Standing on Ceremony: An Interview with Wyrd Visions
The Microphones' Phil Elverum is re-releasing Wyrd Visions' haunting debut and Colin Bergh takes us through its genesis from beginning to end and well beyond.
When the Microphones' Phil Elverum wants to rerelease your little-heard 2006 debut record, then you know there is some sort of magic pressed into that vinyl.
Wyrd Visions' Half-Eaten Guitar is a hauntingly crafted free-folk gem of Torontopia, an utopic (some may say myopic) time in Toronto music scene, in the mid aughts, when sounds and bodies co-mingled. This was a time when everyone seemed to be starting a band and playing in each other's bands because everyone were besties and anything seemed possible. (This is was also a time when this writer was still just a boyish twentysomething, full of hopes, dreams, and hair, so bear the nostalgic waxing.)
Recorded at a friend's bedroom on a guitar borrowed from another friend, Wyrd Visions' Half-Eaten Guitar embodies that era's DIY eclecticism. Built around short, repeating crystalline guitar chords strummed with hypnotic repetitiveness and murmuring vocals that feed into each other, the album is at once intimately bare and intricately composed. We hear every squeak, pluck, strum, whistle and sigh, all artfully arranged in spectral clarity. Echoes fade into echoes. Tracks segue in and out of one another without notice. Time slouches. A young man sings gnomic lullabies on the "moratorium of vocals." Or is it the "of orchids?" Or orcas? Sometimes he sings in Swedish. Other times he whistles. Sounding like a cross between Steve Reich and early Devendra Banhart (when he was more hobo than boho), Wyrd Visions is difficult to pin-down. This is music you walk into the night with.
"It was the community that made it possible," says Colin Bergh, the sole visionary behind Wyrd Visions. As he tells it, he only started performing as Wyrd Visions because his friends pushed him to. Back in 2005, he was psychodroning with them as part of Awesome, and he was the only in the group without a solo side-project. They all had one and they thought Bergh should too. So they set up a show where each band member would individually open for the band. Bergh played a few tunes he had lying around, "just as an experiment." He did it behind a curtain so no one could see him. He played a second show only months later, just because someone asked him to.
That's when people started talking. Without a loop pedal to back him up, Bergh played those early shows in a kind of hypnotic trance, strumming his guitar over and over and over. Brian Taylor, of Blue Fog Recordings, got wind and offered to put out his record. So Bergh settled on a name (Wyrd Visions, an homage to Orson Wells' movie-version Macbeth and Bergh's Nordic roots, seemed fitting; that and "Wyrd Sisters" was already taken), got together with his Awesome bandmate, Matt Smith ("my collaborator," as Bergh calls him it), and over the course of a breezy summer breezily recorded Half-Eaten Guitar on Matt Smith's home computer. When the record was pressed, Owen Pallett, whose guitar Bergh borrowed, took him on tour with him. Since then, Bergh has toured across Canada, USA, Europe, played with Grizzly Bear, Earth, OM, and collaborated on a 12-inch split with Jennifer Castle -- all while working as an art director by day and co-running "Bad Day Magazine.
Below, Colin Bergh talks in-depth about the early days of Wyrd Visions, the challenges of maintaining a life-work balance, and his own wyrd visions for the future.
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Is it weird -- no pun intended -- promoting an album that you originally released some eight years ago?
It does feel weird. I almost feel guilty. It's sort of not fair if anyone can just keep reissuing their record, their one record, and have press, and release parties. I guess you can do it every five or six years when the record sells out. So I kind of feel strangely guilty about it.
Do find you have more opportunities now that Half-Eaten Guitar is released on an American label?
Yeah. I wouldn't say Elevrum & Sun is high profile, at all, but a little. They got a bigger profile than Blue Fog Records, who released the original record. It's Phil Elverum's label. Elverum was in the Microphones and now performs as Mount Eerie. He's quite well known, and with that comes more attention. He's got more contacts. He's got a PR person. There's just more going into the PR this time around. That's the advantage. It's on Pitchfork now. That wouldn't have happened with Blue Fog. I didn't even have a release party back then.
How did Elevrum hear your record in the first place?
I did a mini-tour with him, Grizzly Bear, and Owen Pallett for Pallett's He Poos Clouds, in 2006, when my record just came out. We played shows together, traded records. I guess they became fans.
Sounds like a great way to launch an album. How did you get on that tour, so early on? Were you friends with Owen Pallett?
We were friends. He actually lent me the guitar I used to record on my record, because I never owned an acoustic guitar. I would always practice and write on an electric guitar, but I wanted that acoustic sound for this record, so I borrowed his guitar. He heard the record as it was being made, and was excited about it, and put me on his mini tour. It was nice and very helpful. I made friends with all those people for life.
How did Colin Bergh become Wyrd Visions?
I was in a band called Awesome, with Paul Mortimer, Alex Snukal, and Matt Smith. All those guys had their own solo outlets -- Mortimer, The Pauls; Snukal, Animalmonster; Smith, Prince Nifty -- but but I didn't. But they all knew that I had songs outside of Awesome, and encouraged me to put a set together. So we did this show where each one of us would individually open for Awesome, four solo sets and then the entire band. That spurred the initial performance.
Out of Awesome, Wyrd?
It was just as an experiment. I guess people liked it; I got a lot of good feedback, but I didn't really think much of it. It's only months later, after I did another show, that I started thinking of making a record. A friend of mine, Kevin Hainey, was working at a record store, Rotate This, and told the owner, Brian Taylor, who is also co-owner of Blue Fog Records, heard about Wyrd Visions, and based on Kevin's recommendation he offered to put out my record. It was really the community that helped me. It was the encouragement of other people that made it happen.
The record itself was recorded at a friend's bedroom, correct?
Yeah. I recorded it with Matt Smith, in his bedroom, in Toronto. Matt Smith was also in Awesome. We would get together every other weekend in the summer of 2005 and record on his computer. I would lay some stuff down and we would listen. I would come back another day, maybe two weeks after that. It was very casual and very loose. I wanted the production be very simple, very spares. I wanted the vocals to sound very close, sort of right in your ear.
It certainly doesn't sound like a bedroom record. Half-Eaten Guitarhas a very fluid, seamless sound. It's hard to tell where one song ends and the next begins. Is that how you conceived the album, as a kind of singe composition?
No, all the songs on the record were written individually, at completely different times. Live and on a record you can play around with things, like placing and pacing, to make it things sound like one, but I definitely work on each song separately.
That explains the sudden change of register in one the tracks from the rest of the album. Without giving too much away, much of the album has an acoustic sound, but somewhere along the way it takes a decidedly electro-drone turn. At first, I thought it was like one of those bonus tracks "from the archives."
Ha. I guess tonally it is different from the rest of record, but melodically I don't think it is. That track comes from me playing in my room, many years ago, when I lived at home with my parents. I didn't have a looping peddle or anything, but I would play riffs and would record them on a boombox and play on top of them, and play on top of those. That's kind of how I built that song, on a boombox.
The album opens with you singing in Swedish. Your background is Swedish, but were you concerned that many listeners wouldn't understand the lyrics?
I really didn't think about any of that. I didn't even think anyone would hear the record. If I am making music, I don't know if I think about what other people are going to think, or how they're going to react. Probably I just wanted to try writing a song in Swedish. It didn't seem like a strange idea at all, at the time. Now it would. I wouldn't write a song in Swedish now. It doesn't seem natural.
Why wouldn't you write a song in Swedish now?
Because it was just an experiment, before there was even something called Wyrd Visions. It's not something I want to continue to do. It was one isolated incident that had nothing to do with other music that I've written. I guess that's why it's unique.
Even when they are in English, your lyrics can be quite enigmatic. You use a lot of short, clipped phrasing. It's as though you are using lyrics less for their meaning, and more for how they sound. What role do lyrics play in your music?
Yeah, the songs were not intended to have any certain meaning or message. Lyrics are there to -- obviously this sounds very corny -- they are there to paint a picture or set a scene. It's hard to explain. I am not used to analyzing lyrics.
Is it a challenge to write lyrics?
Yeah. That's why I haven't put out a new album in many years because it's very difficult for me to write lyrics, or to complete them. I am very picky, and I am a big fan of lyricists. I want my music to be as good as the best that I listen to, or as good as the ones I admire. I set the bar very high and it's difficult to reach it sometimes I guess creatively I can be hard on myself in that way.
You're not inclined to release an instrumental record?
No. I really love singing, and I think people want to hear me sing. It would feel half-assed if I did something instrumental. I might do one track that's instrumental, but I like songs. That's what I'd want to do with Wyrd Visions.
There was a lot of buzz around when you started performing. All my friends were talking about your shows. Then, suddenly, you were gone, or you stopped playing live. It seemed very abrupt. Was that a conscientious decision?
I wouldn't say there was an abrupt end, maybe a lull. I've been performing pretty consistently. I may play fewer shows now than before. I am just really busy with the rest of my life, like running a magazine.
Your Facebook Page doesn't start till 2011.
Ha. Yeah. It's hard to juggle everything, and it's hard to play a lot of shows. It's also not interesting for me to play a ton of shows anymore because I don't have a ton of music to play. When I play shows, I kind of play the same set. To make it interesting it would be nice to have new songs -- but I find it more and more difficult to find the time.
What's next for Wyrd Visions?
I want to focus on putting out singles, rather than an album. I have songs for an album, but I keep thinking, "I need two more," and I don't know how or when that will happen. It's more daunting to do a record because it really should be somewhat cohesive. But putting out singles is kind of freeing.
You just release it as it comes to you, and then move on to the next single.
Exactly! It's more fun to work that way, to think "oh, okay this is just going to be for this one record and it's really just for one song." You can try different things because you're not worried about the songs working together so much.
Was that your approach to your 12-inch split with Jennifer Castle of Castlemusic, a few years back?
Basically. Neither of us had anything new out and we needed merch to sell at shows, so we thought we'd help each other out by releasing a split together. We just wanted something out, and that's how I feel now.
Are you working on something right now?
I do have something in the works right now. It would be cool to put out a single soon -- I should just put something out. I have this reissue coming out, and I feel it's kind of lame if I don't follow it up with something new.
You sound really excited for the rerelease.
Oh definitely. This goes back to your first question, how do I feel about the attention around the reissue. It's great, and it's really exciting. But you also don't want to toot your own horn about something you did eight years ago. Doesn't feel natural.
Besides doing Wyrd Visions, you also work as an art director by day and co-run Bad Day, the art magazine. And you run a weekly karaoke night! How do you juggle all that? What's your secret?
I don't know what's my secret. I get really stressed out a lot, so it's not really the most healthy thing. I've been learning to say "No." Maybe that's my secret. Before if someone asked me to do a little thing or favor, I would be completely eager to do it. I am still eager to do things, but now I know it's not smart because not everything can fit into a schedule anymore. So, yeah, saying "no" keeps things sane.
Well you do have a publicist now.
Ha. Yeah. Maybe that will help.