Gentleman Reg Suits Up For Jet Black

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

It probably won't come as a surprise that most musicians tend to gravitate toward Buddhist thinking outside of their artistic endeavors. Many musicians tend to move toward the teachings of Buddha because they find an aspect of themselves in the notion that the best part of living is in the process embarked upon to complete an undertaking – not the end result. Singer/songwriter Paul Westerberg, for example, has gone on the record several times over as saying that he's usually more interested and excited about the song he finished yesterday than he is about the one he wrote last week while Eels frontman Mark Oliver Everett has been known to withhold completed albums from his record label for months on end because he likes making records more than he does putting them out. Such sentiments are the portrait of Buddhist logic taken to its absolute extreme within the constraints of making rock n' roll but, as with any sort of religious doctrine, it isn't for everyone; singer/guitarist “Gentleman” Reg Vermue is the first to admit that what lights him up about music isn't the process, but showing people the results – he likes hitting the road and going on tour, likes showing people what he's done, perhaps most importantly, loves to put on a good show and that's partially why the gap between his last album, Darby & Joan [released in 2004 on Three Gut Records -ed] and Jet Black – his first album for Arts & Crafts – was so great; between his own touring schedule as well as his guest appearance work with other projects including Ohbijou, Constantines, Final Fantasy, Royal City, Hidden Cameras and Jim Guthrie, the luxury of time to sit down in a studio was definitely at a premium.

It took a while, but eventually Vermue did make his way back into the studio and, when he finally did, Gentleman Reg found himself with the opportunity to create something very, very different from his previous work; a sprawling creation that went in as many directions as his imagination would allow that the singer ultimately ended up calling Jet Black. It's a phenomenal and interesting record partially because, realistically, it couldn't be reproduced note-for-note by the five-piece rock n' roll band that Vermue has assembled for the tour to support it (which includes Dana Snell of The Bicycles on drums, François Turenne from Hylozoists, Kelly McMichael and Paul Lowman from Cuff  The Duke on bass) – there are, very simply, too many things at work in songs like “We're in a Thunderstorm” (which is unmistakably a dance track), “When Heroes Change Professions,” “To Some It Comes Easy” and “You Can't Get It Back.” While for some musicians such a change in figurative mid-stream for the promotion of a record would be a harrowing prospect, it suits Gentleman Reg just fine and in fact he wouldn't have it any other way; it'll be the chance to show audiences something very different from anything he has ever done before and it becomes obvious in speaking to the singer that's what lights him up.

Bill Adams vs. “Gentleman” Reg Vermue

RV: Hello?

BA: Hey Reg, how're you doing? It's Bill Adams calling.

RV: How're you?

BA: I'm doing pretty well, how about you?

RV: Pretty good.

BA: Good stuff – so you're back in Toronto now, I thought you were out of town for some reason.

RV: Nope, we leave for tour in about a week and a half.

BA: Oh? So you've got some time yet then.

RV: Yeah, but not nearly enough. There are tonnes of things I have to do before we leave.

BA: That's always the case isn't it? It always sounds great first and you say, “Oh! I'm going on tour!” and then it sinks in a minute later and you end up saying, “Oh, I'm going on tour….”

RV: Exactly. I can't wait though.

BA: How long's it been since you toured? Is this the first behind Jet Black?

RV: It is the first behind the new album. It's only been out for about a month and a half and we wanted to give it a little bit of time to soak in and let people hear it before we hit the road so we haven't even really done CD release parties or anything – we've just been holding off and waiting.

BA: Oh really?

RV: Yup, but now we've got a good two months booked on the road so it's all coming together now.

BA: Cool, that's alright. I suspect it doesn't hurt either that this is your first Arts & Crafts release too isn't it?

RV: It is – yes. In 2004 was the last time I put out an album and that one, Darby and Joan, came out on Three Gut.

BA: That's the one, I was at a loss for the label name for a minute. Anyway, so as you were saying, it's been out for a month and a half, how has it been received so far?

RV: It's been great! The reviews have been really positive. I'm not going to say I'm surprised but I will absolutely say that I'm relieved. The Pitchfork review came out today and it was really positive too so it's been really great.

BA: Allow me to include myself in the list of praisers then. Congratulations on the new record – it's really, really good.

RV: Thank you! It's been really gratifying because we worked on it for a really long time to all come together; it took a while to get together with Arts & Crafts and we spent so much time sussing out every aspect of it. That's part of why I'm relieved, but also because, really, I don't just do this for myself; I'm not that kind of writer. If no one was into it, I'd be incredibly disappointed.

BA: Who else do you do it for if not just yourself?

RV: It's not necessarily a specific person or group that I have in mind really, more that I just want to sing for people. There is a certain satisfaction that comes out of writing a song in my bedroom, but if it only ever stayed there, I wouldn't be content. I'm not that kind of artist, so a huge part of it is performing those songs in front of an audience and I feed off of my peers a lot too; they inspire me and challenge me and, you know, everyone would like to have their peers respect them so it's for them too.

BA: Now, you said that the process took a while too – how long was the writing process.

RV: It was a long process, but it's not as though I was working on it from the time the last one came out. The songs sort of came out over the span of about a year and a half or two years and then we recorded it over the course of a year. There were a lot of reasons for that; it was very much a studio record – it was built in the studio – so it's not like I had the songs all arranged and I walked in with a band. It wasn't like that at all and when you're building and assembling the tracks, it takes longer because you come to realize what the songs need as you go along. After it was complete, I had to shop it around too so that took some time on top of making it too.

BA: Really? See, it's funny to me because a lot of the bands that had been on Three Gut have wound up on Arts & Crafts now. I thought it would have been a natural progression in that way. It doesn't hurt either that Arts & Crafts has gone from indie private pleasure to a label that everybody's paying attention to now.

RV: Well, I do think that Arts & Crafts was a natural fit for me so it is nice in that way. There were a couple of other labels that were interested too, but there was a lot of familiarity here for me and that seemed really comfortable. I mean, I've always sort of been around them; I've toured with Stars a bunch and opened for Feist and opened for Broken Social Scene – Kevin Drew directed a video for my last record so there was always been that sort of connection and closeness with the label, it was just a matter of needing the right time. They needed the right space in their schedule to fit it in and that's partially why it took a long time too.

BA: That's understandable. Now you were saying that you're very familiar with a bunch of these bands of course, when you do hit the road for this tour, who's coming with you? Or are you doing it alone?

RV: I'm doing it with a full band – which is very exciting for me and expensive – and it's fairly new. None of the people that are coming with me played on the record, but a couple of them have been playing with me for the last eight months or a year or so. They're all in different bands as well – François Turenne from Hylozoists is coming with me as well as Kelly McMichael from Guelph, Dana Snell from The Bicycles is coming with me to play drums. Paul Lowman just signed on last week too; he plays in Cuff The Duke he's going to be playing bass with us.

BA: Wow! That sounds like it's going to be a good time. You had a bunch of guests on the record too right? I know Bry Webb from the Constantines is on there, but I think Katie Sketch from The Organ and a couple of the members from Land Of Talk too – is that right?

RV: Yeah – Elizabeth Powell from Land Of Talk.

BA: Were these all friends that offered to help out or people that you heard a part for in the mixes so you called up and asked if they were interested?

RV: They were friends beforehand – Bry Webb has played on almost all of my records and he was in my live band back in the day – so, in that sense, it wasn't a stretch to ask any of them but I also had really specific things in mind that I wanted them to do. Even so, I was still pretty amazed and flattered that it all worked out because they all have their own things on the go and sometimes it can be insane to try and line up schedules with other friends who are in bands.

BA: So it was really that well organized?

RV: In a lot of ways, it really was. Like, I don't play lead guitar so I've always gotten other people to do it on my other records so it's just natural to find other people to do it. With Bryan, it was really just as easy as handing him some songs and seeing what he thought he might be able to do with them. Liz actually co-wrote one of the songs that she sings on so, again, it was very natural for her to come sing on it.

BA: Now, obviously it's still your record though so your vision comes first, but do you regard them as group efforts?

RV: Uhm, I think it's my record, but I had lots of help making it. I work best with others in the same way that Bjork does. Not that I'm comparing myself to Bjork, but she doesn't just sit in her bedroom and out comes a record, she works with a shit-load of people to make those records and I think there's something to be said for that kind of collaboration. I mean, I spearhead things and I do write the bulk of the songs on my own, but my drummer Greg Millson had a big hand in arranging things and there are some co-writes in there, but the project is called Gentleman Reg; that's not an ego thing, it was just a name that has stuck around so we continue to use.

BA: How does the songwriting process break down for you? Lyrics first? Is it more of a songwriting endeavour where you're sitting around with a guitar?

RV: I usually come up with the melody and the chords and then fit lyrics into it – that's usually the way. For this record, most of the songs were arranged with my drummer. Greg Millson. We've been playing together for seven years. Some of them were more finished than others in terms of knowing what the rhythm will be, where the highs and lows are and the dynamics in between. I'd sort of get the idea together and then bring it to Greg and we'd figure out the finer points together depending upon what he comes up with. He's an amazing drummer and, when you listen to a song like “You Can't Get It Back” they really make the song I think. Like, I could have played that song for you before Greg got his hands on it and it would be pretty much the same, the drums do lead it to a whole new level and that's why he needed to get a writing credit on that song as far as I was concerned. A lot of people don't give drummers writing credits but – particularly in my mind in Greg's case – he's absolutely key in the development of that song and is often in other cases too.

BA: I can totally understand what you're saying in that regard, I had a drummer years ago that was the same way. Now, obviously the album's out and it's getting play, what's happening with this tour?

RV: We're going to be out for almost two months. There are a bunch of dates around Ontario and then we're going across Canada with The Stills before we go down to the US and do a full tour there too with this band called A Camp. A Camp is the side project of Nina Perrson from The Cardigans. I'm really excited about that and can't wait because we've never toured the US so it's a whole new endeavour for us and, ironically, I love A Camp so it's pretty serendipitous that it all came together the way it did. After that, we go to Europe in the fall but that hasn't been charted out yet.

BA: Now, you said you've never been to the States but I know you've been to Europe before….

RV: We have, but we've never had an album out there before. I toured there twice in 2007 opening for Stars and for Broken Social Scene and it was amazing but, as I say, we didn't have an album out so it's going to be a very different dynamic this time. It's always different when you're going and people know you versus when you go and no one knows you at all.

BA: Overall though, how was the reception the first time? What are you envisioning to have in front of you this time?

RV: Uhm, I'm not sure what to expect because I think the album literally came out within days of today in Europe so we're still waiting to see how the press reacts to it and how people respond before we go in the fall. That's the plan and I'm really trying very hard not to have any expectations about anything because it's easier to keep from getting disappointed that way. I am dying to go though – I lived in Germany as a kid – and it's a very beautiful place to go. They appreciate the arts in a totally different way there; it's much more accepted as a lifestyle and it's appreciated in a different way. That's not to say that people in Canada don't appreciate art, but I've found that playing in a place like Vienna for a couple of hundred people feels a lot different there than it might here; they want to give you a chance more I think. That's not the case everywhere of course, but I did find  that very often people on those two tours were much more into exploring; they didn't need to be told we were good – they'd just make their own decision.

BA: I've found that to be the case in North America; often they need the justification of a “buzz” to even give something a chance before they hear it.

RV: Yeah – like people need to be told that something's cool and then they'll get that it's cool. They're not as into championing something on its own or grasping something on its own which is a strange trait; I don't really know why.

BA: Now presumably you're going to be focussing mostly on material from Jet Black and you've already done a couple of shows to support it, how does this album translate live?

RV: It's an interesting thing, it's still very much a work in progress. Because it was such a studio record, some of the songs, like the dance track on the album “We're In A Thunderstorm” for example, had never been played live; that was created in a bedroom into a computer. It had never been done live so then to get a five-piece band to break it down has been really interesting. There have lots of deconstructions to make it work but the way that we're approaching it is that we're simply not trying to replicate the album live and that's something I'm really into. When I go to see a band live and I'm suddenly struck by the idea that I could just as easily be listening to it at home – like it sounds carbon copy – I'm not interested in that. I think the live show is a different experience on so many levels and one of those involves the idea that you could bring something new to the songs. We're kind of approaching it with that mentality and I think it's going to end up rocking a little more – given that we are a rock band now. We're not radically changing them – the melodies are certainly there and of course the hooks are too – but the parts might be simply played on a different instrument; like a synth line may get performed on a guitar live. The part is still there though so, in that sense, it isn't radically different. Some parts we're extending off the end of the song but, in the case of “We're In A Thunderstorm,” it became more a matter of what we wanted to leave out. We kept the basics to it in place and the parts all sort of lined up easily which was kind of surprising – just how easy it was. We've been playing it a little – we just played South By Southwest and it came out there – and it wound up being a pretty good rock song but, just the other day, we scaled it back and discovered that we liked it that way too. It's been a really interesting evolution with that song and who knows? We might continue changing it – which would be very exciting to me. I don't want to pull a Bob Dylan and pull out arrangements of songs that are indistinguishable from the originals but, while remaining within the basic constraints of the original songs it's been very interesting and fun to start playing around with what we're going to do. It might be fun to try sometime, but I think it's a little too early for me to try doing it.

Gentleman Reg official site

Gentleman Reg myspace


Jet Black is out now on Arts & Crafts. Buy it here on Amazon .

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