Photo Courtesy of 2911 Media

Legendary singer/songwriter Don McLean was recently honoured for achieving over five million U.S. radio plays of “American Pie,” and three million for “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night),” both from the 1971 American Pie album. It seems to be a significant accomplishment, one made even more so by the ever-changing state of radio and the music business. But at age 72, McLean seems to have had enough with attempting to understand contemporary music culture. 

“I have no idea what’s going on with music, or radio, or any of that stuff. I watched the Super Bowl, and I watched Justin Timberlake do his thing. I didn’t understand any of that!” he says emphatically. When I point out that many people who enjoy modern music may not want to be represented by Timberlake’s performance either, he gives an acknowledging laugh.

“Right! (But) it doesn’t mean anything to me. I know I’m an old guy and everything, but from a musical point of view it just is meaningless to me. I’m saying that not in a way that is a criticism of anything, it’s just that my time is up, and my understanding of what’s going on now is zero.”

This statement seems at odds with McLean’s status as a classic artist, as his work is deeply entrenched in popular culture. While “American Pie” may have been played five million times in America, the song now has over one hundred million plays on Spotify (McLean is quick to tell me that the song “was always considered two plays for every one play. BMI would pay me twice as a publisher, every time they played that song”). His digital presence has, in a very short time, seemingly eclipsed his decades of traditional media exposure. Regardless of McLean’s self-perceived lack of understanding of “what’s going on,” he has his own insight as to why his songs are still being embraced.

“(People) can see me talk to people and they can decide what they think about me from head to toe. It’s quite revealing what’s happened now in the last ten, twelve years. If you decide to get into any artist, you can find so much out there, and it’s always increasing” he says.

“But one thing I would say, is that I think as this whole musical delivery system through the internet improves and becomes more powerful, people like myself who have been lucky enough to have classic albums and classic songs, those individuals will have more and more attention paid to them. Even if you sold a lot of records but you were basically garbage, you’re not going to get attention paid to you as we move forward.”

This all seems to place McLean in a privileged position. It’s easy to forget he’s a folk artist, and that even “American Pie” isn’t an obvious smash hit if you consider pop music of almost any era. It’s a stark contrast between artistic expression and commercialism that he seems very aware of.

“My life has been... I don’t want to say it’s been charmed, cause that would be presumptuous of me to say that” he says cautiously.

“But I’ve had a very wonderful life, and I’ve not been easy-going about things. You know there are people who are easy-going in this business, who naturally go with the flow and do very well. I had to fight like crazy for everything that I’ve done because it’s always been very different from what else was around. You have your record label, and then you have your boosters at the record label, and you have other people at the record label that think you stink and they like somebody else, so you’ve got that whole political thing going on. Then you’ve got radio, then your audience which, you know, you’re trying to reach and you know they’re out there somewhere. I think that has probably slowed me down as a songwriter because I might have... you know if I’d felt there was a receptive audience and a receptive business to what I was doing I might have been more excited about some of my ideas. But because it was such a struggle, a lot of times I would think ‘Oh well, that’s not gonna fly,’ you know what I mean. So it’s a lot of negative energy to overcome.”

There is also the issue of achieving mainstream awareness based on a limited part of your catalogue. McLean has released many studio and live albums since American Pie, but none of which have achieved the same exalted status. Some artists embrace this, while others become infuriated with the mere mention of their biggest hit. McLean seems resigned to this situation, which he admits is completely out of his control.

“I’m prepared to be disappointed” he says.

“The funny thing is that years later, people come up to me, then they start realizing or thinking that the songs were very good and even better than that. I kind of don’t do what I do for right now, I just do my thing and figure people will catch on to it later on. I’m down for the long run, I always was. A song like 'The Grave' (from American Pie) for example. George Michael did that song on television (in 2003 on the Graham Norton Show), and all of a sudden everybody was talking about that song. Well it had been around for a long time. There are a lot of songs on the American Pie album that have taken years to trickle down like ‘Crossroads,’ ‘Empty Chairs,’ ‘Winterwood,’ all those songs. They’re all standards now in a sense. Millions of people know these songs.”

McLean is about as famous as he is unknown. His digital presence continues to grow and allow him to be introduced to new generations of people. With his admitted awareness of how accessible the digital age has made him, I wanted to know what kind of impression he wants to make on new listeners. As he speaks, he grows more emphatic and passionate with each sentence, until he’s almost yelling.

“I’d like them to know that I love them,” he says in a hopeful tone. 

“I love the human race. I love all people everywhere. I want to contribute something to their lives that is interesting and different, and they can have their whole lives to listen to. Not something that ‘Oh I wanna go back to when I was sixteen.’ (Something) that’ll always be good for them to go back to as they go through their lives. That is really my motivation, and that is probably the reason why I respect people more than seeing them just consumers! I want people to get something from me that is personal, and that I’ve thought about and that is different! Like a unique gift of some sort rather than saying, ‘Oh this is my Don McLean consumer, so I will give him the Don McLean song he wants.’ I have too much respect for people to do that, and I have too much respect for myself to do that.”

McLean appears quite aware of how his music and legacy are viewed. He’s optimistic, but he doesn’t want to have any illusions as to realities of the music business. He wants to approach the world as it should be, while maintaining an awareness of how it really is. So as our conversation ends, I ask McLean, despite all his other releases, if listening to American Pie is still the best way for a new listener to get into his music.

“That’d be a nice start,” he says. 

Don McLean’s new album, Botanical Gardens, arrives March 23rd, and he currently has dates lined up in the U.S, U.K, and Ireland. You can listen to the title track through all major streaming services and pre-order the album here, or you can listen to American Pie here

A Journal of Musical Things  


Photo by Alexey Makhov

The Winnipeg hardcore squad return with a new album of heaviness and melody

“I’m always hoping before a record that it’s somewhat of a moment,” says vocalist/guitarist Andrew Neufeld of Winnipeg punk veterans Comeback Kid. He’s referring to the new album Outsider, their first for New Damage and Nuclear Blast. It’s a step up in terms of visibility, and having also just kicked off four months of touring, the band could be poised to create the moment Neufeld is talking about.

They found their sound early on by combining thrashy hardcore with melodic chant-along choruses. These days the intensity and the melody seem to be divided. Outsider features punk bangers alongside epically melodic mid-tempo tracks (which Neufeld gigglingly refers to as “soaring”).

“I don’t feel a lot of rage when I’m writing heavy music” he says cautiously.

“It’s ‘Oh shit that’s an exciting riff!’ or “That part’s hard!’ and it makes me feel the same way I would feel when I listen to a hard hip-hop song. The other guys in my band, Jeremy and Stu, I remember they brought some songs to the table and there was so much double-picking fast stuff going on. I really do love that stuff and it always has a place on Comeback Kid records. But in direct response to that I would write another song that would open up with a light riff and then go into a punk rock-style melodic hardcore song. I would do some of that on purpose. Especially with hardcore, which can be so one-dimensional, if I’m gonna hear the same shit over and over and over, I’m probably gonna change it. I wanted to write a record with a bunch of dynamics because we can kind of get away with that. We’re walking that fine line.”

That’s perhaps been a key to the band’s wider appeal. In the early 2000’s they were one of the very few hardcore bands who seemed to get some attention and acceptance from outside their scene. They toured with different kinds of heavy bands over the years, diversifying their fanbase. Now pushing towards two decades together, the fans have grown with them.

“I always feel like we started as being that band, like sometimes playing with hardcore bands, or punk bands, or metal bands, we were able to ride that” says Neufeld proudly.

“I even see it more so now. It’s nice, I like the variety. It’s nice that we can play different kinds of shows and I think people are open to that now. There’s so much music at our fingertips now, you’re not gonna just stick with one thing... maybe when you’re younger.”

Their musical diversity also seems to have had some affect on the themes of the new album. Although apparently written without rage, there’s a heavy feeling of resentment that inhabits the lyrics of Outsider. It’s a change in tone that makes the songs feel less self-referential than the band’s older releases. It’s not quite clear if Neufeld has crossed over into social commentary on this album, but apparently the vagueness is intentional.

“I kinda like that about it” he says laughing.

“I definitely write songs that are angsty. Dealing with stuff like anxiety and using excess to get over that, that can be a vicious cycle. But also, being 2017 I mean... we’ve never been a political band but having a little bit of social commentary, it’s kind of impossible to ignore.”

That kind of yearning to be socially outspoken is something that’s written into the DNA of hardcore music. Although it’s not necessarily something that fans may immediately associate with Comeback Kid, it’s an essential component of their sound and identity. They’ve found a balance between the desire to create and explore, and their obligations to their musical roots.

“We definitely still take a lot of influence from traditional hardcore and that world. But we’re trying to do our thing, and we’re trying to do new things, keep it fresh and exciting” says Neufeld.

“I like modern production as well. We’re moving with the times. A lot of it is about making music, I’m not gonna lie, that’s what I live and die for. But I also really connect with the community of hardcore and that values that it’s taught me. We really connect with the culture that our music comes from, and we’re thankful that it’s got us to where we are now. Again, I’m not that super-angry of a guy, I don’t find our music to be angry really. It definitely gets certain emotions up. Sometimes that’s what the world needs.”

Comeback Kid’s new album Outsider is available now. They’ll be on tour across Canada for the rest of September, followed by American dates in October, and then Europe for the rest of the year. See all the dates here and check out the video for “Hell of a Scene” below.

 

A Journal of Musical Things

Photo Courtesy of Strut Entertainment

Juno-winning bluesman Steve Strongman has just released a new album called No Time Like Now that injects hard rock and gospel into traditional blues. He’s shared stages with legends like B.B. King and Buddy Guy, but it was before a working-class weekday headlining set at Toronto’s Rivoli that I caught up with Strongman. We talked about the warm tone and diverse influences on the new album, whether awards help underground musicians, and how he feels about modernization in blues.

 

Steve Strongman has a number of dates lined up for the spring and summer in Ontario and Quebec. You can listen to the title track from the new album No Time Like Now here.


Photo by Ty Watkins

The San Diego melodic metal group gets political on their second album following the shocking dissolution of their former band.

San Diego melodic metallers Wovenwar (vocalist Shane Blay, drummer Jordan Mancino, guitarist Nick Hipa, and bassist Josh Gilbert) have recently released their second album Honor Is Dead on Metal Blade Records. It’s far more aggressive than their first self-titled release, which arrived not too long after the end of their time as the high-profile metalcore act As I Lay Dying. The now well-documented story is that their ex-vocalist Tim Lambesis was sent to prison for attempting to hire an undercover FBI agent to murder his wife. So it was hardly surprising that their first album as Wovenwar, and the first featuring Blay on vocals, would come across as self-referential. On a recent tour stop in Toronto I spoke with Gilbert about how they dealt with such a sharp transition.

“I think on the first record we had been hit with a curveball in life, to put it lightly” he says with a laugh.

“We had just got Shane and we were writing lyrics together. We sort of wrote a really optimistic record. We were looking, however we could, to stay positive and maybe cope with the events surrounding whatever had just happened to us. But on this record I think it’s a lot more honest in the fact that we were looking outward. We were being influenced by outside events, happenings around the time of the writing of the record. Sometimes it comes across as political, sometimes it comes across as just personal. We weren’t censoring the lyrics we wrote. On the first record I would say that the lyrics were cathartic for us in the situation. We kinda moved passed that.”

The political aspects of Honor Is Dead don’t exactly seem subtle upon listening to the album, and although Gilbert is more diplomatic about it in person, he doesn’t hide the band’s disdain for the United States’ current direction.

“‘Pissed off’ is a great adjective to describe it” he says while nodding emphatically.

“Not only for us but I think a lot of our friends and family were coping with the realities of what’s going on in the world around us. On this record we expressed the concerns and thoughts we had on those happenings... I’m trying to be as middle of the road as possible here (laughs). We’re not exactly satisfied with the events politically going on where we’re from and I think that comes across in the lyrics. We tried to write it in a way that was tasteful and artistic, but also trying to demonstrate how we felt about what was going on.”

This brings up further questions about Wovenwar’s audience. They have an unique position among contemporary metal bands in that they have both strong secular and Christian followings. As I Lay Dying was arguably the most successful band from the Christian metal scene to cross over to secular music. I was interested to know how they felt about how these two groups of fans would react to their political lyrics.

“I think the lyrics of the song ‘Lines In the Sand’ illustrate our opinion pretty clear on the matter” says Gilbert, referring to a track on the new album that expresses disdain over deep social divides.

“It’s hard to estimate how either side is going to view the lyrics that you write. It’s art to us, it’s expression to us. When we’re writing it’s just an expression of that moment. We’re not trying to make a political statement, necessarily. It’s just what we feel at the time. You can take it for what you will. Some people might take it the exact opposite way (of what) we intended. That’s the beauty of art and lyrics, it’s in the eye of the beholder. Most people who are coming to the show, they’re sensitive to music, they’re sensitive to art. You expect that people are open-minded and that’s all we really ask of our audience. It’s weird to know that someone who values our art and values what we do as band, feels so differently, ethically than we do. But that’s also the beauty of just, freedom. Being able to feel how you want.”

In addition to more outspoken lyrics, Honor Is Dead also boasts heavier guitars and extreme vocals. The music takes on an almost progressive quality because of the band’s penchant for layered melodies. “At the very base of this band, we’re looking for the best melodies, the best rhythms” says Gilbert.

“The best melodies on top of the guitar melodies. But we consider vocals the entire time, and they kind of interweave with each other. Shane’s contribution musically changed a whole lot because he was there. With the first record probably half, or three-quarters was written before Shane was even involved. On this record, Shane’s voice, his range, his abilities (were) considered the whole time.”

The band’s collaborative writing style is evident on both albums. After his arrest Lambesis claimed that he was the primary songwriter of As I Lay Dying. It’s a claim that seems difficult to back up based on how the members of Wovenwar work together.

“It’s easy to just say ‘Ah this guy was the mastermind,’ because that’s what that guy would say” remarks Gilbert bluntly.

“But for us it’s always been collaborative. Everybody’s always contributed to the writing process and with Wovenwar it’s the same way. Everyone in this band contributed to this last record. For us, that’s testament enough to the myth that maybe there’s one guy, that was (laughs), was the mastermind of every piece of music that came out from that band.”

The legacy of their former band, does at times, loom large over Wovenwar’s existence. It’s recently come to light that Lambesis has been released from prison early, is getting re-married, and may have a record deal. There were more than a few fans wearing As I Lay Dying shirts at the Toronto show. It’s a situation that most would probably feel awkward about.

“We’re all comfortable with that. It’s completely acceptable. We more than anyone understand, there are these fans of our last band that are diehard,” says Gilbert earnestly.

“The still support us, they still wear the shirt. They still love the music, we still love the music! Sadly we can’t play the music and feel OK about it at this point. But we still love the music, and the fact that they’re here shows that they support what we’re doing now. It’s easy to just, as a fan of As I Lay Dying, look at what we’re doing now as ‘these guys are spitting in the face of what As I Lay Dying did.’ For us, we appreciate anyone who’s here, even if they’re wearing an As I Lay Dying shirt. That shows that they’re supporting us as musicians which is, amazing to us. We definitely don’t discriminate based on the shirts that the fans in the audience are wearing (laughs). It makes sense, As I Lay Dying was a band for a decade, Wovenwar’s been around for two-and-a-half years. We get that people are still coming around to us and we’re still earning fans. That’s what we want to do. We want to earn fans, we want to go on tour, play in front of them, blow them away, have them buy a Wovenwar shirt, and wear it the next time we come.”

Wovenwar’s second album Honor Is Dead is available now, and you can stream it in full below.