There’s nothing like a shock to loosen a block, and by his own admission Ron Samworth was creatively “constipated” when he got the message no one wants to hear.
“On the record,” the Vancouver guitarist and improv veteran says in a telephone interview from his home, “a year ago I got a life-altering medical diagnosis. I’m dealing with an aggressive cancer, and I’m still undergoing treatment.”
The good news is that he’s found a way to harness the bad news. “It’s completely shifted my priorities,” Samworth says. “I’m not pushing, but I’m also not allowing myself to be bugged by the vagaries of the noncommercial art world—and I guess the upshot of it is this Dogs Do Dream project.”
A band, an as-yet-unreleased record, and a body of work, Dogs Do Dream is Samworth’s response to recent scientific studies suggesting that dogs and rats have the kind of psychological depths that we higher primates once considered uniquely our own.
“I’ve known for a long time about these medical studies that were documenting the dreams of animals,” he says, citing a magazine article that he’d read as specific inspiration for his new project. “I guess the headline was something like ‘Dogs Do Dream,’ you know,” he elaborates. “But they also cited these studies where they would put rats through mazes. They would chart their electroencephalographic activity, and found out that when they were sleeping they would be undergoing the same brain-wave patterns. The researchers could tell what part of the maze the rats were dreaming about, based on their matching electroencephalographic patterns.
“That brought me along to this thing about dogs,” he continues. “So what would a dog’s dream be?”
Following this thread, Samworth admits, has been more than artistically and intellectually gratifying. It’s also been a way for him to escape his own problems, an out-of-body experience that has led him into a sensual and immediate world of heightened perception and unfamiliar impulses—or perhaps familiar ones given different form.
“In one of the dog dreams, the dog is, for example, very horny, and it’s very explicit,” he says, laughing. “There’s all kinds of animalistic desires, and there are also things I’ve witnessed while I’m watching dogs. Another is based on a dog fight that I saw on Commercial Drive—an aggressive, larger dog almost tore this little yapper to shreds. So, you know, it’s just about that impulse, whether it’s towards violence or sexuality or the sensuality of lying on your back and having your belly rubbed.”
Spending a year as a dog, Samworth adds, has been therapeutic. “It’s really helped me with my illness to settle down and allow things to happen and not ascribe all kinds of deep and significant meanings that might not be there,” he says. “I’m trying to be in the moment, just experiencing things.”
Samworth does admit that there might be something “valedictory” about Dogs Do Dream, in which he’s supported by a cast of younger performers—including trumpeter J.P. Carter, keyboardist Tyson Naylor, bassist James Meger, drummer Skye Brooks, and narrator Barbara Adler—most of whom he’s helped mentor over the years.
“This could be one of my last major projects, although one never knows,” he says. “But whatever happens, I’ve got a much healthier perspective than I’ve had in a long time towards making music, and the sense of community of it. There are really amazing people around—not only the musicians, but the people who support it and make it happen on both sides of the stage.”
Ron Samworth’s Dogs Do Dream plays the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre on Saturday (July 2), as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival.