This is my second encounter with The Wooden Sky in a few days. I saw them in Hamburg where they played an astonishing show, but I missed our appointment for an interview. Fortunately, they hit Leipzig two days later where I catch up with singer Gavin Gardiner after their sound check at Täubchenthal. While he is having dinner, I ask him about the next album, his band’s appeal to old men and young girls and his expectations for playing Paris after the terrorist attacks.
Before you hit Germany, you spend almost a week in Tokyo and played a couple of shows. How was it?
Gavin Gardiner: It was amazing. Tokyo treated us super well. Usually, when we’re on tour, we don’t get time to spend in each city. In Tokyo it was different. We flew in and we had three days before we played our first show. We stayed in a nice neighborhood and we kind of just did the tourist thing for two days. On the third day, we had the show at the Canadian embassy, which was great. We played four songs there acoustically, in a stately hall. And after that we played a rock show in a big club.
The idea of staying in one city for a week and playing a string of three or four shows seems to make much more sense than playing one show each night in a different city. Why don’t bands do it more often?
Gardiner: Most places are just not big enough for that. In Tokyo, there are as many people as there are in Canada. So you can play a few shows. It may work in New York, where you play one show in Brooklyn and one in Manhattan. Or in London, when you play in different neighborhoods. But other than that? It hardly works.
After the European leg of the tour you go straight back to Canada to host your Annual Holiday Revue. That must be pretty hard to put on when you’re abroad. It sounds like a huge event.
Gardiner: Yeah, this year we’re doing two in Ottawa and one in Toronto. The one in Toronto we organize ourselves, totally. It’s not a ton of work anymore, because we know how to do it. I take care of getting an insurance, someone else takes care of getting the booths, we’ve got our girlfriends and friends working the bar and some other friends organizing a local artists‘ craft market, you know. That’s nice because it makes the whole event really intimate and special. And it’s really fulfilling. We’ve cultivated the event to a point where it sells out regularly, and we donate all the proceeds. We probably should think about expanding it next year.
The idea behind it is to invite some friends in and give something back to your community?
Gardiner: Exactly. This is the sixth year that we’ve done it and so far, we’ve donated about 10.000 dollars to the food bank. This year we’ll donate the proceeds to a place called Romero House, they help refugee families.
The tour is called Swimming In Strange Waters. What were the strangest waters you swam in during the tour, metaphorically or literally?
Gardiner: We played a bunch of shows down the West Coast of America, which is always super fun. We drove up to a place called Coffee Creek, five or six hours north of San Francisco. We had to drive up this crazy winding highway, off the main road. It was way up in the mountains. We had to stop to let the brakes cool off when we came down. We played in the backyard of a pizza place. That was strange and very beautiful. It’s cool that playing music can bring you into so many unique situations. And by now, I feel like 95 per cent of them are very positive. Maybe 98 per cent, even. We did a tour once where we played in non-venue places exclusively. We did backyards, house parties, parks, canoes. That was fun because we cut our teeth on a community experience that I am really attracted to. That sort of ethos has carried forward in the band since then. I love that music can provide a sense of community, amongst many other things.
With all this routine on the road and all these boring venues you usually get to see, it must feel great to play a venue that might inspire you.
Gardiner: Absolutely. It’s never boring, because this is what we love to do. But of course you find inspiration in the spaces. Like the venue we played in Hamburg: That was beautiful, there was just something in the air.
You’re on tour quite a lot, considering The Wooden Sky almost broke up before Let’s Be Ready was recorded.
Gardiner: I don’t know if you can put it like that. It was an interesting time. We toured a lot on the third record and we reached a point where some people decided that they didn’t want to do it anymore. I think we’re tethering on that now, just making sure that we’re keeping a balance of being able to be at home and be on the road, which is hard work for 24 hours a day.
What exactly made you wonder if you wanted to go on and still be The Wooden Sky? Was it artistic differences? Commercial failure? The hardness of being on the road?
Gardiner: Our bass player left, who was a big part of the band. And to be honest, it made sense for him to go, it made sense for everybody. You could just see him burning out and falling apart, and that’s not fun to watch in a friend. He’s much better now, so it’s great. It made us step back and make up our minds if there was still some gas in the tank for this project, you know? And we decided that we needed to put everything into it again and go for it or don’t do it at all.
So part of the lesson you’ve learned is to take more time off?
Gardiner: Yes. After this tour, we’ll go home and hibernate and be domestic and write songs. We’re planning on making a new record in late January. The whole band is going down to Mexico to our old bass player’s wedding and after that we’ll start working on the new record.
You’re already road testing new songs, such as Dead Horse Creek which you played in Hamburg.
Gardiner: Yeah. We have a bunch of new songs. In January we holed up in a rural area in Quebec and wrote songs together. We’ve got like 10 or 11 demos already. And I think it’s gonna be a bit of a challenge not to fuck up the demos once we’ll go into the studio – because there’s something special and kinetic about the demos. There’s a magic and an energy that you can really here.
In how far will the new album be different from Let’s Be Ready?
Gardiner: It’s going to be very different, I think, from the songs that we wrote so far. But I don’t know how to exactly describe it. When I played the songs to a friend of mine who’s also a musician, he told me that they have a death ballad feel to them. It’s not blues, but it seems to harken back to people like Leadbelly, Robert Johnson or that era. And some of the stuff could be Krautrock. Like NEU! or Kraftwerk or something – with more guitar.
Have you got a producer in mind?
Gardiner: We’re going to do it ourselves. I have a studio at my house that we have done a lot of demos in, and they sound great. I made records for other people as well. I’m amassing more and more gear. We could take 20.000 or 30.000 dollars and spend them on a studio or we could take that and buy some equipment for ourselves. So that’s what we’ll be doing.
Being in a genre like folk rock with so many heroes, such a long tradition and a tendency to be rather conservative, sound wise: How do you try to make a mark and be unique?
Gardiner: We try to combine those things and provide a unique outlook on it. But you’re right: There’s always the temptation to just fit right into the mould. Maybe that would make us more successful, because people love if they can tell exactly what you are. We could write a song with that sort of Hey-ho, soccer chant vocal. But none of us like that. That’s not what we are.
Do you worry about the image of The Wooden Sky, about your USP, radio airplay and stuff like that?
Gardiner: Not really. We just write our songs. It’s not so fabricated or premeditated. We’ve tried that before, but it never seems to work. It doesn’t seem genuine. I love lots of artists that are so meticulous, like David Bowie. From album to album, it’s totally different, and it seems like an art piece in that sense. But I also love Townes van Zandt, who seems to just be writing off his sleeve.
Your audience in Hamburg was young girls and old men. What is your appeal to a demographic like that?
Gardiner: I don’t know. You tell me!
Let’s just assume girls like your music and maybe your looks. And old men reading the German edition of Rolling Stone are heavily into Americana.
Gardiner: Okay. What’s interesting about this for me is that in Canada, where we’ve done the majority of our tour, there is no culture of people that age that go to shows. Not that they don’t enjoy the music, but they wouldn’t come to see you play live. Our audience there is more like 18 to 35 year old people. Which might be better because they are a bit more animated. Like you said before: As much as the space can provide inspiration, the audience does, too. And I feel like, in that sense, the audience has a bit of a responsibility to the show. Because it’s an interaction that happens.
So what do you do if it doesn’t happen?
Gardiner: That was interesting in Japan. Not that the audience was lousy, but they were just so polite. They clapped after each song and then they just stopped and remained silent until the next song was over. Also, when you play big cities like New York and Toronto, people are a bit more guarded. Whereas people in smaller towns seem to come to the show with an open mind. They appreciate that you’re coming to their city. Whereas in bigger cities they might feel they’re doing you a favor by coming to your show. To get past that? Fortunately, we’re all good enough friends that we can just have a good time when we’re on stage and I think that comes across to the audience.
You’ll play Paris on 5 December. What do you think it will be like after the terrorist attacks?
Gardiner: Edwin, our violinist, was in Paris a week after the attacks. He played in the palace at Versailles with a baroque orchestra for three nights. He told us that on the opening night, three people got up and had a speech and it was so moving that everyone was in tears, and then they played the French national anthem. So we’ve been talking about it lots. But we never thought about canceling the show. I think it’s our responsibility to provide inspiration to other people and to show them that they can live their life the way they want to.
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, did you ever feel scared on stage?
Gardiner: Well, it’s not a fun feeling to start thinking about it. But I feel like I wouldn’t have thought as much about it if I wouldn’t get constant emails from my Dad. He seems more worried than I am. We all know that a lot of people have to live their lives every day like that. So, to get a little taste of that is awful.