If there was a global competition to find the world’s best multitasker, you can bet Vancouver drummer and percussionist Angus Tarnawsky would make the shortlist.
A man of many projects, Aussie-born Tarnawsky has sat behind the kit for a number of bands including old-school punk group Flowers of Evil and New York indie darlings Apache Beat. Now permanently based in Vancouver, Tarnawsky is ready to pursue a different musical path. Focusing exclusively on his solo endeavours, the drummer is redefining the the instrument—by doing a whole lot of things at once.
“I still feel a little perplexed when I try to explain my music,” the drummer tells the Straight with a laugh on the line from his Vancouver home. “So let me clarify what I use for live performances. I’ve trimmed down my kit to a couple of drums, a few percussion objects, some cymbals, and electronics that allow me to do my studio work on a live stage. All the drums have mics on them, and that feed goes into my laptop. Alongside that I have a number of pedals, and a synthesiser with no keyboard that sort of looks like an old-fashioned telephone patch board.
“My laptop acts as a brain,” he continues. “It has eight channels of input and output, so I send the sounds from the drums I’m playing into the computer, and that lets me sculpt them while I’m manipulating the synthesiser. And that means that I can add some pitch to the rhythm. A lot of the bass notes that you hear are me taking the raw sound from hitting the drum, and then sending that impulse to the laptop. When it’s in the computer I can layer a few of them, or intersperse them so they don’t always happen at the same time.”
So what does all that sound like? Tarnawsky’s tracks can range from something approaching experimental deep house to a gritty collection of industrial-esque rhythms. Imagine a downbeat Kraftwerk, but without those bouncy 80’s synths. Or weird German vocals.
“Being a young artist, I’m not scared of doing different things,” Tarnawsky says. “I’m not worried that I have to make music in a particular style. I recognize that there has to be some kind of categorization because we have to be able to sort through different tracks. But at the same time, I try to be fluid in the type of music I’m making. For me, the best description is the word ‘punk’. The idea that you can break the rules and do things a little differently. I believe that if you make songs with energy and passion, it will translate in exactly the same way as a more established genre of music, even if it’s improvised or experimental.”
That studied attitude piqued the interest of industry experts. Selected to attend the prestigious Red Bull Music Academy this year, Tarnawsky is set to join a class whose recent lecturers have included Madlib, Hudson Mohawke, and A$AP Rocky. Offering workshops, festival appearances and endless studio time for collaborations, the global academy provides a unique platform for artists shaping today’s musical landscape.
“The Red Bull Music Academy happened in New York a couple of years ago when I was living there,” Tarnawsky remembers. “I hadn’t applied, but I went along to a lot of the concerts that were open to the public, and I was blown away by the calibre of the performers. I had a little bit more time up my sleeve when I moved to Vancouver, and I was able to put the effort in to making the application the best it could be. It ended up being a pretty unique document—especially because it’s about 30 pages long, and they ask for it to be handwritten. You have to take your time.”
Determined that honesty was the best policy, Tarnawsky stuck to the facts on his application.
“There were a lot of questions about Canada. I know a fair bit about Canadian music, and I was quite happy answering from the heart about that. But I really don’t know much about Canadian film—and they asked a huge amount on that topic. Not just things like ‘What is your favourite Canadian movie?’, but also about particular well-known scenes. I basically told them for nearly a page and a half of questions that, truth be told, I just hadn’t watched much Canadian film—but I’d absolutely love to learn about it.
“It turned out to be a pretty good strategy though,” he continues with a laugh. “And that’s my entire approach to music. You have to make things that feel right to you in that moment. For me, that’s what real creativity is.”
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