UNCHARTED is Chart Attack's showcase of independent Canadian artists we think you should hear. This month: prolific lo-fi songster (and former Mac DeMarco bandmate) Alex Calder talks classic pop songwriting in the Bandcamp era, and other strange internet-based pursuits.
Alex Calder is a national treasure (to some hip, creed-less nation that mostly lives underground, I think). The Edmonton-born, Montreal-based lo-fi songsmith is insanely prolific, chipping off 3-minute pop gems — to the dismay of his neighbours — almost nightly. To anyone who can spot a jewel in the rough, like GBV or Daniel Johnston, he is a songwriter's songwriter. The works are roughly hewn and captured in haste, but that's because the ideas are precious and must be collected exactly when and where they're found.
Thankfully, Captured Tracks doesn't mind a little sediment, especially when it guards a diamond as big and sparkly as Strange Dreams. Calder, of course, came to light alongside Canadian sweetheart Mac DeMarco as the scuzzball duo Makeout Videotape. And he's made at least a million songs since.
For Record Store Day, Calder and Captured Tracks have collected an LP's-worth of songs that the 25-year-old recorded under the moniker Mold Boy. I caught Calder sometime after his second of two daily sleeps to talk on the influence of hippie parents, the hypocrisy of Instagram censorship, and why it seems every musician eventually leaves Edmonton.
Is there a best or most productive time to write music?
You've got to be really prolific on the Internet, flooding people's feeds with all kinds of shit.
Why do you think that is?
I don't know why, I'm kind of a night owl. I stay up super late. I'm just the most productive when it's calm I think.
Yeah I read about this: you stay up super late, go to bed for a bit, get up and watch movies, and then go back to sleep.
Yeah, I call it "two sleeps."
"Two sleeps," brilliant. Your music seems interested in a more classic version of songwriting. You don't shy away from saying something like you're really fond of The Beatles. What do you think that's about? Do you think there's something in the music that was valued more then? Something that's less audible today?
I think, back then, people probably had to work a lot harder on the music to get it heard anywhere. I can't even imagine how difficult it would be. I think a lot of more money would have to be involved, you'd need more studio time, really have to be putting yourself into it — way more than, I think, people do now. It's pretty easy to put your music on Bandcamp and show all your friends and it can get thrown around. Like, I'm sure there's so much music from then, that no one will ever hear. That's so amazing.
In your opinion has there ever been a perfect song?
Oh God, I don't know. That's a tricky, tricky one. Maybe a Stereolab song. I find that it can't be a long song, it has to be short and really poppy. I can't pinpoint one though. Definitely a Beatles or a Stereolab song.
What is your earliest music memories?
I started playing guitar when I was really, really little. My parents put me into classical guitar lessons and I started getting super into it. I did it for years. I think I started playing when I was 5 or 6. I kept doing that until I was in my early teens. And then, I got really into not playing classical guitar. That wasn't cool. And I got into shredding on the guitar, and metal guitar, and blues, and, like, Stevie Ray Vaughan and guitar solos.
I think when you're really into techy stuff, those are the places people's interests tend to go. I read that your mom used to own a thrift shop in Edmonton. Does she still?
Yeah, it's called Red Pony.
Did she ever deal in any vinyl, and do you think that had any impact on your early influences?
No, she doesn't do any music stuff at the store. But I definitely had a different upbringing: hippie parents that listened to records. I think that played a huge part. I was fully a Beatles kid. My parents were like, "You have to listen to them, they are the best band ever!"
What is the music scene like in Edmonton?
Honestly, I have no idea because I haven't lived there in almost four years, but I think it's really bleak right now. It was really crazy for a while, lots of really good music. A big chunk of the music scene moved away; either came to Montreal, or moved to Vancouver or New York.
When was that really exciting period?
I would say that was probably from the early 2000s to 2010 — a decade of crazy good bands coming out of Edmonton.
What do you think happened?
I don't know. I think people realized you can't essentially survive as musicians in a place like that. It's nearly impossible. Maybe it isn't anymore with the internet and stuff, but that wasn't as big a thing in the early 2000s. A lot of people had to move on to bigger and better things.
I can come to Montreal and I don't even need a job because the rent is so cheap. I think that's the appeal.
I think the only reason is because it's really cheap.
As opposed to Toronto or Vancouver?
I lived in Vancouver for two years and it was like...I didn't even make any money because I was dishwashing for 50 hours a week. I can come to Montreal and I don't even need a job because the rent is so cheap. I think that's the appeal. Like, literally everyone I know from Edmonton is living here. It's kind of crazy.
So you've done some recording under anonymous band names like Fatal Relay and Mold Boy. What was the thinking there? Was it about how anonymity provides some comfort that working under your real name can't?
Yeah that was my initial idea: "I'm going to be Mold Boy, and no one is going to know who I am." I really wanted to experiment with music, see if people would like it. Blah, blah, blah — I just got really lazy super fast. Immediately, I threw up a bunch of songs on Bandcamp and was like: "Oh, no one is hearing it, I've got to add my name to it and more people will hear it." And then I started mixing all the songs together... it didn't work out how I thought it would.
At some point they're all just Alex Calder songs, right?
Yeah, they completely are.
Is there something you were doing different with Mold Boy than the Alex Calder stuff?
I was really trying to put up more experimental stuff. This doesn't have to be a 3 minute song; it could be 5 minutes and no one would say it has to be 3 minutes if you want to put it on a record.
You've left this really long trail of videos and pictures across the internet. Is there anything there that you wish would just go away?
Um no. I'm pretty much open to finding humour in anything from my past, I think. I definitely think, like, "that was an embarrassing photo," or a stupid post, but you've got to be really prolific on the internet, flooding people's feeds with all kinds of shit.
So then, tell me about your interest in bathing and taking photographs of such, and why does Instagram have such a problem with that?
I remember thinking about that bathing account: what is the stupidest, most accessible thing? I wanted to make something that people would submit photos to of something really boring, and see if there could be humour in it. I don't know why Instagram made this insane policy about posting no nudity or anything close to it. I get really mad about it, they are really hypocritical.
There wasn't any explicit nudity was there?
Well there was one of my friend Garrett who was taking a bath in a sink, and his penis is fully covered, but you can see all of his pubic hair, and that's what's got my account deleted — which is insane. I've really been subscribing to other people that have been getting their accounts deleted by Instagram, like that one with the girl with the period blood on the back of her pants. There are death and gore photos all over Instagram and kids can see that. It's bullshit.
So you've mentioned a couple of times that you really like pinball. Do you have a favourite machine?
I really, really enjoy pinball. My favourite game to play is AC/DC — not because I like the band, but because it's really a fun table to play.
Where can you find an AC/DC machine in Montreal?
Uh, there are one or two in Montreal. Montreal is the worst city in the world to play pinball. I can only think of one or two places here you can play. They used to have this insane law a long time ago where it was considered illegal gambling, and that law got changed everywhere except Montreal in like the '60s. Sunshine Laundry in Brooklyn is my favourite place. It's a laundromat, but probably more of a pinball place.
So you've also got this website, Alex Calder Eats, where you've revealed to everyone that your real passion is food. I'm wondering if you can leave us with one good recipe? What should I make for dinner tonight?
That's a good question. Chimichurri — it's parsley, garlic, chilli pepper, red wine, vinegar, and olive oil, and you chop it all up and just throw it on chicken or steak. It's the tastiest thing ever.