Snailhouse

Snailhouse
"I write music for Snailhouse,” says Mike Feuerstack, "and I have to learn lots of music ’cause I play guitar with other people” — namely Bell Orchestre, Angela Desveaux the Harbourcoats (a new band led by Bry Webb of the Constantines), and his Ottawa based experimenters Wooden Stars. "I’ll also do the odd soundtrack for a film or a dance piece. That’s when I really have fun and get to use everything that’s lying around.”

Artists of all stripes occupy the building where Feuerstack and his dancer girlfriend Katie Ward (and a pair of cats) have rented a medium-sized loft apartment for the past five years. Located in the heart of Montreal, the early 20th century building features a Jamaican restaurant at ground level, music rehearsal spaces in the basement and four storeys of lofts.

"You have to try and make peace with the environment ’cause it’s really loud up here,” says Feuerstack. "There aren’t many technical advantages; the electricity makes a lot of noise, the street makes a lot of noise, the neighbours make a lot of noise — there’s a wood shop next door and there’s somebody who makes electronic music over there and a choreographer over there. But the flipside of that is I can make noise if I need to, or want to. And there’s a great view of the mountain, lots of light, hardwood floors, lots of room to swing. It’s got its charm.”

Neither a rehearsal space nor a recording studio, the loft is a place where Feuerstack and Ward’s respective ideas materialise, before being finalised elsewhere.

"This is the lab, this is where it all goes down,” he says. "It’s where I do all my writing, using whatever tools I’ve come by, they all collect here. I’m lucky enough to have all this space and be able to accumulate a lot of stuff and have it accessible, not just packed in a closet.”

Nearly half-a-dozen acoustic guitars, an old lap steel, an electric air organ, an electric piano, a banjo, a partly broken xylophone and a trumpet held together with duct tape are plain to see, most of them culled from garage sales and church bazaars. Closest at hand is his very first guitar, a small Hefner acoustic he’s had since he was ten years old. There’s also some scant recording equipment, employed primarily for demos.

"I have a cassette four-track that I use, just because I love it, and I use my MacBook for sketches too,” he says. The "office” space, consisting of his’n’hers Macs, is also used for "booking and arranging, the business side of things.”

The new Snailhouse record, Lies on the Prize (out this month on Unfamiliar Records), was produced by Arcade Fire drummer Jeremy Gara, a member of the Snailhouse band since 1999, and Feuerstack’s roommate before that, back in their native Ottawa.

"It really was a great collaboration with Jeremy,” he says. "Most of the initial work was done with just the two of us — I would send him sketches and that’s how the songs would begin. We brought in guests only after everything was fleshed out.”

The pair recorded in Arcade Fire’s church studio in Farnham, Quebec, roughly an hour from Montreal, mixed at Gara’s apartment and recorded overdubs in Feuerstack’s loft. Of the demos that had previously been recorded in the loft, a track called "Mahogany” was retained for the album.

"That was a pinhole mic on the MacBook. It’s just a really special performance, so we decided to keep it even though it has obvious sonic limitations. A lot of the time, when you make sketches, there’s something about them that you wish you had in a later version. Even though you might improve it in 100 different ways, sometimes there’s that little something that you wish you could still have about the initial version of the songs created in the environment where it was born.”

Steeped in reverb, "Mahogany” has a solitary ambiance that sets it apart from the rest of the record, which has more of a raw, rock ensemble aesthetic than previous Snailhouse efforts. "The songs are more straightforward but we’ve treated them in unusual ways, whereas in the past, the songs have been very unusual and we’ve treated them in straightforward ways. We sort of flipped the script on that approach to Snailhouse music.”

Working at home, and on property co-owned by a long-time friend, allowed Feuerstack to let the compositions evolve at an easy pace, free from the pressure of ticking clocks at rented studios, or collaborators who are all business.

"I don’t really have a social life, so it’s always been important to me to involve friends and have fun during my working hours. It’s not all about being the main songwriter and showing people how great I am. It’s just as important to have a really great experience.”