Sunday marked Day 4 of the 2019 Dragon Boat Festival, wrapping up another successful edition. Despite a rainy start, mother nature has since cooperated, allowing fans to enjoy the last few days in perfect weather, which held out for one more night.
The festival went out with a bang, starting with homegrown Trails taking the stage at 5:30pm. Her minimalist soundscapes highlight the intimate quality of her voice, and blend in perfectly with a laid back Sunday afternoon. At 7pm, local brothers Dubé cranked up the intensity with their grunge-inspired alt rock, fuzzed out guitars, fun covers, and a LOT of energy.
Last but certainly not least, closing out this edition of the festival is Toronto’s Ubiquitous Synergy Seeker (USS for short). The duo composed of singer/guitarist Ash Buchholz and turntablist Human Kebab (a.k.a. Jason Parsons) got their big break in 2008 when their debut recording Hollowpoint Sniper Hyperbole started getting radio airplay in their hometown. Since then, they’ve released a few dozen songs, either as singles, EPs, or as full-length albums, developing a unique combination that blends alternative rock, spoken word, turntable loops, and any other sound they think may fit. As erratic as their releases have been, their success has been fairly sustained throughout their career, buoyed by a reputation as a phenomenal live act. At this point in their career, they have a full slate of songs to build a setlist of fan favourites, while also having honed their stage personas over that decade.
We caught up with Human Kebab last week to discuss what they’ve been up to, their live shows, and their plans for future recordings.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
APT613: You’ve been pretty quiet in 2018. Before the Bonavista tour and after it, you kind of went dark again after releasing those two singles so far. So what have you guys been up to?
Human Kebab: So Ash and I went on some pretty extensive song writing trips at the top of 2019, having finished the tour and only releasing singles here and there, we decided as a team that we needed to build a folder of potential songs for our next album. We actually started thinking that we should make a full album like we did in 2009 with Questamation, which was 10 years ago, crazy enough.
“We get comfortable when we are uncomfortable.”
So we found that we get comfortable when we are uncomfortable, so we go to new places just to write songs with new people, and just to experience new things. Because being in Canada, and being in the winter in Toronto, much like the Ottawa region, it’s okay when you’re starting out, but as you get older and you get more experience and you get a taste for travelling, you just want to get out of it. So this winter, we went to Manchester and London and the United Kingdom, and then we went to Stockholm, Sweden, we came home, and we went to Nashville, Tennessee where we have had great success with songs and we just went at it with people from all over the world to see how many ideas we could put in the folder.
In the lead up to Dragon Boat Festival in Ottawa, Ash and I have just both done our own respective individual things: I’ve delved heavily into DJ’ing and radio and production and remixes and Ash has been meditating and been in silence and just sorting his whole world out and recharging himself for the summer.
You have a reputation for amazing live shows. How do you take your live experience and get everybody involved? I know your club shows are basically interactive, like everyone feels part of the show. So how difficult is it to do that in a festival environment when you have people all stretched out over a field.
With festivals, it’s an extension of the club experience. However, for example, we played Hope Volleyball a couple years ago in Ottawa, and we realized going into it that if it’s a free show, or in that case it was a volleyball tournament, but Dragon Boat is about the dragon boats, our job is to not only entertain enough, and of course appeal to our current fanbase, but also to bring in new people, because there will probably be thousands of people there that have never heard of our band name. Or they will recognize a song that they heard on Live 88.5, but we’re going into it thinking that we should be ourselves and be quirky and fun and weird. At the same time, we should try to appeal to everybody because at the end of the day, you just want people to listen to our music and enjoy the live experience.
We’re really excited to come to Ottawa. With each passing calendar year, when you have a new song or a few songs out or a new album out, you look forward to going back to the cities that have been with you since Day 1 and Ottawa is definitely in our top four.
In terms of releasing new music, you’re going back and doing a full album, but with the way the music industry is these days, you can basically release whatever you want, whenever you want. So what’s the mindset going in for taking the time and crafting a full album?
I think it’s because Ash and I are both at the point in our careers where we both want similar things, but we both want different things, and I mean Ash is always talking to me about, “why can’t we put out this song? Let’s put out this song” and we go back and forth about what we should put out and when, and obviously with the input of our team, they’re listening to what’s in the folder, and Ash said it best: this music just needs to be heard.
So we just decided in the past, like with EPs Approved, Advanced Basics and New World Alphabet, we chose quality over quantity, and we did that because our producer that we worked with, the three of us would be in the studio for months at a time and it would take us two weeks to finish one song, and we would be so excited about it. But you’ve only got so much left in your tank to finish the next five or six songs, so by the time you get to seven or eight, you feel like you’ve spent a lifetime crafting this large EP.
About us going dark, Ash and I have taken this time away to be creative all over the world and we have enough ideas in this folder now that again, with the guidance from our team, we actually feel confident enough now to be able to show people more than seven or eight songs. And that’s a really good feeling because, like I said, we haven’t been able to do that comfortably in 10 years. But I think that’s ok, because if you take the time, and you make music you’re proud of, and then you see fans are drawn to it and everybody is invested, it’s perfectly fine nowadays to put out seven or eight songs. With us being this deep into the game now, and feeling comfortable with what we’ve created, let’s give more music to everybody no matter where the technology is streaming it then.
Well I think your approach of quality over quantity shows through when you look at Advanced Basics. When you have seven songs, and four of them chart, that says a lot.
Sometimes it’s sort of ‘for better or worse’ to look at radio, and to look at streaming and sales and whatnot, but at the same time you can’t help it. Because Advanced Basics at this point has been our most successful album. It was at a time where we were ramping up, and we just couldn’t do anything wrong. I think after you had a taste for that level of success but also just to see how impactful it has been on fans all over the world, you just want to make sure when you step up to the plate again that you are batting 500. And for all the right reasons. Ash has to be content, I have to feel comfortable, whoever we are working with has to be on that level, our team, and ultimately, are we delivering the right music to all the right people that we’ve come to know and see at shows all over?
You’ve been around for over 10 years now, and from the start you were never easy to pigeonhole into a specific genre. USS fell into the ‘alternative’, but basically you were the alternative to the alternative, because at the time, back in 2008, Hollowpoint Sniper Hyperbole was nothing like anything on the radio. Now, a decade later, you look at some of the bands like Twenty One Pilots or Billie Eilish who are breaking the mould and crossing over into mainstream. How does that feel like being part of that wave of people who push back against the boundaries?
It’s a peculiar but incredible place to be a part of and associated with because nothing that Ash and I do can be considered normal. At the same time, we do realize that to have your voice heard in this day and age, and music, and especially as an alternative act, you still have to be mindful of what people can tolerate, and it’s definitely interesting to see Twenty One Pilots in particular. A two-piece band that throw all their influences into every single song, but then suddenly, a few years ago, you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing “Stressed Out” or “Ride”, even on pop stations. They stay true to their alternative roots, and they love their fans. There is a very similar trajectory with us and them.
At times, it can be a little daunting to be the alternative to the alternative because the very reality is you still have to go out and pound the pavement, and you have to work for every single fan that you earn. And songs that you think might take on a life of their own somewhere don’t, because maybe we are a little too quirky, or maybe that’s just us. We will put out the type of material that pleases us, and once in a while it’s going to work or it’s not. But we still have our fans. That’s what really matters the most, because those are the people that are going to support you through thick and thin, and you have to keep giving them the right music.
We’re really looking forward to seeing you in Ottawa again and can’t wait to listen to the new album when it comes out.
That’s amazing. We really appreciate it. I always want to see us continue to go crazy wild and do everything, but I think that in 2018 and 2019, it’s become more important than ever to take a step back and enjoy it and appreciate it and see where else it can go. I think that this period of, I was going to say ‘darkness’ but its never darkness, its just a period of stepping back, has been very fruitful for both Ash and I, and I think once we start playing shows again and we get that energy from the people it will become apparent what our next move should be, and most definitely to finally put out this damn album.
That’s a wrap on the 2019 Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival at Mooney’s Bay Park. Have a look back at apt613.ca for all of the daily previews and interviews with headliners.