one night only in Mountainview Cemetery.

Carousel Theatre’s Teen Shakespeare Macbeth runs July 31- Aug. 15 outside Performance Works on Granville Island. Free admission. Theatre Conspiracy’s Graveside Macbeth runs Aug. 6 at Mountainview Cemetery. Free admission. Reservations from 604-878-8668 or


In last summer’s smash hit, Grimm Tales, the Itsazoo Theatre folks gave classic fairy tales a brisk frisking and a satirical bite. What better way to follow up than taking on that great canon of crazy, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales? The interactive element — it’s a walking play through Queen Elizabeth Park — guarantees bewildered looks from passers-by, particularly when the cast tackles literature’s favourite loose woman, the Lady of Bath. Aug. 7-21 at Queen Elizabeth Park (3030 Cambie); meet at the Blodel Conservatory,

7 pm. Matinees: Sat., 2 pm. Tickets $10-$17 from 604-221-6604 and


When Vancouver’s gay-, kink-, and sex-positive musical duo, the Wet Spots, teams up with the theatrical burlesque impresarios of Screaming Chicken Theatre Society, the results are bound to be titillating at the very least. This bawdy original musical follows a band of talented misfits trying to save their beloved burlesque theatre from demolition — or, worse, respectability. Aug. 12-22 at Waterfront Theatre (1412 Cartwright, Granville Island), 8 pm (Wed-Sat). Tickets $25 from 800-838-3006 and


Originally created in 1967 as a feminist middle finger to the staid social constraints of the early 1960s, Millie harkens back to the first time women could have it all: the Roaring Twenties. The titular heroine is torn between two loves, her desire for a career, and her independence. But really, she’s just gotta dance. To Aug. 22 at Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park, 8 pm. $32-$39 from 604-684-2787 or


Penned in the late ’80s by then-enfant terrible of the Canadian theatre, Brad Fraser, this lascivious thriller features a pansexual cast, a psychic prostitute, and a serial killer. It’s like Season One of Friends, only dirty. Real dirty. Aug. 25-Sept. 6 at PTC Studio (1398 Cartwright, Granville Island), 8 pm. Tickets $16-$22 from 604-684-2787 and 

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Maxwell preview

For reasons unbeknownst, even to me, I decided to knock Usher down a few pegs whilst writing this Maxwell preview for Charleston City Paper.


Staff Pick: Maxwell

By Andrea Warner

Just ’cause he’s credited with helping launch the neo-soul R&B stylings that brought the falsetto back doesn’t mean Maxwell is all that comfortable in the spotlight. In fact, the Brooklyn-born 36-year-old’s been off the grid since the release of his third album Now in 2001, seemingly enjoying a self-imposed exile as mysterious as the man himself.

Following Now, Maxwell was poised to lead easy-listeners to smooth-groove bliss. His sexy songs likely paved the way for plenty of late-night booty calls, and yet his earnest odes to monogamy and treating a woman right kept Maxwell teenage girl-friendly and mom-approved, much like a certain singer named Usher, barely a blip on radio’s radar back then, who was chasing Maxwell’s register all over town. Back then, Usher was just a kid who hoped puberty wouldn’t touch his high notes, but after Maxwell vanished from the public eye, he nabbed the neo-soul crown.

But, on the cusp of a new decade, where everything 1996 is apparently new again, Maxwell’s back, with the first of a three-part trilogy. Black Summers’ Night pops with vocal tricks of all types: whispers, growls, upper octave ascensions into space. To Maxwell’s credit, his MO hasn’t changed: when he pens a song called “Pretty Wings,” it’s a sure bet that the song will be genuinely pretty, and the ridiculously limber falsettos will literally call to mind a bird flying up into the sky.

And it’s obvious that the man’s been missed: Black Summers’ Night debuted at number one on the Billboard Top 200, and “Pretty Wings” has already received over four million plays on his MySpace page. Usher doesn’t even need to step aside. He’s already been dethroned. —Andrea Warner

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Ugly Truth with Katherine Heigl

My interview with Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler at the Ugly Truth Junket

Opposites attract: Katherine Heigl contemplates Gerard Butler’s rough charm in The Ugly Truth.

Opposites attract: Katherine Heigl contemplates Gerard Butler’s rough charm in The Ugly Truth.

By Andrea Warner

LOS ANGELES — A dark-haired woman, tall and thin, lingers near the French doors of the ballroom in the Four Seasons Beverly Hills hotel. She is pretty, and disarmingly proper in a navy dress sprinkled with white polka dots. But nothing about her screams “Movie star!” the way Gerard Butler’s presence does when he strides into the room moments later. In fact, Katherine Heigl does incognito with such practiced ease (likely as a result of her paparazzi-plagued existence) that almost none of the reporters awaiting her arrival recognize the woman of the hour until she takes a seat behind a bank of microphones and flashes the famous smile that has graced Grey’s Anatomy for five seasons, and proved a box-office boon for the hit comedies Knocked Up and 27 Dresses.

Heigl’s recognizable long blonde tresses have been replaced by shorter, brown locks, but there’s no disguising the quick wit and sharp tongue that have become her hallmarks — for better or worse — over the last several years. Within seconds of sitting down, she offhandedly jokes that she “doesn’t have hair on that show” — referring to her Grey’s character Dr. Izzie Stevens, who is suffering from cancer — so she can do what she wants with her look.

Reported efforts to reign in Heigl and put a cap on her candid nature have obviously been unsuccessful. And that’s perfectly in keeping with the very reason for this press gathering: to talk about Heigl and Butler’s new R-rated comedy, The Ugly Truth.

A raunchy battle-of-the-sexes tale, Truth is a modern twist on the Katherine Hepburn / Spencer Tracy comedies of yore — with liberal doses of swearing, simulated orgasms, and twin bikini babes wrestling in Jell-O. Heigl plays Abby Richter , the socially awkward, romantically challenged producer of a fledgling morning news program who has a checklist of criteria for the perfect man. Mike Chadway (Butler) is the host of a chauvinistic late-night cable show in which he dispenses wisdom about “the ugly truth” of men and women. And wouldn’t you know it? When Mike is brought on board Abby’s show, his bare-knuckle take on sex and attraction gives it the ratings boost it desperately needs. Abby even ends up seeking his advice to try to land the hot doctor who lives next door. Inevitably, crazy antics ensue.

Heigl sees Truth as deeply funny, but doesn’t think it’s a straightforward take on contemporary male-female dynamic. “I would hope that it’s an exaggeration of what men and women are like,” she says. “I know a lot of men who joke like Mike, but I don’t think I know any guys who are really like him.”

Butler laughs and leans into his microphone. “I gotta say, I think Katie’s deeply flawed in knowing what goes on in a lot of men’s minds,” he says. “Or she hangs out with a breed of way more sophisticated male than I am — which wouldn’t be difficult.”

As anyone who follows the gossip columns knows, Heigl’s breed of male tends to be in direct relationship to whatever controversy she’s inadvertently courting at the time. In 2006, she publicly called out her Grey’s colleague, Isaiah Washington, after he allegedly referred to their co-star (and Heigl’s close friend), T.R. Knight, as a “faggot.” The following year, after starring in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, she was quoted as saying the film was “a little sexist,” and that it “painted the women as shrews” — statements that resulted in members of the media labelling her a “traitor,” “hypocritical,” and “ungrateful.” And last year, there was speculation that Heigl had asked to be released from her Grey’s contract so she could concentrate on movies, but it was Knight who ended up getting turfed, whereas Heigl’s cancer-afflicted Izzy seems to have survived the death knell.

Heigl’s penchant for outspokenness may have earned her a reputation for being difficult, but the reality, at least according to Butler and Ugly Truth director Robert Luketic, is anything but.

“What amazes me about Katherine is she can pick up a script with last-minute rewrites and look at it and say, ‘Right, ready,’ whereas this one here,” says Luketic, gesturing at Butler, “is, like, shitting Tiffany cuff links over everything, and he’s gotta read it and absorb it.

“There’s this shorthand I have working with Katherine; there’s this magic and light that she brings to her work. Apart from how professional she is, I also like her as a person.” So much so that the two just wrapped another film, tentatively titled Five Killers, due out in 2010.

“I’m no action hero,” Heigl says about the making of Five Killers, which is about assassins. The Ugly Truth’s physical comedy is more her speed, wherein her character’s dorky side manifests itself in a variety of physical — and embarrassing — challenges. At various points, Heigl hangs by her knees from a tree wearing only underwear; launches herself into spazzy happy dances; and wears vibrating underwear to a dinner party, resulting in a series of public climaxes. Heigl giggles when Butler and Luketic joke about the 35 set-ups it took to nail the latter scene, and the “authenticity” of the orgasms. “Can you imagine [if they were real]? Yes, I’m very method,” she says, laughing. “It was physically exhausting, though. I mean, at the end of the day, I felt like I’d done a marathon. No one wants to orgasm 35 times.”

But the film’s stars and director are banking on audiences wanting to watch it, and other more “adult” affairs, on the big screen. “It’s not all cocks and vag,” Luketic says, before catching himself. “Wait, did I just say that?”

Heigl encourages him, explaining, with her trademark honesty, why movies like The Ugly Truth and their R-rated language feel so, well, natural to her. “I love raunchy humour,” she admits. “What makes me laugh the hardest, it’s not terribly sophisticated. I’m a 30-year-old woman, and as much as I love younger audiences, I wanna tell a real story about people my age, and we throw ‘fuck’ around a lot. When you have to censor it, it feels a little too cute... The ability to be crass, to say ‘cock,’ that felt real to me. That’s the real world I live in with my family and friends.”

Ah, the beauty of the ugly truth.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Ex Norwegian

My interview with Ex Norwegian was in the Charleston City Paper last week.

Ex Norwegian gains international momentum
Miami Beach indie band: not on Standby

By Andrea Warner

With both a name and an album title taken from Monty Python, it's an easy mistake to think that indie-pop band Ex Norwegian are a quartet of Anglophiles or expat comedy fiends just looking to fulfill the American rock 'n' roll dream. But that's only partly true.

In reality, the band is a group of 20-somethings from sun-drenched, coconut oil-soaked Miami Beach. The group's been performing together for a year, but the hype surrounding them is massive, thanks to a relentless touring schedule and the success of a new debut album, Standby, which is full of hooky experiments that navigate folk, pop, and rock, paying tribute to bands from The Shins to The Kinks.

Roger Houdaille, 27, lead singer/songwriter, put together the group after performing as a solo artist for a few years. He recruited high school friend Carolina Souto, 24, to play bass, Arturo Garcia to take the prime role behind the drum kit, and Billie G on the guitar.

Within months of forming, Ex Norwegian had already been invited to the biggest, and most influential party in an independent band's foundation: College Music Journal's (CMJ) New York-based new music festival for college music stations. The weekend-long music marathon — a breeding ground for hobnobbing, discovering new talent, and relentless self-promotion — proved to be just the kick-start the band needed, and set the pace for a grueling but exciting first year.

"We were gonna take it slow, like, start touring next year, but then suddenly we had to get to New York," Rogers says. "We arrived on one of the last days and went to the hub of everything, and there were actually people who knew us and our songs and were singing to us, and it was kind of like, 'Wow.' We were surprised at that, but it gave us a vote of confidence."

A further boost to the Ex Norwegians' self esteem was an invitation to play on the Sky News channel hugely popular European show Sky Live that broadcasts their live performance to millions of people.

"It was just this random opportunity," Houdaille says. "They queue you, and we just kinda sing and have no idea what's going on. And then afterwards you have people in Ireland saying, "We saw you live!," and my mom, who lives in Paris, was like 'Yeah, we saw you live, I'm so excited.' The best part is our guitarist at the time, he had no idea it was live and was totally calm, and he's wondering why we're so nervous, and we're like, 'Dude, we just played to millions of people, literally."

For all the international accolades, though, Houdaille admits that playing in Charleston is actually at the top of Ex Norwegian's wish list.

"We booked this show first," he says of the tour planning. "We played Columbia a while back, and that was one of our greatest shows. They told us, 'Columbia's great, but you gotta go to Charleston.'"

This might just be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Decemberists

My interview with The Decemberists (one of my all-time fave bands) appears online this week.

The Decemberists: not entirely influenced by modern times.

The Decemberists: not entirely influenced by modern times.

The Decemberists give the drummer some
By Andrea Warner

Hyper-literate indie-rock isn’t the easiest way to make a name for oneself in the music business — unless you’re the Decemberists. The Portland, Oregon-based outfit has five albums to its credit, having built a loyal and ever-growing fanbase on a bedrock of epic lyrical concepts, cleverness, and achingly morose-bittersweet-funny lyrics, all stitched together by the nasal-voiced and wacked-out imagination of the band’s perennial man-child, singer-songwriter Colin Meloy.

Also featuring Chris Funk (lead guitar), Jenny Conlee (keyboards), Nate Query (bass), and John Moen (drums), the Decemberists have been together almost 10 years, coming of age alongside indie-pop, folk, and rock peers like Death Cab for Cutie and Rilo Kiley. And while all three bands share a penchant for wordplay, it’s only the Decemberists who have made successful albums off such far-flung ideas, including Picaresque (Spanish satire about roguish scoundrels), The Crane Wife (Japanese folklore), and their latest album, The Hazards of Love, a vast rock opera that borrows heavily from English mythology and features baby-killing philanderers and other soothing images.

WE spoke with Moen over the phone in anticipation of the Decemberists’ two-night stand at the Vogue on July 21 and 22.

You’re playing two shows here. How will the nights differ from each other?
Moen: You know, I’m not entirely sure. I just talked to someone who led me to believe we’re maybe doing an all-request night or something like that, but I don’t know if that’s true.

Just a rumour?
It could well. I know we’ve talked about it in the past, not doing the same show both nights in certain places where we’re doing two shows. But I’m not sure that’s actually happening. Typically, I have no valuable information for you. How do you like them apples?

You show up, you do your job, they tell you what to play, and you go home.
It’s embarrassingly more true than you would like to know. I think I try to put as much into those performances as I can, but I really don’t always know what the next thing is.

How did everything come together with The Hazards of Love?
Mostly it’s Colin’s baby. We’ll kind of conceptualize together, [like] “Wouldn’t it be fun if we played a country record in a barn?” We’ll talk about atmosphere — we’re all fans of music and music history to a degree. We all romanticize the making of music a little bit with each other. It’ll kind of whet [Colin’s] appetite a little bit, one way or another; this one was mostly him listening to too much British folk music. That inspired him to put some of those elements together in what seems like a story format, and see how it all kind of laid out. It was leaving a lot up to chance, really. He identified elements from old folk songs that were recurring themes. The character Margaret, and shape shifting beasts...

A little murder...
Right. All these things... He kind of made a list of these things and started writing around that idea with a lot of dropped-D chords — as far as the key went — and just kind of kept building around that, and wrote the songs in the order they appeared. I think we shifted the order of two things in the recording, but mostly he came to us with a good map and demos of all of these songs, and we sort of put it together.

Some critics have knocked Hazards for being a rock opera, too grandiose. Do you care at all what people have to say when it comes to that?
I didn’t know anyone was knocking us until you told me that.

I’ve just crushed you?
Yeah. I’ll probably be sitting in the basement in a corner, rocking back and forth, weeping. I don’t know. I’m sensitive about people’s opinions; I’m less sensitive as the drummer in the band, because so many of the choices aren’t my choices. I fill my role and I try to do as much as I can to be a part of it, but as a drummer, sometimes you’re just playing the drums. But it’s part of the gig — I just stay away from it all, honestly. And the thing is, it doesn’t seem to matter. Enough people are buying the record to keep things interesting. It’s certainly not Beyoncé or something of that calibre, but it’s doing well enough; people are coming to the shows and having a really good time.

You’ve worked with a pretty wide array of musicians. What’s been a couple of the highlights of your different collaborations with different people?
Gosh. I got to play live with Elliott Smith on Saturday Night Live — that was really exciting. It was also followed quickly by me being kind of fired from his touring band, so that kind of soured the experience a little bit. But music’s like that; it’s fine. There’s lots of opportunities. As exciting as that moment was, I’ve had as much fun playing here with a buddy of mine named Pete Crebbs, who’s had bands for years: Hazel, back in the ’80s, [and] Golden Delicious in the early ’90s. His bands lately have been more on the local level, but we used to go play cover songs, and I had so much fun doing that. I muscled my way into Stephen Malkmus’s Jicks.

What’s next for the Decemberists?
Funny you should ask. We just had a meeting the other day about getting the next thing going, but it’s top secret. [Laughs] No, it’s not. I don’t really know how much I can divulge, but we’re definitely really fired up right now. I think feeling the love of music, there’s another record we’re going to try to record maybe [next] spring, so it won’t be a real long wait for another thing, for sure, should you be somebody anticipating the release of an album from the Decemberists.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Death Cab for Cutie

I got to interview Death Cab for Cutie! Read the article here or in this week's WE.
The Cuties themselves (from left): Nick Harmer, Ben Gibbard, Chris Walla, and Jason McGerr.

The Cuties themselves (from left): Nick Harmer, Ben Gibbard, Chris Walla, and Jason McGerr.

Credit: supplied

Indie-pop’s band of brothers still going strong after 10 years

By Andrea Warner

If you know a guy who wears black plastic-framed glasses, owns a closet full of artfully decorated t-shirts, and waxes poetic about every twee moment betwixt the making and the breaking of love gone awry, it’s likely he’s a Death Cab for Cutie fan.

The quartet toiled in relative obscurity for the first five years of its existence, ruling Seattle’s indie music scene and steadily gaining a global fan base, before breaking into the mainstream with their major label debut, 2005’s Plans. Ten years on, the group’s now considered one of the forefathers of indie-pop, and their last album, 2008’s Narrow Stairs, achieved something many thought impossible: it debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts.

The band’s humble Bellingham, Washington foundations — built squarely on fiercely loyal friendships — has helped keep Death Cab from becoming another Hollywood-style train wreck. Lead singer/songwriter Ben Gibbard is now engaged to actress and musician Zooey Deschanel. Guitarist and producer Chris Walla has founded his own recording studio in his Portland home, producing other indie giants like the Decemberists and Tegan and Sara. Drummer Jason McGerr mentored teenaged indie-pop sister act, Smoosh. Bass player Nick Harmer has preferred to stay out of the spotlight, making him all the more interesting to speak with about fame, friendship, and his possible future in a Journey cover band.

WE: Did you want to be a rock star when you grew up?

Nick Harmer: One, I’m not even sure if I’ve accomplished that yet. [Laughs] I definitely wanted to be in a rock band. When I was really young, I wanted to be in, like, Motley Crew or Twisted Sister. I liked to draw pictures of myself with spiked wrist bands and pyrotechnics going off behind me. I always loved playing music, but I never once had that moment where I was like: ‘This is my career.’ I mean, I’m still not sure if this is what I want to do as a career or if it’s some extended awesome hobby. I almost feel like if I admit that I make my living playing music it’ll jinx it and everything will just disappear or something. I hope that I’m 55 years old playing in a casino someday.

That would be awesome.

Right? Just playing in, like, a Journey cover band. Or maybe I’ll be in a little jazz combo in restaurants on Thursday nights, just up in the corner.

Have you ever seen Big Elvis in Las Vegas? He’s this guy who used to weigh 800 pounds, and now he’s down to 400 pounds because he found God and stuff.

No! [Laughs] And he’s known as Big Elvis? Wow. I’m not a front man, I’m not an Elvis kind of guy. It’d be something like, Big Elvis with Big Bass Player.

In the early stages of Death Cab, did you think it was something that had legs and would last?

It’s weird to say. I mean, I knew the first practice we had, when things clicked, that there was something different about this combination of musicians and the music we were making. It was a very tangible kind of magic where you felt almost goose-bumpy, you know?

And you all still speak to each other, which is more than some bands can say after a decade together.

Yeah, and I know this might sound a little heart-on-the-sleeve, but if, at the end of everything I still have three really close friends, that’s a win. There’s so much about what we do for a living that threatens to tear us apart on all kinds of levels. I mean, we’re friends and business partners and the fact that we’ve been able to iron out the creative, financial, and social dynamics, and still maintain a true friendship amongst it all is absolutely the cherry on top. That’s the core I want to protect.

I know so many people who count Death Cab’s albums as the soundtracks to their most intimate moments.

I’m in the band, but the albums become soundtracks to intimate moments for me, too. It’s kind of a strange thing to be part of making the music and also be listening to it. I mean, I’m not walking around listening to our music on headphones all the time. Early on when we were trying to decide what to record for an album, we were listening for that real emotional connective tissue. Our audience is composed of people like us. I look out at the crowd when we’re playing and almost everyone is people I recognize in one way or another, or the kind of people I would be friends with, or going to have drinks with.

What’s next for you guys?

Ben’s been writing a little bit, then these shows in July, and downtime for the rest of the summer. This fall we’ll generate ideas and start the process of another album. I don’t think we’ll wait as long as we did between Plans and Narrow Stairs. We’re excited about releasing more music more frequently, and maybe doing shorter tour cycles. We’d like to play as many shows in a shorter amount of time, but I really think the internet is part of the marketing tool. It’s really the indispensable fifth member of the band. Utilizing that to share music and change things up just a little bit so we don’t have that hamster wheel of record, go on tour for 18 months, take time off, repeat. That can get a bit stale feeling as a formula.


My article on the great new band, Futurebirds, appears in the Charleston City Paper and online.

The Futurebirds' off-kilter pop
Wingin' It

By Andrea Warner

At first listen, the music of the Futurebirds might sound like some forgotten gem from the 1970s, but halfway through the group's eponymous debut EP, it becomes clear why this Athens-based band is generating more buzz than a beehive hit with a stick.

The group infuses their sound with a thoroughly modern spin, reinventing choral alt-country with contradictions aplenty.

Most of them share vocal duties and can claim multi-instrumental skills, with Carter King on drums, guitar, and banjo; and Payton Bradford also on drums, mandolin, and guitar. Daniel Womack alternates between guitar and banjo, while Thomas Johnson takes his turn on guitar, banjo, and mandolin. Brannen Miles plays bass, and Dennis Love tackles the steel drum. Jessica Holt, vocalist, is an occasional contributor.

Further evidence that the Futurebirds are indeed of the future, and not just a rediscovered relic? Check out the requisite displays of youthfulness: ill-advised facial hair, ironic T-shirts, and plenty of good-natured sarcasm and silliness at every turn. Example: King replies with an earnest "Yes, ma'am" when asked a question, and then gleefully attributes the band's success and hype to "a good night's sleep, thorough stretch routines, and calling our mothers every day."

Taking their name from a class King took on "poultry evaluation," the Futurebirds were originally just a bunch of friends playing in other bands, drinking at the same bar night after night. And then something changed.

"Last fall, we started getting together to play for fun, and we could just tell we were all on the same wavelength," King recalls. "On one occasion, we were playing some covers, screwing around. Payton was playing an upright piano which was completely indiscernible amongst the rest of us banging out annoyingly loud electric guitars. He was gritting his teeth and profusely sweating. His face was like a fire engine as he mercilessly beat the keys. He stood up and kicked his chair across the room, and continued to play what could, to this day, be the greatest inaudible piano solo ever played. Ever."

There aren't a lot of pounding piano solos on the Futurebirds' debut, but every song sounds perfectly homespun, as if it was recorded with a giant mic in the middle of a circle, with the band singin' and bangin' and strummin', guided only by instinct, not outcome. The EP matches the Futurebirds' personality perfectly: beautifully offbeat and slightly sloppy, full of rockin' hymns that could alternately soothe a drunk or incite a cowboy.


My story on Funemployment appears in this week's WE

Faces of funemployment: Graphic designer Carlos Hernandez Fisher (left)  recently celebrated his last day of employment with a global telecommunications giant. Meanwhile, Astrid Elston and Brian Robinson are well on the path to entrepreneurial success thanks to the economic meltdown.

Faces of funemployment: Graphic designer Carlos Hernandez Fisher (left) recently celebrated his last day of employment with a global telecommunications giant. Meanwhile, Astrid Elston and Brian Robinson are well on the path to entrepreneurial success thanks to the economic meltdown.

Credit: Andrea Warner and Doug Shanks

By Andrea Warner

For plenty of people, the twaining of work and fun is merely a fantasy; something to daydream about to help whittle away the hours between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Work has always been just that: work, a guaranteed daily negotiation between your interests, aptitude, and the economy. And then a not-so-funny thing happened about a year ago: The bottom dropped out of the stock market, and a global reckoning saw big businesses crumble, banks collapse, and previously wealthy countries, like ours, face weakened job markets.

But out of the smoldering ashes of lost jobs, a burgeoning scene of independent, arts-loving entrepreneurs are turning unemployment on its head and ushering in a new era of “funemployment.” The term became an overnight viral sensation thanks to a widely-circulated June 3 article in San Francisco’s SF Weekly, chronicling the experiences of recently laid-off people who were collecting unemployment benefits and using their newfound time to reassess their career goals, and then launch their own creative businesses.

With the proverbial pink slips piling up and EI lines wrapping around city blocks, more and more Vancouverites are facing similar challenges, leading to our very own funemployment phenomenon.


Carlos Hernandez Fisher, fresh off his last day of work for a global telecommunications giant, is now entering his second week of funemployment. He spent three years clocking in, learning the corporate jargon, but his first love, graphic design, continued to occupy his leisure time. Like many people, he kept imagining a day when he could pursue his passion for potential profit, but he wasn’t sure how to make the dream a reality — until the layoff.

“I was given a lot of notice, so I was ready for the news, but there was still a period of shock and adjustment,” Hernandez Fisher says. “It wasn’t until a few weeks after finding out that I started making peace with the situation and started seeing it as an opportunity rather than a crisis.”

He credits close friends with encouraging him to try to create a career out of his graphic design interests. But the big push was seeing a Venn diagram on how to be happy in business, created by professional strategist, Bud Caddell.

“In it, happiness is the intersection of what we do well, what we want to do, and what we can be paid to do,” Hernandez Fisher says. “Design makes me happy and I’d like to think I do it well, so now it’s just a matter of finding a way to make it pay the bills.”


It’s a story that’s familiar to Astrid Elston, owner and designer of Fire & Ice Creations. Elston was a sales manager for a tourism trade show when she was laid off in January.

“You have that sense of, ‘Oh my god, what am I gonna do?’” Elston recalls. “It’s hard to say the layoff was a relief, but, I also had the sense that it might be a blessing in disguise.”

Elston had spent several years crafting recycled glass into jewelry and home decor pieces as a hobby while she worked in tourism, an industry that’s recently shouldered the brunt of the economic meltdown.

“I was tired of being at the whim of other people’s hiring and firing patterns so, after being laid off for the last time, I decided, ‘That’s enough’,” Elston says. “I wanted to put my entrepreneurial spirit to work, take all my business experience, and make my own money, have my own hours and work really hard to build something for myself.”

Elston signed up for Douglas College’s self-employment program to help provide a better foundation on which to build her business. Now, seven months later, her website,, is fully functional, her jewelry is available at a variety of retailers, and she plans to set up residence at several craft and design shows by the end of the year. But Elston admits that she still occasionally doubts herself.

“You are everything in the company,” Elston explains. “I am the ad person, the sales and marketing, the accountant, the production person, and you’re the person who makes or breaks it. It’s can be extremely overwhelming. You’re the person who needs to make all those calls or no one’s going to call you.”


Brian Robinson is four months into his funemployment foray. Like Hernandez Fisher and Elston, he was initially dismayed when informed of his layoff from managing an ESL school in downtown Vancouver.

“My first response was, ‘What am I gonna do now?’” Robinson says. “I was depressed. I wanted to change direction. I wanted a job that would give me a bit more of a future, more satisfaction, and better rewards, financially and everything.”

Putting his love of food, cooking, and baking front and centre has helped Robinson re-prioritize his career goals. He launched Robinson Fine Foods (, and currently has a table at the monthly Blim Art Market where he hawks gourmet foccaccia breads, Italian pies, and a variety of sweet and savoury goods.

“When I was first laid off, the potential of being on EI for all of those months was kind of scary,” Robinson says. “I joined EMBERS, a part-time self-employment program. It’s really useful. They’re making me think about what I really want to do, and they’re getting me to do market research and the feasibility of how it works. So my idea has really taken shape since those classes.”

Robinson intends to set up a bakery and delivery service catering to workplaces or areas with fewer options for interesting food choices. The layoff has helped him focus on what’s important to him in a career, but he admits that he’s still a ways off from meeting his financial goals through self-employment.

“I’m very motivated to see this happen, and I get a lot of satisfaction out of working on it and seeing the pieces in place,” Robinson says. “But at the back of my mind, I’ve still got that thing that I need to find some sort of job, get a decent income coming in, and that will provide a stable grounding to kick this off. To feed the real love and build contacts in the industry, I’m only looking in the food world now for additional work.”


Making a living from one’s art may still be a challenge, but thanks to a confluence of events — the recession, social networking web sites, and a huge momentum in DIY culture — Vancouver-based indie artists have more avenues than ever to launch their businesses.

Yuriko Iga is the owner of Blim, a Main Street arts-based store and studio that offers workshops in a variety of disciplines that’s a sort of ground zero for DIY enthusiasts. She’s recently launched the monthly Blim Art Market, and sees the recession as a huge opportunity for a new culture of craft.

“Depression is one of the best things that can happen,” Iga says. “It’s a shame we have to force ourselves into these situations, but if that’s what it takes to get back to grassroots styles of business. That’s what meant to be. Often in First World countries, there’s this inflated sense of mega business, and we just all think it’s normal. I think the economy being up and down is natural, and I think it’s good when it’s down because people rely less on spending and are forced to become more creative with their time and money. Sometimes having stuff taken away is a good thing.”

For his part, Hernandez Fisher agrees.

“I think the recession is an opportunity for a lot of people to step away from working just to pay bills and look at what they can do that is going to make them happier on a day-to-day basis,” he says. “I think the boom in things like [online craft market and hub] Etsy, Blim, and [online craft market] Threadless, and the removal of barriers to entry means that it’s now possible to work for yourself without having to put out a huge initial investment first. The web, blogs, and social networks can open avenues that previously didn’t exist. Before, if you left a job and really wanted to spend your time cooking, say, that had to be what you did in between earning a living. Now, there’s any number of people who have turned that kind of passion into blogs, book deals, and storefronts, like and”

To that end, Hernandez Fisher has already launched his own web site,, and plans to use it as a combination portfolio/storefront for his designs. He’s also planning on making use of local markets like Blim, Portobello West, Spend on Trend, and Got Craft? as he creates more art and merchandise.

For those seeking advice on how to make the most out of craft and fashion markets like the ones mentioned above, Blim’s Market Vendor workshop this Saturday, July 11, from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. might be just the answer. For a $5-$10 sliding scale fee, Iga and her friend Lisa Prentice, a veteran jewelry designer, will offer their combined 15-plus years of advice.

“We have all this information, and you see people and what they sell, and they have all this potential but they’re just not doing certain things,” Iga explains. “We’re both big fans of [celebrity chef and star of television’s Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares] Gordon Ramsay. I love how he goes in there and helps people get back their self-esteem. So we just thought we’d do a session and help people like Gordon Ramsey, but not swearing or making people cry.” She laughs. “You know, the softer approach.”


Meghan Spong, publisher and founder of the Vancouver-based start-up Benjamin Brown Books, found herself at the forefront of the funemployment trend. Laid off when Raincoast Books shuttered its publishing program, Spong found herself looking for work in a small market saturated with talent. So, after crossing paths with an aspiring author of childrens books, she decided it was time to start her own publishing company. Two books later (Wenda the Wacky Wiggler, Lily and Lucy’s Shadow), and with a third on the way in the fall, Spong isn’t quite ready to be held up as the poster woman for funemployment, but she does had some advice for those braving the unknown.

“There are a lot of naysayers around all the time who are like, ‘Oh, you can’t do that, the economy’s bad’,” Spong says. “But, particularly in a recession, that’s when people are really responsive to inspiring ideas. So if you’re passionate about something, figure out a way outside of the box that you can make it work. Keep open to the possibilities. It’s not going to necessarily look like how you envisioned it, but for me, the essence is making books. I don’t care where the funding comes from, and I don’t really care if I’m rich and super profitable, but I’m getting to make books, which is my passion, so I would say stay focused on what you love to do.”