Photo Courtesy: Jennifer McClain
Timber Timbre might not be a familiar name to you, but with their hauntingly beautiful album of freak-folk blues, Creep On Creepin' On, they could be the next Canadian band to follow in the footsteps of Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, and Feist and "break the States." We caught up with the lead singer of the Polaris Music Prize-nominated group and he gave us 60 Seconds on venturing to the U.S., his musical inspirations, and how it feels to go from recording in a shadowy cabin in the woods to opening for Swedish star Lykke Li on New York City's Central Park SummerStage in bright daylight.
What's it like to be in New York, playing music that is perceived as "dark and moody," opening for Lykke Li on the SummerStage?
We really rely on being able to control the atmosphere of our shows, so this is outside of our comfort zone. It's super-weird and inappropriate, but also fun and interesting. Before we were booked for this concert, I wasn't that familiar with Lykke Li's work. I started listening to her music and watching her videos. I knew she was a big artist, but I didn't know she was such a big star. It's pretty exciting.
Every band has their first big New York concert moment. Does it feel like this is yours?
I will be very surprised if another opportunity comes up to do something on this scale. So, yeah, this is monumental.
What's it like being a popular band in Canada, recognized with awards and nominations (most recently for the 2011 Polaris Music Prize), but being more of a cult band in the United States?
To tour in the U.S. has been a big struggle, limited to really small rooms and people who aren't necessarily that excited about what we're doing. We've worked for a long time in Canada for the recognition that we have there now. Hopefully it's just a matter of putting the time in, but I don't know. We've been well received in Europe, so there's no accounting for things like this. I don't know how to qualify why a band does well in one place and not so well in another.
Canadian artists and media personalities frequently use the term "breaking the States." Some bands are interested in achieving this, while others deliberately avoid it. What's Timber Timbre's perspective on what U.S. success means to a band's overall success?
I feel there is some kind of trick to it. Before we began this tour, I was so excited to come to the United States. I thought that what we were doing was based on the history of Western music and American music. I thought, "Oh, they're going to really dig us down there." But it hasn't really been that way. I don't know if it's some kind of roots-music thing, because American music seems kind of exotic in Canada and in Europe. I wonder if that has something to do with the level of interest in the project. Maybe it's just a grass-is-always-greener kind of thing.
Has the American recognition of other Canadian bands, such as Broken Social Scene and Arcade Fire, made U.S. fans more open to your sound?
I've recognized that those Canadian groups have become the beacons and that they've been able to transcend borders somehow. It was really quite groundbreaking for me, as a musician, when they started to become internationally recognized. I remember seeing those groups when they were first starting to break. I wouldn't cite that music or that approach as a nominal influence, but seeing those groups play really early on in Toronto, before I had even started playing music and performing, made an impact for sure—there was a level of excitement and possibility that came with seeing those groups do well and be recognized internationally.
Photo Courtesy: Timber Timbre
What's your best border-crossing story?
I get nervous about crossing the border—I have a guilty face or something. We were on our way to Iceland to do the Airwaves festival, and they told me at the gate in Canada that I could buy this Dan Aykroyd skull vodka and carry it on because we weren't going through security again on our connecting flight in JFK. This was not true. I was in denial—you know how it is when you're in transit—so I put those two skull vodkas in my bag, dropped it onto the belt, and crossed my fingers like an idiot. Alarms started to go off… they shut down the whole gate and interrogated me, and I didn't know why. I told them what was in the bag, and they didn't believe me. Later, I found out that with my iPod cables, headphones, and wires, they thought the skull vodkas looked like some badass homemade bomb.
Your early recordings were made in a timber-framed cabin set in the wooded outskirts of Bobcaygeon, Ontario, and you recorded some parts of Creep On Creepin' On in a church. Where do your aesthetic and sound come from?
When I first started writing and recording music, it was based upon my discovery of the Smithsonian Folkways anthology recordings. Since then, I've been really interested in making music that sounds like it could come from any time in the history of rock and roll. Since that discovery, I have been subconsciously working my way forward from the roots of folk music but also looking at things like early and electric blues, doo-wop, soul, and R&B—chronologically moving forward in a funny way. I grew up listening to the music my folks listened to, which was seventies and psychedelic rock. Then, all of a sudden, I had a different appreciation for blues music and doo-wop and all of these things combined.
What's on your summer playlist right now?
The touchstone things I always go back to are Neil Young, Roy Orbison, the Everly Brothers, Nina Simone, Sun House, Lightnin' Hopkins, Portishead, Broadcast. And Leonard Cohen—he's key. This summer, it's a lot of Bobby "Blue" Bland, the Mighty Hannibal, Amy Winehouse, Sharon Jones, and Colin Stetson.
—By Andrea Grant
Andrea Grant is a freelance writer and contributing producer at Details.com