NATHAN LAWR , ERIC CHENAUX AND THE MINOTAUR ORCHESTRA at the Music Gallery (197 John), tonight (Thursday, March 18). $14. 416-204-1080.
You've gotta pity the much-maligned rock 'n' roll drummer. Although they make up the infrastructure of any decent band with a beat, those poor ladies and dudes with the sticks in their hands have a nasty rep as the dummies of the music scene. Type "drummer jokes" into Google, and the search engine spits out such choice cracks as "What do you call a drummer with half a brain? Gifted." Ba-dum ching.
Nathan Lawr's heard 'em all. As the man behind the skins in lauded outfits like King Cobb Steelie and Royal City, Lawr cemented a place for himself as a talented fixture on the indie scene.
But now that he's stepped out from behind the kit with The Heart Beats A Waltz, the excellent collection of sophisticated rootsy singer/songwriter tunes he released independently last year, Lawr puts the lie to any assertion that drummer equals dumber.
"I don't know where the stereotype comes from, cuz in the grand scheme of things people have been playing drums since the dawn of time," he muses over pad thai at the Red Room on a chilly Thursday afternoon. "You can look at any great band in the world and assign at least 40 per cent of their success to the drummer.
"Being the best band in the world isn't gonna help you overcome having a shitty drummer. But if you're a mediocre group with an incredible drummer, you're gonna come across as a much more talented band. I've seen it happen hundreds of times. The Beatles without Ringo? Led Zeppelin without John Bonham? C'mon, they'd be nothing!"
He admits he sorta fell into playing the drums in a desperate attempt to avoid being stuck with the dorky trombone in grade 7 (he lost the band class's draw for the saxophone), but the Guelph expat's passionate about his experience in the rhythm section.
He cites fellow Ontarians like the Rheostatics' Dave Clark and former King Cobb skinsman Sam Cino as major influences, because "they aren't just Joe Blow studio guys. Besides being technically gifted, they also have incredibly distinct individual styles."
Lawr claims the album happened, similarly, by accident. Drawn to writing songs while living off unemployment insurance in Guelph, he decided to rent a four-track to see what he'd come up with. The songs evolved from there, as he called in favours from pals like Andy Magoffin, Neutron Star Michael Barclay and his Royal City bandmates.
His years of quietly studying songwriting bandmates like Royal City's Aaron Riches from the back of the stage are evident on The Heart Beats A Waltz. Lawr's solo debut sounds like the work of a more tested and mature songwriter. He flirts with rough Tom Waitsish Tin Pan Alley piano waltzes, sad country ballads that float on waves of pedal steel, and hooky pop tunes, pulling them all off with breezy confidence.
What's most striking about the disc for anyone stuck on the meathead drummer tip is the depth of Lawr's lyrics. Like Riches, he's got a gift for metaphors that are both vivid and powerfully understated, so even the most basic love songs become deft allegories. Take the gem Spanish Armadas, written while Lawr was in a long-distance relationship - and, coincidentally, living with Riches, who was also bummed cuz his girlfriend (now wife) was in another city.
"I was painting in Rosedale, in a huge house that was being renovated, and there was one washroom all the workers were using. For some reason, they'd stuck a bookshelf in there to get it out of the way, and there were tons of interesting books on it. I was obsessed with this giant picture book on Spanish Armadas that had all these pictures of big Spanish ships. The song was written for the girl I went to Vancouver for."
Romantic or what?
Lawr's show tonight at the Music Gallery is even more ambitious than his album, featuring a full string section with arrangements and orchestration by his talented pal and roommate Paul Aucoin, who's done vibraphone duty in the Sadies and the Heavy Blinkers, among other bands.
"I'm terrified," laughs Lawr. " But it's been great working with a friend on something so big. Paul wrote out 150 pages of musical notation. He spent days straight writing out all these string parts, and our living room was covered with pages. He had a blister from writing so much."