Rich Aucoin Under the Big Top

Rich Aucoin Under the Big Top
Photo: Vanessa Heins
Rich Aucoin is, for the first time in a long time, relaxed. The top hat has come off and the cane he twirls is leaning up against the door. For a brief moment, the circus is not in town and the ringleader can rest.

"I haven't had more than three consecutive weekends off in the last four years," says the Halifax native. "I'm really looking forward to feeling like I live here again."

Aucoin's time at home will be short, and to be frank, the idea of time off is deceiving. After all, he has a whole new live show to build. He has to film a new music video. He probably has to stock up on confetti cannons and he certainly has to recharge his phone. Before long, he'll be back on the road again in support of his brand new full-length, Ephemeral, the follow-up to 2011's We're All Dying to Live, whose success was what has kept him away from Halifax all this time.

Rich Aucoin tours like no one else, because his live shows are unlike any other. A lot of the time, there is no band, and the audio portion is as pre-set as any button pushing DJ in all of Deadmau5 land. Cues are hit at precisely the same time because all the music is written and designed to sync up to Aucoin's visual presentation. Yet no Rich Aucoin show is ever the same, because of the crazed whirling dervish of energy at its centre. He's not shy about using his wireless mic to wade into the crowd and whip the celebratory frenzy like a human whisk. Demolished are the barriers of detached cool — it's quite a sight to see grown adults revert to squealing children when presented with the opportunity to play under a giant parachute like kindergartners.

The visual melange of Internet memes and viral videos and found and archival footage — all timed out perfectly to match the peaks and valleys of the music — is just part of the ADD-addled confetti cannons and playtime nostalgia. Yet the show is an enhancement of Aucoin's music, not a distraction from it. Earnest songs of love, longing, grabbing what's in front of you and following your dreams all fit thematically with the whole experience — what's remarkable about a show that, by its nature, can't change much night to night is that it never strikes a false note, and never seems contrived. Near the end, a card flashes on the screen inviting audience members to text Rich after the show and he'll send them a download of the album for free. Post-show messages are often incredulous: "Is this really you?" and "Are you actually giving away your record?" It is, and he is — and the contact list of almost 20,000 people he's accumulated would be the envy of any cynical marketing executive.

"Rich is very sincere about wanting everyone to love him and he wants to love everyone else," explains his brother Paul, a musician and producer eight years Rich's senior.

Rich Aucoin doesn't seem like someone who says no easily. He's a joiner, not a denier. That's probably how more than 500 musicians contributed to his last album, We're All Dying to Live. "It got out of hand," Rich admits. And while the video melange that accompanied shows around it was adaptable — after all, adding another video snippet to accommodate a little more music wasn't hard — the album listening experience didn't quite match the explosive live show.

Approaching Ephemeral, Aucoin knew he needed to do accomplish two goals: rein in the ambitious creativity, and make a record that represented his stage show.

The first key decision is that Ephemeral's live presentation will abandon the public domain visual mashup in favour of a single video. "When you pick one thing, you have to have all these restrictions," he says. He laboured over the decision, but settled on a 1979 claymation adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's 1943 novella Le Petit Prince, his favourite book. Many know the story, but few are familiar with this particular adaptation, making it ripe for musical reinterpretation. "Visually it's so good, but the voice acting in it is so bad."

Having decided on that source, Rich worked backwards: breaking down the runtime of the video, creating a collection of time codes that frame each of the album tracks. "Song one needs to start at 0:00 and go to 2:38, and the next song needs to come in at 3:10 and go to 5:29…" he explains. "For each song I write down all the themes in the visuals and what I know are themes from the story and start formulating lyrics that correspond to those."

Ostensibly a children's book, The Little Prince follows a fighter pilot whose plane crashes in the Sahara Desert, where he bonds with an alien boy who is similarly marooned. The book's weighty themes about the meaning of life and human nature give it a resonance that lasts long past childhood. "I've read it probably 40 times," Rich says. "When I know I'm not going to have a lot of time to read on the road I chuck it into my bag just to read certain sections. I find it really comforting. It says so much in so few words."

Ephemeral's title and cover — a black and white footprint —similarly convey a lot of ideas simply. A footprint, "is something that we leave behind," says Rich, whether it's in the desert or on the moon. But how long does that footprint last? "We're pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things. So if we're only here for a blip of time, how do you want to spend that blip while you're here?"

Mirroring Saint-Exupéry's concise writing style, Ephemeral clocks in at just ten tracks in 30 minutes, making it Rich's most direct work to date. It continues to marry his earnest lyricism to a mix of indie rock, baroque pop and perhaps more than ever before, dance music.

But make no mistake: Aucoin is not creating a live soundtrack to The Little Prince; this isn't some esoteric Cabinet of Dr. Caligari exercise. The source material acted as thematic springboard for Ephemeral's music and lyrics. "I never specifically mention the Little Prince or the Fox," he says, nor was he concerned that his lyrics needed to mirror the film's narrative. "But I think the record and the book reach the same conclusion that relationships are the most important things in life."

Rich grew up in Halifax the youngest of three children. He took piano lessons and learned to play percussion. Brother Paul, eight years his senior (who now fronts vibraphone crew the Hylozoists) would take a teenaged Rich to his studio, Nervous System Sounds, in Seabright, NS, where bands like the Guthries and the Heavy Blinkers were recording. "I think [that's] part of how he ended up where he is," Paul says now. "If you saw that, you might say, 'That looks pretty cool, that looks like a lot of fun.'"

Rich didn't follow Paul's direct path to music. He enrolled at Dalhousie in Halifax, and got a degree in philosophy. He spent a semester in Australia and caught the surfing bug. He's an avid film buff. That led him to Dark Side of the Rainbow, the famous pairing of The Wizard of Oz with Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. Clearly, something clicked there. Two tours helped Rich Aucoin become the artist he is today. First, he joined Paul and the Hylozoists on the road in 2006. "A lot of his tendencies came from him seeing what he didn't want to do," says Paul, like playing shows six nights a week or humping loads of gear between van and venue. "He was formulating what he was going to do and who he was going to be."

The second tour was his own. He'd created an EP called Personal Publication, which he constructed to synch up with the 1966 animated classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas! At these early gigs, Rich would sit at the side of the stage, letting the Grinch visuals take centre stage. But by 2007 — having absorbed those lessons about hauling gear and being packed into a van — he toured across Canada on his bicycle and the one-man band started morphing into the circus leader he is today. Rich realized that when you do something different, people take notice — that tour garnered press attention many established bands would kill for, all on a debut EP. "He really learned that it's important to do things that everyone else isn't doing," says Paul. "He doesn't want to play you his shitty acoustic guitar songs about his ex-girlfriend. He loved people having a really good time at shows, so it became about the crowd."

Touring remains an integral part of his creative identity as well as a source of steady income. Although he started as a solo act, playing to backing tracks, he's since amassed a network of about two-dozen drummers, bass players and other musicians scattered across North America and parts of Europe who know his current set. Now, fans can expect anywhere up to three extra players onstage on any given night, depending on the date, geography or mood. "We're all in one happy open relationship," Rich says. "There's no pressure on anyone to make a show. I can say yes right away, and then figure out afterwards who's available." This nimble approach has allowed Rich to break into new markets without the hefty overhead that comes with transporting a full band and their gear. The Little Prince was chosen for purely creative reasons, but it does come with commercial benefits. The book and its characters remain cultural touchstones in France, in particular. It's also Rich's second biggest touring destination. "In the last two years I've got to France a dozen times."

With the album finally finished, it's no surprise that Rich would turn his attention to his live show, which needs to be rejigged to accommodate the swell of new material — not just The Little Prince, but new visuals to expand it beyond just the new record. Inspired by an art installation that projected 1000 images in three minutes, he wants his show to leave audiences with hyper-sensory overload. "I'm trying to trigger as many responses from as many different visuals through nostalgia and what I think are interesting visuals in the shortest amount of time possible." Exactly what you'd expect when you buy a ticket to the circus.