I continue to be fascinated by Hawksley Workman. (Part 2)

Here is the second part of my interview with Hawksley Workman that was originally for Feedback magazine but after the disappearance of my editor the article went to the my familiar stomping grounds, the Martlet. We talk about his new project, Mounties, oppression and manipulation through media, and the changing social landscape of Canada. One more thanks to Hawksley for being so open and thoughtful during our exceedingly long chat.

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(Read Part 1 of the interview here.) 

RM: Speaking of the oneness of people, “Headphones” – love that song by the way – Isn’t it kind of an ode to this thing that has kind of taken us over and separated us when we’re out of our houses? I think about that a lot. I love my headphones but they do kind of insulate me.

HW: It’s funny. When that song came out, like I think we were just busy enjoying creating it, we didn’t sit down and say, “We gotta come up with a song with a socially relevant message.” But it’s funny because I did an interview with the Globe about a week into that song coming out and it was a very philosophical conversation about it and I hadn’t given it much thought. What’s funny is I am the Walkman Generation, you know? I had a cassette player walkmen, I think like a lot of things that started in the 80s, it just wasn’t interesting enough yet to be a 100% complete distraction. Video games systems plugged into a black and white TV, that’s only so fun. Cassette Walkman, that’s only so fun. Calculator watch, that’s only so fun. It took another 30 years for this thing to become absolutely, 100% addictive. I’m just not of the generation where I need to be plugged in. But you’re right, the headphone phenomenon is really something. It allows you to create the soundtrack for your daily life. If you’re on the subway or on the way to work you get to choose the audio texture that supports the activity of your day. I think that’s cool. I think it’s cool that people are listening to music again. I think we in the music business were under the impression that with video games and so many other things vying for the attention span of people, and the ever-shrinking attention spans of people, we thought music would be one of the first casualties. But for some reason, music has been made portable and people can listen to almost whatever they want, wherever they want, whenever they want. Does it sound good? No, it sounds awful. I think for a lot of audiophiles, that’s the disappointing thing about this revolution. I still record on magnetic tape because it still sounds the best. Even though it is the most cumbersome format to work with, given that if you record on your laptop with ProTools you can chop and move and nip and tuck, whereas on tape you’re basically committed to what has been recorded. You can enter a whole other philosophical debate about that. For audio people, we’re all kind of disappointed – yes, people are listening to more music but they’re listening to more bad-sounding music, which is kind of bad.

RM: Listening to you is kind of listening to, or reading…

HW: Your dad, right?

RM: No, the Neil Young book (Waging Heavy Peace). Reading  him talk about his PureTone audio and how the MP3 is ruining music for an entire generation of people.

HW: Well I have to agree. I haven’t read the book but I have heard about what he’s proposing and it does make a lot of sense. You know, first of all music is a thing that should happen live. I think that’s ultimately where it lives in its most powerful form. So now we have a technology, we have for the last 60 or 70 or more years, where we can record music to be replayed later in the comfort and privacy of your own home. Pretty amazing, considering, I’m sure there were times where kings and royalty had chamber orchestras on hand if they felt the need to hear live music in the middle of the night. So that’s pretty cool. However, there’s just something about the old way we used to record. A lot of it was live, magnetic tape and then it would end up being on a vinyl record. There’s a physicality to that record that I think resonates in the human frame.  When I hear MP3s I can hear whether I’m listening to a good song or not. I can hear whether I’m listening to a good lyric or not. But does it sound like records? Does it sound like the Who? Does it sound like the thing I grew up with that made me love music? Not very often, not very often. You’re listening to things that are sort of manufactured to sound unrealistically loud and they’re meant to stand out on a playlist if you’re iPod is set on shuffle and meant to stand out on radio. It’s indicative that we’re not living the same sort of nuanced life that we were living not that long ago. It’s made music a competition.

RM: I’m still a vinyl guy so you don’t have to convert me. Actually, one of the reasons I was very upset that I have to order your record – I have this weird aversion to ordering things online. But when a new record comes out, the idea of going to the record store, picking it up and looking at it before I buy it, maybe buying another record, I just love the whole experience so much. It’s so rewarding to come home with a new gatefold record and open it up with all that big, bright artwork, ahhh, it’s great.

HW: Totally! Totally, totally, totally. The God That Comes record is not being distributed. You can argue that it’s not even really been released. Part of that is I don’t know where I fit into the music business landscape in Canada. I know since Mounties there’s lots of people who have remembered that I’m still alive and kicking. That song and its radio success has kind of woken everyone up to the fact that Hawksley Workman is still doing shit. A musical?! The God That Comes record, we just tried to make it as much like a Jeff Lynne produced ELO record than anything else. It was mostly recorded on tape. We used old, vintage analogue synths. It’s a very ambitious record and I didn’t know to who to even take this record to and say “Hey, do you wanna put this out?” Because in Canada there’s not really many avenues to release music that I can sort of see.

RM: It’s a shame I can’t get my hands on that on vinyl because it seems like, just in the idea of someone making a record that is supposed to stand as a unified whole these days. It seems like everything gets busted up into single and people put records where all the songs are really shiny, but the songs don’t seem to fit together when they’re played in sequence. When something does come out that’s a unified whole I get very excited. I like to tear it apart, listen to it over and over again.

HW: You, really are weird!

RM: No more weird that you, apparently.

HW: <laugh>

RM: Well, how are these first shows going?

HW: Great. Let me think…how many shows have we done? We’ve done eight or nine shows. It’s going amazing. The show’s been getting really great reviews so that’s been kind of nice. What’s been nice for me too is that I’ve been feeling like a bit of a novelty in theatre. The people who have come to the show are like “Oh god, there’s this rock and roll guy who’s apparently written a musical!” On paper I guess it just looks a little bit stranger but to me it’s just another thing that I decided to put some energy into. The performance is very, very fun. It takes a lot of energy out of me. It’s like getting on a toboggan at the top of the hill and then you don’t get to get off until the toboggan hits the bottom of the hill. The show requires me to be so focused and to be so in it that there’s very little room for me to breathe until it’s over.

RM: Well, that exhale at the end is probably better than it is at a regular show.

HW: It’s definitely a big feeling once it’s over. I also feel so strongly about the messages contained in the musical. I just feel like I’m putting something I really want out in the world out into the world, you know? I sort of feel that the ideas are veiled well enough that it still feels artful and not like I’m preaching but I think that it’s not veiled enough that you can’t see there’s a social and political message that I took really seriously.

RM: I’m not a big musical guy but I went to see the show here in Victoria when it was still a work in progress. You got me watching a whole thing that I wouldn’t have gone to see if it wasn’t for Hawksley Workman. You drew me into going to see a musical. It seems incredibly socially relevant – the way people’s emotions have been bottled up and this cathartic release. It all seems very timely, even though it’s a really ancient story.

HW: When Christian, my cowriter, brought the story to me, the moment he outlined the points of the story – I didn’t know about it. I’m just not that clever. He told me, “Here’s what we got. We got a nasty king who doesn’t want people having a good time and he wants to clamp down on this God who’s giving everyone an opportunity to drink wine, dance and have sex.” It just seemed to mimic so many elements of modern life. We’re all having this social and political austerity imposed on us and we’re all being told that the world’s changing and you gotta hold on to your pennies and keep your nose clean. Even the way that politics has become more polarized, there is no room for nuanced thinking anymore. You’re either with us or you’re against us. It’s just not what I grew up with. It’s not the sentiment or the dynamic I felt in Canada for most of my life. Canada, I never saw it as a place for cold calculation. Canadians are nuanced. You look at our culture and the things we absorb with passion and I think we’re a pretty strange and unpredictable people. I don’t think we can sort of be slotted into one side of the political spectrum or the other. I think we’re very interesting. And because I grew up rurally as well, I think, I never bought into that urban/rural divide. I’m just as comfortable in New York, Toronto or London as I am at my house in Brooks Falls. I’m not afraid of the people who are driving around my house in trucks and who have hard-working lives. I think there’s been so much unnecessary demonizing going on in Canada for the last little while. It just kind of makes me sad and sick.

BM: That divisiveness that’s kind of infiltrated our country definitely seemingly, well the media in our country, because when I talked to individual people I don’t think it’s as divisive  as I’m told that it is, it seems to be a relatively new thing. I’m only 28 and I remember a time when I didn’t hear about things like that, this constant division between people. It seems to be a relatively new and very powerful construct.

HW: I think you’re dead on. I think the media has really been set up to support that divisiveness. There’s a real agenda at work and I think that if you’re inclined to be awake when you’re absorbing media, if your inclination is to be awake and critical you’re going to be scratching your head quite a bit these days. What we’re looking at in the news is far from critical focus of any kind. It’s usually just the movement of a message and that message is not one that carries anything profound, big or good for humans a lot of the times. I look at the way wars are covered in television news. I’m no history buff but I’ve tried to figure out the context for some of these wars, some of these divides and the way that news is just spouted out without context is not healthy. I don’t think we’re educated enough to have opinions on a lot of the things we see. In the news we’re busy demonizing Iraq, Iran, someone or another, without context or understanding, especially if you don’t have a lot of experience communicating with other people. It’s not healthy. It all feels quite dangerous to me.

BM: It is. It’s a very scary thing. Especially as the media gets more and more powerful and they get more ways to get their message across when that message doesn’t even have a message or it’s a message of hate and division. Children don’t know how to process that and the education system doesn’t seem to want to teach media literacy to kids. It seems be a whole vicious cycle that unfortunately seems to be gaining momentum for some reason.

HW: Yeah, then of course I have the positive people in my life who are always talking about how things are moving in cycles. Again, I’ve really tried to contend with some of my negativity and anger around this. Like I said before, I realize the best thing I can do is make the stuff I make and that it’ll connect to the people it’s meant to connect to, maybe a few others. You know, a song like “Remember Our Wars” “Remember the bones crushed under feet in the cinders of homes/Remember the rape of the children it gave,” To me, that’s some of the ugliest stuff I’ve ever written but it’s somehow, that’s what was gurgling inside me and I really want that to be out there. The media kind of numbs us to something that, if you’re a human who’s awake, you should be absurdly put off by a lot of what we passively accept, like, “Ah, that’s what we’re doing now. Whatever.” And remember our wars, the bones, the rape, I think that sometimes we’re not being told the whole picture, you know?

BM: I don’t think we’re ever being given the whole pictures. Especially with the way wars are covered, it’s almost like this is just a fact of life that there’s going to be armed conflict all over the place. We’re just supposed to accept it and it seems like a lot of people do just accept it. It’s very strange.

HW: It is very strange. You are indeed right. I think if the notion of deep perpetual suffering was really put to people everywhere, to entertain this idea that someone’s kid gets killed in a war, that is where the seed of future suffering is planted and where that suffering really flowers. It’s a perpetuated cycle that has no relief. We also too are a society that seeks retribution more than we seek justice. We want to make people pay for their transgressions. We don’t want to rehabilitate criminals. We don’t want to mend fences. We don’t want to end poverty because poverty gives the police system something to do.

BM: See, now I’m getting all depressed and shit! But really, there’s gotta be more good than bad or we wouldn’t have made it this far, I think. We just don’t hear about those good things as much…I don’t think.

HW: I’ll give you that. What I always say…You’ll have a journalist on the ground in a war-torn country and the camera lense will focus in on a couple dozen guys burning a flag or an effigy and that’s the image of that place and those people that we get as humans, as the other guy in the story. Reality is if that camera lense was to pull back its focus you would see people trying to get to work, getting their kids to school, wanting to buy vegetables and make a nice dinner, wanting to fall in love, wanting to have the human experience that is at its essence simple, beautiful and true. But our image of what’s going on is that handful of people burning something in the street. I think you’re right. I guess what I’m trying to say, not that everybody who’s not being filmed on that camera is off doing the work of Robin Hood, but honest humans are busy trying to give their children and families a good life. A lot of the noise created by government and media has nothing to do with anything to do with life.

BM: Exactly. You’re preaching to the choir. We’re preaching to each other. I don’t think people inherently are…they just want to do their thing and then they get caught up. Like you said specifically chosen camera shots and audio clips designed to rile people up when there aren’t things to be riled up about. They’re riled up about the wrong things it seems.

HW: I think that is true. I think it’s a very effective distraction – keeping us worrying and angry about things that we need not be worried or angry about. It’s just a lot of stuff that we North Americans should be standing up and speaking about. It also feels more dangerous to speak out now. It’s not a great time to speak your mind. People who speak their mind at protest events get paddled and tossed in jails and have their lives temporarily, a lot of times more than temporarily, disrupted for no other reason than they want to have their voice heard in the situation. Seeing what happened at the G20 in Toronto for me was the beginning of a whole new, what you were talking about earlier with repeated images of war and how we get used to it, that sort of police state dress rehearsal we saw in Toronto to me was like a, “Fuck you, lefty Torontonians! We’re going to show you what it feels like to have your freedom taken away from you.” I was in Sweden at the time watching it online and I fucking wept. I wept and wept and wept. That was my city that was under attack. It was a violation at such a high level and what made it worse was some of the ambivalence and justification of it. I was like, “Wow, we’re so far down this road. I sure hope we can turn this thing around.”

BM: It’s amazing what people will just look at and go, “Oh yeah. That happened.” The first video I saw from that was of a group of protestors on Canada Day in the middle of the street singing “Oh Canada!” and at the last note of the song the riot police rushed them. I remember my girlfriend showing me that and I just sat at my computer with tears streaming down my face, watching that. How does Bob Dylan write a song like “Masters of War” in 1963 and things have only gotten worse. Everyone’s heard that song!  Everyone’s knows the power. John Lennon writes “Imagine”, etc. I don’t know.

HW: In the God that Comes there’s a lyric, “Remember the ways that men seek to obey a psychopath with a mandate to take pleasure away.” There’s lots of people in the world still who wish to follow authority and that believe that these are gentle men who get elected into positions of power. These are gentle people with altruism and patriotism at their core. I think it’s unfortunate and I don’t see much evidence that us believing that is getting us anywhere.

BM: I don’t know why we haven’t learned that people who want and take that much power are in it for anything but their own desire to get that power. It seems very strange but we keep believing it.

HW: You know what? I gotta go, I got another interview to do here. I don’t know what this is going to turn into. I apologize for most of it, the sprawling nature of it and for you. You’re going to have to figure out what to make of it.

BM: Eh, I’m always up for a challenge.

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Read the article from the Martlet here

Check for all things Hawksley at his site here


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