My friends, it's been a little while since you've heard from me. I've been busy preparing and executing my plans in and around the Rifflandia festival. It's the biggest week of music in Victoria every year (Though I still contend that the Victoria Ska Fest is the BEST week) and it's always a mightily distracting thing. But here I am with a delicious interview for you with my favourite guy to talk to and all-around dreamboat, Hawksley Workman. I conducted my this interview, my third with Workman, in preparation for writing his profile in the Rifflandia guidebook. The 600+ word article I wrote ended up getting cut down to somewhere around 175, so the amount not in there is mighty. We talk about his involvement in and the creation of supergroup Mounties, using art to deal bridge emotions and machismo, the best sounding venue in Victoria and how he crippled me emotionally with "Piano Blink."
Hawksley Workman: Hey Blake, how are ya?
Rags Music: I’m doing alright, how about you, man?
HW: I’m okay. It must be really early where you are.
RM: It’s 8 o’clock. But I’m a morning guy so it’s okay.
HW: I’m a morning guy too. I wasn’t so morning this morning.
RM: I guess it’s halfway through the day there so you better be up and running.
HW: <laughs> Yeah, seriously. So how are things out there? How are you doing?
RM: It’s starting to get to the warm part of the year and I don’t well in the heat. So I get really lethargic and grumpy. But I’m not sick this time. This is the first time I’ve talked to you and not been sick.
HW: That’s a bonus.
RM: How’s the studio going?
HW: Everything’s good these days. Lots is going on. Lots of life and work. There’s lots occupying head and heart right now, that’s for sure.
RM: Yeah, how do you deal with being so busy? Do you find you need to stop everything from time to time, find a release valve? Or do you just really enjoy being busy all the time?
HW: I don’t know. I honestly don’t know…it’s less about the enjoyment and more about it just is what it is. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about why I continue to involve myself in more things that I can actually, physically accomplish. It’s hit me…I’m not a rebel really, I’m not intellectualizing how this is going to play out. My guts just drag me into things. I’m realizing more and more that I’m run by instinct, I don’t really think a whole lot. With Mounties and the musical, those seeds got planted and once they started to grow it was like, “My gosh! Now what am I going to do?!” But I was compelled, utterly compelled to do that stuff. I’m planning a rest but I think that rest I’m planning is going to happen in 10 years. <laughs>
RM: I’m in one of the busiest times in my life right now and I find that sometimes my mind just shuts down, gets paralyzed with busy-ness. It’s a strange thing for me.
HW: In my business and probably not dissimilar to yours…Me and all my friends and peers were all broke and starving for some part of the early part of our career. It tends to inform your process going forward. It means that saying “No” has been bred out of your instinct. Saying “No,” means there’s a potentiality of you not being able to pay the bills. I think for a lot of musicans, it’s like learning to say “No,” is a big event.
RM: I would imagine, yeah. It’s gotta be a pretty big shift in world-view to be able to feel comfortable saying, “Ah, thanks, but I’m going to pass.”
HW: It’s so true. In most situations you’d never want to pass on any opportunity. The other side of it is that it might be nice to just relax now and again, whatever that means. I think for me too, I’m so desperate to get all the things done that I want to get done. Like I said, it’s not like I have it in my mind, like I can tell you intellectually what that is, it’s just my guts – the compulsion is that there’s more to do. I think the thing with Mounties for me is, I started out my life as a drummer. That was my passion. It’s still in some ways where I connect the most purely with music. It’s the instrument I really spend my entire life trying to master, to say it glibly. With that said, Mounties has become this thing where I get to fulfill an old dream – the dream that took me to Toronto, really, all those years ago. I get to do the thing that I do best.
RM: How is Mounties coming along? When they announced the lineup on the radio they seemed somewhat skeptical that everything would be ready to go…
HW: Really? Who said that?
RM: The organizers when they announced it. It sound like, “Well, we’re not sure…” but we’re going to announce it anyway.
HW: <laughs> Well, I don’t know what to say. It is true that we are…here’s what I know – Mounties is actually a live band before a studio band. All of the songs on this record were all born out of a live jam with the three of us. There’s an incredible energy to the three of us playing. I grew up loving bands and there’s something mystical that happens when a band of three, four or five people make music in a certain way that if you remove one of the parts, the whole sound changes. I feel that’s the case with Mounties. We’re going to play and it will be the first time we’ve played live together. There’s so many giddy email exchanges between the three of us about getting so excited to play live together. It’s going to be full of good energy at the very least. The record, as it stands, I’m so excited about it. It’s such a special piece of music. I just can’t wait for it to be out in the world. I’m in love with the project at the moment. I know it’s going to be a lot of work and a lot of effort to make it go…but yeah. And I get to be the drummer, which is so exciting.
RM: Do you feel more at home back behind the drums?
HW: I know as a singer and a guitar player I know how to wield that energy and I know how to create that momentum. Behind the drums that momentum you can create is so efficient because you can just create the intensity with the drums that just 100% informs the whole rest of the picture. With guitar it takes more effort to create the momentum in the music with the guitar because it just doesn’t have the…nuts and bolts elements of the drums are such that if you want to gear the band up the tools to do it are right at your fingertips. Whereas there’s just a little bit more cajoling if you’re a singer or a guitar player. So it is a little more like home. When I moved to Toronto, when I was 18, I moved there to become a session drummer, a drummer for hire. That was my main goal, my only focus. When I made for “Him and the Girls,” it was a response to a couple of lousy situations I’d been in. Being a drummer for a singer who told you you were getting paid one thing and the end of the night paid you another. Just situations where I thought, “Fuck it. I can probably write better songs than you and I can pay everyone properly.” My first record was a response to a couple people around me at the time who I thought I could out do.
RM: What are you working on in the studio right now? Is it a Hawksley Workman thing? Are you producing something?
HW: Actually, yeah, I’m producing something and writing for it. I’m so excited about it, I gotta tell ya. Over the last year I’ve been working with this super-talented band and we’ve been making a record on and off over the last 14 to 16 months. That’s who’s here at my house right now. We have four songs to finish up. I’m telling you, I think it’s going to be huge. I just feel really connected to music right now. I actually love music. It’s been awhile. That motivation feels really pure, which is really excited.
RM: I actually found you when I saw your name listed as the producer of Tegan and Sara’s This Business of Art and I thought, “That’s an interesting name. I’m going to look that guy up.” That’s how I discovered Hawksley Workman.
HW: I’ve produced a lot of records and I sometimes wonder who reads the back of these albums covers. For me as a kid, my heroes were always the guys whose names where on the record liner and not necessarily the guys whose names were on the front of the record. I grew up idolizing producers and drummers. To this day everybody makes fun of me and my obsession with certain hotshot drummers. It’s so not rock and roll, so not punk at all that I have such a deep obsession with the musicians and musicianship that goes into making those special records. It’s cool that that was how you made that connection. That’s a special record for me too. Those girls were so young and so much energy that needed to be focused and it was great to be around that.
RM: It takes a special kind of obsessive to be into the liner notes like that. It’s always good talking to someone else as crazy as I am.
HW: <laughs> I think that’s the romance that gets lost a little bit with iTunes. It’s not even vinyl records, well obviously they sound better than a CD and a CD sounds better than an MP3. It’s not even that the art work…it’s really going through the liner notes and seeing what studios were used and what people were involved. It always helped me romanticize the whole picture. I remember when I was producing Sarah Slean’s record Nightbugs all those years ago, we worked in two very famous studios in the US. We worked at Bearsville which was the studio that the Band recorded at and Todd Rundgren had used. REM and Jeff Buckley had worked there.
RM: Wow, that’s not bad company at all.
HW: Then we mixed the record in LA at a studio that was called Cello. Back in the day it wasn’t called that. It’s a three-studio complex. Everything has been recorded there. What was spookiest to me was that in Studio B, that’s where they made Pet Sounds. Every day I walked by the Pet Sounds studio and thought, “This is too much! This is way too much!”
RM: I can’t even imagine how I’d react to something like that. Wow.
HW: What else was cool was that Weezer was there with Ricko Casic recording the record that would have “Hash Pipe.” It was an interesting environment to be in because I was always a big Cars fan. So I was always a little bit nervous walking by Rick or saying Hi to him in the morning. It was just a really interesting, exciting and vibrant place to be at that time, that studio.
RM: So you’re obviously listed as Hawksley Workman as well as Mounties on the Rifflandia line-up…Is that a traditional Hawksley show or the God that Comes or…
HW: No. It’s just me and my piano player. Just the two of us. I think if I recall someone said it was like only 200 capacity so it’s really going to be a nice and tight feel. I think Hot Hot Heat is playing. I’m not sure if Limblifter is playing, but I heard that might be the case. Anyway, I know that we’re all going to be there, the Mounties guys.
RM: I should hope so, if Mounties is playing! Be a little messed to have some skype session or some hologram or something.
HW: <laughs> Well, when Rifflandia offered us the spot, it felt like a natural thing. No doubt we’re all a little nervous though.
RM: That’s probably a good thing. I think once you don’t have those nerves anymore you lose some sort of edge.
HW: <laughs> I just can’t tell you how exciting it is to play with those guys. Really, through Mounties and the God That Comes, how I feel like I have found a love of music again which I had lost for awhile. I think that anybody who makes music or writes or does anything creative for a living, you’re not always 100% motivated by the spirit. I think if you’ve lived awhile, if you have enough experience in your life with this kind of thing, it starts to make sense that your creative power is like the tide. Sometimes it’s very high and sometimes it’s just lower. Something about these couple of projects has really made me excited to make my next record. A lot of it is written, it’s just not recorded. It’s an interesting time. It’s going to be a really fun fucking time to just get to play the drums and sing and see what happens.
RM: Does doing all these other things, with your re-invigorated love for music, do you find that makes you like your older songs more when get to step away from them for awhile?
HW: I played a show yesterday for Canada Day and I did enjoy playing that old music. The struggle is always trying not to feel like a caricature of yourself. The guy who wrote “Jealous of Your Cigarette” and “Striptease,” it’s the same guy, I’m that same person. My life feels much different. When I listen to my first couple of records, there was a lot of bravado and confidence that at the time was all being faked in a way. Like any young artist does, you kind of have to…I knew what I was doing was probably really, really good but in order to go out into the world and say “Hey everyone, look at me!,” You have to find confidence and some of it has to be a bit of a façade. I was writing a lot about sex and relationships and relationships to God in the early records that were more imagined than they were real. My sexual experiences at the time wasn’t…I was a young man who was under the impression that this is how things probably were or should be and now I sort of feel like my connection to what’s real about life is just a little bit different I guess. I don’t know what I’m trying to say. I enjoyed playing “Striptease,” yesterday. I enjoyed playing “Anger as Beauty,” yesterday. I enjoyed playing “Smoke, Baby,” yesterday. But I think back to the kid who wrote that music and we don’t share much in common at the moment.
RM: It always struck me listening to those records, like you said “the sense of bravado.” It seemed like a performance art piece but there was a lot of real emotions there. I think that’s what brought me to it was the bravado seemed to be there to cover up the emotions that were also there.
HW: I’m really grateful that’s how you would interpret it because that’s what was happening. I know for lots of music fans I’m a huge turn off because it’s a mixed bag you get from what I do. It does always come from an honest place and it gets filtered in funny ways. I think sometimes it was maybe because I had a lot of ability, in terms of I was good at playing a handful of instruments, I never sounded very punk. I think punk got away with the bravado because it seemed like working man’s music. “Oh that guy doesn’t know how to play a guitar but he started a band anyways.” With enough attitude and a couple of chords you could make music that people aren’t afraid of. I think for hipster-type music fans my thing is just a little bit too confident. I think that sort of music fan is looking for more of the punk access point…
RM: Punk access point. You mean the unchallenging access point.
HW: Well that’s your, and probably my opinion.
RM: I don’t think there’s any less authenticity in something because you have to work for it. It’s just a little intimidating because you do have to work to get in there.
HW: You and I think the same. We’ve discussed this kind of stuff in the past. The culture is always busy trying to accommodate the bell-curve. I don’t know how to necessarily play the game in that way. I do a lot of thinking about it…A lot of music that becomes successful has an outfit that accompanies the music. If you’re a band with an outfit that your followers can wear, it’s a real step in the right direction. I guess what I’m saying is I don’t know if I ever really had an outfit.
RM: Well, that’s fair. Maybe just an outfit no one else can put together the same way. Certainly have your own thing going on though. It’s been awhile since you’ve been in Victoria playing. You did the God That Comes awhile back. It’s been a couple of years.
HW: You might be right. I was just there but I didn’t play Victoria, did I?
RM: No, you didn’t. I remember talking to somebody, could have been Jennifer, and they said you couldn’t get Alix Goolden and it didn’t work out or something.
HW: I love that venue.
RM: You sound great in there. Your voice carries so well in there.
HW: It’s a special venue. It’s cool to have a career where you get to return to some of these really magical venues. It just seems like we’ve had so many special shows in that room. I remember the last time we did a big rock band show there I had been taking steroids because my voice had been affected so badly by this horrible cold I had. So, steroids are a whole ball of wax. They effect people in different ways and they made me into an unfathomably ugly human to be around. Even though it opened up my voice. I went on stage that night in Victoria with the steroids and it was a feeling of invincibility. I could sing any note I wanted. Having just gone through this terrible cold and not knowing if I was going to be able to sing the show then popping this pill that gives you all this fucking bravado and attitude then you get out on stage. I guess what I’m trying to say is that no wonder steroids are such an addictive thing for somebody who’s a competitive personality. I’ve never done cocaine but I imagine that’s what it feels like – this intense feeling of power. When you go out and you sing and these steroids are giving you this falsely amped up vocal range…but it turns you into a fucking menace. I’m sure I nearly got divorced being on those pills for a week because I was such an asshole to be around. It got me thinking about competitive athletes who do that stuff and you really gotta want to win in order to feel like an asshole all the time.
RM: That sounds awful. I remember that show – you came out for a second encore after half the place had left with the lights on and you sat behind the drum kit for “Smoke, Baby.” It was awesome. You looked so happy behind the kit playing that song. I remember it very well.HW:That’s wicked. I did that yesterday. That was my little gift to myself is I closed with “Smoke, Baby” yesterday, The drummer takes the guitar and I get to play the drums. Everybody’s happy.
RM: Before I get off the phone - I know you got to get back into the studio and I need to get back to work, because that needs to happen, I sent you a Twitter message a little while ago that you responded to about “Piano Blink” and how it murdered me. So, thank you for that song.
HW:Thanks for saying so.
RM: It hit me at the right and it describes a lot of things happening in my life right now.
HW: Thanks a lot. That’s a funny song, that one. It took shape in a funny way. I had come from Europe straight to LA to do some writing with a friend and he didn’t want to let me go to bed until we had written at least one song. I had come out of a couple of relationship situations that weren’t so hot and I was looking to escape and that’s sort of how it came. It has a life of its own a little bit, too.
RM: It’s a beautiful song. I’d heard it so many times before and I was sitting in my room listening to it one day and it just blind-sided me.
HW: That’s amazing. I appreciate you telling me.
RM: I appreciate you making it. Thanks for letting me interrupt your studio time.
HW: Yeah, man. Always a pleasure to chat with. Take care of yourself and see you in September.