“There are the things that haunt my mind: The blurred relationship of good vs. evil, ghosts, and the lessons and stories of history….. I’d like to think that this isn’t an exhaustive list,” says Montreal based artist Chris Velan on the vast inspiration of lyrical themes found in his songs. His latest recording Fables For Fighters (NewSong Recordings/Fontana North) is influenced by a range of influences spanning David Byrne, Randy Newman, Neil Young, West African music and reggae that can be summed up best as “smart pop/folk song-smithing.” Recorded during the hottest recorded July in New York City history, Velan let the swampy surroundings turn busy guitar arrangements into “slow murder ballad waltzes.” Glide recently had a chance to discover the inner mysteries of Chris Velan.
The album cover for Fables for Fighters in you are costumed “plushie/mascot” in a dressing room – what was inspiration behind the cover shot?
I wanted the cover photo to tell some kind of story and suggest that something is happening beyond the corners of what you can see in the picture. I’ve always loved album covers that do that (like Tom Waits’ Small Change or The Basement Tapes). I remember staring at those covers in my dad’s record collection when I was young and just being transfixed by them. I wanted to know the story behind them. The concept for Fables For Fighters grew out of the title. An image popped into in my mind of me wearing an animal costume. I‘m not sure why but it just felt right. The shot was actually taken in a costume shop. The photographer (Alex McKinnon) and I pretended that we were there to rent a costume but the owner wasn’t fooled. The squirrel costume was the least ratty and gross-looking of them all. The photo we ultimately chose had me staring into a full-length mirror – as though I’m about to go on stage for some soul-sucking show. I really like how it turned out.
How would you describe Fables for Fighters to be most different musically than your past efforts?
It’s different in two respects. First, the songs from Fables were by and large written around the same period of being out on the road extensively to tour my previous album, “Solidago”. I think that lends to the album a greater cohesiveness in spirit and theme than on my other albums, which have tended to be collections of songs written under disparate circumstances in different time frames. Second, this was the first album in which I recorded all of the core tracks (vocals, guitar, drums, bass) live off the floor. On past recordings, I haven’t had the ability to rehearse long enough with a band prior to going into the studio to feel confident that we could pull off capturing the material properly with live takes. So the recording process fell to an overdubbing approach. With Fables – because we knew we wanted it to be live takes in the studio and because we built in the time for rehearsals – there’s a certain raw and honest energy (and even vulnerability) in the recorded tracks that I feel has maybe been harder to find on past albums.
It seems you worked your ass of on the album by spending the whole month of July rehearsing the songs in Brooklyn. Did the heat and repetition cause any significant creative moments?
It ended up being the hottest July on record in New York and we spent most of it in a stone-walled basement in Park Slope, getting slow-cooked. The heat and endless repetition put us all in a sort of Zen-like state and did, in fact, leave its mark on the album. The best example is with “Far From Here”, which I brought to the rehearsals as an up-tempo, guitar-busy arrangement. We all liked the song but the arrangement was just not working. We reached a point, after many times of playing it through, where our brains had just fried under the heat and creative effort and we had run out of ideas and were too spaced-out to think. My drummer, Aaron Steele, channeled the energy in the room and just launched into a sad, slow murder-ballad waltz that immediately unlocked the song for us. It was as if we had to reach that point of exhaustion before we could be given the key.
Thematically, you songs strive to balance the pains of struggle with the hope of transformation – how has your musical and creative journey fostered your creativity?
There has always been a part of me that has gotten in the way of my creative self. I’ve carried around a strong censor and judging voice that has made it hard for me to accept myself as an artist. But somehow, despite dragging that weight around, I’ve managed to keep writing and performing and developing. It’s taken a while but I feel as though I’m finally learning what it means to let go and surrender myself to the creative process. And the more I employ that knowledge, the better my art becomes. It’s an ongoing lesson but I’m starting to get it in a way that I didn’t before. So in some fundamental ways, my musical/creative journey so far has been about pushing through those internal landscapes to a place of greater happiness and self-acceptance.
What lyrical themes do you find yourself visiting most often and where and when do you feel yourself most inspired to write?
I’ve only recently become aware of the broad themes that I seem to have a need to revisit. There’s the personal fodder of my relationships and shortcomings. There are things the things that boil my blood: Collective idiocy, social injustice, and greedy shortsightedness. There are the things that haunt my mind: The blurred relationship of good vs. evil, ghosts, and the lessons and stories of history. There are things that haunt my soul: Love in all of its complexity, the kindness of people, the greatness of small everyday things, finding meaning and solace in nature, and my relationship to a higher power. I’d like to think that this isn’t an exhaustive list.
I get very inspired to write when I’m traveling and out of my mundane daily routine at home. Airports in particular seem to really activate me but driving long distances does as well. I get extremely inspired by watching other musicians perform and looking at visual art. I’m also inspired by things that humble me: Human stories of great courage, being in nature, the ability for beauty to exist in dark places.
Musically where do you hope to take your music now and in the future? Are there orchestral collaborations or any other sorts of experimentation you hope to dive into?
I just want to get keep evolving and pushing myself to try new things as an artist. I never want to get bored with what I do. I’ve been feeling the need lately to branch out into different, collaborative projects so I can explore the different musical facets that are in me and learn from other artists. I think I’ve been doing the solo, guy-with-a-guitar-thing for too long. It’s been largely out of economic necessity but I want that to change. My new necessity is to become more connected with an artistic network so I can be sustained by it and grow in it. These days, as a musician, that’s all you’ve got. It’s too hard of a road to walk on your own. So yeah, I’m open wide to any opportunities for collaboration and experimentation that feel right to me.
What is it like for an artist based out of Montreal where there is such a diverse pool of bands?
For as long as I’ve been playing music, Montreal has always had a happening music scene. It’s come on the international radar lately as a cool scene because the music magazines deemed have it so but it’s always had something radical going on. Godspeed You Black Emperor! and Bran Van 3000 were breaking ground as music collectives before anyone knew what that term meant. There’s always been a pioneering punk (Doughboys, for example) and electronic/DJ scene here. But yeah, it’s great that it’s enjoying recognition as a fertile artistic city. Lots of transplants have been coming here from the rest of Canada because it’s both a relatively affordable place to live as an artist and a thriving creative scene in which to do your thing. That means more live music venues popping up and more sharing among musicians. That can only be a good a thing. Having lived and recorded music through different periods of Montreal’s musical development over the past two decades, it’s exciting to see it happening.
You’ve been steadily touring to other parts of the U.S./Canada lately – how has reaching new audiences and expanding to different regions effected you as a performer and a song-writer? Are there any new regions in particular that you have been particularly inspired by?
I’ve enjoyed playing in every single place that I’ve been to – and I have ended up playing in some strange places in North America. As a performer, I’ve learned something important from each audience (no matter how small). In fact, sometimes, the lesson has been how to dig deep and put on a good show for five people (two of who are watching the basketball game at the bar). I’ve also learned not to pre-judge people and the towns in which they live. I’ve been surprised by the open-mindedness and coolness of people in rural areas as much as I’ve been surprised by the closed-mindedness and lameness of people in cities. There are stories everywhere that are not being told. Everyone is a movie worth sitting through. All of this has made be a better listener and observer. It’s made me more attuned to seeking out the diamonds in the rough and seeing the beauty in what may first appear ugly. Those are tools that serve the songwriter well.
What artists from the past and present have you most been influenced by and how would you describe your sound in your own words?
Dylan, Paul Simon, David Byrne, Neil Young, Mark Knopfler, Tom Waits, Jackson Browne, Bob Marley and more recently, Jeff Tweedy, Nick Cave, Josh Ritter, …
My sound is a whole-hearted attempt at smart pop/folk songsmithing with ancestral ties to Paul Simon and a querulous kinship to Bruce Cockburn, Randy Newman and Mark Knopfler. Whether it succeeds is another question.
What can we expect at an upcoming Chris Velan show?
Me in a squirrel costume.