Just after the release of his new classical team-up Thank God, The Plague Is Over (QRO review), Charles Spearin of Broken Social Scene and Do Make Say Think talked with QRO. In the extended conversation, the multi-instrumentalist discussed working with violinist Josefin Runsteen on Plague in a thousand-year-old Italian chapel at Castel Campo (once owned by the Von Trapps), Plague celebrating the end of the Black Plague, a possible new BSS b-sides compilation, the legacy of his 2009 Happiness Project (QRO review), how his native Canada is actually trying to manage the pandemic and economic crisis, American withholding taxes, the Swedish nyckelharpa, universal emojis, Zoom, his mustache, and much more…
It was probably one of the best musical experiences of my life. One of the highlights of my musical life.
QRO: How are you holding up, with everything that is going on?
Charles Spearin: I’m doing alright in my home studio, out in the backyard, doing some soundtrack work and other stuff. The Toronto area is doing well.
I have two teenage daughters, and school for them starts this week. Well, quarter-days, with just two hours in the morning, and the class sizes are way lower.
QRO: Is Canada the healthy paradise we Americans jealously imagine?…
CS: [laughs] Well, it’s better than in the States. There are isolated outbreaks, but I think Toronto has like 700 cases, which is manageable.
QRO: Has there been any specific government help for musicians & music venues up there?
CS: A bill just came up to help music venues.
We have the CERB, the Canada Emergency Response Benefits, during this whole thing, which are like two thousand bucks a month. That’s for everybody, not just musicians.
But I think that it’s ending, this month is the last month, then switching to employment insurance, which is not as good.
QRO: I guess that’s because you guys actually handled the epidemic.
Meanwhile, America just raised the fees for artist visas…
CS: It’s not so much the visa fees as it is the withholding tax. There is a 30% withholding tax on all of your shows. At the venue, they take the money and they give it to the government. Then you have to sort of ‘beg it back’ from them. It’s a drag.
QRO: They give it to the American government?
CS: And then, some places, there’s state taxes. It’s super complicated. There’s a federal withholding tax, and then some places have a state withholding tax as well. You have to apply for different places to get your refund. It’s no fun…
That, combined with the fees, makes touring a costly proposition. It just seems like they don’t want anyone coming in.
QRO: It’s not just artists who are being kept out…
CS: [laughs] Yes…
QRO: And how are your Broken Social Scene bandmates doing?
CS: They’re all doing good. We’re spread out, some in Toronto, some in Montreal. Some have moved out into the countryside. Kevin [Drew] was just in England for two months. But we’re basically in the Toronto-Montreal area.
We’ve been going over old recordings, as we have all this stuff that we never used. This is the one thing that the band is doing right now. Just kind of going through the vaults to see what got left behind over the years, and see if we can’t put together some kind of leftover sandwich.
I know that there’s a lot of good music that’s never made it to record. Basically, every time we make a record, we make two or three records, and then we finish 30% of the songs. So, we have a lot of unfinished music. But some of it is really good & really close, so it would be nice if it eventually made it to the surface of the ocean of Broken Social Scene music.
QRO: What about Josefin Runsteen, over in Sweden?
CS: She’s doing well. I was just talking to her over video chat.
Her and her boyfriend are optimistic and feel the country is going to do well in the long run. Sweden has an excellent health care system and if you look at the Covid-related death rate it seems well under control.
However, I was also just reading Max Roser – he runs this website called Our World In Data. He does all these beautiful graphics of basically how the world works, in data. He said that there’s so much misinformation about Sweden out there. Like, people outside of the country have the strangest ideas of what’s going on in Sweden and use it to justify all sorts of bad ideas.
Roser says that statistically Sweden is not doing so well, comparatively speaking. Like, if you want to see a country that is doing well, look to Germany, look to Vietnam, look to South Korea. But ultimately Sweden will likely be ok because of a robust public health care system.
There’s something about setting up in a new space, that’s not a recording studio, that makes you kind of pay attention a bit more to the sound quality of the instruments, I think.
QRO: How was making Thank God, The Plague Is Over?
CS: It was probably one of the best musical experiences of my life. One of the highlights of my musical life.
I’ve had a very fortunate life, in terms of music I’ve made & been a part of, and the people I’ve been, so I feel really lucky & fortunate. But there was something so special and unique about this Thank God, The Plague Is Over recording.
Just in the sense that it was a perfect little movie. Like, I was taken away from my life in Canada, sort of plucked out of Toronto, and lifted over the Atlantic Ocean & dropped in the beautiful castle in northern Italy. Where I met all these fantastic musicians, who just were super-kind, super-supportive, really creative, and interested in the art more than anything.
And then finding this magnificent little chapel, that was just oozing with history & humanity. And then getting to improvise with this amazing musician for a week, every single day.
It was almost like a fairytale. It was a perfect little movie. I really can’t believe that it happened. Which is great to have this recording, because I have some evidence for my own sanity.
QRO: Did they have the recording set up in the chapel?
CS: No, it’s not normally a recording set at all. Marina Clerici is the owner of the castle and the chapel. Although because it’s generations & generations old, she considers herself more of a caretaker and keeper rather than owner. But basically, the castle and it’s grounds have been turned into an organic farm and occasional events center. For the most part, it’s an organic farm, closed up in the wintertime. In the summer, they’ll do a few weddings here & there, and I think they do some camps for underprivileged or special needs kids.
Marina is an amazing woman and is a friend of Damien Rice. I think Damien was invited to a wedding there one time, and was like, ‘What is this magical place?’ And so, after a discussion with Marina, he brought together a group of his friends, like-minded musicians, who he thought would work well together. And then I was invited in through Feist.
But it’s not at all a recording studio. Damien and his engineer friend Phil Weinrobe brought in all this recording equipment, and set up a studio in the library, set up a studio in this beautiful arched stone storage space in the castle.
QRO: Have you ever recorded an album in a church before? Or anywhere that old?
CS: Do Make Say Think has done a number of unconventional location recordings. It was our M.O. for a long time, to seek out interesting spaces. Not necessarily an interesting acoustic space, but an interesting vibe, I don’t know how to call it. We recorded in at least two different barns over the years.
There’s something about setting up in a new space, that’s not a recording studio, that makes you kind of pay attention a bit more to the sound quality of the instruments, I think. You’re listening to the space as much as you’re listening to the instrument, and it kind of wakes you up. I find it has a psychological effect.
I often get a kind of get a sort of sleepiness when I go into a studio. I get more into my head. When I get into a new space, it kind of wakes me up & makes me feel connected to the space a little bit more, a little bit more connected to the world, maybe.
It’s definitely something that we’ve done in the past with Do Make Say Think, but with this particular little chapel, there’s nothing like it that I’ve been to. It’s just an astonishing room to be in. Not any bigger than a living room, twelve-by-sixteen, something like that. Very small.
There might be some nyckelharpa purists in Sweden who don’t like what I do on it…
QRO: You’ve obviously done a variety of musical styles before, but had you done much classical?
CS: No. I’m not classically trained.
I started playing the nyckelharpa when Feist asked me to be part of her band, when she toured Metals (QRO live review with Spearin). She asked me if there was a way to recreate the strings and horns without having a whole string section or horn section. I picked up the nyckelharpa, which is kind of a violin with buttons, to try do that. I put it through my guitar pedals, some old tube amps.
I didn’t end up using it much on that tour, but had played it on my own off-and-on for ten years or so.
QRO: Was Runsteen impressed that you, the non-Swede, knew how to play her country’s nyckelharpa?
CS: [laughs] Maybe? I’m not classically-trained, so I don’t play the nyckelharpa like trained Swedes do. I’ve heard a couple of nyckelharpa folk recordings, and what I do sounds nothing like those.
She was impressed that I knew it, but there might be some nyckelharpa purists in Sweden who don’t like what I do on it…
QRO: Had you ever recorded with the nyckelharpa before, like on Broken Social Scene or Do Make Say Think?
CS: Never with Do Make Say Think. There’s a bit of the nyckelharpa in the background on Hug of Thunder. It just sounds like violin.
QRO: In your other work, you play so many different instruments – why did you just ‘just’ play the nyckelharpa on Plague?
CS: Part of it, I think, was just the transportability of it. We had a lot of instruments at the castle, but this little chapel was a ways down the road.
The first time we went, we had heard about the chapel. I guess it was Phil who said, “Let’s go check out the acoustics at the place.” And so, I said, “Okay. I’ll bring my nyckelharpa out.” Because it’s the most natural-sounding instrument. And then I asked Josefin, and I hadn’t met her before, and I knew she played violin. So, I said, “Why don’t we go and play together? We’ll improvise, and check out the acoustics of the space.”
The first time we went, it was a small group. We walked all down the road together; we didn’t bring any microphones or anything like that. We just stepped into the tiny chapel. The other four or five people sat down in the wooden pews. And Josefin & I – who hadn’t spoken at all together – brought out our instruments, and just started improvising.
And was like a light got turned on, in my mind and my heart. And I could just see in her face as well, she was just beaming with excitement and joy. The sound of our instruments, and the way we played off of each other, it was really, really magical, like a musical experience that I don’t think I’ve had before in my life. Just an incredible connection, just joy.
It was really, really an amazing experience. And everybody who was there in that room with us felt it too. Indigo Sparke, even said at breakfast the next morning, to our embarrassment, that it was one of the most amazing experiences of her life.
She may have been exaggerating but we were also like, ‘Okay. It really was special.’ We all felt it.
And was like a light got turned on, in my mind and my heart.
So, we agreed to make it a kind of ritual. Take a half-hour out of every day and go down to the chapel, and record improvisation. So, we left the microphone set-up there. We hardly talked at all. It was just go and walk, and then step into the room, take out our instruments, and play.
Just the three of us there; Phil was there. After it was all set-up, we could go on our own, so we went a couple of times by ourselves. But, for the most part, it was just the three of us.
And we would just play & play & play our hearts out. Collected about three hours-worth of music. Sort of spent the next few months listening back, deciding which ones were our favorites, and which ones were repeating the same motifs or same ideas as before.
Ultimately, to get back to your question, it just worked. The two of us, together, on nyckelharpa and violin, worked so beautifully in the space that we didn’t bother experimenting with other instruments.
Except for the cello. We did one late night recording with Gyða Valtýsdóttir. And it was a very different energy, to have the cello in there, and to do it at night. It was much darker and spookier; really fun, but different energy.
The two of us, together, on nyckelharpa and violin, worked so beautifully in the space that we didn’t bother experimenting with other instruments.
QRO: You were at this artists retreat with all of these musicians, yet you had almost no guest contributors. Did you want to keep the recording to yourself, or just not want to bother anybody else?
CS: Well, we were working with all the other artists the rest of the time. We would basically meet up with different people, and make plans. Sometimes it was a larger ensemble, sometimes it was a smaller ensemble, but we would just kind of get together in groups to experiment with different ideas.
If any one person had an idea, they would go to Mary, who was the organizer. ‘Is this person available at this time?’ Of course, you’d talk to them in-person as well, and say, ‘Hey, I want to try this thing. Are you available to come and work with me on this?’ And they would be like, ‘Yes,’ or, ‘No, I’m working with so-and-so at this time.’
The whole time we were there, it was a real fire of creativity. Everybody was working on something in a different space in the castle. There were voices ringing out through the windows in the stone walls. The whole place was just alive with music – ‘The hills are alive with the sound of music,’ sorry… [laughs]
QRO: When you were describing it as magical, it almost sounded like a movie…
CS: I remember the last time that Josefin & I, on the last day, on our last recording, we were walking back towards the castle. It was just like the credits were about to roll. I laughed, I said, “I feel like this is the end of a movie.” She said, “Me too!” Such a perfect beginning, middle, and end. A perfect little film that we lived.
The reason it was just the two of us, it was a strong connection between us, musically. It felt like something that we needed to explore, on our own. The rest of the days, we were working with other people, as well.
It’s kind of the ways it worked. People would couple up into small groups. Just the way it happened.
A perfect little film that we lived.
QRO: There’s a neat thing in the promotion material for the album, “Produced, in a sense, by Damien Rice”…
CS: [laughs] Cause he brought us together. It wouldn’t have happened without him. He’s the one who found the space, he’s the one who came up with the idea of bringing everyone together. And I had never met him. I knew his music.
I had never met anybody there, except for Feist. There were other people who were new, as well. But I think Josefin, Gyða, Leslie [Feist], Damien, and Shahzad [Ismaily], they had all done a similar kind of boat trip. Damien has a boat, so they did a writing trip on a sailboat for a week or two. They had done a similar sort of ‘workshop,’ but this was new to me.
So, I was super-nervous, because everybody was so bright. I wanted to know that I could contribute, and be helpful.
QRO: I imagine, even with all the stuff you’ve done, it’s still going away to another country, living in a place with people who’ve done so much…
CS: It’s intimidating. I felt like I needed to step up and have some confidence.
It’s a funny balance, between being open & exposed, and finding confidence at the same time. It’s a really healthy experience, I find. Really put yourself out there, sort of rely on your own instincts, recognize that you have some talents & some skills that are worth sharing, and trust in your own abilities.
And everybody was struggling with it on their own. Even though a lot of them were old friends, they still felt like they had to step up and be part of the game.
It was kind of understood that it was an intimidating setting, to come in with all these great musicians, and to have microphones pointed at you. I mean, nobody’s forcing you to do anything, but at the same time, there’s a certain expectation that you’re gonna be able to contribute.
And you don’t know what it’s going to be. You don’t know what the music’s going to be. You don’t know if you’re gonna jell, musically, with these people. They may have totally different taste in music. Some of them may be very schooled musicians.
I’m not educated in the traditional sense. So, if somebody started handing me sheet music, I’d be, ‘Sorry, I can’t really help you with this.’ [laughs] I can stumble my way through it, but it’s not going to be good.
But it turned out to be the right combination of people and the right attitudes. So, it really was a very special time.
It’s a funny balance, between being open & exposed, and finding confidence at the same time.
QRO: I know you did this all last year, but was it all finished & mastered well before the shutdown, or were there any last-minute COVID rushes?
CS: We had put the album up on Bandcamp for Christmas, but then later Arts & Crafts wanted to release it now, sort of with the title fitting very well for this year. We did a few minor edits, things that sounded harsh on some sound systems. Very minor.
The one thing we had to change was the song title for “Crying Loudly Emoji”. We had had the actual emoji, which looks great on Bandcamp, but the distributor said no.
QRO: [laughs] You’ve got to be like Bon Iver [on 22, A Million (QRO review)] to pull that off…
CS: [laughs] Yeah, I kept asking how got away with that.
We really went back-and-forth on it, but finally the distributor put their foot down.
QRO: I have to ask about the name of the album – I figure you came up with it before the current pandemic, but did you ever think about changing it?
CS: [laughs] Yes, but it was based off graffiti on the walls of the church.
The church itself is a thousand years old, and it’s been through at least two waves of the bubonic plague. The chapel used to be in the center of a village, with the castle, and the chapel, and then a village all around it. I can’t remember if it was the first or second wave, but it knocked out 90% of the population. So, basically everybody. It must have been unimaginably awful. Devastating.
The people who were living there, the survivors, would go into the church and basically scrawl on the walls of the church, ‘Please God, help us! Save us from the suffering and misery of this plague!’ You don’t know who it was. You don’t know if it was the friar of the chapel, or if the friar died from the plague, and it was just somebody who had no idea about religion, but just saw the church and went in & scrawled on the walls for help. The walls were covered in this graffiti basically begging God to intervene and save them.
And then, on top of this graffiti was this big, sort of dog-eared red “X”, and a few other flower-like images. Marina, the keeper of the castle, brought in an archeologist to explain it. The archeologist said that it was a graphic of gratitude saying, essentially, “Thank you, God, for saving us from the plague.” Or maybe even, “Thank you, Mary, for saving us from the plague.” I’m not sure. This image, this “X” with the little dog-eared corners, represented a kind of relief from an enormous suffering.
The archeologist said that it was a graphic of gratitude saying, essentially, “Thank you, God, for saving us from the plague.”
We called the album ‘Thank God, The Plague Is Over’ not so much specifically about that plague, but about this sense of relief from suffering, and relief from horrific circumstances. The sense of looking at the darkness as being something in the past. And that’s a very hopeful & powerful image.
And we didn’t even talk about it. That was just kind of the name of the album. I think maybe we were walking back after one of the improvisations, and Phil said, “What are you going to call it?” And we just said, “Thank God, The Plague Is Over” as a kind of joke, as that’s what the “X” was we were looking at the whole time. And it just stuck
After the next wave of plague, after this COVID happened, we considered changing the name, because we thought maybe would mistake it as being unsympathetic. We talked about it. But it’s more about the idea of relief from a larger suffering.
QRO: Usually, the things that have lasted a thousand years were something people had planned out, the murals on walls. This was some person, some peasant, writing on the wall, and their words have kept.
CS: That’s part of what it makes it so special, walking in there, looking at it. It’s so human. It’s just ordinary people begging for help.
There are these amazing frescoes painted on the walls as well. Incredible, beautiful, ornamental paintings. And they’re beautiful, but what really gets your attention is the graffiti.
That’s part of what it makes it so special, walking in there, looking at it. It’s so human. It’s just ordinary people begging for help.
QRO: And how do you go about naming songs without words?
CS: In Do Make Say Think, we talk about how the song makes us feel, things that come to mind when listening to it.
For this record, the titles came from things Josefin & I talked about while we were there, but we also discussed it afterwards.
QRO: Did you kind of have to name the opener “The Hills Are Alive”, thanks to Castel Campo’s most colorful piece of heritage?…
CS: [laughs] That is what the place is known for. The Von Trapps actually lived there. If you go outside, it’s “Hills” everywhere. Looks just like The Sound of Music. So, Josefin wanted to use the name.
QRO: Did Josefin insist on half of the titles being in Swedish?
CS: Oh no, I did. It’s only fair…
QRO: [laughs] I guess the emoji title would translate to every language…
CS: [laughs] Yes…
QRO: I talked with you in 2009, when you were touring The Happiness Project. You’ve gone from recording in your neighborhood to half a world away, from all about voices to none whatsoever…
CS: But in both of them, I am reacting to the sounds somebody else makes.
They’re really not that similar projects. I don’t know – maybe it’s how I like to make music. Is to not compose so much, but to react. I’ve always been more of a collaborator than a composer. I really like working with people, and bouncing ideas off people.
With The Happiness Project, I got to listen to my neighbor’s voices, and look for the profundity in normalcy. These are my normal, everyday neighbors, but they’re also filled with wisdom. And also, the melody of their voices was just fascinating. So, I got to react to the melody of their voices as if I was collaborating with another composer.
With Thank God, The Plague Is Over, the whole thing was kind of a dance between Josefin & myself, follow each other’s lead, but at the same time, responding to the sound of the church, and the sound is echoing off these graffitied walls. It resonates in a way that affects you more than you would, say, at home, in your studio, writing music. There’s a sense of being connected to the same, being connected to this other person. Or with The Happiness Project, it’s about being connected to my neighbors, and connecting humanity through the melody of the voices.
So, I guess, the connection is connection?… [laughs]
I’ve always been more of a collaborator than a composer. I really like working with people, and bouncing ideas off people.
QRO: Do you still live in the same neighborhood? Do you still have some of the same neighbors?
CS: Yeah. And Mrs. Morris is still across the street. She’s basically in her bed all the time now, so I hardly see her. She’s quite old.
Mr. Gowrie died a few years ago.
Ondine is my daughter. She’s the one who is singing about almond butter. She’s sixteen now.
Vanessa, the deaf woman, is still a friend, but she’s moved to Los Angeles.
But I’m still in touch with everybody.
QRO: Oh, and as she was a kid when her voice was recorded for The Happiness Project, how does Ondine feel about it now that she’s older?
CS: Ondine was three-and-a-half when the recording was made, and now she’s sixteen. I should play it again for her some time.
QRO: Wait until she can have friends over, and then pull it out…
CS: [laughs] Yes! “Want to hear what you sounded like at age three, talking about wanting almond butter?…”
QRO: Obviously you can’t tour now, but had you thought of doing any Plague live dates?
CS: Yes, we had. There are a number of great folk festivals in Canada that we could play.
Josefin is also a multi-instrumentalist – like she is a great drummer. I think we could have put together, between the two of us, a great band.
QRO: Could Broken Social Scene or Do Make Say Think play a drive-in show?
CS: Yeah, I don’t see why not. Stars just did a drive-in show at an old abandoned fifties drive-in.
QRO: During lockdown, a lot of artists are doing livestreams. Have you thought about doing anything like that?
CS: I was going to do a livestream performance for Side Door Access. Originally, it was set up as a house concert network, so that you could travel around North America, playing in people’s houses. Very cool thing.
But then COVID hit, and they had to sort of change their format. They started doing livestreaming concerts, and it’s been really successful. Because you get to perform, and then see all of this gallery view of these tiny little faces, and they get to clap. So, it feels like you’re actually doing a real performance.
But I found that the sound quality of Zoom was really terrible, so I had to back out of it. So, I did a pre-recorded version, and then just put it up on Vimeo for people to watch any time.
QRO: Though I imagine you’re an audiophile. The sound quality, maybe your layman listener, might have been, ‘Oh, that’s fine…’
CS: [laughs] I auditioned it with a couple of my friends. I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to do this, you watch it, and tell me if it’s okay.’ And they’d be like, ‘Ehh…’ [laughs]
It sounded like a door opening and closing, where I’ve got loops playing.
Charles Spearin ‘family jam’:
QRO: Most importantly, how is your mustache holding up during all of this?
CS: After returning from Italy, it fell off.
QRO: You shaved it off? I didn’t ‘fall off’ like the plague?…
CS: No, I shaved it off. For two months, I would look in the mirror and go, ‘Who is that?’
But eventually, I grew tired of not having it, and have grown it back.
QRO: Just in time for no one to see it under a mask…
CS: [laughs] Yes…
Broken Social Scene playing “Shampoo Suicide” live at Williamsburg Waterfront in Brooklyn, NY on September 8th, 2011: