Living on a Lover’s Leap: An Interview with Canadian Singer/Songwriter Dan Bryk

Dan Bryk began as a choir boy and through the years developed his singing/songwriting and composing sensibilities without forming various bands and just sitting in front of the keyboard and writing a style of idiosyncratic, humorous songs with an edginess that has attracted a cult following in the U.S. as well as in Canada.

Bryk’s songs have a distinct quirkiness that all have their own separate charm. On his 2000 LP release Lover’s Leap he pays tribute to his friend Mark Turmell, the best computer programmer in the world with “Mark Turmell 2.0”. He sings about love and failed relationships from his own direct point of view in songs like “She Doesn’t Mean a Thing to Me Tonight” and “Bound to Be Happy” as well as his soft spot for big women “BBW (Chunky Girl)” and even pays homage to a highway in Toronto that was never built with the oddly poignant “Spadina Expressway”.

Bryk has been living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina while writing and working on the follow-up to Lovers Leap.

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PopMatters: Explain your musical background and how you shaped and perfected your musical style that you use today?

Dan Bryk: I sang repetitious melodies disguised as TV jingles as a kid, then in the school/church choir until my voice broke. My dad wasn’t really into music beyond the Eddie Blazonczyk polka 8-tracks my Aunt Lydia brought him from Chicago, but fortunately my mom listened to CKEY every morning while I got ready for school. Classic ’70s Canadian MOR, with lots of Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Anne Murray, Harvest-era Neil Young, wrapped in all the disposable hits of the ’70s from Starbuck to Mary MacGregor. Good food for the growing gourmand!

I kept listening to the AM radio until the dawn of City Limits and Toronto Rocks! (The VHF precursors to MTV and Much Music) and what really got me heavily into music was new wave, especially synth-pop. At first I liked Duran Duran, OMD, and Thomas Dolby, but then the artier stuff like the Associates, Foxx-era Ultravox, and Lene Lovich. Through Lene Lovich and a related Stiff Records fetish I discovered Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Graham Parker . . . the holy trinity of ’80s rock critic rock, I know. Elvis Costello gave an interview that said Randy Newman’s 12 Songs was one of the ten best records ever made; I went out and bought it and my fate was sealed.

By high school I was playing with first-generation MIDI, samplers and sequencers, putting together pseudonymous synth “bands” and such. I played my high school battle of the bands solo with a MIDI setup one year, another year I made up a dance trio with a singer who sounded like Lisa Lisa or Shannon, in between a whole bunch of RUSH/U2 cover bands. It was a miracle I wasn’t beaten up more often. I also had an adolescent detour into Front 242/Skinny Puppy-style industrial sampler stuff for a while, trying to bring singer-songwriter narrative to it, but at some point that genre got really druggy and incoherent until it was about dancing and shooting up rather than listening or making interesting music.

I never really played in bands or anything, most of my stuff was programmed, built up track by track in MIDI or a studio, and I guess in the early ’90s I decided that I had better learn to play well enough to just accompany myself at the piano if I wanted to be “good”. I’m still working on that.

I only really put together my first “real” band for playing a CD release show for Dan Bryk, Asshole, and that was Kurt Swinghammer, Maury Lafoy (bassist of the Supers) and Howie Beck on drums. We rehearsed, but Howie got sick and had to cancel the day of the show. Tom Bona (who now plays with blues mama Sue Foley) sat in, never having heard a note until that afternoon. It was a disaster, most of the Toronto music critics were there and I couldn’t get a break in that town for years. But Kurt and Maury stuck around and taught me a lot about what I was doing, and how to communicate with other players.

PM: How did you write and develop your first album, entitled Asshole?

DB: Technically it’s called Dan Bryk, Asshole, as in “eponymous title”. It turned into a sort of a loose concept album about how mean people in love can be. I was very influenced by Paul Heaton, Art Bergmann, Mark Eitzel, Randy Newman . . . total misanthropes! I tried to write from the third person, but everyone just assumed the songs were about me, so I gave up on that gambit. I wrote those songs over a five-year period, they were sort of my first “real” songs that I went public with after years of making indie tapes.

Asshole was released by No! Discs, a label whose name I made up years earlier with my friend Mike Feraco. In high school we had a virtual band called The Cunning Linguists, bedroom synth pop-type stuff. We were really into the Alan Rankine (of the Associates) acid wall of noise and we did naff things like put JX-3Ps through orange Roland distortion pedals. I played Asshole pretty much by myself, with a few little overdubs by Swinghammer and a couple of friends. It’s mostly just 8-track stuff. Mike and I sent Asshole out to Canadian college radio and got a lot of polar “love it/hate it” type responses, but the people who liked it really spread it around, and sooner or later I started to get CBC FM and CFNY “indie hour” play in Toronto and it started to sell. It’s hard to believe today that there was such a big audience of people eager to discover “underground” indie music back then, but the Wild Strawberries and Barenaked Ladies and hHead were selling all sorts of records by word of mouth so I guess I figured why not?

I should add that the CBC has been incredibly supportive, especially Radiosonic and its predecessor RealTime. It’s a shame there isn’t the political will to make a youth-orientated “CBC Radio 3” more than an internet scenario. Canadian Campus radio has a lot of geography working against it already, and it would be cool to have even more representation of indie artists in Canada on the airwaves. God, I sound like a socialist! Don’t tell my neighbors down here . . .

PM: How would you explain your unconventional approach to music? Where do you get the inspiration to write witty, humourous and off the wall songs?

DB: I don’t know, really. I don’t consciously try to be humorous, in fact I’m not very funny in person. What people mistake for humor in my songs is usually sarcasm and misanthropy or poking fun at things that to me are inexcusably dumb. Often enough, the things that make me laugh hardest when I’m writing aren’t usually the punch lines for other people. I’ve never made music to be in a cool rock band, and never wrote songs for an audience I could even picture until I started playing shows. Even when I try to be conventional it still sounds “quirky” to most people, but even they agree that the songs are catchy enough that they gave them a good first listen.

PM: How do sign with Scratchie Records? What was it about your music that they liked?

DB: There was this period in the mid-nineties alt-rock gold rush where if you were a successful artist with a business plan and an A&R idea, then a major label would pony up the dough to give you your very own record label! Madonna gave us Candlebox and Summercamp and Alanis Morrissette (Maverick, courtesy of Warner Bros.), Adam Duritz gave us Joe 90 and Gigolo Aunts (E Pluribus Unum via Universal) while James Iha and D’Arcy (with their friends Adam Schlesinger and Kerry Brown) gave us Fulflej and Phoenix Thunderstone and Mike Ladd on a little label called Scratchie (thanks Mercury!)

Basically I gave Adam and his Fountains of Wayne bandmate Chris Collingwood a copy of Asshole and the rough mixes of what became Lovers Leap after a FOW show at (Toronto’s) Horseshoe, I think they really heard how much my stuff sounded like the Pumpkins and went for it! Scratchie really thought they were doing the world a favour putting Lovers Leap out, and I still thank my lucky stars for their temporary insanity.

Seriously, I think they like my songs and how I sing them. Somehow it’s become suspect when an artist puts out a record by an unknown they like, as if it has to do with stroking the former’s ego as a tastemaker. But I think that there isn’t a lot of room for major label A&R people to sign artists that aren’t going to sell half a million records on their first record. The vanity label might get that artist to more listeners faster. What’s so wrong with that?

PM: Your songs are extremely self-deprecating and bittersweet, do you feel you’re being courageous when writing these songs that seem painful and personal or does it just come naturally to you?

DB: I’m not very imaginative when it comes to lyrics, and the oldest saw in the book is “write what you know.” I spend as much time observing my friends as I do navel-gazing, but since I sing most of it first person, people just assume it’s all about me. Which I guess in some way it always is.

Sometimes I do wonder aloud when I’m writing, “do you ever expect anyone to want to sleep with you again after singing this?” but I guess I’m a glutton for punishment, a confessional songwriter, as opposed to a professional. Perhaps I’m secretly one of those self-flagellating priests and playing “Fingers” for a room of unsuspecting teenagers waiting for Hayden or FOW to come on and share their post-adolescent feelings is like some crazy auto da fe, my own little heresy on the clichés of pop music. Guess I’m just a little too sensitive.

PM: Growing up in a suburb in Canada, do you think that provided a good atmosphere for a songwriter or singer?

DB: The guys sort of panned my album, but they were obeisant enough to note that “Americans are confused by Canadians’ ability to be funny . . . Canada is fucking cold and we have a good educational system. This means we watch tons of TV and have the ability to memorize and analyze it with comedic clarity. That’s why.” To which I would add, when you sleep next to the elephant you learn to keep one eye open.

PM: You’ve started out in Canada and now you’re in the U.S. What is like for a Canadian musician to be in the middle of Western U.S.? Is your music progressing in the scene you’re performing in?

DB: Well, I’m working on a record here, and while I’m not feeling any more part of the “Chapel Hill scene” than the “Toronto scene”, I must admit that there seems a lot more intramural camaraderie than there was back home, and it’s encouraging to see people go to shows that are actually just fans — not musicians and industry types. Toronto as a whole would rather go see Men in Black 2 than see a bunch of their neighbors playing and singing their hearts out, dressed in black or otherwise.

There are some hardcore music fans here, too, but regular people actually appear to fill big rooms like the Cat’s Cradle on a Saturday night to see local bands without having to be hyped into it. Toronto could sure use some of that.

PM: Robert Christgau loved your album. What other kinds of feedback have you been getting from people?

DB: Well, to be honest, Christgau actually wrote “four of the first five tracks” were good, and then he casually dismissed the rest of it as mere formalism. I guess I can’t argue with him, though I don’t think he understood that my song “Spadina Expressway” is about a public structure that was never actually built, or realized just how fucked up “Memo to Myself” is, or perhaps he would have made it “six out of 13”, like how many doctors recommend Chesterfields.

I know some people really get my music deeply, because they write me email essays and stalk me at the Barnes & Noble and ask me to do interviews like this one. It’s funny, indie rock/outsider art snobs find me a bit eager to please, while people who actually like formalism find my voice a bit of a stretch. So I guess I’m preaching to the narthex as usual. But at least you can hear the words out there.

PM: Explain what you think the difference is between Canadian and U.S. radio.

DB: I don’t know if there’s that much of a difference any more, at least not “commercial radio”. I always thought that Canada wasn’t a big enough market to justify the independent promotion that influences radio here, but Top-40 radio sounds about the same, except for the mandated CanCon (note to American readers: to profit off of the public trust called the airwaves; broadcasters have to play a minimum of 1/3 Canadian Content. Whether that’s Bryan Adams or Nanochrist is up to them). In practise that means a bit more Default instead of Nickelback . . . oh wait, they’re Canadian too! It’s good to know that our “sheeaaaa” rock bands are world class.

No matter what, radio is about money and marketing rather than public taste. Otherwise Danny Michel would be all over the fucking radio in Canada. I’ve seen him open big shows for Sarah Harmer and Blue Rodeo, neatly fold the audience and put them in his pocket. The fact that he’s still indie shows the amazing despair of A&R in Canada, but that’s another story altogether.

PM: What is the most comical thing about your music in your mind?

DB: That I get away with it, most of the time. There’s two extremes, of either pandering to the audience or actively making them uncomfortable, and I guess I swing between those a little bit. That’s pretty funny.

PM: The song “BBW (Chunky Girl)” — explain the response you’ve been getting about this song from women in particular.

DB: Well, it certainly got a lot of college airplay from both sexes. I think it’s sort of a personal song that struck sort of a chord, even if it’s sort of taken at face value rather than as a metaphor for rebellion against the norm. That sounds sort of pretentious, though . . . let’s just say the response is at times really flattering, but it doesn’t really affect me because I’m in a pretty serious relationship.

PM: What inspired you to sing about an expressway that was never built in “Spadina Expressway”?

DB: I was walking around with an ex-girlfriend through the Junction, a run-down “post-industrial” part of Toronto, when we found this abandoned bridge. It sort of stopped in mid-air as if it had collapsed, and it had a really heavy, tragic vibe about it. It’s hard to explain, but it was very striking.

We mentioned this to my ex-girlfriend’s mom, who explained to us that it was part of the doomed Spadina Expressway, a freeway that was almost pushed through the middle of downtown Toronto by eager developers but was halted by public protest and better judgement. For some reason the whole story left a big impression on me, and ultimately I went and wrote a sort of “Snowbird”-like song in which the lost highway embodies the narrator’s hopes and fears, blah blah blah.

Much later on, after I recorded the song and I related the story to my parents, my dad made fun of me and explained that the bridge in question was just a railway overpass, abandoned because it was falling apart on its own — and had absolutely nothing to do with the Spadina Expressway. I still perform the song, though.

PM: What other places do you want to go to as your career progresses?

DB: Melbourne and Sydney would be nice, then London, Paris, and across the continent to Stockholm and Malmö, the holy grail of all that is classic pop.