The craftsman behind CROSSS

The mystic indie metal of CROSSS is coming to Montreal before taking its new form in Toronto at the end of the year.

Originally from Halifax, singer/guitarist Andy March credits his interest in things spiritual in part to his time at a Shambhala Buddhist high school. It may also be where his chant-like vocals come from, moving over slow, heavy guitar riffs and relentless drumming.

March has just finished mixing the follow-up to last year’s heavy haunt Obsidian Spectre. The new record was tracked on familiar territory, during night sessions in Halifax’s Echo Chamber studio throughout 2014.

Like on Obsidian Spectre, he’s doing all the production work, from the engineering to the mixing to the mastering.

“It just takes forever. It kind of drives a person crazy trying to engineer and mix and master a record, and I think it probably dilutes its meaning, having to pass through the same brain so many times,” says March, who started CROSSS in 2008 in Montreal.

It’s common practice to have someone else master your record, but mastering is expensive. So March spent months training his ears to notice the minutiae that mastering engineers make their living from. The resulting LP was something you could crank without being overwhelmed, giving the songs more space, in the ‘70s style of recording.

“That one I felt went a little too far, it’s a little too gentle and comfortable. This record hits you a little harder, it’s not as easy listening,” says March. “It’s kind of in the middle, it’s not going to sound like a Ty Segall record, but it’s not going to sound like a Black Sabbath record either.”

He’s going for something heavier, with lyrics that are a little more relatable — while retaining the dark, druidic quality that makes a CROSSS record feel part grunge and part sacrament.

The record will be a kind of second half to Obsidian Spectre, and is expected to come out in the late winter or early spring.

The latest release from CROSSS is “Eye Seance”, one of two songs recorded in the latest Echo Chamber sessions written by Nathan Doucet, who plays drums in CROSSS and also plays with Heaven for Real.

Doucet and bassist Ryan Allen have been the main band for the past two years, but after touring this fall with a temporary lineup March will have a new band based in Toronto — with Mikołaj Gajewski on bass, and Kris Bowering on drums.

“Eye Seance” came out last month on Ottawa-based Bruised Tongue Records, typically a cassette-only operation. But thanks to a deal with March when he was making a hasty exit from Hamilton, Bruised Tongue has put out a handful of lathe cut records using Andy’s record lathe.

The track is on a split with “Young and EZ” by Toronto-based Soupcans. Bruised Tongue co-founder Pierre Richardson cut 100 records with Andy’s lathe, available through Bruised Tongue.

Lathe cut records are cut using a lathe (surprise), an old machine that makes impressions on rotating objects. Before tape recording, electric lathes were used to cut records onto plastic.

“I didn’t know where I was going to put my machine,” says March. “I have a few requirements, because it’s kind of big, and it makes a bit of a smell and uses a lot of power.”

He was able to make an arrangement with Richardson to store his record lathe in a back room of Gabba Hey!, a rehearsal and living space in central Ottawa. In exchange for storage and being able to come down a few days each month to work with the lathe, Andy showed Pierre how to cut records.

“The technology is still ancient, but there’s an online community of people and we were all experimenting over the last three years, and it just got to a place where it sounds really good, it’s consistent and doesn’t wear out,” says March.

Lathe cut records are made one at a time, so they’re only really ideal for rare and short-run releases. They’re known for inconsistent sound and short lifespan, but March says his records can be played on repeat for days on end without any change in quality.

Sandwiching art between two thin pieces of plastic, he creates his own short-run picture discs.

“There’s just like a lot of variables and there ended up being some pretty intense modifications to the machine [involved],” says March. Along with other experimenters around the world, March found using hard, smooth plastic and adjusting the lathe would lead to more reliable cuts.

“A couple of the developments I discovered by just staring at the machine for hours and hours,” he laughs.

“I’m a bit of a closet inventor, I’ve worked on a couple things that I’ve tried to bring to market, and it was really exciting to see it take off. I kind of have a way to make money off it which is pretty amazing.”

He’s working out an arrangement to bring the lathe to Toronto, where it would be moved to June Records, March offering his lathe services through the store.

“I’m pretty excited about it, it’s been a long time since I’ve had a job,” says March. “I’m excited to see if I can popularize it a little bit.”

CROSSS play Sept. 18 at Club Lambi (Telephone Explosion Showcase) and Sept. 19  at Brasserie Beaubien (Craft Singles Showcase).

Finding inspiration with Chad VanGaalen

Photo Marc Rimmer

Chad VanGaalen is the restless creative type. His excellent new record Shrink Dust is just one of many projects, including animating the latest videos from Timber Timbre and The Head and the Heart, and slaving away at a three-part science fiction animated feature.

If he’s writing a song, he needs to finish it the same day to stay focused. But Chad would rather be drawing and jamming with his two daughters.

“That’s been the biggest inspiration since I can remember. It’s been a real wake up call, playing music with my girls. It’s so much fun it’s ridiculous,” says VanGaalen.

“I wasn’t really exposed to much music as a kid. I grew up with my mom in Calgary and of course she did an awesome job raising me, but I didn’t have a studio with a skateboard ramp in the basement, and a full music studio upstairs.”

Chad’s home studio in Calgary is his playground and his laboratory, and the kind of creative space he always dreamed his kids would have.

“When I get thirsty for what they’re suddenly exposing to me I have to be careful, I don’t want to taint what’s happening to them in that moment,” he says. “Not being like, ‘Do you know why this is great?’ Just smile and shut the fuck up.”

It’s an ethos he tries to keep with his solo material, where an idea can fall apart if it’s subject to too much second-guessing.

“If you’re constantly thinking about those ideas as one person it just comes off sounding pretty planned. But if you don’t, you get this naive quality to it which I really, really, really love, and that’s all I care about when I’m sequencing the record,” he says.

Onstage, Chad’s sound is fleshed out with Eric Hamelin, Matt Flegel and Scott “Monty” Munroe. Flegel and Munroe’s band, Viet Cong, (whose blistering, sweaty POP Montreal show at L’Esco was one of the best at the festival last year) will be opening for Chad on the Alberta and Saskatchewan stops on the Shrink Dust tour.

Munroe and Flegel started playing together in Chad’s band, but he’s far from the jealous type.

“I’m more than happy to schedule my life around their band ventures, I’m so stoked that Viet Cong actually happened. Those guys deserve it more than a lot of people I know,” he said.

He saw Flegel and Viet Cong drummer Mike Wallace’s former group Women fall apart, having co-produced both of the band’s LPs.

Tensions rose between Women’s band members while heavily touring their record Public Strain, culminating in a much-publicized onstage brawl in Victoria in October 2010 that lead to the band going on hiatus.

Guitarist Christopher Reimer passed away in his sleep in February 2012.

“They’ve been slugging it out for so long, and just with what happened with the Women band, fuck man it was just about to happen for them and everything totally imploded,” said VanGaalen.

Shrink Dust’s opener “Cut off My Hands” captures the loss he felt after Reimer’s death. Over acoustic guitar and layered saxophone his delicate falsetto sings “Fall asleep / and disappear / pop some pills / chase your fear / she said I love you both the same before she drifted away.”

“If it doesn’t have any life to it, then it’s out. That’s usually what determines if it makes the cut or not, if it sounds a little fragile. If it sounds like it seems like it’s falling apart, but it’s not falling apart, then it makes the cut,” said VanGaalen.

“I’d rather them say it sounds bad than to have it sound like middle-of-the-road stuff. But, I mean, some of [Shrink Dust] is.”

Chad’s probably too hard on himself. Every track on Shrink Dust offers something different, while being the most cohesive, the most album-like thing he’s ever released.

He calls it his “country record” because of the consistent presence of a pedal steel, but longtime fans know better than to tag just one genre onto a Chad VanGaalen record.

The production work here is also his best to date. But he says he needs to find ways to capture inspiration more quickly to keep up this trajectory.

“I’m a lot more frustrated with compressors and preamps and setting up drum mics, either I’m going into a studio for the next record, or the song structure that I’ve been working on for the last decade is going to go out the window,” he said.

Bringing his band into a professional studio would certainly be an unexpected move from a man who has spent the last decade tinkering away in his home recording space.

He doesn’t want to spend all day on a vocal take, modestly stating he’d waste everyone’s time tracking a studio record. Part of why he’s stuck with drawing for so long is that nothing technical gets between his pen and his ideas.

“The reason I got into this is that I liked to make long, soundscapey pieces of music, and I feel songs have taken me away from that. It’s a reality intricate thing, and, at least as one person, it’s a very anal thing,” he said.

“For better or worse I’ve been like, ‘I don’t want to alienate anybody.’”

But despite his talent for vocal hooks, Shrink Dust is no pop record. The record revolves around Chad and his guitar, moving from country to punk to ambient sounds — while always keeping a deliberate song structure. It’s accessible, but it’s also inspired.

Early records like Skelliconnection and Infiniheart were lo-fi and often tangential, made with an audience of family and friends in mind when he had newly signed to Sub Pop Records. So over the last decade, as more people started paying attention, Chad saw the breakbeats and prepared piano pieces fall outside of his full-length releases.

He became more self-conscious of his music, and the animations he made to go along with them.

Now Chad’s experimental side only shows up on limited cassette releases, or under the moniker Black Mold. He’s also working on something new with Seth Smith, from the East Coast shoegaze duo Dog Day.

“I’ve more or less found a home for that, but I’ve also realized the reason I started doing [music] in the first place was to introduce that life into the other songs, and to people as well,” he said.

“I’m still trying to find a balance between the two.”

Originally published by The Link Newspaper.

A Film Noir Disco Fantasy

Photo Olia Eichenbaum

Fame and fortune sounds just fine to Jef Barbara, he’s just not in a rush to get there.

He just spent five days in Austin to play South by Southwest, including the annual GayBiGayGay show alongside Cakes da Killa and Mykki Blanco, and the POP Montreal showcase. But rubbing shoulders with the industry’s kingmakers isn’t quite his style.

“I tend to not really enjoy going to parties and trying to schmooze with the right people […] it’s not my thing,” Barbara said a day after returning home to Montreal. “I spent a great deal of time eating tacos and enjoying the weather.”

The festival is known both for packed venues with fans eager to lap up the hype and empty rooms—but this year’s SXSW sported some questionably huge acts, like Lady Gaga and Jay Z, alongside the unknowns.

“I’d rather not force things too much, but of course should I be given the opportunity to play for Samsung and get paid a million dollars, I’m not stupid,” Jef laughed. Jay Z’s partnership with the tech company gave festival-goers a chance to see him and Kanye West play if they had the right phone.

But a festival like Austin’s indie music mecca, where similar bands are often grouped together, does show how unclassifiable his music really is. From new wave riffs to sequin-laced synths—to the odd Pink Floyd-like guitar explosion—it all revolves around Jef’s voice, hanging in anticipation off each sparse vocal phrase.

“I won’t fit in with the R&B crowd, nor will I fit into the synth-pop wavey crowd, nor do we fit into the traditionally rock ‘n roll, indie rock crowd,” he says. “Everything’s sort of in the mix, there’s further layers of identity that are put on top, such as my queer identity, that make up who Jef Barbara is.”

Jef has returned to Montreal just in time for a show at La Sala Rossa, celebrating the 15th anniversary of Archive Montreal, who put on the annual Expozine festival, and to raise money for their Distroboto project—local art vending machines in various Plateau spots for over a decade.

His second LP, Soft to the Touch, came out last fall on Club Roll Records, its 14 songs tied together more by its synthy aura than its sound.

Grainy, glammed-up music videos place Jef in front of the camera striking poses, surrounded by a lush fantasy world where everyone is easy and the drinks are free.

He has a background in theatre, but acting is something he could never fully commit to.

“As an actor you’re always subjected to somebody else’s view of you, you have to correspond to one’s idea to what a character should look like and what they should sound like and who they should be,” he said.

“As a singer, you’re not only your own actor but you’re your own director. Creating my musical universe was the easiest way for me to express myself in a holistic way.”

Jef Barbara is both a performer and performance, in a sensory bath of film noir and fluorescent light. But it’s getting harder for him to separate Jef the persona from Jef the person.

“It’s become rather confusing because a big part of the Jef Barbara character was inspired by inherent characteristics that I already had,” he says.

“It is composition, but it’s based on elements that are already part of my personality that I just decided to exploit, and to a certain extent to caricature. I don’t know if it’s a character anymore. I’m a bit confused.”

Jef Barbara (Archive Montreal anniversary w/ Pyongyang + Tony Ezzy) // March 22 // La Sala Rossa (4848 St. Laurent Blvd.) // 9 p.m. // $12

Originally published by The Link Newspaper.

The Radical's Playbook

boots

Photo by Scott Hess

With an immaculate afro and razor-sharp sideburns, Boots Riley looks like a Black Panther frozen in time, or a long-lost member of Sly and the Family Stone. But the lifelong activist and musician’s politics are only looking forward, ever searching for the path to revolution.

His music is best known from his Oakland-based hip-hop group The Coup, which has been active since the early ‘90s, and more recent work with Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello in the Street Sweeper Social Club.

From the MTV crowd to the underground rap show, Boots does it all. After all, he got into music to reach out to as many people as possible.

“Some of what’s informing the revolutionary aesthetic is a punk aesthetic. A punk aesthetic has to do with being rebellious against any number of people, but a punk aesthetic is not one with the aim of creating a revolution of touching the people that are not yet won over,” said Riley.

“This is not about being underground, this is about being above ground. That’s what drives my whole artistic being; it’s what drives who I am.”

Growing up with a father who belonged to the radical communist Union Labor Party, Riley had early insight into class struggles and a distaste for the current economic system. No matter the topic of his rhymes, he says that class dynamics are always present.

“If you don’t have a class analysis [in protest music] that says this world is run by the exploitation of the working class’ labour by the ruling class, then you’re going to come up with all this other mystical shit of why things are fucked up,” said Riley.

“And what you’re going to have is something angry and frustrating.”

He criticizes protest art that only looks inward, saying that you can change inside all you want—but that you’ll only get angrier when the world doesn’t follow suit.

This perspective, he says, comes more from his experience as an organizer than being a musician. What Riley preaches instead is optimism, and he says that his message is one that helps people realize their economic power.

“The problems and possibilities are the same in almost every demographic of people in the world. One is they wish the world was different. Two is most of us think we have no power to affect change in the world. I don’t think that students are more optimistic than most people,” said Riley, who speaks at campuses multiple times a year.

“I think sometimes they are in a material position where they have less to risk than someone who has to feed five kids. But I think they still suffer from the same pessimism.”

He says people need to be reminded that they can change things, not just that things are bad—that people just need to see that there exists winnable battles over material change such as wages, housing and education.

“Often we are told the system is evil, which it is, but in this conspiracy sort of way where there are five people in a room that control the world and there’s nothing you can do about it,” said Riley. “I think that optimism grows when there’s a movement, when people are fighting for material things together.”

Riley was a prominent face of Occupy Oakland, where he’s lived most his life. It’s this lack of constructive mentality that led the movement to break down.

“Nobody was meeting and saying, ‘How do we work with people and talk about these ideas?’” said Riley. “Some of that I can relate to an anarchist [perspective], trying to develop someone politically is tantamount to being an imperialist.”

But that idea leaves groups only organizing with people who already agree with you, he says, creating “affinity groups” instead of community groups.

“The unfortunate thing is that the new folks come in with the possibility of becoming more radicalized, but a lot of them were just shunned and went home,” said Riley.

“I think organizers have a duty to know a lot of people. To be friendly, to make conversation wherever you are and to not have most of your friends be other organizers. If most of your friends are organizers, you’re not going to grow.”

He argues that no successful social movement was made by creating a new group of people, that organizing has to be where you work, where you study—that it needs to be more than something extra-curricular.

“If you consider yourself radical that means you want to build a revolutionary movement, and building a revolutionary movement can’t be made by forging an insular culture,” he said.

Originally published by The Link Newspaper.

Hardcore Heresy

The biggest difference between a black metal record and the latest from anthemic anti-Christian punk band Crusades is that only one compels you to sing along.

Perhaps You Deliver This Judgment With Greater Fear Than I Receive it, released last November, is a rallying cry for secular thought and a damnation of Catholic oligarchy—with its lyrics tracing back to the 16th century.

The record revolves around the writing of philosopher Giordano Bruno, who was executed in 1600 for refusing to denounce his theory that the Sun was just another star in an infinite universe. Every song title is a loose translation of Bruno’s Latin texts, and the record’s name was Bruno’s response to his death sentence.

“Bruno’s story actually came to me as a result of a lengthy obsession with Roman Polanski’s film The Ninth Gate and Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s novel The Club Dumas,” says Dave Williams, guitarist and singer of the Ottawa-based four-piece.

The Ninth Gate, based on Pérez-Reverte’s novel, centres around a fictional book by Aristide Torchia derived from a text by Satan himself. Torchia’s character is thought to be based on Bruno.

It’s the philosopher’s solemn, hooded face on the cover of Perhaps You Deliver…, an image taken from his dark, imposing statue in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori, where he was burned at the stake for heresy.

The atmosphere set by the record is the heaviest thing about it—a combination of the record’s theme, its cold, raw production and Williams’ almost academic approach to composition.

“I’m only really interested in writing single, cohesive pieces, both lyrically and musically,” says Williams, who has a degree in musicology from Carleton University.

“Creating a mood, an atmosphere, it needs room to ebb and flow, to breathe. Until we start writing 20-minute-plus songs, it’ll continue to take a full record to make that happen the way we want it to.”

The record is almost deceptively heavy; it’s easy to get caught in the vocal melody before realizing the underlying intensity—furious, metal leads and crushing, shape-shifting rhythm.

As they hone their sound, it continues to move beyond the more straightforward melodic punk heard on their first LP, 2011’s The Sun is Down and the Night is Riding in, be it the hymn-like vocal phrasing of “The Transport of Intrepid Souls” or the ‘80s metal shining through the second half of “The Art of Memory.”

It’s a product of the band branching out of their collective comfort zone.

"As we’ve grown closer as musicians and friends, we’ve gotten more comfortable with bringing our individual influences to the table and working to incorporate them into our sound,” says Williams, which for him meant pulling more from hardcore and metal.

The album was recorded, mixed and mastered in Ottawa by Mike Bond, who also worked the board for 2012’s Parables EP. There’s nothing pretty about Bond’s production style. It sounds the way punk should—dirty, booming and huge—while crafting an array of metal guitar tones.

“We grew up playing music with Mike, and as such, we share many sonic touchstones that I’ve asked him to strive for,” says Williams. “Whether it’s Cave In-esque tones or Barrit-style cleans, Mike knows exactly what I mean and that goes a long way toward achieving a specific vision.”

Crusades is a band all about composition. They have wives, “real” jobs and Williams is a father, but they’re already planning to work on their follow-up LP this summer, and aim to go on an East Coast U.S. tour in the fall.

They’re also now backed by Gainesville-based No Idea Records—a dream come true for Williams.

“No Idea has been my favourite label for many, many years, and to now call it home is surreal, humbling and crazy,” he says.

The feeling is mutual. No Idea signed Crusades after the label’s publicist, Tony Weinbender, was blown away by their set at The Fest, the annual punk festival in Florida he organizes.

And while this record is an immediately engaging performance of furious punk rock, the intent is far beyond just that.

“The hope is that, by combining an intense atmosphere, a passionate message and memorable songwriting, what’s being shouted back at us will have more behind it than just volume and melody,” says Williams. “It’ll have something that people can connect to, with lyrical and musical complexities that reveal themselves a little more with each listen.

“‘Whoas’ and ‘heys’ have their time and place—but doesn’t everyone prefer to sweatily scream something that just might give them chills as well?”

Originally published by The Link Newspaper.

Viet Cong Out of Cowtown

There's nothing like a 50-show tour to put a new band through its paces.

Viet Cong has rattled and clanged through half of the tour supporting Victoria's Freak Heat Waves, taking them through the United States and across Canada and back. It’s a daunting proposition for a band less than a year old, but Viet Cong isn’t exactly made up of a bunch of fresh-faced kids.

The band has the rhythm section of Women, the now-defunct post-punk prodigies that were were one of the best bands to come out of Calgary.

“The idea is to jump into it. It's hard to feel like you're doing anything when you're stuck in Calgary playing the same venue over and over again. We needed to get out of there,” said Viet Cong singer and bassist Matt Flegel.

Flegel and drummer Mike Wallace are joined by guitarists Scott Munroe, who Flegel had played with in the Chad VanGaalen band, and Daniel Christiansen, previously from a Black Sabbath cover band. After extensive touring the strain started to show in Flegel and Wallace’s old band—a brawl at a Victoria show in October 2010 marked their last onstage appearance. Guitarist Christopher Reimer passed away in his sleep 16 months later.

In Viet Cong, Flegel and Munroe take main songwriting duties, their sound ranging from fuzz-laden drone to straight pop. Their self-titled cassette surfaced online a few weeks ago as a collection of mismatched home recordings, leaving impressions of the punk and shoegaze their old projects are known for.

For Flegel those songs are just the orphans of the Viet Cong sessions, and the band is currently sitting on a cohesive debut record—they just need to decide who they’re going to put out the album with.

The new material also adds more synths and drum machines beats into the mix.

“We’ve been bringing that into the fold as the tour goes along,” said Flegel. “This is very much testing the waters.

“Monty [Munroe] is playing synth on almost all of it; it’s becoming more of a lead instrument.”

Even with the new sounds, however, Flegel believes his generation’s time has passed. According to him, all the best music in Calgary is coming from the 20-year-olds.

“It seems like it’s getting better culturally in Calgary in general,” he said. “It hasn’t always been that way, it’s been a kind of bleak place as far as culture for a while.”

But for those who do stay, bands like Women, and now Viet Cong, show that it’s possible to make it as a band in Cowtown.

“The young dudes probably look up to us, but they don’t know how much we respect them already,” said Flegel.

Originally published by The Link newspaper.

Opaque Pop Melancholy

It comes to you as if in a dream, the faint glimmer of manipulated piano brushing past as you sink deeper into the blackness. You’ll Never Get to Heaven emits ambient melancholy, remnants of pop vocals embedding themselves in murky haze and crackle.

You’ll Never Get to Heaven is anything but conventional. The duo, originally from the East Coast but now based in London, Ontario, have a penchant for the hiss and pops of vinyl, as well as deconstructing turn-of-the-century classical music.

For Chuck Blazevic, the instrumental half of the band, it’s a matter of constantly being challenged among a myriad of samples and plug-ins.

He’s been putting out ambient music since 2008 under the moniker Dreamsploitation, a project he describes as “learning how to work with pre-recorded material that does not just rely on the integrity of a single loop.”

The band’s self-titled record, released last year, is an exercise in this experimentation, with isolated moments from classical records and dub blending with electric bass lines and Alice Hansen’s far-away vocals. Each song slips in through another, its buried pop form slowly emerging with each listen.

You’ll Never Get to Heaven’s minimalist soundtracks are steadily becoming more polished, as the two begin to rely less on samples and more on their own melodies. They have a cassette’s worth of material they’ll be putting out in the next few months.

“We do everything at home, and that probably will never change because we have everything we need here,” said Hansen. The two have been partners for years and live together, their music emerging as a natural product of their joint interests.

Blazevic takes isolated kicks or snare hits from the dub records, then builds his own beat with recorded bass lines. Pulling melodicism and atmosphere from classical composers such as Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc is no arbitrary choice, either.

“A lot of that music has rich harmonies that we enjoy on a composition level, but the timbral aspects are achieved through sampling older vinyl,” said Blazevic. “All the pops and hisses and crackles give it an anachronistic sheen that we’re also fans of.

“If we need a chord off a particular classical record, we’ll isolate it. You get all these other aspects,” he continued.

“When you digitally process those harmonic overtones, you can get really nice ambient textures.”

It’s a process of using new tools and building new ambience. Now that they’ve found their sonic centre, it’s anyone’s guess how it will expand.

Originally published by The Link Newspaper.