One expects Jeff Andrew to inhabit some dark underground of folk music, singing relatively serious songs about vagabonds, police abuse of power, abandoned buildings, Wobblies, and street punks wrongly accused of murder. It’s not exactly playful enough to suggest oldtimey–there are no kazoos or washboards in sight—but there’s still a vintage feel to it, and a deep sense of history in his lyrics (as his sole foray into punk the Rebel Spell’s “The Tsilhqot’in War,” which he co-wrote and sang lead on, ably demonstrates).
There are contemporary influences, to be sure–he seems to exist musically on a spectrum between Phil Ochs, for his topicality, and Tom Waits, for his vagabond romanticism–but generally speaking, it’s folk music, played with a fiddle and an acoustic guitar.
At a recent gig at the Heatley, however, after an admittedly folky set accompanying Pender Island vocalist/ banjo player Francesca Mirai, Andrew caught this journalist off guard. He brought out a drummer and a keyboard player and swapped his fiddle for an electric guitar (which I initially took to be a plugged-in acoustic; Andrew brings me up to speed, below). The trio then launched into something that, while recognizable as Andrew’s own music, was very much in a rock idiom.
A concern for social justice was still present in his lyrics, as when Andrew sang what he describes as “a historical fiction,” about Jack the Ripper that postulates “that the reason Jack the Ripper was never caught, after killing five women, isn't because he brilliantly escaped detection, but because his would-be sixth victim killed him instead.” He prefaced the song and made it relevant with remarks about the dangers working girls face in the Downtown Eastside. It was about as overtly feminist a song as could be written about Jack the Ripper, one imagines, and, of the songs in his electric set, was the one that sounded like it could most fit on Tunnels, Treehouses, and Trainsmoke, Andrew’s last CD, released in 2013.
But there were also songs about vampires and monsters, and even one song–a post-apocalyptic tale called “Survivor”–that had an anthemic feel, taking us far from the resonant acoustics of that album to something far closer to classic '80s-radio rock, if you could imagine '80s-radio rock going topical. It was a lineup I had not seen him in before, and a side of his music I hadn’t been much exposed to.
This lineup (barring one potential complication, more on which below) will be playing on April 20th at Lanalou’s, as part of what Andrew describes as “ a big ol’ bloody blender mix of music.” Other bands include Weep & Bloom ( an indie rock duo consisting of Josh Wood and Thalia Couture of Devil in the Wood Shack) and Black Bag (which sounds like the lightest possible venture yet from the notorious Bloody Betty, who will be doing, Andrew says, “lots of 80’s stuff, fun songs” like the Violent Femmes.) She’ll leave her GG Allin penis and fake poop at home for that one, we’re guessing.
Andrew took the time to answer some questions about the night, and the apparent shift in his music from folk to rock.
How long have you been playing with Adam Farnsworth (keys) and Devon Venoit (drums)?
I've been playing with Adam off and on for about five years, I think, though we never rehearsed anything together before this. He's also a great singer and songwriter and we did some shows a while back where we traded short sets back and forth and backed each other up. I started playing with Devon a few months ago (he also plays in Party On High Street, and the three of us have been working on this set. It'll be this lineup at Lanalou’s, but there's some question over whether Adam can make it because his other band (High Society) also has a gig that night, so we'll have to shuttle him back and forth somehow. We might have to go on first, so get there early!
It was much more of a "rock" set than I've seen you do before - is that a direction you plan to go in?
I am way more excited about electric music these days. I still like playing fiddle and acoustic guitar, and want to work that in somehow eventually, but I've had this loud, effects-driven guitar sound in my head for years and not been able to exorcise it until now. That guitar I was playing at the Heatley is actually an electric guitar - it's a Gibson archtop from the 1950s with a P-90 pickup in it (which is one of the classic early guitar pickups that a lot of others are modeled on. And they're still being made today). So it is an electric guitar, it just looks (and plays) like an acoustic. I found it in Nashville last winter, and it's kinda changed everything. It plays really well, has a great acoustic style, and when I plugged it in it turned out to be the guitar sound I've had in my head for years, and could never get out of a regular electric guitar.
This is definitely the direction I'm going in. Loud, heavy songs with a full band, lots of gang vocals, bigger arrangements. I want to play shows that get people moving and shouting and sweating, in places where no one's gonna tell me to turn my amp down. I don't know what style to call it, cause it's gonna land somewhere between a lot of genres...I'll figure something out. Outsider Post-Punk, maybe. I been going back to the 80s hard lately, listening to Joy Division and the Cure and a lot of horror and sci-fi soundtracks. The John Carpenter movies, Blade Runner, the work Goblin did with Dario Argento, and just generally every sound with a picked electric bass and a synth arpeggiator, there's something about it that feels like a dream... I am a child of the 80s, so I think it's taking me back to sounds I heard when I was really young, that shaped my brain and then basically vanished for the last 30 years. Now they're coming back.
I have no idea of your starting place in terms of listening to music. I remember in my first interview with the Rebel Spell (circa Days of Rage) Todd and Chris teased Erin a bit for ‘fessing up that her early guitar influences included Slash and AC/DC, but I grew up working class in the suburbs, and AC/DC (and Meat Loaf and Aerosmith and Iron Maiden and even less cool stuff) were staple listening for me, before I ever heard of punk rock. Are there any early influences, for you, that people might not guess? Who were you listening to around age 13-14? (and what year would that have been, anyhow? Was there a year when you discovered punk...?).
Haha, me and Erin definitely have that in common! I still love AC/DC. Guns too. Iron Maiden. The first music I ever bought with my own money when I was a kid was Metallica. I got Master of Puppets and Garage Days Re-Revisited: The $5.98 EP on tape. I started listening to Nirvana the year before Kurt Cobain died, and I think that was the first music that really "got" me in a more adult, relevant-to-my-life kind of way. I didn't know what to make of it when he killed himself; it seemed really surreal that that was the voice I'd been listening to, and now he was dead. I started guitar in grade 9 and learned everything from the Nirvana Unplugged album. Then it was Metallica and Black Sabbath and Slayer and Sepultura, and all the classic rock too. Zeppelin, Creedence, Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones... I was really into Bob Dylan. I just devoured music back then. I had a drum kit and a PA and bunch of amps in my basement, and I would learn all the guitar and bass parts from an album like Led Zeppelin 4, or Evil Empire by Rage Against The Machine, and blast it on the PA and rock out to it. I tried doing that on drums but I never got very far... at one point I knew almost every song on Metallica's first four albums. I was really into them. The 80s records at least. Then there was the Napster thing, and that was the end of that... but I learned a lot about song structure and composition from them, and lyrics too. I learned about Ernest Hemingway and HP Lovecraft from Metallica songs. It's bizarre. They were fucking brilliant back then, and they were just kids... Cliff Burton was only 24 when he died. And Master Of Puppets is a record I still listen to really, really often...it's like a Rubix Cube. Every aspect of it is so perfectly constructed, and it doesn't sound like anything else. I think my love of heavy drones came from that, from the intro to “Orion.”
I loved a lot of punk rock too, but it was just one genre out of many. I listened to Miles Davis a lot back then too, and other jazz. But Dead Kennedys I really liked, Rancid, Propagandhi... this was late '90s, when it was all over the place. Random things, like that Dead Milkmen song "Bitchin' Camaro"- one of my friends had this beater Camaro from the late 70s, and he had that song on a tape, so we would listen to "Bitchin' Camaro" in the Bitchin' Camaro.
After high school I got into Ani DiFranco and Tom Waits and was obsessive about old folk and blues records. I didn't find my way into the rest of the punk world until about ten years later (after I got tired of listening to scratchy recordings from the 20s and 30s...I needed to hear riffs and screaming again). Then I got into it, and going back thru underground punk and hardcore from way back, learning the history of it... I knew the big stuff, like the Sex Pistols and the Clash, but then I discovered Crass and Amebix and Nausea and Oi Polloi. I was on the west coast by then, but I missed the Cobalt days. I was sort of bouncing between Victoria and Vancouver and then spending summers in the bush, or hitchhiking to California or something...by the time I started actually going to punk shows, that period was over.
The set was a lot more "horror movie" content in the Heatley set than I expected, and had a ton of songs I hadn't heard before, that I presume are new - there was song that dealt with vampires, a song that dealt with Jack the Ripper, a post-apocalyptic song, and a song I'm presuming was called "I Believe in Monsters"... are you actually a fan of horror/ SF? Is this something that's coming to the fore with this specific unit? Is there are reason for going there, or a particular influence - a theme you're working on for an album, say?
I've always loved horror movies. And sci-fi and fantasy. A lot of that stuff in my songs comes from books. Stephen King, HP Lovecraft, Neil Gaiman, Weird Tales. There's a great book by Susanna Clarke called Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell that two of the songs on my first record were based on. A lot of the songs I'm playing now are actually pretty old, like written between 2009 and 2012. I never recorded them because they didn't fit with the other stuff I was doing. Ghosts and monsters have always been there. And this theme of escaping to another world, that's in a lot of my songs too. I felt pretty weird and ostracized when I was a kid, and got bullied a lot. So I spent a lot of time by myself reading and creating these fantasy worlds in my head, and wishing I could actually live in them and just disappear from this world.
Which may be running out of time, anyway. From an early age, or at least from maybe 13 or 14, I thought this was all going to crumble and burn at some point. The total collapse. I didn't think we'd even make it this far. So the post-apocalyptic themes have always been there too. I watched the old Mad Max movies a lot when I was a kid, and I fucking loved the new one that came out in 2015. That whole style in general...and seeing the current levels of industrial destruction going on around the world, I don't see how we're going to turn it around in time.
Disregard this if you like, but have you ever seen Clive Barker's Nightbreed, in any cut? I think of it as the ultimately horror movie for outsiders - punks, gays, misfits of any sort: all the authority figures (a doctor, a priest, a cop) are either deranged or evil, and the protagonists (it turns out) are the monsters... in writing songs about monsters, are you at all interested in taking the monsters side?
Nightbreed is a fucking great movie! I never saw it until a few months ago, but it perfectly captures the feeling of a lot of those monster songs, and how I see the world in general. The freaks and the outcasts and the weirdos. The ones who want to escape, join the animal world or live underground, and all the rubes from town want to kill them for being different. Which is exactly what's happened so many times in the real world, to people like Matthew Shepard or Brandon Teena, and so many thousands of others... There's a big force in humans that makes us want to lynch what we can't understand. One of my older songs "Wooden Dress" is kind of about that. And now I've got two songs written from a werewolf's perspective, which ties in with earth destruction and animals being enslaved and persecuted (like what Todd [Serious] wrote a lot about, too). It's the same kind of theme - the humans are the real monsters. The animals just want to be left alone.
I really like Clive Barker's vision. I've read a couple of his books, and the first Hellraiser movie (the one he actually directed) is on such a different level than most of the horror movies that came out back then. I was terrified of that box in the video store when I was a kid! It's a feeling not just of fear, or gore, but of something much deeper, this vision of other realms, other universes, and forces far beyond anything we can reckon with on our level of understanding. Which goes back to HP Lovecraft... Another thing with Hellraiser, at least with the first two, is that the Cenobites aren't really bad. They just are who they are, and if you summon them you have to deal with them. It's the humans who are lying and using and murdering people.
I couldn't catch all the lyrics to the song about monsters, but I'm guessing there's some metaphoric meaning there...
It's about my love of these fantasy underworlds, and also the idea that the scary stories we hear as kids teach us to beware of dangers in the real world. And if we convince ourselves that the monsters from the stories aren't real, we can also end up blinding ourselves to the real world monsters. Until it's too late.
One song about a monster where you obviously don't take the monster's side is the one on Jack the Ripper. How did that come about? (You connected it to the Pickton case; do you have a particular take on the failures of law enforcement, there?).
Yeah, that's another example of humans being the real monsters... I wrote it when the Oppal report was coming out in 2012, and it was in the news again. The big question was how they let it go on for so fucking long, right under their noses... I don't know if there really were other people or cops involved in it, but it was either that, or just another example of this wilfull blindness. To not see what's happening right in front of you, because you don't care about the victims. So the song isn't really about Pickton, but there are a lot of parallels. But also about how that blindness can run both ways - the killer underestimating the victim (at least this one time, in a song). She leaves his body in an alley and never bothers to tell the authorites, ‘cause who'd listen anyway?
The chorus and riffs for "Survivor" are kind of anthemic, and actually take me back to a kind of "80's classic rock radio" place, that I wasn't expecting - in a good way; it's like a song on classic rock radio that you WANT to hear. What were the inspirations for the story of the song?
I wrote that sometime in the year after Todd died. The big riffs and the "whoa-whoa" chorus definitely came out of listening to Rebel Spell almost constantly during that period. Just trying to stay connected with him, and their music was feeding this very visceral need in my body... so it's the post-apocalyptic thing again, but also the love and the feeling of family that came from that time. How so many people came together really strongly, for a while. And my thought that if the apocalypse does happen, I really hope my friends survive somehow! And that we can live on together. So the line in the breakdown: "Home is no place! It's the handful of people on Earth who you're willing to die for..."
If I can ask, do you have any sort of long-term plan or "career ambitions" or goals? I mean, I know you do some treeplanting, which can be pretty lucrative, but eventually the body gets unwilling, so... do you have a plan for your life 20 years from now, or - I wonder if this isn't the subtext of a lot of our apocalyptic fiction - do you figure the world will collapse before you have to worry about that?
I don't know what's going to happen. It could collapse suddenly, but I think a slow decline is more likely. The continuing of what's happening now: the middle third of the earth, which is the most populated, getting hotter and more violent and harder to live in, due to extreme weather events. Which is going to keep driving more and more people to try to go North, to Europe or the US, which is going to keep increasing the pressure in those places and cause this polarization that we're seeing now... plus continued destruction of the oceans, the land and the sky, and population increasing drastically... maybe it'll all explode into another world war, or maybe things will just get gradually get shittier, unless you're in the upper class who can afford to escape it.
Or it could go the other way, and we might collectively sort our shit and stop persecuting each other and destroying the place that supports us. It will take a global change in consciousness and values, which seems far-fetched, but maybe... Either way, I am going to plan to survive and try to make a life out of music, one way or another. I like working in the bush and I'm happy doing that for part of the time, but I want to also get my music out to a wide audience and work with people I look up to. I'd love to play in big theatres. If I could have a career like Neko Case, or Nick Cave... you know, to not be really famous, but to create a body of work like they've done, to be able to put your full energy into the work you're most passionate about and make a living doing it, and know that it's actually going out there into the world, and reaching people.
Jeff Andrew, Black Bag, and Weep & Bloom play April 20th at Lanalou’s; for more information, see the Facebook page for the event.