Siobhán Kane spoke with Graham Van Pelt of Montreal’s Miracle Fortress who play Crawdaddy on Sunday September 11th.
Siobhán Kane spoke with Graham Van Pelt of Montreal’s Miracle Fortress who play Crawdaddy on Sunday September 11th,
How to describe Miracle Fortress‘s sound? Upon hearing Graham Van Pelt’s Watery Grave EP around six years ago, it was like hearing something truly, radiantly original. It had elements of Brian Wilson’s childlike approach to playful songwriting, melding with beats and the glowing lights of the dancefloor; where indie, rock and pop all danced side by side. Then came Five Roses in 2007, which is one of the most tender records ever written about love and the way that it can lift and edify and heal, helping you to become weightless with its might.
Using various familiar touchstones, for example, the Spectoresque sixties “swinging” sound, and The Beach Boys’ entrancing sense of harmony; Van Pelt’s deft sense of production mollifies and soothes those conceits into a far more interesting proposition, where hip-hop production meets nineteenth century poetry underwater, or certainly underground. His work sounds like nature waking up, with buds bursting through snowbanks, and the meadow vole squinting in the daylight, lured by what can only be described as the warm rush of true love. There is a philosophical weight to all of his work, and with Five Roses, this was evident in songs like ‘Have You Seen in Your Dreams‘ which is cloaked in melancholy, but when the beautiful drums enter the fray to heady effect, you genuinely feel that there is still hope (it is remarkable how the right use of drums can make everything seem possible). Other songs that mix the playful with the philosophical are ‘Hold Your Secrets to Your Heart‘ and the jaunty, life-affirming ‘This Thing About You‘ which is one of the most pretty, and romantic songs ever put down on record, you can imagine yourself walking down that street in autumn, heart aloft.
This is Van Pelt’s gift, he manages to create the kind of world that is wholly special, but accessible. He invites you in to participate. In the past few years, he has been working on other projects (Think About Life, for example) and it genuinely seemed that Miracle Fortress might have gone forever, something that became a real source of sadness for so many. However, he whittled the live band down, and returned to work himself; slowly, and gently, saying that he had, in a sense, “awoken from a long dream“. This awakening has produced the unbelievably beautiful Was I the Wave? that has just been released in Europe on Republic of Music (on license from Secret City). It was almost overwhelming putting his latest record on, as disappointment can swirl around life like a devastating wind, but Van Pelt has produced another amazing record; every single song gets in on you, and lives under your skin. From the opening instrumental ‘Awe‘ (and there are three more instrumentals on the record) to the bossa-nova infused ‘Tracers‘, and genuine shimmying subtle glee of ‘Miscalculations‘, he has established himself as one of the most interesting musicians at work today, and more pleasingly, he is going at his own pace, and is still asking all the right questions (from ‘Spectre’: ‘stop and wonder, wonder, wonder/ how you got so buried under‘). Recently returned to home in Montreal from his tour with Junior Boys, and ahead of his Dublin show, Graham Van Pelt talks to Siobhán Kane
You have said that you feel you have “awoken from a long dream”, what did that dream contain?
Well, I had a lot on my plate for a while, and had to develop personally, grow up a little bit and figure out how I was going to live and keep being productive and be happy, and the secrets I was going to have to learn to keep going and feel good about things. It took a little while. It took a big part of me to being a recording artist and a touring artist, physically, and in every which way. It was more than I had ever prepared for, so I needed to take some time for myself and establish what my priorities were and what I really wanted to achieve and get a better sense of myself as an artist before pushing myself out on the road again, or with another record.
Five Roses was such a carefree record; Was I the Wave? retains the lightness of touch and the hopefulness, but there is a weightier sense of things, perhaps the march of time, that you, like so many of us, have suffered some deeper wounds since then.
I think that you are definitely my audience [laughs]. It’s very true that things are more serious now. There is always going to be something separating me emotionally and personally from a direct pop and club audience, and I find that I would much rather work at a pace that suits me and reach people like me. My goal was mostly to add depth to the project and be more exploratory personally, and not necessarily hold to a digestible set of rules. I still really want to include those ideas and sounds from something like Five Roses in what I do, but I don’t want to limit myself just to them. I would like to think I can expand and evolve what I do, while trying not to ignore what I have already written, just add to a growing repertoire instead.
You were recently on tour with the brilliant Junior Boys, who you seem to share so much of a common ground with, not only in terms of the fact you are all Canadian, but that you seem to borrow from a similar musical terrain.
It was fantastic. We did a little bit of talking about music. They are pretty funny people, and if you engage in a serious conversation for too long they make sure it descends into jokes after a while. But we had some serious discussions about music. I really look up to those guys, how they make music, how they perform, what they have accomplished. I learned quite a bit just being around them.
There is a sense of the LP, the side A and B with this record, as if you were trying to reconcile two “companion sets of music”, which is different to Five Roses.
You’re right, I definitely used the LP as a framing device. I had a million ideas going in a million directions, so I thought the easiest way to edit myself down was to constrain myself to a single LP and make two twenty minute pieces of music that had their own internal coherence. I didn’t want to necessarily stick to the same thing for the whole forty minutes, but at least allow myself two sets of twenty minutes to frame something.
There are four Instrumentals on the record, which also seem to act like little kind of markers, and that idea that some things can be translated without words.
I try to really keep track of what I am writing, the music as it is happening, and not to lose sight of something that may already be finished. I allow things to be be finished when it is natural, and not feel I have to write a complete vocal song. Sometimes if I write something a few minutes long and it doesn’t have any lyrics yet, but feels somehow “right” then I will leave it. I listen to loads of instrumental music as well. I would like to develop my instrumental music and dig into it a lot more, because I really like creating sounds, and the treatment of the sounds interests me, and can carry a message of its own.
There is a similar atmosphere between both records, but subtle differences, was your palette different in terms of instrumentation this time around?
A lot of the time inbetween the two albums was spent devising sound, looking at different palettes, creating new instruments. I really like the feeling of having everything in a piece of music be instruments that I have created to my own taste, so I do pay close attention to that. A lot of stuff gets left behind when I edit it down. Like this one I then made forty minutes long, though the palette isn’t something I will necessarily hold on to for the next record.