Afie ‘Bahamas’ Jurvanen recently made a return to London from his native Canada to perform a handful of shows ahead of the release of his rather wonderful new record Barchords. Playing the Royal Albert Hall and Shepherd’s Bush Empire after being hand picked by Noah & The Whale , Bahamas is halfway through a series of special sold out shows at St Pancras Old Church when we catch up with him, the second of which is played completely unplugged with no lights but those of the church candles, allowing the natural acoustics of the church to work their magic on his subtle playing and songwriting.
Before the show, we catch up with Jurvanen to find out a bit more about the new record, his childhood in Barrie, Ontario, and why he’s glad he’s a musician not an architect.
How have the London shows been going?
Afie: We did play here last year – my last record came out quietly. The show went well, but these are the first headline shows- we did a couple of shows in huge venues with Noah and the Whale and while’s its a thrill to play in those places, it’s their achievement. But last night it was a thrill for me to play in a beautiful place, for people who are interested in what we are doing. You kind of hope to get some response.
Is it hard to switch so quickly, from playing a venue the size of the Royal Albert Hall to a smaller, more intimate venue?
The biggest thing is it is our show, people are there to see us. There’s merits to both – the level we are at, you have to play to people who don’t know who you are. It sounds crude or simple, but you hope to get on tour with people who don’t know what you are doing. The energy is so different if people are there to see someone else. You know, I fantasize that one day we will be able to play our songs at Royal Albert Hall of course.
The fact that the album is called Barchords seems to fit with the more intimate shows…
Yeah, it’s a pun. The first record was called Pink Strat, named after my guitar. I played for years in other peoples bands and when I stopped doing that, it was at a time when it seemed guitar music wasn’t necessarily popular. I just wanted to embrace the idea that I’d played guitar forever, cool or not. Barchords is a continuation of that idea. But I like the idea that they are the simplest way to get an idea across. They’re used in country music and punk rock and any genre of music, they are this utilitarian meat and potatoes musical shape and I like that idea to represent the album. It distills it to its essence, with not too many frills.
How was the album recorded?
Pink Strat was more or less a live album. We just set up with some friends and played and the album benefits from that naivety. I can picture the spirit in the room, one take stuff. Barchords is the same way. I don’t subscribe to the idea of rehearsing the whole time, the nature of my personality and the music is more about the moment. There is a connection with the band – Jason, who plays drums – he’s a good listener and it makes him a good musician, and a good person. I surrounded myself with people whose musical instincts I trust, more often than not people will find what it is that they should be doing. It’s like curating a dinner party, who do you want to hang out with? Do you want the conversation to have a serious tone, or a comedic tone, or introspective? As the person who’s leading, those decisions are mine to enjoy, success or failures.
Is this a more comedic or introspective party?
It’s more introspective and darker, but if I’m going to be proud of the record in any outward way, it would be that it’s not a downer record. To me, it feels sort of optimistic which is why I can sing the songs night after night. If they made me feel like shit I’d move on quickly and do a new one. The idea is that I’ll be able to sing them 20 or 30 years from now.
‘OK, Alright, I’m Alive’ comments on the idea of feeling like it has all been done before. Do you feel a pressure to produce something ‘new’?
As a fan of music, of art, it’s no secret that the vast majority of things being created are meant to be consumed then cast aside. But the fact is throughout history we use art, music, literature to look back on and carry forward as benchmarks. You sometimes look at things and think ‘Is that what’s going to represent this time?’. As I get older, I do believe I’m trying to do something over time. Right now is just a fraction. It’s about the moment, making it as meaningful as possible. That reference isn’t just music, there are aspects of having relationships, sometimes you just have to accept things with the knowledge that sometimes it’s hard to do something original, and that’s ok. But I don’t spend too much time thinking ‘poor me’, because the reality is that life is pretty rad right now, y’know?
Why was there such a long time between the release of Pink Strat and Barchords?
It was purely logistics. This record was made a long time ago. It is a bit bittersweet, because I was excited to get it out there. There’s such a gap between the moment of creativity and putting it out there. But, you know, I spoke with an architect and they were like “Screw you, try being an architect – by the time you design a building, 10-15 years can go by before it’s been built, you’ve completely changed as a human being in that time”. In the end, Barchords benefited from the wait. It’s a reflection of me I can get behind. But I think I’ll wait ’til the record company is banging down the door next time.
What were you listening to at the time?
I’m always going to listen to Willie Nelson, Stardust, you know, and Neil Young. They’re my staples. Something like American Stars and Bars, On The Beach, that classic period. They can’t be fucked with in my mind. But it fluctuates. Willie, you can put things from any time, despite the production, his voice cuts through every time. Neil just does what he wants, and that’s the coolest thing.
You grew up in the town of Barrie, Ontario. How did that influence you growing up?
There was no scene, which in itself is what was influential. There was nothing happening, me and Mike, Carlin and those guys (who became the band Zeus ), we just quickly gravitated towards each other. You’re like this young, naïve version of yourself, the lines are so broadly drawn. We found each other and started playing shows in our basement, garages for our friends. Writing your own songs was almost unheard of, but that’s what we did. And when we could drive we made the pilgrimages into the big city.
So in a way it was the idea of freedom again, to do what you want, and to make mistakes?
Yeah, absolutely. We all looked up to this thing that was going on in Halifax at the time, bands like Sloan with their own label, and Superfriends, Thrush Hermit and all that scene. But we related to it and drew inspiration, put out things and put on shows. It was really ‘indie’, not the faceless tag that now means. That stuff was important and it’s important to keep that naïvety and spontaneity with you.
Absolutely. When you get to the level when you can do your own shows, why wouldn’t you curate the night if you can, and try and set the tone and introduce people to things that they might play. Last year we toured with Doug Paisley , it was so fun. We just finished a tour with The Weather Station and by the end of the tour there was this cross pollination, we were playing in her set, it’s great. It’s not like the only purpose of having a band is to do the music. You are with these people all day, you want them to share it. And both of their records are fantastic, so it’s a privilege.
So, to close, who would you recommend us to listen to and find out more about?
Well, the guy who produced The Weather Station album is called Daniel Romano. He’s great, it’s just country music through and through. His new record, when it comes out, is fantastic. He’s from a small town [Welland, Ontario]. It’s that outside looking in mentality, observing things that are cool and then doing what he wants. He used to be in punk bands and then realised he was a modern cowboy.
Barchords is available now through Universal / Island and have a look at some photos from his recent Shepherd’s Bush Empire performance here.