Zachary Fairbrother :: Feedback treatise

Words: Jesse Locke // Photoshop: Peter Locke

Zachary Fairbrother

*This article also appears in the May 2013 issue of Offerings.

Zachary Fairbrother might be best known as the fretboard-shredding frontman of Lantern, but he’s got a whole other set of cards up his jean jacket sleeve. Prior to his time with the scorched proto-punk trio, Fairbrother cut his chops studying composition at Halifax’s Dalhousie University and as artist in residence artist at the Atlantic Center for the Arts. His multi-amp, multi-instrument pieces such as the “Buddha Box” series stretch the limits of feedback, drone and ambient loops to create a body-rattling behemoth of sound. Before he wakes the spirits with a series of performances at Wyrd IV, we caught up for a tête-à-tête.

JL: There’s another article where you said, and I quote, “When I was a teenager, in between wanks I would pull out my guitar and wank a little more.” How old were you when you first started playing?

ZF: I was 14, and in grade eight. I bought a guitar from my friend but didn’t really know how to play it, so I would pick it up and scrape a penny along the strings because I thought it sounded cool. I also had some issues of Guitar World magazines with tabs, and the one I picked to try out was Fear Factory’s cover of Gary Numan’s “Cars” because it looked the easiest. I think they may have used a seven-string, but I didn’t even know what that was at the time. The next Christmas my parents got me some lessons.

When did you decide to get serious and move into composition?

My guitar teacher was probably in his early 20s and studying at Dalhousie, where I ended up going. I came from a small town and didn’t really have any peers who were into the same music, so I thought he was the coolest. I don’t think I was even aware what a composer was, and probably just imagined it was something romantic. When I was done high school I wanted to play music all day, so I decided to study it at a higher level.

How was your experience at Dalhousie?

I didn’t like music school for the first three years. We started off with a foundation year and had to learn classical guitar, which I didn’t really connect with. It’s a steep learning curve and I had to perform with violinists who’d been playing since they were five, so I never felt comfortable. I later took courses in composition and orchestration where I learned to write for various instruments, but at the end of the day, I always came back to electric guitar.

I’ve also heard you talk about Cornelius Cardew’s graphic scores. What do you like about those?

Cardew’s Treatise is an interesting one. I’ve never performed it, but as I understand it there’s very little explanation of what the piece is. You’re literally just supposed to look at these objects that evoke an interpretation. When I’m composing, I’m not really interested in writing something in depth where you start at bar one and go to bar 200. A lot of my pieces come from improvisation so there’s no real need for a score, but I like the idea of adding a visual component after the fact to fit the sounds. It’s another way for the performer to think about it in more abstract concepts.

You first performed your “Buddha Box 2.0” piece at the OBEY Convention in 2010. Is that the same thing you’ll be playing here, or has it evolved?

It’s going to be slightly different. I’m trying to find a happy balance where I can scale it down a bit, and I’m going to change the arrangement plus add a new intro. It’s something I’ve jammed on at home but have never brought out live. I call them remixes, though they’re probably going to be indecipherable. It’s basically taking some of Beethoven’s later string quartets and slowing them down on my four-track with cassettes. They’re beautiful at their normal speed, but a lot more dramatic this way and almost an expressionistic take. Violinists always have crazy vibrato, so when you slow them down it creates these really huge warbles. It’s super dark and ambient, and from there we’ll bring in the drone. The most important thing is that it needs to be loud, because it’s as much of a physical body experience as listening.

Can you explain the Buddha Box concept?

“Buddha Box 1.0” is a solo piano piece that incorporates a Buddha Machine. The piano has speakers inside it, and when you put the pedal down, the ambient loops start to resonate. For the second piece I have Buddha Machines playing into guitar pick-ups. The different performers amplify these loops and then take them away, so they’re able to improvise on top of snippets of voice that cascade and drop out. Both pieces are meditative but also fairly monolithic. The piano piece works itself into a wash, and “Buddha Box 2.0” is supposed to be a bit scary. Buddha is a god, so that evokes awe but also fear.

Zachary Fairbrother performs at Wyrd IV in Montreal on Friday, May 10 (Casa del Popolo) and in Toronto on Saturday, May 11 (the Music Gallery). For more information, visit weirdcanada.com/wyrd.

Lowlife is the feel-bad hit of 2012

Words: Jesse Locke

A shorter version of this article originally appeared on Noisey, and it is also included in the November issue of Offerings, which can be found in selected shops and spaces on the streets of Toronto.

Something strange is lurking in the wilds of Nova Scotia. For their feature film debut, Dog Day frontman Seth Smith and Divorce Records / Obey Convention head honcho Darcy Spidle put their primary projects on the backburner to conjure the spine-chilling visions of Lowlife. Like a Maritime twist on The Blair Witch, the black and white horror follows a drug-addled musician haunted by a ‘Mudman’, psychotropic starfish and other creepy creatures.

“There seems to be a particular kind of alienation that comes from living in the sticks that, for better or worst, forces a person inward,” Spidle explains. “I suppose Lowlife exploits this idea. On a more aesthetic level, I think using the forest and ocean in early spring gave our film a rugged look and feel. The actors and crew were always hurting, wet, and cold. It was often a brutal experience, and I hope it shows on the screen.”

With a perfectly spooky shooting location in the weathered forests outside their front door, Lowlife began as a man vs. wild adventure. Yet in Smith’s words, their original intentions to create a survivalist story spun off into far more surrealist territory as the project took on a life of its own.

“The fantasy/drug concept was a way to allow us some experimentation in filming and not have to commit to a realistic, linear narrative,” he says. “As for the black and white look, I thought it would go nicely with the movie’s dark tone, and it seemed like an interesting take on a psychedelic drug flick. The name Lowlife came from a prop we had on set. I had made up a bunch of fake book spines for a bookshelf shot, and over time, seeing it in the scene, it just sort of summed it all up… and maybe reflected how we were feeling making it.”

For the pair of musicians turned filmmakers, it’s a no-brainer that the soundtrack would also play a primary role. On top of fittingly freaky cuts from artists like black metal vet Burzum, Italian experimentalists My Cat Is An Alien (recently released on Divorce) and Chad VanGaalen’s electronic alter-ego Black Mold, Lowlife also features Seth’s first attempts at the tuba with some low-pitched drones guaranteed to rumble your bowels.

“Seth learned to play tuba with the record button on,” says Spidle. “Of course, the playing is manipulated and touched by the spirit as well. He came up with some murky stuff, and it works. The movie is all about dirt, parasites, mud, and discomfort, so we wanted the soundtrack to match. We used a lot of experimental or outer sound type music. With the exception of one ‘70s track by some hippy monks, there aren’t any typical songs. It’s all squelch and screech from a bunch of our favourite experimenters.”

One final flourish is the Lychian voiceover throughout the film. No, it’s not a backwards-talking dwarf in a snazzy red suit, but Smith’s father-in-law, Ogi. Here’s the story:

“We wanted something different for the narrative parts that had some sort of tie to the region,” says Smith. “Also, since the role of the narrator was played by an animal, it seemed like it shouldn’t be in English. We were initially looking for someone who spoke Gaelic, and Ogi was always in the back of my mind. He’s a real old world guy with a fairly unique German/Newfoundland accent. We were having a couple Scotches one night and he was telling me a sadistic story about how he used to shoot his friend between the eyes with a slingshot to teach them a lesson. I took him downstairs and recorded the lines right after and it fit the part perfectly.”

“It was a really last minute idea,” adds Spidle. “I was basically writing the poems and emailing them to Seth minutes before Ogi would read them. It’s funny, I guess he got quite emotional. We ended up having to subtitle his narration to make sense of what he was saying.”

Bypassing the casting couch or awkward Craigslist interactions, Smith reached out to recognizable faces from the Halifax music community such as members of Catbag, Bad Vibrations and lead actress Kate Hartigan, who had previously appeared in a Dog Day music video. Yet based on a history of unhinged methodology, there were no doubts in his mind who would be the star.

“Darcy has always been a captivating performance artist, usually under the name of Chik White,” says Smith. “I remember seeing him once at a show, slicing his guitar and hands with a butcher knife and screaming at the audience of 10 people. He definitely brought that mentality to the film, somehow ending up as a weird GG Allin / De Niro cross with some Chaplin slapstick. A real stellar performance for an impossible role. I had to talk him out of living in a coyote’s den for a week before the shoot.”

Lowlife screens in 20 cities across Canada on the weekend of November 16-18. Weird Canada presents the Toronto premiere on Friday, November 16 at Double Double Land. More info here and here!

Gold Panda gets his shine on

Words: Jesse Locke // Photos: Landon Speers

Face to face and in printed interview, the electronic musician known as Gold Panda (or his first name Derwin) exudes a shy and unassuming personality with just the softest undercurrent of deadpan sarcasm. As a self-described homebody still coming to terms with live performance, he’s often seen onstage avoiding the eyes of the audience while tucked beneath a hood and lost in the laptop glare. Yet listening to the brightly chiming beats and junk shop’s worth of his samples on his debut album Lucky Shiner or healthy smattering of EPs, singles and remixes, he radiates a vibrant spectrum of sounds often lacking in the steely minimalism of his peers. It’s kind of like your quiet co-worker tossing off his glasses and throwing down a Freddie Mercury falsetto at the karaoke bar when you least expect it. We met up with Derwin in the dusty alley behind Metropolis for an impromptu chat and windswept photo shoot.

Texture Magazine: I’ve heard that you started out making music on an Amiga video game system and a sampler. Do you remember any games in specific that you were playing back then? And were you inspired by the music in the games?

Gold Panda: It was an Atari that I made music on actually, though I did have an Amiga as well. What was I playing? I played Cannon Fodder and another one called Moonstone. That was the one where you go around chopping people’s heads off and fighting tree monsters, while you try to find a stone or something. A moonstone, I guess. Some of the music in those games inspired me, but it was actually the console itself that I was interested in, along with the Super Nintendo. I played a lot of Streets of Rage and I was always a big fan of Street Fighter. The music in the Mario games was always good too.

You’ve also mentioned in the past how your music is very visual, inspired by different settings, images and environments, yet here at Mutek you’re playing without any kind of visual accompaniment. Would you rather have listeners create their own interpretations?

I’ve had visuals on tour in the past, though I’ve heard people say it takes away from the music if you have something to watch. It’s more like a film that way. I’d like to work with visuals more, but I don’t really know what I’m doing on my own, so it’d be good to collaborate with someone else. I don’t have anything this time though, so people won’t have that to complain about at least (laughs).

You’ve given lots of nods to the Raster-Noton label, which many people consider to be cold and calculated quote unquote “computer music.” Conversely, I’ve always thought the music you make is much brighter, with an emotional and very human undercurrent. What is about music on the opposite end of the spectrum that interests you?

It’s mainly because I can’t make that music, and don’t even really understand how it’s made. That’s interesting to me. Any music that leaves you wondering how it’s done, I find really clever. I like Alva Noto, I like that Frank Bretschneider guy, and they also signed this guy named Grischa Lichtenberger who’s pretty crazy. Everything on that label is interesting, whether it’s digestible or not. It’s often pretty difficult, but it always seems to work somehow.

One other thing I’ve read is that you dislike performing live. Is that still the case?

I just don’t feel comfortable, I guess. Before I started playing live, I was making music in my room and just staring at the wall. Even now I don’t really look at the crowd much. It’s weird with electronic music, but I feel a bit better about playing Mutek because there are more people with laptops. The last time I was in Montreal I was supporting the L.A. band Health, and that was kind of hard. As soon as you come onstage without a guitar and just some machines, people get scared or something. Other times you totally win people over though, which is great. The best part about playing with a laptop is that you don’t have to worry about luggage. It’d be more fun to bring all my favourite samplers with me, but also much more stressful.

Your music is primarily based on samples, and you’ve mentioned digging through record shops and flea markets to find interesting source materials. Do you find yourself listening to the music you sample, or is it more just a hunt for interesting sounds?

It’s a bit of both. Sometimes I find a record that’s just terrible, but it’ll have really good sounds on it. In that case, I won’t really listen to it more than once, but at least it’s entertaining. In other times, I’ll find something great that I don’t want to sample because it’s just too good and I feel like I’d ruin it.

What’s the craziest record you’ve ever found through digging?

I’ve got some religious records that are pretty cool. They’ve got stories about things like a guy smoking a spliff, climbing up a three-story building and falling to his death, that sort of thing. Sometimes it gets even more extreme, like a guy cutting up his dog and eating it raw! (laughs) It’s actually frustrating though because when I’m traveling I’ll often pop into record shops and find something crazy but then realize I have no way of carrying it with me. Someone should start a service for musicians where they can buy records and then just ship them home. As it is, I try to avoid record shops on the road.

Last question: It’s fairly well known that you used to work in a sex shop, and you’ve also spoken of making films, comics and other various media. Have you ever thought about chronicling your seedy stories from behind the counter in one of those formats?

Not really, and I’d actually rather leave those days behind. It was a low point in my life. I should have documented it at the time though. I do have a CV that someone who wanted to work there handed in. The store is called Harmony and they actually do their own pornos. They have auditions, so this guy listed off all the things he was good at, one of which was ‘sensual muff diving.’ I should find that actually, block out the name and email address, and post it up somewhere. It’s brilliant.