Ford Pier remains an enigma for me. There are songs in his catalogue that I feel I absolutely understand and love—like, say, “Lions and Tigers and Bears”, a shriek of middle-aged rage that appears on Huzzah!, by the Ford Pier Vengeance Trio, and then there are albums—like his “rock band string quartet”, Strength of Materials—that, while compelling, have a quality of firing more rounds over my head than James Joyce’s Ulysses. (It’s great, but I don’t begin to know how to write about it). Sometimes I see him live and think, “Shit yeah, I GET this, this is GENIUS.” Other times, I just feel confused (I feel that way a couple of times in the interview below, too, note). And worst of all, I see him every time I shop at Red Cat Records, where he’s a very helpful, opinionated, friendly and interesting cat, whose presence serves as a constant reminder that I only own three of his albums and haven’t begun to do him justice. He’s one of Vancouver’s most creative and unique musicians, and I only own three of his records? What?
Apropos of his upcoming solo appearance, ahead of Bob Mould, I asked Ford if he wanted to do an interview. I got a bit carried away, but he was very patient and obliging.
Is Ford Pier your birth name? It is an unusual and interesting name, does it have a history?
Yeah, it’s my birth name. Ford is a shortening of my father’s Christian name, which he never uses.
I am trusting Wikipedia that you were born in Boston... So were you involved in music in the Boston scene, going to shows and such, before your family moved to Canada? Do you have any personal or musical associations or connections with Boston now, or is it all fairly remote?
Oh, God no, we left Boston when I was a little kid and I haven’t been back many times since—the last time would have been 20 years ago at the Rat with D.O.A. I can’t really claim it. Or it can’t claim me, I guess. I do, however, remain an unreconstructed Red Sox fan and will go to my reward as one.
Why did your family leave the United States? (Do you ever wonder what your musical career would have been like had they stayed?)
For my father’s work. Then, as now, there were many attractive things about life in Canada as compared to the United States. Boston was a particularly fraught community; there was the whole forced busing thing. Rioting. My mom muses that had we stayed, perhaps I would have been friendly with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck and become a millionaire Hollywood star, which I guess that thinking would have it that everybody else who grew up in Boston in the 1970’s did. Maybe I would have been in Christmas, or in some reunion lineup of the Freeze? Who knows?
In that “What’s In Your Fridge”, if Mike had specified “top three rock/pop albums” instead of leaving the question open, what would you have said?
I don’t know. Quadrophenia is probably my all-time number one favourite. After that, it’s really impossible. Good Old Boys by Randy Newman and Whale Music by the Rheostatics? You’d get a different answer tomorrow. I’m sympathetic; I used to have a mania for lists and was impelled by nature to stratify and rate. But who really wants to be the sort of person with three favourite records? Why not four? Or nine?
Curious about your early contacts here - how did you get hooked up with Tom Holliston? (Do I assume you started your time in B.C. in Victoria?)
No, I came straight to Vancouver to join Roots Roundup and moved in with Brad Lambert, the drummer for the Vengeance Trio, whom I had known in Edmonton. Tommy and I had actually worked at CJSR radio in Edmonton before he moved back to Victoria, but we didn’t really know each other except by reputation. We might have worked fundraising events together and had a beer with a big gang of people afterwards or something. We met for real in Victoria one time when I tagged along with SNFU to a show of theirs at Harpo’s in late ’91. He and I kept in touch and before too long he asked me to be in the Show Business Giants. Or, more likely, I told him I should be in the Show Business Giants and he didn’t say yes, but he didn’t do anything to stop me from turning up with an instrument. I did some little things on the Maybe It’s Just Me record and my first full shows with the band were in September of ’92.
Meconium has one of my favourite songs of yours, “Great Western.” Curious what the history of writing that song is—if there was a particular relationship or observation you were inspired by? Was bingo part of your early life? (It’s gotta be the best reference to bingo in a song that I know of, after “Sudbury Saturday Night”—though actually, I only know the two songs that mention bingo, unless you count Bongwater’s “The Power of Pussy”, where it isn’t actually bingo that’s being discussed.)
The bingo stuff in that song is observed detail from having worked a number of them over the years for various charitable organizations to which I was connected: teams, aforementioned radio station, youth orchestra, et cetera. I had a desire to try to write a song in that style favoured by your journeyman singer-songwriters of pseudo-literary inclination where an ancillary detail or object within the narrative is selected to be the symbolic fulcrum of the whole thing. Take “Chocolate Cigarettes” by Tom Russell for instance. “Corona” by the Minutemen would also have been a touchstone in this approach. Likewise, “Great Western” isn’t about bingo, but rather I guess a yen for connection. It was written ’89-’90.
Speaking of the Horseshoe Tavern—where Stompin’ Tom’s live version of “Sudbury Saturday Night” was recorded, in which the Horseshoe is mentioned by name—I remember seeing you leap really happily onstage to sing the Show Business Giant’s “Sugar Town” (I think it was around 2005 or 2006) at the Horseshoe when I followed NoMeansNo on a three-date tour of Ontario, where I believe you opened every night (Hamilton and Waterloo were the other gigs). Were you LIVING in Toronto at that time? Why did you leave Vancouver? Why did you come back? I think it’s literally the ONLY time I saw the Wrights step aside to let Tom’s other identity as a bandleader shine through, and it was really fun to see—you looked so HAPPY to be doin’ it that it ends up being my strongest memory of the evening. Were there any other times when you served for one song as “frontman” for NoMeansNo? (Did they ever do other Show Business Giants songs onstage in your experience?).
Yeah, I lived in Toronto between (depending on how you reckon it) 2003 and 2007. I was flying back and forth for a while. I was in a couple of bands in Toronto and a couple of bands in Vancouver and I found myself being more and more busy with the Toronto stuff. The drummer I had played with in Vancouver for several years moved away, leaving me without a steady lineup of my own here, and I was on a label that was located in Toronto. It just began to seem more welcoming. Finally, I packed up and moved. Then I lost no time in starting to date a woman in Vancouver and before too long was pulled back. Now we’re married, so that all probably worked out the way it was meant to.
I was lucky to tour with NoMeansNo a lot and had the tremendous thrill of joining them onstage to make all manner of unnecessary contributions to their show many many times from Hollywood to Ghent, from Nelson to Nurnberg. As to other Showbiz material being performed by that band, I remember them doing “This World Is Too Crowded” for a while, but nothing else jumps to mind just now.
“Great Western” kind of reminds me of something Tom Holliston would write—“you look like a banana, he chuckled pleasantly…” Was he influencing you as a songwriter? (Was anyone else?) You don’t seem to do this sort of playful country-ish stuff anymore—correct me if I’m wrong there—but it’s really engaging, and seems like it could be really crowd-pleasing live. I sometimes wonder if you have mistrust for “crowd-pleasing gestures”—if you don’t want to make things this easy for your audience anymore? (Not that you make it THAT difficult...).
“Great Western” was written mostly before I came under Tom’s spell, during a long phase when I wrote a lot of what you might call genre studies. Country songs, R&B songs, ’77-style punk songs, what-have-you. I never took them seriously. They were fun to write, and I think that in the long run they made me a better writer than I might have turned out as otherwise. I was looking for my voice then, which I don’t think I started to find, really, until the late-mid- ’90’s. What involvement in the Show Business Giants sphere did do was embolden me about the worth of that material, and determine to offer it up to the world. I’ll still write a song in an identifiable style like that from time to time when I get a good idea for one, but the Vengeance Trio’s long suit in performance is situated elsewhere.
By the by, what’s a Meconium?
Oh, come on. You’re sitting at a computer. [“The earliest stool of a mammalian infant,” Wikipedia says. Which is a helluva thing to call your first record!]
What’s your favourite Show Business Giants song that you were involved with? What’s your favourite song of theirs—or Tom’s—that you weren’t involved with? Are there any particularly fun stories of playing with them? Will we get another chance to see you play live with Tom, locally?
The making of Let’s Have a Talk With the Dead was the most pleasant and carefree recording experience I’ve ever had, and I think the one-two of “I Am the Lickspittle of the Animal Kingdom” and “Big In Real Estate” is as good a representation of what we did as anything. I really like “Glow In the Dark” from Will There Be Corn? but I think we could have recorded it better. There’s a song that we wrote on the way to practice one time and recorded for a Nightlines radio session that was called “Canopic Jars”, which might be our ultimate statement if not for “History Aspires to Myth”, which is one of Tom’s very best songs, and which we managed to record pretty well perfectly. There’s very little from the 10 years that I was in the group that we were active that I’m not totally, unreservedly proud of. As for favourites from prior to my involvement, I love “Let’s Fill the World Up With Little Babies” from I Thought It Was a Fig and the pacing of the first five or six songs on Maybe It’s Just Me and “Boys’ Night Out” from whichever of the first couple of cassettes it’s from. It’s all good. Certainly Tom and I will play together again. Whether as our duo the Dalai Lamees, or in some future convening of the Show Business Giants. It’ll happen.
How did you end up in D.O.A.? How long were you in the band, and how was working with Joe? Were you on the D.O.A. hockey team (what was it called, the Murder Squad?). Did you guys ever watch games socially together? How did you come to leave?
I never played on the Murder Squad, but I did used to do in-between-play organ for the big charity matches, going back to before I was in the band. Tom would sometimes announce goals or give colour commentary for those games, which was, of course, riotously funny.
On the evening of my 24th birthday, as I lay on the couch in the empty home of friends I was housesitting for while they were away on tour, thinking it was time for a change in my life, the phone rang. It was Joe, asking if I wanted to do some writing with D.O.A. for their next record. I thought, “Well, that’d be a change!” For the next three and a half years I wrote, travelled, and recorded with the band and I loved just about every minute of it. There were some careerist manoeuvres that were made that didn’t sit right with me, which sought to position us within the great Mid-’90’s Heritage Punk Land Grab, but all of that came to nought anyway. I loved everybody in the band and we all got along fine. That said, after Brian and Joe reached the decision that the well of what they were capable of together had run dry, I had to rethink my role in the group. I had a lot of freedom within D.O.A.’s structural requirements to do pretty well as I pleased, and I thought of my playing and arranging sort of like Dave Gregory’s contributions within the framework of XTC. As a colour man, as it were. With Brian’s departure, Joe wanted to go back to being a three-piece, meaning I would have moved over to bass. Being the bass player in a band like D.O.A. is a very specific job, as well as being a pretty hard job, and that wasn’t what I had signed on for; it didn’t seem like it would be as much fun, or like I would be as good at it. In addition, I worried that without Brian there to contextualize my own involvement, the band would basically be Joe-plus-whoever, and that didn’t seem as glorious a thing as being, you know, a Member Of D.O.A, a link in a chain. I just told Joe I didn’t see a role for myself in the band he thought it was time for D.O.A. to be, and that was it. No fuss, no acrimony. I continued to do BG’s on their annual recording sessions and turn up now and again for encores from Windsor to Copenhagen, and Joe and I are still great pals.
At least some of your projects—the Vengeance Trio, especially—seem to owe a bit musically to SST bands, though I think of you as owing more to the Minutemen’s stripped-down prog-punk (maybe by way of the Who) than Hüsker Dü. Was SST-label stuff big on your radar as a young man? Did you ever see Hüsker Dü? The Minutemen? Do you have favourite albums on the SST roster?
If one were to conceive of the Vengeance Trio in terms of other groups, I would be very gratified if one were to maybe think of us as a marriage of NRBQ and Mission Of Burma. SST? Well, Roger Miller of Mission Of Burma released a number of No Man and solo records on SST, I believe, as did the Violent Femmes’ bass player Brian Ritchie, on which he did a bunch of Sun Ra covers, and as you know, Sun Ra was also extensively reinterpreted by the Q. [Note: I have no idea what Ford is talking about]. So there you go: SST. Beyond that? Well, of course we love Hüskers and Minutemen and Meat Puppets and Flag and all that and it was a huge part of our upbringing—it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that I learned to play guitar by playing along with Hüsker Dü albums. I also liked those records by Tar Babies a lot. Slovenly were good. Henry Kaiser’s rendition of the Andy Griffith theme on his album Those Who Know History Are Doomed to Repeat It is staggeringly beautiful. I had a roommate who actually owned all those late ’80’s albums SST put out by people like Angst and Zoogz Rift. Some very questionable stuff on that label.
My own history with Bob Mould’s music has been kind of weird: I loved Zen Arcade so much as a young man that basically everything he was involved in after that didn’t remind me of Zen Arcade was off-putting; even New Day Rising wasn’t “Zen Arcade” enough for me at the time. I am only now coming around to Sugar and his solo work, which I can finally hear as something other than “not Zen Arcade” and am, for the first time, really enjoying it. I am getting really EXCITED about this show. Did you have any similar experiences of their career arc, out of curiosity? (Did you stay with them through Candy Apple Grey and Warehouse?). Any favourite songs or albums in Mould’s post-Dü output? Will you be doing anything special on account of opening for him (or in respect of the passing of Grant Hart?).
Hüsker Dü’s Warner Bros. records, for me, didn’t measure up, and probably happened at a time when I was moving on in terms of what I wanted to hear. His first two solo records, though, I flipped for and listened to a LOT when they came out. I saw that band with Anton Fier and Tony Maimone in Toronto and they were devastating. I was turned off by the ostentatious ’90s-ness and ubiquity of Sugar, but of course I would tap my foot when “Changes” came on—I’m only human! Those records’ charms, in hindsight, are ineluctable. Since then, I have eaten only the buttons that have placed themselves in my path, and haven’t ever been really disappointed, except by his experimentation with really low threshold pitch correction software, but also haven’t been moved to make a comprehensive study of the oeuvre. I’ve seen the current band a handful of times and sometimes I’ll think, “I don’t think I know that one! I should try hunting it down.” I will say three things: Silver Age is a great record, Jon Wurster is a top shelf 24-carat awesome drummer, and I love that Blowoff stuff.
Will I be doing anything special? Ha! I’ll be carefully choosing material that avoids the use of chimey open sus chords at the bottom of the neck for fear of coming off as a downright bush-leaguer!
Just curious: what was playing with Daniel Johnston like? (Did you only do backup for him the one time, at Richard’s on Richards?).
I got to play with him a couple of times. The first time was me and Keith from Roots Roundup (who’s now playing with Geoff Berner) and my friends Paul and Barry, who at the time were in Neko Case’s band. The second time it was the Vengeance Trio augmented by Keith. It’s an interesting process. The band is responsible for constructing the set list, out of songs they want to play, which is then relayed to Daniel’s brother. Upon arrival at sound check (late), he and Daniel’s travelling sidekick Brett, who sadly died last year, would go into a box of laminated pages of all of Daniel’s lyrics and put them in a binder in the order prescribed by the band. The first Daniel would see this would be when he would get up on stage to perform. He’d open the book and be like, “Alright. ‘Casper the Friendly Ghost’. You guys know that one?” and then we’d begin. There wasn’t a lot of hanging out that went on, although we did have a nice short conversation about superhero movies that first time at Richard’s On Richards. His feeling was that the then-recent Batman movie should have been more properly called Bruce Wayne.
My favourite-ever show of yours was the slot opening for Mike Watt at the Media Club. You were, as I’ve said, like Pete Townshend on a trampoline, you really put it ACROSS that night; I actually enjoyed your set more than Watt’s (that last opera he did lost me). Were you particularly jazzed to be playing before Watt? (Any interesting interactions with him?). As someone who has played a LOT of live shows and a lot of opening slots, what are the elements that make for a really next-level performance for you? Do you have a bucket list of performers you’d like to meet/ open for/ collaborate with?
Hm. Ford Pier, Opener to the Stars. No, not really. I guess I’d like to open for someone who pays well who’s known for their early-arriving, open-eared, and deep-pocketed audiences. And who might that be? Spoon? Hoobastank? The Ugly Janitors of America? U2? I’ll take any work offered. The best people to share a bill with are friends, whether or not at a cursory glance, your styles are thought to be similar. This creates good feeling, which, when combined with preparation and intention, produces confidence, and confidence almost always makes for a good performance. I’d love to get to open for Alice Donut again, because it would mean that they were doing a show that I could watch after I was done. I’m going to see them in Baltimore next month!
My interaction with Mike Watt at that show wasn’t extensive. He wanted to know where the name of our band came from and when I told him it was from a Wagner opera. He said “Respect! I’ve written three, you know.” He asked me where he could find some sushi and I told him, but he went in the opposite direction. He always has a nap in his van between dinner and showtime, so he didn’t see us. I gave him a copy of Principi di Scienza Nuova by Giambattista Vico, because he’s a big fan of James Joyce and so am I. He’s a very approachable person. The Doers cold-called him to come up here and record an EP with them at the Hive, which he did.
Are you a dad? “Lions and Tigers and Bears” on Huzzah! has some fatherhood references, and there’s a line on “Evan Smaller” about the baby swallowing a tack… but it seems like a fiction (is that song written from the point of view of a woman, in fact?). Are your first person songs mostly autobiographical or fictional?
I never write about myself, and I don’t know why anyone would want to. I’m of the belief that a good song has more to say about the person listening to it than the person singing it. It’s basically so, I think, in all other realms of creative endeavour as well, or what you might call “art,” that it might be deemed successful if it awakens in its witness the awareness of some truth which had previously been felt but gone unacknowledged or unarticulated. People who bog down in the contents of their own diaries are very rarely worth the time, in this reporter’s opinion. Of course there are exceptions; people who are strange enough, or who have a special knack for identifying something universal in their own experience. Most of what you hear along those lines, though, is an oversized but fragile ego’s thirst for validation.
Is the title of “Newton and the Counterfeiters” inspired by U-J3RK5 “Eisenhower and the Hippies”, by any chance? What the heck is it a reference to? It’s a pretty catchy song, actually—kinda reminds me of the Pixies’ more underrated moments. But I don’t understand it at all.
I wonder whether “Eisenhower and the Hippies” was rattling around in the recesses of my subconscious when I thought that would be an apt title for the song! I've honestly never thought of that before! Actually, there’s a funny story about the title of that song, which refers to the time that Sir Isaac Newton spent as warden of the mint. The song really isn’t about that at all, but my imagination was gripped by the idea of this avatar of reason and understanding being sad or bitter because his exploration of the natural world had banished magic from it for him. He had been an alchemist of the medieval school with all its mystical trappings, and his disappointment in being unable to produce the fabulous promised results of the transmutation of base matter to pure was a spur to his ruthless prosecution, in his role as warden, of anyone who would try to pass anything off as anything other than what it was. It was an image to me of reason gone sour.
Anyway, as a source of inspiration when writing this song, I had nearby a book that I had first read in about 1996 called Measure For Measure: A Musical History of Science, by Thomas Levenson. It had some tidbits about Newton that helped me shape my thinking about the song. When I was done writing it, I thought I’d look up Levenson and see whether he’d written anything lately, and what should I learn, to my amazement, but that he had just released a book called… wait for it… Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist! A whole book concerned specifically with this chapter in Sir Isaac’s life! I couldn’t believe it. I bought a copy and wrote him a fan letter and everything, but I never heard from him.
I see the song as being about the falling away of mythologies, and the atrophy of an imagination deprived of them to be inspired by. Doubtless, Isaac Newton wouldn’t recognize much of himself in the song.
My favourite song on Huzzah! is still “Lions and Tigers and Bears,” I think because I think I completely understand it and can identify. But it’s pretty epic—it reminds me a bit of NoMeansNo’s “Victory,” in fact, and is a song I could easily imagine NoMeansNo covering, if they still existed (maybe with more up-front basslines). Curious where it came from —how does a song come to be inspired by the supersitious consumption of animal-based products? Was there a particular moment that started you on that song? (Have you ever tried any of this sort of stuff yourself?)
That song was a gift. It came to me all at once in a glop in 2003, I think. I know that it took about a quarter the time to write as it does to play. About ten years later, I dug it up and figured out how to perform it, and the next year the band learned it shortly before recording it. I think it’s about a few things, but I suppose basically it’s about fear, specifically the fear of our bodies changing in ways we can’t control, through violence or disease, or even more specifically through aging. The fear of a loss of the control that our self-identification as rational, sane, sensitive, tolerant, and benign men - it is a song about men - hangs on. There’s a stupid, destructive ape who’s terrified of the changing of the seasons and the noises from the sky that we keep locked up in the basement. If the existential stakes are high enough, and nobody’s watching, would you go to him for advice on how to solve your problems? Do you blame the unfamiliar and seek answers from superstition if you’re desperate enough? A lot of sane, sensitive, tolerant benign men would, and I don’t think you know whether you’re one of them until you cross that threshold. And everyone’s is different.
Listening to the basslines and song structures on on this new Vengeance Trio material you’re allowing me to sneak preview, I wonder—as I do sometimes on Huzzah!—whether you have any fondness for Rush? There is definitely a proggy aspect to this, albeit a stripped-down and nut-tightened variety. Is that reasonable? “Prog” kinda denotes wankery to some people—it’s one of those semi-pejorative labels, like “new wave” or “emo” (though “prog-metal” seems to be cool). Do you like prog rock? (Ever see Ruins?).
Sure, Rush are excellent. They’re not big favourites or anything but they’ve got some awesome songs, even a couple of albums that I enjoy most of the way through. There were seeds of greatness early on, but I believe they only got really good once they jettisoned the arid aesthetic of difficulty for its own sake and awoke to the sublimity (and more nuanced difficulty) of the pop song. Most prog is terrifically unimaginative. Once you’ve got the chops, it’s the easiest thing in the world to come up with a bunch of passages that are Hard To Play and slap them together and call it a song—or worse, a “suite”. Call me when they can play “Hip-Hug-Her”.
Busy bass-lines populate the landscapes of both prog-rock and post-punk and its progeniture. This is what is referred to in evolutionary biology as, I think, a convergence: the development of similar characteristics in unrelated organisms. I see the importance of the bass in the latter as proceeding from its roots in proximity to R&B and reggae, I see the importance of the bass in prog as a compliment to the importance of the guitar and the importance of the drums and the keyboards and the flute and the lyrics and the capes and all of the other important components which congeal to contribute to an ultimate effect of undynamic paucity of inspiration. Unless you’re really funny or clever or tuneful or silly like Gentle Giant. I don’t even lump Rush in with that gang. They’re too humane. They’re more like Bad Company in a hall or mirrors.
Who are the most under-rated and enjoyable Vancouver (or Canadian) rock bands, in your opinion?
Well, I’m very much looking forward to forthcoming albums from Fines and nêhiyawak, but they’re not underrated. They are, at this point, UN-rated. I think more people should check out the Hydrothermal Vents from Ottawa. I think my favourite local record last year was from Ashley Shadow, and it goes without saying that the Invasives should be millionaires. Actually, come to think of it, I think the Vengeance Trio and Strength Of Materials are two of Canada’s most underrated bands.
Has the Vengeance Trio ever toured Europe before? I can imagine that German audiences might really eat it up, but I don’t know if it ever happened. How about Japan? Where do you have a following, outside Vancouver, and based on what of your many incarnations/modes?
V3 hasn’t gone to Europe. I’ve been over there with other lineups before, but not for many years. Where do we have a following outside Vancouver? We don’t, really. We barely have one IN Vancouver! Belgians and the French have been receptive to my work when offered the opportunity to be. And when the V3 has toured throughout the States and Canada, those who come go away satisfied.
I have been a little scared of Strength of Materials, but I must say I like what I’m hearing on Bandcamp as I dip my toe in and I am probably going to buy the album soonish. The idea of a “rock band string quartet” is appealing - are there albums or recordings that influenced it? Is this unit still active? Are there classical composers that you particularly admire—particularly contemporary ones? Are there any upcoming shows?
It’s been a tough year for StOMats. We haven’t played together since January at the Lido. Those guys have pretty bustling schedules, and have a tendency to get booked up months before I’m able to begin to ask whether they’d be available for whatever I might scrape together. I certainly hope I can slap something together before the end of the year! Strength Of Materials is very dear to me, probably closest to the music that I’ve always wanted to make, I think. The basic idea is, okay, we’ve got a rock band here, it’s just the instrumentation is different. Obviously, these sounds signify differently than the ones we’re used to in a rock format, so how do we organize them to deliver something like the impact of rock music? That affects the lyrical approach as well, which often settles into different voices talking over each other, different characters speaking for one another and assuming each other’s identities… like a bird’s eye view of a busy street, if a busy street were an interior state. I think in that regard, Strength Of Materials is a little like (I flatter myself) Pere Ubu or the Fall, even Einsturzende Neubauten. A reconfiguration of semi-familiar components within an established idiom. Whatever. People like “Eleanor Rigby”, don’t they? One thing it definitely is not is classical music.
Ford Pier opens for Bob Mould Sunday (October 22) at the Rickshaw.