When one-man accordion army Geoff Berner picks up the phone on a Megabus making its way across Ontario, he jokes that he’s gotten used to hating people.
That’s not entirely true, however. It might be more accurate to say that the prolific klezmer-punk musician and occasional author has cultivated a healthy dislike for people who aren’t exactly making the world a better place. Based on what we hear on the Vancouverite’s latest full-length, We Are Going to Bremen to Be Musicians, that list includes Lotusland real-estate developers (“Condos”), whoever turned Hanukkah into an all-purpose alternative to Christmas (“When Chanukah Comes to Town”), and former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper (“Dance and Celebrate”).
Believe it or not, taking shots at targets that deserve it can lead to some blowback, especially when you live in Happy Planetville.
“I think that, on the West Coast especially, there’s a cultural thing where you’re not supposed to feel anger or jealousy or any of the so-called negative emotions,” says Berner, who’s touring Ontario and Quebec by Megabus because it’s cheaper than Greyhound. “This is a big hippie-yoga sort of thing that we have on the West Coast, where if you’re at a dinner party and somebody voices an opinion, you’re only really allowed to be collaborative. You can say ‘Yeah, and here’s another reason…’ but you can’t say ‘I disagree with that.’ If you feel hate, or resentment, then you’re obviously the bad guy.”
If anger fuels Berner’s art, so does humour. Black as they might look on paper, lines like “Let’s dance and celebrate the misfortunes of people we hate” in the Gypsy-lounge swinger “Dance and Celebrate” are funny, no easy feat considering they invoke the likes of Joseph Stalin, Harper, and Ariel Sharon.
“Condos” has Berner—backed by midnight-in-the-taverna accordion—starting out with, “My city has been in a housing crisis for 15 years or more/Middle-class families can’t afford to live here,” after which he rightly suggests that the local ecodensity-driven condo explosion has done sweet fuck-all to drive down rents or make homes more affordable.
The full-bore percussive powerhouse “Thank You, No Thank You”, meanwhile, takes dead aim at zealots of all stripes, with Berner placing himself at a party where he knows he doesn’t belong, eyeing a gaggle of assholes while noting to himself, “You are lingering by the cheese dip, so depressed you want to weep.”
That sense of being an outsider is something Berner has had a lifetime to get used to.
“I’ve never fit in in Vancouver, although I was born there,” he says. “And the more Ontario people who move to Vancouver to reinvent themselves as West Coasters, the less I fit in.”
That might be because, in some ways, Berner is a throwback to a different era. Although you’d never know it today, the Left Coast was once a magnet for activists and radicals, rather than snowboarders and real-estate speculators. A tradition that started with Greenpeace in the ’70s would continue through to the ’80s, when tens of thousands of Vancouverites regularly took to the streets in anti-nuke protests. Today, the closest we seem to get to mass protests is 4/20 pot rallies and folks bitching about yoga on the Burrard Bridge.
We’re in a period when no one seems to care that Vancouver is on track to becoming unaffordable to all but the global rich. And it’s a testament to Berner’s devotion to fighting the good fight that he perseveres, even if it sometimes seems unwinnable. That makes the title of the German-folktale-inspired We Are Going to Bremen to Be Musicians important.
“I don’t know if you’re familiar with the story, but it’s very odd,” says Berner, who also released the 2015 book We Are Going to Bremen to Be Musicians, also inspired by the tale. “It’s about these aging animals who are slated to be killed by their owners. As an alternative, they decide that they are going to run away and become professional musicians in Bremen. The general message seems to be that it’s better to have a stupid plan than just lie down and die.”
If the title resonates with the singer, it’s because he’s learned over the past couple of years that giving up isn’t an option, even though it might be appealing. And there were times when giving up was on his mind.
Raised in Kerrisdale by a lawyer father and a mom who went from teaching into real estate, Berner found himself pulled hard to the left in his youth, having his mind blown by iconic folkie Billy Bragg. Although his upbringing was upper middle class, his parents were more than supportive of his decision to champion the underdog.
“My dad a couple of times came home from the office and said, ‘Don’t be a lawyer. Do something fun.’ They were very supportive. They didn’t even like a lot of the stuff that I did, but they were supportive anyway.”
Their deaths, in 2013 and 2014, were hard on the songwriter.
“Mostly, I would go on automatic pilot—get the things done that had to be done,” Berner reports. “But I’ve got four kids, so there was stuff that had to happen, and I kept doing it. Looking back on it, I’m amazed that I didn’t just stop functioning. I don’t know why that was.”
Having a daughter, who is now two, helped.
“She was definitely the first good thing that happened that year,” Berner reveals. “One of the only good things.”
He also realized that when things get dark, sometimes the best way to pull yourself out is to show you get the grand joke that is life.
“I just kept working, and that helped,” he says. “For some people, that helps—there’s no one way to go with this stuff.”
The reason to keep going is that someone has to continue fighting the fight. One doesn’t have to look too far to learn that injustice is everywhere.
“I used to come back to Canada from places like Scandinavia and say, ‘Look at this model of how to deliver social justice,’ ” Berner says. “ ‘Look at the Scandinavian countries, with their $25 minimum wage and their free universities—they own their oil companies.’ Now they are kicking the living hell out of refugees that arrive. So, you know, the battle keeps going on. But that at least gives meaning to your efforts—to make you realize that you’ve got to try.”
And the reason one has to try is that occasionally things actually work out.
“The animals in the folktale do end up finding a place to live and prosper, even though they never make it to Bremen,” Berner says. “So it turns out that, even if the plan was a stupid one, it was better than despair.”
Geoff Berner plays We Are Going to Bremen to Be Musicians album-release shows at LanaLou’s on February 19 and 20.