Saturday, November 07, 2020

Red Herring's Neon: Drone Tones, Chess and a Shock of Bizareness - the full transcript of my Enrico Renz interview

Red Herring by Elizabeth Clark-Lazin. Left to right, Martin Walton, Id Guinness, Steve Lazin, Enrico Renz, Stephen Nikleva, Tania Gosgnatch    

Red Herring is one of my favourite Vancouver bands, and one of the nicest groups of people I have had the pleasure to meet, either in my role as fan or as a sometimes music journalist; so when they asked me to do something to help promote their new EP, Neon, it was my great pleasure to visit vocalist/ lyricist/ co-founder Enrico Renz at his home and have a socially distant interview with him, so that I could assemble a band bio out for their press release. This was back in June of 2020; it was a sunny day, took about two hours, and included little bits of interaction with local wildlife, watching eagles and crows fly about a clear blue sky. Once written, my band bio - based on that conversation as well as some writing by, and a separate chat with, guitarist Stephen Nikleva - was sent out by their publicist to many, many papers, some who have sampled from it quite liberally. I am very pleased that so many articles seem to have emerged from this process! (Hiring a publicist - or at least Sarah Lutz - works; who knew?). Never having done this before, it has been a bit odd to see sentences I wrote appearing under other authors' names, but I guess that's what band bios and press releases are for....

Anyhow, instead of repeating any of the article - which has already appeared in bits and pieces elsewhere - for people who have a similar depth of interest in Red Herring, I'm about to share the entire transcript of my conversation with Enrico, sitting on his porch near the borders of Burnaby and New West, edited only to omit some "Look, it's an eagle"-type observations or other brief interruptions. The most charming of those, I must say, occurred when his mother, in her 90's, appeared and said hello to me. Enrico and I had been maintaining strict social distancing protocols at that point, with no physical contact between us, no shared surfaces, nothing passed back and forth, more in the name of protecting his Mom from catching anything I might pass on to him than protecting Enrico; so his Mom's extended hand, as she approached me, was met with a concerned "No, Mom, you can't shake hands!" exclamation from an alarmed Enrico; at which, point she looked at me, put on a disappointed face, and said to her son, "But I want to give him some of my germs!"

Then she laughed.

So that's how I kind of fell in love with Enrico Renz's Mom, but I guess that's another story. 

If you don't know Red Herring - an artful, socially-conscious, slyly philosophical new-wave-meets-folk-meets-avant-garde band given, in part, to using anthropomorphisms to shed light on the human dilemma - then I suggest you begin with their vintage videos, "Taste Tests" and "The Crab Song." (If you want another example besides "The Crab Song" of their anthropomorphic tendencies, see "The Monkey Song," as yet unavailable in a studio version, here). You will also want to investigate the rather extroverted and nutty "The Brain Song" video (source of a few of my screengrabs, below), and the much less insectile, much more romantic "Julia," off the new EP, which you can order here. And there is also a previous thing I did with Enrico for The Big Takeover online, which tells you what happened to the crab in "The Crab Song" video, among other things. 

However, let's now relocate ourselves to that porch in June. Enrico and I are sitting on either side of a white table with a circular glass top, my phone between us, recording the conversation; leaves are blowing in the branches of the trees; occasional pedestrians are passing this-way-or-that on the sidewalk below; and I'm looking at a sheaf of Red Herring lyrics that Enrico has printed out and drinking a glass of water from a pitcher he prepared. Enrico - his hair tied back - is talking about how he has "always considered himself primarily a lyricist," so "not to have the lyrics heard really bugs me." He wants to know if I've been able to discern them well enough from the recordings the band has shared. Indeed, I have. Occasionally he forgets that I am there to get quotes from him, and asks me what *I* think certain of his lyrics might refer to. I think I answer correctly, for the most part, though there is often a lot more to think about in Enrico's lyrics than meets the eye. 

We can enter the conversation now. 

Allan: I'm curious - given that lyrics are important to you, what do you make of bands that as a rule don't put include lyric sheets, or don't really want to explain them? I've read some people kind of say they are against the practice - maybe David Thomas of Pere Ubu said that once? Or maybe REM? They want you to create the song yourself based on what you're hearing, to make your own thing of it, without saying "these are the words" or laying out the meanings. 

Enrico: I understand the other point of view as well, and I think there's value in that as well. And for a lot of people lyrics don't matter that much. It's more about the sound of the words. You can listen to songs in a different language, there is no expectation of understanding what they're saying, but you can still get a lot of content from the way things are said. And some words are just beautiful and interesting; they add up, getting little fragments of words, but... I write words, and I spend a lot of time thinking about what words work and what words don't work. That's why in my entire career I've probably written around 100 songs – maybe a little bit more than that – which, when you think that I work on it every single day, it’s not that much, right? Most of it just doesn’t make it, because I value the words. 

Let’s take "The Brain Song," because I know that’s been around for a while. When did you first put pen to paper? 

That song goes way, way back. I don't totally remember. I still would have been in my 20s or something like that, so it's at least 30 years ago... That was a time when I was writing a lot of guitar riffs. (Enrico gives a vocal approximation of the riff behind the song). And every time I write a song it comes from a new angle, somehow. I don't have a formula for writing songs, but it's linked mostly to my explorations on guitar. I play a lot of piano, too, but mostly guitar. So I’m looking for interesting music to write, and there I had a neat little riff that I really liked. And just learning that riff in itself takes a long time, right? You're composing and learning it at the same time; and this was still at a time when I couldn't read or write music, and had very little music theory, so it was just, “Dat-dat-dah-dat-dat-dah - what's the next note?” By the time you figured it all out you've played it so many times that it's finally in there, and when something makes it to that level, to put words to it is stronger. It can vary how long it takes for lyrics to get written, but usually once they grab I'll keep working on it for days until it's done. Usually what happens is, I either don't get something that makes me want to write a song, so it just becomes guitar practice, or it crashes somewhere: I can't find my way to the next line or the next idea or something. So it's a fragment that just dies on the vine.

So most of your songs begin with music, not words?

I think probably that's true because that's the daily ritual, is to pick up an instrument and start working on music, looking for something cool in there. 

Were you in Red Herring when you wrote "The Brain Song?" 

That was right around the time when I first met Stephen. And Stephen and I would plan these songs. He would learn the parts and then he would add his own stuff to it and then we would go out and look for other musicians. And for a long time we played gigs with a different place bass player all the time and a different drummer all the time. We did recordings with different people, and it wasn't until quite a bit later that we got an actual band together.

And were you calling yourselves Red Herring?

Yeah, it was called Red Herring from pretty early on. It was first spelled Red Hairing, like red hair. For awhile we tried that... but the whole idea of Red Herring -- you know the literary connotation of it, right? That always appealed to me, that you should always look a little deeper. 

The central idea of "The Brain Song," as I understand it, is that the brain is envious because it has no unmediated contact with the outside world. That seems like something that could come up in philosophy class. And I gather you studied philosophy so...

Well, yeah, I was probably still in university when I wrote that, either still in it or just out of it, and that was my major, philosophy. So that was always a consideration. But this is just a humorous take...

But sometimes things that appear to be trivial – not that this does - can have really deep roots...

What story do you get from it? What's going on in that song for you?

Well you've talked about it with me before about the idea of two brains moving down in the body – plunging “like garbage down a chute” - so that they can intertwine with each other during sex. It really got me thinking about the idea of how a brain could, even there, make contact, without sense organs, because if it doesn’t have sense organs, then it’s not going to feel anything, and if it can feel something, it’s going to be through sensory organs, which means it’s mediated contact again. It becomes recursive – you have to keep going back.

Yep. And even if we were just brains in a jar, where is the actual “you” in that, and how long can you keep slicing off little bits before there is no more you?

Were there philosophers you were particularly interested in or wrote essays on?

I really liked David Hume. I can't tell you why specifically anymore, as that was 40 years ago, but even then - he was from way back, but he had a very clear way of talking. And he didn’t take himself too seriously. I remember him talking about how after you’ve done all this heady philosophy, you don’t just step out the window and fly away. You’re still faced with the day to day stuff of physicality. And Descartes was interesting, even though I later learned he was a crazed vivisectionist, which was hard to take, but his whole thing of just trying to imagine everything away was fascinating. And there were a lot of more modern guys who commented on that whose names I don't even remember, but yeah it was an interesting field to be in.

Do you remember the sources for any specific images? Like, “jammed like slugs in Tupperware,” that’s quite a vivid image. Have you seen slugs in Tupperware?

(Shakes his head, chuckles). But if you imagine it, it’s a lot like a brain in a head. And that's what I think writing is for me. I constantly have this kind of babble going on, and most of it is pretty ordinary, not interesting, but when all of a sudden I say something like that to myself – “Oh shit, I like that!” 

Screengrab for "The Brain Song"

There's something in songs like this, or in “Shaker,” or in, “Check your Posture,” where there's an attempt to get out of the head and into the body.

Now, “Check Your Posture,” you know I didn't write that, right? It's verbatim a chiropractic manual, and that's what kind of makes it fun.

Yeah, but Duchamp didn't build the urinal, but it’s still his.

( Enrico laughs )

Did you have any early recordings of songs like “The Brain Song” that didn’t make it onto Taste Tests?

I think Taste Tests came as the result of winning Shindig. In those days, making a record was an expensive and difficult process, with everything on two inch tape. There might have been some cassette recordings, some live stuff. I know that before that, early on, when Stephen and I were just a pair, we hired some guys and went into Bullfrog Studios and did some recordings – but those are not anywhere. I think Stephen has them. It was interesting – one of them we did with a keyboard player named David Pickell, who is a well known studio player in town. So he played the synthesizer – a Prophet 5, I think it was; so he played the basslines and stuff like that. It had a more electronic sound when we first started out that was quite cool, very on the grid, and then we drifted away from that for a long time. 

Red Herring - screengrab from a video by Allan MacInnis

It is one of the earlier songs on the album, isn't it? I assume “Shaker” and “Julia” are more recent additions.

Yeah, so “Shaker” is very new; "Shaker' probably has a date on it. [I flip through the sheaf of lyrics and see that it says 2013]. So that's not that new anymore. “Savages” is interesting because it's - oh no, I was going to say something that wasn't true, so never mind. But “Savages” was written at a time when the current lineup was playing together so it's not as old as “Brain Song, “ for sure. “Chin Up” is pretty old, too. “Chin Up,” again, has got those riffy guitar things. I wrote those all at the same time, so it's got that kind of surf guitar thing going on, dangly-dang dang-dang-dang dangly-dang, so it was all written around that time.

It seems maybe kind of surf guitar with a bit of spaghetti western soundtrack.

Yep. Yep. So that and “Brain Song” are pretty much the same time.

Was “Chin Up” inspired by literature is there any particular story of someone being executed that you're riffing on there?

I was reading a lot then. It could well have been the time that I was reading One Hundred Years of Solitude. It was that long ago that I don't really remember, but even though a lot of time has gone by, a lot of the political issues that we're dealing with today, they were thriving back in those days. If you paid any attention to the news and did any reading and hung out with people, you hear about these things.

I don't fully understand “Chin Up” - maybe you could explain this one to me. Are you in favor of keeping one's chin up in such circumstances? This is a real old school kind of masculinity kind of thing, to keep one straight up in the face of death, but you usually undercut traditional masculinity, so…

Yeah. I think I see it more kind of tongue in cheek. What difference does it make if you die like a coward or you die like a hero? It's still pretty bad (laughs).

Were there any personal experiences that informed this?

I did know people that were refugees from Central America and heard stories about how things went. But those stories were always around, whether you heard them from one person you knew or not. People have been bastards to each other forever. 

Yeah, it's strange, in ways it feels like we're going backwards lately. Things keep happening where I feel like, we should have dealt with this already, shouldn't we? Like, fascism is new again, or…?

Yeah, the whole story of humanity, that blend of cooperation and competition, where we sacrifice ourselves for each other and at the same time there's always the Other that we are OK going after... And that Otherness can change: sometimes its nationality, or religion, or race, or sometimes it’s the block next door (laughs). There always tends to be that and I think there are times when improvements are definitely made, and then you have a feeling that it's gonna go away, but at the heart there's always power and at the base of power there's always violence, right? Somebody beats the crap out of somebody else and takes over and becomes the leader of the tribe, and that tribe then takes over other tribes, that person becomes the King, and so on... So you start saying we're not gonna do this anymore, and pretty soon you find yourself being the victim of somebody else who hasn't made that decision (laughs). 

It reminds me of a paper I wrote years ago... if I've ever written an essay that could have been the basis for a Red Herring song this is it. It was about a study that looked at testosterone production and violence in small groups of primates. I forget the details but it more or less suggested that acts of aggression from the Alpha male played a key role in regulating testosterone levels, particularly among subordinate apes, whose lessened testosterone production in the face of Alpha aggression was key to maintaining social order. That is, even in primates and perhaps by extrapolation in all primate species including man, violence is essential to social order. Even subtle acts of violence and aggression, like a little growl from the Alpha - without that everything would fall apart, and it would just be everyone competing for everything. It seemed like we're stuck, that violence and aggression will always be with us.

It feels like that. I remember seeing a talk by Jane Goodall who's a huge monkey fan and she was saying there were young adolescent monkeys that would patrol their area, and if another monkey from outside the area came in, and they outnumbered him, they would kill him. Y’know, it’s... fuck!

I guess that brings us to “Savages.” It's a really tragic song it almost feels like giving up: that's our story, that's what you get… it seems to be suggesting that the human experiment has failed.

I think that was just a... remember this is quite an old song, too. And when I was going to school, there were still a lot of texts that tried to distinguish between modern man and primitive man: they were savages out there, they had to be civilized. And there was a lot of talk about how human beings are animals but they are better than the rest of the animals, they're more intelligent, they can cooperate they can do all sorts of stuff. So it's more of a comment on that attitude. It's about arrogance.

It does seem to suggest the world has ended as a result of that arrogance – it has a sort of post apocalyptic feel.

Or it's poised to be at that point when that was written: “American warships in the Persian Gulf… Soviet submarines in the Caribbean.” That wasn't too far off - that was pre-Gorbachev when that was written.

The Soviet submarines is a reference to the Cuban Missile Crisis?

Yeah, that was the Cuban Missile Crisis and the American warships in the Persian Gulf, that was still going on. World War three was very much around the corner at that point; I don't know if it's really gone away.

So I'm curious: there are people on the Vancouver scene, for example Scott Beadle and his partner Tracy Brooks Caroll of Pill Squad, who count themselves as believers; they’ve described themselves as communists and believe that there is still a way to change the world, to reform things. You don't strike me as a true believer, though.

I second guess everything. I just have very little confidence in my ability to see things for what they really are. So that's why I'm not out there brandishing anything. I have a very average brain - just in terms of the CPU power there; I know this largely from playing chess. I'm a chess addict, and I can't get my rating much above 1000 ever. Even though I play every day, you know. And what that tells me is, I have the same information as my opponent, but my opponent will always see a little bit further than me. So I just extrapolate from that onto life in general. The chess board only has 64 squares and 32 pieces, with very defined rules for each piece, and an absolute clear end goal in mind, compared to politics or to our social life, which have way more pieces, and it isn't quite clear what it is we're trying to achieve, and for me to go out there and tell people how it should be done... I don't know. But I'm deeply interested in it, and I'll listen to anybody. Like the other day I was out walking with my mom, and I was carrying my guitar, and ran into another guitar player. We were sitting on a picnic table and we started talking, and pretty soon, we got into the whole COVID discussion. And he turned out to be totally into conspiracy theory, and I couldn't disagree with it; I was just interested in what he had to say. But as you can see, I am following the rules and everything. 

I noticed that your mother spoke with an accent. You're the child of immigrants?


Is that relevant? When did your parents come to Canada?

In 1967, they came to Kitchener/Waterloo. I remember that that was suggested as a good place to go as my parents spoke no English and there was a large German speaking population.

They're both from Germany?

No no, I was born in Switzerland. They met in Switzerland. My mom's from Italy; my dad's from the German part of Switzerland. And I think it's relevant, because I definitely experienced the feeling of being an outsider. When we went to Kitchener/ Waterloo at that time, there were very few other immigrants there – that is, recent immigrants. And I was called a Kraut, even though I'm not German. But I spoke no English at that point; I was ten years old, so I should have been in grade 4, but they put me in kindergarten. That's how they dealt with English language learners, at that point; you've gotta learn from somewhere. And so the only time I saw kids my own age was at recess, and of course, they ribbed the hell out of me. And I was very aware that I was wearing different clothes from everybody else, because I was wearing what was worn in Switzerland at that time, which was a lot more formal than it was here. So that sense of not really belonging and not being in the in crowd – I really felt that when I was a kid.

I had a friend named Thomas Ziorjen, who had stories about being beaten up by Jewish kids at his school, or being German. It's a hard circumstance for a child to be in. So did that feeling of being an outsider find expression in art and music?

I think that's probably true. I think that no matter what situation I've been in, I tend to be on the introverted side. It doesn't show when I get on stage, but until I get on stage, I'm not that comfortable around people. And in any school, you kind of have the popular group, and I always thought that they were harsh, not just to me but in general, but in the stuff that they would say and the attitudes they expressed. It always felt a bit heartless to me. And so, retreating into art. But art is also a place where you don't just retreat to, you build something there. You don't say anything while you're there with the group, but then you go away and you start writing about it. “This is what I’m thinking about what was being said,” y’know? And I'm not even sure that it has to be words because, in high school especially, I was mostly into painting, at that point. Music was always sort of there, and I always had some sort of instrument to play with, but music, as it turns out in hindsight, is quite an elaborate craft. I always felt - “I’ve got to work on it more, I’ve got to work on it a little bit more,” and now I’m in my 60’s and I’m still working on it a little bit more. And I always feel like I’m just about there, but there’s always a helluva lot more to learn. Whereas things like writing... no matter what art you’re working in, there’s always new levels; a lot of the time, you’re not aware that you’re not at that level, but you can fool yourself, even as a young kid, into thinking, “Hey, I’m a helluva writer, this is a great story” or “I’m a helluva painter! Picasso? C’mon, look at this!” But music, you pick up an instrument and you think, “This is the sound I want to make,” and it’s just not coming out. So you’ve got to learn to play the instrument and... It’s interesting how that became the dominant thing. I don’t write words very much. I have actually written... since my retirement I've been more prolific than I have been in decades.

So were there people when you were younger, who you would latch onto who you thought had a clear vision of how things should be?

I'm pretty sure that I've never really had a hero. A lot of the times I would find people interesting, but there was always a side of me that said, “Oh, yeah, but I've got another idea here.” I always kind of wanted to add my own two cents to everything. So I would read. I loved a lot of it, like Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Kafka and stuff like that – really interesting writers – and I always thought, “That’s what I want to do,” but every time I looked at some art or something, it’s the fact that it wasn’t current... “Okay, I could do what you did, but I want to do it in my time, in my place, in my language.” I always had the feeling that I was going to have something to offer. And I think it’s still there, which is weird; I should be enjoying my retirement, but I’m looking for that thing that I’m going to put out there, and I don’t even know why. Is it a search for fame? We used to kid about it, my friend Chris Blades and I: we used to ask each other, “So, what – do you have a need to perform?” It’s a weird, weird need, because you’re just askin’ for trouble!

But it just feels so good when you write something and somebody appears to genuinely love what you've done. And I think that's maybe what you're after all the time; you just want love, you know?

What about musical heroes?

Yeah, just about everybody! Holy smokes, it's just unbelievable what is out there. I'm fortunate to have met Nikleva. Nikleva is definitely a musical hero. Great stuff there. All the guys I play with. Beyond that I loved songs when I was a kid and there would be a few records I would play all the time. Swiss and Italian records – this was before I came to Canada. but I still remember them: (sings) “Marina, Marina, Marina, da dat dah da dat dah dat dah.” all of those kinds of Italian pop songs and German songs as well. Loved yodeling. Switzerland was big on yodeling. There are two types of yodeling there: there's the acrobatic, knee-slapping type of stuff, but there's also a kind of yodeling that you don't hear much of outside of Switzerland, which is very, very somber with long, long tones And you know the echo from the Alps and they have a bowl a clay bowl and a big silver 5 franc piece and they roll that around and it makes the sound – just rurrr, rurrr, rurrr. That’s an instrument. I was very drawn to it. And there’s a vocal component, and harmonies – different vocal parts, with minor chords. It’s hard to find, even on Youtube I can’t find it, but I still remember it. 

Stephen Nikleva at Red Herring's 2013 reunion at the Prophouse Cafe, by Allan MacInnis

That’s also something Stephen has an interest in – European folk musics.

Yeah, he’s got that whole Romanian Gypsy background. 

Was that something you shared an interest for, early on? 

Yeah. We have quite an intellectual relationship, and both of us are open to all kinds of music. Like another big thing for me, in my early teens, was classical music. I listen to it almost exclusively for a long time I was a huge fan of Brahms, Debussy... got into Bach quite late. I was probably already in my 20’s. And I remember getting the Brandenburg concertos... I was in Switzerland at the time – I went back to visit Switzerland, and I bought that record, so I had just that one record. I put it on and I remember when you kind of stepped through the wall of understanding, because Bach can just be sort of Bach. you know. But there was one point where I had listened to it enough and I was started to hear all the different parts and how they fit together, and I was like, “Oh shit, this is amazing.” You see the architecture of it. And then I got really interested in the more modern composers, Bartok and stuff. 12 tone stuff, outside stuff. 

It’s funny, because you wouldn’t guess that. There’s much more of a folk element here, with the romanticism of “Julia,” or “Shaker,” which is basically a blues song... 

It is an interesting phenomenon, because when I work on my piano, I'm a real theory hound: I learn every scale there is and weird chords and stuff like that, and work on that, just love that, but I don't compose that way. I do improv like that, using all of that. but I've often wondered why that is, why I write songs that are much more straight ahead. There's a lot of songs - “Love Machine” has one chord in it! (Laughs). 

So jazz became a big thing just before I met Stephen. I started getting into jazz. My parents - we were living here in Vancouver first and then they bought a house in Cumberland. I was in my first or second year university, and there I met an old Dutch guy. 
I was volunteering at a crisis center in Courtney, on one of my summers off; I answered phone calls. And I thought he was a client at first because he had long hair drove a motorcycle and was all scraggly. In those days, that was odd, but it turned out that he also was a volunteer and he was brilliant. When we started talking philosophy, he seemed to be so much deeper than any of the profs I had run into. And he was a jazz guitarist, a really good player, and so he started teaching me not just jazz but the history of jazz and all that kind of stuff. And shortly after that I met Nikleva, who is also big into jazz, and Stephen started taking me out to clubs listening to it. Jazz is another one of these things: I hit a wall with it. And it wasn't until repeated exposures, and talking to people that knew about it that I became really passionate about it. 

Did you have a particular entry point, somewhere that it really clicked? 

Well, it was through the real book. Do you know about the Real Book? It's a big part of Vancouver history. In those days, if you wanted to get a chart of any of those jazz songs, it was very difficult, because the different publishers didn't share with each other, so you couldn't get a book with all this stuff; you had to buy individual sheet music. And for people that are struggling for money, it costs up there, and you have to hunt it down. So Vancouver was one of those places – San Francisco did it, and Vancouver followed shortly thereafter: music teachers and students at the colleges put together an illegal book, called the Real Book. And I got ahold of one of those and started to learn the songs in there. 

Tania and Enrico at the Princeton, 2018

So it wasn't through listening that you got into it, it was through reading and studying it?

Interestingly, I did a lot more reading than listening. It was one of those components that took me a long time to sort of realize, that if you really want to play jazz, it's about listening, and trying to transcribe; figuring out from here what they're doing, and not looking at the charts. But I spent a long time with the charts, and I still do; I think it's really interesting seeing it all laid out on paper; the logic of it becomes very clear, you can see the patterns...

I like to attach names for readers, so they have a reference point: so are we talking about Monk, Miles Davis, Coltrane, or...?

For sure, those, but... I’m really drawn as well – like, I love the edgy, angular stuff of the guys you mentioned, and I love all the be-bop stuff, but I’m really drawn to the romantic ballads. Henri Mancini: (sings) “my romance...”

That gives us a nice segue, because that’s what’s really neat about this EP: it gives us two very different sides of Red Herring. There’s “The Brain Song” and “Neon,” which I think of as the original vision of Red Herring, quite quirky and cerebral; but there’s also “Julia” and “Shaker,” where there’s a real emotional power… especially in "Julia," you’ve come to embrace this really emotionally powerful romanticism…

It's interesting, because you're making me realize something: because when I was just getting into jazz, the first thing that I became aware of was scales and modes. So if you take the C major scale – you take the white scales on the piano, and you plunk down a C in the bass – a C octave; two C notes – and then you noodle around on the white notes, you get a very pleasant sound, the C major scale. If you keep those white notes going, but instead of playing a C, you play another note – like, let’s go over to D; you get a Dorian scale. It was one thing that blew my mind when I discovered this, that you can play the same set of notes, but if the drone that’s going along on the bottom is different, it changes the relationship with all of them. And so you basically get seven completely different sonic worlds, where you’re picking each of those notes as your drone tone; and you can do it with all seven notes. They can be home base, and then whenever you’re noodling around, if you end up on the same note as this, then it sounds fine. So that’s what modes are; you take any scale, and you take any one of the notes in that particular scale and you make that your home base, and the best way to feel that is to just keep playing that note throughout – no chord changes, no nothing – and play melodies, make up melodies, and you realize that they’re all entirely unique. So what you do then is, you figure out the math that’s involved. A major scale has a very specific structure. There’s a whole tone, which means there’s a note in-between the first and the second note, and there’s another whole tone between the second and the third. But between the third and the fourth, there is no whole tone, it’s a semi-tone, two notes right beside each other. And you get a bunch of whole tones until you get to the seventh and first, and they’re beside each other. But for each of those modes, it becomes different. For instance, the Phrygian mode, the third note of the C scale – in this case it would be E – between the first and second note there is no space at all, so you get that Jaws interval: duh-nuh, duh-nuh. So you become really aware that the distance between notes really matters; it has a huge emotional impact. And each one of these modes has this unique impact, and for each one, you can make infinite melodies, but they have this feeling in common.

So I was learning the math on that. So all of the early songs, all of the riffs – like the “Neon” riff, that’s the Phrygian mode; I was exploring that mode, and looking for something in that mode. Because you can play randomly, it sounds okay – it never sounds wrong; but it’s still something special when you get something that has worked out. It’s like words; you can put together words, and they always sound okay, but every once in awhile you get a line that makes you go, “yeaaah!’ So “Chin Up” comes from me exploring that, “Neon,” “The Brain Song.” “Savages” is a little later on, so I’m starting to work with altered scales there. But then when you start to work with chords – which is still those modes, but now the notes are stacked on top of each other – then you get a different flavour. So “Julia,” the opening chords, they’re Dorian – it’s the Dorian mode, but the notes are stacked, so you get a sequence of chords where the home note, the home chord, is not the first of the major scale, but the second chord of the major scale. So I got more and more into exploring chords, as opposed to just the scales. That’s a natural evolution, and that’s why you get less riffy stuff. I’m not really into the cool stuff you get out of studying just the lines. 

It seems more mature music. I don’t know if its off-based, but I used to like fairly aggressive and difficult music, and it’s only in recent years that I can listen to a country record and enjoy it – that I can appreciate more simple things… there was a long time that country music, blues, folk music – it wasn’t challenging enough, my brain cells weren’t firing while I was listening to it. As I’ve matured I’m realizing there’s an incredible wealth in some of this music. I don’t mean to say that “Julia” is simple, but… it has a simplicity to it, a straight up romanticism; if it had been on Taste Tests, if I had heard it when I was in my 20’s, it would have been my least favourite song on the album, but now I listen to it and it’s amazing… It’s a romantic masterpiece, but it’s got to come to you when you’re mature.

Yep. I know what you’re saying. I remember it was Stephen that first took me to blues clubs, and I was just… “meh.” And how much I’ve changed in that regard – I’m talking about all the studying I’m doing, and one of the big things I’m into now is going back to the plain old pentatonic scale. It’s just five notes, and it’s the five notes that absolutely every culture in the world shares. It doesn’t matter the time and place: you find the pentatonic scale everywhere. But it’s about connecting to the heart; those intervals… it’s remarkable.

Can you tell me about the writing of “Julia.” There are a couple of names on the EP - “Charlie” in “Chin Up” and “Julia;” are there particular people inspiring them? There’s no reference to the Julia in Orwell’s 1984?

No, no, although I probably would have read that before that, so it’s possible. I really don't remember where the name came from.

Do you remember when you started to write the song?

I usually remember these things by location. So I was living in a band house - at that time, I was the drummer in a band called Kathy Korvette. And we were all living together on Main Street, so that would have been – it's later, definitely later than the rest. It was probably 25 years ago or something like that. I was probably in my 30’s when I wrote that.

(I read from the lyric sheet): “Thunder and lightning are weak/ thunder and lightning are small.” That’s nice. Were you in a relationship? Is this a love song?

It’s not about anybody in particular, that’s for sure. At that time I was already dating my wife, but... I tend to stay away from writing about particular people in my life. It’s just too tricky!

There is a movement away in the lyric – come get your things, we’ll be travelling far. Was there something you were moving away from? I’ve talked to artists who have contempt for the idea that art is autobiography and really don’t like the idea of people writing from their own lives – who think that reading things like they’re veiled autobiography does an injustice to the artist’s imagination... questions like, “what were you experiencing in your life that made you write this?” I know people who would take that question sort of as an insult to their creativity.

Yeah, and really – I just don’t write from life. It’s more about ideas. In this case I was exploring the idea of leaving behind things that don’t really matter. It’s a song about – I hate to sound spiritual, but I think it is a spiritual song; it’s a song about not being afraid, because in the end all of this stuff you’re worried about is just stuff.

It’s kind of the Red Herring version of “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.”

I don’t know that song!

Ah! (Laughs). It’s a Blue Oyster Cult song about not being afraid of death... But your song is not about death, it’s about leaving behind things that don’t matter.

And having courage. That’s what the narrator is saying to Julia, you know: sing! Don’t be afraid.

And the Seven Seas?

It’s just a feeling of the all-encompassing. Go big!

Some people don't want to go here, and it's fine if you don't, but I've gotten some really interesting answers from people asking about spiritual beliefs... do you want to go there?

For me, like I say, I don’t feel competent to believe anything, but I'm deeply interested in it, and anytime somebody talks religion, or talks spirituality, I’m listening. I’m curious about it. I do recognize in myself a feeling of faith – faith not in any thing or God or anything like that, but faith that it’s all essentially okay, all going to be fine. While at the same time recognizing how horrible everything is. And part of it is connected to this chess metaphor: I know that I’m not seeing what’s on the board. And I don't think anybody sees what's on the board. And yet here we are.

OK, let me ask you about something. You have a lot of songs written from the point of view of animals. Do animals see what is on the board?


I don't think so. My mom would tell you that. My mom's really big into, “The crows are trying to tell us something.” No, I don't feel that way particularly at all. I don’t think of them as being superior to us in their understanding. But I am fascinated by our connection to them, and I often almost get a kind of... Even though I've lived with animals like everybody else, I often get a kind of shock of bizarreness when I relate to a dog or something like that. I have one song called “The Animals,” and the line is, “even the insects are our brothers.” I’m hugely fascinated by that – I've always felt very strongly about animals, and have a strong connection with animals: love dogs, love cats.

But you do think we’re “smarter than the animals,” to go back to “Savages.” You would not say that we have a superior connection to the real than we do.

No, but I don’t think we have a stronger connection... it’s a matter of degrees. When you’re standing on a mountaintop, you’re closer to the sun than we are, but... not significantly.

Do you eat meat?

Well, that's a really interesting thing, because I do eat meat, but I'm constantly questioning it, almost every day. In fact, I wrote a song about that, and the first line is, “I read Paul McCartney said, if the slaughterhouses had glass walls, we’d all be vegetarian.” And the song goes out with a real exploration of that. And I probably think that’s the way to go. (Looks up): There’s another eagle, being chased by a crow. You know what I saw the other day? I’ve often seen a bunch of crows chasing an eagle, but the other day, I saw one crow chasing a bunch of eagles, going from one eagle to the next.

Yeah, crows have chutzpah. 

Look, he’s going after it, he’s right on his back,... So yeah, the meat-eating thing, that’s a quandry, and it bugs me that I still haven’t solved that after all these years.

Have you ever tried to?

When I was a kid, a really young kid, I wouldn’t eat meat, and it was not because I didn’t like the taste of it, but because of the animal thing, right? And I think I was even being taken to church and stuff like that so I would start to eat meat. I don’t know if it’s true – I am not sure what my memories are from that time.

Taken to church, as in, “Please, convince our son to eat meat?”

Yeah, because they were worried about my health. My parents aren’t really religious, so I’m questioning if that’s a memory at all. Who knows? But anyways, I know that I didn’t eat meat, at one point, and then I started to, but I’ve been questioning it ever since. And I have friends that are vegetarian and I always love it when I’m around them. It almost seems like the world isn’t going to be okay until we all make that decision together.


How about you?

I’ve tried it about three times times. Erika and I, a couple of years ago, went for about six months without any animal products at all. And unfortunately, for me, it feels great for awhile, but eventually it starts to feel extremely boring and restrictive. It becomes difficult to go where you want to go and trust there’s gonna be food that you can eat there, and you have to be more creative in the kitchen than I am. We have lots of vegetarian cookbooks, and it felt great – like, we were clearing our conscience, a little bit, because I think everyone knows, there’s a guilt that hangs over our heads. Animals are sentient, and we don’t
have to eat their flesh, but I get sick of trying to figure out new things to do with chick peas, and, y’know, I really, really want a chicken burger. The lower concern ends up dominating the higher concern. I’ve never been able to make it stick. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. Mostly I think I just get bored!

Yeah. And it puts your whole ethical framework in question, right? Because there's something you really can sort of feel is wrong and you keep doing it.

Yet most of the time people don’t even question it, like they can’t afford to. I can remember walking around the suburbs as a kid - probably drug-assisted, here - and having reality disappear, just looking at these cookie cutter houses each approximating some sort of dream of freedom but at the same time looking identical to each other... Maintaining a sense of reality seemed dependent on not asking questions, just going along in the illusion.

I think I remember Nietzsche saying something about that, that you can only go so far away from normal before you become permanently crazy.

Yeah, that was sort of my 20s.

Yeah - the path of least resistance is a big part of our lives, isn't it? We all end up on it. And you see it in everything! Our clothing, our hair, you know? Why in one generation does everybody have hair of a particular length, except for a few outsiders, and then in other generations, everybody has that? Is it that they've all come to the same conclusion? No, it's just easiest to be like everybody else. And that goes to everything, including living in houses like this, right?

Yep. But to bring it back around... I see a lot of bands come back and I get excited: “Ooh I'm going to get to see mission of Burma!” But with Red Herring, it doesn't feel like you're trying to relive past glories. The new EP feels as fresh and vital and relevant as the past one...

In fact, that's one thing: I've always wanted to go way beyond this material. We kind of get stuck in doing the material, just because it's hard to get together, but I'm mostly excited when new stuff is happening. So, myself I'm constantly working on new stuff, and I think that's part of what you might be talking about, is that all of us are continuing to work on our own music. For me, a vast percentage of everyday is just studying music. And what's good about having picked music to work on is that, if I were an athlete, no matter how hard I worked, I would be on the decline, but with music I'm still getting better; I'm still understanding more. I might be a little slower - you know, I've got a bit of arthritis in my hands, but once I get warmed up, the technique is cleaner, the ideas and the connections that I can make on the fly are stronger... and I still don't feel like I'm where I'm going to be. So that continued growth, and the feeling that, I may not have written it yet but I'm going to write that thing that really matters, is still there. I want you to listen to that new stuff that I'm writing, it's just me and my guitar, just by myself, but I'd be very curious to hear what you have to say.

I would love to. So what is the plan, anyhow? This is going to be six song EP?

We really don't know what we're doing. We are right now trying to figure that out, trying to talk to publicists, see if we need them, see if we can afford them, but we don't understand how music works in the marketplace; We don't even know really what it is that we're trying to do. Certainly this isn't driven just by the need to be famous, but we would love lots of people to hear this stuff, so we’re trying to figure out a strategy of how to make that happen... Because it doesn't have to be, as you know... songs these days are not necessarily marketed as a unit we happen to have these songs ready to go right now, they could be a CD, we've talked about vinyl, looked at the costs of that... And it all seems like, shit, we're just going to spend way too much money and end up with a bunch of plastic in boxes for the rest of our lives. And none of us are... Id, I gotta say, and Stephen, to a large extent, they're good at it, but I'm terrible at it, This whole thing of trying to figure out what to do with the music. I'm just a spoiled brat who wants to write and play, y’know? ...but every time I have to send an email or something like that I start to get writers’ block.

It would be great if Red Herring got on the CBC, but I don't know how one does that these days.

Well, back in the day, we actually had our connections with them, we did interviews on CBC.

I could see you playing on Brave New Waves, or something like that.

I think we may have done that. And you know CiTR and all of these things... it just takes the will to go out there and connect but I get almost dizzy every time I try.

Yeah, you don't seem like a business person to me.   

I get depressed. It just shoves me back - I recognized that that's been a flaw all along, with Red Herring with my individual stuff, with any musical project or any writing project that I’ve done. I work like hell to create the thing, but even the simplest thing like phoning somebody or writing somebody... and I bet you that's pretty common. I often wonder how much great music is out there that we just don't hear about because of that.

A lot of it to be sure, but the thing is this Red Herring material has immense potential. I think if people heard it, a lot of them would like it. It's really good. A song like “Julia” is not difficult to access at all, it's really powerful and really emotional. But how do you find the audience? 

But this has been the thing, all this time, is guys like you saying stuff like that, that makes me keep believing in this, just extrapolating that in any room that I play in. There's always a handful of people they come up and show their appreciation, y’know, and show their appreciation in a way that you know this is special. And I keep thinking, if I could just find all these people that would feel that way, it would be great. But I've never been able to do what it takes to make that happen.

I hope someone in the band can make the connections, because this is something that should be heard. A final question: what do you teach have you always just been a music teacher or...?

No, no – I was a generalist elementary school teacher. Grade five and six were my most common years.

How long have you done that for?

30 years just, retiring this June, one year ago. A really interesting experience, a lot of it perfect for my personality, a lot of it totally against the grain. Having the privilege of being around kids all day long... kids are an interesting form of human being. Very raw and direct. I remember seeing a comic once where somebody asked a kid, “What are you gonna be when you grow up?” and the answer was, “A watered down version of what I am now.” (Laughs). So to be in that environment all the time, in a place where you're communicating all the time - you're not on the sidelines, you're right in there with them - and it's about learning... I love learning! I love thinking about how the brain works. How we pick stuff up, how we use it, how we apply it, and how to get kids to feel that same way... for me, a lot of it was just about the emotional aspect of it, even though I was really interested in the content, my number one goal was to get you to want to learn, to get you to love working together, to get you to really value appreciating each other... that kind of stuff. I love that. But then there was report cards. Oh my God, the number of times I was ready to leave out the window with that stuff... and the multitasking in that job is crazy; the number of subjects you're trying to get ready for, all the special requirements for this kid and that kid and that parent...

A lot of bureaucracy.

Yeah, that was the flipside of it, that was really hard to take. But the being on stage, the writing, and the classroom, they would just ping off each other. I got to be a better performer because I was a teacher; I got to be a better teacher because I was a performer and a writer. And I could just feel, as I would go from one venue to the other, how they influenced each other. sometimes when I'm on stage I feel like I'm in a classroom trying to make that classroom feel great, and then when I'm in the classroom I feel like an entertainer.

Thanks to Enrico Renz for generously answering my questions, and for Red Herring getting me involved in their album release. See also my interview with Id Guinness, here, and a short video chat with Stephen and Enrico hereAnd of course, you can purchase digital versions of Red Herring's 1985 EP Taste Tests and/or their 2020 EP Neon here

PS. They have another one on the way, too. 

1 comment:

snik said...

Thanks Allan, very informative. I thought it interesting that this last photo
has Enrico looking at the first Ferron album, which I played on with Keith Mallard, who
subsequently taught Creative Writing at UBC and is the one that introduced me to Enrico.
This photo encapsulates some of the band history!