2016: The Year in World Providing

After a quiet period, mainly due to the birth of our son, the WP started to get back in action this year. In the spring we released our latest EP Always. Produced by Murray Lightburn and featuring a song co-written with Mocky and a cameo from Chilly Gonzales on piano, it’s been called a return to the “classic” WP sound and, well, what more can I say? I like it, and I hope you do too.

We also put out a video for “Hey Joanne” directed by Montreal artist and musician Bryce Cody.

And we got back on the road! It was a short jaunt, but we had a lot of fun. In Toronto, we were backed by a one-off supergroup featuring three of my favourite musicians and human beings in general: Charlotte Cornfield, Adam Waito and Matt Collins. Here we are performing the title track from Always:

In Montreal, we were joined by our longtime collaborators Gordon Allen and Warren Auld, along with Tim Kingsbury (Sam Patch, Arcade Fire) on guitar. In Ottawa, none of my wish-list guests could make it, so Warren, Gord and I played as a power trio with Stacey’s vocals on top. And that was fun too.

In the fall, we had the opportunity to play at Montreal’s best film festival, the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, at an afterparty of sorts for our old friend Adam Traynor’s new web series Le Ball-trap. Murray, Warren and Gord filled out the lineup, and José Garcia did some amazing visuals. Here we are performing “Avalanches” from History of Pain:

And to cap the year off, we were included in Sean Michaels’ list of the best songs of 2016. What an honour!

IN OTHER NEWS…

I didn’t see a ton of shows this year, apart from some great bands we shared the stage with such as Triple Gangers, Muelkik, EXE, Douce Angoisse and Sheenah Ko. I did see one show, however, that was very memorable. It was a triple bill of Napalm Death, Melvins and Melt-Banana.

They were all awesome, but the Melvins show was really life-affirming. They have always been one of my favourite bands, but I hadn’t seen them play for years. I noticed that they had a new bass player, and he was giving off a really good vibe. You know when a veteran band has a new, young member who just seems really overjoyed to be onstage with these guys? It was like that, but as I looked closer I realized that this guy wasn’t that young. But he had the energy of a young person, just really getting into it and enjoying himself onstage. Eventually he was introduced and I realized it was Steve McDonald from Redd Kross. I can’t really express how motivating it was to see the enjoyment he was having and putting forth to the audience. The fact that someone can still be that energetic and positive after many years in the music game gave me a much-needed renewal of faith.

The other big thing that happened this year was that Gordon Thomas, who we made a documentary about years ago and stayed friends with for years after, passed away just shy of his 100th birthday. I wrote a few words about him and the experience of visiting him just before he died.

I also wrote about:

I didn’t do a ton of freelance writing this year, but I was happy with this review of gay Québécois wrestling icon Pat Patterson’s autobiography.

2016 was a tough year for a lot of people, and I fear that the next few years may be just as hard or harder. I don’t know what to say or what to do, except to try to be a good person and engage in my community as much as I can. WP-wise, I’ll be working on some new material and a new stage show which I hope to share with as many people as possible.

If you’re reading this, I thank you for your support, I wish you all the best and hope to see you soon!

A Song For You

Leon Russell died this week, yet another addition to the long, sad list of musical legends who’ve moved on this year (not to mention the potential end of the world as we know it, but I won’t get into that right now). I can’t say that I’m super familiar with his oeuvre, but one song of his has been a longtime favourite of mine.

I first heard this version by the Carpenters. The cheese is laid on pretty thick (there’s even a sax solo), but the beauty of the song cuts through, both in Karen Carpenter’s inimitable voice and the strength of the song itself.

I saw by looking on the record that Leon Russell had written it, but I wasn’t too aware of his career. Later, my friend Matt Collins made me a mix CD that had his original version on it. I always felt that his vocal affectations were a bit over the top, but it is his song, so he can sing it however he wants, and if you don’t like it… that’s what covers are for.

 

My favourite version is by Willie Nelson, a version I discovered some years later on a country mix from Montreal’s DJ Luv.

Why do I love this song so much? I’m not sure. In the Carpenters version, I always loved the sentiment in the closing line, “And when my life is over, remember when we were together, we were alone and I was singing a song for you.” But in the Willie Nelson version, the part that always hits me is when he sings “…if my words don’t come together, listen to the melody, for my love is in there hiding.” In the Carpenters version that line is delivered with a very schmaltzy flourish, but Willie brings to it his famously subtle and understated phrasing, and it really drives home the beauty as well as the melancholy of the sentiment expressed in the song. When he adds a simple melody to the word “melody” itself, it’s slightly corny, but somehow perfect…

Because it’s a song about songwriting (normally a bad idea) and the inability to capture a feeling perfectly with lyrics (“if my words don’t come together, listen to the melody, for my love is in there hiding”), it strikes a chord with me as a songwriter, aside from how I might feel as a listener. And ironically (or appropriately?), this expression of being unable to capture the feeling is, in itself, the perfect expression of the feeling. If that makes any sense.

RIP to Leon Russell, Sharon Jones, Leonard Cohen, and the American Dream…

Note: some of these thoughts are taken from a response I sent to Carl Wilson for his Crying Over Art project. I’m not sure if my words were ever used for that, so I thought it was probably OK to repurpose them here.

On Facebook

I got this image from endoskeptic.com. Not trying to make any statement, just thought it was funny.
I got this image from endoskeptic.com. Not trying to make any statement, just thought it was funny.

I was talking with some friends on the topic of things that annoy us about Facebook.

One friend cited people who just use it as a venue to show off their luxurious lives and possessions. I couldn’t relate. I know a few wealthy people, but they’re pretty discreet about it—even, in some cases, a little embarrassed.

Someone else mentioned people who are always posting about their boring, normal lives. I stayed silent. I guess either my friends are all really interesting, or I don’t find their normal lives boring. (I could go on about the phenomenon of contempt for “normals”—near the top of my list of things I can’t stand about my own community—but I feel that would be off-topic.)

It was my turn to chime in. “What about people who do nothing but post angry, embittered left-wing rants, all day, every day?”

Nobody else had any friends like that. I’d say that describes about two-thirds of my Facebook feed at any given moment. I’m not sure what that says about me, but I like my Facebook friends anyway.

Speaking of Facebook, if you are a fan of the WP, please come and give your Likes to The World Provider Facebook page. I’ll be honest with you, I simply need to boost my number of followers to impress the kind of people who are impressed by this kind of thing. I promise not to over-post or do anything really annoying. It’s all a part of my grand strategy to build the WP’s slow-building rise to world domination…

The Undead Format

CD

Recent figures show that digital music sales have overtaken physical ones for the first time. Some might be surprised that it didn’t happen years ago, or that physical sales still exist. We’re constantly told that the CD is dead, physical formats are dead, the future is digital. And yet the CD persists. The record stores (another thing that continues to exist despite declarations of its death) are stocked with new CDs. The programmers on campus radio (again, still exists) prefer CDs to the trauma of fishing through the sea of harder-to-manage-or-archive digital files or streaming options.

But there’s no doubt that the CD occupies a weird transitional space at this particular moment in time.

In 2008, I swallowed whole the gospel of post-CDism and released an album as a printed booklet with a download code. I called in favours with almost every artist I knew, and my designer and I put a lot of effort into to making the booklet look nice.

But when it was on the merch table at the release shows, all I’d hear was “where’s the CD?”

I’d be like, “the CD is dead, man, what do you mean?”

At the release show in Montreal, some guy was like, “Why should I pay $10 for a piece of paper?”

My argument that a CD is merely a piece of plastic was unpersuasive. The fact that I’d spent thousands of dollars of my own money on recording, mixing and mastering the album as well as printing the paper, equally so.

As I was preparing to release another album in 2011, the question of format was vexing. Among the hipster community, it’s self-evident received wisdom that vinyl is the only format worth releasing (or, even further underground, cassettes—which is a whole other topic).

But vinyl is expensive to produce. A guy a know from a once-prominent Montreal indie label told me that they had to sell every single vinyl record they produced to make a profit. And that was a label with over a decade’s experience and a solid reputation.

When the publicist I hired told me that I’d need a certain number of CDs for promo, I thought, fuck it, I’ll just produce CDs.

I had 500 made and used about 100 for promo. The second box of 250 is still sitting in my office, opened only recently. When I give them out to people as gifts, they’re regarded as a quaintly obscure item—at best. Recently, I gave a CD to a friend. She seemed perplexed and explained to me that, since the new Mac laptops no longer have a CD drive, she actually had no way to play it.

The only people I know who regularly buy CDs are my parents. I sometimes suspect that, aside from the format’s continued importance in the promotional arm of the music industry, the continued commercial relevance of CDs is attributable entirely to the boomer demographic, whether for themselves or as gifts for their children or (no doubt bewildered) grandchildren.

But then, in the spring of 2013, I interviewed Marie LeBlanc Flanagan of the music blog Weird Canada about their initiative to start a record distribution centre. She told me that the CD was experiencing a renaissance in the underground scene, as vinyl and cassettes had before. This was so counter-intuitive to everything we’ve been told, it left me speechless and stammering (which was inconvenient seeing as it was a live radio interview).

But the “backlash against digital” she described made a lot of sense: people like something they can put their hands on. Digital culture is so overwhelming, there’s a certain relief in the simple pleasures of a physical format.

Still, as it is with the recording industry, as long as manufacturers keep prices high, releasing stuff physically is going to stay stratified between those who can afford to do it properly, and those who don’t mind doing it in a sloppy DIY style.

Is there any love for the CD out there? Enough to bother manufacturing a batch for my next record? Or should I just burn a few CDRs from my laptop for the remaining market?

At the very least, I’ll burn a copy for my parents.

Montreal and Toronto

401

A few friends of mine have recently announced plans to move from Montreal to Toronto. These friends include the great Miranda Campbell, as passionate an advocate of the Montreal lifestyle as there ever was.

I’m all in favour of people making changes and blazing new trails, but something about these friends moving made me sad. Not just because they won’t be around—there’s something deeper that I can’t quite put my finger on.

Moving from Montreal to Toronto is a thing people do. They get tired of the bureaucracy, the corruption, the endless language wars, and above all, the difficulty of finding work.

I moved from Toronto to Montreal in 2001. When we announced the move, I would say 9 out of 10 Torontonians replied with a version of “Oh, I wish I could move to Montreal—but I can’t because of work.” I thought this was a weird thing to say, particularly when coming from people in their early twenties who had their whole lives ahead of them and were a little young to be shackled to a job.

But there’s no doubt that Montreal is a different economy.

When I lived in Toronto, I would routinely go grocery shopping without even looking at how much items cost.

Now, I’m like “Three limes for a dollar? Fuck that, I can get a better deal at the other place.”

The first time I paid for my groceries with a sock full of nickels and dimes, it was kind of romantic. The last time I did that, which was more recently than I care to admit, it just felt shameful.

In my early days in Montreal, I used to sometimes walk past the cafés of Mile End with a wistful sense of longing. I couldn’t even afford a cup of coffee.

Now, things have changed. My bills are paid, my debts are at a reasonable level, and I have money to spend on the odd indulgence. I’m able to buy a coffee, usually.

But it’s still nothing like the Toronto days, when I would go out for dinner several times a week, drink an entire bottle of wine with dinner every night, and buy new clothes whenever I felt like it. Today, none of those things apply.

A friend of my wife’s once told her, “In Toronto, people brag about how much they have on the go. In Montreal, they brag about how little they’re doing.”

It’s not quite like that anymore, but some of that spirit still remains.

In Montreal, I know several people who pay around $500 a month in rent. People whose rent is in the four digits tend to have really nice places in good neighbourhoods.

In Toronto, $1500 is considered a good deal for a high-rise apartment in the suburbs. In Vancouver, that’ll get you a one-room basement apartment.

That seems crazy to me, but I’ve been in the Montreal reality for over a decade now.

I once spent a few days in Kelowna, in the B.C. Interior. In the less than 36 hours I was there, I heard no fewer than three people say a variation on “Yeah, Kelowna sucks, but where else are you gonna go?”

I thought that was lame and might have even said so. But today, I find myself feeling similarly about Montreal. It’s a trap, a vortex. It sucks, but where else are you gonna go?

I live in a city of lost souls.

People get trapped here, they can’t imagine an alternative—or it’s too late, they couldn’t function anywhere else. They barely function here. But in this town, functioning is overrated. It’s considered bourgeois.

Montreal’s dysfunction is part of its appeal somehow. If it ran more smoothly, it would lose some of its ramshackle charm. Like a lot of its inhabitants, it can barely hold itself together.

The reasons to live in Montreal, especially as an anglophone, are not logical per se. But like romantic love, or religious belief, the attraction to Montreal is irrational at its root. It comes from the heart, not from the brain. My brain is constantly listing reasons why I should leave. My heart won’t budge. I fear it might stay here even if I moved on.

 

 

Trends With Benefits

I went out to a show the other night. A bunch of local bands. I don’t get out to this kind of show as much as I used to. It would be convenient to blame my advancing age, but my interest in whatever is going on at the moment has always gone in waves.

When I do go out, it’s usually to support a friend. A few people I know were involved in this bill, but more than anything there was something about the show that made me curious. As it turned out I was not alone in this; it was the kind of show where “everybody who’s  anybody” was in attendance.

The much-vaunted “Montreal music scene” is very driven by trends. No doubt that’s also true elsewhere, but it’s particularly acute here. With four universities and a very particular culture that isn’t for everyone, it’s a city with a lot of turnover. (For the purposes of this piece, I’m being diplomatic and not addressing the fickle tastes of the local hipsterati).

Clearly this particular night was very of the moment. Last time I checked (there’s a good probability that I missed one or more trends in between), the tendence du jour was towards excessive orchestration and spirited group singalongs. Today, the hot new thing is a kind of dark, lo-fi synth pop, ideally with a singer on a goth/Kate Bush tip, slathered in reverb.

A lot of people are cynical about trends. And that’s understandable. I sometimes feel the same way myself; it’s hard not to. But there’s something that fascinates me about them too. What is it that makes something so virally desirable at a given moment? Obviously if anyone knew, they’d bottle it and sell it—and so much lame and futile effort is put into trying to figure out that elusive formula and take it to the bank.

As I stood at the show, watching the bands doing their thing, I could already imagine the dismissive comments from several of my more cynical friends (and, sometimes, the voices in my own head). At the same time, everyone there was genuinely enjoying themselves. Musically, maybe there was a bit of a conformist impulse going on, but maybe people just found themselves doing a similar thing and joined forces.

I remember the feeling of just going along, doing my thing, then suddenly realizing that I was part of something bigger going on, that suddenly a bunch of people were paying attention—and having fun. Eventually people move on to other things and the moment passes. But when the moment is happening, it’s kind of beautiful.

A few years ago, some music critics on the “poptimist” tip advanced the notion that if certain songs or genres were only relevant to the moment, not destined for immortality, there was nothing wrong with that. At first I found this idea quite provocative and odd. Making art for the ages, not for the fleeting moment, is such an ingrained part of the artistic mentality. (Plus it’s a handy way to justify what you’re doing when you feel unappreciated in your own time).

But the idea has started to grow on me. After all, what is there but the present…

 

Music, business (Part 3: The Reckoning)

A little while ago I was complaining to someone about my lack of success (in a long list of other things that were/are wrong with my life). In the course of this I mentioned offhandedly that I loved playing music, and she interrupted me:

Do you love it?”
“Yes,” I said. It seemed like a strange thing to ask.
“Well, isn’t that success?”

I chewed on that one for a while and finally had to conclude that no, that is not success. But it is happiness, even if only in brief, occasional little bursts.

At this advanced age, I’m unlikely to become an overnight (or any other kind of) sensation (although Robert Pollard was my age when Guided By Voices broke, so a guy can always dream).

But I have to ask, what is the absolute worst-case scenario? Probably something like: I have a minuscule audience and barely break even on my expenses. (I hope you will forgive me a moment of self-pity when I say that this is not drastically different from the actual scenario).

What then? It’s not like I would stop writing songs, recording or performing. I don’t think I would be able to even if I wanted to. (Whenever I do harbour the notion of abandoning it all, as in The Godfather III, just when I think I’m out, it pulls me back in).

It might seem self-evident, but the fact that my music doesn’t make business types see dollar signs when they hear it, and that it doesn’t fit into whatever the latest micro-trend might be, doesn’t have anything to do with the music itself.

As my brother, a wiser man than me, said in this interview, music is its own reward. It’s so easy to lose sight of that in an atmosphere where a few (very few!) artists’ genuine, hard-won success has filled the community with delusions of grandeur.

Truth is, there are only three kinds of people who can “make a living” in the music biz:
1. Trust fund kids
2. People who are comfortable with a quality of life one step above that of a homeless person
3. People who are really smart and serious about the business side of things.

If you, like me, are none of these, then it’s probably best to separate your artistic pursuits from business concerns.

I have a lot of respect and admiration for my more business-savvy friends. But the fact is that if I look at my own music career as a business, it is not a successful business. If I look at it as something that I do for its own sake, it actually seems worthwhile.

Earlier this year I was unexpectedly offered a job. It was kind of a no-brainer: being chronically broke is a lot less romantic in your late 30s than it is in your early 20s. I took the job, putting my dreams of rock glory on the back burner for the time being, going back to being a guy with a job who plays music for fun.

And strangely enough, I feel better about my music career already.

Music, business (part 2: Personal Rockonomics)

I’ve never been very adept at the business side of things. No doubt this comes partly from my upbringing—though my background is relatively privileged, my parents are neither numerically inclined (there was no hope for math homework help past about grade 4) or particularly capitalistic, either in their beliefs or in their actions (a distinction to be elucidated below).

Then there was my coming of age in the punk/DIY scene, which seared onto my mind the idea that taking money into consideration as part of musical endeavours was deeply morally wrong. Most of my peers soon abandoned this ethic, and I would later discover that people with the most stridently anti-capitalistic views in public are invariably the most ruthless when it comes down to negotiations over money behind closed doors, but by then it was too late for me to shake the ideological imprint.

As a young man, to the extent that I thought about the future at all (which was not very much), I just kind of assumed that an artistic career would arise out of my talents and ideas. This seems shockingly naïve in retrospect. I remember in my first year of university, I had a creative writing prof who declared that for a writer’s career, going to the right parties was just as important as developing your craft. Puffed up with the deadly post-adolescent combination of arrogance and naïveté, I waved away his advice without a thought. Looking back today his statement still seems obnoxious, but undeniably true.

It seems obvious to me now that success (however you define it) in any creative field has very little to do with talent and everything to do with good timing, persistence, schmoozing skills and extreme will power. For a chronic procrastinator with an acute allergy to bullshit and a tendency to get discouraged easily, it is not very self-evident to embark on this route.

To be continued.

Music, business (part 1)

As many of my devoted fans know, I’ve been blessed throughout my life with a lot of very talented friends, some of whom have gone on to varying degrees of success. I’m happy for them and proud of them all, but of course this can also bring up occasional flourishes of envy or of nagging self-doubt—especially when some of these successful friends give me pep talk/lectures.

“It’s the music business,” says one.

“The business side of things is just as important as the creative side—you should think of them as the same,” says another.

“Think of it as a marketing installation,” says yet another. (I admit that this perspective on the situation spoke to me a bit more).

Are these things true? Why didn’t anyone tell me earlier? And would I have even listened?

A few years back I was reading an article by Exclaim’s music business journalist Allison Outhit. Some guy she interviewed gave a quote along the lines of “If you’ve been working hard for 10 years and you’re still not successful, maybe you suck.”

The quote stayed with me, bringing along with it a stark self-questioning: if I’m not successful, does that mean I haven’t worked hard enough? Or that I suck? (Allowing of course for the possibility of a third option, that this guy is a goddamn asshole).

In 2008, I quit my job, where for the first time in my life I had a respectable income and was settling into middle-class comfort. I felt I wasn’t putting enough time or effort into my creative work, and wanted to take a genuine crack at an artistic career, which I had never truly devoted myself to before.

Two years later I found myself, for the first time, questioning the value of carrying on this project in the face of profound non-reaction from labels, promoters, and the whole trend-obsessed music business machine in general.

It’s hard to write about this kind of thing for a few reasons. First of all, I’m very grateful for whatever small impact I’ve been able to make, and I’m also acutely aware that certain things I’ve accomplished (getting played on the radio, touring internationally, collaborating with famous people, etc) are things that some artists only dream of.

Secondly, I generally feel that it’s unbecoming for anyone to bitch and moan about not being more successful.

Finally, if certain people believe that I am successful for the reasons listed above, a pretty big part of me feels that I should let them have that illusion—it’s a win-win situation for us all.

That said, there are some things that I need to get off my chest and goddammit, what is the blogosphere for if not the shameless combination of self-pity and self-promotion?

To be continued.

La Roux, New Moo: Who Knew?

Chilling at the family cottage this summer. Traditions include hanging around on the dock, hanging around on the porch, and later, hanging around by the fireplace. And listening to the New Moo.

This Vermont-based radio station (WMOO 92.1), which brands itself as having the region’s best variety (invariably causing the distressing thought of what less variety would consist of), plays almost exclusively a kind of whitebread corporate pop. It plays a lot of Top 10 and a lot of present and past Idols, excluding almost all R&B and only allowing little hints of country – forget about hip-hop, on this station tunes like Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” and the Soup Dragons’ cover of the Stones’ “I’m Free” have the rap parts taken out – plus a lot of 90s one-hit wonders (New Radicals, anybody?), and seems to generally specialize in a kind of musical universe I wasn’t previously aware existed, one in which Hootie and the Blowfish and Matchbox 20 are the most important, influential bands (I wish I was joking or exaggerating, I really do).

This must sound horrible, and a great deal of the time it is. But we listen to it all the time anyway—I mean, there might be something good on Vermont NPR or the Lennoxville campus station, but then there might not, and then I’d have to spend many minutes cranking back the ancient radio to its optimal microcosmic sweet spot.

I have many great memories from years of the Moo (mostly involving ultra-cool indie-rockers admitting their secret love of James Blunt or the Goo Goo Dolls), along with some traumatic ones (joking that maybe one of the bland, generic tunes sung by thrice-diluted Alanis clones we kept hearing was the new Liz Phair song, and then finding out that it actually was).

So anyway, this weekend we’re listening away as usual, cringing through the crap and singing along with our guilty or shameless favourites, and all of a sudden on comes La Roux’s “Bulletproof.”

Somehow this disrupts my reality a little bit.

Not that I was disappointed to hear it – it’s a good tune. Or that it doesn’t fit in – it’s catchy and poppy, just like the parade of mainstream pop that surrounds it on the Moo.
But I’d been under the impression that La Roux was some kind of underground hipster phenomenon. Certainly, here in Montreal the only time I heard about La Roux was from hipsters.

(Although I am actually interested, on a strictly socio-demographic level, in the question of who or what constitutes a hipster, I will not address this here, except to submit that hipsters do exist, and furthermore there’s nothing wrong with being one. More on this later.)

Now, I am aware that we’re, at some level, past the era where the terms “underground” or “mainstream” have much meaning. The few remaining bands who worked their way up from the DIY scene to the corporate mediasphere, like REM or Green Day, are long in the tooth. Artists like MIA are doing pretty musically radical things in a mainstream context, and a lot of bands considered “indie” are way softer and sappier than anything on the New Moo.

But MIA doesn’t get played on the Moo… or MGMT, Bon Iver, Major Lazer, or whatever the cool kids are listening to these days. Hell, even something like Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” was too, well, crazy for the Moo. The Moo will play Norah Jones, but not Feist. It’s a corporate, mainstream operation through and through.

Conversely, the hipster crowd does not listen to Nickelback, Lady Antebellum, Rob Thomas, or Avril Lavigne (except when they’re at the cottage with us).

So what have I missed?

Is La Roux the true crossover artist of our time?

A reverse Lady Gaga, infiltrating the underground with mainstream notions?

(Some minimal research seems to indicate that, while they’re possibly an overnight sensation, they’re not a corporate creation but a legitimate indie-turned-mainstream act).

Or do I just not get out enough?

That reminds me of a brief Facebook craze where everyone was suddenly posting 20 facts about themselves, which invariably involved a lot of oversharing. From this phenomenon I learned that several people who I thought of as gregarious social butterflies actually suffered from acute and chronic social anxieties. I felt like reaching out and saying, “Hey, I found a great solution to that… just stop going out!” But then, as I’ve discovered, if you stop going out, you miss out on things.

Like how it is La Roux is being played on the New Moo.