THE SILT CD release with the SHEET and CASTLEMUSICat the Tranzac (292 Brunswick), Saturday (April 7). $10-$12. 416-923-8137. Rating: NNNNN
It's a stark and rainy sunday afternoon in Kensington Market, and the three members of Toronto's Silt have just shared a moment of personal and artistic enlightenment thanks to the magic of iTunes.
According to Apple's globally dominant digital music powerhouse, when you pop the trio's brain-busting new Cat's Peak (Fig) disc into your computer, you'll be happily humming along to 11 snappy tracks that fall into the category of folk.
This is big news to the ambitious triumvirate of Marcus Quin, Doug Tielli and Ryan Driver.
"So that's what we are!" Quin laughs. "I think we need to have a talk with iTunes. I suppose in their genre list the only thing that fits is 'Unknown."
"'Known' would be good, too," Driver interjects thoughtfully. "Or maybe 'Unknowable'?"
This sort of "We're too complex for a simple description, ma-a-a-n" debate is usually the mark of a band of pretentious wankers who fancy they're reinventing the wheel but are really just cranking out basic pop tunes.
But in the case of the Silt, who fuse their collective backgrounds in a range of esoteric genres - classical, Renaissance, medieval and, most notably, improvisational music - into an exhilarating, spontaneous cacophony of roots-aligned, occasionally skronky sounds that spiral out from deceptively simple pop-style frameworks, easy labels are actually futile.
"There are different styles or performers we all really like, and we all fall back on that," ventures Quin, who sings and plays bass clarinet, simultaneous bass and drums, erhu, lap steel and more. "Like, in my roles, I might try to lay down more of a country shuffle groove, then follow that through.
"Often you'll hear several styles happening at once, but you'll be able to discern a piece that sounds a bit like older soul music because of the way the harmonies fall, or the chord progression will be based on 50s Western pop music."
Driver, Quin and Tielli's skill in the realm of free improvisation creates a sense of possibilities in their songs; you're never surprised by wholly unexpected elements that float to the surface.
In fact, the way Cat's Peak ricochets between sonic signifiers makes the most curious combinations seem logical - to the point where, when some website started playing a hiphop track while I was at home listening to the Silt's syncopated synth/surf 'n' western lament Taking A Walk, I had no idea the mashup wasn't intentional.
"We're actually working on a collaboration with Maestro Fresh Wes for our next album, so...," Quin jokes.
Tielli embraces the freedom that improvisation brings to their writing, arrangements and performances.
"It means any one of us has an opportunity to be loosely affiliated with what's going on but still creative. We leave space for an improvised element, though it never takes over.
"We also don't get stuck playing a song a certain way each time," he continues. "If we want to take a song that's usually slow and expansive and do it like a rumba, even though we don't know how to play rumba, it doesn't take much to figure out what that might sound like."
That ethos of openness is also what draws the Silt to the Tranzac, where they've played many of their shows since they formed eight years ago, including Saturday's CD release party.
The community-based venue is a haven for the city's more out-there or less commercial music, serving as a kind of headquarters for everyone from Irish traditional bands to Silt-minded art rock/experimental/improv outfits.
"It kinda feels like your parents' rec room, except your parents aren't there and there are great beers on tap and bands playing through all the hours of the night," Quin explains. "A lot of people gravitate to it because nobody says, 'No, you can't do that here. '"
"It's also one of the only places where you don't feel like you have to prove something to get a gig there," Tielli adds. "There's such a hassle elsewhere - if you don't make X amount at the bar, you pay the club. That stuff gives me an aneurysm. How are you supposed to relax and play music and have a nice night?"
Additional Interview Audio Clips
Doug, Ryan and Marcus try to pin down precisely how the experiences of playing improvisational music and pop songs differ.
Marcus explains why the Tranzac's non-businessy ethos helps make it one of his favourite venues by comparing it to the could've-been-a-disaster of the Silt's first CD release show.
Doug explains how the Silt manage to make their songs sound cohesive, even if he's dubious about the overall cohesiveness of the album.
Music from The Silt's new album Cat's Peak