With the Skeleton Park Music Festival less than one week away, more on that later, we thought that it would be appropriate to sit down with one of the many bands performing at this year’s festival. Who better than the fine folks from The Gertrudes for our latest round of six questions? We’ve featured not one, but two of their music videos in the past, and I’ve personally witnessed them perform well over a dozen times. Over the past few years the band has earned a solid reputation, and with a new album on the way, Kingston’s supersized indie/folk/nerdgrass group is getting ready for good times. The Gertrudes are: Greg Tilson (guitar, vocals), Annie Clifford (banjo, vocals), Lucas Huang (violin, ukulele, sticks, vocals), Amanda Balsys (violin, vocals), Jason Erb (piano), Matt Rogalsky (guitar, vocals), Josh Lyon (trumpet, piano, accordion), Pete Bowers (percussion) and Pim van Geffen (trombone). Without further adieu, be forewarned that this episode of six questions is almost as big as the band.
1. The Gertrudes came to be when Annie Clifford, the band’s banjo picker, had a compelling dream about a Gertrude. Could she please elaborate on what she saw and perhaps heard?
Annie: Wow. First off, i have crazy dreams almost every night. Sometimes i wonder if i have malaria.
Anyhow, several years ago, Greg and i were playing with the Big Sex Band, and also participating in a 24 hour music installation, Tidal Mass…i dreamed a mishmash of folks from those two events were rocking out together to, um, Wilco’s Heavy Metal Drummer. Now, I’m pretty nuts for Wilco, and in my dreamland, we sounded rather good, not too much like Wilco, but good in a Kingston way, which is a good way to be. Sure thing, I wake up and rumble this dream off to Greg while he’s making coffee…that afternoon, he’s on the phone to all these folks, putting a band together. It’s a great band.
Now, last night I dreamed I was a groundhog, and i haven’t told Greg yet.
2. The Gertrudes are a 9-person (or more) ensemble, that incorporates everything from banjo to theramin and accordion. What are the challenges associated with managing so many sounds? Have you ever encountered any difficulties fitting everyone on stage or in the studio?
Josh: We often overflow from smaller stages – but this just brings us closer to the audience. At a show at the Spill in Peterborough, we literally spilled out the door while playing… At Gus’ Pub in Halifax we had a two tier show as some of us stood on the tiny stage and the rest on the floor, speakers, stairs, etc.
Pete: It always seems to work. My favourite studio image was recording the bed tracks for Sailor with PS I Love You at Zane’s beauty North of Princess Studio. The main room had a drum set and two percussion set ups going at once since we had the two Gertrudes drummers plus PS I Love You’s Benjamin Nelson. Paul Saulnier was wailing on guitar along with bass and keys. Greg was singing and playing guitar on the other side of the glass while with guitars and such in the control room and Annie in the little vocal booth on the accordion. We had a few runs at it and got the keeper bed track in one evening. I don’t know how Zane and Matt sorted out all those tracks at the same time!
Lucas: There are definitely a lot of sounds going on, but they feel distinct. Our instrumentation is happily eclectic and eccentric, so that we can each occupy our own little sonic niche. It’s cozy, musically and physically. Small venues can have difficulty accommodating us, but that’s part of the charm. At one show, Greg accidentally played the theremin a few times.
Chris: I can remember playing behind the sandwich cart at the Grad Club during a few of the earlier shows due to a stage spill-over effect. The spatially-sensitive theremin needs a bit of elbow room though. To be honest, I like that we don’t always fit perfectly on the stage….as Josh alluded to, it blurs the lines between audience and performer very nicely. Without fail, when on stage, I’m as enthralled with the performances of the musicians surrounding me as I would be in the audience watching the band for the first time.
Annie: We cuddle. Sometimes we take little walks.
Greg: Rueben deGroot recorded The Gertrudes’ first demo CD where Annie and I lived. There were so many Gertrudes that Pim recorded trombone in the shoe room, our drummer at that time, Ian Montgomery, was in the kitchen, Chris played theremin in the basement while Annie was on banjo in the closet. I’d never heard of a banjo player recording in the closet before. I guess, for a big band, we’re pretty versatile.
Jason: We’re conflict-free, which is amazing for a band this size.
3. The band’s sound as been described as an ol’ time saloon party in deep space. The inventive term of nerdgrass has also been used to categorize your music. If you had to explain The Gertrudes’ unique sound to a stranger, how would you do it?
Pete: The first time I saw the Gertrudes was at the Grad Club before I was in the band. I was blown away. The way they described the sound then was Broken Social Scene or Wilco meets old time music. The cool thing is that I think it’s gone farther in both of those directions since then!
Lucas: I also saw the band before joining in, and back then I would have called it “ambient bluegrass” – roots tunes combined with spacey textural and orchestral elements. It still works, but I think we’re incorporating even more influences now, and getting better at blurring the borders between genres.
Chris: I think it certainly starts with the folk, or bluegrass, style but adds layers upon layers of instrumentation, orchestration and a heapin’ of experimentalization. Perhaps the most remarkable part of the band is that there’s a huge range of musical styles and backgrounds covered by the various members of the band to draw upon for inspiration and musical ideas. And yet we all communicate our crazy musical ideas so well…
Jason: A hootenanny, filtered through an assortment of grown-up indie rock kids and experimentalists. Whatever it is, the handclaps and hollers are for real.
Greg: When the band swells to 12 people on stage, the description, “…paranormally inclined sunshine and mandolin dodecatet” has a nice ring to it.
4. With two solid EPs and numerous appearances on compilation discs behind you, how excited is the band for the upcoming (Fall?) release of The Gertrudes first full length CD? With the likes of Open Voices, the Queen’s Symphony Orchestra and neighborhood kids featured on Dawn Time Riot, is it safe to say that you’re aiming for an even larger, more layered sound?
Jason: Very, and yes.
Josh: It’s huge and awesome and we’re incredible excited… We can’t wait to be able to put copies of the record in people’s hands! It still has some lovely quiet moments too – but we’re exploring a new sort of ‘quiet’ than before, less sparsity – more spaciness.
Pete: The amazing thing is that despite all the layers of sound, Matt’s managed to produce it so that each part can be attended too. There are times when everyone’s singing, like in the end of Freight Train, but you can still pick out a particular singer’s voice in the crowd. The same thing happens instrumentally. There’s so much going on in a tune like Sailor or Slot Machines, but at any point you can pick out a killer lick someone put down but the next time it’s someone else’s lick at the same point that grabs your attention.
Lucas: “Larger”, for sure. A lot of people have told us that they love Hard Water, but that it doesn’t quite represent the energy of our live shows. The new one certainly has some quiet pretty moments as well, but it also showcases the fist-pumping, anthemic side of us that I don’t think has been captured on recording before.
Annie: Totally f*cking stoked. I love this album. Never in my wildest dreams, groundhogs, Wilco, and all, did I think I would ever get to be part of something as powerful and magical as this album. I love what it brought out in each of us, and what it’s done to our friendships to work on it together. Musically, everyone is highlighted here and there, and the way we come together and make this perfect sound. I love the guests, and I love the meaning embedded all throughout the album, from who our guests are to the subjects of the sounds to the samples of voices and baseball games. I really, really love it.
Greg: I like how Amanda calls the Dawn Time Riot “a loveletter to Kingston”, featuring over 100 Kingston guest musicians. The layers of sound kind of reflect the many layers of people we love and respect. Did we mention that Annie’s Grandma, Joan, made it onto this album?
Matt: It’s a great album, and the process of making this album was also great. We started with a week of live sessions at Zane’s studio in our neighbourhood but over several weeks after that I recorded an equal amount of material, bringing my gear wherever was necessary: Greg and Annie’s bathroom for oddball percussion and blown-beer-bottle parts, NGB studios to record False Face’s guitar parts, my living room to record the kids choir, Queen’s to record the symphony and grand piano parts, G&A’s living room for group clapping and stomping and singing, Queen St United for many instrument and vocal overdubs (because we like its reverb), Open Voices’ rehearsal space, and so on. As a result the album benefits from the acoustic qualities of many spaces all around Kingston. And then we added samples of the causeway bridge, and some other field recordings from Kingston locations. (We should have a contest for “spot the causeway”.) Mixing this album in a month was a fun challenge. For a typical song there were anywhere from 80 to 100 tracks. I would distribute incremental mixes, almost daily, adding in the latest instruments that had been overdubbed, to let everyone know where things were going and get some instant feedback. We spent a lot of time listening as a group, especially when it got close to being finished. A lot of fine details were addressed in this way, through discussion and debate. Sometimes lines were drawn in the sand. No fist fights or hard feelings though.
5. The Gertrudes have been a recurring feature at the Skeleton Park Music Festival, while some of the band’s members are also involved in organizing the festival. What does the SPMF mean to the group? How does Skeleton Park rank in comparison to other festivals you’ve been a part of?
Josh: I don’t know about ranking festivals – they’re all as unique as the audience and the people who organize them – but Skeleton Park is home to a lot of us… It sure feels like playing in our backyard, while still doing something really special for the neighbourhood, beyond just playing in our backyards.
Lucas: SPMF has a special place in our hearts. Most of us live a stone’s throw from the park, so it really feels like a huge neighbourhood party. The other festivals we’ve played have been really lovely – SappyFest was a favourite of mine – but as the saying goes, “mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam, be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.” (I may change my mind if we actually play in a palace.)
Annie: I like my neighbours. And playing outside, for free, kicks ass. You can change that to a more family friendly phrase – kicks bum.
Greg: It ranks #1. Nothing beats performing in your own backyard in front of family and friends.
Jason: The Skeleton Park Music Festival is the embodiment of everything that’s great about the Kingston scene.
6. Looking beyond the Skeleton Park Music Festival, what are The Gertrudes doing to stay busy over the summer? What are you looking forward to, and otherwise, what can your local fans look forward to?
Josh: This is our first big summer of festivals: After Skeleton Park Music Festival, we’re headed out West to the Vancouver Folk Festival, Vancouver Island Festival, Duncan Music Festival and coming back to Ontario for Blue Skies Music Festival and the Fred Eaglesmith Picnic. If you can’t make it to our show on the 16th of June at Chalmers as part of SPMF, come out to Grass Creek Park on Canada Day where we’ll also be playing before we head out on tour!
Lucas: Are the Gertrudes-brand fruit jams still in the works? Annie?
annie: Not unless you’re making them. I’m looking forward to hugging large trees, but i’m nervous the west coast people will try to hug me. I suppose I could point them to the nearest tree, or to Pete.
Greg: I can’t wait for Blue Skies and picnicking with Fred Eaglesmith. Hopefully, fans can look forward to one or two new music videos and a CD Release Party at The Island Grill on Aug 27th. Watch out for some surprise Gertrudes busking downtown.
Matt: I’m still hoping for Gertrudes finger puppets.