WESTELAKEN: THE WL INTERVIEW

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Purveyors of: Storytelling for punk rockers who just got into country music. 

File Next to: Daniel Johnston, Big Thief, Townes Van Zandt

Playing: Thursday, November 27th 2020 with Joncro on Youtube Live!

From Wavelength’s Emma Bortolon-Vettor:

I first officially met Westelaken by sharing the stage with them at a Bands & Drag show at The Beaver (RIP). It was a sweaty, joyous, and loud night, filled with camaraderie and singing at the tops of our lungs. Westelaken were this mythological crew of musicians that my friend Tago Mago would talk about just about every time we got together. When I finally had the chance to see them, I was knocked back by how they can command the stage with this almost punk rock attitude while producing beautiful melodies and even more beautiful lyrics. 

The Golden Days Are Hard was released this past August. It was good when it came out. Now that we’ve reached November facing a lockdown and further battles with isolation, this album resonates and burns through the soul with an even greater heat. I had the chance to ask Jordan Seccareccia a few questions about his creative process, the new album, and the changes our world is going through.

The Golden Days are Hard is a collection of 10 types of songs with 10 types of stories. How did you start creating these stories, were they part of an overarching theme?

There are 10 songs, and each one is a story, and there’s one story that the album is about, and also in each song there are several little stories. They come from a dissatisfaction I was feeling with narrative and the instrumentality of stories in our lives. 

Story presents itself unbidden when we attempt to make sense of living at its least sensible and most terrifying. It does the same in the most banal moments. We look at the past and all we see are stories when we should see nothing. It’s in our nature to examine the world and our lives in narrative terms. That’s why art is important I think! 

There’s a lot about this that made me feel very anxious and uncomfortable a few years ago. The album’s title is a little joke about the unreliability of narrative. I think when life is really terrifying and sad, some stories that are meant to be consoling can accidentally end up doing a lot of damage. 

There’s a line on the album about losing the ability to distinguish meaningless truths from meaningful lies. I guess if the whole thing has a thesis statement, it’s that. Obviously there’s an absurdity to spinning a narrative about the failures of narrative, and the words and the music have these constant non-sequitur moments where the ideas being expressed are completely contradicted or rendered obsolete. 

I tried to write this album so that some of the songs had very clear, detailed stories and others were kind of buried, but they all relate to each other and you could maybe use some of the more lucid writing from one song as a guide to parsing the more impressionistic writing of another. 

What types of barriers and decisions that had to be made when choosing to release the album independently during a pandemic?

I think in some respects we honestly got a little lucky with regard to COVID-19, only because we were far enough along with the album that it could be finished remotely, but we hadn’t booked a release show or tour or anything, so nothing really got canceled. I know some friends whose whole year got canceled. I guess everyone’s year was canceled but some folks were in the first week of tours that were supposed to go on for months, and then it was all gone. 

There was never really a thought of delaying the album until the pandemic was over or anything, and at this point I think it’s likely we will be putting out a third album by the time the pandemic is done.

There’s a beautiful blend of sonic chaos that swells, almost like a nod to Sun Ra’s joyful noise, and then returns to an acoustic riff. What does your songwriting process look like? Are the lyrics written beforehand, or does it depend?

Aww thanks! The lyrics thing is a tough question to answer. In large part I find the writing I do outside the song context basically impossible to graft onto music wholesale. Often I’ll be writing a song and get something like a solid half-minute of actual work done on it and spend weeks playing that half minute over and over and improvising words and parts to follow until something starts making sense. 

Essentially I just procrastinate and write very slowly and carefully. Most often, by the time the musical ideas are wrapped up, there’s only like half the first verse in any coherent fashion and even that is pretty bad writing that’ll need to be reworked. Maybe at some point I’ll remember something I wrote months ago, like a line I really enjoyed or even just a word I’ve always wanted to use, and slowly the rest of the writing starts organizing itself around making that line or word or idea work. Actually sitting down and writing the lyrics feels like a horrible struggle in a way that writing for its own sake usually does not. 

I guess in that sense, some of the words come first but most of the words come after. It really takes a long time before I am happy with the words and I often just sit there with a pen staring at the couple lines I have and reading them over and over for what feels like hours and not getting anything else written. I usually get about 70 to 90 percent of the way there and then tell the band we’re going to learn a new song, or maybe even that we’re going to be playing a new song at the next show. That way I have to have something to show them, and then once I hear what it’s like with the band, suddenly a lot of ideas become very clear and then the last 10 percent of the song might even write itself. 

Every once in a while that kind of unbelievable thing happens where I’ll pick up an instrument with no ideas and have a finished song two hours later. That almost feels like cheating and sometimes those songs are garbage anyway, but a couple have been really good. The noise stuff is pretty much always an idea that comes while playing the song with the band. Back when shows were a thing, I loved seeing noise music. I find it really emotionally compelling and cathartic and thought it would be fun to try to make it work with our style of music.

What can a listening audience do to support artists such as yourselves during this time?

For whatever reason, Bandcamp Friday makes me feel less queasy about self-promotion. So I guess the simplest answer is that paying for music on Bandcamp on Bandcamp Friday is the most direct, simplest way to be a supportive listener. But honestly it feels amazing to me that people even just want to listen.

What changes in Toronto’s music and culture scene will have to happen after the pandemic?

I think it’s going to be a pretty rough time getting gigs back. I don’t mean to sound hopeless or pessimistic but I think we’ll probably lose a lot more spaces, I think it’ll probably be a challenge to put on a show responsibly at the ones that are left, I think booking them is going to be difficult and might not feel very accessible (for many of these spaces this was the case before the pandemic anyways), I think the things we loved about going to music will take a while to feel comfortable and normal again, and I hope the things that we weren’t doing well about playing shows before the pandemic will be addressed. 

There are venues I loved that have closed where I’ve seen dozens of amazing shows and have cherished memories of playing, but then also I’ve heard from folks whose experiences weren’t like mine at those venues, people of colour who didn’t feel welcomed or wished that these good-faith communities that value inclusivity took more direct steps at reaching out to non-white folks, and people that aren’t straight men, and booking more inclusive, diverse bills. 

I think that kind of work needs to be more robust than it was before. Essentially what we have, that is lasting and powerful and will outlive venue closures, is our communities in music, and sometimes we are cliquey and fragmented for little reason. We are going to have to rely on ourselves and each other more deeply than before, and the wider and more welcoming we are, the easier it’s going to be getting back to playing shows and revitalizing local music.

I find myself reminiscing about gig and tour moments. Are there any stories that you find yourselves reminiscing about?

The last show we played before COVID-19 was at Jerzy with Slurry and this band touring from Vermont called Pons. It feels like a little gift to be able to think back to that show. It was a beautiful night full of old friends and new friends and friendly strangers. The music was great. Slurry is amazing. Every time we play with Slurry it feels kind of special. It was a joyous evening. 

We played a new song for the first time that I am really happy with, and that always feels good. We went on tour last year and it was kind of a shock how well it went and I do wish we could have done another over the summer, but those memories keep me pretty sated. I think the fact that it wasn’t a disaster would be good enough, but on top of that, pretty much all the shows went really well and we had good turnout and everything. 

In particular, I guess, we had a great time in Thunder Bay, where two high school cover bands opened doing Nirvana covers and stuff, and then they all stuck around with their friends and danced; and in Waterloo, where our pals Ralph and Cam joined us as the Salmon River Big Band and put on an absolutely amazing show. It was so fun to watch them win over this sweaty basement full of strangers. It puts a smile on my face when I think about it. It makes me emotional to think about. I miss it. 

Who are you listening to right now?

I just put Sabbath Bloody Sabbath back onto my phone. I’m really excited for that new Weather Station album, I love the singles. Usually in winter I find myself going back to New Skin For the Old Ceremony, Ys, The Age of Adz, and Aromanticism. I think the new Told Slant album sounds like it’ll be one of those, too. The new Courtney Marie Andrews album might be her best? Which is amazing to say about an artist that has released an album I love as much as Honest Life. I love the new Sarah Davachi album. Both Backxwash’s releases this year. We sometimes joke that our band chat has transformed into a Lomelda worship chat since Hannah came out. Dijah SB’s 2020: The Album

I have been kind of fascinated with post-Meteora Linkin Park! I listened to their first two albums so much when I was really young and then basically didn’t pay attention to them at all until this last month. They put out so much music since then, and a lot of it is weird! I really like Things I Never Said by Oceanator. The new Springsteen is good. The Michael C. Duguay album is great. Ivan Rivers. The Joncro Mountains! All the buds: Slurry, Hobby, Luge, Waxing, Daffodil. Koza put out a great live album. Little Kid put out a very live album. Only God Forgives! Eliza Niemi! Lots of stuff!!!!!

  • interview by Emma Bortolon-Vettor

You can catch Westelaken this Thursday, November 27th with Joncro live from the Wavelength Youtube channel from 7-9pm EST. Admission is free/PWYC with all raised funds directly donated to the Nia Centre for the Arts.

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