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Turning an Acid Gaze on the Financial Crisis

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On this new record (specifically on the opening track “The Money Shuffle”) you turn an acid gaze on the financial crisis, teasing out the absurdity from a treacherous situation. You really nail these people who claim to know all the right answers but have steered us into ruin.
I find that experts are not to be trusted. In most fields. You can believe in experts, you know, financial experts, but if they’re experts how did they get us into such an unbelievable mess? In this case it is because they were unbelievably greedy. And the whole thing just made me boil with rage. It just made me so mad. So I wanted to skewer the greed of these people, which is just off the scale. It’s a complicated issue, and you can’t get everything into a song. There were other components that led to this financial meltdown, but I really wanted to get after the greed aspect.


What an evocative opening line. “I love kittens, and little babies, oh, can’t you see that’s the guy I am?” Was there a precipitating event or particular person who inspired this rebuke?
I was just trying to set up the character. Since recording it I have actually changed the last verse to something a bit more cutting because I read Michael Lewis’ book The Big Short which is all about the whole thing, so I now know more. Which only made me angrier. Really depressed and really angry. [Playing the song] helps in a small way.


Here in Toronto, The Globe and Mail newspaper ran a thing which attempted a close reading of your satirical song “Here Comes Geordie”, about a pretentious artist, and declared that it must be about Sting. Do you have anything to say to this?
Oh. It’s not really about, or supposed to be about anyone specific. I certainly didn’t intend it to be that specific. I actually wrote it about somebody else, but I can see how people could mistake it for Sting.


I’m curious about the song “Burning Man”. As you do elsewhere on the record, you focus on the hypocrisy inherent in your subject, but yet here you do recognize the healing power of this transient, or fleeting, gathering.
Yes, well, it’s about the burning man festival and everything in the song was there at the festival. “The penguin meets the polar bear”? There was a guy dressed as a penguin, there was a mechanical polar bear. I mean: all this bizarre stuff. It strikes me as a mixture of Mad Max meets a kind of art museum. It’s a very creative place, a very strange place. And, obviously, a very anarchistic place. It makes you ask a lot of questions about people, and what society is, and what happens when you choose alternative societies, and how desirable are the things that you get when you set up other kinds of structures. Interesting place.


Are you a regular Burning Man participant? What drew you to such a place?
I just went once last year. I’m not strongly drawn to it. But it’s something we might all have to deal with soon if the whole financial empire of America collapses and drags the world with it. We’re all going to be bartering and trying to find alternative ways to scratch a living. Could be a lesson plan in there somewhere. [laughs]


[laughing] I should probably ask you about that. But I’m now too depressed. Instead, could you talk a bit about “Stumble On”? For a man who is not exactly known for his cheerful numbers, this is a particularly dark piece.
Everybody has been dumped. Everybody has had romantic relationships that break down, so that’s something I just draw on sometimes. Everyone’s had that feeling. Sometimes you draw on those stronger feelings. I wouldn’t say it’s a dark song; it’s a sad song. But, it’s not dark. It’s kind of… desperate. When you love something so much that you can’t contain it. It’s this wrenching feeling inside you.


You’re not known for doing much confessional writing, but rather as a real master of the character study. But how much of your “characters” are narrations of yourself?
I don’t know where one ends and the other begins. I suppose all songs are autobiographical. Am I in this song? Yes I am. Is it literally about me? No. It’s a little bit twisted. But I think that happens when you start writing a song. You have to come up with a rhyme scheme—when you rhyme fish with dish you have already entered into the realm of fiction. It has already removed you 2% from your original intention of writing about you. It’s very hard to find the line with this type of thing.


You know, semiologists like Jacques Derrida theorized that, in writing about yourself, all attempts at truth wind up as fiction since you have to make all of these choices. Does that resonate at all with what you’re saying?
Yeah, I have heard this. I don’t always agree with those people.


So, no. Anyway. You are a religious man, I understand. Yet you rarely make reference to your faith in your music, and you use religious imagery sparingly. On “Haul Me Up”, however, it’s clear that the protagonist’s struggle is, in a radical sense, metaphysical. He’s caught in the mire, looking for help from above as they pull at him from below. Could you talk a bit about the genesis of this song?
I don’t know what the genesis is. I don’t remember with a song like that. I wrote it very quickly. It’s based on somewhere between a Scottish traditional model and a gospel model. In American gospel music you actually find a lot of Celtic music as a root. It’s like half… gospel music is like half African and half Scottish, I would say. This song comes out of another song, as a segue from a song called “Among the Gorse, Among the Grey” which is a song about innocence into experience. And this song is really about experience yearning for that innocence again. That’s one of the reasons I put those two songs together. In a sense it is a spiritual song. It is about yearning to lift up out of this existence, out of this realm, into a clearer state. A more peaceful state.


You make the biblical Jezebel a character here. She’s here to represent experience, then?
She represents the temptations of this life. She doesn’t have to be a hooker, of course.


I’m curious about your process. Lyrics have always been as important to your songs as melody. This may sound like a bland statement, but for so many artists lyrics exist merely to fill time in a phrase, or to deliver some pat idea. What comes first, for you: lyrics or melody?
Oh, I don’t think it matters. I suppose, there’s a kind of a room. An imaginary room which is the room of creativity with a capital C. And there’s various doors into that room. There’s the lyric door, there’s the riff door, there’s the melody door, you know, there’s the reading-the-telephone-directory door, there’s the out-jogging door. There’s various ways into the room, and I don’t think you should limit yourself to just one door, you know? I know some people who actually always start lyrics first. But I think it’s interesting to have various approaches, because it gives you different types of songs. If you always start with the melody, then certain kinds of structures take over. Whereas, if you could go about it another way then you force melodies out of yourself you wouldn’t normally write.


So, it’s good to be open minded. It’s good to be open about your process. And, my process is not to have a process.

Stuart Henderson is a culture critic and historian. He is the author of Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s (University of Toronto Press, 2011). All of this is fun, but he'd rather be camping. Twitter: @henderstu


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