Photo: Norman Wong

Each Song Is a Thought, Flying Across the Ocean for Do Make Say Think’s Charles Spearin

Charles Spearin discusses the themes and processes behind Do Make Say Think's latest album Stubborn Persistent Illusions.
Do Make Say Think
Stubborn Persistent Illusions

Do Make Say Think’s (DMST) latest album Stubborn Persistent Illusions was constructed in a flurry of musical activity by Toronto’s post-rock experimental band and berthed at the edge of an emotional ocean, a crow circling above.

In its conception, recording process and execution, it is an expedition. Charles Spearin, Justin Small, James Payment, David Mitchell, and Ohad Benchetrit recorded the album at the same time Spearin co-produced albums with other artists, and recorded with Broken Social Scene on their latest album, while the other members of DMST worked on other projects and soundtracks.

“We had it in mind from the very beginning to have a sense of narrative for the record,” Spearin tells PopMatters. “All of our other albums have had a story-quality to them. We wanted to take that further on this record by having recurring themes. We tried a lot of potential storylines … we ended up settling on the story based on the Buddhist poem.”

Spearin finds the arts and music communities of Toronto especially stimulating when working out aural ideas. “There is so much great music. The best thing is that people really encourage each other to be experimental. It’s not competitive … for the most part.” Spearin described a music co-op called The TRANZAC, a venue that features “bizarre nights of free jazz” and other events.

“The Woodchoppers Association … is this guy Dave Clark from Toronto. It’s been running for years and years, and it’s once a month, anyone can come, and they do this big improv free-for-all. Dave will stand up there waving his arms and pointing at people and encouraging certain melodies to the forefront. But the whole thing is improvised. Sometimes it’s absolutely transcendent and incredible,” he paused, “sometimes it’s just squonks and squeaks, and nobody listens to each other.” Spearin noted that improvisation played a large part in DMST’s recent album, the band chopped out and shaped raw tunes that made up the vessel of the album, working out the frame, rigging, and sails of their general story.

While the theme and affect of the album is derived from the poetic line “Be like the ship captain watching her crow fly,” the structure is a gloss on Modest Mussorgsky’s suite Pictures at an Exhibition, a composition about Mussorgsky attending his dear friend painter Viktor Hartmann’s memorial art exhibition, after the artist’s death. “So, it starts with this trumpet line, then it goes to this musical description of the painting then back to the trumpet line,” he continued that each piece of music represented a painting, moving back and forth from the trumpet line to the fuller pieces until the final painting titled The Gates of Kiev. “And the music just gets bigger and bigger, and you think this must be some incredible painting and then you realize he’s no longer writing about paintings but the love of his friend. It’s the most beautiful simple way of presenting a musical narrative. So we were looking for something along those lines.”

Spearin is no stranger to circuitous routes to sonic results. In 2007 and 2008 while being a stay-at-home dad, he recorded interviews with his neighbors. “I spent a lot of time on the front porch with my kids. I got to talk to my neighbors a lot. And the idea of making music out of the melodies of speech was something I had been toying with for a long time. My neighbors are interesting people … and they said really nice things and they sang them in a way.” The resultant album The Happiness Project features the most melodious bits of the interviews set to music, the speaker’s harmony accentuated by musical lines underneath their stories and musings, breaking down the demarcation between speech and music. The attentiveness to sound and texture present in that album can also be heard in tracks like “Schlomo’s Son” and “Bound” on Stubborn Persistent Illusions.