Welkin gets back to nature
With his full beard and woollen cap, Geoff Birch looks every bit the mountain man. That means he blends in just fine with the shaggy, Cowichan-sweatered denizens of Commercial Drive, but Birch is the genuine article. The former Vancouverite lives in a cabin in the Cascade Mountains with his wife and their three children. He’ll allow that it’s about a 20-minute drive away from Hope, but that’s as specific as he wants to get.
“I’m not hiding from Johnny Law or anything,” he tells the Straight over lunch at Bandidas Taquería on the Drive. “I don’t have creditors after me or anything like that. I’m just pretty private about where I live. It’s kind of a strange thing. When I was living in the city, there was a lot of people around. There’s almost like a safety in that. But when you’re in a cabin out in the mountains and somebody knocks on your door, it’s kind of a different feeling. I’m not running from anything; I just don’t want people coming to my house.”
Lest you think Birch is a total off-the-grid recluse, though, it bears mentioning that he ventures out of his cabin on a regular basis to play with his band, Welkin. Bassist Jeff Powell lives in Mission and drummer Luke Collie in Hope, but they convene once a week at a rented rehearsal space that Birch describes as a rundown old inn. The only neighbours are the bears that occasionally lumber by.
“After years of sharing jam spaces with tons of other bands and meeting lots of other musicians, it’s like the opposite of that,” the singer and guitarist notes. “We never run into anybody—never meet any musicians, never hear any other music. But we are immersed in nature.”
The relative solitude and palpable wildness of Birch’s home in the Cascades have left an indelible imprint on his songwriting. That the rugged landscape has made its presence felt in his lyrics is evident from song titles like “Yellow Moon and Crystal Sky” and “Seasons in the Wilds”. Moreover, the very sound of Welkin seems like an outgrowth of its rustic environs. Witness “The Love of Most Has Grown Cold”, a cosmic-country rock epic that flows with the gentle clarity of a mountain stream before black clouds of searing electric guitar send it rushing over the falls.
All the aforementioned songs are featured on Welkin’s third and most recent album, This Is Your Blood All Over Me, which has garnered well-deserved comparisons to everything from Neil Young and Crazy Horse to Radiohead and Pink Floyd. The double-CD release was recorded at the Langley studio of musician and producer Jonathan Anderson, who, being a good sport, accommodated one of Birch’s more unusual requests: the frontman wanted to sing without any clothes on. And so he did, recalling it as “a mystical, spiritual experience”.
“The day I did vocals,” Birch relates, “I showed up to Jonathan’s place and I brought a bathrobe and some curtains for the window on the sound booth, and a whole bunch of tea and honey. It was like stepping into the shower. I’d hang my bathrobe and I’d be in there naked. He didn’t want anything to do with coming inside there. I’d close the door and turn off all the lights. I find that that’s the best space for me to be free to sing the best vocals I could sing.”
Clearly, this is a man with no interest in doing things the orthodox way. And it’s a safe bet that Welkin, with its 12-minute songs and epic guitar solos, isn’t a project that’s gunning for the pop charts. In fact, Birch and his bandmates donate all the money they bring in through album sales and live shows to charity.
“As a 17, 18-year-old, my motives for playing music were far different than they are now at 37,” Birch reflects. “I think back then it was about meeting more women and becoming a rock star. And now I don’t care about that at all. In fact, I think becoming a celebrity would be a horrible, horrible thing for what I value in life. I really do like to fly under the radar as much as possible. So, being played on the radio and all that is not my idea of success. My idea of musical success is to be true to the inspiration. Often we are inspired by things, and then we become traitors to that inspiration. We take the inspiration, take the energy from it, and then sell it down the river for our own means.
“One of the most important things in my life, whether it’s with music or anything else, is just freedom,” he concludes. “Freedom in relationships, freedom in nature, freedom in anything.”
Spoken like a true mountain man.
Welkin plays the Backstage Lounge on Saturday (March 3).