I would like to thank Great Lake Swimmers (especially Tony) for taking the time to do the interview and Phil Klygo for helping me set it up.
Who are the Great Lake Swimmers?
Great Lake Swimmers started off as a songwriting vehicle for myself, but has come to include Erik Arnesen (banjo) and Colin Huebert (drums) as core members of the band. The touring band also now includes Mike Overton on the upright bass.
How did you meet the band members?
I met the band members by crossing paths with them when I first started playing shows in Toronto. I met Erik in a rockabilly band that I played drums with for a short time called The Donnellys. I met Colin when I toured with his other band, Ten Year Drought, in eastern Canada, and kept in touch with him when he moved to the city. And I met Mike when a friend recommended him as an upright bass player. He also plays with St. Dirt Elementary School, and we have a few mutual friends in that band.
Do you think you have grown as musicians? How?
I like to think Iíve grown as a musician and a songwriter. Iím always trying to get at the heart of the craft, and although itís still a relatively mysterious process to me, I hope Iím getting better at it as a medium. And I think weíve all grown as performers; being on the road as much as we are sort of forces you to play better, and weíre more like a band now than a collection of musicians. Itís sort of like walking a tight rope or doing some kind of balancing act, and weíre getting better at balancing.
What was it like recording half of the album in one city and the other half in another? Which city did you prefer and why?
We didnít really set out to do that. We had originally planned to record in some historical buildings on Toronto Island, but it fell through at the last minute, and so instead did some pre-production work at the Gas Station Studio there, since everyone had booked off time to do it. But when the session sort of fell apart, we moved the whole project to London because I knew about the Aeolian Hall, and we sort of started from scratch again there. It felt good to be in London again. I lived there for a short time when I went to UWO. And it was a great opportunity to work with Andy Magoffin again.
You wanted to be a writer and that is how you ended up writing for a film company, but how did you start writing and playing music instead? Is it something you've always done on the side or did you start getting interested in it later?
I wrote a lot of songs while I was living in London, and then wrote a lot more when I was making the transition to Toronto, and started playing in small bars and cafes when I first moved to the city. Writing songs and playing shows ultimately just took over my life, and when my time was up at the film company I sort of jumped into it full time, and I havenít really looked back since.
At the show in London you said that you used to live here and then moved to Toronto. Where are you originally from and do you prefer living in a big or small city?
I grew up in a small town in the Niagara region, and spent the first 19 years of my life in a small farming community there. I like retreating to the rural areas and really like spending time out in the woods and in nature, but Iíve learned how to tolerate city life a little more, and learned how to understand the rhythms of an urban life a little more. Iím comfortable with both but I definitely feel like I would go back to living in a smaller town at some point. Itís sort of strange though, because certain neighborhoods in Toronto feel like small towns anyway.
Has living in different cities affected you and your work at all?
Not really. I think that in the end it doesnít really matter what city you live in. To me itís not about what the city has to offer, itís more what I can bring to the city. I think you make your own heaven or hell for yourself, in a way, and itís important to be involved with your community, if you want your community to respond to you.
Another thing you said was that your trip to work on the subway every day inspired you to write a song(s). What else would you say has inspired you when writing this new record?
Weíve been in a lot of different spaces and environments, both mentally and physically, while being on the road leading up to the writing and recording of this record, so I think that definitely found its way into my writing. The natural environment, as well as the internal one inside our heads, has always been a subject Iíve found worthwhile to explore but it rose to the surface a lot more acutely with this new record I think.
People sometimes compare you to Neil Young (because of the voice) and you also ended the show here with a song of his. Has he been a big influence on you and if so how?
As a Canadian and as a songwriter I think I owe some sort of artistic debt to Neil Young, but I feel Iím coming from a somewhat different place. I am a huge fan of his extensive body of work but I came to it much later on. I started really listening to his records after the comparisons started. It is of course a huge honor to even be mentioned in the same breath but I certainly wouldnít say I am trying to ape that style or something. His music is embedded in our collective unconscious though, to some extent, I think.
Some of your songs make references to nature, "Your Rocky Spine," "Put There By Land," etc. Is this just a style of writing or is there something deeper?
The songs are more rewarding if you bring something to them. I think the experience of them is different for everybody. Itís alright to listen just on a surface level, and I think they work alright on that level, but getting deeper into them is more rewarding for a listener I think. Itís not exactly party music.
The show in London was amazing; you were on key the entire time and the band as a whole sounded wonderful. What is your secret?
Well as I was saying, we spend a lot of time on the road and I think it forces you to become better at what you do. Weíve clocked a lot of hours and have played all over Europe, the UK, the U.S., Australia, and Canada several times. Weíre sort of like a band of brothers at this point.
What motivates you to get up every morning and get on the tour bus/van and drive around the country/world?
Itís a pretty big effort to spend eight or ten hours in a tin can on wheels, only to show up in a town and unload all your stuff into some place. But itís sort of worth it for those one or two hours of bliss when everything comes together and connects on the stage. Itís sort of like a spiritual exercise in a way. Nothing worth attaining comes to you without its own set of trials. The highs are worth the lows I suppose.
You have toured with big names in the "Indie" scene; what has been your favourite experience so far?
Playing shows with Andrew Bird was a great experience. It was like watching a magician or some kind of shaman casting spells every night. We also had a really nice time doing a few U.S. shows with Feist a little while back. There have been lots of high points for us.
Fans in the US have been dying to know when you will be touring in their states/cities. Any plans to after the European tour?
You heard it here first:
06/10/2007; Chapel Hill, NC; Local 506 *
06/11/2007; Charleston, SC; The Map Room *
06/12/2007; Atlanta, GA; The EARL *
06/13/2007; Birmingham, AL; Bottletree Cafť *
06/15/2007; Houston, TX; Walter's On Washington *
06/16/2007; Austin, TX; Emo's *
06/17/2007; Dallas, TX; Bend Studio *
06/19/2007; Phoenix, AZ; Modified *
06/20/2007; Los Angeles, CA; Hotel Cafť *
06/21/2007; San Francisco, CA; Cafe du Nord *
06/23/2007; Seattle, WA; Tractor Tavern *
06/24/2007; Portland, OR; Holocene *
06/26/2007; Salt Lake City, UT; Kilby Court
06/27/2007; Denver, CO; Hi-Dive
06/28/2007; Omaha, NE; TBA
06/29/2007; Madison, WI; Cafe Montmartre
06/30/2007; Chicago, IL; Schuba's
07/01/2007; Minneapolis, MN; 7th Street Entry
* with Eleni Mandell
What do you expect to accomplish in the next few years?
I hope we can continue being a band, and that I can get better at writing songs. I donít have any sort of big plan or anything. Just getting out on the road and sharing these songs with people is something Iíd like to be able to continue doing.
One of our users submitted this silly question that I can't help but ask: What lakes do you enjoy swimming in?
All of them. But especially Lake Superior. And also, Lake Erie, because my brother-in-law owns a little boat that we take out onto the lake sometimes in the summer.
Any last words you would like to say to the fans?
Weíre nice guys so please donít hesitate to say hello if you run into us at one of our shows. And thanks for helping us get the word out about our music in such a thoughtful way.