Impermanence and Chasing Ghosts: A Profile of Beams’ Ego Death
File next to: Brandi Carlile, Big Thief, Falcon Jane
Premiering: Friday, March 26th, 2021 at 8pm on Bandcamp! Purchase tickets here.
Written by: Angelo Gio Mateo
All we wished for, shreds
The little ones cannot stand it…
Blindingly – what came through the world there – burns.
It is February. Ice is general. One notices different degrees of ice.
– Anne Carson, “Some Afternoons She Does Not Pick Up The Phone,” from Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera (2005)
“Like sunrise or sunset, or anything so ephemeral. Just like our life, hmmm? We appear and we disappear. And we are so important to some, but we are just passing through.” – Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater, 2013)
“Do you remember the ice fields and the icicle caves?
The way the skating rink was no longer enough?
Will you stay out here ‘til the morning comes, and if it never does?”
“Til’ the Morning Comes” off Ego Death (2021)
When I first listened to Beams’ new album, Ego Death (2021), the references to reflective objects in Anna Mērnieks-Duffield’s songwriting stuck out at me. I couldn’t tell you why that was the first thing my mind caught, when the highlight is really that the record is a loose concept album with a running storyline. But I saw glass and ice and water and “a dagger’s blade.” But there is a sense of impermanence, of constant change, of instability, of temporality – one of the songs is literally named “Time Drain”. In a time when we’re forced indoors, when we’re starved of human connection, when it feels like we’re in a moment of liminal suspension, the pandemic has become a time of reflection – to look inwards and ask difficult questions about your life, your purpose, and your relationships with your lovers, your friends, your family – maybe even your band members.
I spent a late afternoon on a Friday on a Google Meet call with Beams (most of them based in Toronto, though Martin Crawford is on the West Coast because of the pandemic) and the director of their upcoming concert film – Sam Scott – based on their new album. However, when you watch it, it’s clear that it’s become more of a documentary – capturing the life, reflections, struggles, and remembrances of a band living through the pandemic. But it’s also about their relationship with Toronto, its music scene, and the venues that have meaning in the life of their band. It’s cliché to say, but the city is truly a character in this film, where the spirits of Toronto’s music venues are in trouble. There’s much to unpack with Beams’ multimedia project and it felt like two and a half hours and multiple emails back and forth were not nearly enough.
From the first listen of Ego Death’s first track, “Born to Win,” it’s clear that this new album is a departure from their sonic signature of banjo and mandolin on their previous albums, including 2018’s Teach Me To Love. On their 2021 record, the banjo hasn’t completely gone away, but Anna’s guitars fill in the sound once occupied by a mandolin and Mike Mērnieks-Duffield’s drums sound bolder and more full. In our conversation, Anna channels Jack White, who once spoke about letting their guitar speak for themselves.
Yet, despite the guitars taking up more space, Anna’s songwriting continues to stand out. Anna has drawn from the traumas of her childhood and wanting more in life. “Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been watching things that I love fall apart. From our actual family unit, to certain dreams I had about the future.” We chatted about the both of us relating to the idea of having a “chip on our shoulder” – always having something to prove. But for her and the rest of the band, it was about finding family. Throughout our whole chat, the band constantly emphasized the importance of the band feeling like a family, communally living in Toronto’s music venues as if they were living rooms.
So, it feels particularly upsetting that one of the band family members left after finishing their previous album. Mike described a particularly upsetting moment when, during a tense band meeting to discuss the group’s future, their mandolin player got up and left – no longer being a part of the band. As Mike spoke about the incident, I could feel the friction, the hesitancy, and the quiet over the call, despite being kilometers away (and in the case of Martin, being on the opposite side of the country).
But despite that incident and the retelling of that story to me, there were many more stories about the band’s relationship to the venues they have played, listened, and lived in all these years. For the film, the band chose to record at venues that have meaning to them: B-Space (their rehearsal space that once belonged to The Tragically Hip), the legendary Horseshoe Tavern, Union Sound Co. (their recording studio), Anna’s family cottage, a friend’s art space, the Dakota Tavern, and most important to this moment, The Boat – which had announced its closure just days before shooting on location.
We all have particular memories tied to physical spaces, especially music venues. There were times where I went to the Danforth Music Hall three times in a week – and every single time, I’d grab a falafel wrap next door at Ali Baba’s. I remember being wasted on New Year’s Eve at the Opera House, counting down the seconds to midnight with Balkan-klezmer-gypsy-party-punk-super-band Lemon Bucket Orkestra. I remember the first time I went to Soybomb HQ (RIP) where, as a young kid, I was shocked at how everyone could fit in this skateboard half-pipe, and how dangerous those stairs were to the roof. And I remember jumping around all sweaty to Tokyo Police Club’s “Favourite Colour” at the Mod Club, a year after I almost walked out into the night and was almost taken by the darkness. That last one in particular feels poignant because The Mod Club was also another victim of COVID-19.
For Beams, The Boat has a special place in their family. It’s where Keith Hamilton worked and booked shows. Led by Keith, the choir/band collective “Hamilton Trading Company” served as a prologue of Beams’ history, with most of the members being connected with the Hamilton Trading Company at one point. The Boat is where Anna and Mike’s relationship first grew. Where Heather Mazhar played her first solo show. They always knew that they would shoot one of the songs at the venue. But when they heard that the venue was going to close, they changed their original plans for the song “See The Light” – which would have been a scene walking around Toronto, playing on acoustic instruments (see La Blogotheque’s Take Away Shows) – and scrambled to arrange a time to get into The Boat and record. The film, then, serves as a sort of time capsule, trying to capture a moment in time in the dying life of a Toronto music venue and preserve it on film.
At least The Dakota Tavern continues to live, though it certainly is struggling to stay alive through the pandemic. The Dakota plays an important part in Beams’ story, as Keith self-describes the venue as their “Toronto home,” Martin says it’s like a “living room” to him, Mike believes they’ve played there “almost more than anywhere,” and Anna estimates they’ve played around 30 shows spanning multiple residences over their many years together as a band. In a story that seems almost too surreal – almost cinematic – Anna met Martin at the Dakota on a random night, the latter supposedly hiding under a table (though it’s not clear if it was alcohol-induced). Heather remembers a time when phones didn’t work once you went down the stairs because there was no service. “We have magical shows at the Dakota,” she says. “You’re right there with the audience.”
We talked about the venue ladder, and how, once you’ve played at the Dakota multiple times and got people out to see your shows, you could be invited to play at the Horseshoe Tavern – a venue with its own legendary history (see Jonny Dovercourt’s Any Night of the Week). They have their own special memories there – from all the Nu Music Nites hosted by Dave Bookman (RIP “Bookie”) to the time Mike got kicked out of the bar in front of Anna’s dad. One special night was when they were supposed to play a release show for their new 7-inch EP but the city got hit with a big snowstorm. And yet, more than three hundred people came to show their support for this band.
One venue they wish they could have played for their concert film was the Magpie Taproom. The Magpie was a staple on Dundas West and it played an important role in the band’s early history. It was where the band had its earliest residencies between late 2012-early 2013. On our call, the band members reminisce fondly of their nights at The Magpie. Craig Moffatt remembers the times they would play a show on a weekday and the place would be packed and the alcohol would run out – and yet, everyone would still have to show up to work the next day. Yet, even the Magpie wasn’t safe from the onslaught of Toronto (re-)development. The music venue once celebrated at 831 Dundas St W is now the bar Dundas Video.
This is why Beams’ project is so special. They sought out to create a concert film to accompany the release of their new album. But it became so much more than that. It became a documentary about the daily life of the band. It became a chronicle of the pandemic and its effects. And it became a love letter to the physical spaces of the Toronto music scene. Live music venues in the city are in danger, and some have already lost their battles. And this trend didn’t start with the pandemic, but COVID-19 certainly accelerated it. “The city is changing. Venues are closing. Live music is struggling,” Martin reflects. “I hope that after all of this, things start to bounce back. But part of me has this thought that that show at the Dakota last year in January, maybe that’s the last show I play.” How tragically poetic? Anna and Martin meeting and beginning their friendship at the Dakota, where it might be the final place that he played live with the band.
It’s fitting that Anna sings about “remember[ing] the ice fields and the icicle caves,” when I just read Anne Carson’s poem about ice in February. “Blindingly – what came through the world there – burns,” Carson writes. We’re reminded almost daily of the existential threat that live music venues face – that one day we’ll wake up and read a BlogTO article that our next favourite venue has decided to close. The impermanence of our live music spaces – they come into our world, and they are now burning.
If there’s a thesis to the film, it’s when Craig imparts us with this wisdom: “However many years later it is now, we’re still here doing this. While the Horseshoe, or the Dakota, or our rehearsal space still exist today, we don’t know what the future holds for any of them. And you know, you just gotta, kinda, I guess hope, and wait, and remain optimistic that those places we’ve come to love and spend our time in and create memories and music in are still going to be there for years to come.”
I’m reminded of a quote from the movie Before Midnight (2013) – one of my favourites. An elderly woman reminisces about her husband, who had passed away before her. And she thinks that for a second every day, when she looks into the sunlight, she glimpses her love. “Like sunrise or sunset, or anything so ephemeral… We appear and we disappear. And we are so important to some, but we are just passing through.” Beams’ film reminds us that our live music spaces are fleeting and we can’t take them for granted. We imbue them with our memories, our stories, our relationships. They are important to us, but we can’t – we shouldn’t – just let them pass through. When The Boat, or the Magpie, or the Mod Club, or Clinton’s, or Soybomb HQ – or any of the many venues we reminisced about on our two and a half hour call – close down, all we’re left with are the memories and the stories that haunt us like emotional ghosts.
Instead of chasing ghosts, let’s meet in the basement of The Dakota when everything is over, be in the presence of Beams and all our friends, and hear Anna sing, “Will you stay out here ‘til the morning comes?”
Don’t miss Beams’ film premiere + album release tonight! March 26th, 2021 at 8pm on Bandcamp. Purchase tickets here.
Angelo Gio Mateo is a storyteller, advocate, and community builder. A proud Filipino-Canadian whose heart will always be from Toronto. Angelo is beginning a Masters program this year but still has his heart in music.