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Jul162007

ANDRE ETHIER - July 13/07

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A vital member of the Toronto music scene for nearly fifteen years, Andre Ethier is many things: painter, singer-songwriter, garage rocker, even national anthem crooner. In conversation, he is as thoughtful as you might expect such a talent would be, but also generous with gentle humour. Answers drift and run into the next idea; a characteristic which accurately reflects someone who clearly feels he's got a lot more to figure out yet about how he makes art. With the release of his fine new album, On Blue Fog, Soundscapes' John Crossingham took time to speak with Ethier about the album's creation, sharing his name with a baseball player, and his gradual transition from the "gang mentality" of the Deadly Snakes to his new world of lone-gun renaissance man.

Soundscapes: There's a level of comfort going through (On Blue Fog) where nothing seems forced. Everything's in its right place.

Andre Ethier: A goal of mine with making records is to get to a place where I'm really comfortable with the music, where the music is the most natural music that I could be making. Do you know what I mean? With my personality and what my interests are. So I feel like this one was the most natural to my sensibilities. It's also been this slow process of shedding, not influences, but y'know when you're first starting a band and you're young and you say, "We should sound just like this plus this and this" and you try to devour records, feed yourself with records and try to become a composite of all of these influences? And then as I've gotten older now I'm just trying to shed all of that stuff that's kinda clogging my ability to just directly express myself. So yeah, I'm looking for that sense of comfort. But then, at times I can get too comfortable and leave a lot of mistakes and stuff on the record. (laughs)

SS: When you're putting all of these songs together, the comfort speaks of a little bit more than just the personality of the playing. The choices that are made as far as the instrumentation goes, the lineup is constantly fluctuating from song to song, there's no sense that you need to make sure that certain people are on a certain amount of tunes.

AE: Yeah.

SS: It feels like all the choices that are involved in the instrumentation are pretty natural. How did you arrive at that?

AE: Well, there's one constant in the band, as a collaborator, and that's Christopher (Sandes, Ethier's piano player). So, (laughs) I do always kind of have to think, "Oh, what will Chris play?" At this point, what's really kind of worked out nicely is, um, the way I recorded a lot of that record is I just recorded guitar and vocal solo. One day in the studio, did most of the recording that day. And then just had people come in to overdub. They were able to just sort of, instead of trying to come up with parts that consistently are played throughout the song, they're able to just pick out places to play. That kinda keeps things comfortable. Then also I just record mostly with just friends. People that I have a good feeling about and I wanna spend time with them in the studio. Like having Chad Ross play guitar on that last track and he plays a bit of percussion on some other tracks. I want Chad around, y'know, and want him to play. So I just surround myself with friends. Keep it kinda nebulous so that I'm never locked in. The restriction of a band is, I guess what you were suggested and I think it's true, is that everyone always has to have their part for each song. It's always the same. Whereas, I would rather just not have to do that. Not have to adhere to any rules that way.

SS: What you've been saying here speaks to some things I wanted to ask with regards to the Deadly Snakes. Even listening to Porcella (the final Snakes album), as much as I do really enjoy it, it seemed like one of those moments where the people who were in the band had outgrown that idea. Not that the music wasn't good anymore. Whatever the intention was behind the Deadly Snakes when that band was started, the personalities had reached this point where it was like, I can't create in this manner anymore.

AE: Oh yeah, it's true. At the beginning, everyone was focused, like a gang mentality. There was a personality, the band had its personality. Then by (Porcella), I think because people were growing up, everyone was heading in different directions and, if anything, there was a lot of resentment in the band, from probably everyone, that they couldn't just... they had to adhere to the originality personality of the group that maybe they had outgrown. So I feel like, I know that a lot of people like Porcella, but Porcella is probably my least favourite Deadly Snakes record 'cause to me, all I can hear is people trying to pull each other in different directions. And not everyone wants to go in these different directions and it's not cohesive. It's kinda more like a collective of mercenaries at that point, instead of a unified group. So I think a lot of my recording since the Deadly Snakes, or this is actually the first record I've done since the Deadly Snakes, it was really important to me that I'm autonomous, so I'm not in constant negotiations with other people.

SS: In really subtle ways, On Blue Fog feels like less of a counterpoint to what the Deadly Snakes provided as much as a bit more of an expression of you as a whole person. There are moments on this record where you let loose more than on the other solo records. I'm wondering how much now that the Snakes weren't there to be that counterpoint, it was like, "OK, instead of (the solo career) being the neglected half of me, this is kinda everything"?

AE: Yeah, absolutely. Without being conscious about it, on the first two records, it was in relief of the Deadly Snakes, do you know what I mean? And also I was really, though it might not have seemed that way to everyone, but I was like trying to be careful not to step on the toes of the Deadly Snakes as an entity. And then now, it's just over. I can confidently... making those other records I felt like I was sort of making them in secret. They were actually kind of weird records to make, even though they were kind of liberating. This one now (On Blue Fog), is just, I dunno, all the anxiety that I may or may not have had is all gone now. This record is also very different, like my life is very different, because I'm a painter now by trade. That's how I make my money and I don't really have any strong aspirations to be successful financially in music. And also, I used to really want to keep painting and music really separate from each other. And at this point for some reason, I don't know why, I just decided I kinda flipped over and wanted to combine music and painting. By that I just mean that prior to this I used to want to paint from one part of my brain and make music from another part of my brain. Now it's just kind of trying to operate in the same creative space: coming from the same place.

So lyrically, things changed. I used to always in music be writing in reference to kind of popular music. Like it was in the context of rock records. Like the last one, Secondathallam, was a relationship record, done in the style of 70s confessional writers. A lot of the Snakes stuff was always writing in the style of what we thought rock n' roll should sound like, you what I mean? And it was more analytical, whereas now it's more expressive and lyrically there's songs about nothing but imagery, which comes from painting or just being imaginative.

SS: It's great that you bring up the painting, because I wanted to ask about that. When I was speaking with (The Sea and Cake's) Sam Prekop, who is another painter/musician, to my eye, he had a great connection between the themes in his painting and the type of music that he made. But bringing it up with him, he kind of bristled at that notion, as though it was too obvious. Being a painter and being a musician are two artistic personalities that have equal potential to be either very much in sync with one another or very much left side/right side. How has that (relationship) evolved?

AE: Only in that (pauses)... I'm not sure. I don't know if I can pin it down, but maybe just sort of in being a little bit more imaginative in the imagery that I use lyrically. It doesn't always translate to the song. I dunno, it's just being a little bit more open. When I paint, I don't know what I'm going to paint prior to starting to paint it. I don't sketch before or anything like that, I just sort of start and it's pretty subconscious work. So, with a lot of the lyrics on the record, even though they'll be like choruses and refrains and stuff like that, I didn't try to, I didn't decide what the song's imagery was going to be before I started writing it. I would just let the last line tell me what the next line was going to be. I tried to be a little bit more open that way, which is closer to how I paint. In the album cover there's a painting of an eyeball exploding out of the Earth. There's no song on the record about an exploding eyeball. It's not directly related. It's just kinda coming from the same place.

SS: When you talk about the difference in lyrics, the first couple of your solo records and the Snakes' stuff, there was a sense of formula, or maybe just more an adherence to tradition.

AE: Yeah, traditions, exactly.

SS: Y'know, "this is my character, he's a hobo, he goes along a trail of redemption, has an altercation in a bar..."

AE: There's still some of that on this record.

SS: On this record, I hear a lot of the battle between chance and choice, if that makes any sense? The predicament of where you fall: do you have a fate your life is working towards or do you have inherently a lot of choices as to how your life is going to turn out? When you write about those things, they tend to take on more images, where it's a little more open as to how you want to interpret it. Is that even accurate?

AE: I didn't really have...(pauses) There was no conscious link between the songs. It's interesting that you mention choice and chance. There was some kind of themes of exploration, like inner exploration, but as expressed as outer exploration. Like sort of traveling or going into jungles. Like "The Pride of Egypt", I just wanted to make, thinking of it like a painting, I wanted it be kind of really specific but really general at the same time. So something that is kinda general like conflict, places in the Middle East or Egypt or a large area...

SS: Or Switzerland...

AE: Or yeah Swiss, like to move from the cradle of civilization up to Switzerland and then something by the last verse, which is really specific about shopping, so it has to be really modern probably. But how each of them relates... it's still relationship negotiation stuff. So there's constantly zooming in and zooming out, it also really cinematic. For some reason, whenever I think of that song I always just imagine, you know the way that The Lord of the Rings opens up with a picture of a map? So I see a map, and then it just... (makes moving motions with his hands)

SS: Chooses to focus on different things?

AE: Yeah, just like that. But then the actual content of the lyrics, I'm not sure. I don't know what the actual themes are.

SS: There is a certain stream of lyric writing where you only really begin to discover what the songs mean to you after you've played them a bunch of times. Recorded it, toured it, and spoken with other people about what it means to them. It is subconscious writing.

AE: Yeah. 

SS: Something back in there is trying to speak to you.

AE: Right, it is very subconscious and just mostly word associations, but then the human brain of the listener, not so much me, the listener will make associations. They'll try. Like, if things are being pulled in really different directions, the human brain will try to create patterns. It's uncomfortable until it can create a pattern out of the chaos of it. We're just hardwired to recognize patterns, so I think people will extract things from it, if they are interested in trying to. But I didn't intentionally (make patterns).

SS: With the naming of all your records...

AE: Oh yeah. (laughs)

SS: ...you seem far too well-considered a person for it to be just a lark, y'know? So just naming (the albums), "Hey, this is who plays on the record" (2004's Andre Ethier and Christopher Sandes with Pickles and Price), "This is where I recorded the record" (2006's Secondathallam), "This is the label I'm on" (the latest, On Blue Fog, is a reference to his new label, Blue Fog)...

AE: Right.

SS: ...so, what is the reason?

AE: There needs to be titles for records so people can talk about them without confusion. And then other than naming them just I, II, and III, and that's kinda been done so often that it's boring. I just didn't want to get, or I didn't want to give... well alright, again, with painting, I don't title my paintings, because when you put a title on the painting it's kinda really leading to a viewer. Sometimes people really need that title to understand the painting, but I've never really (need one). Every time I've put a title on a painting it makes the painting much smaller. And I kinda have the same feeling with these records. When you title them, it crunches the record down into a little bit more of a (makes pinching gesture), it's telling people how to see it sometimes. So I just thought I would have titles that were just more in relation to the album as an object, y'know? What it is. "This is the one that I played with these guys", "This is the second one that I recorded at Halla (Music, a Toronto studio)", "This is the new one on Blue Fog"...

SS: Right, almost how you would talk about them if there was no title.

AE: Right. But then some of them I thought, you know the Secondathallam one, I made a big mistake, actually. My manager, Amanda Newman, she's great, but I told her that the record was going to be called "Second at Hallam", three separate words. And then she said, "Oh, I just wrote it out, it looks really cool as one word." And I said, "OK." But it kinda ruined what the idea was with that title which was kinda going to be like a double entendre, sorta. Because the picture is a corner window where I'm sitting, so I thought it could sound like an intersection. It's kinda 70s too, like New York, like 2nd St. at Hallam, even write it as "2nd at Hallam". But, instead it's just this indecipherable word, where people are like, "What is a 'secondathallam'?", whatever, they can't read it. So there you go. I also think it's kinda misleading, like you're supposed to know what it means, whatever. But this title (On Blue Fog) is not only just saying what record label I'm on, it's also suggestive of being high, if you're 'on blue fog'. And it also kinda sounds like a jazz record, or like On Golden Pond or something.

SS: Yeah, it's a fortunate by-product of that label.

AE: Yeah, I was really proud to be on it and was trying to tell everybody.

SS: The music that you make is somewhat purposely out-of-step with modern times. There's a lot of people right now who make music that speaks to a past era. You can look at, say, Devendra Banhart who has this reclaiming of a hippie-folk persona and how that translates in the modern era. But I find that with what you're doing, there's something of a bit more of a, not sure what the word is, genuine placement of a style of music.

AE: Well the thing about the Devendra Banhart style, which I can't really speak too much about because I don't really know those records well, but I have seen him live. I saw him in Miami actually and it was great. But, I feel like a lot of the bands, without having heard them, but just judging from they way they're dressed and stuff like that, is that as much as they're trying to make good music, they're also really trying to come off weird. Like they wanna seem strange, which I think is bullshit. It's like punks trying to pretend that they're really wild, or hip hop guys pretending that they're actually gangsters, though some of them sure are. That's the only way that I'm not associated with it, that I can't connect to it. Like I'm not particularly into being weird. I would say I have more affinity for Randy Newman. Pretty simple. His connection to music is not clouded. Or Nick Cave. You know that they just do. They don't pretend to be, although Nick Cave is a little theatrical, they don't seem like they're pretending to take on a persona.

SS: I certainly don't see a connection between you and a Devendra Banhart. I more mean that it seems like you have an honest desire to live in a certain way. It doesn't seem to have too much artifice to it. I wondering how...

AE: ...how true that is? (both laugh)

SS: Not so much that. But if you want to talk about the evolution from being in a garage-rock band, where it's very stylized, and then starting to become less of a, say, leather-jacket-wearing-street-punk kinda thing, to being more of a considered artist, where it's: I paint, I write music...

AE: Right.

SS: ...I'm more of a songwriter now. This personal evolution that you've gone on where what was happening with the Deadly Snakes was more of a desire to live a role, but it was a bit of acting. This is more you.

AE: Yeah, well, every member of the Snakes had to conform to a degree to the concept of the Snakes. Which we were all kind of happy to do at the time. And it really felt like it was a part of being 19. That you have that energy, like it's great to be in a garage band. It's awesome. But we all...I dunno, I even remember people being issued leather jackets. (laughs)  Like, "You're going to have to find a leather jacket now, James (Sayce, original bassist). And you can't wear those running shoes anymore, those are too big, that's too hip hop. You have to adhere to this look." And I think what that came from mostly was genuinely loving that music, but feeling a little bit outside of it: that we weren't that and we had to become it.

SS: Like how do you be a legitmate garage rock band from Toronto?

AE: From Toronto! And I remember being like, "Wait. The Hawks, like The Band, they're a great garage band. OK, OK, we're that then." Whatever, it was a lot of make believe. It's cool, and it's really exciting and fun but, prior to the Deadly Snakes I was into Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett. Guided By Voices. I always kinda liked psych and softer stuff, Neil Young. And it continued all the way through (the Snakes' lifetime). The Snakes was almost like an art project, in its own sense. But conceptual. Living and trying to live it. But yeah, this is more me. But also I've changed, I'm a different person now. Everyone changes and grows.

SS: Maybe this (present) incarnation again just speaks to that sense of comfort?

AE: I am, as a person, just generally, I'm not wild as a person. I'm married, I'm a married man. I'm in love with the same woman I've been in love with since high school. I'm a pretty steady person, and this music seems to express that.

SS: How did you get to the point where you were able to use painting as your main source of income? How long have you been painting for?

AE: I went to an art high school. I was painting in university. And then, I stopped for a little bit once I was finished university and then I got a studio here in Toronto to paint in through friends that I'd met in Toronto that were painters. So I had this space so I started painting again, and once I got it out of the context of school, everything kinda changed. It was really similar to the Snakes, it's like getting out of school and all of a sudden you're not creating in a negotiation with other people and other people's expectations. It was really liberating to paint outside of school and everything really changed in my painting. Eventually, in a couple of years, I had a show in Toronto, when I got the nerve up and then that show did well. Moved on to another gallery and that guy got me a show in a New York gallery that did well. Then that guy picked me up so now I'm represented by this New York gallery and I've had several shows in New York and they do well and I've had shows throughout Europe and throughout the States. It's been good.

SS: And are people in that line of work at all interested in your career as a musician?

AE: Well, the guy, Derek Eller is the owner and the name of the gallery in New York, is a big music fan. He gives me tons of records. He gives me pretty obscure, pretty Soundscapes-style records. Like Groundhogs, Atomic Rooster, Dr. Strangely Strange, David Crosby's record. It's pretty cool. And actually, most of the time that we talk business, we end up just talking about records. And since I've become a painter I can write off all the CDs I buy, so I buy a lot more CDs now.

SS: Could we talk a little bit about the whole baseball adventure?

AE: Like how did it happen, or what was it like?

SS: I think the how it happened has been pretty well documented (Ethier shares his name with Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder, Andre Ethier. This lead to Ethier being invited by the team to sing O Canada at a Dodgers/Blue Jays game in LA on July 9th). More just what it was like being a part of that world. Watching the video of it...

AE: Yeah, it was pretty wild. I was really nervous the day before. I was nervous that I was gonna be nervous that night and I wouldn't be able to fall asleep and then I'd be tired. And then, I actually ended up going out with Larry from In The Red (The Deadly Snakes' old label), and I got pretty wasted so I totally forgot about what I was doing the next day, so I slept fine. Then I was at the game, prior to singing, I was there on the field for like an hour before I sang, so I got really used to the environment. So by the time it was time to sing, though I had adrenaline and stuff like that, it doesn't comes across as being adrenalized (laughs), but I was not nervous at that time. So, it was just cool. I actually thought it was really nice. That stadium is gorgeous. It's surrounded by palm trees and it's down in a valley. It's really beautiful and I think LA is a pretty beautiful city.

I met the other Andre Ethier. He was really nice, it turns out that we probably share family, but generations and generations ago. His family arrived from France in the same general few years as when my family, the Ethiers (did). My Ethiers arrived in Canada and he came through Canada and moved down into the States, his great-grandfather moved to States. And gave me a jersey with his name on it, and my name on it. But they gave it to me in this moment... I think they thought I was gonna be really excited about the jersey, but I'm not such a big baseball fan, I was just more excited about playing the song, so I just stuffed it in my bag and I think they were a little offended (laughs). Oh, and the other really cool thing, or uncool thing depending on how you look at it, was that the American national anthem was sung by Lisa Loeb. Did you hear about that?

SS: Yeah, yeah I did.

AE: So she sang it really well, and I just met her maybe two minutes before we both sang. But I guess she really didn't know what to do after she sang, so she walked right up to me and hugged me on the field. Like she just didn't know what to do with herself. And uh, the only cool thing I did was I gave the thumbs-up behind her back to Larry from In The Red, he could see me. And I kinda felt like she was coming on to me later. (laughs) She was squeezing my shoulder as we were saying goodbye in a suggestive way. But other than that, it was fun. I ate a hot dog, I watched the game. I hadn't been to a baseball game since I was 9.

SS: I really like the arrangement you choose to do of the song. On Canada Day, I went to go see Do Make Say Think at Harbourfront...

AE: Did they do O Canada?

SS: No, but before they started, this woman from CBC came out and was like, "OK, everybody let's sing the national anthem!" And, so feeling pretty excited to see Do Makes and all, I started singing and really noticed that I was pulling weight...

AE: For the entire crowd?

SS: ...well, for my section. And it occurred to me just how uncool it is...

AE: (laughs)

SS: ...to sing the national anthem!

AE: Yeah, totally.

SS: But having the opportunity that you had, it struck me as being quite an honour.

AE: Yeah, well, I didn't feel...it was weird. My main feeling about the whole thing was that it's just so funny. I was asked to do it because there's a baseball player with the same name as me. So my first reaction was to say, "no", because it's nerdy. I wanted to say, "no", because I thought it was embarrassing. And then I was with my friend Lisa and she was like, "No, you gotta do this. It's retarded, it's hilarious! You have to do this." So, I said I would do it. And then for a long time when I was telling people that I was going to do it, everyone would say, "Well, what are you going to do?", as if I was gonna, or somehow to be cool I had to subvert the national anthem somehow, do something. And actually, I have a regret, not that this is a subversion of the national anthem, in fact, what I should have done was to sing it in both French and English. But I kinda panicked late. I just had to do the version that I knew really well. I was afraid I'd screw up. So I just decided that I wasn't going to do something weird or culture clash the moment. That's not the right word, not culture clash, culture jam. I wanted to make it, in my life, a story of something nice and funny that happened.

But then, to get more to what you were talking about, it turns out, the song is really a kinda beautiful song, melody wise. Though there are parts that I thought were a little bit uncomfortable, "God keep our land" when I'm not a religious person. But then, it's still a nice national anthem, and to sing it and to record a version of it, y'know there must be so many versions of that song and to know that I've done another one. To be another link in a chain of people singing the national anthem. I felt good about it.

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