Be Van Halen at every show or go home, say Public Animal

Ian Blurton talks prog rock, a kitchen-sink recording approach to second album Palace Arms, and ageism

PUBLIC ANIMAL album launch with POW WOWS, DIEMONDS and DJ TIM PERLICH, plus PUBLIC ANIMAL PLAY DAZED AND CONFUSED with guest singers at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Friday (October 28), doors 9 pm. $10. 

Ian Blurton admits to feeling a sense of urgency these days. 

You can see it in Public Animal’s workaholic performing and recording schedule and hear it in their swiftly changing, monumentally dynamic tunes, which are growing slower and proggier with every record, especially their about-to-drop second full-length, Palace Arms (Yeah Right!). 

“There’s urgency on my part as I get older,” says the 50-something former member of Change of Heart, C’mon, Bionic and Blurtonia. “Every band has a lifespan. And I mean, me doing this at 60 might be a little weird.” (Don’t fear, fans. He also said that about 50.)

Describing the Toronto four-piece’s music, fuelled in part by bombastic girl/boy harmonies and lead vocal trade-offs, as “ambitious” would be, as Blurton says, “putting it mildly. But even at our proggiest, we still try to retain a feral rock-and-roll vibe. ‘Prog’ is such a dirty, dirty word, at least to me growing up as a punk.”

We’re standing in his east-end basement studio, ProGold, near the former Sound Academy, two partially wood-panelled rooms filled with Green and Orange amps, vintage and reissued pre-amps, a weathered piano and a row of guitars hanging on a wall. 

He and bandmates Caitlin Dacey (full disclosure: I also play music with Dacey), Eric Larock and Ryan Gassi demo-ed the new tunes for a year in this space before taking them to the Tragically Hip’s Bathouse studio to work with engineer Nyles Spencer over four days. The whole band produced the album, and then Blurton mixed it (and redid most of the guitars) back at ProGold.

The mixing process almost drove Blurton crazy, but that’s what happens when you’ve got three songwriters in a band, everybody producing and up to 120 tracks on one song alone. (That’s not an exaggeration, Blurton confirms.) One song, Fingerprint Stains, has nine bass tracks. 

“Everyone just went bonkers,” says Blurton, who frequently praises his bandmates for everything from their musicianship to their in-house video-making and translation skills. “Everyone threw the kitchen sink in.”

Blurton’s known not only for his music, but also as a producer for Lowest of the Low, Rheostatics, Skydiggers, the Weakerthans and Amy Millan, to name a mere handful. He says he was happy to share the producing reins on Palace Arms – “I could go watch TV” – and he’s living proof that a rocker’s creative best can come late in life if we refuse to subscribe to the idea that bands aren’t worth being in once you’re past the age of, say, 27, and guitars should be sold off by, say, 35.

The idea that rock and roll is only for young people “is a load of shit,” says the bearded rocker. “It’s bullshit. One of my favourite shows of all time was [doom metal legends] Saint Vitus when they reformed with Wino, and he walked out looking tough as shit – and he was wearing bifocals. I thought, ‘This is awesome.’”

It’s ageism, after all, and Blurton says he’s experienced it on both sides, including as a teenager in Canrock favourites Change of Heart. 

“I started playing in bars in Toronto when I was 16, so I’ve seen it from that angle, too. My feeling is, if you can do it, do it.”

Blurton has earned legendary status in rock circles. There’s even a Facebook page called Ian Blurton Is A Rock N Roll Legend, which he grows sheepish about when it’s mentioned. (“It’s weird. I try not to look at it.”) But bringing it up leads to him concisely, if perhaps unconsciously, summing up his MO.

“[The legendary stuff] is maybe something to look back on later. I really feel that I immerse myself in the now as much as I can. You have to try to be great every show and every record. It’s why you have to be Van Halen at every show…. It’s work you continually do. And obviously at the [indie] level the band is at, it’s not something you can rest on or pay the rent with. 

“But I make a living at what I do, so that’s amazing. And I don’t have to play my old hits.” He pauses and smiles. “Cuz I don’t have any!”    

Hear Public Animal play Palace Arms at 9:45 pm, then stick around late (12:30 am) to hear them take on the Dazed And Confused soundtrack with guest singers Moe Berg, Samantha Martin, Dani Nash, members of Mokomokai, Controller.Controller, Sheepdogs, Midnight Towers and many others. | @carlagillis

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