Your latest album, 20 Odd Years, celebrates a 20 year long career. Is it really 20 years already? We all remember your releases at the end of the 90’s, but what happened before?
In the middle of the 90’s, maybe around 96, I started to work with Anticon in San Francisco, and I began to find a bigger audience at this time. But maybe 6 or 7 years before that, I was making music in Halfax, in Canada, the city where I am from, on a very small scale. The first record company I was with was an independent label called Murder Records. And it was started by a rock band, also from Halifax, called Sloan.
At that time, in the first few years of the 90’s, they signed a record deal with DGC, so they were labelmates with Nirvana, Weezer, and so everyone was very excited about that. They took the money they made with signing this contract to start their own company. They had some distribution through a major label at that time. It was MCA Records, which no longer exists. So they were distributing my music all around Canada. They released 3 or 4 things from me, including some vinyl as well.
The first thing I really had to sell to the public was in 1990 or 91. There were a few things in the years before that, only on cassette, and I would take them to the record stores myself, and sell a few like that, but it was very small.
Have you ever thought about re-releasing that?
I thought about it a little bit, but I already know that a lot of this material is already circulating on the Internet. The first full length album was called Game Tight, maybe in 92 or 93. I have seen that on the Internet a few times. Before that, it was just some 7 inch vinyls, and a few tapes, as I said.
But you know, I have to admit that I really like the idea of some of my releases being very obscur and hard to find. When I was young, it was very difficult to find the music that I liked, but it also increased my devotion to it, because there was the added challenge of just hunting for it. And when you finally find something you’ve been looking for, it’s very satisfying. It’s thrilling in fact. I remember, when I was young, finding music and my heart beating fast.
I loved this experience so much that I would like people who are interested in my music to have an experience like that. The idea of somebody having the same experience with my music is exciting to me. Maybe it’s a little bit egotistical, but I hope that somebody else can feel this. I know that some people are following me, and are strongly devoted in that way. I could make it easy for them, but I want to give them the pleasure of having to look hard for something.
Even today, you are releasing a new album on a major, Warner, but you are still continuing with many side projects. Is it voluntary to keep several channels to distribute your music?
At the time, I wasn’t thinking about “this is very small and obscure”. I wanted to be bigger. It’s now that I think it’s better to keep it small like that. When I’m working, I think that my motivations are mostly very self-indulgent. With the projects that I do outside from Warner, it’s mostly me pursuing the need to express something that are just for myself, and it’s very difficult for me to expect other people to be interested in that. And if I’ve been very personal in my music, it makes me uncomfortable to sell that, or to try to force it on people. Then I think that if somebody is really interested, maybe I can end a small signal so that he knows that I’m working on something. I’ll just keep it small, and if someone wants to find that, they will.
When I think about projects such as these Dirtbike albums, it was also a way to protect myself, because a big motivation for me with this project is that I wanted to make music and only feel pleasure for making it, and I knew it was important to eliminate the possibility of failure. I knew that the only way I would think of something as failure would be if I tried to sell it, or if I sent it to the press, and the press didn’t like it. I made the decision before I even started this work that I would not sell it, and that I would not send it to the press. When I eliminated this idea, it really affected the work. I think it made the work very strong, actually.
In fact, many people that I know, Buck 65 fans, do really like this Dirtbike project. It is the recent album that they like the most.
Yes, and I like it the most. If I want to make an album for Warner, something that I am wanting to sell, maybe I will have an idea, and then doubt will come in to my mind : "oh maybe this idea won’t be popular". But when I work in a more selfish way I’m completely free and very honest. And it’s interesting to see that this is what people strongly respond to.
Yes, but there are some tracks on Dirtbike that we can find on your last Warner album...
There were two songs. When they heard the original version of "Paper Airplane", some of the people close to me thought that this song was very strong, and that it deserved a chance to be heard by more people. Although I don’t like to revisit material like that, I must admit that the quality of the original recording was very bad. And I thought there was more that I could do with this song. And the second song, "She Said Yes", I really liked it. It’s very gentle, and it’s very unusual for a hip-hop song to be so delicated and beautiful. So I wanted some more people to hear that. When I did Dirtbike, it was only for me and for people who would be very interested. But I thought that maybe I could use these songs to make things grow a little bit.
Also, you’re still working for Warner, and you still have to deal with some kind of pressure. Then how do you manage this?
After I made the Dirtbike albums, I began to ask myself a lot of questions. This project was completely satisfying for me, completely fulfilling on a creative level. And I thought that if I could make myself completely happy as a musician whenever I want, on my terms, without answering to anybody, then how do I define my relationship with Warner? It suddenly became a big difficult question. And I realized that I’m in a business relationship with them. And if I think about how it can help me expand my audience, then this really guides the way I work when I’m making an album for Warner. So, for example, with that album I thought : "well, maybe I’ll think about melody in a stronger way than I ever have before". Because melody seems to be the most basic thing that people respond to in music. Then, the easiest way to find new people who are interested in what I’m doing is if I try to make it more melodic than anything I have done before.
Did you try to do the same with previous Warner albums like Talkin’ Honky Blues and Secret House Against the World?
No, because this was before Dirtbike. I was only thinking about just being creative, just thinking about any idea. It’s funny, because the industry was a little bit different even 5 years ago. I could give Warner any album and they would not question it at all. They would just accept what I did and it was OK. But the business has changed. The record companies feel like they cannot take the same risks as they took before. Warner has never said anything like that. They never asked me to try to make popular music or anything like that. The timing just worked out in a way that I was just beginning to think about my relationship with Warner, but these two ideas were not really related.
Talking about your newest album, the majority of the songs are duos. Was it intentional since the start?
Well, like I said, I really wanted to make songs that had more melodies than anything I did before. And I realized immediately that it’s an area where I needed help because I am not a great singer. In many cases I wrote the melodies and the lyrics myself, but I knew that it wouldn’t be the same if I tried to sing these parts myself. And I know so many talented singers.. Sometimes, when I was writing, I was hearing a specific kind of voice, and in most cases I could turn to friends of mine who had the singing voice I was looking for. In some cases, it was a woman’s voice that I was hearing, and of course that can’t be me. Maybe James Blake is proving me wrong, maybe I could have a woman’s voice at some point...
But for example, about my friend Jane Grant who sings on three songs... I just thought I had this close friend who had an incredible voice. As I was writing, I was hearing a voice with her quality, and I was thinking it just makes sense for me to ask her to help me with this song. Really, it was just that, wanting more melodies first, and then saying, “oh OK, I need some help from different people”, and looking for the right voice for this song. It wasn’t specifically me wanting to make a lot of duos for this album, it just became a consequence of my ideas.
Talking about melodies, this is something we find more easily in pop rock music than in hip-hop... I remember that at the time you were working on Talkin’ Honky Blues, you were telling things such as “I’m over with hip-hop”, but then you came back to hip-hop. What happened exactly?
Well, for example, specifically with the album Situation, I was talking with a friend of mine who is a DJ, and who makes hip-hop beats. We had a long conversation and he said: “you know, I like the music you’ve been making in the last few years, but I would like to hear you on a regular hip-hop album, and just really rapping on beats and stuff”. I work a lot with my friends, and in a very personal kind of way. I was in Montreal where he lives, and we went to his house and we made three songs, just demos, and it was fun. It’s been a few years since I made a regular kind of hip-hop album. We agreed on doing a few more. The intention since the beginning was having something very small that he was going to release. But as it grew we made more songs, and we became excited about an album. The first intention was to give the album to Warner, but admitedly it was a strange step with the path I was taking.
Let’s come back to your career. What’s been the best time over these long 20 years?
I think about that a lot. I think that the honest answer to that surprises me. To me the most exciting time was really close to the beginning. Mostly, when I listen to the music I was making then, I don’t really like it very much, but the time was very exciting. I think that any time when you begin to have the sense that someting is happening, that people are interested in what you’re doing, and that this is new, this is very exciting, even if personally I was very lost creatively. But when I think about the time, the shows I was playing or the people I was working with, everyday was very fun. I find that this is the most fun I ever had, because when it got bigger and bigger it was more work, and more pressure, more demanding as a career.
And when I was reflecting about these times, that was also a little bit of a motivation to make the Dirtbike albums. I wanted to go back to making music the way it was when it was very simple and fun. I wanted to feel that way again. I had to eliminate a lot of the structure around what I was doing now. In the early day, in Halifax, at the beginning of the 90’s, it was a very exciting time because there was a strong interest in music. It was mostly rock music, but it was still exciting to be close to that with the label Sub Pop, for maybe one or two years, signing for bands from Halifax. Suddenly, everyone around the world was looking at Halifax: “oh, what’s happening here”. Just the feeling in the streets, in Halifax at that time, was really great.
How it is that it impacted hip-hop?
I don’t know. I think that this time was the beginning of me looking outside of hip-hop. Before that I was in hip-hop in a strong, hardcore, way. But then I had a little contract with an indie rock label, and I was spending time at the office of the company. This was there that I was exposed for the first time to P.J. Harvey, to Tom Waits, to Nick Cave. I was listening to a lot of music that, before then, I had no interest in. And I had people I respected saying “you should listen to this, if you really listen to the lyrics you will appreciate”. And they were right! I think that because my first label was an indie rock label, my evolution went the way it did.
But then, what about the rest? At the end of the 90’s, there was some kind of mini hype around the Halifax hip-hop scene. Was it the same story for the other artists there?
I think so. During all the 90’s, I was hosting a kind of hip-hop radio show in Halifax, and it really was the only one. It was used not only as a platform to support hip-hop music, but also more local music and talent. And I was making beats for other artists, and bringing them on my radio show. I think in a lot of ways I was shaping the sound of hip-hop in my city, without realizing it. It became a real identity, something very specific to Halifax and the hip-hop music that was coming from there.
And in a few years later, when we began to meet some of the guys from the Anticon label, we realized that we had some similar ideas. It was a really easy fit. But it’s also interesting that the core original Anticon members, Sole, and Alias, before the label went to San Francisco, were based in the state of Maine, very close to Halifax. So we could travel quite easily just by driving to the other city. I think that even the geography is an important connection. At this time this family began to grow, ideas were coming together, and we really began to explore this idea of creating a real alternate kind of hip-hop universe.
It was deliberate? Let’s create an alternative hip-hop?
Well, I think we were already doing that, but when we came together and talked about what we were doing, we understood that we were different from other people. We decided to really embrace that. We were really rejected by hip-hop, and I think this was painful for a lot of us. And finally, as a way to deal with the pain, we said: “no, we are proud about the fact that we are different and who we are”.
It reminds me of some reactions we got here in France when we started reviewing Anticon releases. The real hip-hop heads were definitely rejecting this. They were more focused on early 90’s New-York hip-hop, which I like by the way, but come on, it was 10 years ago, then let’s move to something else...
Exactly. For me, if I travel to Japan, it’s not really interesting to me to hear hip-hop music that sounds that something from New-York. There is a lot of amazing music from New-York, so I can get the best from New-York. If you imitate that, it’s never going to be the same, or as strong. Sometimes they can actually be very strong. I remember hearing some old hip-hop from Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, and I was very impressed. It was very much an imitation of New-York hip-hop, but a pretty good one. But mostly it is never as interesting. So if I go to Japan, I want it to sound Japanese.
The first French hip-hop that really took my attention had a song that used the name of every stop for the metro, and what I liked about their music was that they were sampling traditional sounding French music, accordion, etc. This is what I expect if I am going to hear French hip-hop: to sound French. I want to hear French ideas, I want a fresh perspective on things. It’s not interesting for someone to just imitate something that is happening in the US. And it was the same for myself. In the begining, I can admit that I was really just doing an imitation as well. But soon I realized that the things that make me interesting are the things that make me different. I realized that more and more as I got older.
I think that the big turning point for me was Talkin’ Honky Blues, but the most interesting thing about that is that I was living in Paris when I made this album. And I think that the reason why is because suddenly, when I left my home, I had a new appreciation for it. So suddenly I was really inspired by the place I came from, but only after I left. It is very common for me. I write about places, even events, when it’s in the past. I learn a lot about myself in this way.
Talking about your experience of living in France, how long have you been here?
Well, I originally came in 2002, and I finally left in 2008 (he says this in French). But in between I was moving a lot. I went to London, I went to New-York for a while. But I was always coming back.
What do you retain from your experience in France?
I know I learned some language, but it’s not as strong as I would like. I understand well, but I need to stay here for a longer time for my speaking to improve. I really got an appreciation of the differences in the cultures, even philosophies, just the ways at looking at the world. I learned things about myself. For me it was very difficult to live here. Every day was a challenge. It was impossible for me to be lazy. I wouldn’t really admit this to many people, but I feel like just as much as I love Paris, I hated it. When you learn to really hate something, you’re still learning things. It really affected me, just like a person. And I still feel that connection, even when I am not here. Now, when I am home I would find myself in a situation, and think later: “that was very french of me to answer to that situation in that way”. I kept some of it inside. But most of the time I was here, I was really an observer, I was really watching, trying to learn as much as possible. I was always outside I think.
You also maintained relationships with some people here.
Yes. I have a show here tomorrow, but I left to come here on Friday, some I can have two or three days just to spend time and see people and old friends. I still have a strong relationship with my ex, Claire, who is featured on the Secret House album. I was hoping to see her this weekend, but she is in Rome, so I miss her on this time. But you know, yesterday, I was just walking in the old neighborhood where I used to live, going to the same places I like to go. I go to the Cimetière Montparnasse to see the grave of Gainsbourg, say hello. Then, I went past his house in Rue de Verneuil, and some of my favorite places, small parks. I’ve been doing lots of raiding when I’ve been here.
We’ve discussed a bit about your connection with Anticon. This was by the end of the 90’s, and the beginning of the 2000’s. What is left of this indie hip-hop scene today? Do you think it still exists?
Mostly, I think that it doesn’t exist. But then, on a rare occasion, I see something that reminds me that, maybe, it is not completely dead. For example, two years ago, I was in Austin, Texas, and I played two showcases. One was for Anticon, only Anticon artists. And then I also played a showcase for Strange Famous, the Sage Francis label, which also had a lot of older rappers there like 2Mex. And there was a real spirit that came back. And with the public that came to this show, there was still a strong excitment. They remembered about the old albums, but they were excited about the new stuff as well.
A few years ago, I released this Bike for Three album on the Anticon label, and it was interesting for me to see where I was having a reaction to that. Amazingly, I was finding that this album was very popular with Mexican kids in California, who were a very big part of the Anticon audience at the beginning. This was a very interesting surprise to me. I was talking with a friend, who was also a friend of 2Mex, he hangs up with some real gangsta kinds of guy, and he was telling me a story about driving around L.A. with these very dangerous tough guys, and they were playing the Bike for Three album very loud and knew all the lyrics. I thought this was incredible. It indicates to me that there is still a very small heartbeat.
But the scene seems completely broken. To be honest, I think I was one of the first to break away. The group was beginning to form an identity and a philosophy. I have always been alone, creatively and in my life, I just like to stay by myself. When I’ve seen that the scene was growing a strong identity, it scared me a little bit. It is interesting to be part of a group people are interested in, but they had some ideals that I didn’t really share. I think it was Groucho Marx who said “I wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have me as a member”. And I think I was feeling that way a little bit: it’s better for me to just really be my own thing. I only want to be judged by myself. And I found that some people was judging me by Anticon, or by that scene. Some people said: “I don’t like it, I don’t want to listen any of it”. And I didn’t want them to say: “I refuse to listen to this album because of the label, or because of the people associated with”. So I really to step back into the shadow again.
Talking about the people attending your show, who are they? People in their thirties, or younger people as well?
I think there are a lot of veterans, but there are still some young people. And in fact it surprises me. Maybe it makes me feel like an assohole a little bit, but my expectations on young people are very low. Sometimes, I think that young people would have no interest at all in my music. But sometimes I would play shows with no age limit, and I finally found OK that some young people were actually coming to the show.
It’s a good mix, and it’s much better than if it was one kind of person. I like when it’s diverse. I think the times have changed a lot, the Internet has really changed things, in some good ways, but also in lots of bad ways as well. The Internet is maybe the reason why there are still young people who are interested in what I do and the scene I came from. It may be more like a reaction. Some people say: “I hate this because it’s popular, then I’ll go here because it’s something different”. Sometimes, these people stay for a little while, and then they leave again. But sometimes they really discover the music and say : “actually, this really means something to me”. And they would stay.
The one thing that always staid the same for me is that the biggest heart of my audience exist on the Internet. Sometimes I think that this will never change, especially now, that’s all what’s left anyway (laughs).
Do you notice any significant difference in your audience from one country to another, for example when you compare Paris and the US ?
Mostly, I would say no, but there are some subtle differences. When I am playing in Europe, I would see more people who are a little bit older. And when I am in California or in the South West of the United States, it seems that my audience is mostly latin kids, hispanics, which is very interesting to me. Maybe in Chicago also.
It really changed. When I was young and I was beginning, it was almost completely male. It was only guys. Even through the Anticon years. But now it is a better mix of men and women. Sometimes on a good night it’s maybe half and half, which I am happy about. And the bigger range in age, the better.
I have a strong audience in France, and another in Australia, and around the UK also. But probably my most diverse audience is in Canada. My theory is that this is because the CBC, the national publicly funded media. I had a lot of support there.
It’s a bit like the BBC in Britain.
Yes, basically the CBC is the Canadian BBC.
Could you share any detail about your next projects?
Right now, I’m working on a lot of things, as always. Two weeks ago, I sent an email to my friend Joelle in Brussels, in Belgium, from Bike for Three. And I said that I think it’s time. And she expressed to me that she really wants to make a new album, but she’s very afraid, she’s very scared.
Because I think, for both of us, with this album, we exposed ourselves in a way that we never did before. This album was extremely personal, and painful to make. Though we are both very happy that it is a beautiful album, we want more. But we know it will be painful again. We know that we need it to be painful, to do this work. And you need courage before you inflict pain on yourself.
And I have begun to work on ideas for Dirtbike 4. With 20 Odd Years, the plan was originally to do 5 EP’s on vinyle, but it stopped after 3. But I am the kind of person who always need to complete a project, so I spoke to my manager recently and I said “let’s do 5 for this series, I really need to complete it”. This is probably the next thing, the songs are finished, they are ready to go, we may do that in the next two months, very soon.
There are also some other new projects, some collaborations with other artists. There is something I am working on with a DJ from London, who did some of the work on Dirtbike and on 20 Odd Years. He worked a lot on the turntable stuff. We are working on a full project now, and I’m going to just let it be his own project. I think it is closed to finished now. I imagine that this will be released this year.
I am also working on some soundtrack stuff. One other interesting thing : maybe one month ago, I received a message from a filmmaker, who wants to have some of my songs in his future film. I met with him maybe one week ago in Toronto. He works for a company from Hollywood. It could be a big kind of thing.
A few years ago, I worked with a French filmmaker named Damien Odoul. He made a film called L’histoire de Richard O, and I made all the music for this film. Now he is working on his next film, I’ll also make music for. Also, we made a clip for "Paper Airplane" here in Paris in November with french actress Roxane Mesquida.
There are lots of things coming, lots of music, but the next will be the last 2 EP’s for 20 Odd Years, and probably the new Dirtbike on the summer.
Available online only as well?
Yes, I think I will do it the same way as the first ones.
Do you plan to re-releasing them on CD?
No. I’ m sure this will never happen. But that’s something I imagine that will continue. I’m sure it won’t take long for Dirtbike 5 at some point. I think there is a very specific philosophy with the way I make these Dirtbike albums. It’s very much like the Language Art series that I was making in the 90’s. It is really some continuation of this.
But you did release the Language Art albums!
Yes I did (laughs). The difference with Dirtbike is this important idea that it gives me only happiness. I never want to feel bad, in any way. I never want to feel like it was a failure. It really makes me feel good to work in this way. Even if it means no money, I need to be able to work in this way. It’s amazing, but when you take money out of your life in any way, it feels very good. You can never do that completely, but if you can take one part of your life when you take that away, it’s really nice.