Published Feb 25, 2009As one of the principle supporting pillars of Toronto's rich music scene, Charles Spearin has demonstrated the beauty and selflessness of his artistic vision time and again. From the evolution of Do Make Say Think's pioneering post-rock to his experimental electronic pop collaboration with Kevin Drew as KC Accidental, right into the great musical amoeba of the north, Broken Social Scene, Charles Spearin has been an integral background player in shaping the musical identify of this country. Now, Charles finds himself in the leadership position for the utterly fascinating Happiness Project, a unique album based on the melodic and rhythmic patterns that form randomly in human speech. Charles took some time away from recording a new Do Make Say Think album to discuss the process of documenting the universally musical sounds that emerged from a series of recorded conversations he had with his neighbours on the topic of happiness.
What inspired you to embark upon this project, both thematically and musically?
They're different inspirations. The musical inspiration came first. When I used to live at home with my parents, I'd sit and listen to my parents talk and my dad would be like, [softly and deeply hums] "Hmm hm hmmm, Hmm hmm hm hmm," and my mom would be [more shrill and sharply] "Wuh wuh, wuh wuh wah" and I thought it'd be a nice little duet. That was part of it. It's something I've been thinking about for a very long time. I used to do long meditation retreats - my dad's a Buddhist and I'm a Buddhist - and part of it is solitary retreats and lots of silence. Coming home after periods like that, you get to listen to people in a different way because people are in such a rush to say what they have to say and they don't think about the presentation as much. But when you've had a time away from talking for a while, you start to pay attention to all the other things in people's speech. So that kind of sharpened my ear for melody in voice. I thought it'd be an interesting project. I've heard some composers touch on it. Like, I don't know if you know Different Trains by Steve Reich, I think it's from the '70s, but it's an amazing composition where he took recording of different people saying, just short little things, like there's a woman who says "From New York to Chicago, from New York..." and then [he] composes the melody on that and "different trains every times." so that gave me some wind in my sails because I thought okay, it can be done. So I had the idea and I'm thinking it can be developed, and then I heard a couple other things like it and I thought, okay, well I can try and make songs out of it instead of grand classical pieces. I can try and make somewhat more digestible pop songs, if you will.
It is surprisingly melodic and song-orientated for the boundaries set on the project.
Yeah, it sounds like kind of an art project but when it started coming together it was really surprising how easy it was to make songs out of it. Thematically, at first I wanted to just record some conversations on the street and that kind of thing. There were a lot of times where I was sitting waiting for the bus or something and I'd get little sound bites of people talking and there are so many different colours and tones and little melodies that happen randomly, but I didn't want to be the guy going around recording everything all the time. Also I wanted to get a better quality recording to work with, so the idea of working with my neighbours came up because we spend a lot of time together in the summer time. I've got two little kids and they're out playing. So I just invited my neighbours over and happiness was one thing that's easy to talk about with your neighbours, you know? You don't want to invite your neighbours over and talk about politics or religion or that kind of thing, you start with something kind of friendly and approachable and it ended up being kind of profound I think. My neighbours said some really nice things, really wise things, so I was really excited about doing that and I didn't plan on calling it The Happiness Project it just what my friends started calling it.
Was there a particular reason you decided to talk with your neighbours instead of other friends of yours for the conversations?
Kind of, yeah. Part of the thing I like about having my neighbours is that they're basically a random cross-section of the city. I wouldn't have known any of these people except for geography. It's not like I'm picking people because they're wise, because they're going to say great things. I'm not picking people because they have interesting voices, I'm just picking the people who happen to be around to sort of show that it's universal to a certain degree. People are from all kinds of different cultures and different backgrounds and have different ideas and the randomness of it appealed to me. They're still friends, they're my neighbours and I've gotten to know them but I don't know any of them except through geography. So that helped.
How many people did you end up interviewing for the project?
Everybody on the album and then a couple more... actually I didn't really... whatever I did I used. The hardest part was going through, because the interviews were long.
How did you figure out which part of the interview to use?
Just listening back through it. It wasn't too hard. There are moments when you hear... if you're listening for melody first of all, like the first one I did was "Mr. Gowrie," which was one where I found the moment or the time I thought had some of the most interesting conversation, like talking about how he grew up, being so different from how people here live. Then I played it on guitar and then I took out his voice and listened back to just the guitar to try to find the parts with the interesting melodies, which is the only time I did that, the rest of the time I had both the voice and the instrument in together, but this one was different because I didn't really care what he was saying when I found the loop. I just found the nice part where he says, "Like I come from a poor country," but he kind of stutters on it. He says, "Like I come from a ka-poor country," so it's a really neat rhythmic and melodic thing but when you listen to it looped it's like "what'd he say?"
Did any of the music exist in any form before you started working on the interviews?
No, all the music is directly from the interviews. The interviews were first, then the melody of the interview, and then I'd start arranging it afterwards.
Did you write all the actual arrangements of the melodies?
Ohad Benchetrit helped with the second half of "Marisa," the "send me home, send me home," and then it goes into that sort of call and response thing. That's Ohad and I working together off that same rhythm and key. Ohad had a lot to do with that but the rest of it... well, I shouldn't say that because the horn players were very helpful, everyone who brought in their instrument was really helpful. To some degree I guided everybody, but at the same time they're all great players who I admire so even if they're hearing something different, I respect them so much that I'd be happy to let them do what they want. Leon Kingstone and Mike Barth have been really helpful, especially Leon, since the project began. So they did help with the horn arrangements of course and Julie Penner, I never have to tell her what to play, she just comes up with amazing stuff, I can suggest a colour or something, it's really vague direction. I don't say, "play a G sharp there," except where it comes down to actually figuring out the notes of the conversations; we do that together.
How did you establish the key you'd be playing in for each interview?
It was a puzzle. I found everyone I interviewed had a note that they came back to. Like that's where their voice feels the most comfortable and relaxed, the length of their vocal chords, I don't know. But everyone has a kind of natural resonance to his or her voice. Mrs. Morris talks in B, whenever she makes a point, she says it in B. Mr. Gowrie was A minor or C, he'd kind of go back and forth, it's the same notes but, everybody kind of had a key. It wasn't too hard to figure out the key to play it in, I mean, whether to play in a relative minor or relative major, what the root note is, depending on what mood you want to create, you can do that. The hardest part was to try to find the rhythm of it, like where the one is. Like when Anna says, "It's like they don't ask beyond of what's present," I couldn't figure out how to place the one, so I put it on the off-beat. And that took me a long time to figure out because I knew it was a neat melody but I just didn't know what the time signature was, or the tempo, or where the one was. That was probably the most exciting part, finding out how to make it into a musical phrase that works.
How did the ensemble you worked with come together and what sort of recording process did you use?
It was all home recording, mostly my home. I went to Ohad's studio at his house because he's got more stuff, more plug-ins and better speakers so you can have a better idea of how it goes. He's much more interested in the gear than I am. I could spend forever EQ-ing something but I don't do research. Ohad builds pedals, a compressor and pre-amp and stuff like that. For the people it's most of the people we tour with in Do Make Say Think who aren't actually in the main core band but we bring them on to play horns with us and that kind of thing, so they're friends. Dave Clark was the stretch; I've never worked with him before. He's an amazing drummer; he's been a hero of mine for a long time, always kind of from a distance. I first knew him from when he played in Deep Dark United, but he doesn't play with them anymore. He also played in the Rheostatics and he does the Woodchopper's Association. That's been his baby for years. He's such a delightful guy and an amazing drummer, so I actually sought him out. It was great, he had a whole set up at his house so I just brought my hard-drive over and set up with his drums and his room and everything. So that was easy.
Do you plan on presenting this material live?
Yeah, we're rehearsing, but I'm not going to bring my neighbours up [laughs]. It'll be the same recordings as the album. With Broken Social Scene we did little snippets of it with just me and Leon. I play the sample and Leon would do the saxophone part for Mrs. Morris. He's got it memorized and can play it perfectly and the rest of us are memorizing our parts. It's coming together. It's going to be good I think. March 11th to 15th we'll be doing a little tour. Two shows at the Music Gallery [Toronto], then Montreal, Boston and New York.
What draws you to your experimental approach to music?
It's always just been what I like. I like things that surprise me, music that surprises me. I don't just like music if it has a nice melody; I like music that wakes me up. There was a real formative time for me in learning music, at the being of Do Make Say Think. I moved in with Justin Small and James and we lived over what was the Pizza Pizza on Bloor Street. Instead of watching TV, I had an eight-track recorder, so we would play the longest most exploratory music we could, just try to play with sounds and make different sounds and it was a whole new birth of listening to music. In high school I listened to Zeppelin and Metallica and whatever. Bob Marley, a lot of Pink Floyd. That was a kind of bridge for me I guess. I grew up listening to classical music so I always appreciated that. My dad played a lot of it and even some [Isao] Tomita, which is Japanese. He'd do classical music on synthesizers; it was huge in the '70s early '80s. My dad had tons of records, so I switched on Bach, Walter Carlos, or Wendy Carlos depending on which era, [giggles], but all that stuff was maybe subconsciously getting into me while I grew up. I used to listen to a lot of David Bowie. Bowie, especially the Brian Eno stuff. So that's probably what started it.
Did you consider recording your own thoughts on happiness for the project?
No. I could be cheeky and say that the record itself is my thoughts on happiness. There's the concept of happiness, which is what people say about happiness, but there's a certain limit to concept. You can talk about happiness, water, anything, until you're blue in the face but you still don't really experience it. So the project is kind of a way of presenting [my] happiness without talking about it, it's talking about other people's happiness but at the same time waking up your ears to what's going on around you, just sort of discovering life and noticing things. That's happiness. I'm not really articulate enough to describe happiness so this is my way of presenting it I guess.
Have you seen any excellent local acts lately?
I've wanted to see Muskox for a while and we might be playing with them. They might be opening for The Happiness Project. I've been hearing their music on MySpace and stuff and people have been talking about them. The Tranzac is great and close, I like the kid friendly shows like the Deep Dark United brunch. My two little ones were dancing up a storm by the end of it. It's one of the best music spots in Toronto right now. I kind of like Ghost Bees, I saw them a little while ago, they opened up for Sandro Perri at Sneaky Dees a little while ago. I think Sandro Perri is one of the best musicians in Toronto.
Did you have a particular favorite track from the album, either the music or conversation?
Obviously the one with Vanessa, the deaf woman, I love talking to her, she moved to L.A. but I still talk to her fairly regularly. Her daughter is good friends with my daughter. She has such a unique situation. She was like a gift, even before the project, just coming in and thinking about music. She was born deaf, learned how to read lips and I can have a conversation with her no problem as long as I keep my moustache trimmed. She's starting to learn how to speak on the phone; she got the cochlear implant, now she's learning to hear. She can't tell the different between death metal and blue grass or anything, it's just sound. A few weeks after she had the operation she was in central park in New York with her husband and she swore she heard music and so they were walking around central park trying to find out where this music was coming from and it turns out it was the traffic. The traffic of New York is what she was interpreting as music. An amazing story, and she happened to be my neighbour.