The WP turns 20

The WP turns 20 this year.

Yup, it was way back in the final year of the last millenium that I did the first recordings and shows under the name The World Provider.


Early press release

Since then, the WP has wavered from solo act to duo to band and back again, with many personnel and musical changes along the way.

I’m still figuring it out, and in a lot of ways I’m more interested in the next 20 years than the last 20.

But we are doing a couple of things to mark this anniversary.

We’re going to do some shows this fall with new costumes, theatrics, and a strict “greatest hits” set list.

And I’m doing a cassette reissue of the first WP tape, The Elements of Style, featuring new liner notes from Peaches, Taylor Savvy and myself, as well as two cassette-only bonus tracks from deep in the vaults.

Grabbing material from the 4-track master tape

Stay tuned for more news!

Gordon Thomas (1916-2016)

Photo by Lee Towndrow
Photo by Lee Towndrow

Sometime in the late 90s or early 2000s, I heard the music of Gordon Thomas for the first time via my friends Mocky and Taylor Savvy. It was on a tape, that had clearly been copied a bunch of times, with a surprisingly large number of songs on it. The singer’s strange voice and simple lyrics contrasted the slick, full-band jazz arrangements; plus, the music had a weirdly timeless quality—that is to say, there were no obvious signposts to indicate in what era it had been recorded.

Stacey and I were fascinated and curious to know more, but nobody seemed to have much info about this singer apart from his name, Gordon Thomas. In 2001, sitting on a patio in Berlin, we and Mocky came up with the idea of making a documentary about trying to find him.

Long story short, with a bit of old-fashioned journalistic/detective work, we were able to find him in his lifelong hometown of New York City. When we met him, he was 86, still fully lucid and, to our surprise, full of optimism and future plans for his music career.

He’d played trombone in big bands in the 40s, most notably with Dizzy Gillespie, and since the big band era petered out, he’d been working odd jobs and using his meagre earnings to record and self-release his music. The film became a portrait of his life, music and philosophy.

 

Everything’s Coming My Way was completed in 2005 and has shown at festivals, on TV and even, thanks to the diligent efforts of our sales agent, on airlines, in classrooms and in other strange markets around the world. And when the film had had its life, we continued to visit him as often as we could, and helped him out by selling his music online (you can stream or download much of his catalogue on Bandcamp; future earnings will go to an appropriate charity to be determined or in accordance with his will, as the case may be).

Getting to know Gordon was a joy and a privilege. Ever optimistic and positive, wise, funny and spiritually rich, he brought happiness and inspiration to everyone he met. He was a bridge to another time—when he grew up, people still rode around Harlem on horses and buggies, and the modern world was a bit of a mystery to him, but he always rolled with it.

It bothered me a bit when people referred to Gordon as “childlike.” He was a fully functioning adult, a union dues-paying musician, and a lot smarter than he let on. He was certainly eccentric, but not more so than any number of artists I’ve known. I eventually concluded that his naïve persona was a bit of a put-on, a defence mechanism against the world’s cruelties, but his optimism was very real.

Gordon was always full of fantastic stories, and at times you couldn’t tell if they were real memories or just dreams or fantasies. (The one about Miles Davis having planned to write a song for him was particularly suspicious.) That said, some of the things we did with him, like seeing him perform in front of adoring fans in Montreal or going to his birthplace of Bermuda for a film festival, where he was treated like a total rock star, probably sounded like tall tales to people he told—but I can confirm they’re true!

As the years went by and his health deteriorated, Gordon talked less about his future plans, but every time we spoke he’d still say that we should aim for Hollywood. The last time we hung out, in the summer of 2015, he spoke openly about wanting to die and wondering why he was still alive. With his friends mostly passed away, and his health getting worse, he didn’t feel he had a lot to live for. It was a hard conversation to have, but there wasn’t much we could say.

Gordon spent the last years of his life in a seniors’ home, and the level of care he received was pretty minimal. It was a sobering reality check of what happens to you in the USA if you’re old, black, poor and alone. Luckily for him he had health insurance from the Veterans’ Administration after having briefly served in the army during WWII, as well as a pension from the musicians’ union, which along with his Social Security covered his expenses and basic needs.

I wish we could have helped him more, but our resources were limited and, if I’m honest, so was the audience for his music. The very things in his songs that appealed to me turned the average listener off, while at the same time his music lacked the dark or “edgy” quality that endears certain obscure artists to an underground audience. His fan base was the definition of “small but devoted,” and spanned the entire world. Just a few weeks ago I received a CD order from Wales, not the first or the furthest such order from around the globe.

Last week, I got a call from a good friend of Gordon’s. He had suffered a stroke and become unresponsive. I flew down to New York and visited him at a nursing home in the upper Bronx. He was rail-thin and couldn’t speak, but he kept trying to get out of bed, though he was too weak to complete the action. It was heartbreaking to see. “It’s OK Gordie, you don’t have to get up, just rest,” I kept saying. I’m hardly the first person to note that the very elderly, in their fragile and dependent state, revert in a circular way to being a little like babies, and here I was speaking to him in the same tone that I use to soothe my one-year-old son.

I held his hand and talked to him a bit. I told him that I loved him, that Stacey sent her love too, that his music had meant a lot to people, and that he would soon be with the friends he always talked about wanting to reunite with in the next life. At one point, he opened his eyes, squeezed my hand and smiled. He also made one of his classic expressions, a sort of facial shrug that communicated “Whaddya gonna do?”

Another friend of his from the seniors’ home came to visit. He had a different take on the situation, encouraging “Mr. Gordon” to get better soon so he could celebrate his 100th birthday. It was a very appropriately GT-esque expression of optimism, but I wasn’t sure I could share it.

As I walked down 7th Avenue to the train station, I looked around New York with a strange feeling. Would it ever be the same without Gordon Thomas? Then I noticed the eccentric characters floating by me on every corner. Each one of them could probably star in their own documentary.

A few days later, I got another call. Gordon passed away on January 25, 2016. He would have been 100 years old on February 7. He touched my life in a profound way and he’ll always stay with me. I feel sad that he’s gone, but he lived a long, meaningful life, and it was time. I love you Gordie, rest in peace.

The Elements of Style

cvr-elements

I’ve recently reissued the WP’s earliest release, The Elements of Style, on the WP Bandcamp page.

When I got the tracks remastered (or, truthfully, actually mastered to begin with), I listened to them again for the first time in years. It was a funny experience. This may be hard to believe, but I never got why people thought the WP sound was so “weird” in the early days. Now I can see why very clearly! It also gives me a much clearer sense how much the sound has transformed over the years—again, that might seem obvious to someone else, but that kind of thing is harder to perceive from up close.

Dirty, messy, sloppy and out of tune as well as defiantly lo-fi, these tunes represent the WP in its rawest form. They take me back to the innocent days where it seemed like all I had to do was hang out and make music with my friends, such as Peaches and Taylor Savvy who are responsible for recording and mixing these tunes.

I could go on, but instead I’ll just point you over to the link and let you form your own thoughts. I’m also curious if there is any desire for this to be released in a physical form. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about the role of physical vs. digital releases, and I’d be curious to see what WP fans think. So let me know… and in the meantime, hope you enjoy this blast from the WP past!

Checking in with Mocky

In the summer of 1998, I had just graduated from film school. I was bumming around doing random jobs, and I’d just laid down some tracks of my newly formed solo project at a friend’s bedroom studio. That studio’s owner, my longtime friend and collaborator Dominic Salole (now better known as Mocky) announced that he was leaving Toronto to move to London (he would later ramble on to Amsterdam before settling in Berlin).

He and I had known each other as kids in Ottawa—I saw his first band play at basement parties and talent shows. Later, he and my brother were roommates in Toronto, and that’s how I came to meet Chilly Gonzales, Peaches et al. I have a million great stories about all those years, but I’m saving them for the coffee table book.

His move was the catalyst for an exodus to Europe among our group of friends—Gonzo left a year later, Peach and Taylor Savvy the following year, and Feist not long after. Now, after 10 years in Berlin, Mocky has made another dramatic shift, moving to Los Angeles with his wife, fashion designer Desirée Klein, and their two-year-old son.

During his time in Berlin he produced three solo albums including last year’s amazing Saskamodie and too many collaborations to count, but in the wider music world he’s probably best known as a producer—of Jamie Lidell’s Multiply and Jim and as part of the team behind the Feist albums The Reminder and Metals.

When Mocky was in Montreal recently, working in the studio with Bassekou Kouyate (Malian master of the ngoni, an ancestor to the banjo), we caught up and I thought I’d take the opportunity to find out more about his latest move and where it’s taking him. This interview is based on conversations in person with an email follow-up.

Mocky raises the roof at Montreal’s Hotel2Tango with Bassekou Kouyate.

WP: Where did you get the idea to move to LA?

Mocky: Jamie brought me out here in 2007 (and I hadn’t been there since the 90s—a much different time) and I saw so many similarities to Berlin in terms of decaying relics of former magnificence.

WP: Was it hard to leave Berlin? Do you miss it?

Mocky: Not really, I am Canadian after all not German. My Wikipedia page says I’m “Somalian-Canadian,” but that is inaccurate and not how I identify. I have a very mixed ethnic background including British, Italian, Somalian, Ethiopian and more, but I was born and raised in Canada and only identify myself as Canadian. However I lived in Berlin for 10 years—I miss my Berlin friends,  I miss the parks and my two Canadian friends who still live there, Peaches and Taylor Savvy. But otherwise LA is so fresh and exciting that I don’t miss Berlin much yet.

WP: What’s the atmosphere like in LA?

Mocky: LA today is like Berlin in ’99. The American dream kind of collapsed in on itself, so there is new space there to create—much like Berlin in the 90s after the wall came down… a new space opening up after the “fall of the wall”  of American cultural imperialism. There is TONS going on here, and I started skating again, so it’s the perfect climate. I hit sort of a bohemian glass ceiling in Berlin, and LA seemed like the right answer.

WP: I heard that the new Feist album was largely recorded live off the floor. Can you tell me about that decision?

Mocky: It was an incredible experience! We did it live off the floor because we didn’t want to leave anything to chance—we wanted to KNOW we had something as it was going down.

WP: I saw that you did a soundtrack [to Xiaolu Guo’s festival hit UFO In Her Eyes]. Is that your focus these days, or producing/other work/your own music/all of the above?

Mocky: All of the above—I’m starting a new project TBA.

Though he’s been working and hanging out with underground artists such as Juiceboxxx, The Hawnay Troof and Kevin Blechdom (whose album Gentlemania he’d produced in Berlin), Mocky’s most recent coup de coeur was someone seemingly at the opposite end of the music-business spectrum: superstar producer and songwriter Linda Perry, who he had the occasion to see perform at a club.

“She came out wearing clown makeup,” he recalls, “and said ‘I’ve been depressed for two weeks, so this is how I’m dealing with it.’ She had a record player and she was lifting the needle and putting it back down—real Andy Kaufman shit. Then she sat down at the piano and started singing, and it was just AMAZING. Great songs, a voice like Nina Simone, totally heavy shit.”

Since then, Mocky has actually had the chance to work in proximity to Perry—producing one of her protegés at her Studio B and, as he says hopefully, “soaking up her writing skills through osmosis.”

I am officially intrigued. I hope to report directly from Mocky’s new home at some point—in the meantime, I’ll be keeping an eye out on what he’s up to. He has always been one of the most inspiring artists I’ve known, so here’s hoping the move to this cultural hot spot will bring his various projects to more and more ears.

 

 

Summer of Pain Free Download Series, Part 5: Taylor Savvy

Taylor Savvy is perhaps the most mysterious member of the “Canadian jackass crew” that spawned the WP along with Peaches, Feist, Chilly Gonzales and Mocky. You may have seen Savvy onstage with Mocky, Peach or Jamie Lidell (or, if you’re really old school, in Feist’s band with me and Nathan Lawr way back in the day). He hasn’t unleashed any new Savvy music on the world for some years now, but we hold out hope.

He recorded this demo of ours during our visit to Berlin in the spring of 2009, in his basement studio (which has since been torn down and turned into a parking lot – yep, these kinds of things happen even in Berlin). Stacey made the beat on Savvy’s groovebox and played the live drums, Savvy tweaked some knobs on the box and played the tremolo guitar, and I played the keys and the bad indie-rock guitar. This song hasn’t been recorded in “official” form yet, although it has become one of our favourite songs to play live.

Enjoy!

Magic Touch (Berlin Demo)

 

Precious Memories

Going through some files a little while ago, I found this document (undated, or rather re-dated to when I transferred files from an old computer, but judging by its references, seemingly from around 2004) detailing the best and worst WP shows up until that point.

I’ve had a lot of good and bad shows since then, but there’s something unique about these early, ultra-DIY adventures.

And so, from the vaults, unedited and unexpurged: The Best and Worst WP Shows Ever, circa 2004…


 

BEST

 

1.     Living room show in Kitchener-Waterloo, November 2001

I was doing a weekend excursion with Chris Mills (Just Like The Movies). We had a night off and decided that we should show up in some town and spontaneously play a show. He found out that the Hidden Cameras had a gig in Kitchener-Waterloo, and Chris convinced them that we should play on the bill with them that night. When we got to KW, it became clear that the club was absolutely not into us playing. So we decided to go find ourselves a show.

We drove to the campus of Waterloo University. I got out of the car and walked into what looked like the main building. There were some chicks hanging out, so I went up to them and asked them if they knew someplace where a couple of crazy one-man bands could play that night. One of them says, “Yeah, how about my place!”

So we went to this girl Brenda’s apartment. She invited over a few friends and we did a show in her living room, in front of eight people. There was no PA, we just sang into the air, but we did the whole show with costume changes and everything. It was intimidating but exhilerating to play in front of such a tiny crowd who had no idea what they were getting into.

Afterwards, we headed down the street to the bar where the Hidden Cameras were playing. After their set, Chris and I, still in costume, bum rushed the stage and started singing. After a few songs I declared that we would keep going until we got shut down, at which point the sound guy came and turned off the PA. By popular demand, we headed back to Brenda’s house for an encore.

That night, I crashed at Joel from the Hidden Cameras’ place. I found out much later that he was hoping to get some action, and was all bummed out when he found out that I was not only straight but married. I feel a mixture of guilt and pleasure at having inadvertently cockteased a gay Canadian rock star…sorry Joel!

 

2.     New Orleans, August 2001

I was opening for Peaches on a tour of the Southern U.S. –  in August. The heat and humidity in New Orleans was unreal. The gig was a party at Quintron and Miss Pussycat’s house; they have a lounge set up in the basement. All the people were so friendly and the cliché is true, people in New Orleans have amazing rhythm. For this South tour I had practiced and reworked my set until the pacing was “perfect.” Miss Pussycat told me some time later that some friends of hers had been there, and based on their behaviour she’d assumed they were on acid. Then she saw them a few days later and they said they hadn’t been on acid, they’d just had their minds blown by The World Provider. To be compared to a powerful hallucinogen is one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever been paid…

 

3.     Basement show in Guelph, April 2002

I was playing at a house party with Chris. The Barmitzvah Brothers went on before us and they were amazing. I was drinking malt liquor and getting pretty wasted. So wasted, in fact, that I didn’t think about the fact that I was fiddling with my minidisc player in my pocket. When it was time for my set, I realized that I’d erased half my tracks. I was so annoyed, but somehow the negativity gave me good energy for the set. This show was mostly good because of the Barmitzvahs and the vibe at the house party.

 

4.     Uno-a-Go-Go – Chicago, October 2002

It was a one-man band festival in Chicago. Jake Austen, who puts out Roctober magazine, was putting on the fest. His wife was pregnant and went into premature labour so he had to miss the whole thing! I saw Shary Boyle’s Honkitonkioke the night before my set. She was great.

My show was in a bowling alley. I was playing on the “side stage” which meant in front of the aisles. There were about 15 other people on the bill; Bob Log was headlining. My wife came into town on a different flight which was delayed, and for some reason she had my costumes and my minidisc adaptor. She got in at the last minute and I did the set. It was my last show doing all the Elements of Style tunes, right before going into the studio to record new stuff, and the crowd was great. A chick came and stuck a dollar bill in my pants – I wish people did that more often. The next night we saw Lonesome Organist and he totally blew our minds.

 

5.     Sanchez Bros. Vernissage – Montreal, April 2003

The Sanchez Brothers invited me to play at their vernissage. They had made a film in their grandparents’ living room. One room of the gallery showed the film on a loop and in the other one, they recreated the living room down to the smallest detail. I had been playing a bunch of gigs, so I decided to do a set of tunes I don’t do very often: covers, older stuff, and still-in-progress new songs.

The Brothers invited me to come down early because their living-room set had an organ. I came down and figured out some stuff on it. At the show, their whole family including grandparents showed up and hung out in the living room. When I came and did the tunes on the organ, their grandmother was sitting in a wheelchair right beside me, rocking out. It was so awesome.

 

6.     El Mocambo show with Peaches and Mignon – Toronto, September 2001

This was a month or so after the South tour with Peach. It was her first Toronto show in a while. There were about 600 people packed into the Elmo upstairs, and they were really hyped up. I did the “perfect” set from the South tour and people were just going crazy. The Elmo shut down shortly after that. A few days after the show, I was at the Cinematheque and a guy came up to me and told me that my show changed his life.

 

WORST

 

1.     Berlin, July 2001

This was a huge bill, put on by the headlining band. They’re a great band and cool people, but as promoters they didn’t have all the bases covered, shall we say. Among those on the bill were Taylor Savvy, Mocky and myself. The gig was in this huge, cavernous club that seemed to have some bad kind of chemical in the air, asbestos or something. I had really bad allergies so whenever I’d step outside, I’d want to go back in, and then I’d come back in and breathe chemical dust until I had to go back out.

The door was at 9 but the show didn’t start until midnight. Because of the delay, the promoters asked us to cut our set short. We explained to her that Mocky, Taylor Savvy and The World Provider weren’t one band. Her response: “Yes you are!” What can you say to that, so we agreed to shorten each of our sets.

The sound guy had cancelled at the last minute, so they got some other guy to come and do it, who seemed none too pleased. During Savvy’s set, the above-mentioned promoter came up to me and said “When is he going to be done?”

“He just started,” I said.

“Well, someone told me he was going to be done in ten minutes.”

“Who told you that?”

“I don’t know – I’m too pissed,” she said.

Shortly after this exchange, the sound guy got on the mic, ran to the front of the stage, and started angrily berating Savvy in German. During his set. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Despite all this, my set actually went over fairly well with the crowd. And I was excited to be playing in Berlin. But there’s no denying that it was a Murphy’s Law kinda night.

 

2.     Hamilton, April 2002

This was on one of the weekend jaunts with Chris. The show was on a Monday night and it was pouring rain. As we were pulling into town, we realized while listening to the radio that the promoter of our gig was doing a show on the campus radio station. We drove over to the station hoping to do some extra promo. Not only did he not seem particularly happy to see us, and wasn’t into having us appear on the air, but he didn’t even have our CDs to play on his show. That was the first bad sign.

When we got to the club, there was a situation: the sound guy had come and kidnapped the PA because the club hadn’t been paying him. There was some talk of the show being cancelled, but then finally someone came through with another PA.

During the gig, the band we were opening for didn’t even watch our set. They were playing pool in the other room and all their friends stayed with them there. There were five people in the audience during my set: Chris, two guys who’d showed up to DJ (but didn’t because of the PA fiasco), and this couple who’d come from KW after seeing us the night before. I was so tired and out of it that I played a half-assed show. In retrospect, the fact that people came from a whole other town just to see us – and were effectively the only actual audience – should have motivated me to at least put some effort into the show. Giving such a lame performance for those people is one of the biggest regrets of my World Providing career.

 

3.     Atlanta, August 2001

This was the only bad show on the Peaches Dirty South tour. There’s not too much to say about my set; the people of Atlanta just weren’t feeling it. I went on after Har Mar Superstar, who totally slew the audience, and I guess they just weren’t in the mood for my thing. He’s a hard act to follow, I don’t know why I didn’t go on first.

The vibe of the club was really fucked. Everyone seemed to be on coke. They had set aside a VIP room because it was rumoured that Madonna was going to show up, but she never did, so it was just full of all these sketched-out people.

After the gig we went to a crazy strip club. People had recommended that we stay at the adjacent hotel, but our tour manager went to look at a room (for which he had to be accompanied by an armed guard), and he said that the bed was covered in ants, so he took a pass. At 4:00 in the morning at the strip club, a woman went around shining a flashlight in people’s eyes and shouting, “If you ain’t WORKIN’ here, or you ain’t FUCKIN’ someone who’s workin’ here, GET THE FUCK OUT!”

Afterwards we went to this crazy diner with a bunch of hardcore dykes. The waiter had a necklace made of human teeth, and while he was showing us the specials, he pulled out his dick and slapped it against the menu – a sight which both Peach and I later admitted we thought we’d hallucinated. A really creepy guy came and sat beside me, and was telling me stories about how he sold bulk acid and was part of the Aryan Nation.

In retrospect, it may have been a bad show, but so many crazy things happened that night that it kind of balances out.