Bry Webb The Exclaim! Questionnaire
Published May 22, 2014As Bry Webb put it in his blog post on February 11 this year, announcing the reunion of his band the Constantines after a four-year hiatus, the name for the group, as well as the titles of their songs, were initially chosen as a way to "preserve their youth."
"The Young & the Desperate, Young Offenders, Young Lions, etc. The 'Constant Teens.' you know… In a lot of ways, the 11 years that we were active as a band was a suspended adolescence," he writes. "We held on to that for as long as we could." Try as they might to fight it, adulthood finally caught up with the group in 2010. Now, at the age of 36 and with a full-time job as the Programming Coordinator at the University of Guelph's campus radio station, a three year-old son and a second solo LP under his belt (Free Will, the follow-up to his 2011 Idée Fixe debut, Provider), it appears Webb has found a new lease on life in his later years, and it's all thanks to growing up.
"Now that I have a day job and a family and a lot of other things that occupy my time, music is compartmentalized into this place where it's a joy to just go and have two hours to come up with an idea," he says. "I value the writing time more because my time is so in demand now."
What are you up to?
I'm about to release a record called Free Will under my own name with my band the Providers: Rich Burnett on lap steel; Aaron Goldstein on pedal steel; Anna Ruddick on upright bass; and Nathan Lawr on drums. That record is about to come out on Idée Fixe, and then I'm about to go on a tour with Chad VanGaalen and Cousins in the States for nine dates, which I'm stoked about. I've just finished this collaborative project in Guelph called the Guelph Shebang, which is this choreographer named Andrea Nann, who got a bunch of artists from different disciplines together to make this sort of improvised piece, and my part of it was this ten-guitar, ten-amp feedback installation. So all the guitars were live on the floor, sympathetically tuned. People came in and because it was a sprung floor it kind of played itself while people walked around. When the toddlers came in it was like they were in heaven. It was great.
What are your current fixations?
Gardening. That's a big one. The person who lived at our house before us developed this beautiful fantasy garden in our backyard. I live in Guelph, so the green space across the city is really nice, but in our backyard I'm just trying to keep everything alive that the woman before us had planted and set up. So it's a lot of spring cleaning and organizing stuff, or making room for things to grow.
Why do you live where you do?
Guelph is just a greener city than we were living in before. My wife and I lived in Montreal for a while and I lived in Toronto. I grew up in London [ON], but I lived in Guelph around 2001 to 2003 and there's just a lot of green space: you can bike to the lake on trails; we live by the intersection of two rivers. There's just a pretty strong sense of community there. I always found in Montreal — and in some senses Toronto, but I lived in Kensington, so it sort of feels like a small town, or it did then — I didn't really have... I just couldn't keep track of everything that was going on. It was just too big to get my head around, but in Guelph I just feel like I'm connecting with people doing amazing things all the time. I work at the campus community radio station there, so that's this hub for people doing good things in the community as well.
Name something you consider a mind-altering work of art:
Some Guelph artists, Christina Kingsbury and Anna Bowen, are developing this art piece called Re:Mediate in association with Pollination Guelph. What they're doing is making a 1,000 square foot quilt to cover what was a decommissioned landfill [Eastview landfill] and so this quilt will biodegrade over time and each pocket of the quilt contains native seeds to the area and the seeds are to support pollinators and other indigenous species in the area. Anna Bowen is covering the quilt with poetry as well. It's just this beautiful interaction of art and green space.
What has been your most memorable or inspirational gig and why?
Before my last record came out, when we were recording it, I didn't really have a plan to tour it very much. My son was still really young and I just wasn't expecting to tour a lot. About a year after it came out I was invited to go to Romania by this band Robin and the Backstabbers, who were big Constantines fans and liked what I was doing. So they invited me to go to Romania and play their album release show in Bucharest and then travel with them north into Transylvania. We played in Cluj-Napoca in Transylvania on a full moon in this sort of underground bar. Robin and the Backstabbers are this full on rock'n'roll band and I was playing acoustic guitar in a huge basement bar for about 500 people in Romania. It was an incredible show and partway through the set Vlad, the drummer from Robin and the Backstabbers, came on stage and played "Ex-Punks" [off Provider] with me. Right after the show I got on a train at about three in the morning from Cluj-Napoca to Budapest and travelled for eight hours across the border from Romania to Hungary, saw the train side of most of that countryside, so these incredible shanty villages along most of the border. Yeah, it was an amazing trip that I would have never expected to take.
What have been your career highs and lows?
About mid-career for the Constantines we did a nine-week tour that involved four weeks in the states with the Hold Steady. We were all living in Toronto at the time and we passed through Toronto — like, played a show, but didn't even stay there that night, just kept going to Montreal and Boston. We then flew from New York and did another five weeks with about two nights off in five weeks. We were all sick and it just got to a really kind of bleak point, just losing perspective on, like, the songs and the shows. Just any real sense of who we were as a band was lost. Just trying to get through the sickness and that kind of blur of shows. I remember drinking a wine cooler in the van at 9 a.m. in Northern Germany, just because it seemed like a funny thing to do; just really small amusements.
That was a low for sure, but towards the end of that tour we went into Italy for the first time and got stopped, not at the border into Italy, but maybe an hour in at this checkpoint in the mountains. The checkpoint guys, the guards, pulled us over and opened the van and found CDs and stuff. So they pulled us into this interview booth kind of a space and started grilling us on what we were doing. We sat in there for about three hours and then they finally let us go. We found out a few days later that they were charging us, that Steve Lambke from the Constantines was now wanted for smuggling CDs into Italy and they valued a box of CDs at $100,000. So this was just paranoia. Luckily, Sub Pop got on the case and figured out what was going on.
Gradually, as we went south in Italy, things got better and better. We ended up in a town called Lecce and we played a show at this abandoned — I think it was a squat — at this old sportsplex country club that had been left behind. There were dogs running around. The show was great, and then after the show they took us to our accommodations and it was this beautiful villa in an olive grove in the country and the weather was beautiful because we were in the south and they made us this glorious meal. We sat on the rooftop underneath the stars drinking wine and that was one of the most unifying moments in the Constantines' career.
What's the meanest thing ever said to you before, during or after a gig?
"You sound like the Doors." That was dark.
Where did that happen?
It was in Pittsburgh, I think. Like, early on, but someone came up and said that to us and it was meant as a compliment. I'm just not a very big Doors fan. That was a little harsh.
What should everyone shut up about?
Maybe the plan to install Wi-Fi in national parks. Have you heard about this?
No, I haven't.
It's like yeah, come on. They're now clarifying that it's not going to be broadband throughout the deep forest, but still. I don't trust that Wi-Fi is particularly good for anyone. To put that in the national parks seems like the antithesis of what the experience being in the national parks should be. It seems a little wrong.
Yeah, but how are you going to Instagram all those cute animals?
What traits do you most like and most dislike about yourself?
Introversion. I'll put that under both.
What's your idea of a perfect Sunday?
Gardening and riding bikes with my wife and son.
What advice should you have taken, but did not?
Stand up straight, in terms of my physicality.
What do you think of when you think of Canada?
I think of the First Nations' protesters who crashed the Harper meeting with the Vancouver Board of Trade — that's significant to me. Anybody who is looking out for the land: the Wellington Water Watchers, who were a big part of squashing the Mega Quarry plan; everyone who has been standing up against the Line 9 pipeline development, the Northern Gateway pipeline. Yeah, anyone who is defending the physical country rather than the administration or the financial interests of the country.
What was the first LP/cassette/CD/eight track you ever bought with your own money?
Def Leppard, Hysteria.
Do you still listen to it?
I don't have it anymore. I had it on vinyl at some point. I was big into hair metal when I was in grade seven. I was a member of the Columbia House cassette ordering scam. It was all Master of Puppets by Metallica and obscure bands, like Tora Tora. Just weird, like, Whitesnake. Just bad stuff. The last thing I ordered from Columbia House, which finished my contractual obligation, was Nevermind the Bollocks by the Sex Pistols.
Going out with a bang!
What was your most memorable day job?
After the Constantines stopped playing I worked in Montreal in demolition and construction. Just a two-person operation with this guy, Jean, who was a carpenter and an amazing human being, just a really wonderful guy who should be teaching carpentry or something. I didn't know all that much when I got into it, but he was great. It was really therapeutic at the time. I think I didn't know what to do with myself otherwise and I was feeling restless and uncertain about how to create things anymore. Working in demolition was very therapeutic, and then the actual act of learning how to build something with my hands was really helpful mentally at the time. Jean was just incredibly supportive and I'm just really grateful he was patient with me while we were working together.
How do you spoil yourself?
I don't know if this speaks to spoiling myself entirely, but the most indulgent thing I'm doing right now is I host this radio show called Messenger Bird, which is a sound collage show that plays records at the wrong speed and pedal jams samples and stuff like that for an hour. Kind of using the radio station as an instrument, kind of that idea. It's definitely indulging my most ridiculous impulses musically, but it's really fun and there are some people who contribute sounds and pieces of music to manipulate. So that's been great, but more literally spoiling myself, when I can, I'll go on Kijiji and buy some esoteric piece of equipment that will be used in Messenger Bird for something to run another sound through.
If I wasn't playing music I would be…
I'd be off the grid.
What do you fear most?
What makes you want to take it off and get it on?
The act of swimming, and also the album Woman by Rhye.
What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?
The best one was the Constantines in about 2004 played a rally for Jack Layton and the NDP at Palais Royale. The Sadies played and stuff. We said we would do it if Jack Layton and Olivia Chow sang "Rockin' in the Free World" with us on stage. So they did, and someone just actually sent me the uncut video of that, which I thought was lost. We just look like a bunch of sketchy dudes on stage with a politician, but Jack Layton meant a lot to me and it was a really amazing thing to get to do and meet the two of them.
Sweet, I'll have to hunt that down.
And then Fairuza Balk came to a show in L.A. Do you know who that is?
No, who is that?
When she was young she was in Return to Oz, you know, that dark '80s Wizard of Oz.
The one with the robots?
Right, and then she was in The Craft and I'm sure much better movies than that too, but that's what I remember.
Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?
Genesis P-Orridge, and let's say a nice roast carrot salad.
What does your mom wish you were doing instead?
Sounding more like Bon Jovi.
What song would you like to have played at your funeral?
"The Orchids" by Psychic TV.
That was the first song played for my son the day he was born. I really like that song.