Friday, June 04, 2010

Great oaks grow

[A story from The Irish Times about Canadian musicians influenced by Garifuna.]

The Irish Times - Friday, June 4, 2010

In the space of three albums, Canada’s The Acorn have gone from being a solo hobby to a full-time band with a fanbase that includes Kanye West and Elbow. Rolf Klausener tells SINÉAD GLEESON where it all went right

THERE’S a murkiness surrounding the question of whether Canadian band The Acorn is one man or a bunch of musicians. What started out as the solo platform of Rolf Klausener has expanded into something of a collective, fronted and helmed by the Ottawa singer.
Ahead of the release of third album No Ghost , Klausener says that, having started his musical career alone, he’s now more comfortable with the bulked-out presence of a band.

“The line-up has transformed over the years and it’s never really been a very stable entity. I started on my own, and it took me two years before I started playing with other people. Initially it was a side project, because I was playing in several bands, but lots of them went on hiatus. Suddenly I found myself with very little to do, so I taught myself to record music. The first album was a solo record, but I got bored of playing by myself, so I asked friends to get involved. I never intended it to go beyond playing a few shows here and there, but the response was great and we ended up sticking together.”

One reason people assume The Acorn is a one-man band is due to their feted second album, Glory Hope Mountain , based on specific events in Klausener’s family life. His father (who died when he was a teenager) presented him with a family history, started by his Swiss great-uncle, which goes back centuries.

“He always intended to add our family story to it, and after he passed away I wanted to continue this. In 2005 I mentioned to Howie in the band that I was going to interview my mom about her life and history, and he suggested I should write some songs about it. My mom’s stories were so incredible that I told the band I wanted to write an album about it.”

Concept albums are a tricky beast at the best of times, but one based on the frontman’s mother? “I know! Initially, some of the guys thought it was ludicrous, but they eventually came around.”

His mother was brought up in Honduras, and Klausener wanted this to be represented musically in the songs. As a result, the album is influenced by Honduran Garifuna percussion, and features marimbas and ukuleles.

Laying out so much of your family’s life, there could be a tendency for subsequent work to be less introspective, or worse, to be inclined towards self-censorship. Was it daunting to write No Ghost ?

“What was daunting was the idea that more people would be listening to this album. In some ways this record feels more personal, because I was writing about personal experiences. I’d like to get to a place where I could write in a very direct way. There’s definitely no self-censorship, as I wish I could have been more lyrically blunt – but I like toying with metaphor.”

Glory Hope Mountain was a critical success, and it led Klausener to a crossroads. Until 2008 he was working as a graphic designer, with music “very much a hobby”. Touring would involve taking unpaid leave. Eventually he realised that a leap of faith was required if he wanted to give it a go full-time.

“I never intended to play music as a career or expect to have the luck and opportunities I’ve had. In my mid-20s, I started to get confident in my own songwriting, and thought: ‘Hey, I could probably record myself’.”

Klausener also works with other acts, recording and producing local bands in Ottawa. He and Acorn member Pat Johnson have been working on “an insane dance record” for the past six months. Really?

“Yeah, it’s full on crazy, early ’80s New York-style slash ’90s Eurodance music. The project is called Silken Laumann, after a famous female Canadian rower from the ’80s, but we’ve got about 16 songs. I don’t know what we’ll do with it, but it’s been a source of musical venting. As a music fan my taste really runs the gamut, and The Acorn seems to be the place that I put in most of my heart and soul, but I spend a lot of time recording other projects that help to exorcise my genre demons.”

To record No Ghost , they decamped to a small cottage in northern Quebec, living in almost total isolation. “It was about a band holiday and spending quality time together as much as it was about making the record. That experience in itself fed the entire writing process. It was so isolated – no phone reception, no TV, no internet – that all of us felt instantly quite free.”

Describing what The Acorn do musically is difficult. It’s pop, it’s folk, it’s full of percussion and instrumentation that hints at world music. To coincide with the release of the new album, Four Tet remixed Restoration, and musically the two acts share some common ground, as well as a contact: The Acorn’s manager is Kieran Hebden’s sister.
“We both get the cross-genre thing. On Four Tet records there are jazz drums, horns and electronics, but no one ever asks ‘What’s he doing?’. We had this idea to get people to remix the songs and we compiled a long list. We wanted Kieran to do it, but didn’t want him to feel pressured, so we just sent over the album, with no instructions. He came back saying he loved it and picked Restoration as the song he wanted to rework.

These days, physical abums sell fewer copies, while online consumption of new music has reached a frantic pace, so there is a danger that established bands could be cast aside in the search for newness.

“It’s definitely a question for the media, but there were times when I was constantly refreshing Pitchfork to learn about new bands. That said, someone like Smog just gets better every year, and I love the idea that artists can change and refine their craft. It’s wonderful to be curious about new music, but it’s silly to be close-minded to existing artists. There’s a law about the power of computers doubling every 18 months, so maybe that has trickled down into an artistic by-law. For me, interesting artists, regardless of what number album they’re on, will catch the attention of people who are interested in music.”

The Acorn have managed to do this, with both Kanye West and Elbow’s Guy Garvey praising the band – reinforcing the idea of them having an eclectic fanbase. Are they surprised by the people who like their music?

“Yes, absolutely. I’m not 22 any more, and sometimes feel that my songs are irrelevant to younger audiences. I mean, I’m not that old, but I wonder if the weightiness of the songs has resonance with younger people. The disparate ages at gigs always surprises me. You’ll see a 50-year-old man with his wife – and even his with kids – but what makes me most excited is that people listen and get something out of what we do.”

No Ghost is out now on Bella Union