Geoff Berner

Geoff Berner
Last year, Vancouver singer/songwriter Geoff Berner published a pamphlet entitled simply How to Be an Accordion Player: An Instructional Booklet With Illustrations. But true to his irreverent self, it contained very little practical advice. Berner is the kind of guy who would rather tell you Stalinist parables and tales of Mackenzie King than impart any actual wisdom on his craft. This is mostly because he’s humble about his facility. "I would say that my technique as an accordionist is comparable to Neil Young as a guitarist. I’m not gonna be setting off any fireworks with my fingertips anytime soon.”

Berner has carried his beloved Estella around the world since 1999, performing as both a solo singer/songwriter and with his backing duo. He has three European tours scheduled between now and July 2007 to promote his new album, The Wedding Dance of the Widow Bride, preceded by a cross-Canada jaunt this month. Like most accordionists, Berner began as a piano player who envied the ability of his guitarist friends to play at parties and busk on the street. "After a couple of times taking the piano downtown on the bus, it was hard on the back and you always had to pay at least one extra fare,” he deadpans. A friend gave him an inherited accordion, and Berner started playing it in his punk rock band at the time, Terror of Tiny Town. "It was largely inaudible, thank god, because of the drums and big Marshall amps. But as any musician in Canada knows, part of becoming a professional musician in Canada involves getting your gear stolen in Vancouver. That’s what happened to that one. Somebody snuck in at load-in and got it, some mentally ill junkie who didn’t know to pick up the guitars or the amps.”

Berner has only had two accordions in his life. He’s been faithful to his Estella since 1998, which he bought from Lorenzo Farro at Vancouver’s Accordion House. "It’s made by the Guerrini company in Castelfidardo, a city in northern Italy that’s an accordion town. Lorenzo is about 85 now, and he used to work in the factory. In Vancouver, he made his own brand of accordions for a while and had a shop. I always do what that guy says. I have no idea how I found out about him. I think it was god himself who led me to Accordion House.”

Playing accordion live in rock clubs can be hard on the reeds inside, which are much like tiny clarinet reeds assigned to each key of the accordion. Shockingly, the hardly delicate Berner claims he’s never broken a reed in his life. "Never. The thing is like a tank. There was one time a few years ago when it fell off a chair and the reeds rattled loose. Lorenzo just got some wax and put them back in. It’s a miracle. It’s some kind of accordion Hanukkah.” Sound techs in rock clubs are notoriously cruel to accordion players. Many players use acoustic pre-amps, internal pick-ups, or run their accordions through amps to achieve different effects — or simply to be heard. Berner, on the other hand, keeps it simple. "I’ve seen lots of different set-ups, but I would not dare to give people advice on that,” he says. "I tour solo a lot, and I have a suitcase and my accordion. The less stuff I have with me — microphones, pre-amps, pedals, all that nonsense — the better. And I don’t really want to have someone rummaging around in there, drilling holes and installing electronics, either.

"I’m fine with just two standard 58 vocal mics, one on either side. A lot of rock sound techs have no bloody idea what they’re doing when it comes to an accordion, and will put up two 57s instead, because they’re instrument mics. But because they’re unidirectional, you inevitably get screaming feedback, immediately, as soon as they turn the rig on. I try not to insult them by actually putting my fingers in my ears before sound check begins. I’m probably working on a mild case of tinnitus because of it. Once again, I’m suffering for humanity. Another Christ-like aspect of my career — as if any further were needed!”

When he started, Berner’s solo accordion act was a minor novelty. Today, however, he immediately rattles off the names of at least a half dozen others, including two in Peterborough alone. "It’s really great to see all this happening. It was fine to get some press about it at one time because what I was doing was unique. But at a certain point, as a songwriter it becomes irritating for people to act like your instrument is some kind of gimmick — when it’s just an instrument that a lot of people play. You can really see where a town is at culturally, because the ones who are a bit behind will still ask me the Weird Al Yankovic question. If I play in Regina, I’ll still get that question.”