Sometimes it’s comforting when stereotypes turn out to be true. I submit for your approval that of the friendly, deferential Canadian, in this case personified by Tony Dekker of the Toronto-based folk-pop ensemble Great Lake Swimmers, who’s a gentleman and a scholar whose generosity is exceeded only by his good looks.
Dekker and his crew rolled through town this past January as the opening act for Jeff Tweedy at Foellinger Hall, and as a three-piece their well-crafted, hauntingly beautiful song filled that space with little trouble. Imagine, then, what is in store Saturday night in the comparative bandbox of the Courtyard Cafe, as the Swimmers roll into town with a five-piece assault in support of their latest album, Lost Channels.
Doors open at 7 p.m., the show starts at 7:30 p.m. with the Wooden Birds, and tickets are $10 for the general public and $8 for students, and they’re only available at the door. I caught up with Dekker earlier this week while he was traveling through a vast Utah wasteland.
Smile Politely: So, you guys are in Salt Lake City now, or you’re en route?
Tony Dekker: We’re en route to Salt Lake now.
Smile Politely: I saw you guys when you were here last spring opening for Jeff Tweedy, and I really enjoyed the show. I’m really looking forward to the show when you come back, and I’m sure a lot of other people will, as well.
Tony Dekker: Oh, cool. Yeah, we’ll have the full lineup this time. I think we were only a three-piece at that time. We’ll have the full five-piece for this show.
Smile Politely: Is this your first tour since Lost Channels was released?
Tony Dekker: No, we did a round in the spring, in April.
Smile Politely: Have you been pleased with the reception to the new album?
Tony Dekker: Yeah, people have been really responsive to the new album. For a lot of people, that’s their introduction to our band is through Lost Channels. And there are still people just finding out about our band and our records, even though this is our fourth record. People are still picking up the early records, and to them, Lost Channels is their introduction to that whole thing, to the whole catalog and the band.
Smile Politely: I haven’t listened to much of Lost Channels, I’m more familiar with Ongiara. I’m looking forward to hearing it live. How is Lost Channels different from your previous work?
Tony Dekker: I don’t know, I think it’s sort of an expansion of some of the themes that I’ve been writing about over the course of the albums. One of the main differences in the songwriting is that I’ve tried to be a little bit more concise. I’ve found a lot of inspiration in the original Carter Family (right), for example, who had to make these songs and fit them into the idiom of the three-minute song, because that’s all the time that they’d have on one of the sides. I was inspired by that, and tried to be more concise in my songwriting and make every word count. I really tried to use the medium of the songs to try to represent a complex idea in simple terms and in a short amount of time.
Smile Politely: Cool. You can’t go too far wrong if you’re trying to do things like the Carter Family. That’s a pretty good place to start. If I could pick one word to describe your sound, it would be haunting. The lyrics are very beautiful, but the instrumentation sounds like it could almost be a murder ballad, I guess. I don’t know if that’s what you’re shooting for, but it just has a a spooky feel to it sometimes, which is cool.
Tony Dekker: Yeah, I think there are elements of that in there for sure, and I think it has something to do with the instruments reflecting some of the lyrical subject matter. But I think that especially with Lost Channels, there are a lot of different dynamic elements with the album, but that’s definitely one of them.
Smile Politely: OK, well thanks for not dismissing it out of hand, I appreciate that. If you ever need a concept album idea, you should just make an album of all murder ballads. I think that would be really cool.
Tony Dekker: You think so?
Smile Politely: I think so. I don’t know if other people would feel the same way, but something like “Lilli Schull” or like what Freakwater used to do, like a lot of dead-baby songs or whatever…
Tony Dekker: Yeah, I love Freakwater. Bob Egan, our pedal steel player, plays on their records now. He was with them for a couple of records. Old Paint, do you know that record?
Smile Politely: A little bit.
Tony Dekker: My favorite one is Feels Like the Third Time, do you know that one?
Smile Politely: Yeah, that’s a great one.
Tony Dekker: Yeah, he’s in another Canadian band called Blue Rodeo, and that’s his main gig, but he’s our go-to pedal steel player, and when he’s not on the road with his other band, he plays with us once in a while. He was on that old Freakwater album, Old Paint.
Smile Politely: OK, I’m going to have to check that one out, because I’m a big sucker for pedal steel. I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit about the lyrical content on “Your Rocky Spine”?
Tony Dekker: I think on that song, it had a lot to do with environments, internal environments versus external environments and internal landscapes versus external landscapes. And the places where they meet and mesh is the place where I was trying to get the songwriting to. It’s a mesh of those two basic ideas, taking the macro-universe and the micro-universe and seeing where they overlap, you know, sort of existing in that shadow universe where they’re overlapping.
Smile Politely: Yeah. Did you have a particular person in mind when you were writing it? I see what you’re saying, there’s a formation geologically and then a natural formation of a person’s body…
Tony Dekker: Yeah, I think I strive in my songwriting to have a universal element to them and I think that I write songs that you can read in different ways. There’s a lot of different angles that you can look at that song. I’d say I strive to write songs that can be seen in a more universal way.
Smile Politely: Anything else?
Tony Dekker: We’re definitely excited to come back to Urbana, and to be back in the Midwest. We’re looking forward to the gig!