On Friday, August 13, 2010, as the sun went down, The Acorn took to the stage at the Ottawa Folk Festival.
That liminal time between day and night seemed a fitting hour, considering The Acorn’s most
recent release, No Ghost, and the nature of the band itself: filled with dichotomies, opposition, and transformation.
I spoke to band members Rolf Klausener and Jeff Debutte about the band’s recent activity. “I think we’ve always kind of enjoyed working with dichotomies,” says Debutte.
“When we record it’s just more interesting to have some sort of contrasting elements in music. We work with that a lot, I think. It’s natural.” No Ghost seems to play with dichotomy both in sound and in theme. “I think all of our records have a good mix of electric and acoustic,” says Klausener. No Ghost is no exception, with songs that range from atmospheric, melodic strolls to rushing electrical storms careening through your ears, yet there is no jarring contrast between songs.
The tunes work symbiotically throughout the album.
The songs work in tandem thematically as well. For example, the first track, “Cobbled from Dust” muses on creation and connection in the universe. Klausener describes how the lyrics emerged while the band was visiting an isolated cottage in Quebec: “The first words [to the song] were ‘Here it is against my belly’ and I was literally looking at Howie on the deck soaking up some sun. That just triggered the whole sequence of thinking about everything—space dissolving, and dust forming and turning into suns, and the light shining back down on Howie. I was really heavy-set on thinking about creation in a grand way.” Skip to the last track, and you have “Kindling to Cremation”, a song meandering through time, death, and change. “I think the line [‘kindling to my cremation’] came out by accident when I was writing,” says Klausener. “Later it just seemed to tie in so well with that little theme from ‘Cobbled from Dust.’ It wasn’t really premeditated in the writing of the lyrics. That was, I think, the coolest thing. Once we sat down and looked at all the songs, they didn’t seem as disparate as when we left the cottage.”
The cottage venture was an experiment for the band. The members decided to take some time away from the distractions of the various cities they call home (Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal) to try to write the new album together. Somehow, this cottage in the woods, devoid of Internet or cell phone reception, offered a perfect studio setup, complete with a glass-windowed sun room off the main area that acted as a control room for when the band recorded. Having brought all the necessary equipment with them,the band could record when the songs were ready but also take time to absorb the natural surroundings of the woods. Klausener explains, “it was incredibly liberating. I know it sounds really cheesy and it sounds really expected that once you’re isolated you feel somehow free, but it really was.” Proof of this comes from the fact that the riff from the song “Restoration” came out within a few hours of being there. The track is now one of Debutte’s and Klausener’s favourite songs to play live. “It’s got a nice build and the end’s all loud and screamy, and there are nice harmonies and fun guitar parts,” says Debutte.
Although Debutte is a long-standing member of The Acorn, he claims to have received somewhat of a promotion since the departure of Howie Tsui from the band. Although Tsui was at the Folk Festival show, supporting the band on ukulele for several tracks, he is currently taking time off to focus on his burgeoning visual arts career. Debutte has assumed the difficult task of filling in for Tsui during live performances: “I’m trying to fill the void that Howie left. It’s often quite impossible. His parts have this beautiful simplicity, which you can’t re-create. The nuances in his performance are so Howie that, as trained as I am, I cannot reproduce some of the things he does.”
Transformation in the band’s lineup seems to be an ever-present challenge: “The band has changed literally, if not every year, every two years, in partial membership or complete membership,” explains Klausener. “As far as the live performance is concerned, I accepted a long time ago that the band was never going to be this beautiful stable entity forever.” Debutte points out that despite the tumultuous nature of the lineup, the personal relationships between members and former members remain intact. Debutte also adds that despite shuffles in personnel, “the songs are good and they can stand a little bit of change.”
In fact, the songs from No Ghost are good enough to stand a lot of change. Remixes by Born Ruffians (“Crossed Wires”) and Four Tet (“Restoration”) have already been released, but after some gentle prodding, Klausener confirms that there will be a remix album. Although he could not reveal too many details, he said the band is really excited about the remixed tracks and the “awesome folks” who
worked on them.
Where other bands might lose their charm in the face of too many changes in band members, too few rehearsals due to geographical distance, and too much creativity in the mix, The Acorn manages to wrestle the challenge of opposing forces and natural transformation while keeping its identity intact. As No Ghost proves, throughout its continuous evolution, The Acorn remains a consistently creative and evocative musical force.