To honour those who fought in — and suffered through — WWI, Ottawa-based band Hilotrons are performing live renditions of some of Ennio Morricone’s compositions alongside a screening of the 1928 Canadian silent film Carry On, Sergeant! Mike Dubue, the band’s vocalist among other roles, clarifies why this film is unlike most war-era pictures, and gives some insight into the reasoning of a creative mind.
Apt613: Other than being a Canadian band from Ottawa (an obviously patriotic city), why were you so drawn to this project initially?
Mike Dubue: Truth is, we’re a band where 60% of our band members live in Ottawa. It may seem ridiculous to some (or most), but I, personally, would never call us a “Canadian band”, as I don’t identify with nationalism and I despise the current government, previous governments and probably future governments. I also believe Commonwealth is complete insanity and I am ashamed of the European roots that “built” this country.
On the surface, I understand why one would associate Carry On, Sergeant! with patriotism, as Canada is proud of its war mongering, achievements and symbolism, while never acknowledging our treatment of First Nations people as genocide or the genocides we support in other countries… But this film is about shell shock (PTSD) and empathizes with ALL soldiers who see battle – it nods at the conscription crisis of 1917 – it sarcastically pokes fun of the majority who were brainwashed by our dominion at the beginning of WWI – it tries to find humanity in the dark and lifeless reality of war.
Essentially, it’s a very anti-war film, which is one of the many reasons I am drawn to it. I also wanted to offer veterans a cinematic event on the centennial anniversary of the First World War: admission to this show is free for ALL war veterans. Canada treats war vets like shit and we ALL need to do our part to bring awareness to PTSD and mental health.
Another reason why I am working with this film is to emphasize the devastating history of the Ontario Motion Pictures Bureau, a big player/studio in the silent era from 1917-1934. We are lucky this film survives (Gordon Sparling, Assistant Director, donated a print to Library & Archives), as the vast majority of OMPB’s films were melted down to recover the silver nitrate contained in their film emulsion – an act ordered by the Ontario government, which was desperate for money during the Great Depression.
When bringing up Library & Archives, I’m also sickened by the Harper Government’s active role in the destruction of historical depository and ongoing cessation of private acquisitions, due to policies and strategic cuts, as they continue to acquire War Of 1812 material, keeping in their interest in promoting a specific interpretation of history and identity.
Having watched some of your videos, it’s quite clear that you guys have a pretty sharp sense of humour (I’m thinking of music videos such as “Born a Dancer”). Carry on, Sergeant! is known as a film that deals with a serious subject but still has some comedic aspects. Is that blend something that appealed to you when you decided to be part of this move revamp?
I enjoy the darkness and the comedy of life. I like to reflect those together in my art to create the absurd, making musical statements or asking musical questions. British humorist Bruce Bairnsfather (director of Carry On, Sergeant!) suffered from shell shock during WWI and then continued to fight war using humour and sarcasm as a cartoonist, writer and film director. I find that inspiring. I find humour in art inspiring.
Ennio Morricone has a pretty epic résumé, and has worked with a variety of genres. What made you choose this composer in particular as someone whose work you’d want to reinterpret?
Ennio Morricone is one of many favourite composers, arrangers and improvisers that have inspired me musically. His musical relationship with film has an incredible sense of play and the commentary towards each scene feels like another character written into the narrative. Proven again and again (with modern filmmakers) his music is timeless as a recurring participant over different motion picture.
The actual production of his music is and always will be ahead of its time – fresh and exciting, always discovering sounds, regardless of context. Concerning reinterpretation of his music, we haven’t done much, other than break down orchestrations to fit four voices with percussion: keyboard, keyboard, guitar and bass. We focus on using a lot of keyboards he uses (Clav, Farfisa, etc.), picked muted bass guitar, orchestral percussion mixed with drum kit and a dynamic range of guitar sounds. One element of Morricone that we do harness and reinterpret is the avant-garde free improvisational approach found in Gruppo di Improvvisazione di Nuova Consonanza, an ensemble he was part of, considered to be the first experimental composers collective.
This project is pretty amazing, but it’s also incredibly ambitious. Not only do you have to do justice to this classic Canadian film, you’re also reinterpreting a well-known composer’s work. But it must be important for you guys to bring your own Hilotrons sound to the mix — something your fans want to see as well. How did you keep this balance? Was there any creative difficulty you faced when working on this show?
None of these things were a concern. Nor am I ever looking for any sort of balance in music. Whatever the music or concept dictates is the direction that I take creatively. We are inspired by music, which is an endless, unexplored ocean. Appeasing any audience that we do have is the last thing on my mind, as I have high expectations for all audiences of music to accept the responsibility of growing and evolving and challenging themselves, which are the same high expectations I have of musicians, bands, composers, arrangers and producers.
You can view the trailer below.
Carry On, Seargent! is presented by the Lost Dominion Screening Collective and accompanied by live music from the Hilotrons. The show takes place at The Bytowne Theatre (325 Rideau St) and starts at 7pm on Tuesday, November 11.