Brian Borcherdt: The Wavelength Interview

Purveyor of: Drones and pulses, tones and textures
File next to: Holy Fuck, Cluster, Ben Frost
Playing: WL653 (Friday, March 27) at Ratio

Since journeying to Toronto from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, Brian Borcherdt has inhabited and shed a series of musical identities. Perhaps best known for his part in dance-attack unit Holy Fuck (the proverbial side-project gone big), he’s also spent time as a solo balladeer before forming Dusted and, more recently, LIDS. Joe Strutt sat down with Brian at Tierra Azteca to talk about new names, old sounds, being a tourist, and trying to finish things.

To start formally: what was our taco choice today?

We’re getting the pastor, chorizo and bistec. We’re getting it all, and we’re just getting a lump of it to put in our own tortilla shells. That’s what I assume, unless we ordered wrong and then we’ll find out.

Are you a connoisseur? ‘Cause you also mentioned the place at the end of your street.

Yeah, well, I’ve only been to this one once and the one at the end of my street a couple times. I think they’re both really good. I like them because they’re not busy, and here we are today and it’s actually quite busy. Looks like a bit of family day going on in here.

I’ve been becoming a bit of a homebody…maybe not in the traditional sense. I still get out a lot. Lately I’ve kinda just been focused inward on my creative space in my basement and I haven’t been going out as much, but I can’t stay in my home, so I’ll kinda hang around my ‘hood here and just take things in — not necessarily like music-based, but just trying to find a way to keep productive. But I get bored being home, so I’m trying to find little things I can do in the neighbourhood that I can balance off for awhile. Y’know, sitting in a bar and writing lyrics for a while or something helps, and then go back.

So, what are you bringing to the Wavelength show? ‘Cause it’s sort of a new project, but no new name, I guess.

No new name. I think maybe if I tried to name it one last time, what remaining patience there is out there would totally dwindle. I have no choice now, everything else I do will have to be under my own name.

But, yeah. Years ago when I was doing things under my own name it was myself and guitar, singing, that kind of thing. And I grew discouraged with that, so I decided I wanted to do that under a different kind of blanket, and that why I have Dusted — it’s more like a band, it gives it more flexibility to change. But now that I’ve come back under my own name, it’s gonna be just me and some noise, doing my own kind of experimental drone set. So, if anything, it’ll probably be closer to Holy Fuck than anything else.

So, you’re bringing out the film synchronizer and everything for this?

Maybe not that. [pause] No, I probably will. I just feel in general I don’t know if it’s bringing a lot to the music. But it’s something that people respond to. Sometimes we don’t understand how exciting something is for other people, because we’re used to it. I lug it around with me everywhere. [pause as tacos arrive]

Now I have to justify bringing it though… I did the Casual Drones series, and I debated not bringing it, just because. It’s heavy. It takes up room, I gotta find a stand. So I said, “well, I’m gonna bring it, but if I’m gonna bring it I need to make sure I’m using it and actually making it a part of the sound.” So I did. I forced myself to use it, and that was kind of exciting. It felt like I was going back to when I was first using it, and it was really new to me. It’s not new to me anymore, so I forget how to make it new but then it was fun to feel that renewed enthusiasm for what it is and what it can do.

Are you a bit more digital now with all this stuff? Or using the same tools as before?

No, I’m using the same tools. I’m not digital at all. I mean, not analogue at all. I don’t really know the defining tools. I’m not…

You’re not sitting behind a laptop.

… not sitting behind a laptop. Exactly. I mean, I’m not going in there with anything I can sequence or program, so it has to be created live. So if I’m using a sample, it’s only on my Casio SK-8, which can only hold two samples on it, as long as the batteries last, so you kinda have to do all your sampling live as well. So even though I’m trying to recreate the same piece of music, I’m left with a handful of random parameters to get there. Which is fun for me.

So you have some pieces that you’ve worked out? Like song structures…

Kind of. I haven’t set up to prepare for the show, I’m planning on doing that this week. I don’t want to set up too far in advance and get started because I’m liable to forget what I’ve been working on. So I find that three or four days before I know I’m going to be on stage, that’s when I start writing something. I think the first thing I’ll do is try to recreate what I did at Casual Drones because I liked it, I thought it turned out quite well.

But, every time I re-explore something I’ve already done I’m trying to still expand on it. So if I was up there for 12 minutes making noise, maybe this time I’m up there I should try to expand it to as close to 20 as I can. I mean, I don’t feel the pressure to have to play a full headline-length set, because this is more like a showcase. Which is comfortable for me, I like knowing that I can keep it succinct. But maybe I’ll try and get more than 12 minutes out of it this time.

Is this sort of what you’re doing with yourself right now? Are you writing songs as well? Is that still being filtered for Dusted?

Kind of. Things are taking me a long, long time. Like, we’ve been working on a Holy Fuck album for three years now. We took a year off, then we started working sporadically, at first, and then my goal was to have it out in 2014, and even that would have been a long stretch, ’cause our last album came out in 2010. But I kinda figured we’d need that because we were burnt out, first of all. Second of all, all the guys in my band had kids, so we all knew that family time was important so we thought we’d get something finished in 2013, put it out in ’14 and tour… It’s 2015 and it’s still not done.

That is a great source of frustration for me. But, I can’t focus. I’ve never been able to focus. Like if I sit down and listen to four songs I’m working on to try and work out how I’m going to mix them or something, next thing I know, four hours later, I’ve gone through all these hard drives, listening to at least 23 different unfinished songs and I’m making notes for all of them: “okay, turn the bass up on this one, this song needs some ambient noise here…” I can’t keep working this way, I’m never going to finish 20-some songs; I have to pick two or three and I can’t. I can’t even pick two or three bands to be in. [laughs] But I have to come to terms with that. I don’t think that’s ever gonna change — it’s been that way since I started.

You don’t find, growing older, it’s stretching your attention span out a little bit yet?

I think that’s why I’ve been sort of trying to compartmentalize things a little better. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to have Dusted: because I figured out if you have a band name that’s representing the body of work you do, you’re less confined to one style of music. When I was doing my solo thing under my name I thought every time I did something that sounded different I was gonna have to give it a new name, and now I decided I’ll just have Dusted and we’ll go under that. So, I guess in that respect, I guess I’m learning ways to focus a little bit more. It’s yet to be determined, ’cause so far Dusted only have one album and that’s already getting old now. So, if it all goes according to plan, I’ll have a whole bunch of Dusted albums that will all be very different styles, and I’ll have very few other projects. But I don’t know… so far, it’s not working. [laughs]

Such is life.

Yeah. [laughs] As long as we get anything at all done… finishing it is the hard part.

So are your different projects as much useful conceptual categories for you as they are, say, calculated marketing moves?

Yeah, I think playing under my own name for as long as I did was constantly putting me on a stage that I wasn’t feeling comfortable with, because it tended to filter what I was doing into a singer/songwriter world. I didn’t really think my songs should be looked at that way. I dunno, I guess I just don’t listen to a lot of singer/songwriters at home myself either. But that said, I think I was always going through awkward stages during those years — I think sometimes it was good and sometimes it wasn’t.

Dusted gave me a clean start. I thought maybe I’m going to avoid some of those, “oh, he’s a singer/songwriter, let’s put him on the acoustic showcase” situations. Y’know, going all the way to SXSW to play the Holiday Inn with a bunch of guys that play quirky, quirky folk songs, didn’t really feel… Things like that were discouraging, so I think hopefully I’ve curtailed that. And also it’s given me the chance to have a fresh start, where I feel I know a little bit more now what I like to do. I know those past years were maybe a discovery process, and it takes me longer than it takes the average person. [laughs] Unfortunately. [pauses to consider taco] This is pretty damn good, isn’t it?

This is totally tasty. I think the sort of thing that set Dusted apart for me what that instead of just being a guy singing songs there was something inherently… you were obfuscating what you were doing a little bit more. Whether something obvious like reverb, or just the sort of sonic murk that you gave it.

Cool! Yeah, I think so for me, that was one of the discoveries… one of these discovery processes. And I wish I could say I’m one of those people who know right from the beginning how to do something, but I don’t. It takes me a while to figure it out. I would occasionally sing through an amp or something and I liked it, but there was a certain sense of, “oh no, that’s not allowed.” You show up at soundcheck and you wanna convince someone you wanna sing through an amp — the sound guy’s gonna tell you you can’t do it. And I think at that point I got fed up and I just happened to be practicing that day at home, I didn’t have any PA and I was singing through an amp and as soon as I heard it, I knew that’s what I wanted.

Like you say: obfuscating. This sound, going through something, I like the idea of a lens, not just the listener’s ear as a lens or as a focus, but something kinda like a veil you put up — I think that gives the songs a certain identity and it gives them a certain trippy quality… at least for me. I also know that’s what also deters a lot of people. I’ve had people criticize me, wishing I didn’t have all that fuzz on my voice. But for me, it made me more happy. It made me feel, oddly enough, more connected to what I was doing.

And when you’re doing your “non-song” stuff, is there something similarly expressive to it, or is more just the sonics of it?

It’s hard to say. Again. I’m still discovering as I go. I think when I first started Holy Fuck, I kinda knew I wanted to make music with certain limited devices. I thought there was going to be something exciting about exploring very limited means, like using the stuff that you find in your closet, as opposed to going to a music store and buying something really sophisticated. I thought that was going to be pretty exciting and it was going to give it this longevity and this uniqueness at a time when I thought maybe that was what was needed in the world… However, I couldn’t do it. [laughs] As much as I wanted to, Isucked. I got up on stage and I fell flat every time. And there’s a reason people don’t use that stuff, because it’s not very usable. It’s not very musical.

And I knew then I couldn’t do it unless I got other people together and after a few failed attempts to make music on my stage and embarrassing myself that’s what it became very quickly. I started calling my friends, and I started reaching out to people who might be able to be part of it. And I wouldn’t have been able to do it without it being a band.

But after, now, 10 years of doing that, I’ve kinda figured out how to keep it going for 10 minutes… that’s as long as I can go, ’cause there’s no button to hit to let things do it for you. I can’t program it on Tuesday night and then go up on stage and perform it on Thursday night. I still have to be doing it. And that’s as far as I can get into it without having that backdrop, without having a drummer and stuff.

And besides the just-messing-around-with-shit element, do you have something that’s like a musical guide for you? Is there stuff you’re listening to that’s pushing you on?

I find myself listening to stuff more and more, whether it’s Duke Ellington or a film soundtrack or some 20th century classical music… I’m listening to that almost as much as I’m listening to folk, Neil Young or something. Spending almost as much time trying to wrap my head around 20th century stuff… and I don’t have the tools to make that music, and it doesn’t mean I won’t ever have them but there’s gonna be a big learning curve before I could start scoring something on my own. But it is a goal, it’s something I’m striving towards. And I guess when I started to strip away some of the “band” elements of Holy Fuck and I’m just left listening to the drones and the pulses I feel like I’m getting closer to that. Mind you, in my own idiosyncratic way, but I feel like I’m getting closer to the kind of expression I’m excited about, you know, tones and textures, things that conjure a lot of emotional effect but without necessarily being lyric-based or really obviously musically-based.

Anybody from that world, like new classical stuff, that you’re particularly drawing from? Not that you’re onstage dropping Penderecki beats or anything.

[laughs] No, I’m pretty ignorant still when it comes to that world, I’m still finding my way. I like Toru Takemitsu, he’s a Japanese film composer… I’ve been obsessed with
Sun Ra for a few years now. I’m finding myself really drawn to the piano, though I can’t play it. I’ve been going to bed at night with a compilation of late-period Liszt in my headphones. I recently went to a Ligeti performance in New York, and the next day I went to see the philharmonic rehearse.

I’m becoming a musical tourist. I know “tourist” can be taken as a bad thing. But I just mean I’m excited — you feel like a kid again. I was visiting my wife in New York, and those were the things I was looking to do, ’cause those were things I found online to do like a tourist would!

And I think that kind of summarizes how I feel about music in general, like I’m still a tourist, still figuring everything out. Not only do I not have any kind of technical background in music, I also don’t really know a lot of cultural history. For some reason I shunned reading those autobiographical music books and I’m starting to think now’s the time. I guess I wanted everything to be absorbed by osmosis, for so long I wanted it to be experiential. When I was in my 20s, hyperactive, I couldn’t concentrate on anything, and the easiest way to discover things was through your friends and through your experiences. But as I’m getting a little older, I’m starting to want to actually take the time to read and learn, learn some history.

Do you know any of the people you’re playing alongside at the Wavelength show?

I know Sean Dunal and Paul Elrichman, those guys are both individually good friends of mine. And Neil Rankin, what’s he doing?

Oh, he’s doing the Slime thing…

Slime, right. Neil and Sean both played for years with my wife Anna in Foxfire. And so when I first started dating Anna, she was still in that band, and I met all these wonderful friends of hers, who I’m still very close to and very much like family. And as well as I know them, I’m gonna be seeing them doing stuff on that night that I’ve never seen before. That’ll be fun. And what else is there, in addition?

There’s Toblerone Boys [aka Toddler Body]. It’s Randy from Man Made Hill and Greydyn from Wolfcow. Pretty freeform, but weirdo synth jams, basically.

Yeah, I get the vibe I’m gonna be part of the weirdo night, which is fine with me. That sounds like fun. Good company to be in.