Uncharted - Slim Twig

UNCHARTED: Slim Twig on making outsider art in a conservative industry

As DFA Records reissues the veteran Toronto musician's most ambitious LP four years after its barely noticed release, he reflects on the cultural climate and looks forward.

- Oct 30, 2014
UNCHARTED is Chart Attack's showcase of independent Canadian artists we think you should hear. This week, independent veteran Slim Twig discussing re-releasing his orphaned album, how the Canadian music industry and FACTOR aren't cultivating growth, and being perverted by your own mind.

A confession: if New York's DFA Records wasn't reissuing Slim Twig's fourth album A Hound At The Hem, I probably wouldn't be talking with him about it. The 26-year-old Toronto lifer known as Max Turnbull originally recorded in 2010 over a secluded month and half at Gas Station Studio on Toronto Island. But he says that when the record was finished his label, Paper Bag Records, rejected it for being "too complex." Disappointed but understanding, he recorded 2012's Sof' Sike and completed his contract. Two years later his orphaned LP Hound saw a limited run on Pleasence Records and Calico Corp, a label run by Turnbull with his wife Meg Remy of U.S. Girls. It might have stayed forgotten, had DFA not chanced upon the record and snagged it up for a re-release. It's (still) out now.

Turnbull says A Hound At The Hem is the first album he felt comfortable as a producer, and it shows. The record is a red carpet rollout to the classic timelessness of the baroque pop of years past. Deftly navigating the ballrooms created by the glittering harpsichords and Owen Pallett's massive strings is Turnball's outsider pop vocals spitting lecherous odes. The lyrics form a narrative suite drawing from Nabokov's Lolita and Serge Gainsbourg's Histoire de Melody Nelson, which was also inspired by the book. "I thought it was a nice post-modern touch," Turnbull says. "If it were an elevator pitch [Hound] would be an album based on an album based on a book."

What drew him to the source, though, were its resounding themes: "I think [Lolita] really displays some kind of psychic fragility that is easily relatable. I think everyone has an inner monologue that they’re not entirely comfortable with. That’s something I really relate to. Wondering where certain thought processes coming from, and how uncontrollable they can be. Feeling perverted by your own mind, I think that’s really universal."

I’m not good at navigating the industry. I’m good at making music that sounds like me.

Slim Twig
Slim Twig has been releasing music for over a decade, and the only constant to the project is the guy making it. Rooted in psychedelic tradition, genres quickly blur and muddy. With each new release Turnbull works through his concerns and passions, such as bacchanal Scott Walker weirdness on Contempt! and film samples on A Sheik In Scores (Turnball also scores films, and named the Under The Skin soundtrack as one of his favourite albums of the year).

It's understandable that, in the age of file-sharing, some would be skeptical that a "lost classic" of music is even a thing that can happen anymore. But when the Canadian music industry and fans wait for outside forces - whether it's labels in the USA or Canada's nebulous granting system - to direct what's worth listening to in our own country, we're abdicating our responsibility of shaping our own definition of Canadian music. And that can lead to works like A Hound At The Hem to fall through the cracks, as well as countless others that don't get a second life on an indie powerhouse. As Slim Twig and I discussed Hound's bittersweet return, our conversation drifted to these larger issues.

Slim Twig - "All This Wanting" (Official Video)

Are you a perfectionist?

Slim Twig: That’s a funny question. I’m not sure if I am or not. Certainly my concern is more to keep moving or evolving rather than perfecting something.

Or a single idea of who Slim Twig the artist is?

Yeah. I don’t think that exists. I don’t stay in one place. I’m driven by the enthusiasm to consume new ideas and regurgitate them in my own sort of style.

Does the title of the album you recorded after HoundSof' Sike, reflect a specific change in direction?

Yeah. It was kind of a joke. Sof' Sike was the softer, less psychedelic take on what I was trying to make at the time.

Was that a bitter album to make?

It wasn’t. I could understand [Paper Bag's] position. I realized with my earlier releases with them, the audiences that I wanted to cultivate, they weren't able to reach. Before I was making Hound At The Hem, I thought that it would be good to make something that took advantage of their good distribution and would be reviewed in you know, Chart Attack and Exclaim!, the Canadian press. And I thought Hound At The Hem would be that album. But I guess I’m not good at navigating the industry. I’m good at making music that sounds like me.

So Sof' Sike wasn’t a bitter experience. Everything worked out for the best and I don’t have any bitter feelings towards Paper Bag. At the time it was kind of a bitter pill to swallow, but the experience of making the new record wasn’t a bad one. I didn’t think much more of it until DFA got in touch with me.

I just understand that it wasn’t a good fit [at Paper Bag]. I think the Canadian record industry is tied to the whims of FACTOR, and I understand that’s a bit more of a conservative world than my music fits into, really.

Musicians like COUSINS have gone in on FACTOR recently. What’s your perspective?

I just think that there’s a void of people in positions of power in the Canadian independent [music] industry who have true vision from a business perspective. I don’t see a lot of labels existing above the sort of micro vinyl scale of which my label Calico or Pleasence is a part of, where it’s small run, very hand crafted. I see a void between those labels and the bigger indies of which there’s not too many in Canada, as far as people who have a real vision for curating interesting Canadian stuff. I think it’s really conservative and often a little bit pandering, like chasing Canadian buzz bands who they think will really make a go for it. And so will be successful on their factor applications as opposed to seeking out through their own taste what they consider to be interesting.

How about the application process itself? How much responsibility does that bear?

My impression is that it’s not based so much on who is creating innovative music, or music with any kind of Canadian identity. It’s based on what they think will sell and what will reflect well on the industry as a whole. I think they’re more interested in saying “Look at these success stories. This is what Canada’s about!” rather than forging it themselves.

What’s your idea of Canadian identity?

My idea of Canadian identity I guess to me sounds kind of corny, but reflecting the diversity of our country. If we’re applying this to music, a Canadian identity isn’t one sound or vision, but something that’s diverse. Lots of sounds or visions.

How can the labels and fans who believe in this idea of Canadian identity do more to encourage diversity?

I don’t think it’s going to be achieved by meting out prizes or tokens, little pockets of money to ultra-specific endeavours. I think it will emerge naturally and be creator-driven rather than programme-driven. I don’t really have a lot of interest in a lot of Canadian programming from festivals to labels in this country. I find a lot of it to be pretty conservative. I’m a lot more interested in what individual creators have to say and their own voices as opposed to packaging a bunch of stuff together under the name of some kind of Canadian diversity. What curators have to say is less interesting than individual creators.

So you don’t see Calico Corp as a curatorial project?

Not particularly, no. We thought of that as trying to put out artefacts that wouldn’t exist otherwise. It’s less showing off some kind of taste we have and more like that Zacht Automaat record that wouldn’t have existed unless we stepped up to the plate and paid up for it to exist. And it was a very modest success for a band that up to that point hadn’t had any vinyl on record. I just think they’re the best band in Canada right now and was baffled that no one was interested in putting out a record for them. So we just filled that void. Those are the kinds of projects we’d like to pursue.

With Hound At The Hem being reissued, do you ever look at 2014’s musical landscape and think "This is the year I break through"?

I guess on optimistic days I feel like that’s a possibility. I’m not anticipating that or expecting that or feeling like that’s owed to me. I guess the cynic in me says that it’s twice as likely to happen now that an American institution has recognized me. The fastest, classic way for Canadian artists to having some sort of career is to have an American label or website proclaim you as something interesting. If you look at the Polaris nominations, the rock records, if they’re not francophone, they all come through Matador, Sub Pop, whatever.

Canada has a huge chip on its shoulder. There is a trend [here] that has an impact on a lot of different layers of the industry. Because it’s difficult for Canadian audiences to acknowledge Canadian stuff, then we have labels with tunnel vision looking for any sign of an artist who might go and have success in other markets. So I think that contributes to labels signing stuff that is safe and of the moment in hopes that they can kind of catch on to some kind of American buzz in advance. And in turn that acts as a depressant to artists here who are doing their own thing.

You sound like you’re talking from experience.

I’m trying not to consume myself with thinking about it too much, because at the end of the day I’m a musician myself. I wouldn't want to be heard complaining about the reception of records I’ve made or put out, because easily those claims can be dismissed. But I think it’s next to impossible to be a musician in Canada following their own voice outside of the granting system and still make a living. There’s only a few spots.

What kind of stuff have you been working on recently?

The last year I've been making a new album, so that’s been my focus. It’s taken me on a new direction. The new material has more humour to it and it’s more politicized, not satirical. Just trying to write songs about actual issues even if they’re abstract. Frank Zappa is an artist I’ve been name dropping a lot recently because I think he created a body of work that was political and humorous all the same, very challenging musically and innovative. That was a concern for him, balancing the two while creating an innovative aural experience. I think that’s important to do, create music that’s modern to some capacity, to your era.

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