Published Aug 20, 2007Inclusion on the Exclaim! Wood, Wires & Whisky tour represents perfect timing for Toronto-based trio Sunparlour Players, as their highly acclaimed debut disc, Hymns For The Happy, is about to be re-released (in revamped form) on the Baudelaire label. The Mennonite upbringing of main-man Andrew Penner may have piqued press interest, but it is his eloquent lyrics and passionate vocals and the groups fiery onstage energy that will keep you riveted. Exclaim! chatted with Penner over pints on a Parkdale patio recently. Heres how it went down.
Congratulations on Hymns For The Happy. Is the new release the same form of the album that came out independently a year ago?
Andrew Penner: I completely re-recorded one song. Generally on the album, we wanted to expand things a bit, put a string section on, theres a marching band on one song, a choir. We dont tour with a marching band or a choir, but on the record we wanted to put in the subtleties. Live, it tends to get a little slam-bangy, slamming away at stuff, and subtleties can get lost. We wanted to take everything apart, look at it independently, and figure out how to subtly put things in. It worked on a lot of it. One of the tracks, "If The Creeks Dont Rise, we gave it a much slower feel, a little sluggish. That was intended, but it never quite had the energy we seemed to give it when we played it live. I wanted to go a little closer to that, to give it a bit of a kick in the pants for this version of the record. Im much happier with this new version. And we did a lot of things like remastering all the songs, with Noah [Mintz] at the Lacquer Channel. And seven of the ten, I kind of took apart, remixed, and sometimes added instruments. All of the banjo sounds on the album now are different, just by doing things like pumping them through speakers in a big wooden room to give them a better sound, or else just redoing the banjo takes. Did some new vocal takes, harmonies here and there, just because I was never really happy with the sound. I also play with an organ pedal. That wasnt on the album the first time, so now it is on several songs. I guess its an overhaul of it.
You appreciated that opportunity, then? A lot of artists dont like to re-do something already recorded.
There is always stuff youd want to change. Im not that precious with it. The next recording I want to do pretty quickly. Maybe spend a week, and just do it. Well see, maybe itll take a year! I definitely am happy to have that opportunity. Im sure therell be things in a month where its "aargh, but Im not going to obsess. It doesnt really bother me now. Its done. I dont think perfection is something that is attainable, for me anyway.
You must be pleased the record is getting a new lease on life, with a higher profile and label backing?
Yes, I feel its a good first introduction to the band. For it to get a wider push is nice, and then we can set it up for the next one.
Is that gestating? Some of the songs on this record must be a couple of years old.
I have a couple of albums worth of material ready to go. We are going to tour and do whatever we can with this album, but Im really excited about the next one. There may be new stuff in the form of an EP, or just digitally, I dont know.
You produced this one yourself?
Yes, me and the other folks involved. There are lots of helping fingers and toes.
Where was it recorded?
A good portion of the album was recorded by us all over the place. A lot in Toronto, some in my hometown, where we turned a house into a studio for a week and figured out how to use some of the instruments and recording stuff. Recorded some in Toronto, and made it portable, so we could bring a marching band to a certain room where we wanted them all to be together. this time around, we did a lot of the re-recording at House of Miracles in London. Andy Magoffin is amazing to work with. We did that the first time too, with a couple of tracks recorded strictly there, and we mixed it entirely there. He had a big ear on it. We threw a lot of stuff at the wall to see what would stick.
In the first incarnation, was it recorded as a duo, with your co-member [now-departed Mark Scachowskoy]?
The first version was recorded a lot with us as a duo, but Dennis [Van Dine], who is with us now, was really involved in the first recording as well. He helped us arrange strings and horns and choir parts and played a lot on it, so he has been involved on this recording since the start. And then Rosie [Michael Rosenthal], who plays glockenspiel and drums and bass guitar and sings with us now, he got involved right at New Year. Hes been a force that we couldnt keep away.
Enjoying the transition from a duo to a trio?
Yes, I have. I loved playing as a duo. I started off doing one-man shows as Sunparlour Players. A lot of the songs on this album started off as solo versions, and they definitely took a better arrangement on as a duo. And now as a trio its a natural evolution. I dont want to go any higher. Now it is three virtually all the time, though Ill sometimes do a solo show, or there may be 20 people onstage. For our CD release on October 18 at the Rivoli [in Toronto] were going to have the strings, the choir and the horns. That chance doesnt happen often. Last time we did it was at Canadian Music Week back in March and it was a lot of fun. Its chaotic, but it is with a three-piece too. Not necessarily the aim, but the result that seems to happen is something slightly out of control, something that borders on teetering.
Sounds a bit like the Silver Hearts [the roots orchestra from Peterborough]?
Yes, the first festival we ever played was with them, about a year ago.
I saw you play as a trio twice, at the last NXNE and when you opened for the Veils.
You were at the Veils? Yes, that was fun. We got the call at midnight the night before. Something happened with the opening band. That was a blast, and Id never played the El Mocambo as a band before.
You had an album out on your own before [2004s Mersea], but I gather that was close stylistically to Sunparlour Players?
Basically I didnt have the stones to call myself Sunparlour Players at that point, being just one person. Now Im OK with it. Those songs are [like] ones Sunparlour Players play. It was the same repertoire, but I just didnt have the stones to call myself a plural name. I dont know why.
Reprise any of those songs?
No. were actually thinking about the next one, and we have some re-recorded as the band. There is more of a concept I have for the next one. I think the songs on Hymns For The Happy belong with each other. The ten songs for me work. Id thought a lot about adding some songs, and I started to work on them. I want to use them, but it seemed these ten songs worked together. The same subject matter. Its all kind of about people moving, immigration, to me. Theyll just be on the next one or released in some form.
On the songwriting side, do you bring finished songs in to the group?
It works in a bunch of different ways. Normally I come in with a song with either a basic framework or a couple of specific ideas. Sometimes its completely finished and its like "heres the song, lets try to arrange it. But they definitely have input. Sometimes I come in with something Im pretty happy with. Naturally when you add glockenspiel or organ or clarinets, it will change the song in ways. Then well work on it as a band, and I always take it away again and kind of rewrite it in my head with the arrangements, and that bumps it into other places and then well finish it. So usually I come in with a song, it grows a little, and I take it away and massage it. I put fertilizer on it, bring it back and we harvest it (laughs). Im searching for metaphors here.
Will you come up with lyrics first and that suggests a certain tempo or mood of a song?
Often it happens like that. Often it will come from a melody that happens. I walk and I hum and I sing a lot, and often things grow out of the movement of a melody. That determines words that form. Often I dont know where they come from, or Ill go well "Ok, thats because I was reading this book or thinking about this. Often I go for specific things I want to work with. A song like "John Had a Bell and a Whistle, I was just on the streetcar one day and singing all day, and by the end of the day I had all these words I was singing. I really didnt know why they were there, but then I looked back. There was one friend I grew up with named John, and the song has a lot to do with that guy. On "If The Creeks Dont Rise, I was writing a lot in the area I grew up in and was wanting to investigate that theme, of the migrant workers I grew up around and the farm I grew up on. And the song "Hymn For The Happy is like that too. "The Pacifist Anthem, I wanted to think about my religious background and the area I grew up in, and that stuff started coming up.
I saw one quote where you talked about how if you want to explore your roots you need to move away.
Yes, the distance and the time away open up different parts of your brain. Sometimes objectivity comes into it, where youre able to look at it in a different way than if you are in something. You look back and think "Oh that was great, but I didnt appreciate it at the time because I was in it. You can look at it a little more constructively.
Ever have a stage of wanting to escape that environment to the city?
Well yes as a teenager, like any teenager you want to start to travel. I did anyway. Think I was 17 or 18 when I moved to Toronto. I was a farm boy and I wanted the complete opposite. For me, that was here. I just came up here, but I constantly want to go back. Not permanently, but Im definitely always drawn to the farm, the country. I need to go there often to feel sane. I love the city but I find I really need both. Parkdale here is close. It feels like a good small town to me.
Did you study music academically when you moved here?
I went to school and studied English and theatre. Read plays and stuff at Ryerson. I was going to do music, but didnt think it was a good idea. My brother went to music school and it didnt seem like that study was a good idea for me. I read a lot, sang a lot of words, so looking back I do think my schooling helped in learning how to make stories a little more concise.
The theatre side help with performing?
I guess. I was never really that happy or comfortable in doing that stuff, I think because I was always playing music before. I decided to concentrate for a few years on something different, but I kept on getting put into the place where it was like "Andrew, create some music for this scene while youre doing it. So Id be onstage, but scoring it too. That kept happening, where Id get hired to do something, but then really be doing the music. It made me way happier to do that, it was more fulfilling.
Ever try writing plays or short stories?
Really briefly. Just felt I was really bad at it. A couple of years ago it just started to come out in songs. That seemed to be where I could write, where I didnt want to barf after I read it! Ive written some music for plays, and Im writing some music now for a film thatll be out in the Toronto Film festival. Its called This Beautiful City, by Ed Gass-Donnelly. His father is the head of the Factory Theatre. Ive seen a rough cut of it and its great. Hes a huge music fan, so the soundtrack is looking fantastic. Its got the Fembots, Sebastien Grainger, Amy Millan, Buck 65, Andre Ethier, Jewish Legend, a whole bunch more. Bry Webb of the Constantines. Hes amazing. Ive loved his stuff for a long time.
So these are songs created for the film?
Yes, Ed really wanted original music. In January he gave me a script, and I saw a rough edit a month later. From that, I started writing songs, ended up with two Im happy with, and have been recording them at the Junk Shop with the Fembots. Finishing it up next week. Ive seen some snips from the nearly finished edit and its great. Im really happy for him. Getting back to where we talked about a community of people being involved with, there seems to be a lot of great music in Toronto. I tend to keep to myself a lot, but theres certainly no shortage of people Ive found that I really like and I like the work they do. You keep wanting to try to be good.
Are you sometimes inspired or influenced by film and literature? To me, theres a cinematic or literary quality here.
Definitely. Different writers, painters, film, architecture. Just travelling for me is a huge thing. I think a lot of people get inspired by that. I took a trip with my wife a couple of years ago, right before I started writing Sunparlour Players stuff. I came home from that and recorded that little EP a couple of months later. Thats where it started. The trip was straight through Canada, to the western part of Vancouver Island, then down to san Francisco and dead through the centre of the States. We were going to go to Mexico, but time became an issue. A lot of people are attracted to the South and Texas, but we went straight through the centre. Colorado and on.
No, we actually took the Pony Express for quite a bit of it. We realised about 500 miles into it, the other side of the Sierra Nevadas, we realised we were following along that route. Theres a weird history to that stuff. So just travelling is inspiring, and sitting alone by water is always a good thing I find. And walking is the best thing.
People comment that your work feels as if it is set in another time and place. That deliberate?
I cant say I intentionally wrote it like that. I think when I was writing a lot of the stuff for this album, some of the books I was reading were like Flannery OConnor, the greatest short story writer ever. And I was obsessed at the time with hymn books. I was collecting them in different languages. I grew up travelling and singing in choirs too, so Ive always had a bit of an affinity for that. And books like Aesops Fables. It must have seeped in somehow, but I find that a lot of topics on this album specifically, I actually think are set right now, but theyre set in a person, not outside a person. The memory you have of something, even if it happened 100 years ago, it can feel like any time within you. Not sure if that sounds really corny, but I think memory and ideas, even if they dont exist in reality, are an active thing. That answer any of it?
In terms of press coverage, there has been a lot of attention placed on your background, your faith [Mennonite] and your family. Ever feel that has been overblown or misrepresented, or think people naturally are interested in that?
I definitely accept that it is naturally of interest. People hear "Mennonite, and they go "what? The extreme image they have often comes up, but I completely understand that. I think it is interesting! I enjoyed how I grew up. It is not anything exceptional to me. Everyone is born into something.
Your family enjoy what you do musically?
Yes, they love it. My dad is a huge music fan and luckily he likes the stuff were doing. My mum too. She is a piano player and has sung in choirs for a long time. They have always been very supportive of this. Music was just always around, growing up, so that was good.
It was a big range I gather?
Yes. I grew up with a lot of classical music too. One of the things I find had a big part for me musically was growing up near Detroit. It was all Detroit radio and TV, except for CBC. So I grew up on old Motown and R&B and a lot of hard rock. I still love all of it. I wasnt a huge fan of older folk or bluegrass music then at all. I find a lot of songwriters had their folk music period, but I never really had that. It all came in my mid-20s, where I listened to it more. Plus everything from the Staple Singers to early Nirvana. That was a huge thing for me too. I remember the Nevermind album, and seeing it on cassette in Detroit. I got it before it really took off. I was skateboarding and riding a lot of motorbikes at the time in the country. No, it wasnt really rebellion. My folks and my grandfather built us the half-pipe we rode on, so it wasnt too rebellious if they were involved! That stuff and heavy metal was a big part of me growing up. Later I listened to gospel music. Things come up and you realise theyd been there for a little while anyway.
You get your hard rock side out onstage now, in terms of the energy level?
I feel the energy of that is there. When people ask what kind of music we play, my short answer is usually that were a rock band. One critic lately said of us, "if Nirvana grew up on a farm. I actually think that is good. I get asked a lot to describe it, and I dont know how to answer the question.
In early days of the group, would you do cover songs?
Yes. When I was working out a lot of Sunparlour Players stuff I did like a two-month residency in this tiny club. They didnt have a PA or anything, but they threw me some money and they were great. I had some songs I wanted to work out, so Id play in the corner un-amplified, on banjo and guitar and had a big suitcase I was using as a bass drum. I played for two-and-a-half hours every Sunday, working out songs that are on this album. When youre un-amplified in a place with a lot of people, you have to get bigger. Or I tended to a lot of the time. So I found different places in my voice where I could get bigger, and just arranging songs, and finding ways to improvise on the spot. Our songs are pretty arranged, but there is an element of spontaneity. I love shows where stuff goes wrong and people have to make do on the spot. Those are the shows that stick with you I think. I dont like going to see concerts by bands that just play the record. I dont want to hear the record live.
How does the folk crowd accept you, like at Mariposa?
That was last year. It felt good. In that way I feel fortunate. I feel we can play a folk festival and a rock festival. I often feel we fit in a little better at the rock festival, but Im probably wrong. It might be equal. At Mariposa it felt like it was really hot or really cold. You dont hear so much from the cold cos they go away and youre left with whoever likes you. We found that little kids like us a lot at festivals. We were one of the few people on the second stage that had drums. We have several bass drums so it is loud. Actually I just bought a huge marching bass drum a couple of days ago. A friend was clearing some out, and Im very excited. A lot of parents came up after at Mariposa, thanking us for keeping their kids entertained. It was great, little kids dancing around. That is where our market is, under ten years old. And those kids are loaded!
Ever go busking, given that you play multiple instruments?
No, never done it. Ive seen it, like at the Ex. We are multi-instrumental, but I think its a fine line between comedy and novelty. For us it is just being practical. When youre playing a lot of instruments at once, its a matter of streamlining what youre playing. I find I have to simplify what youre playing, so you try to bring it down to the clearest line you can. The overall thing with the Sunparlour Players is the amount of energy youre trying to give out. Thats the intent behind what youre trying to do. Not to say that the music is secondary by any means, but if you think about that, the music seems to fall into different places where you have to arrange it a certain way. That is where a record is great, where you can step back and think, "What are the subtleties we want to put in? I dont want to play this album verbatim live. Our live show, its not night and day, but I dont find many people that see us live that are disappointed they dont hear the album. I feel it is a suitable transition.
If you have a 40-minute opening set in a rock club, I guess you go for the high energy? Right. Like the Veils show you mentioned. Before we went on, we said "What are we going to play? All the fast ones! Maybe one ballad, as I need that, the ups and downs. Some shows, we can play some incredibly quiet songs.
Looking forward to the Exclaim! tour? Great bill, isnt it?
Yes, the Acorn, Elliott Brood. We played a show with them both at Christmas, so may be the Exclaim! people were there and liked that bill a lot. I just really like those folks. Ive heard a little of the new Acorn album, and it sounds great. So the tour should be good. Our first time across Canada. Weve done the 401, Montreal, Ottawa, down to Windsor, and thats it, several times. So looking forward to it. Its a big country, but whenever Ive done the drive Ive loved it.
Howd you meet up with Baudelaire?
Well, Jessica, our manager, started coming to our shows when we had a residency at the Tranzac Club, after Id done that solo residency at a small club. Once we started to be a duo, we did that residency for over a year. She kept coming. We didnt know she was involved with any label thing, but once we came out with the independent version of Hymns For The Happy, people started approaching us. We got lucky with a lot of media coverage, and then she said "Oh yes, Im with this label and they might be interested. I love the label because its small and I love the diversity of the label itself Jon Rae and the River to the Diableros to Jill Barber. All over the place. So I liked their ideas for us, and we can do what we want too, so its great.
In its indie form, did you sell it at gigs?
Yes, and digitally through CD Baby. Got it into half a dozen stores around Toronto, but mostly online and at gigs. As long as it is getting out there somewhere.
You got some big name media coverage Macleans, Globe and Mail.
I figure its just dumb luck. Thats also a great thing about residencies. Stay there long enough and people will know youre there. Theres sometimes pressure on bands that you should just play every four months in your town. I think thats bullshit. Its about cultivating an audience and growing at it. What better place to do that than your home-town, especially if that is Toronto, where all the bookers and so on are. I think that why we got lucky with people coming out. I feel that the people that come and see us are pretty dedicated, from the time we spent there. I do feel that every show we played at the Tranzac residency was really special. Every one was really exciting to me.
Feel part of a community here in Toronto, given revival of interest in old time music, bluegrass etc?
I dont know if I necessarily feel a part of it. I go to see some of it, but I always feel a little bit apart from that. I guess we have a big foot in that, but often almost a bigger foot in alternative rock or whatever. I have lots of friends in it and I love that kind of music, but if there was a phone list, I dont know if Id be on it (laughs). Ive been told that on blogs we are more on the independent rock end of things.
Hopeful the new disc can get exposed outside of Canada?
I am hopeful. They do have a Baudelaire Europe, and there are ideas and plans for the States. It is all really fun, so however it happens. Not to say Im not really pushing it, but I dont go nuts about success. I just want things to go good enough so you can keep creating stuff. You want to make stuff, in whatever way it is. Thatd be the best. If that means touring the States, great. Id love to. The States is an awesome country. Its wild. And yes Id love to travel in Europe. I have travelled around there before. Would love to do that and sing!
Good luck with that and with the record.
Thanks a lot.
To get all the tour info head to Exclaim!'s Wood, Wires, & Whisky Tour