Tuesday, June 2, 2009

We took the roads like a butcher takes his meat

If you missed Toronto’s Dwight Schenk at Sneaky Dees on Sunday, you missed a good one, my friend. Schenk has been playing music for longer than I’ve been alive and been in more bands than you can count on your fingers and toes (think Basement Arms, The Slipper Orchestra, etc.) In early 2009, he released his much anticipated eerie, yet impressive first solo album, Natural Disasters. Here he dishes about his music, fears, graphic novel, and bodily functions.

Nickels & Dames: When did you first start playing music? Was there a day in particular that you remember?

Dwight Schenk: It’s kind of cheesy, actually. I went to see the U2 movie, Rattle and Hum in the theater and up until that point I didn’t have much interest in music, especially not playing it; not even listening to it. I didn’t pay much attention to it. But, all my friends were big U2 fans at the time so we went, and when we got out of the theater we all wanted to be in a band together. So, we snuck into a church that one of my friends lived next to and had a key for. Inside the church we started playing the instruments that were on a stage (laughs). Then, from there it was like, “I need a guitar”. I was 16 at the time.

N&D: You’ve been playing music for almost 20 years. When did you decide it was time to record this album?

DW: Around the time Basement Arms was kind of slowing down. We were really busy for a while then the bass player, because of certain circumstances, had to go back to Sudbury. At that point, I was already thinking that it was time for something different. Up until that point it was just home recording and experimenting. When I started thinking it was time for something different I thought, well, I had all these 4 track recordings and home recordings; what’s stopping me from actually going to a studio and recording these songs and doing it proper?

N&D: How long did it take you to finish the album?

DW: Almost two and a half years. I actually like to work fast, but a lot of it was scheduling, studio availability and coordinating with the other artists’ schedules.

N&D: You said you had over a hundred potential songs for the album, but narrowed them down to these 12 tracks. How did you decide which ones would make the cut?

DS: The hard part about it was that I wanted it to have some flow and still feel like an album even though there was crazy variety in it. So, that usually takes some sort of theme or something that connects them. That took me quite a while to figure out. The theme that wrapped it all up was natural disasters, and figuring that out helped me decide what songs should be on the album.

N&D: At first you were leaning towards a concept album about a fictional character named “Howling Buffalo”, a mysterious man who, abandoned at a young age, raised himself living in the woods of Northern Ontario. What changed your mind?

DS: The hard part of that was that I felt like I would actually need to sell it. So, I kind of felt like if I was gonna do it, it meant that I would be doing the same thing and really have to sell the fact that I went away for a while and met this crazy individual. I didn’t think I could do it (laughs). I kind of chickened out of that one. I also felt like not enough people were going to pay attention to that.

N&D: Do you relate to that character at all?

DS: Yeah. I don’t really underappreciate life experiences with other people, but I’ve found that in my life a lot of the big lessons I’ve learned, I’ve learned on my own. Like how I prioritize, realizing that certain things really don’t matter, and certain things do.

N&D: Did you have any goal for this album? Is there anything you wanted it to accomplish or a certain audience you wanted it to reach?

DS: The main goal I had was that I wanted to be creative with old ideas, or just approach it from a totally fresh point of view. I tend to write songs that don’t sound like anyone else to begin with, but if it does sound like somebody else, I try to do something that adds my personality to it. I just wanted to be as true to myself in music as possible. My other goal was just to wow people. I didn’t want to write a boring album that could be compared to other people. At the same time, I didn’t want it to be so inaccessible that people would think it was just some self indulgent wank album – which it could have been (laughs). I appreciate accessibility and people still having a connection to a new idea.

N&D: What do you think about all the vocal comparisons to Tom Waits?

DS: I don’t mind it. There’s been a period where it got to be too much, but I think it’s a compliment. I don’t think I sound exactly like him. But I realize that the first thing people do is try to make references to what they know. So if they hear a loud growly voice their first reference is “Tom Waits”. Whether I sound exactly like him or not doesn’t matter; that’s just what they relate to.

N&D: The album is said to surprise listeners and scare them. What do you think is so scary about this album?

DS: I actually don’t understand that, but I get told by a lot of people that I scare them (laughs).

N&D: Where does all that so called “scary energy” come from? Any inner demons?

DS: Yeah (laughs). I contain a lot of “scary energy”, I suppose, and a lot of my imagination is very dark. I know on stage I try to get totally lost in whatever’s going on. In some ways, I feel like if you’re gonna give it your all and not hold anything back, then craziness and intensity comes out and that’s what scares people. Honestly, I just don’t think people are used to that and they want to dull their emotions.

N&D: What scares you?

DS: Driving in snow. I’ve had three accidents driving in snow and it’s enough to make me not enjoy driving. I’m pretty white knuckled.

N&D: On the other hand, when and where do you feel most comfortable, musically or personally?

DS: I feel more comfortable alone. It’s something I kind of have to work on because I know being too comfortable alone swallows me; and I think I’m a hermit. I do enjoy being out and social and I sometimes fight that comfort of being alone. Usually when I’m alone I’m doing my own thing, I’m drawing or making music and that’s the stuff I really enjoy doing. It’s fun to do it with others, but that’s my comfort.

N&D: Where do you write most of your lyrics? Are you a napkin scribbler or do you sit down and write in a more structured way?

DS: I wouldn’t say it’s “structured”. I don’t have a certain way I do it and I have done napkin scribbles. Normally, if I find one idea or one phrase that’s strong, I can build off of it. I always write the music first though.

N&D: On this album your songs are all very visual and vivid. Where do those ideas and images come from?

DS: I think that’s one of the consistencies of my writing. If I can see it, then I can write about it. And I’m a video editor so sometimes it goes hand in hand, visual and audio. If I think of one line that paints a big enough picture, or maybe just presents itself as a big enough canvas, then I can fill in the rest of the detail.

N&D: You’ve also got a graphic novel entitled ‘Mother’ in the works. Can you tell me a bit about that?

DS: That one started when I was sitting outside in a lighting storm (laughs). I love lighting storms and I love being out in them. This one was extremely violent and I was sitting across from a church on a bench and no one else was out there; it was just me and I started having these visions. I don’t think I was on acid at the time, but it definitely sounds like it (laughs).I started seeing this demonic character in this tower of the church and it was eating my cousin, who I was living with at the time. Somebody came up to me while I was in this trance sort of thing – it sounds kind of dumb (laughs) but they were like “Dwight, Dwight.” I snapped out of it and was like, “I’m in the darkest place ever right now,” and just started laughing. Based on that one visual of seeing my cousin getting eaten, I thought it was pretty cool; a demon that eats people and shits them out as demons, and starts building up an army. It just grew from there.

N&D: Your album comes with a colouring book. Do you think it’s important for an album to be interactive?

DS: I miss it. It seems to be moving away from that with so much digital downloading. I’m still the kind of guy that really appreciates an album and having the product. I don’t like MP3 quality so I’m kind of holding on for dear life to that. I thought one way of adding to the album was to present it with things like a colouring book or a DVD. And, I like to draw, so it makes sense.

N&D: Now about your live shows, can you describe the feeling you get right before you go on stage?

DS: Yeah, I have to shit (laughs). It’s almost every single show, five to ten minutes before I go on I have to take a shit and I never do. I always hold on to it and use it during the show.

N&D: (laughs) You threw me off guard with that one. Are there any local bands that you’ve got your eye on?

DS: I love Sing Leaf and The Owle Bird. Run With The Kittens is usually one of my favourites, they’re amazing, and Saint Dirt Elementary School.

N&D: After I accomplish something impressive I always run to my mom. Does your mom have any thoughts on your album?

DS: She hasn’t heard it yet. She went away to Indiana for a while to actually do natural disaster relief missions (laughs).

photo by rodrigo pizzaro

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