Toronto all-star Jason Collett took a moment out of his tour to sit down and talk to QRO. In it, he talked about his current tour, making Here’s To Being Here (QRO review), his band, the Kensington Market area of Toronto, how people listen to music today, the next big music market, having Feist play drums, New York’s anti-dancing laws, and more…
QRO: How has this current tour been going?
Jason Collett: It’s going really well. We kicked it off at South by Southwest (QRO Festival Guide); so we were there for the better part of a week. Then trekked across the desert, went through Canada, Winnipeg and down, and bum-bum-bum-bum.
We took a few days off in Toronto, and we’re back out.
QRO: How was the show [at Mercury Lounge (QRO venue review) on Wednesday]?
JC: It was great. We had a great time.
It’s funny: there were a lot of Europeans here. Chatting with folks afterwards, realized everyone was here because of the cheap dollar. They’re all on these cheap vacations. It was kind of strange – but fun. Such an eclectic group of people, and because of the disproportionate group, people actually danced.
I was joking around about it last night, ‘cause I saw some people dancing, and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s awesome. You know you’re not allowed to do that.’ Reminding them of the law, which such an asinine law…
QRO: What – there’s a law you can’t dance?
JC: Giuliani reenacted it. It’s an old law that was around in the twenties, a Jazz Era law to essentially keep white women dancing from blacks, under the guise of ‘you need a ‘cabaret license’ in your club for people to dance’.
Years ago, hanging out with friends from here, great jukeboxes – something I’ve always loved about New York. We’d all start to move a little bit, and my New York friends all go, ‘Hey, you can’t dance…’ I’m like, ‘What are you talking about? Don’t shit me like that!’
QRO: It’s like Footloose or something…
JC: Giuliani reenacted the law, I think, part of the whole ‘Disneyification of New York’, making it safe for tourists. Largely, it was an attack on the gay community.
No dancing?… It’s good for you.
QRO: You mentioned the dollar – Have you noticed the strong ‘loonie’ [Canadian dollar] on this recent tour?
JC: Oh, absolutely. And that’s a blessing and a curse for us, because, on tour in America, I’m getting paid in dollars. It comes out in a wash; I don’t think about it much.
QRO: How does this tour compare with your tour last fall?
JC: In the fall, I was out solo, opening up. They were both a lot of fun; I like doing both things. In both those situations, I just grabbed my guitar and jumped on their buses.
Particularly [opening up for] Feist (QRO live review), I’ve toured with Feist so much, with my band, that her band has played a lot with her band, my band with her band. Basically, I went out solo, but I had a band the whole time. They all played with me. And Feist played more than half the set on drums. She’s a great drummer; got a great feel.
QRO: Do you prefer one or the other?
JC: You know, there’s a lot of freedom, being an opening act. It’s a challenge, ‘cause you have to win over – you’re going out there as an unknown, and people are often, in the larger venues, can be a little chatty. Someone of Feist’s stature now, particularly after the iPod commercial, there’s a certain audience who aren’t really ‘music fans’.
There’s funny moments where, towards the end of some sets, you can hear women saying, ‘Was that Feist on drums?!? Oh my God, we should have listened, we should have paid attention – I can’t believe she was playing drums!’
It’s always a good challenge to win over an audience that doesn’t know who the hell you are.
There’s a lot of freedom when you’re actually just performing solo, without a band, because you can really be beholden to no one. Slow down a song, or speed it up, drop the key a bit or something, mess around with the melody a bit, and not mess with your band – I mean, I do that enough, anyway, but I’m fortunate enough to have a good band.
I’m really privileged to go back and forth. I do enough of that, and I’m jonesing to play with the band. We were off for a better part of a year, while we made the record, waited for it to come out. We’re starting up again as a band that hasn’t played for a while. And we’ve all been jonesing for months to play.
QRO: Do you like, doing a tour as an opener, then going back to the same places as a headliner?
JC: That’s actually what you try to do, that’s the whole point. You try to open up new markets for yourself.
QRO: Are you worried about touring ‘burnout’ by the end?
JC: No. I really love touring; I love the lifestyle. I love being outside of nine-to-five culture. It’s a great vantage point to be in. I spent enough of my life in nine-to-five.
In a typical, monotonous time, you may hear a lot of musicians catch up on some reading, but I do most of my writing on the road. I have a very busy domestic life; three kids – it’s a little hectic at home, to write. I look forward to my time on the road, and I really try to take advantage of the time, too.
QRO: Do you notice anything different between American and Canadian crowds?
JC: Yeah, there’s subtle differences, and they’re becoming more and more subtle, over the years. Most big cities are similar: Toronto is nowhere near the size of New York, but people [in both] are generally spoiled; they get a lot of bands.
Having said that, the difference, culturally, is that Americans are more into their emotions and expressing their emotions. Often, they appreciate it more. Canadian audience won’t tip one way or the other, you know what I mean? It’s not easy.
And I do really appreciate that they feel at ease saying, ‘Hey, get off stage!’ or ‘Hey, awesome, I really like it!’
QRO: How was South by Southwest last month?
JC: It was a blast as usual. It’s a little exhausting. It’s amazing for a young band, and you get that sense when you’re out on the street. It’s so palpable. I appreciate that, to a point, and then I’m kind of exhausted by it all.
They sell way too many tickets to the festival. It’s a moneymaking machine; thousands of bands are paying to play. It’s a bit of racket… And tons of industry are just there, schmoozing. You’re making connections; it’s still a very important festival. It’s sets up your year, if you’ve got a new record coming out. And there’s always a handful of bands that get discovered…
I love Austin, and I much prefer to be there without the crowd. It’s a fabulous city, steeped in music, and the fact that it’s stretches back so far. I really do love it.
QRO: Do you do anything differently at ‘industry showcases’ like that?
JC: You’re only going to get into trouble when you start to think like that. I really try not to think about it so much. I wanna have a good time. Yeah, you don’t have that much control. We just… we just like the show we’re playing. We play a lot of them. Keep us pretty busy when we go down. We were there for six days, and we played every day.
QRO: Are you playing any festivals this summer?
JC: Yeah, I am – but so far just Canadian ones. They’re all just being confirmed now.
QRO: Which do you prefer playing: outdoors or indoors?
JC: Oh, indoors… Outdoors is just not rock ‘n’ roll.
It’s all about the energy sort of ‘ricocheting’. Outdoor shows, at night, they’re all right, because it creates a vibe, and you got some lights, but during the day, it leaves the stage. So I’m not a fan of them.
There’s a few [venues] that work, like if there’s trees around. If it’s in Central Park. But it’s a casual affair; it’s hard to really… you kind of feel chilled out like everybody else.
QRO: How did making Here’s To Being Here compare with making your previous records?
JC: This one was really taking its cue from the band. This is the band I’ve had since [last record, 2005’s] Idols of Exile. We really hit our stride and cultivated a real heart. They’re a fabulous band, and have a great sensibility, and also a looseness – we can test stuff out. I was introducing a lot of new stuff to them, a big part of the record. It was just very natural in the studio, a live feel, focused on the band, as opposed to all the people on the last record.
QRO: That was going to be one of my questions, why were there fewer contributing musicians on this record than on Idols?
JC: Yeah, well, you know, the fingerprint on this one is that of the band, for sure. The players who show up, like my good friend Tony Scherr (QRO photos), Andrew Whiteman from Apostle of Hustle (QRO live review), are all people I consider to be part of the band. Wherever we will play, and those guys, if they’re around, they will join us. So they’re kind of the ‘honorary members’.
QRO: Who’s in your ‘specific’ band?
JC: It was this band called ‘Paso Mino’, which was a band, unto itself, that began backing me up, and were on the record.
The line-up’s changed a little bit: the bassist in that band, Michael P. Clive, minor celebrity chef in Canada. Does like those morning shows. He’s a great chef, with a lot of character. And he’s developing a show that involves him going on the road with bands, going to their favorite restaurant in the world, and having their favorite dish, then coming back and trying to recreate it. It’s combining what he loves…
And my previous guitar player – and we’re all still real tight; it’s more like these fellas are taking a hiatus – he’s playing with Feist full-time. We took a year off, and in that year he started playing with Feist. And it’s hard to argue with some Grammy nominations.
So we got a couple new guys. My old keyboard player, Michael O’Brien, moved over to guitar; he’s a fabulous guitar player. The new keyboard player, Gregory McDonald, he plays keys with Sloan (QRO photos). The new bass player, a guy who gigs around Toronto a lot, Jeremy Little, fabulous guy to have on the road. They’ve all filled the shoes in a great way, and there’s a whole shift in chemistry, but good. We’re having a good time.
Rob Drake is on drums; and he’s from Paso Mino.
QRO: Is there a ‘Henry’ of “Henry’s Song”?
JC: Henry Miller.
QRO: What about a ‘Lori’ of “Sorry Lori”?
JC: No, that’s just a fictitious character.
Jason Collett playing “Sorry Lori” live @ Mercury Lounge, New York, NY:
Also see him playing “Henry’s Song”
QRO: And what about a ‘Charlyn’ of “Charlyn, Angel of Kensington”?
JC: Charlyn is a real person. She is the aunt of my wife, who was estranged from the family, died in the late sixties.
She was the first social worker in Toronto in the Kensington Market area, which has been a settlement area for waves and waves and waves of new immigrants. So it’s a really vibrant cultural mosaic. It’s become a bit of a heritage spot for our country.
My wife is a social worker as well, and did a placement just out of school in a place called ‘St. Christopher’s House’, which is mentioned in the song. That’s a traditional settlement house for immigrants. [My wife] inadvertently discovered in the history books this whole story about her aunt. She was very instrumental, a dynamic force in that neighborhood in the late fifties and early sixties, and was fondly called ‘The Angel of Kensington’, because she helped so many people settle who were poor, and helped organize a massive campaign against [the neighborhood] being destroyed by redevelopment at that time.
So my wife brought this home, and we have this very fond connection with the neighborhood. And she saved this neighborhood; it was quite serendipitous. That song has a special place for me.
Jason Collett playing “Charlyn, Angel of Kensington” live @ Mercury Lounge, New York, NY:
QRO: Have you been involved in any of the ‘Broken Social Scene Presents…’ projects?
JC: No, I haven’t been. That’s essentially been Kevin Drew’s solo project (QRO album review), and then I think they’ll do Brendan [Canning]’s as well.
I was toying with the idea of doing my whole new record, ‘Broken Social Scene Resents Jason Collett’. Yeah, they wouldn’t go for it, though. I still think it’s a good idea; I might even make a t-shirt.
QRO: Have you guest-spotted on anything recently?
JC: When I get back, I think I’m gonna do a little singing on Howie Beck, who’s making a new record.
QRO: Do you get annoyed if you’re ‘lumped in’ with other BSS-related acts, even though you haven’t been in the band since 2005?
JC: Um, it’s a blessing and a curse. I take it all with a grain of salt.
The curse element of it is, often people are expecting… what I do is so different from what the Social Scene – but there are other people in the band who do as well, like Amy Millan.
I’ve always seen it as… we play music much the way that this new generation listens to music, with the entire history – it’s all there, for the taking. There’s a whole new generation that are growing up harborless, and it’s quite liberating, to not be hung on one genre to identify who you are.
And all the personalities that make up the band, Broken Social Scene, are very like that. We have very eclectic tastes, and we bring it to the table. But that’s only natural. I’m very happy to have a foot in that world, and a foot in a whole other kind of world, and why not?
I think it’s partly a result of just fuckin’ lazy journalism. People haven’t woken up and realized that you can walk back and forth quite easily, and be influenced by a wide variety of things.
QRO: You mentioned Central Park Summerstage (QRO venue review). Were you there when Broken Social Scene played there, years ago, with Dinosaur Jr.?
JC: No. Wait…
QRO: [Broken Social Scene member Dave Newfeld] had tried to buy weed in Washington Square Park…
JC: I was there – I was there! What am I talking about? That was crazy… You know, he got a settlement, too. He got some good coin. He could have gone on, and taken it all the way to court, but they settled it out of court
QRO: Do you have any material that’s been written since Here?
JC: Oh yeah, yeah. Starting to introduce it to the band. I get bored pretty quickly.
QRO: Do you play any of it live right now?
JC: No – very close, though, on a couple of things.
QRO: As a Canadian musician, do you get support from the state?
JC: Yeah. There’s a grant system for making records, loans that are forgiven, and just out-and-out grants to make records. You can get grants, as an artist, to take tours. There’s different levels: there’s provincial levels, there’s federal ones that you can apply for… There’s some rigorous requirements that you need to establish in order to be given it.
I’ve come to believe that, in the world, there are two countries that have, for the size of their population, a disproportionate export of pop bands: Canada and Sweden. And they both do that. Sweden does it better than anybody. You get money to buy gear there, if you’re in a band.
QRO: What is the Toronto music scene like now, now a few years removed from its ‘blowing up’?
JC: It’s still going strong. It’s really healthy. It’s a very dynamic place to be.
Most of us that blew up at that time have been away so much that it’s hard to re-penetrate what’s going on right now, so I’d be hard-pressed to tell you. However, we often go back and get our asses kicked – and that’s a healthy sign. ‘Cause there’s some great stuff happening.
And it’s beyond music –
And then, with all of that, comes the price of real estate going up.
QRO: Are there any songs you really like playing live?
JC: There’s a lot… We’re playing mostly the new record, and the previous record.
I’m kind of digging “Roll On Oblivion”. The guitar player is playing through his amp, and then, for the bridge, where his guitar gets sent through the keyboard speaker, and it has a very particular sound. I really like the texture of it. That’s been fun.
Jason Collett playing “Roll On Oblivion” live @ Mercury Lounge, New York, NY:
Other than that, it’s hard. It changes from night to night.
QRO: Are there any songs you can’t play live, because of the arrangement, don’t like to play live, or just don’t play anymore?
JC: Some of the more ‘ballad-y’ things I don’t always play, just because there’s only so much of that… We like people to dance.
We’ll pull them out more for the soft-seaters. It just depends on the environment.
QRO: What cities or venues have you really liked playing at?
JC: Well, I really love New York – it’s one of my favorite cities. I love Chicago, I love San Francisco… L.A.’s fun, in a ‘light way’ – I don’t really dig how it’s so spread out. I like to be able to arrive at a venue, and we book hotels that are as close to the venue as we can get them, so that the fellas can walk back and forth. If you don’t have that sense, if you have to get in cabs, it takes the piss out of your day.
QRO: Are there any smaller cities that surprised you?
JC: Well, you know Portland [Oregon] is a really great town. It’s benefited from the price of real estate in Seattle. It’s just very vibrant, with all the artists there. It’s a little spread out, in a way, but because it’s a small town, it’s not so bad. I really like the vibe there – a lot of great restaurants that are really affordable.
There’s a lot of European cities that I love to go to. Barcelona is one of the most amazing. Berlin is awesome; quite affordable for Europe – it’s attracted a lot of artists.
QRO: Are there any places that you haven’t been to that you want to go to?
JC: Moscow – I’d love to go to some places in Eastern Europe. I’d love to play in Mexico City. I’d love to go to like Romania.
There are places that I haven’t been to yet that I’d like to – China. It’s opening up – that market’s going to be huge. Right now, we play in Japan, and it’s a lot of money to get to Japan. You generally play a couple of shows, but South Korea’s like two hours away. China is about to burst open wide. That’s a viable tour, right there.
QRO: Do you have a favorite tour story?
JC: It’s not a favorite one, really, but it’s one I tell…
My first time to L.A. with the Social Scene, years ago, we were in this hotel, it was just, walking down the hallway at night, it was just rock musician after rock musician. ‘Oh, hey – we’re staying at the rock musician hotel…’
And then, in the morning, I got up, went to breakfast, a little hung-over, and there are these two women in this alcove, and they’re talking too loud. They’re sitting across from each other in this U-shaped couch thing.
I kind of lower the paper, and both of their faces are all bruised, like they’ve been beat up. First I saw one woman, and then I saw the other one, ‘How can this be? They’re both beat up!’ But they’re yakking away like nothing’s the matter.
Then I see the scar behind their ears… This ‘rock ‘n’ roll hotel’: rock ‘n’ roll and middle-aged women having facelifts. What a weird combination. And they do that: they were probably from Wisconsin or something, there for two weeks while they’re recovering, with spa days, blah-blah-blah.
But there’s something about that that’s just so over-the-top about L.A. I have a soft spot for it…