Alden Penner – The WL14 Interview

Purveyor of: Fragile epics
File Next To: Early Microphones, a more verbose/morose Ennio Morricone
Playing: Night one of WL14 Thursday, February 13 @ The Silver Dollar Room (486 Spadina Ave.)

Montreal-based Alden Penner has had a varied career – from fronting early-aught marvels The Unicorns, to collaborating with Michael Cera and Charlene Yi on the music for the feature film Paper Heart, to forming the short-lived Clues and ultimately finding himself by renewing his Ba’hai faith, writing the odd song for children and striking out on his own. Dean Williams caught up to Alden as he juggled many tasks and discussed his current process and upcoming release (Exegesis, out today), in advance of his appearance at WL14.

Any connection between Exegesis and the work of science-fiction author Philip K. Dick? Or is it more a reference to the analysis of a heavy text; like scripture? Or, is it just a phonetically pleasing word?

No connection, but somewhat like Dick’s experience, I had the title come to me in a dream. It is also phonetically pleasing, sure; I like that kind of stuff. The solemnity is partly because this is my first solo album, so I’ve kind of cast off all these “ex-” bands and taken the time and space to explain myself.

You mention casting off your ex-bands — bands you’re certainly quite well known for. Is there resentment on some level that you continue to be associated with work you did, say 10 years ago? Do you feel a frustration or strong motivation to distance yourself from that work?

No, there’s no resentment. I just see those projects as the work of a team (not to mention of the past), whereas this is a self-portrait. I think I took a long time to have the confidence to do things on my own. Before, I relied a lot on someone else’s approval or drive to even get a song written. I am definitely happy that work I’ve done has endured for others and consider myself blessed to be able to continue to make music that people will listen to.

Your music has always seemed to exist at the intersection of grim earnestness and quirky humour. Which of these comes first; the humour or the solemnity?

Probably the solemnity. The world inspires this kind of immediate reaction when I’m caught off guard. Humour is the antidote.

In keeping with that, while our discussions regarding your habits in the kitchen were something we agreed to keep off the record, I was hoping you could answer this: Have you ever knowingly eaten a persimmon?

I’m looking at a photo of a persimmon now, and I can’t remember if I’ve eaten one or not. I think I have.

Many musicians require long periods of isolation to get to a place where they can wring what they want to say out onto tape. Do you tend to integrate writing into your daily routines, or do you disappear for days/weeks to complete your a work like Exegesis?

I’d love to be writing every day and sort of integrate it into a routine, but I’ve had to perform a lot of different functions in getting this album complete so I’ve had to sacrifice that desire somewhat. I will always try and document little ideas that come at 90-degree angles though… That’s more of the sense I give to the concept of “precession” — in the way that Buckminster Fuller described it — as a rock thrown into a pond creating ripples. Often when I’m concentrating on the task at hand, another better idea will meet with that point and I will carry forward with the new one.

I was lucky enough to see The Unicorns at Toronto’s Rivoli many years ago. You guys had an in-jokey and playful, but tight and musically proficient vibe. What’s different about an Alden Penner show these days? What should we expect to see this time around?

[The vibe] was the result of a certain kind of interaction between myself and those bandmates and our level of maturity and freedom from responsibility. Everything was new and we had not much experience with the music industry. I’m still conceiving the live show, but I want to be able to create something that isn’t so rigid, that allows for magic to happen. In that sense I hope those positive elements from past experiences playing live will continue. In a live setting, I still rely a lot on the immediacy of electric guitar and drums. I’m not seeking as much perfection in the execution of the performance, just something that is sincere for that moment. Hopefully it will be a memorable rock’n’roll experience!

As a person, do you spend, in your estimation, more time thinking about things that have happened, about things that might or will happen, or things that are currently or have recently happened?

Roughly 25% past, 25% future and 50% current or recent happenings. Is that average? I’m probably pretty average.

I would say that is not average, a lot of people I know seem more preoccupied with either the past or the future. The title track of your last EP, Precession, evokes images of a person in a torn astronaut suit with an empty canteen chasing the mirage of a former lover. I’m right, right?

Yeah, you’re right. I mean, the fact that it’s evocative of anything means that it’s accomplishing something. I think this music deals with the past, loss of love in some sense, nostalgia and desperation.

Alden Penner plays night one of Wavelength FOURTEEN, Thursday February 13 @ The Silver Dollar Room (486 Spadina Ave.). His first solo record, Exegesis, will be available on Februrary 4th. Physical copies will ship with 1 small to medium persimmon*. 

*Please note the aforementioned persimmon offer has not been confirmed by the record label or the artist, who himself is unsure if he has ever even eaten a persimmon.

Photo credit: Laura Crapo