The Great Lakes region in Ontario: the artistic career of Tony Dekker, the Great Lake Swimmers' deus ex-machina, originated in a small village amidst those breathtaking sceneries. Shy and introverted, with an extraordinary musical as well as human sensitivity, Tony has remained a simple and friendly person, despite the international success obtained with the Swimmers. A few months after the release of his latest “Song Sung Blue Ep”, in this interview Tony talks about his project, from the beginnings in a barn to the imminent release of his fourth album “Lost Channels”.
Let’s start from a classic: the choice for the band’s name. I suppose that “Great Lake Swimmers” might somehow be related to the great lakes extending between Ontario and United States, and your Canadian origins strengthen this imagery evocation. But why “swimmers”?
I grew up in a small farming community on the northern shore of Lake Erie, in Ontario, Canada. I have fond memories of swimming in the lake as a young child. I have spent most of my life since then in the geographical pocket between lakes Erie, Ontario, and Huron. The swimming part of it seemed appropriate at first, and then developed as metaphor for hope in my mind.
The “one hundred million dollar” question: how does the idea of becoming a musician come out?
I didn’t always want to be a musician. I originally wanted to be a writer, but I was also writing songs and started playing them when I moved to Toronto. From there music slowly started to take over my life. In some ways, the idea of being a musician chose me.
The GLS style has been compared to that of various folk artists, from Neil Young to Sam Beam to Red House Painters’ Mark Kozelek. Among the comparisons you’ve read about, which has been, so far, the one that you might define as “wilder” and more distant from your music? And which is your favourite one, the one that lures you more?
I don’t pay very much attention to these kinds of comparisons. It’s certainly an honour to be mentioned in the same sentence as Neil Young. I have a great amount of respect for these artists but I also feel isolated from them.
Today’s Great Lake Swimmers may be considered as a choral extension of your original moniker as a solo artist. How did the collaboration with the other GLS members start?
I’m still very much in a solitary mindset when I write the songs. I need to get into a quiet place and I’m usually pretty resistant to collaboration. However since starting the project I have had the good fortune of crossing paths with like-minded musicians through playing live in Toronto. Over time, and through playing a lot of shows together, a more collaborative spirit has evolved in a natural way.
Let’s talk about (weewerk). Your relationship with this label has something romantic in it: the first album by Great Lake Swimmers has the 01 catalogue number, also being the first album officially released by the young Canadian label in 2003. Since then, all of the GLS albums have been released by (weewerk), and even after the signing of GLS with Nettwerk in 2007, still the band’s management is committed to Phil Klygo, (weewerk)’s deus ex machina. This is the story of an artistic association, but maybe it is also the story of a friendship...
Phil was one of the first people to hear my music outside of my circle of friends, after I recorded the first Great Lake Swimmers record. He has been working tirelessly since that first record on all things GLS, and I think that we share ideals of indie sensibility. (weewerk) started off as an art space/art salon, and the record was originally released as an art piece through the (weewerk) exhibition space. All of the original pressings were assembled by hand. The record began to take on a life of its own, and then other bands became involved with the art space, and so (weewerk) grew into an independent record label. Phil has helped out with the Swimmers since the beginning, and with our signing to Nettwerk, has stepped into more of a managerial role.
GLS’ self-titled debut was recorded “over several months in an abandoned grain silo” located in rural southern Ontario. The desertic atmospheres and the immediacy of arrangements seem to perfectly harmonize with such a place of that kind. Why did you choose such a peculiar location? And how much influence does the location where an album is recorded have on your inspiration and on the overall mood of the album?
The location of the silo was chosen initially for its acoustics, which are crazy and wonderful. After recording some of the initial tracks there we realized that the microphones were picking up a lot more than just the reverb. In addition to the natural reverb sound of the silo, we were picking up environmental sounds such as the wind, rain, and choruses of crickets which came out especially when we recording late at night. Rather than try to mute these sounds, we decided to embrace them, and what you hear on the tracks is what was present when we recorded; nothing was added or taken away. I think that taking that approach, and documenting a place as well as a group of songs, draws a certain kind of performance out of you that normally wouldn’t have. It’s being in a special place, or a place that has some kind of energy, that provides a deep well for you to draw the performance from, if that makes any sense.
The second album by GLS, “Bodies And Minds”, seems to bend towards folk-pop atmospheres, maybe also thanks to the help of other musicians in the band and to the resulting choral setting of songs. What has changed in your approach to songwriting, since when GLS have become a band?
My approach to song writing hasn’t changed. I go into a quiet place and ruminate on some ideas for a while, and then bring the nearly completed songs to the rest of the musicians that I play with and go from there. Often I have a lot of instrumentation and ideas for arrangement in my head already and the band helps me execute it. By the same token there has been a heavier band involvement in adding parts since “Ongiara”.
In 2005, along with many artists of the Canadian and American independent scene (Mark Kozelek, Broken Social Scene, Sufjan Stevens, Hot Chip, Rosie Thomas, just to name a few), the GLS took part in the realization of the album “See You On The Moon!: Songs For Kids Of All Ages”. Aim of the album was to put together songs intended for children. Children of all ages, as the subtitle suggests. “See You On The Moon”, the song by GLS which gives the title to the compilation as well, received public acclaim and was even included by the Canadian CBC Radio 3 among the best (Canadian) singles of 2006. Could this result be the symptom of an irreversible Peter Pan Syndrome? Jokes aside, how much important is it for a musician to be able to “stay young”?
Making a children’s song was a way for me to step out of my usual song writing mode and try something different. It was a lot of fun to do, and the song itself has really taken on a life of its own. It’s hard to tell when you’re writing something how it will be received. I don’t have any aspirations to record songs aimed at children, but it was a really great experience. To answer the question though, I think the idea of youth is something that comes from within. To me, the song writing process and the idea of making music is still pretty mysterious to me, so I guess that’s a way of keeping things “young”.
In 2007 the GLS released “Ongiara”, which partially differs from the intimate atmospheres of the two preceding albums and is enriched with more full bodied arrangements than the previous “Bodies And Minds”, thus resulting in a peculiar “well rounded” choralism and in a quite solid work. Do these changes correspond to a different emotional tension when writing songs?
After I had written a lot of the material for Ongiara, I had very specific ideas for instrumentation and arrangement. I was able to call in friends for specific parts of it, and overall it ended up being a little more heavy than previous efforts on the arrangement side of things, without being weighed down by it. I like that it still has a light and airy feel to it. That was really important to me. But ultimately, I think it’s just a matter of really listening to what the songs are calling for. I see songs as little universes, and you have to go with what seems right in that universe.
The title of this album has a pretty nice story, because despite all those who would have liked to find some “spiritual-metaphysical-overelaborate” meaning in it, “Ongiara” is simply the name of the boat that ferried you to the place where the album was recorded first. Why did you choose that boat name?
I first thought that the boat name was mysterious-sounding and would be a great album title. But when I started to do some research on the origin of the word, it turns out that the name is derived from a peaceful tribe of natives that once lived in Niagara region of Canada, which is where I grew up. So after I started to learn about that, it made the choice of that word as an album title really easy.
Let’s talk about your new Ep, “Song Sung Blue”, that is the soundtrack to the same-titled documentary directed by Greg Kohs, focused on the tragic love story of Lightning & Thunder, a Neil Diamond tribute-duo. Is it the first time for you to be involved in an OST songwriting? What was your approach in writing songs to be adapted to the various scenes of the movie?
This was the first that I had attempted to write a soundtrack, and I found it to be creatively gratifying on a lot of levels. For one, the themes and the ideas were already there, so it was just a matter of enhancing what was already on the screen. Normally when I start to try and write a song, there has to be an idea or seed, or something to spark the process. That was not necessary with writing a score. I was able to play the images on a screen in the studio, and then pick up various instruments and play while the film was in progress, and develop ideas from there. It was a very intuitive process and one that I enjoyed doing very much, even though it was such an unusual thing for me to do.
Does a “fixed canvas”, as a sequence of images for an OST or a theme to be met for a concept album, result in a factor binding a musician’s creativity or has it the potential to further/differently stimulate it?
For me it was stimulated further, because I was unafraid to try out ideas for songs or musical pieces that I wouldn’t normally attempt in my own song writing (i.e., playing things backwards, using loops, and other studio tricks), but still at the same time keeping things organic and using the acoustic instruments that I’m used to. I was really able to expand my creative boundaries for it.
The Ep also contains a cover of the famous “Song Sung Blue” by Neil Diamond, which appears on the credits of the documentary. How did you feel in reinterpreting this song?
I thought that it might be possible to draw out some of the more melancholy aspects of the song, and focus a little more on folk instrumentation, to create and consider a different angle on what I consider to be a pop masterpiece. Something like that wouldn’t always work once you start to pick it apart, but the songwriting of that song, as with so much of Neil Diamond’s work, is so strong that it can withstand that kind of treatment and still make sense, and still sound really good even in a different light. It was certainly a challenge, but also a very rewarding process to bring a song like that back down to the basics.
To what extent is it possible to “impersonate” a song when reinterpreting it? In other words, how much can an artist push deep into rehashing/recasting another one’s song without risking on one hand to destroy its identity and on the other to stay completely out of it?
I’m not sure that I have the answer to that, as I didn’t (and don’t) have any intention to impersonate. In terms of my cover version, I was trying to live in the song, and make it into something that was personal at the same time as honouring it. I think that in a way it was giving the song another identity, but I think there is a playfulness about it, and the strength of the song itself is proven by not falling apart in someone else’s hands.
In one of your lyrics you say: “I'm writing a list of songs I can sing by myself.” Imagine that you have to list three songs by other artists to sing “by yourself”, dedicating them to yourself. Which ones would you choose?
“Fare Thee Well, Miss Carousel” by Townes Van Zandt, “The Angel Of Death” by Hank Williams and “I’m Goin’ Down” by Bruce Springsteen. All of these songs are powerful in their own way.
How do you live the relationship with your music, when you are on stage?
I feel like being on stage is the moment when I’m like at church or something. I try to treat it as a temple or a special place. I dig deep to try to find the place that I felt when I wrote the songs I am singing. It’s important to me to convey that thing I was feeling. But I don’t get stuck on trying to recreate the song on the album. Because it’s a different room or place every time, the song is obviously going to sound and be delivered differently.
On YouTube there are numerous GLS music videos, and three of them (“To Leave It Behind”, “Backstage With The Modern Dancers” and “Your Rocky Spine”) were directed by Scott Cudmore, a young and talented video-maker (The National , Hayden, Simon Wilcox, among his “victims”). How did your collaboration start?
I first met Scott through his “Nosebleed series”, which was a series of pictures that he did where people were photographed in strange settings with bloody noses and blood on their faces. I posed for one of his shots. Soon after we collaborated on a video for the song “To Leave It Behind” from our album “Bodies and Minds.” He creates short films, and videos to accompany music, in the same way that a song writer would approach writing a song, in my opinion. He has a great wellspring of ideas and enthusiasm and is one of the few people I trust behind the lens of a camera.
As regards your involvement in “Nosebleeds”, on Cudmore’s website I found the photograph portraying you, where you are in front of a fireplace, with your eyes lowered and flowers in your hands .... and with a nosebleed. What about this unusual experience?
This was my first project with Scott and it was interesting to see him create an environment around an idea. The idea was to evoke a feeling of uneasiness, and create a picture that told some kind of story, even though it was unclear about what that story actually was or where it was leading. It’s a strange little slice of abstraction.
Which video was the more difficult to shoot? And what was the funniest anecdote?
Actually the video for “To Leave It Behind” was done on such a limited budget and time frame, that we had to hurry in order to get all the shots in, because it started getting dark. I don’t really have any funny anecdotes about it except that it was practically done in a few hours, once everything was set up and ready to go. It’s a testament to Scott’s resourcefulness and ability to get things done within very narrow parameters.
The release of your fourth album, “Lost Channels”, is planned for the end of March 2009. Could you give me any anticipation about it?
I’m really excited to release the new album. It was recorded with my friends Erik Arnesen, Julie Fader, Darcy Yates, and Greg Millson, as well as Erin Aurich and Mike Olsen on strings, Paul Aucoin on vibraphone, and Swimmers collaborators Serena Ryder with vocals on the song “Everything Is Moving So Fast” and Bob Egan (from the Canadian band Blue Rodeo) on pedal steel. We recorded a lot of the material in the Thousand Islands region of the St. Lawrence River in Ontario and New York, which we discovered through our friend and area photographer Ian Coristine. Some of his photos can be found at 1000 islands photo art. The new album is called “Lost Channels” after an area in the St. Lawrence river, and it comes out on March 31, 2009.
At the beginning of this interview we talked about the “Great Lake Swimmers” name’s meaning, so as for the end I chose a curious anonymous quote about swimming, found on the web: “Swimming: From the outside looking in, you can’t understand it. From the inside looking out, you can’t explain it.” Do you think that this quote can somehow be referred to music as well?
Yes, I would agree to this. It is an unusual world to navigate because it is filled with so many idiosyncrasies.