Ben Hubbird Talks to Bry Webb
When Constantines emerged from Toronto in the mid-aughts, it signaled, in some small way, the return of brains and poetry to a testosterone-fuled heavy rock landscape. They came at precisely the right moment for a generation raised on pop-punk and hardcore, and Constantines found considerable success touring alongside similarly literate acts like the Weakerthans (both groups also shared a love of women’s curling, naming an album and a song after the sport’s championship, respectively). Constantines’ heaviness was belied by stylistic debts to artists like Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits—due in part to the band’s frontman, Bry Webb. Webb’s vocals were smoky and blue collar and his lyrics often darkly sexy, strewn with cryptic references to political upheavel and new-agey ideologies. Live performances were intense, sweaty, and loud.
After a three-year musical hiatus, Webb returned sans band with a haunting and intensely personal 2011 solo album, Provider, that was reminiscent of releases from Bill Callahan and Nick Drake. Then last month—in the midst of a Constantines reunion—he released Free Will, a slightly more pop-savvy collection that’s full of gentle, meditative passages and occasional shards of biting humor. Both releases are compelling in large part for Webb’s patient, spellbinding vocal delivery.Ben Hubbird spoke to Webb just before Constantines’ first show in four years.
I. COMING INTO THE WORLD
THE BELIEVER: So originally, with Constantines, you had this very congenial break-up. Did you feel like you had completed the thing that you set out to do?
BRY WEBB: I just think at the time it didn’t feel like we were getting any better at what we were doing—which is real harsh to say—but it just felt like we were spinning our wheels a little bit. There were a bunch of other things that I wanted to prioritize, and I think that was true for all of us. We’d been doing it for eleven years and we just started to feel like maybe there was more to life than the Constantines. When we stopped, we just sort of said, “you know, its an indefinite hiatus,” whatever that means. It was just our way of hopefully not looking like dorks when we decided we wanted to do it again. So I think we wanted to keep that possibility open, and here we are.
I don’t know if it was just feeling like “our work here is done.” It wasn’t really that definitive. It felt more like the moment you decide you need to move out of your family house, you know, your parents’ house. It was time for the next stage in my life, and for everyone that was true. And then everyone has done such amazing things since, in the four years, that it turns out it was the right idea, you know?
BLVR: On your two solo records, did you take a step back from the Constantines’ songwriting process and approach those records any differently, or have they always really been Bry Webb songs with different instrumentation?
BW: Some of the songs on both Provider and Free Will have been around for a while, and didn’t seem like they would work as Constantines songs because they were just too hyper-personal to work in the rock band setting. But to me the best Constantines songs, and most of the Constantines songs, were written in sort of the classic, punk rock group kind of way, where you just bash out instrumentals together and riff for a few hours until you have an instrumental song structure that everybody likes, and everybody’s got parts that they like, and then somebody goes and tries to write lyrics for that. A lot of my favorite Cons songs were written that way, because I think it was just a democratic writing process.
But then, with writing my own stuff now, it’s much more singular or solitary, and I sit quietly in a room in our house and just try and come up with chords or a melody or something like that traditional kind of thing. I tend to write a line here or there, or just bits and pieces on an idea over the course of six months and then it seems to come together into a song or one of the lines fits with a chord melody. The lyrics and the music often times exist apart from each other and then kind of fit things together.
BLVR: You kind of shake things until they fall into place.
BW: Yeah, it’s more like collage or pastiche.
BLVR: Did becoming a father make you write more personal songs, or change the way you write?
BW: When the Constantines stopped, I felt like didn’t know how to write music out of that context. I learned to play, essentially, with those four other guys. When it was gone, it just made me realize what was actually there. I got a better, bigger, more specific picture of what was there, and for me it was support in the creative process and a lot of structure. Because I knew what Will would like or I knew what Steve would think was bullshit, so that was a real structure to work within. When I didn’t have that, I felt like I was working without a net. And I didn’t know what to do.
I was sort of lost creatively, and I ended up working construction in Montreal, just demolition and construction. It was this two-person operation, me and this guy who was an amazing carpenter and this patient guy, who taught me a lot. And I just did that for the better part of a year, in [a neighborhood of Montreal called] The Plateau, through the winter just working on this place that had to be gutted and then rebuilt. That ended up being pretty therapeutic.
We found out we were pregnant toward the end of that process of rebuilding that place. We decided to move to a smaller town, move to Guelph here, and we just adjusted—we changed in that period. We moved. We became parents. I stopped playing music and was looking for other ways of working, and it took a while to adjust to that. I got a job working at a community radio station here in Guelph, which has been really great.
Then, when Asa was born, about a month after he was born, I had my first impulse to write music at all, which was to write him a lullaby, and that’s the song “Asa,” which is the first song on the first record. It was a really simple idea, which was to write a song that had all the meanings of his name, and just say something I wanted to say to him. That became a reason to write again. I had spent so much time trying to figure out why I should write another song, what there was to say, or what I had to say. The idea of just writing things for him, for a new person in the world, felt like a good enough reason. Most of those songs on those two records are coming from that place.
BLVR: Were all those songs written at roughly the same time? Was there a chronology to those two records?
BW: They’re all over the place, really. “Rivers of Gold” was an old song that I wrote when the Constantines went to Dawson City for the first time, but then they all just kind of went on that record because they were personal songs that just had some sort of value or idea that would be valuable to Asa as he was coming into the world, and that was what determined what went onto the record.
II. HETERONORMATIVE BULLSHIT
BLVR: Provider feels like it moves from a very positive place to a much more bleak place lyrically. Was that intentional or incidental?
BW: None of that stuff for me ever is explicitly thought out. It ends up being that way because it sounds right. When we are putting a record together, it turns out that it expresses a narrative that exists in my life at the time, and I don’t often see that until two years after the fact. I think that is very much the case with Provider, that it expresses the narrative of a new parent, at least in my experience, where there is this blissful pure joy period, where you are just completely in love and everything is based around this new life, and you only see good from day to day. And then eventually you open up to the rest of the world. You see some of the darker truths that are impossible to ignore, around you. There’s more anger in me probably now than there ever has been, because I see what kind of world my son is going to be involved in, and that terrifies me in a lot of cases. Toward the end of Provider it turns into that mode. Free Will is even less idealistic. There’s some outright calling out.
BLVR: There’s some snark.
BW: There is still a lot of love in there, but that’s a huge part of becoming a parent is not wanting to bullshit any more, just being as honest as possible with this new person.
I have conversations with my friend Simone Schmidt, one of my favorite songwriters in Canada. She has a group called Highest Order, and another band called Fiver. She’s kind of the person I send stuff to when I am uncertain want unfiltered analysis. I sent her the record, and the song “Positive People” really stood out to her. She said she couldn’t figure it out, and we got into this long conversation about, you know, heteronormative bullshit. I think to her initially it seemed like a very pro, “we’re a happy family”, “Our House” kind of song. And it’s not. It wasn’t ever intended, I wrote that song in my mid-twenties and I was seeing people have kids around me and couldn’t figure out who was secure enough in this world to bring a new life into it, and it was meant of a satire more than anything of that kind of heteronormative nonsense, and I just want to throw out there that it’s not, and that it is that, because I am worried that that it will be misinterpreted as such.
BLVR: I definitely interpreted the sarcasm, I got that.
BLVR: But that might also be where I’m in my life.
BW: It’s hard to tell what’s gonna be missed. It’s hard to control how it’s going to be interpreted, but there are a few things I should put out there to contextualize. That was an old song, as I said, but being a parent, in a hetero relationship—and I’ve been in different kinds of relationships—but the irony felt a little too rich to pass up, putting it on the record this time around.
BLVR: Did it feel self-critical? Did it feel like your twenty-year-old self was dressing you down?
BW: Yeah, yeah it’s great. That’s one of the things I look forward to about having a kid is being dressed down, being called on my bullshit. Later on, having to answer for a lot of bullshit. It’ll be good for me.
BLVR: Yeah. So Free Will is mostly new songs?
BW: It’s mostly new, but there are some other old songs on there. “Translator” is an old song, “AM Blues” is an old song, but they just seemed right this time around. And they kind of connected with the overarching idea of the record. The word will pops up in every song on the record. It wasn’t really intentional, or thought out that carefully, but it just sort of revealed something about what’s been happening in my life. Seeing a three-year-old discover his agency in the world or assert himself in the world, and assert his will, on a day-to-day basis. To see how a person discovers that and navigates it, you know?
BLVR: What are you reading these days?
BW: Right now I’m reading [Marcel Proust’s] In Search of Lost Time, which I’d never read before, but I always wanted to read. It’s incredible. It’s such a slow meditation. I’m only about one-hundred pages in, but it’s such a slow meditation on time and memory, you know? It’s amazing.
BLVR: Are you reading it in French?
BW: No, my French is abysmal. I wish it were that good. I lived in Montreal for almost five years, and I’m not very good.
BLVR: The ignorant American in me just assumes all Canadians are fluent.
BW: I wish that were true. I think part of me is too shy, or at least I continue to blame my shyness on my inability to learn. I didn’t want to speak poorly, so I didn’t try it out when I was in Montreal. I have a million excuses for that.
BLVR: Your writing isn’t showy, but it is literate. Do things you read explicitly inform the songwriting you do, or is it more subconscious?
BW: Yeah, there are little references here and there, and I try and be clear about—I try and put it in the liner notes if I am actually explicitly referencing something. On this record I think there is a Vasko Popa poem, and a play that I reference on one song. Here and there there are little things like that. But mostly when I am reading, I get excited about writing. The act of writing. But I try not to bite too many people’s style while I’m writing. If I’m reading Swann’s Way, or James Tate, or something like that, I try consciously when I sit down to write not to rip off James Tate’s style.
BLVR: Today marks the first comeback show for your band, Constantines.
BW: Yeah, we’re doing a surprise, well sort of badly kept secret, show in one of our home towns, Guelph, Ontario, which is where I live now, about an hour outside of Toronto, and we’re playing a big show in Toronto on Sunday, as part of The Field Trip Festival. But tonight we decided to organize a show at this warehouse in Guelph that some friends are putting on. It’s the first show after four years.
BLVR: How does it feel?
BW: It feels great. It’s been an amazing time just practicing together and hanging out together again. We’ve seen each other here and there over last few years but it’s been just wonderful to just hang out together, and we’ve been rehearsing in our old rehearsal space in Kensington Market in Toronto, below a music shop there, that we had for six or seven years, and it’s now a rented out music rehearsal space. We got in there, and it was kind of like going home, you know? It was nice just hanging out in Kensington—I lived there for a while, so it was kind of revisiting my past all at once.
BLVR: Did they make it a rehearsal space after you guys moved out, were they like, well this looks like a good spot for rehearsal spaces?
BW: Yeah, exactly. When we had it, it was just stacked with our crap all over the place and we never really soundproofed it properly, and you could see the insulation above our heads while we were playing, but they cleaned it as soon as we moved out. The music shop above turned it into a nice rehearsal space that a lot of our friends now use.
BLVR: Are you guys working on new material for these shows?
BW: Nope. Not yet. The tenth anniversary of our record Shine a Light came up last year, and somebody wrote to us to ask if we were going to do anything for that occasion, and we characteristically had no plans—no savvy, intellectual ideas—and we just kind of let it pass. And that turned into a running joke thread on email, about how bad we are at self-promotion, or seizing any opportunity for advancement. It was never something we were particularly good at. And that was enough of a bonding thing that in January this past year, when a few offers came in from people asking us if we wanted to play some shows, I guess we were all in the right frame of mind to do it.
BLVR: Coming from your more recent experience as a singer-songwriter, do you think that you’ve brought something new to the old Constantines songs? Do you feel like you’re approaching them in a new way?
BW: Yeah. My fear was that we were just going to sound like a Constantines cover band, and just play the album versions of the songs, you know, verbatim.
BLVR: Here’s Constantines performing Tournament of Hearts.
BW: Yeah, exactly, the classic album. It’s been a really good sign that when we rehearse it has just turned into, you know, jams—like, jams in the middle of songs, which has been good.
BLVR: So we can expect more of a Grateful Dead feel?
BW: Oh yeah, we’re wanking for like twenty minutes a song. We’re gonna do like three songs in our set, that’s it. And they’re all Grateful Dead songs.
BLVR: I know everyone’s looking forward to that.
BW: We have been joking about how we can end, we have a game called “bad idea,” about what would be the worst way you could approach any situation—and at times we’ve taken that route and ran with it—but in this case, I think at the music shop above us, where we were rehearsing, there was sitar, and so there was a running joke, that we just thought maybe it would be a good idea to just start writing ragas, and we return with just an hour and a half of raga, five sitars, you know.
BLVR: It worked for the Beatles.
BLVR: And you’ve got a solo tour coming this summer, right?
BW: Yeah we’ve been doing a fair amount already, we were in the States for a bit, on the East Coast and Midwest, and then a lot of Canadian folk festivals. Thats where the jams come in. The twenty-four-minute jams. We’re learning [the Grateful Dead song] “China Cat Sunflower” trying to appease the hippie moms at the folk festivals in Canada.
Ben Hubbird lives and works in Portland, Oregon, where he runs Party Damage Records and hosts a radio show for XRAY.fm.