Sep 14, 2012 Web Exclusive
Brian Borcherdt is best known for his work with the Canadian electronic collective, Holy Fuck, a band that has released three highly acclaimed albums since 2005 and has toured relentlessly over the same period. But Borcherdt has also dabbled in more traditional solo acoustic-based songwriting throughout his career, with a few albums under the name The Remains of Brian Borcherdt and another, 2008's Coyotes, credited to his name only. So, while Borcherdt's most known work might be highly discrepant from his current project, Dusted, it is not entirely without precedent. Total Dust, the debut album from the duo of Borcherdt and Leon Taheny (Final Fantasy, Rituals), is a 30-minute mix of short singer/songwriter-y tracks backed with fuzzy instrumentation and hazy aura. Under the Radar caught up with Borcherdt walking home from a market in his hometown of Toronto, fresh veggies in hand, to discuss his current project and its future.
Frank Valish (Under the Radar): So I guess I wanted to start pretty generally. I know you've done other solo recording in the past, but after the past several years taken up largely by Holy Fuck, what was the impetus for you to write this album?
Brian Borcherdt: I think the material that I had been recording before—I don't know if hobby is the right word—but it was sort of sketches and ideas. I felt that it was healthy for me to be doing them, but I think I approached Dusted a little bit differently. I wanted to really make this a more complete record. I actually put a little bit more thought into which songs I was going to include on it and how I wanted it to sound. So I think there was just a bit more ambition right from the beginning. I felt like I hadn't really done that yet, so it was something that I wanted to express. I have lots and lots of songs, stuff I write in my spare time. And I just try to find that ideal outlet for it.
Was there a desire after the past couple of years spent primarily with Holy Fuck to do something vastly different, or do you pretty much write these sorts of songs while you're writing your other stuff as well?
They both coexist. I think that's the joy of having two very different voices to express oneself from. I think they can coexist easily. I think it would be harder if I was doing two things that were very similar. It would be hard to sort of compartmentalize them mentally and physically putting it into a record. I think, with this, it is easy to do both, because they are so vastly different. I think they kind of reflect two different parts of myself. They provide two different kinds of outlets. Sometimes you want to get together with your friends and make noise and celebrate, and then sometimes you want to have some time alone to be a bit more introspective. It's kind of like the hangover to the party, I guess.
I imagine that one project gives you an outlet to the other project on a consistent basis, all the time.
Exactly. Yeah. I think that something like Dusted is always humming away with who I am and what I do. And Holy Fuck is more of rolling up your sleeves and going to work. It's a great job. I don't want to make it sound like it's shitty or anything. It's a lot of fun, but it's more of a thing I do. It's a place I go.
How do you know Leon?
Well we toured together. He'd been playing with Sebastien Grainger of Death From Above 1979. He was doing one of his solo things. Leon was on tour as his drummer and they were opening for Holy Fuck on one tour. That's when we first met. But in Toronto, we have mutual friends. Leon is pretty active, in terms of recording bands, and helping facilitating bands in getting to see their vision through to the end. So it was only a matter of time before we were going to end up working together. So many of our friends have worked together. And I knew from touring alongside him that he's a stand up guy, and I knew we'd get along fine.
Did you always know you wanted Dusted to be primarily yourself with maybe one other person instead of fleshed out with other band members or instrumentalists?
No, I didn't really have a plan. I think the record came first. The songs come first. I had them already and my goal was just to make sure the songs were completed in the right light, given the right kind of shape and tone. That came first. I knew that Leon would be a good guy to work with. We started first by collaborating, and then when the record was done, I think that was when we had to actually put a bit of thought into it and ask ourselves what kind of band we wanted to be. There was definitely talk of adding other members, and it just didn't happen. Our first show was at SXSW, so we sort of had to get our act together really quickly, and it just turned out to be the easiest answer. I like it though, because part of the process of discovery, in a studio at least, really had a lot to do with embracing the limitations of what we had to work with, and not trying to overproduce the songs, keeping them really minimal. And now as a live band, we're faced with similar challenges, because we only have so many hands to play our music with. So sometimes it really makes you think, sort of commit to an idea, like this song won't have any bass or this song will have bass but because of that, it won't have snare. You can only do so much. But I like that. I'd rather be given limitations and have the challenge and the inspiration be to try to make the most with those limitations, as opposed to the other way around—like now we're going to bring in the xylophone and the timpani drums and all these backing tracks. I prefer keeping things minimal.
And the song then stands at the front.
Absolutely. And they kind of end up being shorter too, because you're less inclined to take a solo.
We touched on this before but I'm curious as to how you see this record and this project fitting in with your other solo recordings. Even just four years ago, Coyotes came out. How do you see Dusted fitting in with your prior solo recordings? Because this is perhaps not as discrepant as some people might think, knowing you only from Holy Fuck.
It's similar to what I was doing on my own, but I think I did enough of that to realize the things I didn't like about being on my own. I tend to grow a little bit bored with myself and I don't work very well alone. I'm the type of person who always likes to have someone around to share and collaborate and bounce ideas off of. Doing the solo thing was convenient for a while. I think the songwriting still comes from the same place. I didn't deliberately try to change the style. It's not like I play guitar differently now or sing differently. It still comes from the same inspirational pool. But I think that after a couple years of doing that on my own, I just realized what I didn't like about it and what I wanted to do differently. I found it limiting being out there playing under my own name, first of all, because people automatically make an assumption about the style of music it is. Which wasn't far off, because I guess you could call it singer/songwriter music, but at the end of the day, that's not what I'm motivated to make. It was sort of turning out that way maybe, just for lack of having the tools and the skills and the band members around me to turn them into bigger ideas. But the goal was never to just become the guy in the coffee shop. I knew I wanted to get away from that. That is the main thing. I felt that by playing under my name, it was limiting and it was also going to limit the style of records I was expected to make. And I kind of wanted something that could be all kinds of things. It could be a punk band and it could be a New Wave band and it could be a folky band, because it could change. It's just a simple name but the context can shift, and I think that will better accommodate where I would like to go with music.
And perhaps it even more distances itself from Holy Fuck because it does not have your name on the cover in huge letters.
Exactly, yeah. And I think that's probably more appropriate. One day I'll probably revisit putting something out under my own name but maybe it will be an entirely instrumental piano record or something. Maybe that's a better thing to be doing as a solo person, like saying, "Here I am doing a thing or one single idea," and "What do you think?" But for now, being with Leon in a two piece band where we are actively trying to build these weird records its definitely more where I see myself. In a weird way, it's more honest.
So it sounds like this is not a one off album either.
No, definitely not. I came to Leon with a complete vision and he helped me channel that and create it, but now it's the two of us working in a rehearsal space, like an actual band. So that's what we've been doing. Tomorrow we're going to get together. And just yesterday we were working together. So it's kind of like, "Okay, go to the rehearsal space." And he sits at the drums and keys and I play guitar and sing, and suddenly we're approaching it more as a two-piece, which is great, because I think that's going to give this longevity. I think it's going to make it more satisfying for both of us. And like I said, I like to work with other people. After a while of doing things on my own, I just get really bored. I get grumpy.
How much collaboration is there between the two of you on this record? I imagined that you came in with the songs and then they were just fleshed out by the two of you in the studio.
It was kind of like that. There's actually four songs that I'd already finished prior to working with Leon, so in that case, he was more of mixing it and making it fit aesthetically with the other songs. I think that was one of our goals, to make a concise record where everything fit together. There wasn't collaboration in the writing sense. It was pretty clear that I had it sorted out and was ready to produce and do it. But Leon is the right guy in terms of what he brings, with his attitude, and I think he knew when to let me work and he also know when to make the right suggestions. It wasn't a typical thing where we were co-writing or where I played and he produced. But that's the charm of somebody who's good to work with. There's a confidence there. They know when to step in and they're not trying to impose.
I wanted to talk also about the psychology behind this record. A song like "(Into the) Atmosphere" has you singing about something leaving right when you need it the most, "Cut Them Free" talks about being tangled and not breaking free, "Low Humming" trying to escape, "Bruises." Perhaps you can tell me a bit about the headspace you were in when you wrote these songs.
I'm a product of the '90s. [Laughs] It's all self-deprecation and emo. No, I don't know. There's always been for me a sort of anything has a question mark attached to it. I'm sort of sharing some of the things I find myself dealing with. I live in the city but I grew up in the country. I spend most of my time traveling on the highway in a van with other guys. I'm really happy with what I'm doing. I'm out on the road with Holy Fuck and I'm obviously very happy, but it's a lot of looking around and finding the real aspects of life. There's question marks, and I try to find my place. I'm no longer living in the woods in the town where I grew up. I live in the city, and I go out with my friends, and I drink too much and I black out, and all the things that I think probably a lot of people like me do, and it just kind of leaves the next day and you find yourselves kind of writing feelings. But I like that. I think that one of the things I'm realizing is that I really like the veil that sort of separates you from clarity, so rather than trying to get to the bottom of it all, I kind of like being in that dusty realm, and I think that aesthetically that's why the album sounds the way it does, and maybe that's why lyrically it's the way it is because it really is set up in that weird world of dust and distortion.
So it sounds like the record as a whole is perhaps thematically consistent, not only in lyrics but also in the sound that you brought to it and the atmosphere that you brought to those lyrics.
I think so. That's one of those things where I think Leon and I really gelled together. One of the things that I experienced in other studios with other producers, the one thing they want you to do, they're always telling you to get closer to the mic. They put you in an iso booth with headphones and like a pop screen and it's kind of like when you watch the "We Are the World" video, where everybody's go their one ear out of their headphones and they're all singing really close into those expensive microphones. That's sort of one of the first things people try to get you to do. And that's one reason why I was constantly disappointed with what I would find myself coming home with at the end of the day. So I think that's one thing that Leon understood and one thing we did really well together. He was totally cool with me singing through an amplifier and getting dusty distorted sounds. And he understood that we didn't want to make this too sterile. Because I really think that where part of the pleasure is, what makes it kind of psychedelic to me, because those sounds, the artifacts, and the weirdness of it, where everything is not so perfect.
How much of a conscious choice was it to put "There Somehow" at the end of the album? It seems like it ends with much of a more positive and hopeful note. Do you feel like you came full circle emotionally in some way, or that it caps off the album in a purposeful manner?
Maybe as an afterthought. We definitely put a lot of thought into how the album was going to be sequenced. That's one of the areas that I get caught up with most. Just when everything's done, the album will end up being delayed for six months or something. I've run into that problem with Holy Fuck records and everything I've ever done. It becomes a real puzzle, moving things around. So it was a conscious decision by the time that final sequence was made. And it was for the reasons you pointed out, but I don't know if that was exactly in my mind when I was writing the song or even when I chose that one from a longer list of songs that I would do. Up until that point, live, I was playing that one early in the set, but when it all came together on the record, it was like, "No, this should be last." As you said, it does end up on a more optimistic note.
I never know whether it's fair to get intellectual about this stuff.
Well, most people do. I certainly don't want to guide people and tell them what they should think. But I'm glad people think. I guess that's one of the things you worry about with an iPod generation, that we won't even hear the last track.
Or you'll shuffle them around.
Exactly. Which is fine. But it's nice to know people still listen to a record from beginning to end.
You're getting ready to take this material on tour. Is that a nervous prospect for you in any way, being that it's so different from Holy Fuck?
It can be, but I've just done enough shows with Dusted, Leon and I, I'm actually really optimistic about it. I'm really looking forward to it. We've had so much fun. Our first show was SXSW, in a big room, and after us was going to be Japandroids and Deerhunter, so that was certainly something to be nervous about. I felt quite naked going up there and playing this very different music. And then the next actual tour we did was opening for A Place to Bury Strangers, which is great because they're friends of mine and I love their music, but we play quite a stripped down almost naked sound, and they're all about layers and layers of sound. But those circumstances so far have been positive. And I enjoy playing with Leon. I wouldn't want to be doing it on my own, because I would grow bored. I'd be half way through a song and I'd start thinking about trying to figure out whether I have to do laundry or not. There's nothing to bounce my thoughts off. But with the two of us, it seems to be a really good dynamic.
Do you have a sense of how Holy Fuck fans have reacted to the album or will react or may react? Or do you even care?
I don't know. I kinda know what to expect by now, because I've been doing Holy Fuck for a long time, and outside of Holy Fuck, I've been doing little things—some bands, at least locally, and I've been playing with different people—and I feel that there's not a lot of crossover. I think maybe people expect there to be, maybe in a good way, like they're really optimistic that I'll be packing the house and everything's going to be easy because I've already put in a lot of work with Holy Fuck, and I've already [had] a lot of that built, spending so many years trying to build something, so they think maybe it's going to easily attach itself to that. But I've found from experience, that it doesn't at all. But I find that reassuring. I think if all I wanted to do was satisfy the same people, it all seems a little bit redundant. I like the idea that I get a second chance or I can lead a double life. Even if one is a little bit more impoverished than then other.
It could be two completely different fan bases.
And I kinda hope it would be. Obviously you want to see some familiar faces, and know that people trust you. I think trust is probably one of the single most sought after forms of appreciation or something that you can gleam from an audience. You want them to trust you enough that they go, "Okay I trust this guy, and I'll check out what his next album is or what he's doing now." I feel like I have certain musical influences and things that I feel that trust for. I'd like to think that hopefully I can one day get that. But in the meantime I'm happy to just try to start from scratch every time.