Interview with Tyson McShane from Slow down, Molasses - September 2011

Interview and article by Aline Giordano

Slow down, Molasses I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Canada is currently producing some of the finest independent music. Slow down, Molasses is definitely no exception. It’s actually hard to pigeonhole Slow down, Molasses into one specific musical genre. Not that I would wish to indulge in this convenient journalistic trick, but as much as we’re trying not to simplify popular music with words, we invariably do. Anyway, how would you describe a band that plays instruments as disparate as a horn, a type-writer (I know, not technically an instrument but used skillfully in studio and live on the track ‘Bodies’), a banjo, a cello, a glockenspiel, and distorted guitars? There is clearly an underlying alt.folk vibe, which tints the music with moving and melancholic lo-fi tones. So, I’d hazard to define Slow down, Molasses’ albums ‘I’m an old believer’ and the more recent ‘Walk into the sea’ as lo-fi.alt.folk? But as I said, that would be simplifying not only the intention but also the result. Yes, Slow down Molasses shines when producing intimate songs reaching straight at your guts. The fragility and softness of Tyson McShane’s vocals particularly underpins the melancholic tone of the offering especially effective on Fade Out and Into The Sea. Yet, the fuller orchestrations on songs like Wake Me Up At The Coast or F--king Up give the music a near anthemic rock sound. If you have not discovered Slow down, Molasses’ music yet, use this free streaming to do so and enjoy the journey. If you want to discover the man behind the exciting music, do read on!

Could you describe where you are and what surrounds you as you are about to answer these questions?

Tyson: I am sitting in my backyard on my wonderful little patio (yeah for wifi that reaches outside!) sitting next to my garden with my cat jumping around at passing insects as they fly by.

By the sound of it you’ve had a very busy year: a second album and lots of things happening in your private lives. Any particular one fond memory you’d like to share with us?

Tyson: Yes, this has been a completely ridiculous, busy, but very, very wonderful year. It’s kind of nuts how much stuff has happened. A couple fond memories….I got married last October. My wife and I got married with just our immediate family in our living room, but later in the evening we threw a sweet party to celebrate with a bunch of our good friends and family there. As has become the tradition amongst my friends, a bunch of my buddies (including most of Slow down, Molasses) got together and learned some covers to play as the wedding band. We’ve done this for a few other close friends weddings, so it was only natural that everyone did it for mine and late in the evening they dragged me up to play California Stars (a song of the Wilco/Billy Bragg album of songs based on Woody Guthrie lyrics). It’s a song my buddies and me used to play lots and Slow down has covered it, so everyone on stage took a turn singing or playing a solo. I’m sure it must have been a ten-minute version and we likely sang the verses 3 times each. It was great, a wonderful end to a wonderful day.

How is Canada warming up to ‘Walk into the sea’?

Tyson: It has been really wonderful. We live in Saskatchewan, smack in the middle of the Canadian prairies, which puts us almost as far as you can be from major media centres like Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, so it can be a bit difficult catching people’s attention unless you are touring nonstop, but we have had a lot of people get really excited about the album and give us a ton of support. CBC Radio 3 has been particularly fantastic in supporting us and getting the word out on this record and we’ve been very fortunate to get invited to a number of great festivals across Canada, including North by North East, Seld Island and the Regina Folk Fest. Otherwise we’ve gotten some pretty fantastic reviews from blogs like Herohill.com and slowcoustic.com (among others), which make me very happy, because those are a blogs that I read regularly, so if they are liking what we do, we must be doing something right.

You seem pretty excited about the collaboration with Julie Doiron on ‘Feathers’. What did Julie bring to the song? What is it that you particularly like about Julie? Her musical talent, her all-round artistic one, etc…?

Tyson: Julie brought the classic, wonderful sound of Julie. You are right that we are so excited to have had Julie stop by and sing. I’ve listened to her music since I was a teenager growing up in northern Saskatchewan. Her old band Eric’s Trip was one of the few indie bands that I was able to find in our under-stocked local record store and hearing their album Love Tara was a major revelation for me. As for her contribution to that song, it really is just the classic sound of Julie that she brought. Listening to Eric’s Trip and her solo stuff there always seemed like there was kind of casual, almost randomness to her vocal melodies, but despite this they always sounded spot on even if it seemed like her voice was wavering and seeming to fall away from the song around it. Watching her record on Feathers was really amazing, because it quickly became obvious that she was really particular about her phrasing and her harmonies and those random, surprising things you hear in her melodies really, aren’t that random. It made me appreciate her singing even more knowing how much thought she puts in to create such wonderfully surprising melodies. As to what I appreciate about Julie, it’s a mix of things. She really seems to epitomize a lot of what I like about music and specifically the Canadian music scene. She obviously writes and performs great songs, but the way she goes about it is so wonderfully down to earth and with such a community minded d.i.y ethic. The whole Sappy Records/Sappyfest scene is quite the inspiration in how they seem to just do what they love doing and support their community. It’s really great to see.

‘Fade out’ is a fine example of the way that you ‘orchestrate’ a song and give it this near anthemic sound (that is often mentioned in reviews). How did the song evolve? Is the orchestration a component part of the song writing or is it used to enrich the song at a later stage?

Tyson: Fade Out is one of the songs that I sat on, playing it by myself for a long time before bringing it to the band. It’s a good example of how I tend to write for this band. Despite a lot of my songs being written largely at home by myself, I always write with the idea of leaving space for big orchestrations or with it in mind of where and who will fill out the song and Fade Out is a perfect example of that. This band has a bit of an extended community of people outside our consistent members who we manage to drag into the studio or onto stage from time to time, so we knew if we were lucky we could have some pretty huge orchestrations on some songs and this was one I was very excited about adding layers of strings and hours. Fortunately part way through recording this album our dear friends Olenka & the Autumn Lovers (a fantastic band from London, Ontario) were touring across Canada and had scheduled a couple days off to hang out with us in Saskatoon and they were kind enough to spend almost that entire time in the studio with us. I had written a rough melody and knew the spots where we wanted them to play and they arrived in town and within a couple hours had written some of my favorite parts on the record.

To me, there are two sides to your music: A lo-fi sound with songs like ‘Walk into the sea’, ‘Fade out’ and a more full-on sound with songs such as ‘Late night radio’ and ‘F*cking up’. Do you feel that this kind of dichotomy is the result of being in a collective or are these two sides in (each of) you…?

Tyson: For me specifically, it really is the two sides of my record collection and the two sides of what I love in music. I grew up getting equally excited about noisey indie rock like Eric’s Trip and Pavement and loving the more orchestrated music of bands like Mojave 3, Low or The Delgados. With this band we are fortunate that it seems to work to indulge in the many sometimes contradictory sides of our musical interests.

find ‘Walk into the sea’ very moving and the duo works admirably. Where do you find those beautiful melodies and where is the melancholy coming from? And actually, are the two linked?

Tyson: Walk into the sea, the song is not-so-secretly the explanation of the album Walk Into The Sea. The whole record was in some ways a broken heart waiting to happen. We finished touring for our first record with the knowledge that most people in the band were about to have some pretty major changes in their life that being in a touring band be a bit harder (families, jobs, moves across the country). For me it left me wondering if the band would actually be able to keep going and if it was worth putting all the time, money and emotional investment into putting out albums and touring. I’m not particularly good at doing things half-assed and I was torn between loving the idea of this band and playing music and knowing that most people where going to have less time to commit to making the record and even if we managed to make the record, there might not be a band to tour behind it. When we started recording I had a good idea of the sequence I wanted for the album, there was just a few gaps where we needed to write some additional songs. For these songs I had very specific ideas in my mind of what I wanted them to sound like and what I was going to write about. Walk Into The Sea was one of the last of these songs. The melody was one of those things that I just kept playing for a long time when I was home alone lazily playing guitar. So once it came time to finish the album, it felt like a bit of constant in my mind and it played nicely into the idea I had for the album. As I mentioned above, I wasn’t sure who all would be available to play on the album and at one point it seemed like it would be fitting to end the album with a sparse simple song with just myself and Jeanette Stewart playing on it. Of course, as the story goes, when everything was looking grim, everyone came together to make making music make sense again and the little acoustic song I initially recorded solo got filled out with lovely banjo and strings and horns and glockenspiel.

‘Dirt beneath our daydreams’... you may find this comparison a little strange and it is meant as a compliment…. for me, the way it is delivered and the arrangements make it sound as if Serge Gainsbourg was making indie pop music? Does this comparison offend you or delight you?

Tyson: I’d never really thought of it that way, but that does put a smile on my face. I’ve never dedicated much time to Gainsbourg’s music, but he’s been one of those people who always epitomizes something a bit more cool and bit beyond what most people do with their music. He’s a bit of a mythic character whose music seems to come on at friends’ places late at night and I always think it’s something new and hip, then I just realize, no, that’s just Serge….as timeless as ever. So I take that as a huge compliment. Thank you very much. Obviously I’ve grown up on a lot Canadian and American indie pop and sometimes it seems hard to shake that no matter how hard I try, so it’s great that seems to mix together to make something you would compare to Serge.

In practice what does it mean to be in a Canadian independent band? artistic freedom? DIY ethos? business acumen?....etc?

Tyson: In our case, I think it means accepting that we are doing it because it’s what we love doing and seem to want to keep doing even if it pays off financially or not. Particularly being from where we are, you have to tour extensively catch people’s attention and that can be pretty intense. Otherwise there is a strong workman-like DIY ethos that exists amongst the indie labels and bands across Canada. It’s really funny returning from the UK, now that we’ve experienced the leisurely 1 to 3 hour drives between shows over there, touring Canada seems rather ridiculous. On average we likely have to drive 5 or 6 hours between shows on the way. when we tour Canada it always involves at least a couple 14 hour drives. It really is a bit of a ridiculous proposition, but at the same time it is something us and many of our friends in bands completely love doing. A reason for that is the strong sense of community that stretches across Canada for many bands and labels here. For us, and many musicians that we have gotten to know, being a Canadian independent band is being part of a weird and wonderful tiny small town that exists in isolated pockets of every city and province in our country. It is really amazing how there is a great sense of community amongst many of the bands we know across Canada. In many cities across Canada arriving at the venue we play at or the neighbourhood our friends live in feels a bit like arriving home at Amigo’s (our local venue) or Riversdale or Nutana (the neighbourhoods a few of us live in).

If it wasn’t for the Saskarchwan Arts Board Grant, there would not be a second album pretty much… There seems to be a healthy national investment in home-grown music in Canada from which you are benefitting. Can you explain to us, living on the other side of the Atlantic, a little bit more about this?

Tyson: Well….there would have been a second album, but it would have taken a lot longer and we likely wouldn’t have been able to work with some of the people we did or make it over to the UK, but that said, the Art Board grant was a phenomenally wonderful thing that we are incredibly grateful for. As to the healthy national investment in home grown music, yes and no, it’s always a bit worrisome about how long we will have a great system of grants. As our provincial and federal governments shift to the right, it seems everyone is a bit on edge about whether the support we have had for the arts in this country will last. Up to this point we definitely have been very fortunate in that our provincial and federal governments have recognized the benefit providing financial resources to help support and promote the arts in Canada. I think the origin of these grant programs may have something to do with being a relatively small population of people spread out across a very large landmass. Because we have such a small population base, it would be very easy for bands such as ours to not be heard outside of our province if we didn’t have the CBC or organizations like the Saskatchewan Arts Board and other similar arts organizations. It is just that much harder to get national attention when the closest national media is nearly 2000km away and playing a show outside of our hometown usually means driving 6 or 8 hours. So having healthy arts funding means that a band like us or a film maker or painter in a similar position can get that extra bit of support that means they have a chance to be heard by a larger national or international audience, instead of being drowned out by whatever the big labels are pushing or whatever is happening in the major media centres. The fact that we are such a large, relatively sparsely populated country means that having resources to make sure artists can practice their art and it can be seen or heard by people all across our country seems like such an invaluable thing to me. Purely from a cultural identity perspective, I think Canada would be much worse off if we didn’t have the support for the arts that we do. Many aspects of our local cultures and arts or music scenes would remain local and unheard by many and as a country we would be missing out on some of the great and unique aspects of our fellow country men and women. The international success of a lot of Canadian bands recently is really heartening and you can be guaranteed that our healthy arts funding played a very important role in making sure those bands could make the albums they made and be heard both in Canada and internationally.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Tyson: Ahhh, spare time…I remember having that a couple years ago. The memory is a bit hazy, but I do remember it! I am kind of joking, but mostly not. This year has been quite crazy with how much the band has been doing. We all have jobs outside of the band and I personally work as a City Planner for the City of Saskatoon, working full time, Monday to Friday, 8 to 5, so with what has been happening with the band my free time has effectively disappeared this year. That said, I am in the enviable position of quite liking my job and get work on really interesting projects that directly make this city that I live in a better, more exciting place. So you could say that in my spare time I do neighbourhood design and development. But joking aside, we’re all rather obsessive music fans and love playing so much. I play in a couple other bands where I don’t have to organize and direct things, which is really fun. Other than music and work…. not so secretly once upon a time I was a national champion athlete. I used to race biathlon (cross country skiing and shooting) and to this day love, love, love getting out skiing in the winter and in the summer biking around the city.

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Photograph © Aline Giordano 2011