When we spoke to Neil Haverty of Bruce Peninsula back in 2009, the band had just been Polaris long-listed for their debut album A Mountain is a Mouth. Back then Haverty spoke about the logistics of putting a multi-membered project together both in the studio and on the road, introduced us to some of the band members’ other projects, and placed a lot of stock in the band’s capacity to be adaptable in the face of change. This skill has been vital to the band in the two years leading into the release of their sophomore record Open Flames.
The Line of Best Fit: As a whole, the record seems more driven, songs feel more taut and muscular – like the sometimes overwhelming energy of A Mountain Is A Mouth has been harnessed in a more subtle but direct way. I know the aim was to write quicker this time round – did that happen?
Neil Haverty: “Definitely, it was intentional to tighten up and tuck in a bit more with these songs. We made A Mountain Is A Mouth out of the first 10 songs we ever made as a band. None of us had ever been part of something like this band before and for the first couple of years, I think we were operating on instinct alone and just throwing it all at the wall and seeing what stuck. There was definitely a lot more reckless abandon in regards to overdubbing on the first record. Every song had about 100 tracks and I’d say about half of those you can’t even really hear. The vocals were all done in a church, often with all of us singing at the same time, and that sort of overwhelms any other sounds we were trying to cram in there anyways. And it took us a year and a half to make it because it always felt like it ‘needed something else’.
The whole approach leading up to Open Flames felt streamlined and we realized really early in writing it that we had to keep it that way to keep sane. Getting bogged down on little parts of a song dooms it to the unfinished pile so we tried to not let anything linger there for too long. We were all pretty open minded to changes and let it happen whenever someone wanted to trim the fat. It was really exciting that way because you couldn’t get too attached to something you were working on, because at any point another member could come in and chop out a lyric or move a bridge from the back to the front of the song. That’s hard to let happen at first but eventually, as the song grows up into something better than you envisioned it to be, it seems like the only way to work.
We were all guns blazing on A Mountain Is A Mouth and that’s something we felt we had to do then. It was a strength-in-numbers thing. You know, “If we all shout together, somebody will hear us”. This time we knew a handful of people were already listening and it wasn’t about some grand introduction, so we just focused on the songs and refining what we’re trying to do. I really do feel like Open Flames is a whittled and crafted reinterpretation of the kind of music we were starting to get at with A Mountain Is A Mouth and this record plays to our individual strengths and talents a lot more than the last one.”
How does it work with writing – do you, Matt and Misha all bring stuff to the table or do you work together with all the other band members?
“It always starts with one person with an initial kernel. That could be a melody from me, a drum beat from Steve, some lyric from Misha etc. After it gets presented and tossed around to the rest of the core band (which includes Matt and Andrew, as well as the three I just mentioned), that first person usually takes it back and does more homework on it and pushes it so it’s further along for the next practice. Once the core five can sort of play it from front to back, we start to teach our imagined choir parts to the rest of the band and they put their own stamp on it. Usually we’re demoing all along. You should hear all the falsetto harmonies that Matt and I do to emulate what we think the girls might sound like! Actually, they’re totally embarrassing, so I hope you never do.”
The Small Town Murder Songs soundtrack consists almost entirely of your songs. How did the soundtrack come about, and is it something you would be interested in working on more in the future? Did you write ‘As Long As I Live’ specifically for the film or was it just one of the songs they chose?’
“The director, Ed Gass-Donnelly, approached me at one of our shows and said he was a big fan of the band and that he was making a movie and wanted to talk about us contributing some music. We have always loved the idea of being a ‘soundtrack band’ so we jumped on the chance. I went to work the next day and came home and Misha and Matt had transformed a drum pattern that Steve had recorded into the song . We had just started recording Open Flames but as soon as it started to come together we were all pretty sure it would end up on the record. We finished the version for the movie and submitted it and then kept working on it after that to give it some verses and a bit more structure. We liked it so much, it ended up being the first track of the record and the first video we put out!
What shocked us was that it totally snowballed from there. We knew he was gonna use as the main theme but he kept asking us for more songs. Slowly but surely he had replaced nearly every song in the movie with one of ours. There’s one non-BP song that stayed in, a recording of Sacred Harp singing. We were gonna record a version of it but didn’t have time in the end so he used the original. The rest is all us, which is pretty mind-blowing. It was a very proud day to go to a Toronto International Film Festival premiere for something we ended up being a very big part of.
We all want to do more movie work. We’ve been close to signing on to a couple other projects but nothing has worked out just yet. Fingers crossed for the future.”
Your diagnosis with leukaemia came just after the record was finished – and obviously came as a shock to everyone. Did you revisit the album afterwards and change anything, or add bits?
“No. We got the master the day before I was diagnosed. I’m really thankful for that… I really don’t know what would have happened if the record was left open-ended. I mean, I’m sure the others would have finished it up but I’m very happy it was done already because the record and the illness can be two totally separate chapters.”
You’re now officially in remission, with the record out and the band on a grand tour of Canada. How are the shows going? Is the record working out live as you’d hoped? What is the touring make up of the band at the moment?
“It was a blast. I think we’re a better band than ever. It all seems sort of effortless now and maybe that’s just that we’re generally putting less pressure on ourselves. Lots of people have asked me if it’s been hard to relearn the songs and get into them after so much time away but I think that’s been a real blessing. We were only just getting the hang of them when we recorded these songs anyways.
The major positive of so much distance is that we’re not sick of them. Usually you make a record and you listen to each song a million times and when you’re done you don’t want to hear them again for a very long time. That makes it hard to get behind them when it comes time to play them live. In this case though, I was excited to listen to the record again and when I did, I wasn’t just listening to all the flaws or things I would change. It took me a year to enjoy A Mountain Is A Mouth after we were done recording it. I love Open Flames every time I hear it. That’s a really nice feeling.”
During your recovery you put together a project called Bruce Peninsula Fire Sale, featuring covers, one offs and live videos performed by various different members of the band. It must be amazing to see how parts of the BP family have been succeeding. Last time we spoke, you talked about Snowblink, Ohbijou, Timber Timbre and Katie Stelmanis of Austra. We’ve worked with you to put together a stream of the artists you’ve been involved with, can you tell us a little about the other bands that feature on it?
“I think everyone really stepped up to the plate for that covers project and that the band hit some real home-runs with the Fire Sale material. It was a really exciting project for me to be a part of while I was recuperating. The crazy website, the videos, the slow roll-out – those are all things we had talked about as a band for ages and we actually got the chance to try them.
Almost all of our members, past and present, were recruited for Bruce Peninsula because we were fans of the music they made in other projects. Most of the people that have left left because their own projects took off and they didn’t have any more time to lend us. We just feel lucky to get a little bit of their magic injected into what we do. We’re probably the only band in existence to have as many former members as we do current, but turnover is just sort of part of this band, it seems.
We’ve been doing shows lately where we go back and forth between Bruce Peninsula songs and songs from the individual members’ solo projects and its been a really good time and made for some pretty special shows. We all get to sit back for parts of the set and listen to each other play and there’s been some cross-pollination on each others’ songs too. I don’t think we imagined this sort of thing when the band first started but I think it’s a natural development considering that all these solo projects have run simultaneously all along. If you add up all of the Bruce Peninsula material and throw in some solo repertoire, we can pretty much play all night!
I think this might be the first time someone has collected all of our stuff for one big mixtape. I hope people like it! Thanks for making it happen.”
Finally, What are your plans for 2012 – are you planing on heading to the UK sometime soon?
“The plan is just starting to come together for 2012. We are working on setting up shows on the actual Bruce Peninsula and we’re eyeing a few places in Canada that we haven’t been. We’d love to get to the Territories this year, so we’re working hard on that. We’re trying to do a bunch of things we’ve never done before. I really, truly hope that includes a trip to Europe. I think that has been the top goal of our band since day one. It’s looking pretty good for a trip this Fall. We’re crossing our fingers. I’d love to hear from more folks over there who want to see us or have suggestions of places we just can’t miss. Send us an email. When it comes to touring foreign lands, no tip or word of encouragement is too small.”
Open Flames is available now and can be heard in its entirety at Bruce Peninsula’s Bandcamp page.