The Wooden Sky

The Wooden Sky

The title of The Wooden Sky’s fifth full-length album is an abridged quote from Frank Herbert’s1965 sci-fi novel,Dune:“Survival is the ability to swim in strange water.” It’s a phrase thatseems especially apt in 2017, as many of us are still reeling from the previous year. For GavinGardiner, the frontman of the Toronto-based indie rock band, the way to understand and reconcile these unknowns — from oil pipelines and refugee crises to his own family’s personalhistory— is through songwriting. “It’s how I filter a lot of things that come in,” says Gardiner, as he walks through the residential streets of Toronto’s Roncesvalles neighbourhood. “For better or for worse, it’s how I deal with things and how I communicate my feelings.”Swimming in Strange Waters is Gardiner trying to make sense of the world.The band (made up of Gardiner, multi-instrumentalists Simon Walker and Andrew Wyatt,violinist Edwin Huizinga and drummer Andrew Kekewich) started writing and recording demos in a small farmhouse in rural Quebec in January 2015, but then put them aside as they embarked on a year-long tour in support of their previous album,Let’s Be Ready. When they resumedwork on the album in March 2016, Gardiner says the band caught a severe case of “demoitis”, a condition wherein “you fall in love with the scrappiness of the demos.” So rather than completelyre-working them, they decided to record the album in the same way as the demos: in Gardiner’shome studio, using old tape machines and live off the floor.The resulting album is a sonic maelstrom that sees the band exploring unchartered waters,where textural psychedelia inspired by the Paisley Underground movement melds into quiet,acoustic cyclical guitar melodies, before once again transforming into a bombastic, JohnnyCash-esque rally against the XL Keystone pipeline in Canada. WhileLet’s Be Ready found the Wooden Sky writing a pure “rock and roll” album,Swimming in Strange Waterssees the band experimenting once again. “I feel like we’re back on track,” says Gardiner.John Angello (known for his work with Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. , Phosphorescent and Kurt Vile)mixed the album at Water Music in New Jersey. Around 95 percent of it was recorded to an oldtape machine at Gardiner’s home studio, and the rest was done at Hotel2Tango in Montreal and at a Toronto church where multi-instrumentalist Walker’s father is the Anglican minister.“Deadhorse Creek”, which is named after the body of water that runs through Gardiner’shometown of Morden, Manitoba, creates a layered soundscape with backward guitar, easygoingharmonica and a crooning slide guitar that all erupt in a foot-stomping, rollicking jam; “BlackGold”, inspired by the Keystone XL pipeline protests, features a 16-person choir, a VelvetUndergroundesquescreaching violin undertone by band member Edwin Huizinga, and Gardinerembracing a lower register for the first time; “Riding on the Wind” tells stories about refugeefamilies Gardiner met while working with Romero House, over a bed of dreamy reverb.Meanwhile first single “Swimming in Strange Waters” glimmers like a technicolored circus withwarbling synths and organs, cyclical, vocoder-drenched gang vocals and a spoken wordinterlude, performed by The Highest Order’s Simone Schmidt reading from Herbert’sDune Messiah.“More now than ever, I feel the weight of responsibility to act and make things better for the people to come,” says Gardiner. “Maybe that sounds cliche, but it feels very real now. As an artist, you have your voice, and not much else. So you gotta use it.” On every album, the Wooden Sky’s aim is to somehow capture the band’s live performance, to
compress that adrenalin and vigour into a collection of songs that’ll inevitably be played throughheadphones and crappy computer speakers. It’s a tall order, considering the Wooden Sky hasbecome known for both high-energy, sold-out rock shows and their charming, unconventionalpop-up gigs – like 2014's series of three acoustic record store sets in three hours, where theybiked to each shop with instruments slung over their backs.Swimming in Strange Watersmarks the closest the band has ever got to this coveted goal. Toachieve that energy, Gardiner had to let go of any insecurities and garner new confidence, partof which he found after speaking with an opera singer friend and working with legendaryproducer, Angello, and part of which came from encapsulating that energy himself.“You have to give the energy that you want to get back,” notes Gardiner. “When I’m recording,I’m standing on a chair like I’m on stage, wearing my boots and my sunglasses, just trying to create this atmosphere of cacophony. How do you expect to convey that excitement if you don’tfeel it? Let’s not sit here and be bashful.

Casper Skulls

Casper Skulls emerged from the Toronto exurbs in 2015, bursting onto the local scene with a studied sound and supercharged live performances. Following an early 7” on the band’s own label, Hip Priest, the quartet released the Lips & Skull EP on Buzz Records in late 2016. Described by MTV as a collection of “confrontational art rock that bleeds with sincerity,” and drawing comparisons to luminaries like Television, The Fall (The Toronto Star), Pavement, and Sonic Youth (Noisey), the EP attracted immediate attention from audiences first in Toronto and increasingly up and down the
Eastern seaboard as the band toured outside of Canada for the first time and began sharing stages with acts like Cloud Nothings, Thurston Moore, Suuns, Weaves, The Julie Ruin, Speedy Ortiz, Greys, and Hop Along.

Over the course of their young career the band’s sound has remained difficult to pin down, shifting through a broad collection of influences and jamming a raft of new ideas into each song, giving the impression that the 7” and the EP were “just the tip of the iceberg” (Noisey). The band’s forthcoming debut full length, Mercy Works, which will be released on November 3rd via Buzz, only serves to deepen that impression, making good on their early promise with a release that constitutes a startlingly ambitious statement of intent.

The album, which was recorded in early 2017 with co-producer/engineer Josh Korody (Fucked Up, Dilly Dally), and mixed by Alex Newport (At The Drive-In, Death Cab For Cutie), is densely arranged, intricately written and performed with an uncommon earnestness. While the rough and ready postpunk and lo-fi early '90s indie influences present on the band’s first recordings still provide the foundation, there is a sense of scale on display in their swelling guitar figures and sweeping string arrangements (provided by Toronto musician Paul Erlichman) that is mirrored by the songwriting of
dual lead vocalists Melanie St. Pierre and Neil Bednis. The real-life couple seek to represent lived experience in immense detail - engaging with a diverse palette of references, both musical and lyrical, to explore two intensely personal perspectives of emotional growth.

Thematically, the album traverses various paths of self-exploration, from relationships to politics to death and grief, in a language inflected by an immersion in several generations of experimental guitar music, and an ambivalent grappling with the reverberations of a Catholic upbringing. Whether drawing on the poetry of William Blake (“What’s That Good For”), the dystopian sci-fi of Philip K. Dick (“Colour of the Outside”), or ruminating on mortality and evolving personal/cultural legacies
through Elvis Presley and Paul Simon's trips to Graceland (“You Can Call Me Allocator”), St. Pierre and Bednis collect pieces of the world around them and imbue them with new meaning as they attempt to understand their place in it.

Bednis explains his inspiration behind the swirling standout “I Stared at ‘Moses and the Burning Bush’”, a song about the role of religion in his own experience of grief constructed around a reference to a painting by the '80s pop artist Keith Haring:
“I like the idea of exploring biblical imagery without necessarily picking sides,” says Bednis. “It’s rationed throughout the songs what my stance is, if I even have a stance. I find that religion can be therapeutic when people in your life die. When my uncle passed away, I remember sitting in the pew having the idea for the song. That day I was really contemplating the role religion plays in grief and death. Keith Haring’s weird take on a biblical story also made me feel OK about diving into that realm. Religion doesn’t necessarily need to be a sacred thing.”

The driving force behind Mercy Works is the band’s irrepressible desire to pursue new ideas and explore the expressive possibilities of the music they make. Reflexively humble, and infectiously enthusiastic, Casper Skulls are a group that see themselves as being at the beginning of their journey, an enticing prospect given the self-assuredness that underpins their debut.

“It’s so exciting to make music when you can explore what you want to explore," says Bednis. "Where we can go in terms of sound is endless. We’re big ambient music nuts so it’d be great to make an ambient record after this one, or an acoustic album. The goal is to be as freely creative as we can be as four people.”

“We’re really only at the start of being a band,” St-Pierre agrees. “Our records don’t have to move mountains as long as we’re being true to our own ideas. We want to be a slow burning candle.”


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