Meet Tony Dekker: Frontman of the Canadian Folk Band, Great Lake Swimmers, Talks About His New Album
Photo by Ilia Horsburgh courtesy of Great Lakes Swimmers' MySpace
Are you the sort of person who goes weak at the knees when you hear a killer banjo solo? I am too. Which is why you should get your folk fix at Spaceland tomorrow night. Hailing from Ontario, Great Lake Swimmers' were in town haunting brand of melodic folk has captivated audiences all over North America. Founding member and sole singer-songwriter for the group, Tony Dekker, was kind enough to speak with us over the weekend about his latest album, Lost Channels. Here is some of what was said.
What made you pick up an instrument? How old were you?
I guess I was about 16 years old. A friend of mine joined the Army reserves and left his guitar and an amp in my room. Whenever I was bored I just picked it up and started playing. I was shown how to play a power chord and that was it.
When did you decided you wanted to be a musician?
It sort of eventually took over my life. There was a point where I was touring so much that I didn’t have time to do anything else. (laughs) I didn't really decide. Music has taken over my life.
How did you get the name Great Lake Swimmers? I grew up in Chicago do I count as an honorary member of the band?
Did you swim across Lake Michigan?
Um...well, no. Is that a requirement?
Oh yeah, you have swim across. Otherwise it doesn't count.
Dang it. That's too bad. What inspired Palmistry? Did you go to a fortune teller?
It wasn’t a specific incident. It's a song about a person who goes to a fortune teller because they're not very happy with their present.
I noticed that the cover art on your new album, Lost Channels, look like close ups of palms. Are they yours?
Yeah, it’s a photograph of a palm print. The cover art was done by two artists who did a whole series of palm prints with Indian ink. We stayed up all night and made hundreds and hundreds of prints. The palms might be mine. They're either mine or one of the artists.
Hundreds of prints? Please tell me there was wine involved.
(Laughs) Oh yeah, it was a palm print party! We did it for hours and a lot of wine was consumed. It came out really well I think. It looks like a topographical map instead of palm prints.
Why did you name the album Lost Channels?
We recorded a lot of it in the Thousand Islands region of the St. Lawrence River where it runs into Lake Ontario. It's really really beautiful there. While we were recording we heard a story from an aerial photographer about the Lost Channels. It was first documented in the late 1700s when the first ships were going through that body of water and the land was still being fought over. The story goes that some ships started disappearing. They called the area that they went through the lost channels.
You have managed to put out an album every single year since 2003. That is incredible.
Have I? I didn't even notice.
You must be writing all the time. What is your writing process like?
It's a little more difficult for me to keep up with the writing on the road, but writing is a constant thing. I only use about ten percent of what I write, so it's good to practice. It’s better to have be available then to just force it. If you're always writing something will eventually come.
What song are you most proud of on the album?
I like the way Concrete Heart turned out. I also really like the pedal steel work on Stealing Tomorrow. I’m really blown away whenever I hear that.
I’ve got to ask you about your new video for Pulling On a Line. Is there a deeper connection between the little kids with ears and the old man with wings to the song that I am just missing?
(Laughs) I think it’s just meant to be woodland weird thing. I don’t know. Isaac Rents, the director, came up with the concept. It was a really interesting thing to film it in Topanga Canyon. I think the video really matches the mood of the song.
What's your favorite thing to do in LA?
I haven’t been there enough, but I really like Silverlake a lot. I really like playing Spaceland.
Your Rocky Spine has the most gorgeous banjo pieces. Did you often write on banjo? Or did that progress later on?
I wrote that chord progression on the guitar. I asked Erik (Arneson) "Hey do you think you play this in the core hammer style." And he just nailed it.
There is a lyric in that song that has always bewildered me. What does, “The glaciers made you and now you’re mine.” mean?
It sort of blurs the lines a bit between environments. You have the larger idea of a mountain range as the spine being formed by glaciers and then you have the more private internal environments of someone's spine. I tried to contrast the two in that song.
What was the worst show you ever played?
It was a show in September 2006 in Columbus. That was worst show.
It was pretty traumatizing. We played after a local rock band. We weren’t traveling with our own sound engineer, so we had to use the venue's. The sound guy had to switch from loud and brash, amped pumped up to eleven, style rock band to us and our quiet folk songs. He just didn't get it, and we sounded terrible. We felt pretty awful about it, but we soldiered through.
What is the weirdest thing you ever saw at a show?
People seem to like making out at our shows. I'm not sure why. Oh and someone in the UK proposed during the show. They came up on stage and made this big announcement to the room. It was a surprise, but it was really cool.
What is the worst thing about touring?
The long drives, especially across Canada. It takes eight to fourteen hours to get anywhere. It's an incredible amount of distance covered in only a short amount of time. We’re basically still traveling with a van and a trailer, so we only get to see a place from the van window. It's kind of a bummer, but it’s part of the gig.
What is the best?
Making music with friends and reaching people. Making that connection with people in their lives. It's one thing to make a CD, but to play a good show is worth all of the hardship of getting there.
Do you have any strange promoter stories?
We had one show where the manager of the club disappeared after the show. He didn’t answer his phone at all. The staff just said that there was no money at the door even though the room was full, but that's the worst that has happened. We’ve just been lucky that hasn’t happened to us more often.
If you could sing with anyone in the world who would it be?
I sing along to Gillian Welsh CDs all the time. What a thrill it would be to sing it with her.
What band have you been listening to the most this month?
Timber Timbre from Vancouver are really good. I’ve been listening to that record a lot lately. They’re not signed to anything yet, but I think they're great.
If you were stuck on a deserted island and you could bring three things what would they be?
Food and water, and my record collection.
What are you going to play your records on?
OH! Um and a turntable with unlimited battery power.
Fair enough. Finish this sentence: If you are in Toronto you simply must…
Have breakfast at Yassi’s.
It’s the best breakfast diner in Toronto. They have really great vegetarian and vegan breakfasts.
Well thank you so much for talking with us.
Still curious about Tony Dekker? Check out his native Torontoist's Interview from 2006 here.