Interview by Jakob Rehlinger
Along with his own sizable discography, Nova Scotia-based Andrew MacGregor, who records as GOWN, has played with several high-profile psychsters including Thurston Moore as half of The Bark Haze. He’s also toured and collaborated with with Sunburned Hand of the Man and other similar folks (including our own Partli Cloudi as the duo New Yaki, occasionally made a trio by my own presence). His solo recordings have received critical praise from internet taste-makers from Pitchfork to Weird Canada. After a period of self-imposed early-retirement from the outsider music scene, MacGregor has decided to return with Sound of Time. Unlike a certain Genesis ex-drummer, no one has started a petition to stop this.
Fifteen years ago, you would’ve found me sitting in a green vinyl chair beside the listening station at Blackball Records, a store Andrew and Jack Tieleman opened in Nanaimo, BC, on Vancouver Island. During a nervous breakdown-induced year of unemployment, I spent almost every day there talking to Andrew, Jack and the parade of misfit toys who’d wander through. It was where I was first introduced to the ideas like: Downloading was going to change the music business forever; saying things like “That’s so gay” is a bad idea; the capitalist system is on the brink of failure; that maybe I was unhappy because I preferred adolescent drama to a healthy adult relationship.
For better or worse, that lost year hanging out at the Blackball clubhouse would shape and change me in ways I was unaware of at the time. It was there that Andrew introduced me to Six Organs of Admittance. At the time I was on a strict New Wave, Goth and Post-Punk diet and didn’t get “hippie shit” like Six Organs at all. I adhered to a misguided and misunderstood punk ethos that “the only good hippie is a dead hippie” and all psychedelia is just for old fogies.
This introduction to the so-called “New Weird America” planted a seed that would one day grow into the tree that is everything I’ve become. It’s quite true that without Blackball, and knowing Andrew, my band Moonwood wouldn’t exist. I wouldn’t have wanted it to. I was always a closet psych-head but Andrew was the one who helped me understand this truth about myself. Bauhaus, PiL, Siouxie and the Banshees, The Cult, My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth—all my favourite bands were essentially psychedelic rock bands, updated for their era. Immediately obvious or not, what I was drawn to in the band’s I loved, even something as straight-up rock’n’roll as The Cramps, were the psychedelic elements. I’d already dropped-out, now I was tuning-in.
He also introduced me to cassette culture, which at the time baffled me more than the much more prevalent cassette culture baffles people today. We’d just gotten rid of tapes in favour of the higher fidelity and easier track-cueing of CDs! Why are we going backwards? When Andrew moved to the States a few years later, it was before he would’ve seen me begin to embrace these things. The following year, he came home for a visit and he noted that my guitar playing had completely changed. I’d fully turned-on.
The conversation below is something like you would’ve heard if you’d been a fly on the wall at Blackball Records.
A few years back, after a seemingly steady upward trajectory, you quit the music business. What prompted that move?
I don’t think I quit per se.
Perhaps you didn’t quit music, but I have a vivid memory of you clearly stating you didn’t see any purpose in continuing. Not that you weren’t going to ever touch a guitar again but specifically recording and playing gigs. This was probably five or six years ago.
I could have said that. I say many things and you likely have evidence of lots of things I have said, very few of them correct. It is more based on a combination of opportunity, desire and quality of work. I think that I achieved all that I had hoped to achieve in a certain direction with The Old Line on Divorce Records and had to regroup to find a clarity of vision in order to move forward. If opportunity had arisen following the release of that LP then perhaps a direction and purpose would have come from that opportunity, however without that driving force or purpose one must dig deep and look inside, hence the time between apparent outward activity. That being said the lack of outward activity doesn’t imply that there wasn’t inward activity.
So you were still working in the music business, but behind the scenes?
I’m not sure I was ever in the business of making music. Making music or art—or most labours of love—are rarely a break-even financial equation hence the business of making music is something I know very little about and likely would be fairly useless at. I don’t understand how most folks make a living making or playing music. And I would imagine that, in terms of financial return for time/energy invested even at the higher ends of success, it’s way worse than I could ever fathom. I got lucky with some opportunities and whatnot but the process was never that different than playing at home. I’ve made music on a continuous basis for over 20 years or so and have really always made it in the same way. I’m able to express my ideas in a more concise and fully formed way and am very lucky to feel that way after 20 years. I feel the music I delivered to you is the best I’ve ever made.
I’m inclined to agree. Does the probable lack of financial return inform your decision to make art?
I’ll always make art or something that I think of as art. I don’t really think that I was ever closer to that financial windfall than I am today. That said I believe it to be virtually nil. I am constantly moving forward with ideas, thoughts and whatnot and feel that my mind is working with ideas that stand a chance of being better constructed and more fully formed than they have been in the past and hopefully that trajectory will continue. I believe The Old Line was the apex of a certain trajectory and is a solid representation of a journey that continues. Where it leads is unknown however it hasn’t and won’t stop as far as I know. Whether the “art” exists in the world beyond the sphere of my being and the beings of a few others is less important to me than it was in the past…. that being said we all like to be validated.
So, is validation part of the motivation for coming back with Sound of Time?
I guess this comes down to opportunity. We’ve known each other for over half our lives and you offered—which you may regret at this point, maybe you were just being polite?
Putting out your tape is a real expensive way to be polite. Even by Canadian standards. No, I genuinely think your music should continue to be made available and promoted, even on a small scale like this.
You are one of the people who has to endure me periodically sending you my art for validation and you offered. If you didn’t offer you would still receive things at likely the same clip and be forced to validate me in some fashion. I can’t help it. I can’t explain why I have come back because I am neither sure that I went away, nor am I sure that I was there.
You and I have a long, strange history of sending each other stuff for validation when I think we both kind of don’t quite “get” each other’s music on some level. Not that we can’t objectively appreciate each other’s talents. It’s sort of like we’re positioned on the same table, but at 90-degree angles. You know like how the only record we both could really agree on back in the day was Love by The Cult.
I guess the question is does anyone really get another human… truly? I mean the past is littered with musicians at 90 degree angles, Hüsker Dü and the Replacements, Sonic Youth and the Swans, you know what I mean. That’s sort of what leads to something else, participating but not totally understanding might lead to some sort of growth. I try to source different opinions from different sides of the fences and I very rarely agree with everything anyone says, however I believe I am more informed. I don’t really believe in one single set of rules or one reality, everything is possible and nothing is the whole truth, the whole reality. If everybody liked the same things as all their friends or peer group shit would be boring and uninteresting, plus there would be no exposure to anything new just the same old shit recycled. Sort of what occurs now to some degree.
Yeah, it seems like we’re either living in a time of complete creative stagnancy—mass conservatism where people only adhere to the fixed ideals of existing forms, be they jazz or post-punk or psychedelia or hip-hop or any genre really—or possibly it’s the brink of a new renaissance age. Where do you see the pendulum swinging?
I’m really not sure where the pendulum lies at this point. Based on what I hear on satellite radio, it’s totally messed up. Lots of the stuff on XFM, which is supposed to be the underground, alternative, whatever, sounds like Michael Damien’s “Rock On” and Taylor Dayne or some shit might be the next song in the playlist. I really don’t have much knowledge of what is going on now, especially in the underground. Most of the things I hear [that are] new are on satellite radio [are] pretty bland and really makes older stuff more interesting. Or at least the popularity of bands I didn’t previously enjoy more understandable and likeable.
I honestly don’t think it matters, I am sort of generally disinterested in “our generation.” Myself included to some degree. We as a whole have continued on the path set by those before us and are leaving a bigger mess behind than what we came into across the board. Here is where we go down the negative rabbit hole, however it isn’t bad to realize reality and call it out for what it is…
The negative rabbit hole is where I live. I mean, I am of the grunge generation.
In 1991—that was the “year punk broke”—I was 16 you were 18, there was so much opportunity for revolution and change, instead in the 25 years since, those opportunities have become commodities and packaged so they could be sold back to us, or our children, or the following generations, in a timely fashion. The internet is completely counterproductive in terms of change, as it is controlled and monitored to the point that by implying any sort of actual change in the way things are done, you are likely to experience a knock on your door and worst case scenario… disappear.
Personally I very much doubt there is reason for doing much anymore in terms of culture other than removing oneself from it as much as one can. The commoditization of almost everything is fairly incredible really and that has cut into all activity that used to take place on the margins as far as I can tell. The margins have been pushed further out as all sorts of sub cultures have been packaged and sold in little packages so people can easily feel part of a group.
I am certainly rambling here and will likely regret most of what is said…
Expect that knock on your door. But speaking of mass surveillance and NSA-style data snooping, you spent a few years in the States. How do you find the underground music scene in Canada differs from the one you were involved with in Northhampton?
I’m not sure of what makes up any scene at this point. I’d say that in general there’s a number of good people who work hard to make sure something exists for others to enjoy. This is likely the same for almost anything really, food, sports, art, business regions, politics on a grass roots level, almost anything really. I’d imagine that passion drives most people involved. I think in Canada the [geographic] space in combination with the lack of population makes things a challenge in terms of reaching a level of involvement that’s easier to reach in Europe, the States, etc. I would imagine you would find much the same thing if you examined most grass roots community groups. Although “scenes” are far less organized in terms of rules and positions but often no less hierarchical.
Is there a scene in your part of Nova Scotia that you’re just blissfully living outside of, or does it not really exist?
Blissfully outside. There are folks I respect and admire in the region but the time of active involvement has long passed me. I very much doubt my opinion is needed, nor would it be appreciated…
I somewhat doubt that.
I feel like I am a bummer, although I don’t personally feel that way. The talk of having a peer group or a number of cultural touch stones with whom to identify has made me wonder where I am in that mess…
This morning I was listening to Mark Maron’s WTF podcast—I listen to a lot of podcasts, baseball, football, gambling, exopolitics, economics and Maron—and always find it brings a smile to my face. Not because he is funny. He is a comedian, but I don’t find his stand up that funny, sometimes it is, but not overall. But the joy in which he approaches each interview and general excitement in the conversation.
I enjoyed his Thinky Pain stand up movie a lot. But I can’t really listen to WTF. He’s too enthusiastic for my tastes. Even when he’s talking to another famous curmudgeon like Steve Albini—too enthusiastic.
Anyways, he seems to get flack for being a downer, bitter, but I find it quite the opposite. Maybe I am being marketed to, led to identify with Maron.
We both are. Middle-class raised, plaid-wearing, 40-something, neurotic white dudes.
Again I am not saying I am any better at this shit… just sort of pointing out the obvious that somehow in the last 25 years the margins have become commoditized and marketed to us on almost every level. Think: foodies, farmers markets, craft beer, coffee, indie movies etc… Again where is the revolution? Where is the underground? Maybe just so far out that I can’t even recognize where it lives anymore, maybe it is in hiding so it can’t be sold…
I don’t know if I am trying to make a point or not, or if I should just avoid all the references to revolution…
I don’t really think there’s going to be a knock on your door if you say the word “revolution” here.
Intrinsically I believe that music, sound, is a gateway to change. As teenagers our minds got expanded by exposure to new approaches, new ways of having dialogue, new ways of existence through sound. Unfortunately maybe those doors close at some point or maybe those things don’t happen for most people—now or then—with or without music. I guess that Sound has always been commoditized. It might be the speed at which it happens now that I find alarming… and maybe once it enters that realm it doesn’t provide the same opportunity for change because by become a commodity it intrinsically becomes part of the system and therefore the problem.
Maybe listening to Jefferson Airplane combined with the recent world events has finally blown me into a reality where I’m incapable of coping with the current overwhelming narrative.
My main point is that I’m wondering whether the underground—and other non-mainstream expressions and activities—has been neutered by the fact that all culture that exists on the margins can quickly become a commodity. I wonder if that coupled with the fact that most methods of communication can be monitored, recorded, preserved and held against individuals as evidence of crimes or thoughts which are against the “greater good” has stopped any chance of a needed “revolution” both cultural and societal. My disappointment lies with the fact that it has been our generation which has come of age and relative control during this time. Maybe by stepping outside the systems as much as possible that is a revolutionary act… don’t know
At this point I would clearly say that I have no role in any scene, really the only scene that I played a role in was the “scene” or number of scenes in Nanaimo where we’re both from.
That Nanaimo scene of the late ’90s was oddly fertile. For such a small group of people, it seems like an unlikely high percentage of us carried on to varying levels of national and international notoriety. Be it in the form of Apollo Ghosts or Tough Age or Elfin Saddles or Brodie West or you or whoever. What do you think it was about that scene?
It’s conceivable that it was fertile to a point, as the “notoriety” you speak of was achieved after leaving for the most part.
Yeah, none of it happened while any of us were still living in Nanaimo.
Perhaps it was a fertile incubator. In many ways it was a safe place to experiment, find ones footing but didn’t really lend itself to reaching for that “next level”… or whatever you want to call it. Maybe leaving was reaching for the next level. Maybe now with the internet being what it is that next level is a little easier to achieve with higher levels becoming more difficult. It’s hard to say. To me the reason that the Nanaimo scene was fertile in someways is the lack of homogenization, the fact that the town was marginalized to some degree and so were a lot of us. That led to lots of support for lots of things that didn’t really make sense to the folks that were supporting them. Of course everyone had a different reason for being involved but basically all you had to do as an artist or whatever was to create something and you were likely to find support for a certain period of time.
Another thing that made it work at a point was infrastructure. A good and supportive record store [Fascinating Rhythm, still one of the best record stores in Canada] with a good staff, who had liberties from the owner to take chances on stock. A number of people who laid the groundwork for shows and later venues which allowed shows as long as folks drank…
Ha! I was just talking with someone about how they can’t put on noise shows anymore because the audiences don’t drink. They just go in the alley and smoke pot. And the music drives everyone else away. Scenes need supportive spaces.
One major part of me staying in Nanaimo before Blackball opened was the Jazz Vanguard which was sort of mythical when I was in high school [The Vanguard was a firetrap in the basement of a hotel on the waterfront. Piled to the low ceiling with old furniture and debris, it was the home of free-jazz and experimental shows. A place of magic.] and later was a great practice space and venue that really fostered the stranger side of things for a period of time. Having a space to practice and whatnot. Without that, my level of frustration might have bubbled over and led to me being a stockbroker or some other silly thing in my early 20’s. I wonder if things would have developed in such a way if one of those things was missing?
I think any scene is probably an organic system reliant on all the parts.
I know I am likely missing something, someone—because I historically have—but I wonder if enough credit is ever given to those who exist before things happen, and I say “happen” very loosely.
The people behind the people behind the scenes rarely get credit. Anyway, not to keep harping on this theme of you leaving and coming back, but I’m going to touch on it again. Something I’ve noticed myself is each time Moonwood or BABEL or Arachnidiscs reaches another milestone on the road to success—whatever the hell “success” might be in the scenario—the feeling of pride and accomplishment lasts about five minutes. And then I’m back to feeling like I haven’t achieved anything and it’s all been a waste of time. Or that none of it really matters and reaching the next level is also meaningless. That it’s all smoke and mirrors. Like the very idea that “culture” is seen to be worth something is itself a capitalist construct. That none of this so-called culture humanity has created has intrinsic value and we’ve been duped into believing it does so that it can be commodified and sold to us. Anyway, where I’m going is: was achieving a certain level of success a similar experience for you?
Even now over 25% of my lifetime—in terms of years—my identity was derived from music and my involvement in music. As what could be determined as the last half of my life enters its first decade I have a far more healthy relationship with sound and what I need from it in order to feel a purpose in my existence. I’m not sure as to how to describe certain levels of achievement. In retrospect I am very happy and proud of what I produced in the past 20 years. I am not sure that any group of events, releases or milestones are the focus of that pride.
Touring, the act of playing a number of shows in a row, leads to a level of exhaustion which is very much part of the experience, however that really puts a haze over the whole elation with playing shows that in retrospect seem wonderful. But how much of that was pure mental and physical exhaustion, I can’t say. I think that playing a show in a city in Belgium is much the same as playing a show in a youth center in Nanaimo, it’s a love/hate sort of thing and I find it somewhat satisfying that if I had to list my 10 favourite shows, I would put both those events on my list for different reasons. After one particular show in which I was in at my worst. Not musically but attitude wise. I am sure you know that mood from me…
Oh, yeah. [memories surface of a gig at the university SUB where I was playing bass in Andrew’s band and he leaped onto a table to harangue the audience for not paying attention to us, and possibly the way they were living their lives, while I tried to fade into the back of the stage area].
And a veteran of the music scene came up to me and said he has been watching his friends play “that kind of music” for years and never quite got it, but after watching me something clicked. That felt good, not good enough to turn my mood around at the time but now I’m very proud of that. What I do is a little different it would seem than what people expect even amongst a certain crowd. I guess even at the time I knew how lucky I was to have any level of success, you know standing in front of a crowd and doing exactly what you want, what comes into your mind exits through your actions and into the eyes and ears of a crowd… That is an amazing feeling. Creating something in the moment and having an audience respond is truly joyous feeling. I remember another musician having concern for me because I appeared angry…
I don’t know if you’re referencing the same person, but Kristjanne (of Everything is Geometry) once said to me, “Whenever I see Andrew play, I feel like he hates me. Like he wants me to go away.” You had that kind of aggressive intensity. Mesmerizing, but also uncomfortable. Like you were pure bottled anger.
When nothing could be further from the truth about roots of my sound and performance.
It’s something I always appreciated.
Perhaps it’s the reason we both felt marginalized and could recognize that in each other’s work—and of course the fact that The Cult are pretty great.
They’re the best.
SOUND OF TIME releases on Dec. 4, 2015 and can be ordered HERE.