As he took the stage the sound tech expressed concern that Greg's guitar was buzzing, to which he replied something like "this guitar's over 50 years old, it started buzzing 10 years ago and it's not going to stop tonight" before launching into his first song. It's that same rough-hewn, starkly honest sensibility that shines through Greg's music and has earned him accolades from across the country.
How has the tour been going so far?
Great! Very well. We've been getting bigger crowds in every city and it's been a while since I've been able to tour with a band and it's fun for me. It's been really, really well received. People have been buying the record and stuff so the record company is happy and that makes me feel good too.
So have you been paying attention to the reviews that have come out?
I try to ignore them more often than not. Sometimes if there's something particularly good Derek at G7 will say "hey you should read that, it's well done" but most of the time I don't really care for the information I receive through reviews. It can be erroneous. It doesn't really strike a chord with me. If you read negative... and you know artists, we're all sensitive freaks... if you read negative reviews it can kind of stick in your mind even though it's just worthless information.
So do you try to avoid them when you're on tour specifically?
Yeah, I don't usually read them... but so far though I've seen only good reviews!
That's mostly what I've seen as well.
So between Good Times and Night Flares you toured a lot, and through that increased the amount of people who were aware of you. So did it feel like there was more pressure to deliver this time, with such a larger audience aware of your work?
No, not at all actually. I don't really consider that stuff. I treat my music very personally so I felt pressure from myself to do a better job this time than I did on Good Times. I feel like I've just been growing and that my best work's ahead of me, so when I was going into the recording process this time I definitely felt like there were some things I wanted to improve on for myself, but I didn't really think much of what other people were going to say about it. I figure I'm my harshest critic so if I can please myself than most people will generally be OK with what I put out.
Now you toured pretty extensively as a solo act, so do you draw a distinction personally between "Greg MacPherson the man" and the "Greg MacPherson Band" or is it all part of the same continuity?
Yeah I think it is for the most part. I think that the band and the solo shows are different, but I think there both good in different ways. You have some negativities about touring solo that you don't get with the band and vice versa. For example, if you tour with a band you have to pay the band, you have to rent a bigger vehicle, pay for gas, pay for hotels, and all those kinds of things if you need them. If you tour solo you don't have to do any of that stuff. You can rent a small car and tour extensively on your own. You can call the shots when you're by yourself. I can visit people if I want, I can do whatever I want right? But the only problem with that is when touring solo I don't have anyone to share the driving with. In Canada, for example, it's ridiculous. There are so many spaces between shows. If I drive from Saskatoon to Edmonton by myself that's a 7 to 8 hour drive. It gets pretty exhausting. So it's a balancing act and some of the positives outweigh the negatives both ways. But I look at it all as one thing. I just love performing whether it's with a band or as a solo act. I think performance is as much as a creative period for me as writing songs. It's part of the work that I do.
Does it put you in a different head space to walk out on stage, and it's just you, compared to walking out there with three other guys?
I think it's mostly the same thing. I go out and try to accomplish the same things. Playing music for me is something that I learn a lot about myself from. I go out on stage and I don't know how I'm going to react at any given moment, all of the factors that play into it come together on any given day, any given venue, a different sound system. It depends on the crowd, it depends on the weather outside, all these things can make for a different spin on the show. So having a band here is sort of similar to that, but I think my mindset at any given show is usually the same: Just go out and try and push myself as far as I can. That's basically what I try to do.
I think my mindset at any given show is usually the same: Just go out and try and push myself as far as I can.Now there were a couple of shared writing credits on the record. Was writing this time more of a collaborative process, because it was with a band, or did you come in with finished material?
There's a song or two on there on which Steve Bates gave me a guitar part of his and I'd work with that: take his guitar part and maybe add some more on top of that, and that's where the collaboration came in. There's one song on there that's entirely Steve's music I just sang over it as well, a song called "Pressure." And then Mike Germain and I were in another band at one time and we jammed up this one song that's on the record now called "Cutting Room." So that's how the collaboration came in. Also during the recording process those two guys had a lot of influence on me in terms of our aesthetic and some of the decisions we made in terms of guitar sounds and parts, how songs were fleshed out. They had a lot of influence on the final sound.
When you look at songs like "The Show Is In The Basement" you have the end of the song where it comes to it's peak and then loudly rocks out at the end. Those are the kind of moments where it seems that only come up with when you have a group of people to bounce it off of, because the arrangement is so key.
Yeah! Well the arrangement I actually came up with myself, but having people you can depend on to perform those parts is really key for me. Steve Bates: I knew, if I explained it to him in a proper way he would actually play what was in my head. You know what I mean? That's the greatest thing, if you can find people who are so like-minded in their aesthetic that you can trust them and just explain what you are looking for and they'll take it and run with it. So Steve and Mike are basically, for me, they're key to the way I'm going with my music. They've been really, really good for me to play with for sure. I think they're two of the best guitar players in the country, actually.
So do you see yourself continuing with the band for a while or going back to solo?
It really depends on availability. I quite enjoy playing solo. I don't ever turn down solo gigs. I like to play by myself or with a band, whoever's available depending on the distance. Like if I tour the United States I can't take a band with me because I can't afford to. If I tour in Europe I can't take a band with me because I can't afford to either. I still play folk festivals sometimes, or basement shows where they might be more inclined to hire a solo act. For a basement show it would just be easier on people's ears if I played by myself. So that's usually how it's worked for me, I'll apply the line up to whatever the gig calls for. I'd like to play more with a band, to be honest with you, but it's mostly a matter of expense for me. It's hard to pay for everybody.
You mentioned touring the States, does it feel different touring in the US than touring in Canada? Does the name go further here?
I haven't done a whole lot of touring in the States but the times I've gone down there I've done fairly well. I think the people relate to the things I'm saying in my music pretty much the same on both sides of the border, but that being said I don't think anyone can go to the United States right now without feeling a little bit, you know, maybe worried for their safety. (Laughs) Do you know what I mean? So that comes into play. Whenever I've done shows down there I'm very conscious of the fact that it's a foreign country, even though we're raised and live with them in every facet of our lives. You can't help but be aware of it, but I think that people have been very positive towards my music and I feel very fortunate. No matter what the audience is it seems that people can relate to it, which very exciting. It's not really what I intend necessarily, when I'm writing I write for me, but it's a gift that people actually can enjoy it as well.
Whenever I've done shows down there I'm very conscious of the fact that it's a foreign countryOk I'm going to switch gears here: The Junos. They were hosted in Winnipeg this year and you performed as part of Junofest. Now the G7 claims you were inciting violence against the attendees, so what's the story?
Well I don't know if I was "inciting violence." I made a flippant remark at the end of my set...
"If you see someone wearing a laminate, punch them in the face."
Yeah, that's what I said. "If you see someone wearing a laminate, punch them in the face." Basically I turned the Juno show down a couple of times. They kept asking me and offering me more money and I said, well no I'm not interested in playing the Junos. And then they offered me a bunch of money and allowed me to call the shots! (Laughs) So I told them I didn't want to play after midnight, I wanted a certain amount of money, I wanted some food, I wanted a bunch of people on the guest list and that was it. I don't want to talk to anybody and I just want to play the show and have a good time. Then they said "Ok! That sounds great!" So with that sort of setup it was really easy for me to say, yes this is just another gig at the Albert. But the Junos themselves I find pretty distasteful. I had a few chances, and I took them, to say some things about the Junos that I think are good. I'm pleased that I said that. I think the people there realized I was saying it pretty tongue and cheek and I don't think the people there were really going to go punch people with laminates in the face. But I think the people wearing the laminates may have questioned their own place in that event and how they're being perceived by the rest of us. I hope that they would know that not everyone thinks that they were VIPs. I think that a lot of the people wearing laminates, the delegates at that kind of event, are quite parasitic in terms of the music that's being made.
Now you're so ingrained in what's going on locally in Winnipeg does it feel like you were being intruded upon by this greater music industry? They show up for a few days and all of a sudden the whole country's focused on Winnipeg in terms of music but not in terms of musicians from Winnipeg, it's stars that they're flying in.
Yeah, for lack of a better way to put it, it's a very Toronto-centric sort of event. The establishment of the music industry is certainly located, or at least works out of Toronto. I don't think there's much of an argument about that. So you take the Junos, you can put them in any city, but they're originally from there. The people who work the Junos, by and large, the people running the show are from Toronto and part of the greater music industry. I think that it did feel somewhat intrusive. It wasn't like this was a native Winnipeg event that Winnipeggers were hosting and taking the idea of the Junos and running with it. No, it was like "here's the prescription, I want you to fill it. Here's the schematic. This is what you do. Go do it, and we'll show you how to do it and we'll run it for you." And the people who are voted in, all of the artists (if you want to call them that) who were winning Junos, they had nothing to do with the Winnipeg music scene.
Yeah, that's what I said. "If you see someone wearing a laminate, punch them in the face."So I don't know, I found it pretty gross. I think award shows are a waste of time, especially award shows that pretend to celebrate the best of something when the best of something, in their mind, is sales based.
Now you've been releasing your records through the G7, and you're obviously quite close with them since Jord of Propagandhi is drumming for you. Since it's seen by a lot of people as a political punk label, do you see yourself as a political punk rocker or are you more comfortable being listed as a singer/songwriter? Do the labels matter?
I don't know if G7 would describe themselves as punk anymore, to be honest with you, I think that term's been co-opted and watered down to the point where it's meaningless. But definitely I think the activist and political side of the label is very strong. It's something that's our common bond, besides just being friends, I think that we're all like-minded in terms of our ideology and the way we view the world. We're all socially minded people who want to do good things and we all happen to love music. We love music to the point where we'll live in the gutter if it means we can make it. I don't think any of us are doing extraordinarily well in terms of our finances or anything like that, but the label continues and is flourishing. We're all getting better at what we do and we're growing together and I'm excited to be part of it. It's a great cornerstone of all that is good in terms of music in Winnipeg, as far as I can see.
Now I'm actually going to tell you a story here and I'm sure you've heard lots like it. "Company Store" is arguably the song that's most requested when you're playing live, and it struck me on a personal level because my family was there. My grandfather actually worked in the Sydney mines. He was an Italian immigrant whose job was to go every two or three feet into the shaft under the Atlantic, drill a little hole, and drop the explosives in. It was the most dangerous job on earth, yet then the war came along and they fired him because the land of his birth was now the enemy. So because my family worked in those mines that song really resonates with me. When you're writing history based songs like that, do you get people who come up to you like this and tell their side of the story?
Absolutely. I'd say that I get both, people who were from Cape Breton or the Maritimes or people have family who were from there like yourself. It's because it was a heavily populated area where people since emigrated across the country. So there's a lot of old Cape Bretoners or people related to them who relate on a personal level. But one of the things that surprised me was that fact that the song seems to resonate with people in different parts of the country and in different parts of North America. I remember singing that song in Florida and a Cuban immigrant came up to me after the show and said, "that song really moved me." I remember him in particular being very vocal about his response to it, which surprised me. Cuba's about as far removed from Cape Breton as you can imagine, but I think the themes from that song, of resistance, action, frustration, or just social conflict, those things are very, very much common across our continent and our world. It's pretty exciting for me that people like that song so much. I mean aesthetically it doesn't always feel current, but I enjoy performing it because there's a lot of passion in the song and in the reaction to it. Depending on the audience I sing it to it can be really exciting for me no matter how old it is.
From Night Flares:
Hotel Motel (MP3) / Cutting Room (MP3)
Good Times (MP3) / Bankrobber (MP3)