Art Bergmann had every reason to walk away permanently from an industry he should rightly hate, but sometimes the creative pull ends up being impossible to resist. As the second decade of this new century winds down, he’s back touring sporadically and releasing records like last year’s official comeback, The Apostate. Reached at home in rural Alberta, the 64-year-old Vancouver-spawned legend has zero trouble articulating what’s got him back in the notoriously soul-crushing music business after a decadelong hiatus that looked like it would be permanent.
“It’s my fortune to have a curiosity as to where the human condition comes from,” Bergmann says from the outside-of-Calgary farm where he’s lived since the beginning of the ’00s. “I’m lucky to be interested in ceaseless looking and discovery.”
That curiosity bleeds through during a wide-ranging conversation that covers everything from Marxist history to the power of film noir to Canadian cultural genocide to the genius of the Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me.
Bergmann is candid about his various disappointments, noting, for example, that The Apostate’s rave reviews didn’t exactly translate into stratospheric record sales. And he’s remarkably upbeat about his future as a musician determined to build on what’s already a rich legacy.
While arthritis, back problems, and other ailments continue to make performing live painful and difficult, he’s still writing music. That’s what he’s done ever since his late-’70s band the Shmorgs, which was followed by his visionary first-wave punk outfit the Young Canadians and then a career as one of the country’s most gifted solo artists. In some ways, he suggests, what we hear on The Apostate is a man reshaped by the small-town community that he’s lived in for most of the past 20 years. In a departure from the snarling vocals and all-out guitar savagery that often marked his earlier works, Bergmann isn’t afraid to dial things back. That approach suits him, whether he’s doing a grimy blues strut with “Mirage”, referencing sunset Tex-Mex on “The Greatest Story Never Told”, or drinking doubles at the lonely end of a roadhouse bar for “A Town Called Mean”.
“My whole sound and tastes all changed, sort of back to where I learned music from, which is old folk and country songs,” Bergmann says. “I had all of that knowledge before my punk period came along. I basically added everything back into the music that I was writing, along with really amazing stuff that I was hearing out there in Alberta. Out here everything is much more country-oriented.”
Other changes have been more challenging. Bergmann recalls his years on a major label in the ’90s, watching everyone make money except for the artists who were actually producing music.
“I’m from an old world,” he says, “where, I don’t know, I got sucked into the whole fallacy of getting sucked into a record company, which turns out to be ‘You owe the bank a fuck of a lot of money’. Then you can’t get your music back. You’re continuously under their thumb, even after all this time. So I’m not totally sure what the solution is. A lot of people have found their way around it. I’m not sure if I have the time, or inclination, to be online 24/7 selling my ass.”
Now Bergmann finds himself in a period when Spotify rules and the only artists who actually seem to sell records are superstars like Drake and Beyoncé. He understands that the way most artists make money these days is by steady touring, something that’s not an option for him.
“When I’m on-stage, the adrenaline seems to kick in and kill the pain momentarily,” he reveals. “But then you pay for it later. I don’t look forward to the after-pain, but at least everything disappears while you’re playing music. What actually got me back playing was that I had some surgery done on my spine—as well as pain, I’d had some numbness in my extremities,” he says. “So I couldn’t figure out if I ever wanted to play again. The surgery improved things a bit, but now it’s starting to return again. So I don’t know whether I want more surgery or not.”
That’s going to be our loss—again. Bergmann proved impossibly skilled at writing great rock songs after surfacing as a leader in Vancouver’s famously fertile punk scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s. As singer-guitarist of the Young Canadians, he gave us propulsive, era-defining classics like “Automan” and “Hawaii”. As a solo artist in the major-label system of the ’80s and ’90s, he walked a line between beautifully bleak and emotionally powerful, exploring such sunny topics as incest (“Our Little Secret”), the view from the gutter (“The Junkie Don’t Care”), and suicide (“More Blue Shock”). If you’ve never heard Sexual Roulette—Bergmann’s masterful 1990 exploration of drugs, depression, death, and redemption—you’ve missed out on one of the greatest records this country has ever produced.
Bergmann is well aware of his legacy—even as he tends to downplay it. (“My songs, as far as I’m concerned, they’re full of too many hooks.”). And he notes that, even if we might be seeing the end of his touring days, he isn’t done yet.
“I’m working on a new batch of songs for a record as we speak,” he reveals. “It’s going to be all over the map musically. It’s not going to be mellow lyrically.”
Given the current, relentlessly bleak state of the human condition—and Bergmann’s obsession with it—there’s no way it could be anything else.
Art Bergmann plays the Rickshaw Theatre on Friday (May 19).