Friday, May 20, 2016
Jeff Andrew, the Rebel Spell and the Todd Serious Memorial gig, plus Todd Serious on Phil Ochs
I wouldn't know about Jeff Andrew if it wasn't for the late Todd Serious (singing, above). As I say in my Straight piece with Andrew, he's one of a few local musicians whom Todd pointed out to me as being someone worth following - not because Todd was so concerned with what I listened to, personally, but because he knew that having press connections would be useful for Jeff, and that I was interested in writing about music that mattered.
I think Todd was a bit wary of me, in fact. I make an unconvincing punk; I'm no communist or anarchist; I have a hard enough time climbing a ladder, neverminding a cliff face (Todd had a passion for rock climbing); and I'm no sort of vegan, not even a vegetarian. Plus I'm connected to a media machine that makes good sense to approach cautiously. Add to all that that never once did I really, in my own mind, feel myself to be his equal; I praise his idealism and his walking his talk in my recent Westender article about the Todd Serious Memorial Shows, tonight and tomorrow, but in part that's because I don't feel like I've done that, myself. If things were a bit distant between Todd and I - if we were never anything I could call "friends" - a part of that is probably on me. But I love the hell out of the Rebel Spell's music, and my two big interviews with Todd - here and here - are among the most interesting I've done. (There are lots of little ones out there, too).
We did have a few personal interactions over the years, mind you. When he ran into me at an SNFU gig at Funkys - a Chris Walter booklaunch - we talked a bit between songs; I remember that I told him I was sleeping over in a crappy little jamspace rented by a friend so I could be at the show, and he replied, "that's pretty punk rock of you, actually."
That's about the biggest compliment he ever paid me, aside from his saying, the last time I saw him, at the Vancouver record launch for Last Run, that my last feature on the band before he died was the least embarrassing piece of press he'd ever received (I think the exact quote was that he "winced less reading it than anything else that had been written" about his band). High praise!
But since I brought up Phil Ochs in my Jeff Andrew piece, here's one little personal exchange between myself and Todd that people don't know about, from back in 2011, that centers around Ochs - another departed idealist, but from the 1960's. Knowing Todd's interest in Latin American politics and revolution, I had sent him a link to a somewhat obscure Phil Ochs song, "Bullets of Mexico." This was apropos of a conversation about the Rebel Spell's covering a Leon Rosselson song, "The World Turned Upside Down," which Todd knew through Billy Bragg (I gave the band a Leon Rosselson album I found in a thrift store around this time, too). I thought "Bullets of Mexico" would make a pretty good cover tune, as well, but mostly thought the guy would like the song.
He did. He wrote to me: "I wasn't familiar with Mr. Ochs' music. Quite interesting, he's like a modern bard, totally lyric driven music. Amazes me that people can pull that off."
I replied that Billy Bragg himself had written a song, to the tune of the old protest number "Joe Hill," called "I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night." He told me that Joey Only had done a similar thing, too, with "I Dreamed I Saw Dudley George Last Night." And that's it, the end of the conversation, though he did also mention in there that "we" - he and his girlfriend? he and the band? - "saw Leon Rosselson at the Vancouver folk fest and he did some new songs that were totally relevant and totally pointed at current events. The sound and the narrow and direct themes of the songs are a lot like this Phil Ochs' track."
But that's all I've got from Todd, really. (I have some nice stuff of him talking about the collaboration with Jeff Andrew, but I can't find the tape; it was the basis of this interview, from before Last Run came out, but was perhaps mislabeled or not labeled at all; I had no luck in my search for it, shortly after he died - and now all that stuff is in storage).
However, I have a lot of stuff from Jeff Andrew that didn't make the Straight piece. Jeff, as far as I know, will be at both of the Todd Serious Memorial Shows, to join in "The Tsilhqot'in War," and will do an opening set tonight at the WISE. He's a hell of a songwriter in his own right. People who don't like punk, but like Phil Ochs, say, or any socially engaged folk stuff, would do well to check him out.
Allan: So you're up in Lillooet. treeplanting...?
Jeff: It's a day off. We're actually staying - I'm living in a cabin out by Goldbridge, which is about a hundred kilometers Northwest of here. That's pretty far out there. But I came into town - sorry I was late, I was at Lordco getting new headlamps for my truck.
Does Todd still have people up there?
Yeah, there's tons. That's partly why I'm here, why I took the job - I wanted to be close to here. Like, Anna and Stepha live here. Travis doesn't anymore, but they still do, and there's a whole crew of people here sort of connected with the band. I spent a bunch of time here last summer, as well. It's a really cool spot - the whole landscape, and it's a bunch of my favourite people in the world.
It's interesting, because I've got photos of the band posing with some machinery out in Lillooet.
Yeah, that was out behind Todd and Anna's house, on the east side of town, east of the Fraser River. There was a trailer that they lived in. Anna lived there until last month, now she's living outside of town a little bit. We did a big hike from there, as well - on the one year anniversary of Todd's death, March 7th. There's a big ridge that sorta goes up behind their house, outside of town, and about fifteen or twenty of us got up there and hiked up to the top, and took some of his ashes up there and buried them near the top, made a little rock cairn for him. I'm looking at it right now, actually - I'm just sitting on some railroad tracks, looking over the Fraser River, and there's a great big range. It was a pretty gnarly day actually: there's no trail, so we just bushwhacked up really steep scree slopes, and then (________) a jagged ridge, like sketchy loose rock climbing, up to the top through a bunch of snow. I checked out the elevation, and it was about twice as tall as the Chief up in Squamish. It was a fitting thing, because it was totally Todd's hiking style, just go out there and pick a spot and, 'ah, just fuckin' see if we can get up there,' y'know, walking through waist-deep snow, nobody's dressed for it, it's freezing cold, and we're all getting soaked...
Who all was in that group?
Anna and Stepha and Travis, Erin, Elliot... then a bunch of people from around here, and friends from Vancouver. There's a lot of people from Vancouver that were part of the scene in the older days that moved up here in the last few years.
Are you still practicing veganism?
Yeah. That was definitely something that Todd inspired. I mean, I almost already was vegan at the point when he died, and was thinking about it, like, I should just go the rest of the way. I was still eating cheese and eggs and stuff, here and there. But it was a few weeks after he died, I just woke up and said, 'fuck it, I'm doing it.' His influence wasn't the only factor, but it was definitely a big one. We never talked about it a lot, but, like, it was a big thing for him, and it was something I'd been thinking about it for awhile, and it was a good way to do something to honour him, when, at that point we were all grieving really hard. And it was something I needed to do for myself, too; I'd been trying to change my whole relationship with food and get out of bad habits and just really start taking care of myself better.
That was the big thing I got out of his life, and his passing: to step up and start taking care of my own body, basically. I started rock climbing in the summer, as well. I got really into that, and spent all winter doing that in the gym - eating well and going to the climbing gym four of five times a week. That's sort of the way he tried to be: you're in your body, you've got to take care of it and you want it to last a long time, especially as you're getting older. I'm in my mid-30's now. I want to keep getting stronger, and not start deteriorating over time, stay strong and fit and active.
The rock climbing thing wasn't ever something I really talked to him much about.
He kept a lot of things close to his chest, in some ways. Like, climbing was this whole other half of his life that most of us from the music side didn't know much about. We were sort of vaguely aware that he did it, but... It's sad now, to think that I didn't get into it until after he died, because we'll never get to go up on the rocks together, but now that I've gotten so into it, this last year, I totally get it now, what a big force it was for him. I see how good it's been for me, so I understand now why it was so important to him...
Are there other ways that Todd inspired or influenced you?
Yeah, tons! It's hard to put into specifics, but like, the force of of his message was so strong, he had such a clear vision of what he was trying to say. That comes through a lot, and just the power of his voice, and the way he was able to sing so clearly over a big loud raging punk band, was something I always admired, because my own voice... I've gotten a lot better at singing over the years since I started doing it, but it's hard enough to sing over an acoustic guitar!
I have a stupid question, actually. I should have Googled it, but I don't know the difference between a violin and a fiddle. It's always mystified me. Which do you play?
It's the same thing. It's the same instrument, it's just two different names for it - it's more just the style. If you're playing classical music, people call it a violin, and if you're playing folk music and trad stuff, everyone calls it a fiddle. But they're interchangeable, they're the exact same instrument.
So I can call you a fiddler?
Yeah! It's not an insult - "you play the fiddle, oh sorry I meant the violin!" It's not a derogatory term or anything!
Thanks, I always wondered. So are you working on new material?
I've got about an album's worth of songs kinda sitting around. Some of them are things that I wrote years ago, that I never played much, and I've been kinda going through and like, actually playing them and working them out and changing keys on them and figuring out how to sing them. And I've written two new songs in the last year... At some point in the next year I'm going to try to make a new album...
(At this point, Jeff and I talk at length about his writing "The Tsilhqot'in War" with Todd, but that can be read about on the Straight website; there's also a quote from Jeff in the Westender article).
Thanks, Jeff... Okay, I think we have enough...
But I wanted to say one more thing... In the last year, I've listened to the Rebel Spell a lot. I listened to them before he died, when we were friends, but I never really dug in super deeply. It was just, a friend's band I really liked, but since then, it was part of my healing process, since losing him: I've listened to his music a lot. Mostly in my truck, driving around to treeplanting contracts. And I started to realize what a brilliant songwriter he was, and the whole band was, too. Like, the way they put together songs, with all the words and backup vocals and... the songs are so full of hooks, it's one cool thing: a lot of this pop songwriting but also catchy stuff, metal and loud, rowdy punk stuff - kinda the two put together in a really powerful package with a lot of energy in it. But it also has this really strong message to it. That's been really inspiring, for the last year, and it's also changed how I've written songs.
And a lot of their songs sound like big raging punk songs, but they also work just as well as folk songs. A lot of their stuff - you can strip everything down and just bang out the chords on an acoustic guitar and they sound amazing. It shows how good of songwriters they were, they are. We've had quite a number of really epic Rebel Spell campfire jams, especially at all the festivals we're all at, sitting around the fire with Elliot and Erin and Travis, rockin' out with acoustic guitars and twenty people singing along. And there's been a lot of people covering Rebel Spell songs as well, at shows that I've seen in Vancouver. So that's something to say - that the legacy of it is going to live on.
Click here for more information on the WISE Hall show (May 20th - today! - for which tickets are still available)