Work and love: an interview with Bry Webb
Nerd Litter: First and foremost, I think what a lot of Constantines fans are wondering is, what is the new material like?
When I first started my blog almost a year ago, I offered a few rationales to the people who asked me why. Sometimes, I'd say that I was hoping to connect with people who shared similar artistic tastes. Other times, I'd suggest that I was interested in doing an activity that fused my dual interests in music and writing. All true enough. But to closer friends who knew enough about my musical obsessions, I provided a more succinct answer: "I want to interview Bry Webb of the Constantines."
Last week, I achieved that mission before the band's show at Williamsburg's Luna Lounge, and the excitement hasn't waned since. Any time it's threatened to dip even a millimeter, I've turned up the mystical sprawl of "Justice" or the romantic anxiety of "Love In Fear" or the claustrophobic clatter of "National Hum" and been subsumed by the songs all over again. I've watched video of the Cons' peerless and tireless live performances or reread some of the thoughtful responses Webb gave that night. And yet as much as I love the band in its current state, I'm just as interested to see how they'll evolve next, how they'll synthesize their influences into something fresh, how they'll manage to write a whole new set of songs that will simultaneously raise your fist and rend your heart. Here's some of what Bry Webb had to say on that issue, among many others:
Bry Webb: It’s faster. A lot of it is faster. Well, that’s not totally true, but I did want to make some fast songs. And a lot of songs about friends’ lives, people that have been close to us for the last eight years. Whenever something is happening in their lives or if they’re going through something, if there’s a good story, that’s been turned into some songs. There’s one called “Brother Tim,” which is for a friend of mine who’s been in Nicaragua for the last few years, developing social programs. Some of our interesting friends, we’ll write little tributes like that.
NL: Do you think it’s going to be as overarching and thematic as Tournament of Hearts was?
BW: I don’t know. The songs that we’ve written are all pretty different, which was sort of the same with Tournament of Hearts. But I think there’ll be more riffs than Tournaments of Hearts. (Laughs.) Tournament of Hearts was more stripped-down, a chord-and-vocal melody record. This will be more of a riff-based rock record.
NL: Two of the songs I’ve seen discussed on the message board are “Hard Feelings” and “Shower of Stones.”
BW: Yeah, those are the ones we’ve been playing most.
NL: How would you describe those?
BW: “Hard Feelings” sort of sounds like a Zeppelin song. It always reminds me of “Immigrant Song.” This kind of plodding, galloping riff. And “Shower of Stones” is Steve’s song. It’s Elevator To Hell or Eric’s Trip, a simple pop-chords song with a lot of drumming on the toms. It’s somewhere between that, Eric’s Trip, and do you know the band, Union of Uranus?
NL: Never heard of them.
BW: They’re from Ottawa, Ontario, this hardcore band from the ‘90s that made just this blistering, manic, fuzzed-out rock. For some reason, playing octave chords, which is something I haven’t done much of for a while, that reminds me of Union of Uranus. They’re a wicked band actually.
NL: I'll definitely check them out then. Do you have a recording date in sight or even a possible release date?
BW: We’re going to maybe record in August. And we’ve been messing around with stuff since the beginning of the year. We decided to take eight songs out on tour. We did this cross-Canada tour for four weeks before coming down here for these shows with the [Tragically] Hip. We decided to take those songs on the road, tighten them up a bit, figure out how they sound live, and then we’ll try to make some more songs over the summer. We’re not playing any more shows over the summer, which will be kind of nice.
NL: Definitely. What’s the word on your new side project, the Paramedics or the Splinters or whatever you’re going to call it?
BW: I don’t know. It’s still going. We still don’t have a name. We can’t settle on anything or really we can’t come up with something because there’s a band on MySpace that’s got that name or two or three or eight. That’s the biggest problem right now. We’ve got a lot of songs and we’re probably going to record this summer too, and yet we don’t have a name so I don’t know what to do about that. If you’ve got any ideas…
NL: You should set up a sweepstakes. Or a reality show.
BW: Yeah, or a blog. Name our band. I haven’t ventured into the world of blogs yet…
NL: Be careful. It’s pretty messy territory.
BW: (Laughs.) So I’ve heard.
NL: So you have this other band and a lot of the other guys have their own side projects. Are those more like wholly separate outlets or do they end up filtering back into the Constantines’ sound?
BW: We’re five different people and everyone wants to be creative and do their own work, so we do as much as we can with the five of us together but everybody has their ideas that won’t work in our format. They just require an acoustic guitar and a voice, something that’s better in a different sphere. I think it’s nice to have that kind of creativity going on. It’s better to have that happening than just not being creative for a year and then to get together, write songs and stop doing anything for another year. Dallas is a really great visual artist as well, Steve has Baby Eagle, Will has Woolly Leaves, so everybody’s got stuff going on.
NL: How does your new project differ from the Constantines?
BW: It's kind of a Lee Hazelwood-y, weird Americana thing, desert songs and weird stories. I haven't gotten to do character songs really with the Constantines. So it'll be a bit more of that than the other band. And it's way mellower. I don't yell at all, which is nice.
NL: You could open for yourself.
BW: Yeah. We've actually had a couple of shows where the opening band has not made it for whatever reason, or somebody canceled. There was this show in Waterloo, Ontario where Will played first as Woolly Leaves, our Crazy Horse cover band [Horsey Craze] played second, and then the Constantines played last, so Will was onstage for three hours.
NL: That sounds pretty amazing though, to see those transitions happen... How do you decide which songs you're going to sing versus the songs Steve will sing?
BW: Whoever has words that fit to that music at that point. Usually, we do that—take stuff that we write together musically and then take words that one of us has or one of us goes and writes something that fits and it comes together. But Steve also wrote "Shower of Stones" as just chords and vocals on a recording he made and we figured it out from there as a band. That happened with "Young Lions" too, where I brought that one kind of structured with chords and vocals, and "Conductor" was like that. Those tend to be simpler songs. If Steve or I bring a song to the band to play out, it's usually really simple compared to when we're jamming together, and we come up with weird riffs together. I find that stuff more compelling, more exciting.
NL: How many of your lyrics are about real people à la Starhawk and Danny Rapp or people you know and how many are purely hypothetical?
BW: Like I said, I haven't done a lot of character songs, like deciding to write a song about a fireman or to write a song from the perspective of somebody else.
NL: Well, you have "Lizaveta" and "Good Nurse" more recently, so maybe you're moving in that direction?
BW: "Good Nurse" was about my mom. She was a nurse for twenty-five, thirty years and retired last year, so I wrote that song for her birthday actually. And then "Shine A Light" has things in it for my family also.
NL: Right. I was reading how Simple Things was the name of your father's gardening store.
BW: Yeah, some personal things like that. You try to put in little messages that you send out to people who will understand them in a different way than the general audience might understand them, but there are still ideas in there that are universal.
NL: I know what you mean, because when I read about the store, I was worried that it might affect my experience of listening to the song. I have all of these longstanding associations and connotations with that song, so I'm not sure how much more I want to know about what's behind it. It's a thin line between adding to the experience and overwhelming its open-endedness.
BW: Exactly. I don't talk about it too much, because I figure that the people who'll know that it's about them will know it when they hear it and people who don't don't necessarily need to know that information. I like having those secret little messages in there. There's that song "Brother" that's for my friend Tim and we've got a new song called "New King" which is for this friend for mine, who lived in the Yukon Territory up north in Canada and had a baby this year. So I wrote that for her. The songs that sound like they're directed at someone, they generally are. It's just that the specifics are hidden.
NL: Something I've wanted to ask for a long time about Shine A Light is that you have these repeated motifs like pigeons, kingdoms, poisons and diamonds that thread through this album. Was that intentional or something that happened subconsciously as you were writing several songs?
BW: I think I just get stuck on a word every once in a while. I get hung up on a certain sound of a word that I really like. Like pigeon was a word for that record. Pigeon was in there also because we had just moved to Toronto. I don't know if you've spent much time there, but it's similar to New York, where pigeons are an institution of the city. There's something about the idea of flying scavengers that was like how I was looking at the world at the time. But it's mostly just the sound of the word.
NL: What is a pigeon girl?
BW: For that song ["Shine A Light"], it was inspired by Queen Street in Toronto on weekend nights where it's this parade of skin, tight clothing and just obnoxious behavior. There's no subtlety there at all. The women, without pigeonholing people too much, are just... a little vain. And I'm trying to walk through that and not being able to identify with that at all. It ends up sounding kind of condescending when I didn't really mean it that way. It's supposed to be a funny way of describing the life of a person I couldn't quite get a handle on.
NL: And now you're living in Montreal?
BW: Yeah, I moved there about a year ago, a year-and-a-half ago.
NL: Has that been filtering into the more recent songs?
BW: It's tough, because I think now the Constantines are such a Toronto band. It's really part of our identity. I think this new band will be more regional with Montreal stuff. I'm trying hard not to impose that on this band because it's pretty Toronto-centric.
NL: Makes sense. What songs from the three LPs resonate the most with you still?
BW: I like "Little Instruments" from the first record a lot. I'm a pretty big Replacements fan and that was my most obvious attempt to try to do a Replacements kind of song. And then from Shine A Light, I love playing "Nighttime" a lot. That's been our show-ender for a lot of shows. It's a nice jam-out, riff-rocker song and I like the song musically a lot. And "Goodbye Baby" on that record too, which we don't really play anymore, but it's one of the weirdest songs that we have. Off the last record, I'd say "Soon Enough" is one of my favorite songs that we've ever written and I like "Conductor" a lot. I like how simple those two songs got. That's about as stripped of wanking as we've gotten, which is cool, to go to that opposite extreme.
NL: Speaking of stripping down the sound, I've noticed that each subsequent album has gotten progressively less punk and a little more mature and subtle. Is that a conscious choice you've made or a natural evolution?
BW: I think it's just getting older. Each time we release a record, we've been touring more and more, so it's harder to write full-on screaming punk rock songs. It's hard to maintain that. And our sets have gotten longer too so we tend to want to write dynamic songs. Loud songs and quiet songs and stripped-down songs and complicated songs. Just trying to write different songs so we can have an interesting act... So I don't know that we're getting more mature, but we are getting older. (Laughs.)
NL: I know that you gave up your day job a few years ago. How has that been going?
BW: It was good. For a long time, I didn't think I'd be able to make music as a career. I just thought that would fuck everything up and change the way I wrote songs. But eventually, I worked enough jobs that I didn't like so it felt like a consistent waste of time. Eventually, I decided if I could go without having a boss for a while, I'd try to do that, see how long I could keep that up. So I'm still going. Also, I tend to get really unhappy when I'm not feeling productive, so that extra time has helped.
NL: What is a typical weekday like for you?
BW: I'll get up and write a letter to somebody and do creative writing in the morning. Then I'll play guitar for four hours or something in the afternoon and do some recording. I try to do that every day. At least that way I'll have some chunk of my day that's creative work time, which is good at helping me stay sane. It helps me feel I'm productive and working. I was definitely really self-conscious about it for a long time, not having a day job.
NL: I know what you mean. I don't have a job right now other than some freelancing and I feel like I always have to justify that to other people or to make excuses for it.
BW: Yeah, it's weird.
NL: And then every day is its own little existential crisis. It's like I have this infinite amount of freedom and potential to use up, but I'm never getting as much out of it as I think I should.
BW: I know what you mean. For sure.
NL: The first time I saw you guys play was in 2003 following Shine A Light. How do you think you've changed as performers since then?
NL: Or have you changed?
BW: I don't know. Maybe our sound has gotten a bit better. When we started, we didn't know much about amps or separated sounds on record or live. And we've all figured out where our frequencies are in the whole spectrum of the band. And that's changed a lot, so that's maturity, I guess.
NL: How do you feel as a performer? Do you feel more comfortable onstage now than you were before?
NL: But you're touring more, so obviously you're enjoying it on some level.
BW: Yeah. I think it's just cycles. I'd like to think that at this point, I'd be a more comfortable performer, but every other day, every couple of days, I just feel like an asshole. I'm just wondering why I expect people to listen to what I'm doing, but at that point, you just have to laugh at it and have a go and try to have a good time. So that's what we're doing. That's probably what changed. What we've gotten better at is having a good time and not taking much of it too seriously.
NL: How do you feel when you get off the stage?
BW: Good. It's like my exercise regimen. It's nice to be on tour because I get this regular hour-and-a-half at least of exercise a day. It feels good, because we're a physical band, to have that in my life. But other than that, there's a whole world of different things I feel about every show.
NL: Definitely. There was this article you wrote in the Varsity where you detailed your hitchhiking experiences. Are you still going out and having adventures like that?
BW: I haven't been hitchhiking in a while. That was when I was twenty-five. I hitchhiked across Canada, which was amazing. I ride a motorcycle now. I bought a motorcycle a couple of years ago, and that's been pretty good. It's a similar thing. When I was hitchhiking, I was completely in the moment, really in tune with life at that particular moment, not knowing what was happening next, trying to be in tune with the current surrounding, trying to find the rhythm of the day. Just be in it. It's the same with motorcycling, because you're so physically engaged with your environment and the machine you're controlling that you can't be thinking of other things. It's all just absolutely right there, which is a really great feeling.
NL: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
BW: A friend of mine bought me that when I bought the bike, which was great. There's a lot more philosophy to it than I expected. I thought it was a New Age-y, Kool-Aid Acid Test kind of book, but there was a lot more to it. I loved how his personal crisis was the centerpoint to the story, how the whole narrative was based around him and his son and his trying to get a sense of himself as a father and as a person. It was great. A really cool book... But yeah, motorcycling is great. I'm not into going superfast or anything like that. I just like being in the moment... And I just read this Kurt Vonnegut book actually, Bluebeard. I haven't read any of his books in a long time and a friend of mine just lent me that. I used to love his books. I read a lot of them, just fly through them. So I just borrowed it and it was right after I finished it that Vonnegut passed away. But in that book, it flouts this theory that when you're in the moment or living well, when you're ecstatic, you talk with God. In that book, there's this idea that the moments of ecstasy are the few moments when you're free of God. And I don't know how I feel about God really... (Laughs.)
NL: That was going to be my next question.
BW: I don't know how I feel about that yet at all, but there's something great about that idea. That those moments of being completely in tune with the environment are the moments that you're free of any omnipotence or any intervention.
NL: That's why I love Vonnegut so much. He can invert what seems like a set truth and make his inversion feel so much truer. And the simple language that he does it in. There's obviously a thrill in the writing, but it's not dressed up.
BW: Oh yeah, there's no bullshit. I was really happy to read that again. It was just a crazy coincidence that he happened to pass away right after I finished the book.
NL: I saw him once at the Waverly Diner, where he used to hang out. And now when I walk by there or stop in for a cup of coffee at the bar, it still feels kind of traumatic.
NL: What have been some of your most memorable tour experiences?
BW: One of my favorites was when we played on this tour on Newfoundland and you have to take this twelve-hour ferry to the island and then drive twelve hours across the island to get to St. John's, which is the only major center that you can play. So we were on the ferry going to Newfoundland and this was early April, just freezing cold up there. We went out and we were hanging out. There's this really strange light out there. And we heard the door lock. There was a latch behind us and somebody didn't realize that we were out there and latched the door for the night. So we were on the deck, just stuck out there, waiting for somebody to walk by the window. But we were out there for about half an hour just freezing. We were afraid we were going to be stuck out there all night. Eventually, a steward came by and saw us and then gave us hell for even going out there. That was a fun one. We could've lost the entire band.
NL: That'd be a great obituary at least. "Canadian rock quintet foiled by latch."
BW: There are probably lots of others, but I can never remember specifics whenever anybody asks me that question.
NL: Then how about some memorable experiences seeing other musicians perform?
BW: We used to have shows in our basement at this house in the Ward District of Guelph, Ontario. We had this really tight old basement. A bunch of bands played. They'd come from out of town, but mostly it was local bands who'd play these incredible sets. There was this band called the Mud Puddles, and the lead singer and guitarist from that band played organ with us before Will. They were an amazing band and they played a show there that is still one of my favorite shows I've ever seen. Just a really incredible moment where everyone was just fully there, the same as what I was talking about before, this really ecstatic moment. I don't know how to describe a show and do it justice by putting it into words, but it was one of those special nights... And I've seen Tom Waits a couple of times. That was amazing. I really like seeing the Dirty Three live. Great stories. Warren Ellis is an amazing frontman. For an instrumental band, that's a pretty impressive thing. A really charismatic frontman telling stories.
NL: And what are you listening to right now?
BW: I forgot to bring my CD case on this leg of the tour, but I was listening to that last Smog record, A River Ain't Too Much To Love. I like Drag City a lot. Pretty much anything that they put out, I think is pretty cool. I was actually just watching Silver Jews footage on YouTube here.
NL: Oh cool. I saw them in San Francisco. They were quite good.
BW: I still haven't seen them live. I was supposed to see them in Philadelphia and couldn't get down there.
NL: My friend saw them in New York. Apparently, David Berman had total stage fright and walked off. He said he lost a contact lens. That was, I think, the fifth date on their first tour ever, so I guess that's understandable. By the time he got out to California though, he was pretty happy and at ease.
BW: Some of the footage I've seen is awesome. He seemed to be really happy.
NL: I guess it's all dependent on the night. Have you had any disastrous shows?
BW: Not really terrible disasters. We've had little technical things, like the entire PA cut out a couple times in a set in Toronto. The best one though was the Sasquatch Festival, where we got stuck in a hailstorm. We got cut off after five songs, but it was great. It was so much fun. We were playing this sidestage that was just a platform without rafters and a tarp. They were completely unprepared for weather like that, so it was just the best stage show you can imagine. Just thunder and lightning and hail blasting across the stage.
NL: God must be a Constantines fan... How much attention do you pay to critical reception? Do you read the reviews and do they ever impact the music?
BW: Not so much anymore. I did when our first two records came out. I would be interested if there was a review, especially if it was something local. I'd be eager to see what they had to say about it. But then it started really driving me crazy. I felt it was starting to influence how I looked at the band or how I looked at the record. And it just wasn't fair, so I stopped. Occasionally, my mom will send me a review of a show that she likes, but I don't seek it out so much anymore.
NL: What were you doing when the band started up?
BW: I was actually a music director at a campus radio station in London, Ontario. I was going to university. That was one of the best jobs I've ever had.
NL: You were getting paid for that? Nice.
BW: Yeah. Just an honorarium. I was barely getting paid, but it was still great. I learned about music obviously and what was happening in music at the time. I met a lot of really cool people, great old jazzheads and acid casualty dudes that were old London heads. I was really disenchanted with university at the time.
NL: What were you studying?
BW: English and Sociology.
NL: Well, that could do it.
BW: So when that job was finished, I didn't feel like I had much of a connection left to the school. So I dropped out of school for a year and then moved to Guelph.
NL: What have been some of the more surprising discoveries about being in the band for these last, what, seven years now?
BW: Seven, yeah. Maybe almost eight now. I don't know...
NL: Did you think it would last this long?
BW: We had no idea when we started. We certainly didn't expect to be doing it fulltime. When we started, we just wanted to play some shows. We'd played in bands for a while. Doug and I played in a band years ago, and Steve and Dallas did. So we had a lot of friends that we didn't get to see very much, so it was kind of just a chance to see those people again and play some shows with old friends, get to travel a bit. And it just kept getting bigger and we kept being able to travel to more exotic places, which is great. I'm still surprised when people show up. Honestly. Like this is kind of a big club and I'll be surprised if it's crowded tonight but maybe it'll happen. It's still nice when it happens.
* MP3: "On To You" - The Constantines from Shine A Light
* MP3: "Arizona" - The Constantines from The Constantines
* MP3: "Don't Cry No Tears" - The Constantines from The Constantines/The Unintended Split LP
* MP3: "Police On My Back" (Live) - The Constantines
* Band Website: The Constantines
[Buy The Constantines]
[Buy Shine A Light]
[Buy Tournament of Hearts]