Tunnels, Treehouses and Trainsmoke!

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April 6, 2013

Coastal Spectator reviewer Noah Cebuliak, himself a musician living in Montreal, recently interviewed travelling-man Jeff Andrew about his new music and his forth-coming CD.  Andrew grew up in Ontario, has a degree from the University of Victoria, and has criss-crossed Canada many times in his near-indestructible 1988 Toyota 4Runner. He calls the vehicle CCRider, and says he has logged 430,000 kilometres in the vehicle.

Jeff, tell me about your inspiration to record in tunnels and other underground spaces. Why are you drawn there and not to other locations, like churches or actual studios? Have you recorded anything in other semi-obscure places, like grain silos or caves or the like?

I’ve always been drawn to the underground. Secret places in general, like tunnels, crawlspaces, secret passages in old houses, sub-basements . . . probably from growing up on mysteries and horror stories. Same reason I love old buildings–they’re full of ghosts. I get a lot of inspiration thinking about the lives that have been lived there, what might have happened in those spaces.

They also tend to have really interesting acoustics. One of my favourite records is by a BC fiddler named Oliver Schroer (who passed away about 5 years ago). He did an album called Camino where he walked the El Camino De Santiago trail in Spain and recorded himself playing in all the old cathedrals. The sound of that album breaks my heart. I listen to it almost every day.

I’ve never done any grain silos or caves but maybe one day! Studios tend to be expensive, and I don’t like the idea of recording in a hermetically sealed chamber, cut off from the outside world. One of the things I love about old folk and blues records that were recorded in people’s houses, hotel rooms, front porches is that you can hear things like old cars in the background, dogs barking, trains rolling by in the distance . . .  they are like a time machine.

What are the songs you’re going to record about? What inspires you to write? Are the songs linked to the subterranean theme at all?

Let’s see, there are a couple of travel songs, a set of fiddle tunes written to sound like a freight train taking off, a murder ballad set in the Carnival era, a lighthearted novelty song about police brutality . . . also an apocalyptic love song and a true story song about a girl named Nyki Kish, who’s serving a life sentence in Ontario for a murder she didn’t commit. I can’t see how she did it, at least, and I’ve read through the judge’s verdict from the trial and dozens of newspaper articles about it. Seems like another case of wrong place, wrong time and the cops desperate to pin it on somebody, so they picked the easiest target. Lots more about her at www.freenyki.org.

There’s also a song called “The Graveyard Downtown,” loosely based on Victoria’s secret history. I learned there used to be a graveyard at Douglas and Johnson, back when that was the edge of the city . . . It’s about what used to be there before the modern city was built. And all the history the city (and Canada as a whole) doesn’t like to talk about. The Chinese head tax, the internment camps, residential schools, the whole reservation system, plus all the Asian people who died building the railroads and the tremendous labour battles that were fought in the 1910s and 20s. Our country was built on a lot of racism, abuse and exploitation. We pay lip service to some of it, but most of the physical legacy is being torn down and replaced with condos. All the old buildings, bridges, alleyways, shipyards, train yards, even the grain elevators–the places where the people who built Canada lived, worked and died–are disappearing. Part of that is an attempt to erase the past, the living history you can see and touch. Reduce it to footnotes in a textbook and it stops being real.

You say in your Indiegogo campaign video that you’ve got a whole collection of obscure string instruments. What draws you toward these fringe instruments?

The new album called “Tunnels,” which you can pre-order and donate to, is going to have to some unusual string instruments on it. I don’t have as big a collection as I’d like, but I do have a baritone violin, a 5-string violin and a Stroh violin. The 5-string has an extra low string on the bottom and the baritone violin has heavy strings on it so I can tune it an octave lower than normal. It’s basically down in cello range. The Stroh violin (which you can see in my profile shot on the Indiegogo page) has a resonator and a big phonograph horn instead of a body. I’ve also got a steel-bodied resonator guitar on a couple of tracks.

I love these early attempts at amplifying strings. They date back to the turn of the 20th century when recordings were done into a giant cone with a needle at the end of it scratching the sound into a wax cylinder. You had to be really loud and forceful to get your playing in through that cone – also to cut through the sound of a horn section on stage. Simple answer: add a horn to the violin!

Are you going to record with a band, live, or will you be multi-tracking and building a bigger sound?

The Stroh violin is somewhere between a fiddle and a trumpet. Plus I can use the baritone violin to build my own string section. So yes, multi-tracking. We actually did most of the recording already in Vancouver–me on guitar, fiddle and vocals, plus Ryan Boeur from Fish & Bird on lead guitar and Kenan Sungur from High Society (who also played drums on my last album), laying down percussion and upright bass. He’s a one-man rhythm section! And Ryan is one of the best accompanists out there right now. And we had Corwin Fox to record it, who’s done two albums for me already and is a brilliant engineer and producer. We’ve all been playing together for a long time, so it went down pretty easy. The tunnel stuff I’m going to do on my own with a handheld recorder later this week.

How is the campaign going? Are you planning a big release and tour for the album after its completed? What are your career expectations for this record?

I told someone recently I want my career to be like that little shack at the edge of town, where the river bends and the tracks have broken down . . . it’s out there waiting for me, in disrepair right now but one day I’ll be able to live in it.

The campaign’s doing well so far, really encouraging. The better it does, the more I’ll be have to pay everyone involved and put into the packaging and promoting of it. So please keep the shares and contributions coming! It means a lot to an independent artist, to get this kind of support.

I’m planning a zine to go with it, a hand-drawn songbook (by Victoria’ s Fraea the Banshee) of all the chords and lyrics. I’m aiming to release it at the end of summer with a couple of big shows in Victoria and Vancouver, followed by a cross-Canada tour (in sections this time, I’m through with doing the whole thing at once. The country’s too damn big!)

After that, we’ll see. I took the last year off from touring and promotion, so I could write and get better at fiddle. I spent this winter in Halifax learning east coast fiddle tunes and playing with an orchestra, trying to get my head around classical music, which I fell totally in love with over  the past couple  of years. I needed a break from the music business, to let the tanks fill up again. Now they’re full, and I’m ready to jump back in the game. I have most of another album written and ready to go; that’ll be a much bigger project with electric guitars and some kind of string section. And plans for a musical after that — or it might turn out to be a novel with an album to go with it.

In other words, yeah. I’m taking this as far as it can go. Stay tuned!


Learn more about Tunnels, Treehouses & Trainsmoke here:


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