Channel Surfing - An Interview With Great Lake Swimmers' Tony Dekker

Interview by P. Elizabeth Cawein

If Canada's Great Lake Swimmers were ever pigeon-holed as being emotive thought-rockers, it wouldn't be entirely off base. But it also wouldn't do them justice. When I sat down with lead singer and songwriter Tony Dekker a while back before their gig at the Bowery Ballroom here in New York, he joked about how there's an up-tempo number on the band's latest, Lost Channels. Although it's admittedly new territory, these are musicians who see making an album as an adventure. And they tell the story from track one to twelve.

So how is the tour going? I know you guys were down South a little bit earlier this week in North Carolina, how was that? How are those audiences?
The audiences have been really great across the board, like we had a couple really good shows in Texas, we had some great shows coming up the east coast through Atlanta, Georgia, North Carolina, on our way out the shows were also really great, across Canada and down the west coast, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, they were all really really great shows.

Awesome. I know you've got this really cool project going right now where you're getting fans to take video at your shows -- tell me how that came about.
Well, I just thought it would be kind of a cool idea, I was talking about it with some people at the label, and they were like, yeah, we should try to put this together. And get footage from the different shows and sort of create one song, like all the footage from "Concrete Heart" and sort of paste them all together to create this tour video kind of thing. Because we're playing something like 60 shows I think, this tour, so we thought it'd be a great idea to try to paste it all together and make a video out of recording one song every night.

So are you talking to fans about it, during the show? Are you talking about the project?
Not a heck of a lot. You know people have their little cameras out and everything, so I'm assuming that the footage is coming in, I don't know, I think it'll be really cool, if it turns out.

You're touring right now with a brand new album. Are you dedicating most of the show to the new material? Are you bringing in old stuff?
We've been bringing in old stuff, we play stuff from all the records, basically, but we've been emphasizing obviously the new tracks, because they're new, they're fresh, the album's just come out. But we've been playing stuff from all of the albums. Having four albums out now, I think we're really able to tailor a set, kind of a quieter set or a louder set, or a mix of the two.

In terms of the set design, are you kind of playing with the same sets from night to night or are you going more on the fly?
We're changing it up. I usually have a set list planned before hand, but you know we've been changing it up from night to night just to keep it interesting.

You're going to Europe in two weeks. I saw that one of those shows is already sold out, that's fantastic.
Yeah, our London show sold out.

So you must have a pretty strong following in England.
I mean we've been touring there for three or four years, and it's sort of been building up to this.

So let's talk about the album. I know you recorded in the Thousand Islands, I think it's called? And you have a history of recording in interesting places, but tell me about the Thousand Islands.
We connected with a historian and photographer named Ian Coristine, and he invited us to come and check out the Thousand Islands area, and when the time came to record the album, we got in touch with him and he invited us to the Thousand Islands to kind of check it out and be inspired. He heard us on a Canadian radio station. And so when the time came to record the album, I got in touch with him again and said are there sort of any interesting places to record in that area, and he knew the area really well and was able to point out a lot of really cool places.

Did you just sort of go in and set up the equipment and make your own studio kind of thing?
Exactly, yeah. Basically turning a space into a studio. You know turning like a, it's kind of like using the acoustics of the place. So we were using the natural acoustics of the place to sort of add a layer of depth to the songs.

With all the places you've recorded, and Lost Channels being done in the Thousand Islands, can you hear that influence coming through the record?
I think so, you know definitely sonically I think I hear it. As far as the writing of the songs, I had a lot of the songs already written, going into the recording, there were a few that were inspired by the place, and I think I got a little bit of a taste for it in that short period of time that we were there. But you know a lot of them were already prepared and it was more, the influence on them was more in a sonic way than in a lyrical way, for the most part.

On the songwriting process, you said you have a lot of them prepared before you go into the studio, but how collaborative of a process is that in the studio? Is it set, or more organic?
I have pretty specific ideas going into the studio, and we did a lot of demoing and sort of pre-production as well, going into it, so I feel like you know because we had such limited time in the recording locations I wanted to make sure that we had everything down before we got in there. There wasn't a lot of spontaneous -- I mean there was some spontaneous work that happened, but a lot of the ideas were already laid down before we went in.

You've already gotten so much critical and popular acclaim for this album -- do you read reviews? Good, bad, indifferent?
I don't pay too much attention to that stuff. The biggest concern to me is making good music, the best music that I can.Trying to focus on writing songs and then you know, playing good shows. And then all that other stuff, it's great, you know, that there are good reviews, but I don't really take too much stock in good or bad.

How do you think the fans are receiving the album?
It seems like everyone is really receiving it really well, I think people are liking the new songs. And there's some up-tempo ones, which is kind of different for us, and I think people actually appreciate that.

I've also heard that there's an interesting story behind the title of the album, Lost Channels.
Well there's a passageway of water in the Thousand Islands region that passes through some of the islands and it's actually called the Lost Channel. And it was this spot where there were some mysterious disappearances in the late 1700s of like, there were some boats and crew members that went missing, and ever since then it's been known as the Lost Channel. Ian Corestine, the photographer there, told the story to us when we were there, he tells it a lot more eloquently, but it sort of stuck with us and it was a nice way to kind of reference the geography, reference the area and sort of incorporate those stories into our stories.

Tell me about the church bells on the album. Where did those come from?
They came from the castle that we recorded in, the Singer Castle, those were the bells from the bell tower that go off every hour. We had to hire a boat captain to get us out to the island with all this really expensive recording gear and all of our instruments, and so we had access to the bell tower where you could go inside and see all the gears and all of the levers and everything all moving, and it sounded really cool, and we just thought this would be great just to record, just to have a document of it since we have all this equipment here. And it's kind of a rare occasion to actually capture the sound of this bell tower, so we set up a whole bunch of mics in there and waited til noon, til the bells went off and ended up putting it on the album. It's sort of a signal for side two to start, too. Because in my mind, like the album is broken up into two sides, and the Singer Castle Bells signal to like flip the record, or switch to side two. At least in my brain, that was how I was thinking.

You have been compared, as people love to do, to all kinds of folks. From Neil Young to Sufjan Stevens, and there's a huge spectrum between all these people. Is there any merit to any of this in terms of influencing your sound?
I don't really feel like I'm channeling anybody's sound. I'm not trying to make songs that sound like somebody. I mean some people are, some people say, yeah, I'm really trying to get that Crazy Horse kind of vibe and sound to it. I love Neil Young, I love his catalog, but I wouldn't necessarily say that I'm influenced by it, I certainly respect it and appreciate it and in terms of songwriters with Canadian roots, he's one of the huge luminaries. And I think to a certain point when you start to think singer/songwriter from Canada, you get that a little bit. I'm a huge appreciator of Neil Young's music, for sure, but also I've found, I think another really big guiding light in Canadian music is Leonard Cohen, who I kind of see as a great master of songs, such a guiding light when it comes to writing songs because he is a very special spirit.

So speaking of Canada, what's the fame level like there? Do people recognize you in the street?
I mean, I think it's pretty relaxed. We're not like this crazy rock band or something, so when we do get recognized it's pretty cool, actually. People are pretty chill about it. I get stopped every once in a while. It happens in the weirdest places, like I took a flight into Calgary for example, and there was someone there at the Calgary airport that was at the Saskatoon show. And it was like hey, I saw your show last night, it was really good! And I was like, thanks, buddy.

Channel Surfing - An Interview With Great Lake Swimmers' Tony Dekker