Siobhán Kane spoke with Tony Dekker of Great Lake Swimmers ahead of their gig with Shearwater and Dusted in The Button Factory tonight.
Great Lake Swimmers began as a project for Tony Dekker around a decade ago, but in the last few years has expanded to a more settled line-up that includes Erik Arnesen, Bret Higgins, Greg Millson, and Miranda Mulholland. This expansion also seemed to suggest itself in their most recent records Lost Channels (2009) and this year’s New Wild Everywhere, with flecks of bluegrass creeping in to Dekker’s always-intricate folk compositions.
This intricacy is synonymous with Great Lake Swimmers, from their self-titled debut in 2003, to Bodies and Minds (2005) and Ongiara (2007), with its beautiful string arrangements from Owen Pallett, and this sense of collaborative craft goes to the heart of what they do, and perhaps even more than that, a sense of place, not just in terms of the unusual spaces they often record in, but Canada as a place of imagination – not just home, but a canvas.
So it seemed natural that they were asked by Canadian photographer and historian Ian Coristine to create the music for his project about the Thousand Islands part of Ontario – One in a Thousand, and the result is delicately moving, with Dekker calling Coristine’s “photographs, knowledge, and love of the place” as offering a “well-spring of inspiration” which Great Lake Swimmers met, equally. Siobhán Kane talks to Tony Dekker.
How did you own relationship to music begin? What are some of your earliest memories? I sang in a church choir when I was younger, and picked up playing guitar on my own when I was in my early teens. The guitar was a real natural fit for me and I started writing songs with it immediately.
How would you describe your own personal evolution and relationship to the guitar? I suppose it is a constantly evolving thing. I have a few different guitars of varying ages and qualities that I really like playing. At this point my J-45 feels like a good friend. Maybe more like an army buddy.
In a sense this mirrors the evolution of an artists sound – and you have so many interesting records – Great Lake Swimmers, Bodies and Minds, Ongiara, Lost Channels, New Wild Everywhere – how could you describe your own evolution as a musician through these pieces of work? Great Lake Swimmers basically started as a solo project and a vehicle for my songwriting. Over time I crossed paths with like-minded people and began to piece together a band. It was a revolving door of guest musicians for a while, but the current lineup has been together for about three and a half years. I think I’ve gotten better as a musician and I think that is a result of playing with some really good players. I like to think that the songwriting is constantly evolving as well.
Environment is obviously important to you, where this fascination with atmosphere and sound begin? I was thinking about your fact that all of your records are recorded in unusual spaces, for example, your first record was recorded in an old grain silo, your second in a church by a lake, your third in Aeolian Hall, your fourth was Singer Castle,Thousand Islands, and your fifth had a portion that was recorded in the Lower Bay subway station in Toronto – what draws you to these places, and what do you think your favourite experiences have been? Since I started the project I’ve been interested in trying to capture a natural acoustic sound on record. I find that playing in a special acoustic location draws a certain kind of performance out of myself and the people I’m playing with. Especially places like churches, where aside from the sonic qualities, there is a certain energy that the place is charged with. The project takes on a kind reverence in these types of locations.
Have you ever run into problems by choosing less-obvious environments? Definitely. There were moments, especially on the first record, where we had to cancel a day of recording because of rain. There was a lot of sensitive gear that was set up outside & subject to the elements.
New Wild Everywhere was the first time you had used a studio as well – with Revolution Recording – what was the thinking behind that, and how did you find the experience? We had a really good experience there, in that we had access to amazing vintage recording gear and instruments. It’s funny because it’s our fifth record but first proper ‘studio’ record. By our previous recording standards, it was a bit of an experiment.
You have collaborated with so many interesting people, one of my favourite musicians is Owen Pallett, who featured on Ongiara – he brings a kind of natural grace to what he does – how did that come about? I know Owen from the Toronto music community and when I envisioned strings on some of those songs, he was the first person I asked. He was very generous with his time and talent, and I think that speaks to the really supportive music community in Toronto.
Toronto has a really supportive music community, and I think Canada and Canadian musicians in general are tied together in a way because our actual industry and national community is relatively small. It is totally supportive though, and I like how everyone brings each other up and helps make a band, album, project or tour happen.
Working on the One in a Thousand Project must have been so interesting, how did that come about – that area looks so beautiful. We recorded most of Lost Channels in the Thousand Islands region of Ontario, and became friends with author and photographer – and local historian – Ian Coristine. His book One In A Thousand is a memoir of sorts and centres around his life in the Thousand Islands. It’s a really great read, and I’d recommend it to anyone who has an iPad. It’s specifically tailored to read with that device and has a lot of embedded content. We were obviously thrilled to be asked to be a part of it.
New Wild Everywhere seemed to suggest a little shift, perhaps because you also folded in a couple of new members, which seemed to affect the sound a little, how would you describe that shift? I think the band lineup definitely affected the overall sound. Also I think lyrically there is a sense of new beginnings and fresh starts.
Live it appears that you get lost in the moment, that you are connecting to something else, perhaps it has a spiritual quality -how would you best describe it? Being onstage is a spiritual exercise for me. I try to revisit the places I was in when I wrote the songs, and sometimes that calls for some pretty heavy reflection.
Have you ever had a difficulty translating some of your work live? Some of your compositions are so delicate, and nuanced – I wonder if that ever presents problems? Playing live is an entirely different beast and we try to arrange some of the older, more delicate material for the live show. I think our audiences mostly know what to expect with our shows and are pretty respectful of the space.
You have worked with producer Andy Magoffin for over 8 years now, how did you first meet and what do you think he has brought to your sound and vision? I toured with Andy’s band Two-Minute Miracles back in 2003 on the release of my first record. We became friends and I asked him to record the follow-up to the debut. 5 records and 8 years later we’re still working together, so yeah, you could say I really like working with him! He has a songwriter’s instinct when it comes to recording.
Sharon Van Etten said that she really credits you with helping her with her confidence when she was on tour with you – that you welcomed her so warmly, and made things easy for her – she is such a true soul. What was that tour like, and do you think there might be some collaborations in the future? It was a really fun tour and Sharon is such a great new talent. It was a thrill to see her bringing those amazing new songs into the world. A future collaboration is not out of the question, but no plans so far.
What are your influences in terms of folk – and perhaps the kind of folk that you might have been exposed to in Canada, since it has so many influences itself. I feel more of a kinship to old-timey and early recorded folk music than I do to indie-rock. I identify more with it. But I think we’re picking it up in a different place and time, and ultimately it just comes out as Great Lake Swimmers, without being overly conscious about it. I certainly have a great respect for tracing back the roots and genealogy of folk songs. It’s pretty fascinating to trace the evolution.
Since you have recorded in so many unusual spaces, what has the most unusual space you have performed live in been? This spring we played in front of the beluga whales at the Vancouver Aquarium. That one really springs to mind as being highly memorable in our recent shows.
What are you listening to at the moment, and what have you got coming up for the next year? There’s a great new debut record out by the band we’re touring with – they’re called Dusted and the album is called Total Dust. It comes highly recommended. We have a few concerts lined up for the new year, but hopefully we’ll get back to working on some new songs.
Great Lake Swimmers play The Button Factory with Shearwater and Dusted tonight.