Search The Line of Best Fit
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Track By Track :: Bruce Peninsula – A Mountain Is A Mouth

Track By Track :: Bruce Peninsula – A Mountain Is A Mouth

02 October 2009, 16:00
Words by Ro Cemm

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Bruce Peninsula‘s debut album, A Mountain Is A Mouth was longlisted for the Polaris Prize in Canada this year. It was a vindication of the hard work that went in to it since recording began way back in 2007. Oh! Canada caught up with Neil Haverty to chat about the logistics of being a ‘big band’, those BSS comparissons and to run through the making of the new record.

Hi Neil. First up can you give us 3 reasons TLOBF readers should seek out more from Bruce Penninsula?
I Never was very good at quizzes, but I’ll give it a go…
1 – We mean well (we are just regular dudes and ladies trying to accomplish a common goal)
2 – We are hard workers (it takes a lot to keep a band like this on the rails)
3 – Line Of Best Fit seems to like us (and they seem to know what they’re talking about)

You have just come back from touring Canada…how does touring work for you guys logistically? There seems to be so many people in the band?
Well, we trim down and puff up as necessary. It’s only as hard as we make it and it changes from show to show. On this recent tour, we were 7 for one leg and 9 for the next. We believe the songs can be interpreted by any group we manage to gather together. That could be 5 of us, it could be 10, it could be more. In most cases, the songs are adaptable enough to handle the membership fluctuation, as long as the people that are there are really letting loose.

You must be delighted to see so many people associated with the band doing so well- the likes of Timber Timbre, Ohbijou, The Weather Station and more? Do you see it as being difficult to get the band together to practice, tour and record more? Can you keep up with all the projects people are involved in?
We simply surround ourselves with as many talented friends as possible. There’s a core band of 5 of us that write the songs and plot everything out and then we bring in more hands and throats to fill things out when we think it’s necessary. The kind of music we make sounds best when it’s BIG so our band is usually pretty big to accomplish that. It happens that most of the talented folks we know have great bands of their own. Timber Timbre, ohbijou, Katie Stelmanis, the Weather Station, Germans, THOMAS, Isla Craig, Muskox, Snowblink… these are all projects that existed before, or at least grew up alongside Bruce Peninsula. We poach their members for our band whenever schedules suit it or when we think a song calls for it. All those bands have been jewels in Toronto for the last few years and we’ve been lucky to work with all of them. It’s getting harder to have those people at shows as their bands get more attention, but we aren’t concerned. There are tons of talented people in this city and we have a pretty fluid system when it comes to membership.

The sheer pool of talent has drawn a lot of comparrisons with the whole Broken Social Scene, er, scene.
We don’t really like that “new BSS” angle though. We like that band just fine but I think this kind of loose ensemble system existed way before they did. Look at big bands in jazz or folk collectives like the Perth County Conspiracy. It’s simply a choice we’ve made – to let the work call for the people it needs to accomplish it’s goal, rather than defining a strict roster of performers. If a song calls for a trombone part and we know someone that’s skilled with that instrument, then Bruce Peninsula expands. Why do we need to set parameters? Music is only fun because it’s an open canvas and we can do whatever we want to. If that means you can’t be sure who is in the band and who isn’t, then so be it.

Do you have any plans to come over to the UK? Are there any plans for a full UK release?
We are working on it! As with anything, it takes a lot of planning and relationship-building. So far, we’ve done everything independently. We recently took on a Canadian booking agent, but we are entirely self-managed and every decision is made within the band. That’s been relatively easy on home soil but other countries are a slightly harder egg to crack. We are starting to talk to people that can help and are tentatively trying to get everything in line so we can get over there by the spring time. Fingers crossed.

So….here is our track by track guide to A Mountain Is A Mouth

Inside / Outside
We got a couple of metallophones while I was working for the government and wasting all my time and money on Ebay. They’re beautiful instruments so we started to incorporate them as soon as they arrived. I’d like to use them more, actually, but we haven’t written much on them, outside of this song and Northbound/Southbound.
To this day, we call this song Mynah Birds. It has always been referred to that way and it actually takes a second to register whenever anyone refers to it as Inside/Outside. We always have fake names, or working titles, for songs as we are writing them and sometimes they stick (like Shanty Song) and sometimes they get changed at the last minute, like this one.

The first bounce of this recording is hilarious because it’s just a vibraphone and a really cheesy drum machine part. We worked very hard to make this song sound nothing like that first export. It came a long way.

Steamroller
When we wrote this song, I think everyone in BP shared a collective “aha!” about what kind of band we wanted to be. It’s been a foundational song for us since then because it incorporates all the styles and sounds we were chasing after in the first place. This recording was our engineer Leon’s little baby. He just loved this jam, more than any of the others, so he paid especially close attention to it and I think that’s audible. The handclaps, the toy piano at the end, some of the panning tricks… those were all Leon’s suggestions.

If you listen really closely in the choruses and the “greatest forest fire” part, you should be able to hear some tenor sax. It had to be really quiet in the final mix because so much other stuff was going on, but our friend Colin Fisher put down some really good horn parts. Maybe in the future we’ll release a remix and jack them up really loud so you can hear them in all their glory.

2nd 4th World War
There are so many shakers on this song. You probably wouldn’t know it because of the way we mixed it but they are all over the place. We had access to a room in the local university that was full of percussion instruments. I mean, every percussion instrument you could think of. We also didn’t really restrain ourselves when we were tracking so there was a lot of stuff to go through when it came time to mix. I think 2nd 4th is a real testament to the effort we put into mixing. Those were grueling, long days but they were worth it in the end.

Satisfied
This song is the most ‘live’ song on the record. Throughout the record, all the group vocals you hear were done live, with all of us singing together in the sanctuary of St. George The Martyr church. Save for maybe a tambourine or two, Satisfied is pretty much exactly as we played it. We were sure those claps at the end would clip the vocal mics but they didn’t. It just ended up producing a very raw and natural sound.

This is one of two traditional interpretations on the record. The original version that we based our version on featured anonymous school children singing it. On the recording, Alan Lomax asks the children to do it twice as fast and the result is mind blowing. Seek out that recording. You won’t regret it.

Shutters
We always imagined Shutters as the last song on the first side of the record, so that’s how it ended up as the fifth track. Just the nature of the song, with all it’s twists and turns, screamed side-closer to us. Funny thing is that, so far AMIAM hasn’t been pressed on vinyl so the sides thing hasn’t really panned out, but we’re working on it. Just scrapping our pennies together and hoping we can afford to press it by the end of the year.

We originally recorded Shutters in the very first session in Scarborough along with a bunch of the other songs. But it wasn’t entirely finished at the time so we ended up recording the final version a few months later at a different studio downtown. You can hear a slight difference in the drum sound if you listen hard enough.

Our friend Nick Storring came in and dropped some cello on the track for a little icing in the final stages of tracking. The song was big enough as it stood but we thought we’d take it a few extra steps with some big ass John Williams strings.

This is probably my favourite track on the whole record.

Weave Myself A Dress
This was the very first Bruce Peninsula song. Misha sang some lines to Matt years ago and eventually they fleshed it out into a real song. We knew the record was going to have a pretty heavy hitting first side so this was the perfect song to start the second. A little calm before we built it back up again.

I’m especially proud of the middle section, which we refer to as “the water”, because all those sound effects you hear are made on real instruments. The loon calls are really just Andrew’s lap steel and the water and wild bird sounds are just Maya scraping the bottom of her Kalimba. This recording also holds a special position for us because Misha recorded her vocal in the first few hours of her 26th birthday. Just after midnight we set her up in the massive sanctuary with just a couple candles and this is the take she came out with. After a very long day of recording, that was a really special way to cap it off.

Crabapples
So far, we’ve always played Crabapples as our set closer. It takes a lot of energy to do it justice and people respond rapturously to it so it just makes sense to blast it out last. Things are different with a record though. We wanted AMIAM to have a pretty significant denoument and so it wouldn’t have made sense to have Crabapples finish off the record.

It’s also always been a partner with Weave Myself A Dress. When we first started the band, we were keen to make connections between all the songs we played and those two songs turned out to have the strongest relationship.

Recording Crabapples was fun, just because we let ourselves go nuts on the percussion. There’s marching snares and timbales and lots of rimshots all over the place. My favourite part was when Steve just started walking around the studio, looking for things to hit. Paint cans, beer bottles, ladders… they’re all in there.

Shanty Song
About 3/4s of the way through recording, Leon decided he was sick of buying time at other people’s studios and figured it was time to start one of his own. Through a friend of his, he found a great little unfinished garage that could house his studio. There was a hell of a lot of work to do though. So recording sort of haulted and we all got to work gutting the place, insulating and soundproofing it, putting up drywall and getting covered in this gooey black stuff called Acoustiseal… It took about two months until the space was useable. That’s a long time to not be recording but we were lucky because, once the studio was done, we could go in as much as we wanted for the final stage of the record. We didn’t have to pay for studio time, really, because we had logged so many hours doing labour for Leon. We did a daily schedule after that, putting all the finishing touches on the record. We were finally up and running again… until the computer started acting crazy. Error messages, blue screens, all those terrible things that PCs do when they’re overloaded. We’d already stalled for a couple months and now we were facing another hang up.

I only mention this stuff here because Shanty Song came very close to the fire. It honestly almost didn’t make it through the crash. I can’t imagine what we would have done if it was lost for good – we really like this song because it was one of the first that really gelled for us and we thought the recording had turned out pretty well. The project file was riddled with errors and it took everything Leon had not to throw his computer out the window. Eventually we went back a few steps and salvaged it, but not without some serious machinery battles.

Drinking All Day
This is the other traditional song on the record and was probably the initial spark of Bruce Peninsula’s flame. Matt and Misha were asked to do a variety night in 2005 and, along with Weave Myself A Dress, they performed this song and a few others from the Alan Lomax archive. They based it on a recording of a woman named Vera Ward Hall. To this day, I have yet to hear a voice as effortlessly heartbreaking as hers.

Misha and Matt’s original interpretation was stranger than the BP version, with ominous tape and guitar loops, but the song has been with us since day one, so it was important to us to include it on AMIAM. We tried to record a version of this for a compilation very early on in the timeline of the band. There were 9 of us huddled in our little basement, clanging bells and playing casios. We recorded to two tracks, so some of it was totally unusable because we got too excited to consider dynamics, but bits and pieces of that recording made it into the record version. So, some of that drone you hear in Drinking All Day comes from the very first recording we ever made as a band.

Northbound / Southbound
We played this as a show opener a lot when we first wrote it but it was always fated to end a record. It’s sort of just a snippet of a song – we are constantly playing around with little bits of melody without worrying about length – but it gave us good opportunity to dial things back. We conciously made Northbound / Southbound very small so it could act as a further denoument for Drinking All Day, which we used to calm down a whole record’s worth of rocking out.

Matt and I were alone and screwing around at the studio one night and wanted to hear what a sort of tape-crunch end would sound like. We used my shitty dictaphone and recorded the choir into it and then fed it back in with the talk back mic in the control room. I think we were planning to do that properly at some point, with a real tape machine and some distortion, but it just started to sound right after a while. I never thought we would use my stupid little handheld tape recorder to end our record, but that’s what’s there in the end.

It took us a year and a half to make A Mountain Is A Mouth. We recorded it in 8 different places. We spent all of our money and way too much time on it. We were so happy to be rid of it when it was finished, but sad to see it go. Bring on record number two.

You can stream the whole of ‘A Mountain Is A Mouth’ over at CBC Radio 3 now, or download album track ‘Crabapples’ from us below. You can also download ‘Steamroller’ on Oh! Canada 1.

mp3:> Bruce Peninsula: ‘Crapapples’
PC: right click and choose “save as…”
MAC: CTRL + click and choose “save link as”

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