Joe Strutt is pairing with Audiopollination to bring improvised music to Long Winter
Interview by Tom Beedham
The Toronto musical performances that Joe Strutt has voraciously spent the past five years recording and archiving on his blog Mechanical Forest Sound run the gamut from hometown album premieres to improvised pieces that would otherwise never be repeated. On Dec. 12, expect to hear some of the latter at Long Winter, as Strutt is pairing up with ongoing music series Audiopollination to bring a showcase of improvised music to the Great Hall’s basement theatre, the Blk Box. The lineup is still in the works (insert bad improv joke here), but we caught up with Strutt to chat about his passion for this music and what we can expect on the 12th.
Long Winter: Before we get into your Long Winter showcase I want to track your relationship with improv and informal creative music a little bit. Do you remember your first encounter with this stuff?
Joe Strutt: Hmm. I’d say it would be more developed over time than like an “aha!” moment. I think here you would see some of this stuff – occasionally it would creep in at rock shows at Wavelength or I remember one time when the Ex played, Drumheller opened for them, and that was one of the first times I saw that, and that’s part of that overlapping network of bands, so I think I was through the back door of that sort of stuff, and then just being more interested in going out to smaller, more intimate shows – these are the shows to go to if you want to see stuff close-up.
How long had you been going to shows before this stuff crept in?
Well, I’ve been recording shows for five years, and it’s since then that I’ve been more into this stuff. Another one that would be a big early in would be Jeremy Strachan, who had a band called Feuermusik, which was a duo, Jeremy was on sax and he had a guy named Gus [Weinkauf] who played percussion on overturned plastic buckets, and that was extremely portable and it was free improv, but they just played rock shows all the time because they could just show up and play. So once you have ins like that, you start to connect – like once I knew Jeremy – he plays in a lot of rock bands [Rockets Red Glare, Sea Snakes, Minotaurs, Hylozoists], or used to (I think less now) – all these guys would be side bands and there’d be a horn section or something for a rock band, and then you’d go, “Oh! They have their own thing” And then you’d sort of get that there’s a bigger network once you start finding out about Rat-drifting, once you start finding out about stuff going on at the Tranzac, and Somewhere There – it’s like this whole world that you’re uncovering the layers of.
So this is music you’ve had to work to find out about. It isn’t stuff you grew up with.
Not really. I had definitely an appreciation of jazz and even some of the weirder end of jazz, so that’s sort of an in to that; free improvisation takes a bit from jazz, but it’s not jazz.
The original stuff I got into… like Sun Ra, Ornette [Coleman] Albert Ayler, sort of freer, skronkier jazz. I actually started with that stuff and I guess as I got older I historically moved back, but that was an entry point for a lot of stuff. If you know Ornette, if you know Sun Ra, that gives you just all sorts of weird music connections.
Were your parents listening to this?
Not really. I think the reason why I started at the weird edge of jazz was actually… in the late ’90s, when the original Spin Alternative Record Guide came out – when Spin was really good they put out their record guide – there were four or five jazz people in it, and I just went to the library and took that stuff out, and that was why I learned about Ornette Coleman, Coltraine, Sun Ra. So university, exploring and branching out into other stuff. That was where I started with jazz and then the other end of it is that it’s closer in scale to noise and weird indie music, so.
And that was something you were paying attention to at the time?
Yeah, I mean, I was never huge into noise but it was always one thing I knew of.
When I was at university I was at University of Winnipeg studying philosophy and poli-sci, and the radio station at U of W was a closed-circuit system. It wasn’t a broadcast radio station. There would be certain rooms that would have a speaker and… weirdly enough when I was in high school, I’d basically listen to hip-hop music because that was what I was into then, and then at university I had a locker in this big, giant locker room with this speaker beside it playing all this really weird stuff, and that ended up being all of the stuff I fell in love with, like, do you know Negativland?
They’re like this conceptual art prank group from California that do collage and stuff, and they released a single called “U2” which was somewhat notorious because they got sued by U2, but it’s outtakes from Casey Kasem in this weird noise collage about U2. And there was someone who played that continuously and then one day I just went to HMV and bought the cassette single of this thing and that was like the first time I was ever at the alternative music section. So I mean stuff like that, Public Image Ltd, Nomeansno… it all just kind of exploded in my head, all of that stuff.
So did you grow up in Winnipeg?
Yeah. I grew up in the country as a kid in Winnipeg when I was in high school and older.
Was there much of a music scene there?
There was, although, when I was in university I was a diligent student and I worked because I’m old enough that I went to university in the time when you could pay for university while you went through it – sigh. So I knew about live local music, but I didn’t see a lot of it. There was a guy in some of my classes who was in a cool local band, so I always knew about that kind of stuff. He would bring posters to our seminars and pass his gig poster around, it would be like a picture of the mayor with a hook through her head and stuff.
Did you go?
Oh I saw them a few times.
And what was that scene like?
Oh… So he was in a band called Grand Theft Canoe and they were like jangly British pop. There wasn’t a scene of that in Winnipeg or anything, there was a lot of… proto-grungy, punkish stuff was I think the main thing. And I mean it was Winnipeg so it was smaller and this was pre-Internet, so if there were people who were into something, there’d be like one small group of people into something. So if you were into Sebadoh, there would be six people in the city into Sebadoh, and three of them would form a band that would sound a little bit like Sebadoh.
It’s interesting that things in small towns tend to go one of two ways: you’ll get groups that’ll develop almost kind of derivatively around people sharing enthusiasm over a specific band, or because of the isolation you’ll get these people digging really deep within themselves and experimenting a lot, pulling of this really weird, really singular music.
Yeah, and I mean there was probably some of that stuff going on, but I was not quite connected enough to really know. I actually spent more time buying tapes of local bands than actually going to shows then because I was young and I had to go to work on Friday nights.
When did you end up in Toronto?
Well I came here for grad school, so ’98.
Okay. Grad school for philosophy, or—?
Poli-sci at York. It didn’t last.
Were you going to shows then?
It took a long time. I did go to shows – I remember when I moved to Toronto it was like “Oh my goodness, all these people that never toured to Winnipeg are coming here.” One of the very first shows I saw after I moved to Toronto was Bob Mould, just solo acoustic because that’s what he was doing then. But it was like, “My god – holy shit!” so the stuff I would see when I first moved here would just be touring stuff. But I mean I read eye and that kind of stuff every week, so I always read about stuff like Wavelength and everything but I was never into it. I was never really apart of it. But then there was such a huge change when there was that explosion that came about with the Constantines and then Broken Social Scene it just suddenly… there was a space where I was like, “Oh, there is all this stuff. And you can go to it.”
Okay, so you started seeing weirder stuff once you started going to Wavelength shows and things like that…
Yeah, I always had a theoretical appreciation that I’m more into… for a long time I had a rule of thumb of if there’s two shows I wanted to go to, I’d always go to the one at the smaller venue. If you’re gonna go to see someone at the Phoenix or if you’re going to see someone at Lee’s, go to the show at Lee’s. And then over time, I just pushed that further and further; if you’re going to go to a show at Lee’s or you’re going to a show at Tranzac, go to the Tranzac. The less divide there is between you and the band, the better I liked it. So over time that was sort of just the process that I went through finding I want to be close, I’d rather be part of something that’s… you know, you go to see those bands a couple times and they know who you are.
I was thinking about how your blog relates to this event, and it struck me that – at least in the case of the night of your showcase – the Venn diagram for the relationship between the Toronto music Mechanical Forest Sound covers and what Long Winter will be doing will look more like a circle. Is Long Winter’s programming history something that attracted your interest in curating a showcase with it?
I like the fact that Long Winter is pretty open to trying to mix different things together. And they’ve had… a lot of different people who are in the improv scene have played there, often in the context of non-improv bands. Isla Craig played there last year and her band was all incredible people like Colin [Fisher] and Brandon [Valdivia] from Not the Wind, Not the Flag and Scott Peterson, and that was actually an incredible improv band. They had Doug Tielli last year who is himself a great improviser when he’s not doing his songs… And they had Not the Wind, as well. So they’ve had some of this in there, but I don’t think they’ve had anyone who specifically…
Place an emphasis on improvising.
I really enjoyed the gig last night at Long Winter because when they had all the hip-hop stuff, it’s stuff that I know that’s out there, but I never go out and see. And I think it takes someone to go to them and say “This is what’s really good – get this kid Clairmont the Second,” and that brings it into the circle. So I think because I keep my foot in all these different things, I think I can say to Long Winter, “This is who you should bring into the circle.”
Do you think it’s important for shows to have that variety and pull from all these different communities? What are the pros and cons of doing that?
There’s room for shows that are eclectic and expose people to different things because that’s important, because we all need to be shaken out of stuff and there’s so much in this city. There’s lots of room for narrow stuff to get into your scene, and that’s great because to get deep into something is really good, but then again you have to circle around and be shaken out of it again, right? Long Winter fills a function of disrupting patterns; it’s not really a pattern itself, it’s a disruption that leads to new connections.
You’ve written at length about Toronto’s informal creative music scene and its place in the community for Weird Canada. Would it be wrong to assume the motive behind curating this showcase was something deeper than a desire to organize?
Oh yeah. I’m definitely partisan. I’m definitely promoting. I’m partnering for this show with Audiopollination, so formally it’s under their name. “Audiopollination at Long Winter” is I think what we’ll bill it as. So Audiopollination has been going for two years and started as an offshoot of the Somewhere There collective, but it’s now sort of its own thing – but it’s a great series. It’s the second Tuesday of every month at Array Space and one thing about… like I said there’s the part of the scene that’s inward looking and focused on itself? Smaller scenes sometimes get inward looking and don’t promote themselves. Audiopollination is an amazing series, but it’s also a series that plays to single-digit crowds all the time. And I mean, they’re busy putting together shows – they don’t have a lot of resources – so to have someone sort of pitch on their behalf to a wider world saying “Come see this,” I am definitely shilling for Audiopollination.
It was started by Mike Lynn who… he plays, and his sort of impetus in starting Audiopollination was to create scenarios for people who have never played together, to play together. The purest of improvisation is where you have three people show up and say “You three play a set.” Audiopollination sometimes does just have pre-existing bands, but sometimes it will literally be, people will pick these people and have them play. I know they had one set one day where they invited a bunch of people and picked names out of a hat, and right now they also have self-curation, so they just get artists to look at an online spreadsheet and say, “I’m free this night, I’ll come and play,” and then someone else will slot themselves in there. So you just get these duos or trios [that] accumulate together, and they just show up and play together so it’s a very free-spirited kind of improvisation which almost always leads to really good stuff. So I find that exciting, and then another reason that I wanted them to be a part of the thing at Long Winter is that Adam Rosen and John Creson, who are experimental filmmakers and are known working members of the local film scene, they do live visuals every month where they have live processing with cameras plus pre-recorded footage that they mix together, and they’ve developed a really cool system. So when I was thinking of something to do at Long Winter, [I thought,] to have visuals, that’s something that’ll sort of make people stop and go “Oh” – it’s just kind of an attention grabber. So I asked them before I asked any musicians. It’ll be interesting because they developed a really good method at Array Space where Audiopollination happens to do all of this, so to sort of throw it into this giant, different space will cause its own weird, random, new improvisations that they’ll have to come up with of “How are we gonna do this?” including how do you fit an 11 x 17 [foot] screen on that stage?
Is there any plan to do what Audiopollination’s done before as far as pulling names from a hat or things like this go?
I think for this show just out of organizational succinctness — I think it’s going to be two, two and a half hours. I think for this I basically wanted something that we could sort of stage-manage a little and say we’re going to have this, this, and this happen. Just because you want it to have something you can plan and keep moving. So it won’t be as freeform as an Audiopollination [show] but musically it’ll give people who don’t know anything about free improv a taste of like “Oh, here’s what’s happening.”
I have Interstellar Orchestra coming, which is a big essentially free jazz big band under the leadership of Jay Hay, who plays saxophone, and I think a lot of people who have gone to [local] rock shows will recognize a lot of faces in the band because all of them are people who have played… Jeremy Strachan who I was talking about before is in the band, Nick Buligan who plays in a lot of stuff, Karen Ng who’s been in Do Make Say Think, Fresh Snow, Nicole Rampersaud, Tom Richards who plays with a lot of improv stuff and he’s also been playing with Hidden Cameras lately, Scott Peterson, and Mike Gennaro. It’s at least nine people. I’m not sure who all they have confirmed for that night, but I saw them at a gig at the back of the Imperial Pub where there was more band than crowd and it was like a really good, big sound, and that was also something that I was looking for instead of having two people do an improv duo; I’m in that basement; I want to fill that space up.
What was it that attracted you to approaching Interstellar for Long Winter?
I just thought the sound would fit with the spirit of [Long Winter]. They’re all musicians that I think people should know, and it’s the sort of band that – because it’s such an organizational thing for them to do so – I think someone has to ask them to do a gig. Everyone in that band has two other bands, and there’s nine people, so someone has to go to them I think and say “Come on. Do this,” and then they will convene, basically – this army of improvisation. For so many of these projects it’s ad hoc. It’s when can this happen? There’s just a lot of planning that has to go into getting everybody there. I mean for me to have another chance to see them is its own reward. I’m definitely programming stuff that I want to see and that I can be enthusiastic about.
When there has been some of that weirder stuff at Long Winter like Isla Craig playing, like Doug Tielli, like Not the Wind, Not the Flag, all of this stuff I’ve watched, and the crowd has been really open to it. I think there’s definitely… especially the younger crowd – the all-ages crowd that comes out – there’s a lot of people that have open ears, and open ears need to be given a hug and said “Good work,” and then given an opportunity to be put to work, and so I’m hoping that some people will just randomly walk down to the basement and hear strange honking noises and maybe be like, “This is the honking noise for me.”
A truncated version of this interview originally appeared in issue two of the Long Winter newspaper.
Visit mechanicalforestsound.blogspot.ca for Joe’s extensive archive of live Toronto concert recordings.