You're back on the road, starting your Canadian tour I gather?
I'm actually in Victoria, at my mum's house. Heading to Salt Spring this afternoon for a show. I've been here a few days, showing off my newborn baby to the family here.
So you have a couple of new babies out then?
Yes, this is number one for real babies. He's just over five weeks old now.
Will that make it hard to be on the road?
Yes, I imagine so. He's coming on the road with us for all the Canadian dates. Then I'll head to the UK from Montreal.
Pleased with initial response to the new album?
Yes. It's funny, I seem to get pretty positive reviews, for the last four records anyway. Sometimes you wait for one of those scathing reviews that calls you on all your BS. I don't know if it's just because we're Canadians and we're so polite. I'm happy also because my standard has gone way up for the last three or four records. It's a great record and has great players on it and I think the material is fairly strong. so I'd expect it'd get pretty decent reviews. We'll see. Just being an artist and constantly being a bit self-deprecating, at least on my part, you are waiting, "when is the jig going to be up?" kind of thing, but I think I have a little while longer. Just over time, I think the more hours you put into something, the better off you are going to be. I think naturally it has gone in that direction.
It has been just a year since your last album, Radiant Land.
I have been accused of being rather prolific. I wish at some points in my career I'd had a bit more of a filter to put the songs through. I still don't find it that hard to write 12 to 15 great songs in a year. If that's the case why wouldn't I release records? The fact of the matter is that I guess I've done this ten years now and I am starting to get a bit worn out from the process of putting out a record every single year then touring like mad, going through the press and promo side. It is a lot of work and a lot of expectation you put on yourself. I guess I did one self-release, Little Victories, which was probably the easiest of the bunch. But as soon as you start signing record and publishing deals, then all of a sudden you have expectations to sell records. that is a lot of pressure for somebody in this climate the business is in now. It's a lot of extra work. I think with a new baby and just getting that 7 to 10 year itch, you start thinking "maybe I should try something else for a while." It seems like I'm living six months into the future, so I still have commitments 'til the end of the year. That particular record, Radiant Land, we made two records that year. When I think about it, Truth Be Sold was made nearly 18 months ago, so there was certainly a lot of studio work I went through that year. There was a covers record we did that year also that probably won't be released. It feels good to work. I like to work, and I do have a studio at home to work in now too. Feels great to work from there.
How did you connect with Steve Berlin? Suggested by your label?
At that point, I wasn't signed to anybody. I got a phone call one day from my friend Colin Nairne. He works for Macklam Feldman in Vancouver, and he said "I just had lunch with Steve Berlin." I guess Steve had heard one of my songs on the radio in Vancouver and really dug it, and on a whim said to Colin "Have you heard of this guy Leeroy Stagger?" Colin said "yes, he's a good friend of mine." Los Lobos were coming through Calgary, so Steve wanted to invite me to the show. So me and my mum, who was in town, and a couple of bandmates went to see them. They played with John Hiatt and it was a great show. I got invited backstage, where Steve said he loved my music and if I ever wanted to work with me, he'd love to. Of course I'd been a massive Los Lobos fan for a long time, so I was elated to be backstage there with Steve and David Hidalgo and the other guys, so of course I jumped at the opportunity.
I've interviewed Steve, and he told me he loves working with Canadian artists.
It's a cool thing. The bass we used on the album was one that the Tragically Hip had given him as a gift, the bass that was played on "Bobcaygeon." I thought was pretty funny, though I heard it got stolen shortly after we made our record.
What's his studio in Portland like?
He doesn't have his own studio. We worked out of a studio called Mystery Machine. Basically it is an old house converted into a studio. We were tracking all in the same room, like a living room, looking at each other, while Steve and [engineer] Lee Howard were in the basement, recording and getting it down and doing all their bits there. I'm used to recording in unconventional places so it felt fine.
It sounds immediate, not laboured over.
I come from the school of weird Neil Young records I love, where you can hear him bump into the microphone, that kind of thing. We had two weeks recording in total, and we were working on Lee Howard's schedule. He was a new dad, so we were working 9 to 5 every day. Not a hurried schedule where you're burning the midnight oil with a tired take at 4 a.m., though that can be fun. It felt like "let's go to work for the day." We rented a nice little apartment up the road. We'd make a nice meal and have a great evening. The cool thing was that it gave me time to rewrite stuff that night. I'd never really been able to do that in the studio before. So if there was a verse or a bridge or something that needed to be written, I could. One thing I liked about Steve is that he would call me on iffy or BS lines. I could go back with homework and rewrite the stuff that needed to be tweaked,
So Steve had real input?
Yes. He has his own production style, which usually involves a lot of percussion and weird percussion bass stuff that has to do with the drums. He'll have the drums be played with unconventional things like a bushel of wheat or straw. There'd always be something taped to the drummer's leg or bells strapped around his arm. That was kinda cool. My guitarist Evan, who we call Junior, has been playing with us quite a few years. He's still young, like 25, and Steve really pushed him to bring out some of his heavier influences, which you can hear on a track like "Memo." Kind of a Queens of the Stone Age feel, that heavy drop-tuning, riffy stuff, and of course I'm into that too. Not something I'd necessarily normally write, but as it was going down, I'm looking at him, going "That's really cool. Let's work with that." And Steve is really pushing for that direction, to think outside the box. It was cool.
Fun to have Steve playing on the album?
All his parts were overdubs that were done after I'd gone home. It was like opening gifts on Christmas Day when I got mixes back and could hear that Bobby Keys-type bari sax ripping in the back of "Goodnight Berlin" and also there is a kind of Augie Meyers keyboard thing he did on another track. And the midi sax solo he takes in the middle of "Have a Heart" is phenomenal. That's one of my favourite parts of the record. He is just a phenomenal musician, and he really does come at it from a different approach. Working with bands like Deertick and others he plays with other than Los Lobos, you can hear that experimental thing come out too.
On this album you credit your bandmates for co-writing the songs. Is that based on them writing their own parts?
Partly that, and partly it's to reward them for sticking it out as long as they have. Me and Evan [Uschenko, guitarist] took a break for about a year. I threw him in the van when he was 19 years old. He'd get hotel rooms and get fed well and be travelled well. I guess he assumed that is just how it was, being a musician. He had to go out there and see for himself and find out not everyone has it that good. He is playing with us again and it's great. He's a wonderful kid, and he's got really good as a musician. Nick [Stecz, drummer] has been constant the last three years. I just wanted to reward those guys for being around. Evan was a huge part of the sound of the last record. It is a collective. Yes, I'm the final say, and I guess it all goes through a filter of me and Steve in this instance, but I want musicians to be themselves.
I read that some of these songs are from the vaults. Did that tend to be from one period, or quite scattered?
I think about a quarter of the tunes had been written say five years ago. "Cities On Fire" had been written even longer. It had kind of a different theme, as I think I wrote it as the last Iraq war was beginning to flare up. I obviously changed it to be more part of the Occupy thing that was going down as we were recording. "Break My Heart" is very old and re-written for the sessions. "Celebrity" is another old song. "Have A Heart" has been kicking around for a couple of years. So yes, all over the place, but there's a lot of newer material too, written around the time of recording.
There's a real musical and lyrical variety on the album.
That was more the songs we came up with. One of my favourite artists is Steve Earle. He puts out records that take you on a journey through different styles of music. The older I get, the more interested I get in different styles of music, so it seems like a natural thing to want to be able to spread your wings a little musically. I am into punk rock, I am into roots and singer-songwriter stuff. There's nothing wrong with concept records or Radiohead records that have a similar feel throughout, but I think as a storyteller it is easier to have a different palette, different colours for each track.
Steve Earle is often used as a reference point for you, so you're clearly not shying away from that.
Not at all. Especially in my earlier work, before I really found my voice, that style was one I was almost emulating. Since then I have found who Leeroy Stagger is, over the last four records or so, but I still gravitate towards his attitude, more than anything. I just love the man as a person. The way he carries himself and his philosophies. I've had a chance to befriend him in the last year, and that has been amazing. I'd describe him as bad-ass. When people like that really influence you as a person, you're going to take the pieces you want and add them to your toolkit, as it were.
Steve is known as very prolific, especially after getting clean and sober. See a parallel in your career?
Absolutely. He is a big part of my sobriety, to be honest with you. I met him quite a few years ago, and he was sober then. That hadn't even occurred to me as even an option then. Through him and his guitarist Chris Masterson, who I'd met the same night, I was inspired that way. It took me a few years. I look at it as that guys like Townes Van Zandt lived the way they lived so that Steve Earle could finally get inspired to live the way he lives, and Steve did it so I don't have to do it. In some weird way, I feel that. Weirdly enough, I feel like a lot of good singer-songwriters are on this wavelength, this general or mass feeling. I notice a lot of times I'll be writing in a certain style or on a specific thing and I'll notice other writers in a similar style. Like the new Jason Isbell. I just sense a general feeling or style amongst songwriters that we are all kind of connected in some way, feeling what is happening in the world, and that comes out in our art.
In terms of peers, you strike me as one of the few outspoken or political artists out there now in the so-called roots field. Agree?
One hundred percent. It sometimes baffles me, especially in this country. One person that comes to mind is Greg McPherson. I started opening for people like him. There was that punk rock ethos of standing up for the voiceless. You have bands like Blue Rodeo coming out in favour of Idle No More, but they kind of came from a punk rock thing. For the most part, I find it kind of fluffy, middle of the road stuff. I'm not going to lie. There are some great singer-songwriters in Canada, but I like it when people are actually saying something.
At the time you were recording this, I gather the Occupy movement helped fuel you?
Yes it did. I'm kind of somebody who when they see kids getting clubbed over the head or pepper-sprayed for demonstrating peacefully, or seeing what was going on at the G20 over your way, it is really hard not to be emotionally connected to that stuff. I wish partly I wasn't. I do take it hard. That is not the country I thought I was growing up in as a kid and I'd sing the log-drivers song on the CBC and the national anthem would play. I just felt we were above that. It's kinda sad that is happening more and more, in North America as a whole. It is impossible for me to keep quiet about it. I wish I were a bit more poignant about it. I wish I could write a political song like I can write a love song, but, like I said, sometimes you have to go with the raw emotion. A song like "Capitalism Must Die," I don't think I wrote it that well, but the sentiment gets across, which is the job of the song I suppose.
I know Radiant Land came out in the U.S.. Did you tour it there or did it get a good response?
No, it basically did nothing in the U.S.. I just didn't really get any label support in the U.S. really, and that's why I think it didn't. That is a whole other story.
You are still officially with Gold Lake Records?
Yes. I am happy that somebody is interested in putting out my music, whether it is Gold Lake or Club House in the U.K., or Blue Rose in Europe. It is very flattering. The fact is I have a fairly decent career in Europe and it is slowly picking up in Canada, but America is tough for me for some reason. I guess I just haven't had a push from a label or the machine down there I guess. Even working with Tim Easton recently has helped quite a bit, as he does pretty good and I've got a lot of new American fans through him.
Have you toured much in the UK and Europe?
Well, I've done Germany pretty much once a year for the last five years, and we are heading back to the UK. I've just signed a deal with a great little label there called Club House. We are heading back for a three-week tour there in July. I don't think I've toured there for seven years, so that is really exciting. There is quite a buzz about the record in the UK. We're doing some pretty awesome festivals, like the Maverick Festival and Summertime festival, which are really big Americana-style festivals. I'm pretty stoked about that. I just feel like music is very well-regarded in Europe, to be a musician. That feels good, to be wanted. To do a three-week tour with great shows and hospitality. I love touring in Canada, with that sense of national pride, but there are a lot of markets where I can't seem to get anything in. Hard to get some traction, but it seems to be getting better.
Anything else in the works?
Things like filling out grants for videos, stuff like that. We've been trying to arrange to do a tour type documentary of our trip to the UK. I think that'd be neat. There was talk of an XM/Verge session while we are in Toronto, so that'd be cool, and we have been working on a new record. It definitely has a folkier feel to it.
I thought you said you were going to take things a little easier?
So did I. We have cut about nine songs already, but I want to be very picky. It'll be like the tenth studio record, the tenth year, so I want to do something special. I'm not in any hurry to get it done, but I think the material that has been written for it is really strong. feel really connected with it, and with more of the folkie approach we have been taking.
That is quite a milestone, ten albums. Take pride in having a body of work?
Yes, I think it is quite spectacular. I think a lot of it is that feeling that if you slow down you rust, you die. I guess that is one thing I can never be accused of, slowing down. I feel like I want to get a lot of work done, for some strange reason. I'm not sure if that will continue after this release. The feeling is I do need to take a break. I want to raise my kid and I don't him to always be going "Where's daddy?" We'll see. Music has been really good to me, and I do love performing, but I now have a new little life to take care of. But I don't want my kid to be raised to think you shouldn't follow your dreams. Maybe it just means three or four years off the road. Raise him up and get back at it when he is old enough to understand.