FRESH SNOW with DOLDRUMS, HOODED FANG, I AM ROBOT & PROUD, BELIEFS and more as part of LONG WINTER VOLUME 2 at the Great Hall (1087 Queen West), Friday (December 13), 7 pm, free for the first 350 people, torontolongwinter.com. See listing.
"We have a knack for making spontaneity extremely laborious," says Fresh Snow guitarist Bradley Davis.
Perhaps. But the Toronto four-piece is also pretty efficient.
The first time they plugged in their instruments and played together was also the first time they were all in the same room.
The second time they played as a band, they recorded a great album.
The resulting seven songs of experimental instrumental psych-rock are remarkably diverse - in length, texture, genre, loudness - and yet unmistakably the same piece of art. Like movements in a classical composition.
They may not be well-known enough to make it onto most year-end roundups, but they're serious Polaris long and short list contenders.
Their music is a constant struggle, made interesting by the elastic push and pull between noise and melody. Each listen yields a new pathway. It's challenging but unpretentious, cerebral with moments of simple joy. Astute without being too serious. And that's a great way to describe the guys themselves.
Over beers and gin and sodas in the round, cushy booth of a Leslieville pub, still sporting the matching red and black shirts from NOW's cover shoot around the corner, they retrace the long and winding road that started with a jam session.
On the final weekend of January 2011, Davis, drummer Jon Maki, bassist Andy Lloyd, and keys, engineer and everything-else-man Tim Condon piled into a van, packed it full of as much rented gear as they could, and headed to a friend's Danforth home. Serendipitously, it was snowing very hard. They improvised for six hours in the basement and recorded it.
That was the spontaneous part.
The laborious stage came next: six hours of raw audio turned into 18 months of very careful work: sifting improvised jams into a collection of tunes with beginnings, nebulous twists, convoluted turns and satisfying ends.
Put simply, "We wrote it in reverse," says Davis, a natural, self-deprecating leader whose background and loves are equal parts black metal and pop, and who also acts as the band's de facto (reluctant) manager.
"In hindsight, it was a really good way of working," adds Condon. "But it was pretty frustrating at times. It's like doing a jigsaw puzzle with no idea of what the picture is meant to look like."
To get the picture, Condon and Davis whittled the music down to their basic song structures, sending music to Maki and Lloyd as they went along for ideas and criticism.
Davis added loads of guitars. Maki and Lloyd came to Condon's house for overdubs, and about a year into the editing and arranging process, so did violin, trombone, clarinet and trumpet players - additions that breathe life into the album's noisy squalls and hypnotic drones, enhance the overall cinematic feel and elevate the chord repetition, persistent bass lines and anchor drums.
The production and mastering largely fell to Condon. "There were two steps of processing," he says. "Processing the backing sounds of other instruments out of what we had, and then the arrangements.
"It was a Rubik's Cube. You change one thing here, then every other angle changes. But 18 months later, we were pretty happy with it."
Condon is the most eager and forthcoming about the music itself, and sitting across the table from Davis, it's easy to see how their dynamic - both politely disagreeing and deferring to each other, always, always with humour - informed the record.
He might also have the toughest onstage job.
It's impossible to recreate those 18 months of fine-tuning live, but it's certainly fun to see the band try.
Watching Condon queue music from both his laptop and his iPad at a recent Unsigned Indie Music Series gig looks just as difficult as any of the actual musicianship.
"The nature of the songs lends itself to live shows," says Lloyd, the quietest of the members but the one with by far the most road experience, having toured with Caribou and been as far afield as Australia with Born Ruffians, with whom he still plays. "It's not that bad if something goes wrong. The songs are so amorphous, you can't really tell."
The band plays again at Friday's (December 13) edition of the Long Winter series at the Great Hall alongside some of the city's other cool-as-hell bands: Hooded Fang, Beliefs, Doldrums.
They've come a long way since that initial show in August 2010. Matt Flook and Nicholas Kerr - who with Christopher Evers run the Reel Cod label that ultimately released Fresh Snow's album - had asked Davis to open a show at Duffy's Tavern in Bloordale.
As it happened, Davis, who'd been the primary songwriter in a couple of other bands, including Lake Holiday, was sick of writing and performing pop tunes.
But he was interested in trying something different. Vocal-less. Experimental.
So Davis recruited bandmates: Maki, formerly the drummer for Tropicalia (now Os Tropies); Lloyd; and Condon, a Perth, Australia, transplant whom he'd worked with in 2003 and whom he'd happened to bump into on the street a few days earlier.
"We walked downstairs by the pool table and laid out a map of what we were thinking of doing. I played a lap steel with distortion and echo, and a keyboard. I didn't even play guitar," says Davis.
"Me and Jon, and maybe Andy as well, were listening to a lot of Neu! at the time. So basically I was like, ‘If we can ace Hallogallo by Neu! for like 20 minutes, that's a great opening set to me."
It didn't work. "We ended up sounding like ourselves instead of Neu! Unfortunately."
But they did have immediate chemistry, and all of them felt inspired by the non-Neu! "really loud racket" they'd made.
"It all felt so organic," says Maki. "Being a drummer, I'm usually following other people's [direction]. This gave all of us equal opportunity to create our own lines. It was completely open to whatever we wanted. It was very liberating."
Now their visual, interactive live show is their calling card.
"People connect to music a lot through the words, so when you're not singing live...." says Davis.
Lloyd is blunt. "We're playing one chord for like, two minutes," he says.
"We wanted to integrate the audience and the band, so we had this crazy, absurd idea that we would play inside a pod where projections were coming from," says Maki.
In late 2011, they presented that whim to Jonny Dovercourt, whose Wavelength series they were playing.
"He immediately loved it, and all of a sudden we were under pressure to make it happen. We had no idea how it was going to come to fruition," continues Maki.
"I ended up weaving massive sheets of wax paper together in my living room, and we spent a whole hour the day beforehand setting up this pod, and it ended up paying off incredibly well."
From outside, you could only see their silhouettes, plus digital art projections by Bryce Kushnier, whom they call the band's "unofficial official member."
It's the only time they've done it, but they'd like to again.
Otherwise, Fresh Snow often play wearing face-covering red hoods - an invention of Lloyd's based on a painting by Maki. (Maki is obviously the art person. In addition to the painting and the pod, he made the wooden masks they wore at a Halloween show this year, foraging in the woods behind his house for the raw materials.)
Davis says Fresh Snow do everything slowly. But they're soldiering on.
They've completed a split 7-inch with Reel Cod labelmate Mimico. They're working on an EP (out this spring, hopefully). The first track is already recorded (with vocals!) - 16 minutes long and featuring one of the city's most famous voices.
Their as-yet unslated sophomore effort is in the works. The spontaneous six-hour jam was fun and all, but this time they're going to write the songs first.
They aren't getting too structured, though.
"This band is so freeing because it allows me to escape some of my own habits and rely on other people," says Davis.
"I've always thought of our band as being like a train ride. We're on a long, set track, but the landscape keeps changing out the window. There's blurry ever-changing scenery with what Tim's doing, and Jon and Andy are just holding down the choo-choo.
"God knows what I'm doing."
Such a long winter
Five reasons to love one of the city's coolest music series
It's not easy to get notoriously winter-shy Torontonians out of hibernation during the never-ending cold months. Then, last year, two members of beloved Toronto punk band Fucked Up decided to do something about that. The result? An impeccably curated monthly pwyc evening of music and art. If this doesn't convince you to embrace those very long, dark nights, you might as well stay in bed.
1. It's really Fucked Up
Since coming together in 2001, Fucked Up have spread their influence all over the city at the grassroots level, touching almost every aspect of the local scene. Fittingly, three of the seven event organizers are band members. Fucked Up played last year's shows but have been sitting out performance duty this year, making room for less established Toronto acts across a variety of genres, including Ell V. Gore, Doomsquad and Kontravoid.
2. It's not just music
The Great Hall and its sub-rooms provide a great many spaces for Long Winter to spread its chill. And from the beginning, it's always been more than just music. Friday's (December 13) edition includes visual art and video installations, dance by Emi Forster, local thespian Henri Fabergé's Fountain Of Mouth, and Long Night with host (and Long Winter organizer) Vish Khanna, a talk "TV show" with guests (including controversial sprinter Ben Johnson), a comic and a house band (the Bicycles).
Just like Dave.
3. It's not just late-night
December 28 marks the very first Long Winter for children. And while a day for the youth might seem at odds with the mostly wee-hours series, Long Winter Kids features the same cultural cross-section as the nighttime events: music, arts, performance, stories and more. Plus arts and crafts. Highlights include performances by the Woodshed Orchestra and Hooded Fang; an interactive "recording and sampling castle" that will result in RoCkBoX Mixtape #1!; and a Girls Rock Camp workshop. Proceeds from the event go to a benefit for the campaign to end indefinite migrant detention in Canada.
December 28, noon-5 pm, the Great Hall (1087 Queen West). Pwyc.
4. Fearless collabs
Despite its near-intimidating cool factor, Long Winter is completely unpretentious in that it's not stubborn or staid. It's fluid, ever-morphing and open to big-time collabs such as the AGO First Thursdays: Long Winter Edition that goes down January 2. They're brave: it might be the least embraced date of the year. But get over yourselves: you'll have had January 1 to recover, after all. The first-floor Walker Court is an artists bazaar (think open-air market) and the contemporary tower houses music and art, including Snowblink and DJ Stelmanis.
January 2, 7 pm, Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas West), $15, advance $12, AGO members $10.
5. It's pwyc
It wouldn't be right for you to pay nothing for such a well-rounded immersion in the arts, but Long Winter provides hours and hours of entertainment for what you can afford, whether that's 15 or 115 bucks. And let's face it: if we're anything besides cold in the winter, it's broke.
Photos by Michael Watier