Finishing up a few, rare, Happiness Project dates, Charles Spearin of Broken Social Scene & Do Make Say Think sat down with QRO. In the conversation, Spearin discussed his recent “science experiment”, The Happiness Project (QRO review), wherein he interviewed his neighbors and put music to it, what other musicians thought of the idea, what his neighbors thought of the finished product, playing The Happiness Project live, the last Broken Social Scene (QRO spotlight on) tour, what’s next, his mustache, Letterman, Canada’s imperiled music grant system, lost & found passports, and much more…
QRO: How did The Happiness Project start?
Charles Spearin: Well, for a long time, I have been wanting to make music based on the natural cadence of people talking. It’s something that’s been in the back of my mind for a long time.
I tried different techniques: I actually got [a digital voice recorder] and walked around, trying to record conversations on the street and this & that, but I wanted to have better sound quality, more personal, that kind of thing. I had been spending an awful lot of time on the porch with my kids – when I started the project, I just had a brand-new baby, and a two-and-a-half-year-old, so it was a lot of ‘home time’. In the summertime, it’s really lively in my neighborhood, all the kids in the neighborhood are around, and all of the people are out on the porch; it’s a very alive downtown Toronto neighborhood.
So I thought, ‘Well, I can stay at home and I can just invite my neighbors over and listen to their voices.’ Because it’s a very ‘multicultural’ – I don’t really like the word too much; it’s Toronto culture, it’s downtown culture. It’s just people. So I just started inviting people over and started talking to them, and then gradually, the theme became happiness, and my friends started calling it ‘The Happiness Project’, and that’s the beginning.
QRO: How well did you know your neighbors before doing this?
CS: I knew them pretty well, just from being on the front lawn all the time, some better than others.
Most of them, it was the first time I actually invited them into my house, and that was a nice thing to do – to go from ‘Hello’ on the street to actually come into the living room and have a conversation. But some I knew better than others.
QRO: What did other musicians think of the idea?
CS: Well, that’s part of the reason why I kept going with it: my musician friends were so thrilled with it, every time I played them something, they’d love it. I just kept getting positive feedback, and e-mails, and things like that; I never really meant for it honestly to go much beyond my living room – just kind of a crossword puzzle; I just wanted to see if I could do it. And it just came together in a much more heartfelt way. My neighbors said wonderful things, and I found that the melodies were also very rich and I could really work with them, so it just kept growing naturally.
But it was because of my musician friends that it kept going, the encouragement.
QRO: Did you intentionally interview people who weren’t musicians?
CS: Part of the idea with my neighbors is that it’s a random group of people. They’re people I know because I live there, not because of common interests, not because we’re musicians… They’re just as ordinary people as you can get – which is everybody, but, in this case, I felt like they could represent ‘humanity’ to a certain degree. Not exactly true, but that’s the idea.
QRO: How much did your neighbors know about what you were trying to do when they spoke, and do you think that affected their voice?
CS: No. I didn’t tell them that. They knew I was a musician, and I told them I was doing a ‘musical sketch’ of the neighborhood – which is true, but they didn’t know. I didn’t want them self-conscious about their voices.
QRO: Was “Mrs. Morris” your first Happiness piece?
CS: No, the first one I did was “Mr. Gowrie”. I took a different approach with that one, in that the first thing I did was play the voice on guitar, and then I took the voice away and just listened to the guitar, tried to find melodies in the guitar. And then loop them, and then bring the voice back, to see what it was that I’d looped.
And it worked out really well, I think, musically, but I found it a little disrespectful, in the sense that some words that people were saying also had meaning to them. From then on, I tried more to focus on moments that had both meaning and melody.
But I’m still very happy that “Mr. Gowrie” worked out. It’s funny – I had him on a stutter.
QRO: What was the process for deciding how a certain taped interview was going to be translated into music?
CS: I had musicians I wanted to work with – I knew I had Julie Penner, and I had Michael Barth, and Leon Kingstone. I had all these people that I wanted to work with, and I had all these interviews, so it was just a matter of pairing them up. It wasn’t really that I listened to a person’s voice, and then thought, ‘Oh, that sounds like a trombone – I need to find a trombone player.’ It was more like just a matter of matching them up.
I thought it went really well, violins for my daughter… There were some that were kind of a stretch, but they worked out really nicely. Like the harp – I knew I had a harpist to invite over, but what was going to be a harp? I just tried one and it worked out really well.
QRO: How hard is it to balance the voice and instrumentation levels, so that one doesn’t drown out the other?
CS: I think just testing again and again, listening to it in different ways: listen to it loud; listen to it in a different place. The articulation of the voice as well as the instruments are nicely panned, so one is in one speaker, and the other is in the other speaker.
QRO: What do your neighbors think about the finished product?
CS: Well, they like it. They came to the premiere show in Toronto.
She loved it.
They’re all pretty excited about it.
QRO: A lot of the voices on Happiness aren’t run-of-the-mill – “Mrs. Morris” and “Mr. Gowrie” both have decidedly foreign accents, “Vittoria” and “Ondine” are children, and “Vanessa” was deaf. Were you intentionally trying to get people whose vocal styles were different?
CS: Vanessa was very lucky. She was a neighbor, and became a good friend because she has a daughter the same age as my daughter. And I love talking to her, talking about music – she can’t tell the difference between bluegrass and heavy metal. They’re all fresh sounds to her. I was really fortunate to have her in the project. I interviewed her for a quite long time; her description of how it was to hear for the first time was really remarkable.
QRO: I didn’t notice any particular Canadian accents, though. Was that just accidental?
CS: You have to get out of the city to get the real Canadian accent, “I don’t know what you’re talking a-boot”…
QRO: What do you think Vittoria or Ondine will think about their songs, when they hear them as adults?
CS: Vittoria is already two-and-a-half years older from when she did the LP. The difference between six and eight-and-a-half is huge. She’s mostly excited that the record is in HMV and stuff like that.
I’m not really sure – I think Ondine’s excited about being part of it, but kids are so self-conscious at some times. I hope she doesn’t take it later on in life as something embarrassing, because it’s such a classic six-year-old speech. I imagine, when she’s the age of thirteen, she’ll find it humiliating, but she’ll get past it, like everybody else.
QRO: Why were the two people with foreign accents the only one to have their songs titled by their last name?
CS: They’re almost all how I talk to them. Mrs. Morris is Mrs. Morris – the older generation is how the division really goes.
Mr. Gowrie, I call him by his first name, but Mrs. Morris refers to him in her piece. She says, “I could say ‘Good morning, Mr. Gowrie!’” And so I kept the name in there so you could make the connection.
QRO: Why did you end with a reprise of “Mrs. Morris”?
CS: I couldn’t decide whether to put it at the beginning or the end?…
I think it makes a great introduction, and then once you go through the journey of the album, it’s kind of nice to go back to where you started. But I also couldn’t decide whether to orchestrate it or not, because it sounds so nice, just saxophone and voice. But at the same time, she’s talking in the key of B, so it was nice to show it was very musical. So I put the cords in to sort of exaggerate some of the melody in her voice.
I just thought of them as bookends.
QRO: Were there any interviews you left out?
CS: No. I mean, there was one with a boy across the street, but I don’t think he was really too keen on it. He would get too shy when I would put a microphone up, so I didn’t really ‘get’ the interview. So I’ll say no…
QRO: Do you think hearing all these spoken voices, working with them, has affected the way you talk?
CS: No, I don’t think so. I’ve spent so much time listening to the cadence – for a while I was conscious of it, but you kind of have to go back and forth between being able to eavesdrop and listening to the melody. ‘Cause it you were just sitting here, talking to me, and all I heard was “Waah, waah waah”, that would hurt.
QRO: Sound like the adults on Peanuts…
QRO: What is a Happiness Project live show like?
CS: Well, it’s a big band. That’s the thing that’s kind of fun about it. As I kept going with the project, I kept adding instruments on. I don’t plan on touring; I just wanted to see it through, beginning to end. It’s not the sort of thing I want to take on the road – I already have two bands…
I want to be able to present it, if I get invited to something. And that’s what this is a test of.
QRO: How many times have you done purely Happiness shows so far?
QRO: How was it, those first few times you did live Happiness songs, when on tour with Broken Social Scene?
CS: It was great. I was so encouraged by the audience, too. The audience response was fantastic in some places. It was just a good thing to put in the middle of a rock show, like a distraction or some kind of pause in the program.
QRO: Was it difficult, explaining it to people, live, before Happiness came out?
CS: It takes an explanation.
Yeah, it took a while to find the right way to explain it.
You don’t necessarily have to like it, but I think that’s what the project needs.
QRO: Are you relieved that you no longer have to explain the concept behind Happiness, now that the record’s out?
CS: I still do give a bit of an explanation, at the beginning, so people know they’re my neighbors; they’re not famous people. I’m still trying to present it as a ‘neighborhood sketch’.
QRO: Did you try it at large places, festivals?
CS: Played it pretty much everywhere, and it went over really well. As long as people were listening, which is sometimes hard, to get people to listen, but, for the most part, it went over well.
QRO: How did the last Broken Social Scene tour go?
CS: We did so much touring last year; it was all broken up into three weeks, here and there.
But, in general, the whole year was good. A lot of touring, but never too much. Last year, we went to Australia, Taiwan, Russia, Istanbul, all through Europe, all through Canada & the States…
QRO: You all were supposed to be playing Langerado & Harvest of Hope last weekend, but then Langerado was cancelled (QRO festival preview). Would you have played New York, had that not happened? That would have been one week after…
CS: Yeah, I’m kind of glad that was cancelled, ‘cause it gave us time for a couple more rehearsals. But it was still planned.
QRO: Why did you do your New York show during CMJ (QRO festival recap)?
CS: It just happened to be that way. Like, when we played our shows in Toronto, it was part of ‘Canada Music Week’, which is kind of a CMJ-type thing. But it just happened to be in the middle of it.
In a way, it’s kind of good, because it means there’s press in town. You can get them to come see the show, that helps. But it wasn’t something that was planned.
QRO: How did you guys get in contact with Elizabeth Powell (QRO interview), guest female vocalist on the last tour & opener [in Land of Talk]?
CS: The first time I met her, we were doing a soundtrack for a Bruce McDonald film. Bruce McDonald’s a Canadian director. I think Leslie Feist (QRO live review) recommended her. We needed a singer, and Land of Talk was there.
QRO: You guys played a lot of outdoor festivals. Do you do anything differently, when you play outdoors?
CS: Well, we always play short sets, when we play outdoor festivals. It’s kind of like we have our super-long set, which is for the clubs, and then, when we play outdoor festivals, we play a certain set of songs, and hour, an hour-and-a-half worth of songs. When it’s our own show, an indoor thing, then we can play for three hours, whatever we want. Kind of a different spirit.
QRO: What’s next?
CS: Do Make Say Think is recording. Been in that band for fourteen years now, so we’re still going. We don’t work as hard as most bands, but we’re still a band, which is good.
Broken Social Scene has got some ideas. It’s about time for a ‘Broken Social Scene Presents: Broken Social Scene’ record…
You know, two bands, two kids, and this thing, it’s definitely a lot.
QRO: Did you think about titling Happiness ‘Broken Social Scene Presents: Charles Spearin’s Happiness Project’?
CS: There was a temptation, but only in the cheesy marketing sense. Because it kind of not true. The band wasn’t against it or for it, but the fact is that for Brendan’s record (QRO review) and Kevin’s record (QRO review), there were the players. On my record, there was no Justin Peroff, there was no Andrew Whiteman (Apostle of Hustle – QRO live review), there’s no Brendan Canning (QRO interview), Kevin [Drew] was hardly on it at all, so I couldn’t really call it ‘Broken Social Scene Presents’.
QRO: Could there be a ‘Broken Social Scene Presents: Charles Spearin’ in the future?
CS: I’m not like a singer/songwriter; this is my science experiment. I can’t imagine it. It’s not impossible, but I don’t see it.
QRO: You really don’t like to take lead vocals though, do you? Not on Happiness, not in Broken Social Scene, not in Do Make Say Think, now here with the ‘Wordless Music Series’…
CS: I kind of work in the realm of abstract, rather than concepts.
QRO: When do you think you’ll be touring again – and how, Broken Social Scene, Do Make Say Think, etc.?
CS: I don’t know what my touring plans are. Touring possibly in the fall, but who, where, when exactly, I don’t know.
QRO: How long have you had the mustache?
CS: Maybe since I was about four…
I shaved the mustache off, did a tour without the mustache, and there was so much uproar…
QRO: You’re like Alex Trebek…
CS: So I had to bring it back. People couldn’t recognize me.
QRO: What was it like when all of Broken Social Scene appeared on Late Night with David Letterman (QRO Indie on Late Night TV listings)?
CS: We’ve done it twice now. Surprisingly ordinary, except that it’s really cold in there – it’s hard to play guitar in there, it’s so cold. Jennifer Aniston squeezed my arm…
QRO: Did you get any support from the Canadian government for Happiness Project?
CS: Yeah, there was some recording grant. I applied for a few grants, and didn’t get all of them.
I don’t know if it’s going to last, depending on the government…
QRO: Yeah – how true are the rumors that the government is going to cut some/all of the music funding, because of the furor over supporting Holy Fuck (QRO album review)?
CS: I don’t know what the grant was, but there was one specific grant that got canned.
The current Canadian government is always looking for an excuse to cut arts funding.
QRO: Has the government ever exercised decency standards before on bands it supports?
CS: I don’t know how the panel works. For the most part, I don’t know who’s on the panel, who are these ‘experts’ deciding what is good. The kind of standards you have to fit into isn’t always fair.
QRO: Are there any songs from Happiness Project that you particularly like playing live?
CS: All of them?…
“Marissa”, the one with the harp at the beginning, it’s much darker than the rest. Kind of takes it to a different place.
QRO: Would you ever do anything like this again, another Happiness Project?
CS: I enjoyed it. I don’t feel like I need to do it again.
Every once in a while, I come up with possibly doing a film. There was talk about going to Africa with some friends and talk about happiness, and then do a film. That’s something that’s still sort of rattling around in my mind. But you never know what’s going to happen.
QRO: Are there any Broken Social Scene or Do Make Say Think songs you particularly like playing?
CS: All of them?…
But if you do things too much – there’s a balance between repetition and variety. That sounds kind of flaky, but you get the idea: if you play the same song over and over again, you start to lose your love for it. I can’t say one that’s a favorite all the time.
QRO: In Broken Social Scene shows, how do you feel about playing older material vs. newer?
CS: The last tour we did, we were doing a lot of [2002 breakthrough LP] You Forgot It In the People; in fact, there was one show where we did like nine songs off the record, which is practically the whole record.
But it’s like I was saying before: if you take a break from doing songs, and then come back, they’re more fun to play. You Forgot It In People is a good album to play live.
QRO: What cities or venues have you really liked playing at?
CS: I really like playing the West Coast, New York’s always great – I’m going to list all the ordinary ones, I’m afraid – Chicago’s great. Actually, Chicago is exceptional. Austin is, of course, a great music town.
Do Make Say Think had some great shows in Florida, which was a surprise. We hadn’t done Florida in forever, and finally we went down there, and there were some great fans down there.
QRO: Do you have a favorite tour story?
CS: The last time we were in New York, we were doing the David Letterman show – this isn’t my ‘favorite’ one, but it’s the one I’m reminded of.
Last year, we had so many lost passports. Everyone – we had ridiculous lost passport stories. And you need a passport to play on the Letterman show, for one thing.
I was sitting in a café with Kevin, talking, and Andy came in and happened to mention that Brendan had lost his passport. ‘Oh, here we go again…’ And then we split up and we all go our separate ways. Kevin was walking, and he’d miss the street that he was going to turn on and he walked an extra block.
So he stopped and said, ‘Oh, okay’, turned around and started walking back up, and noticed someone was following him. So he stopped and waited, and this little old woman asked if he was Brendan.
And Kevin was like, ‘What?’ It was Brendan’s passport, but she thought he looked like Brendan. She said that she had found the passport stuck to the tire of a car. She peeled it off and looked at it, and then she saw Kevin at the street – who just happened to be in the wrong place!
She said she dropped it at the post office, so they ran to the post office, they took it out, but it wasn’t his passport, so they couldn’t give it to him. So they called Brendan and all this stuff…
The odds of anything like that happening are unbelievable.
QRO: Finally, why did you tell me to ask Brendan about his dog before I interviewed him last summer?
CS: That’s kind of an inside joke. He brings his dog to interviews and stuff like that. He loves talking about his dog. He’s done TV interviews with his dog.