Jim Bryson interview
A musician’s musician and a songwriter’s songwriter, Jim Bryson has been quietly releasing his off-beat folk rock for over a decade now, in addition to pulling time as a hired gun for acts like The Tragically Hip, Sarah Harmer and The Weakerthans. On his latest, Bryson turned the tables on that latter band, enlisting them to help him record 10 tracks about stargazing, aimless driving and low-key adventures. The Falcon Lake Incident, named for the Manitoban ski resort at which it was recorded, came out late last year to glowing reviews, and Bryson is currently on tour with The Weakerthans (minus singer John K. Samson) again helping him flesh out the tunes. I had a chance to chat with him for a Fast Forward interview, but here’s the full transcript, where he talks about the joys and perils of collaboration and gets distracted by some chickadees.
The reception’s been decent for the new album?
It’s been good. It depends – not everyone knows it. It’s been really good, though. There’s always the odd person showing up thinking the Weakerthans are playing – which they’re not – so, I don’t know. All I keep saying is all we can do is tell everyone what it is and hope that people know what they’re getting. But people seem to be enjoying what they’re getting. I’m sensitive, so I’m always thinking about how’s everyone doing and stuff like that, but its been really nice and really fun, and it’s a great group of people to travel with. I’m loving it.
You’re pretty used to being a hired gun for other musicians, from Kathleen Edwards and Sarah Harmer to the Tragically Hip. How did it feel to turn that around?
I’ve never really done this, I never collaborated on a record before, and it seemed like a smart place to start. If I was going to collaborate with somebody, I thought it’d be…
I’m sure there’s a couple people who are “How dare you? How dare you take our precious Weakerthans and take them away from us? But you know, they’ll be back. I just borrowed them.
Was it collaborative in the sense that they contributed to the songwriting?
It was more collaborative in that they were contributing a lot to the arrangements in some songs. Some songs, I brought the structure of the songs in. I had written a bunch of songs, and some songs stayed somewhat close to that and some songs really branched off and really took new directions. All around, we did it in a fairly non-conventional way, and I think everybody really got something out of that. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I say that always in anything. You can only speak for who’s standing in the room, but from where I stand, it seemed like everyone really enjoyed the process, and enjoyed a bit of a vacation from the way recording normally is. Just to be able to go somewhere and do something different. For some of us, myself, I don’t know if any of us will be able to go there again to make a record. So I think we made the most of our time.
Someone was asking me today, saying it’s a straighter record than my last record in a way, and just wondering if where we were contributed to how our record sounds, and I think where you are always contributes to what you do.
Did you have time out there for anything other than recording?
Well, other people did. Maybe I’m obsessive or whatever, but I didn’t do a whole lot of wandering around. I stayed pretty close to what was going on and what different people would be doing. But other people did get a nice opportunity to go out. You know, we had fires in the evening and we definitely had some leisure up there, for sure. It was nice.
It was weird – well, it’s not weird – but because we had paid for the place for a week, it was ours, so we didn’t have to pay attention to the hours of the day more than the numbers of the days, you know? As things were wearing down we were definitely aware of where are we right now and are we close and that… I think we ended up with more than what we thought. I think we expected to be doing, initially, to probably be doing some overdubs in Winnipeg for those guys and I would take it home and do a bunch of stuff, but really we were a lot closer than any of us thought we’d be by the end. I did a couple things, but I think technically we could’ve just taken everything we did up there, went and mixed it and the record would’ve been pretty close to what it sounds like. I added a bit of acoustic piano in a couple of songs, and just screwing around with keyboards and filters and gates, which is something I have a lot of fun doing. I did much around with some external parts, but it pretty much what you hear is what we did.
Did any tracks go in a totally different direction from what you expected? The ending of “Anything and All” sounds totally different from what I’ve heard from either band.
Definitely that song I said I want to have some sort of thing happen at the end, because the first song and the last song were written very close together, and were written within about a month of going there, so I kind of wanted them as bookends to one another. I wanted them to have a similar sort of thing, but then have the one find a different voice by the end.
Are there any songs that stand out as total transformations?
I think the feel and the rhythm of “Constellation”, I think we came in with quite a different feel than we ended up with. It just took on its own legs there, you know? It originally had more of a kick-drum-driven groove, it was sort of pulse-y, and then Jason just turned it around and he did what’s called the “Bernard Purdie shuffle.” He’s a real legendary drummer – it was his thing, those kind of beats.
It’s weird how you can have an idea of the beat of a song, and the drummer can just tweak it a bit, and it becomes a whole different song.
Yeah. And then that’s a song where if you play it with another drummer, he wouldn’t have that feel. That kind of shuffle? The way that Jason plays them is really his own thing, and I’ve played it with a couple other people, and the feel isn’t quite where he plays it. It just has a real sort of loopy thing the way he does it.
Do you have any worry in the back of your mind that once you finish this tour, if you ever want to break out these songs on the road again, they won’t quite be the same?
Well, I played them all at Christmas at home, because I have a band out there that, we don’t get out west, that’s for sure, but we play shows in and around Ontario, and “Constellation” was the one that sort of takes on its own thing. I recorded that song in the summer with this other drummer, and it totally took a left hook.
I feel pretty good about how the songs go. They’re definitely not going to sound like those guys. I mean, I just think that, you just have to go with the good in what’s around you. Other musicians do different things and do them in a different way, and bring different things to the table. I don’t really try to emulate records too much in a live setting. I do try to get the sentiment of the song, but I don’t really hammer away if the feel is a bit different. I mean, the reason you get different people to play music is that you like the way they play music. Just to robotically design the scenario to them is kind of counter-intuitive to why you would select them to play music with you.
So you’re not a taskmaster in that setting?
I definitely hammer away at the feel of songs if I don’t think the feel is there, but I definitely want, particularly in drummers and bass players, for them to bring their personality. There’s one song on that record that actually wasn’t recorded by the Weakerthans rhythm section, and I think its got a really cool thing that’s all its own, too, and that’s the song “Decidedly.” That was recorded with the drummer from Ottawa, and then the bass player from the Tragically Hip. The thing they have on that song is almost like soul music.
Do you find that when you’re a member of bands like the Tragically Hip…
That it’s easier to then borrow the musicians at a reduced rate? (Laughs)
I don’t know, because a live approach and a recorded approach is a different monster, right? I’ve only played live with the Tragically Hip, so I don’t know how they really run it when they’re recording it. They work with a lot of producers, and I’m sure producers probably have an idea of how they’re going to approach things and how they’re going to get at the task at hand. I’m not sure how they do things, to be honest.
A lot of musicians like to road test the songs. Did you have any chance to do that – even just while you were out there, to other campers during the sessions?
No, quite the reverse. We’re going to do a show at Falcon Lake now – at the end of the tour, our last show is a small show for like 75 people at the ski lodge at Falcon Lake. But, I tested these songs out with my home band. Like I said, in the summer, I recorded a bunch of songs at the Tragically Hip studio, and some of these songs came out of that.
What was kind of neat is that every time you record them, you see what you like in them and you see what maybe the rhythmic or structural issues are. There’s some songs where you think, if we had another shot at them I’d do them this way or that way, but that’s why it takes Guns n Roses 10 years to put out a record. Why you’re putting out a record and the surroundings of it is part of the beauty and part of what you get from it. So I don’t question too much of what we do, or how things could be. I just bask in what we got from them.
Otherwise, you end up paralyzed.
You’re Axl Rose, and you’re driving yourself crazy and – my goodness. These little black-capped chickadees are right outside, like six inches from me outside my window, chewing on things in the brick. Isn’t that neat.
Sorry, I’ve just got all these birds in my backyard and they’re hanging off the side of the house, just outside the window I’m looking at.
I noticed in the photos of the recording, there were a lot of deer just wandering through your camp site.
We’re animal-friendly people.
Are you a nature guy? Do you do hiking or ice fishing?
I don’t do a lot of hiking or camping. I have quite a big yard, and I’m very much into the night sky and night photography. I have bird-feeders all over the place. I’m into observing the world outside my window, but I’m not a big – I don’t do winter camping. I mean, I would, and I’ve done a lot of camping, but if you asked anyone to pinpoint it, they wouldn’t say I’m a live-off-the-land sort of guy. I definitely love quiet spaces, and I love space around me, and I love cottaging and stuff like that.
It’s nice. This summer, I started another project with friends of mine that we’re recording in a cottage. It’s three songwriters and we’re all bringing songs to the table, and just playing on each others’ songs.
Can you say who the songwriters are, or is it under wraps?
One of them is a fellow named Chris Page, who has a band called Camp Radio, and he and I both work Saved by Vinyl in Calgary, Dawn Loucks, and Lorrie Matheson is a friend of both of ours, and he put out a great album last year called Date with a Smoke Machine. We’re really old friends and we’ve thrown around the idea of recording some music together. And the third guy was in – if you were from Ottawa, you’d know him to be in pretty prominent local bands of the last generation, in the ’90s. But he hasn’t been playing music, so we’ve been encouraging…
It is a pretty private little music project. We’ve been accused by friends who’ve found out of keeping secrets, but we’re just sort of recording songs together. I don’t know what we’re going to do with them, but we’re just seeing where the music goes if you take all of our familiar surroundings away from us and throw us together, and we’re having a lot of fun with it.
Who was the Ottawa musician?
His name is Jeff Kines.
Are there any other bands or musicians that you want to turn the tables on? Is there an ideal backing band for the future?
No. I mean, with all the patience that my band has had at home, I might like to record with the people I actually play with.
Are they feeling left out at this point?
I don’t think they’re feeling left out, but I said when I was doing this project, it’s just one of these things that comes along and it’s exciting and fun and we’re having a good time with it, and it doesn’t take anything away from what we do, but this is something I definitely want to do. So I don’t know if I have a bucket list. I already have labelled myself as a side-man. I want to be careful I don’t also label myself as someone who only works with other people’s bands.
But we’ll see. We’ll see how it goes. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be collaborating again. I certainly like it, and the great thing with the Weakerthans is that, they are so familiar with one another, working with them was a cinch. It was low-stress.
I think the first time I saw you was opening for them with Lorrie Matheson on the Reconstruction Site tour, so you must be pretty familiar with them by now, too.
Yeah, that’s right, I opened the Reconstruction Site tour, but it was the Fembots. Lorrie played some shows after that. I remember – it was at Mac Hall, and I remember I looked out and Lorrie was in the drinking corral. Where you can only drink in that one area and you’re corralled at the back corner. But you know, I like Calgary, it’s been a really great and welcoming place to me. I like having great friends and a label out there.
Oh, just so people know – people out east already knew – that John isn’t on this tour. Just to let people know, so they don’t expect any Weakerthans songs, because there won’t be any.
In case they’re expecting an impromptu set afterwards?
There was one, we had this amazing show, and then one person, hammered, walks up and – it only takes one person to ruin your day. If people want to heckle me, I have very thick skin… on the surface.
But its been great and really fun and really rewarding. My hat’s off to them. It is not lost to me, I’ve said this to a lot of people that it’s not lost to me the sacrifices they’ve made to be able to do this with me. So I appreciate it and I’m taking everything in this tour and just enjoying it, and making the most of it.
Well, I hope Calgary lives up to your expectations this time.
I don’t walk into shows with expectations. You want to have a nice time. It’s funny – a little bit, the energy reminds me of when I was a kid playing goalie, because it’s dangerous to set any expectations of things, because you never know what’s going to blind-side you. You just have to make the best of what’s in front of you, and go with it, because the second you have expectations, something unexpected happens. It’s dangerous setting benchmarks, because it keeps you static, as opposed to moving and trying different things.