by Chris Randle
Last week, I interviewed Toronto local hero Sandro Perri about his incredible, unclassifiable new album Impossible Spaces. You can read my thoughts about the LP itself over there, but the Toronto Standard was only able to run half of our long Q&A (even websites have word counts), so here’s all the other smart, insightful things Sandro said.
CR: I’m curious about your musical background – what kind of formal training do you have, if any?
Sandro Perri: The first thing was, I bought a snare drum when I was about…maybe 11, and I just played on that for a few months. Then I got an acoustic guitar and messed around on my own for two or three months, and then got a private teacher, and studied with him on and off for three years. So I guess that was between 12 and 15, maybe 16. During that time it was rock and classical guitar that I was studying. And then I took a break from that and sort of studied on my own for two years or so, and that was the most intense period, six hours a day, that kind of thing. Then I got a teacher for about six months just before applying to jazz school, who got me primed to learn more advanced scales and theory and harmony. I got accepted into school, and I was there for about a year and a half—
Which jazz school?
Humber College. I did one full year and one half-year, even though on the first day I wanted to leave [laughs]. It was very conservative as far as I could tell.
So they didn’t know who Ornette Coleman was?
The teachers would have, I guess. But few of the students were into that kind of thing. I managed to find the 4 or 5 who were, and we developed friendships and played together. But I got something out of it, I learned quite a bit, and equally important is that I learned what I didn’t want out of school, what I didn’t want to be involved in, which was studying to be a session musician or a straight jazz musician. I knew that I wasn’t really gonna cut it. So I think that was the extent of my actual schooling – the rest, I would just read books at home and practice rhythm exercises. I practiced a lot from this polyrhythm book for a few years. And then just listening. Listening was the main schooling, actually.
I didn’t realize until doing the research for this interview that you had made out-and-out dance music before, as Dot Wiggin and Continuous Dick. Impossible Spaces seems to return to that somewhat, or at least emphasize grooves more than Tiny Mirrors did – there are definitely moments that remind me of Arthur Russell. That wasn’t a question so much as a statement, I guess [both laugh].
I could treat it like a question.
Well, okay. Dot Wiggin was actually a collaboration with a friend of mine, Todd Fox, who’s since passed. I guess he didn’t get me into making dance music, but I think that I became – I don’t know what to say about that. It was very special, that’s for sure. It was definitely an intense six months of music-making. And I learned something about simplicity from him, about space. I was probably trying to be too brainy about it before that. Trying to validate it as “music”. I still suffer from that a little. I don’t think I’ve fully found that thing you need to make great dance music.
The physicality and the simplicity. Structurally strong. That’s a key thing that I still am learning about, and I think all the dance music that I’ve made has just managed to not achieve that but offer enough of an interesting take that people have at least been curious about it. Whereas somebody like Arthur Russell definitely knew how to do those things, and he was a very sophisticated musician, in a more traditional sense. There’s nothing lacking in any of his dance music at all. In part, the desire to make dance music came as a reaction to being in jazz school, and yet, another part of me was still holding on to those things, which essentially prevented me from jumping right in. Just those mental traps you set up for yourself.
The other part was, making electronic music was a way of getting out of using my hands, having some sort of dexterity issue to grapple with. I spent years practicing and I had reached a bit of a stalemate. Making ‘beats’, on the other hand, was creative in an entirely different way. My brain needed a different kind of stimulation. It was much more about rhythm and overall construction than about knowledge of harmony. So it was a good way to relieve myself of some pressures that I felt, learning an instrument, becoming good at it. And I realized very quickly that making music is not about playing an instrument, it’s about overall composition, pacing and space and learning how to access some sort of feeling or idea and translating it into sound. Dance music is – I come and go, I’m into making it for a while and then I have a reaction to that, which is too much button pushing and not enough physical engagement. Not enough singing, not enough playing. There’s always a swing back and forth. So maybe I’ve come the closest to combining the two in this record.
That’s interesting, because in the beginning jazz music was dance music.
And then they sort of bifurcated. I don’t want to create an academic/hedonistic dichotomy, but I think jazz now is much more in the realm of Anthony Braxton and Peter Brotzmann. More cerebral – I mean, it’s also very physical in a way, but – and dance music went in the direction of Larry Levan or Carl Craig.
Well, I think there are different ways of experiencing the physicality in music. You could still feel it, as you say, even if it’s Anthony Braxton or Peter Brotzmann. The best stuff, to me, is often very physical, and in a way, kind of simple. When it’s structurally strong and it offers you something to hang on to. But then, a lot of music that sounds like it’s barely holding on, like it’s just hanging there, can give me shivers as well. That’s physical too. I don’t think it’s a bad thing that jazz stopped being dance music, I think a problem is that too often there is a perceived difference between brain and body, and then you get people going to supposed extremes on either end. There’s terrible dance music, just all about the body without take anything else into consideration.
Or really terrible IDM.
Yeah, exactly. On either end of the spectrum, it’s just too much of one thing. It’s too separated from the rest of our experiences. So ideally the line between this stuff is blurred.
You’ve produced all of your solo albums yourself – the new LP was recorded at 6 Nassau in Kensington Market, if I remember correctly – but you also do production work for other musicians. Do the two roles differ at all?
Probably the big difference is that I’ll spend forever on my own records, just trying things out, experimenting with things, throwing things away after I’ve done them, redoing them. I can’t really do that with other people, because it’s their own time, their own budgets, their own threshold of pain [laughs]. That process of making a record can be quite draining and difficult. So that’s the big thing, I have to be more focused and get a sense of what the person I’m working with is comfortable with and what they want out of the situation and how far they’re willing to go with something. That’s actually a very good thing to learn. I like process a lot, I like working with other people a lot. Helping to understand what somebody’s else thing is, what they’re trying to say or what their vision is. To encourage them in ways that I think are useful and to discourage them in other ways, from all the things that come up when you’re involved in any sort of creative adventure: all the self-doubt, all of the wondering what other people will think about this, wondering what are we going to call this, what genre is this? When you hit upon moments that are uniquely themselves, there’s a moment of excitement and then there’s this backlash that often happens, where an artist can get nervous and have certain anxieties.
And do you feel that you have a strong Albini-like production style?
When you say “Albini-like,” do you mean similar to how he does things, or—
Not his specific style, but more that he’s known for an idiosyncratic one.
I don’t know that I’m experienced enough to know if I do that with people. I might not be the best person to ask. I think if you asked the last five people I’ve worked with—
You’d have to ask Owen Pallett or something.
Well, Owen and I have barely worked together. I recorded Owen for two afternoons just playing violin, and I was very hands-off. But I probably, maybe, might impose myself a little more than the average person in that capacity? But I try to make that work first and foremost with what the person is trying to do.
Did you improvise any arrangements with the other players again?
Not in the same way as Tiny Mirrors. Tiny Mirrors was very much about getting in a room and just playing the tunes and letting things happen. I definitely made suggestions and edited a ton on that record, but this one was more worked-out, and most of the improvising came after the fact when I did the overdubs, with the synth stuff – that was all trial and error.
I was also wondering how the lineup of guest musicians coalesced this time. There are people who return from Tiny Mirrors – Ryan Driver, for example – but newcomers as well, like Mike Smith on bass or Jeremy Strachan’s great sax cameo.
Just from knowing those guys. I’ve known them for years, even before [Tiny Mirrors]. Maybe the juiciest answer to that would be that I wanted something different from the way the playing came together on the last record. I wanted to move away from that kind of beautiful laziness that a lot of the players on Tiny Mirrors brought. Some of the playing on that last record, there’s – not a lack of commitment but a quality to it that always prefers not to say things, to imply things. There’s a lot of space where the listener can come to their own conclusions about what’s happening.
It’s kind of understated or suggestive.
Yeah. And I think there’s still a lot of that on this record, but there’s a little more of a push, and that was definitely a conscious decision. That often requires playing with different people.
That breathy panting in “Love & Light” is apparently the singer Zaki Ibrahim. Did you sample it from an existing song?
No, what happened was, there was this CBC-commissioned thing in 2007, where this show “Fuse” would get different artists to collaborate together.
Oh, is that the thing that Owen [Pallett] and Cadence Weapon covered “Paris 1919” for?
Oh, yeah, that might’ve been it. I haven’t actually heard that one. But yeah, they would get artists who’d never played together before to collaborate on something and do a live concert. What happened there was, they got seven people together to do this round-robin broken-telephone game, where everybody would write 27 words about the New Year, and the words would get passed around the circle to the next person, who would then start writing a song. Either inspired by those words or using those words. Then everybody’s song would get passed to the next person in the circle, who would work on the song or jump off of the song, write a new song based on their song. There were three or four steps. So “Love & Light” was my finished song – the last step in the stage. And Zaki was the person whose song was passed on to me. Basically, I sampled some breath sounds from her song, and the percussion bit, and I used her words as a jumping-off point to write the words for “Love & Light.” So we didn’t actually work on it together, but I ended up using elements of her thing. It was important to credit her in that song because I ended up using her words and some of her sounds as a base.
It’s intriguing because she’s not like your usual collaborators.
No, no, not at all. But that’s kind of an illusion too. The style is different but ultimately it means very little. She’s a great improvisor from what I could tell.
The sounds could come from a modern R&B song or something.
Yeah, which I like.
You recently travelled to Bruce Peninsula with John K. Samson [of the Weakerthans] and Christine Fellows for the National Parks Project. What was that like, composing in the wilderness with them?
It was great. It was very interesting because it became apparent almost immediately that being out there removed the need to create. I don’t know if that’s technically irony, but the whole point of going there to create in the wilderness was erased, for me anyway, as soon as we got there. It made it very evident that a big part of the impetus to create is living in the city… or maybe being away from nature, creates this need for your own natural space. So being in an actual natural space is…
I’m not outdoorsy, per se, but something definitely changes in my nervous system when I go out into the woods. It does for anybody, I think. So that was amazing, and I felt no pressure to create at all, and I ended up writing a song the fastest I’ve ever written one, in like ten minutes, just because I really wanted to go swimming [laughs]. And it was really good to hang out with John and Christine, because I didn’t know them, and they were really nice people. We had a great time. I learned a lot about creativity there. I cracked open the reasons why I want to create things. I find I’m always reminded of basic needs when you go out and you’re surrounded by nature and you don’t have any buildings around, you don’t have any concrete around—
Not to get all R. Murray Schafer or anything, but the change in acoustics alone must have affected—
Oh yeah. There was this one really exciting moment where we were in the water, trying to record the sound of this—you know when you’re doing your dishes, and some water gets into a metal bowl, and you hit it and it goes doink? It’s an amazing sound. And so we were trying to do this in the water, we were trying to record this sound in this bowl. I happened to have my nylon-string guitar with me, and I was holding it in a certain way, and the wind grazed the strings and excited the strings and these upper harmonics just all of a sudden came out of the guitar. It was this crazy, whistling-wind-chime sound that I’d never ever heard in my life. I didn’t know that wind on guitar strings could do that.
We all just kind of went “Oh my God” and recorded the sound of this guitar. It was really delicate, because I couldn’t move. If I moved a millimetre the sound would have stopped. I had to stay there holding this guitar. I think that ended up on the vinyl version of the album that they released. But that was a great moment, because we weren’t really doing anything.
The idea of just discovering this unheard sound is so…
Yeah, especially when you have nothing to do with it, because then it’s really a mystery.
Interpolation recurs throughout your music in general, Plays Polmo Polpo being the most obvious example. But the final track on Tiny Mirrors reinterprets the first one, and while “Changes” is hardly a cover of its famous namesake, you are winking at Bowie with those stuttered vocals, right?
Yeah, probably. Possibly. I think that it’s hard to pretend as if other music doesn’t play a part in the music that you make, films or books or whatever. I like the idea of talking about what you’re talking about, maybe, acknowledging the fact that you could be referencing things. To me “meta” is not a dirty word. There is value in understanding the context of listening, and referencing other things that you’ve heard in the past is an important element in understanding what you’re hearing now and how you’re taking it in.
“Wolfman” uses this symbol of semi-human monstrosity as a way to explore awkwardness and hesitation. How did those things become associated in your mind? It doesn’t seem like a horrific or violent situation, just one of…misunderstanding.
Yeah, I think you’re hitting on some of the things that are there, for sure. Anything that could be considered monstrous is really born out of very human experience. I mean, the whole idea, the whole myth of the wolfman is essentially a human who has not been able to fully embrace what it means to be a human being, in terms of vulnerabilities that one has to deal with.
I guess if you think about it in a scientific sense, the myth may have been fed by—I can’t remember its name, but you know that rare medical disorder where you’re covered in hair? I’ve seen that talked about as a hypothesis for what inspired werewolves. And that persists today—they’re not seen as monsters, but they definitely are gawked at and stigmatized.
I guess the whole thing with the idea of monsters is that there’s the unknown, which is of course terrifying, and then there’s the fact that you recognize something of yourself in the monster. That’s terrifying as well. There are a few other things in that tune. There’s an attempt at some levity, and there’s also a nod to the whole wolf thing that happened a bunch of years ago, [when] everybody had “wolf” in their band name but nobody ever explicitly talked about what that meant, what conditions that arose from. There’s a quote from that Will Oldham song [“Wolf Among Wolves”]—that song actually has a lot of quotes from other music, it probably has the most of what you were talking about with “Changes.” It’s loaded with quotations and licks from other songs, almost entirely.
Maybe more like Frankenstein than the Wolfman.
Yeah, exactly [laughs]. Another monster.
It reminds me of the Mountain Goats—John Darnielle’s band?
Oh, I’ve never actually heard that band. I know that you and Carl [Wilson] are big fans.
A lot of his songs touch on monstrous subjects, but in a nuanced or counterintuitive way. With “Wolfman” I was specifically thinking of a song called “How to Embrace a Swamp Creature,” which is about arriving at the apartment of somebody you probably shouldn’t be sleeping with.
Yeah, I don’t know them, but I should probably check it out. Lyrics are a hard thing for me. They’re very difficult to write, I find. I wish that was my forte, but—that was actually the first song where I made an attempt at a story format. That’s probably where some of the awkwardness comes from.
By the conclusion of Tiny Mirrors, with “Mirror Tree,” you left the floor to your collaborators—you don’t appear on it at all. There’s a sense of absence at the end of Impossible Spaces as well; you’re there, but Jordan Somers [a friend of Perri’s who died of complications from leukemia in 2008], who co-wrote the title track’s lyrics, is not. It’s very moving, if you know the backstory.
Well, thanks. That was the first time I had ever collaborated on lyrics with another person. It was definitely the level of trust between us that allowed it, because he hadn’t done that either. It was all in one session, an hour or so, and mostly we were just laughing, actually. We were coming up with really stupid things, funny things, and then some of what remained managed to flesh out the song nicely. We were quite close for a while. It was unavoidable that there would be a lot of elements in this record about dealing with Jordan’s death. A lot of it is the stuff that is just impossible to grasp. When somebody’s gone, so much is beyond your reach.
Was he already ill when you wrote the lyrics?
No, the lyrics actually – I started writing the lyrics a long time ago, probably 2005. They just kind of sat there for a couple of years, I didn’t do anything. Like anybody who writes or makes music, there’s a whole load of stuff that’s constantly being worked on or just sitting there waiting to be used. This song was one of them: we got together in 2007 and I brought that one out. He offered up a few things that he had in his notebook, that he had already written, and then we sort of meshed them together. He wasn’t sick then, but he got sick very shortly after we did that.
“How Will I?” was written for him, right?
In a way, yes. And the end of that song, the whole second section, is connected in some way to the act of facing death, mortality, what have you. Doing anything creative is really a way to prolong that, to stave off the awareness of mortality.
There’s that feeling of solidarity in the chorus: “Hand in my hand, shoulder to shoulder / Today it looks like love is bolder.”
That quite literally came about from standing over his grave with my partner and realizing that you can lose somebody very close to you, but it’s really important, in that moment especially, to remember who you do have in your life as well, to contextualize loss.