Andrew Whiteman talks with Ross Simonini via email
Andrew Whiteman seems to be the force behind Apostle of Hustle. He sings, songwrites, plays several instruments and pushes the band further toward integration of Latin music elements. The story goes that he started the band after a short junket to Cuba, where he was inspired by the rich and complex heritage of music. He learned from Cuban musicians and swallowed the sounds pouring through the streets. When he returned, the band performed scores of live shows, and spent each one learning how to fuse their love for rock and Cuban music into something palatable. After recording an EP of their first attempts, Andrew stepped back from the music and decided to rerecord and reinterpret. The result is Folkloric Feel, one of the few albums in recent years to sound more intricate on each listen.
Andrew is also one of the primary musicians behind Broken Social Scene, another Toronto band whose album You Forgot It in People was, in my opinion, one of the best albums of the last ten years. Again, this is an album overflowing with influences. The songs are melodically strong and the sonic quality is a compilation of the best elements from all the important music genres in the last two generations. Both bands were born from the Toronto music scene and both bands tend to push the limits of how diverse an album can be. In fact, the albums have several overlapping musicians with groups such as Stars, Feist and Do Make Say Think. There’s some sort of weird commune thing happening up there in Toronto and I think it’s to all of our benefit.
In our interview, Andrew talks about his fear of bats, makes exhaustive lists (for your enjoyment) and pontificates about the true international language (hint: it’s not love).
Ross Simonini: Folkloric Feel obviously incorporates an array of Latin music elements; would you say most of these influences are primarily Cuban? In a few songs I can even hear the specific placement of things like piano montunos and bass tumbaos (“Energy of Death,” for instance); How deliberate are you in your use of these elements?
Andrew Whiteman: Wow, well it's great to have an interview start with the words “tumbao” and “montuno”! For sure, in “Energy of Death,” that song went through some crazy rhythmic changes—originally a bastard samba, but the montuno bass in the chorus was a later addition that really glues it together. I guess the earliest serious influence was Cuban, although I certainly steal from whatever’s looking good. I think we ultimately try to do the “serve the song” thing, and not pre–decide too much. Elements like montunos are the same as “hooks;” syncopation always sounds more fun when it’s contrasted with repetition.
RS: How learned are you in traditional Cuban music? Do you think it matters? Is authenticity bullshit? You pay respect to certain mentors in the liner notes. In any way, is Folkloric Feel an homage to traditional Cuban musicians? Are homages bullshit?
AW: If you wanna hear how learned we are in trad, listen to “El Reloj De la Pastora” (wristwatch of the shepherdess) on the LP version of the record. It’s more like a Valium Stooges! Well, Julian is actually pretty good at faking it. I took a few tres lessons when I was in Havana.
I wouldn’t say the album is a specific homage to Los Ancienos, but they are a huge inspiration to me—as are kickass old folks anywhere, doing anything (except the ones in power—senile bastards).
I guess the question of authenticity is too big for me to answer . . . but maybe I find the concept boring. It seems a little rigid, yeah? Not to mention exclusive. (Hmmmm on the other hand, what about the element of “preservation” in certain musics? Isn’t that a valid reason for including “authenticity”? It’s just a personal preference that I seem to be attracted to the authentic that has been bit–crushed or twisted in one way or another.)
As for homages, no I don’t think they are bullshit (I’ve written a few), though they can get embarrassing. Alex Lukachevsky once said he didn’t like homages and instead wrote the opposite—curse songs, like William Burroughs.
RS: Do you have an opinion about the new surge of popularity in Cuban music (a la Buena Vista Social Club)? Do you have any general opinions about the integration of “world” music into Western pop culture? Are you the type of person who uses the word “exploitation” when referring to Paul Simon’s Graceland?
AW: Wow more good questions . . . Well, I guess I feel that the Cuban music “boom” is pretty much over, although Buena Vista folks are now able to release their own albums for the fans. These records won’t be heard in Starbucks a la the first two, but often they are incredibly inventive and definitely pushing some boundaries. I doubt any “typical” Cubans would be freaking out over Ibrahim Ferrer’s second album, though I do. (Hammond organ blasting out the tumbaos?! Yeah, go Nick Cave styles!!)
Obviously, I am a huge fan of world music and wouldn’t have gotten further than Getz/Giberto* if not for Luaka Bop*. My opinions are usually more aesthetic then political—so while just said that I’m somewhat “anti–authentic,” the world music fusion experiments that flood the record stores mostly suck. Does that make sense?
If we look at things from the other side—western pop culture has been, er, “integrating” into the rest of the world for decades. Let’s check out what the mirror says. Although sometimes our marketing and consumption of “world music” seems to smack of what Said called Orientalism*, or exoticism (i.e: playing up Romantic and often false notions of the other cultures of our planet), still I know what sounds true and vibrant to my ears, and I’m thankful I’ve lived in a time when I can listen and participate.
As for Mr. Simon—I dunno. Don’t really like his music to begin with, so I’ve never engaged in that discussion. However, I will say this: He was using Incan musicians on his first record! Plus, when he was young he used to frequent a club (his father was part owner??) in New York where he would see all the great Latin bands of the day—the Palmieris, the Joe Cubas, Machito etc. The man has always been into “world music” (ugh, whatta title).
RS: You play the tres cubano on a few songs. Did you write many of the songs on the tres? How is your approach to playing and/or songwriting different on this instrument?
AW: The tres has become my main instrument in our live situation. I wrote “Sleepwalking,” “Lorca,” “They Shoot” and “Folkloric” on the tres. It’s a very different beast for a number of reasons: more open sounding chords because you can cloud the idea of a “root note”—I leave that for Julian to figure out! It lends itself to montunos very easily, as you noticed. It drones very well so the capability of a more primitive vibe is possible, although that is just a fantasy at this point: a more Morrocan roll trance like apostle sound. My particular tres is electric, a Gibson sg custom from 1971, like Frank Zappa, so it is quite unruly at times. Plus any tres is only near, at best, to being in tune. At least the good sounding ones—c.f. Arsenio Rodriguez in the ’60s.
RS: You’ve already mentioned a few names in Cuban music, names I think most people would have little access to. Do you want to mention any particular little–known artists who your fans might appreciate? Contemporary, Latin, Older, Canadian, Anything.
AW: Wow. Well, this is a question with no true definitive answer. I spew a bit on the website, but I also don’t get tired of it—plus it changes constantly, so here’s today’s data:
–Arthur Russell’s “world of echo”
–Alex Lukachevsky/Deep Dark Untied—Toronto based, best voice going
–A new label—congotronics
–DJ ruptures website and album
–The Zoilus website
–Enrique Morente (flamenco)
–I also like Animal Collective, Go Team, a girl called eddy, Gonzales, Dears, Thomas Mapfumo, Stella Chiwesie, Vintage King Sunny Ade tracks….
–K–os is a great Canadian musician, as is Dan Sanith in whatever incarnation, plus Juana Molina is a fave the volume of Ethiopique records
–1–18 is indescribably good.
–What about Charles Atlas? It’s overwhelming...
“GOD’S FUCK UPS”
RS: What do you mean by the lyric “energy of death”? The full line is actually: “A wind that fills the world with bitches breath is called the energy of death.” I know you probably want to preserve some of the artistic ambiguity but can you talk a little about this lyric? To me, it seemed to be a focal point.
AW: Another way of putting it is the title of a “book” a friend is writing called “Holding the Hand of the World While it Dies.” I believe the world is “spent,” so to speak, as many have believed thru history, and thus it’s compared to a chicken with its head cut off—dead or dying quickly and hysterically—a too easy explanation for God’s fuck ups . . . Actually, it was originally written as a praise song for the kids wearing furry pants trying to imitate the raves they missed out on by 5 years. It coulda been me, but it wasn’t.
RS: How do you generally approach lyric writing? I know you worked for a short while with Coach House Press and consequently worked with a lot of the Canadian Sound Poets (BP Nichol, etc.). Do you have anything to say about their philosophies on sound and text? Did this affect your approach to lyric writing in any way?
AW: The approaches favored by the poets I came to know at Coach house were (are) extremely varied . . . bp himself was an epic poet, a “concretist,” a comic book maker, a songwriter, a sound poet, etc. I was lucky just to have come into contact with a vital piece of Canadian culture—not thru the classroom, but around the lunch table—I guess I don’t have anything to say about their philosophies! Except that community at that level doesn’t last forever. My lyric writing is suffering currently due to a bad case of “behind the shoulder.” Usually perform some rituals and scream it out.
RS: Any other big influences in terms of text? Novelists? Other poets? Short Story Writers? Other Lyricists? Lunatics who mumble in the streets?
AW: Yep all of ’em. Leslie Marmon Silko, Jean Genet, Ben Okri, Burroughs, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Patchen, Michael Palmer, Nick Drumbolis, Lorca, Kevin Drew, Alex Lukachevsky, Robert Graves, Spanish textbooks, rereading old love notes, “Found” magazine, surfing@ubuweb . . .
RS: What elements in music have you grown to treasure most?
AW: Distortions, heart breakings, improvisations, a live show that you cannot get out of your system, a track that keeps giving even after it should’ve collapsed.
RS: Is it true that Folkloric Feel was essentially recorded twice? If so, how did you change your approach to the album on the second time?
AW: The second go–around was based on the fact that Kevin and I had, at that point, been exposed to Dave Newfeld’s brand of music making for 6 months . . . We decided that the “Energy of Death” album wasn’t pushed hard enough in terms of sonics—we needed to add some of the mania that we’d begun to taste at Newf’s recording (of) You Forgot It In People to the Apostle record. Thus, Newf did a lot of extra production, mixing, and, er, haze to the proceedings. We went back to the church and got new tracks, we flew in bedroom snippets from the home computer, we used field recordings, etc.
RS: In the same way that You Forgot It In People has a certain compilation–like quality to it, Folkloric Feel sounded very diverse on my first listen. However, the more I listen, the more cohesive it sounds. I know the album was recorded in different sessions, but did you approach it with the intention of making a diverse collection of songs, with each track as a separate piece, or do you generally like the sound of concept–type albums?
AW: Well, I gotta give Dave Newfeld the props for “cohesive–izing” Folkloric Feel . . . Obviously, I wanted the album to feel like a single piece of work, not a jumble. But the recording circumstances were just so ridiculous in terms of shifting locations, feel, instruments, that I doubted it could work. It did. The intention was really just . . . can we finish this fucking thing on time; and, is it Exceptional? . . . The latter being the most important criteria.
RS: On You Forgot It In People, the track “Looks just like the sun” reminds me most of the material for Apostle of Hustle. Is this right? Was this the song you had the strongest influence on? Conversely, did BSS’s sound have any effect on Apostle?
AW: Yeah, “Looks like...” was written quite a while ago, but it was always a BSS song. That’s the one I sing lead on, anyway. Part of the great thing about the BSS process is that an idea or song gets thrown into the ring and by the time you hear it again, you don’t recognize it. I’ve been, uh, “unmentionably” (that’s positive, right??!) influenced by all the members of BSS, collectively and separately—they are very special.
RS: You’re holding something in the photograph on the inside of the album. What is it? You even look proud holding it. Would you say you’re a proud person?
AW: What I’m holding is the Univox drum machine I bought off of Mocky 10 years ago when I was searching for the Sly Stone “There’s a Riot Going On” drum sound. Damn right I’m proud—that thing is the motherload!
THE INTERNATIONAL LANGUAGE
RS: Considering your intimacy to International music, what do you think about the idea of music as an “international language”? Do you really think music can be listened to without consideration for culture or language? Do you think aesthetics can stand entirely alone, without the aid of cultural reference?
AW: Ok so YES! to music as an international language. (Thought I’d give a positive response, for my friend Torquill.) It crosses borders, seeps thru cracks, and has always been considered as a subversive element by various authorities . . . not for nothin’, yeah? That being said, I’m more “nurture” then “nature” if you catch the drift: It’s impossible to dissect oneself away from their culture that they know best. We will always be listening to “other” music(s) thru our own set of cultural/language/media earphones. The consideration you mention is great. Cultural reference is like a shadow, inescapable. Thus, the “meaning” I derived from the Getz/Gilberto album the first time I heard it when I was four years old was obviously biased by “Sesame Street” and Alphabits, as opposed to whatever the Brazilian intelligentsia were discovering in it. In terms of “getting” something from a music whose lyrics you don’t understand—well, jesus, most people can’t understand their own first language when it's mumbled, spat, cooed, twisted or otherwise “interpreted” by the artist in question. Obviously, one would miss the subtle stuff—les jeuxs de mots. It takes a bit of effort—most music geeks are up for the challenge.
RS: What western artists do you think have done something truly original with “world music”? In other words, what artists do you think have integrated non–western musical elements into western settings with success and/or originality? It doesn’t have to be direct. For example, someone like John Cage seems to have brought eastern philosophies into the realm of western art music without bringing the altered system of tunings or other Asian–music techniques.
AW: Good question . . . Probably there are a lot of people I don’t know about that are doing this. I like Damon Albarn’s production of the Mali Music record. Marc Ribot’s Postizos Cubanos are incredible homage records, done completely honestly, no cash–in bullshit and absolutely incredible playing. I guess it’s easier for me to name some artists that are merely “blurring” borders:
–Zorn’s Tzadik label (i.e. Yuka Honda)
–Fonono #1 from Congo
–all the Tropicalia stuff was very “vultured”
–Double Famous from Japan
–Calexico mash it up, even Manu Chao.
–Mark Eitzel recorded an album of his songs in Greece—with wedding style time signatures!
And let’s not forget it goes both ways; no James Brown means no Fela Kuti, yeah? That’s just as interesting, to see what “non western” artists do with the music they find. —see Ethiopiques Series volume 5 for details . . .
RS: Any interesting future plans for Apostle? Touring? New Records? Songwriting?
AW: Well, Broken Social Scene leaves for three weeks in euro on Wednesday—after that I go straight to LA to start a lightning tour of the U.S with Apostle of Hustle, ends on July 1. Through the summer there are some BSS gigs. In August there’s some time to do pre-production for the next Apostle record (all my friends' bands are turning rawk! I think we gotta switch it up and go the other way), September is BSS relearning how to play the songs on our new record. We start touring it in October . . . I dunno when it ends . . .
RS: Finally, I’d like to prod at you a little bit. What are you afraid of (musically or otherwise)?
AW: You’re supposed to face your fears, yeah? So I went last time I was in Austin and stood on the Congress Bridge at twilight and just let the swarms of bats speed past my head, whirring and scooping, biting the mosquitoes outta my ears . . . it's good to have fear, it keeps you alive. The music I’m afraid of most are the new songs from my close friends, it’s like a new weapon they’re showing me and it’s almost always beautiful and deadly. You think: “Fuck! I wish I had written that.”
Thanks so much, Ross, you might not know how great it is to have a real conversation such as this about music, etc . . . It’s a relief and a bit of a renewal as well much appreciated.
Definitions of selected musical terms or artists:
Clave – The standard rhythmic figure in Latin Music.
Montuno – A sort of rhythmic piano hook/melody played throughout piano music. There are hundreds of montunos.
Tumbao – Standard bass rhythmic pattern in Latin Music.
Tres Cubano – A plucked string instrument with three primary strings and several sympathetic strings.
Joe Cubas – Leader of the Cuba Sextet, the #1 Latin group in the world, for a period.
Machito – Band leader, singer, percussionist of famous improvisational Latin jazz bands.
Maya Deren – Experimental film maker/composer
Getz/Gilberto – Album collaboration between Stan Getz and Joa Gilberto. One of the most important breakthroughs for Latin Jazz.
Luaka Bop – David Byrne’s world music record label.
The Palmieris – A group of talented brothers (pianists, mostly) who played some of the strongest Latin jazz in the last 30 years.
Arsenio Rodriguez – One of the most important figures in the history of Cuban music. A prolific composer (he penned close to 200 songs), tresero, percussionist, and bandleader whose innovations changed the face of Latin dance music and paved the way for what would eventually become known as salsa.
Alphabits – Beautiful, just beautiful.