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At Birdman Sound, home of The Band Whose Name Is A Symbol. Photo by Chrissy Steinbock.

Notes from the underground: a conversation with The Band Whose Name is a Symbol

By Chrissy Steinbock on July 21, 2016

Ottawa’s The Band Whose Name is a Symbol (TBWNIS) is like that neighborhood diner you’ve walked past a thousand times, the one that’s all history and character, the one that stands out amongst the flashy up-and-comers because it does what it does with a lot of heart and looks after their own.

Since forming in 2008 TBWNIS has been taking listeners on a journey to the great beyond with their improvised free rock psychedelia. In that time, there have been lots of shows, mostly local, ten vinyl-only LPs and a growing following in the city and further afield. There have also been creative thrills and like opening for Pere Ubu and performing with Krautrock icon Damo Suzuki, the lead singer in Can on three separate occasions.

If you’re in town Saturday July 23, head down to the Dominion Tavern to take a trip with TBWNIS. Destinations may include the darkness, the desert, deepest space and just about anywhere in between. In the meantime if you’d like to hear their story read on.

Listening to TBWNIS, you’ll soon find that it’s pretty tricky to label their sound.

This is music for listening and getting lost in, textural, iridescent stuff with magic in the warp and weft of sonic threads. Stylistically, it’s all over the map and there’s very little territory they don’t wander into even if just for a moment. Drummer John Westhaver describes the sound as psychedelic but very progressive with a lot of world music influences and heavy but with a lot of melody and “prettiness.” As far as pinning down the genre, synth player Jason Vaughan says, “It seems like the kraut rock acolytes call us kraut rock and the space rock kids call us space rock. There are hints of us in Tangerine Dream, there are hints of us in Amon Düül and Can and these people who are kind of the stalwarts of where we come from.” When approaching TBWNIS, it’s best to leave the labels behind and just dive in.

TBWNIS was born from the dissolution of Four ‘n’ Giv’r in 2008. Rhythm section Mark McIntyre (Red Hots, Weapons of Mass Seduction) and John Westhaver (Exploding Meet, Resin Scraper) decided to form a new project, something more free form and experimental but just as heavy. When thinking of two guitarists to fill out the sound, they looked to Bill Guerrero (Weapons of Mass Seduction/Jerry Gross Organization) and Nahaniel Hurlow (Dead City Rebels/Fortunate Sons) who were friends they’d met playing in other bands.

Photo from TBWNIAS' Facebook page.

Photo from TBWNIAS’ Facebook page.

The membership has fluctuated over the years, at times reaching nine members before contracting to the current five: founding members John Westhaver, Nathaniel Hurlow, and Bill Guerrero, with the addition of Jason Vaughan (Cold Coffee and Salty Boots) on synthesizers and electronics and Dave Reford (Castor) on guitar and pedals. As far as how they all found their way to the band Jason says “It’s not by design. We’ve all existed in a similar cultural pocket. It was just a question of opening up those channels where we can share.”

John Westhaver is also the owner of Birdman Sound, a highly respected Bank St. record store that’s been expanding ears and minds for twenty-five years. Like the band, the store is a well-kept secret with fans spread far and wide. Birdman is also the band’s physical and spiritual home. It’s where they’ve each made musical discoveries browsing sides, joking around and sharing their best finds. Down in Birdman’s basement has been the rehearsal and recording space where they’ve gathered every Wednesday for the past eight years to journey into the madness and beauty that is their collective sound and record nine LPs. It’s cold the night we meet to talk and tour the space so it’s hard to miss that there’s no heat down there. The cave feel makes the whole thing more impressive. There’s a long wall plastered with song sketches, titles, and set lists including the amusing “Cheez off the box” and “Misery of haggis.” Though it never made a record John and Bill insist that the latter was an actual song and they have the recording to prove it.

In the Birdman Sound basement. Photo by Chrissy Steinbock.

In the Birdman Sound basement. Photo by Chrissy Steinbock.

When you hear “improvised” you might think of jazz, but TBWNIS flip the script on that too. Asked about their backgrounds Bill says, “Most of us are not trained musicians but we’ve all been playing for forever in some aspect of it or another. TBWNIS doesn’t need charts or sheet music. Their lingua franca is their record collection. As John puts it:

“It’s not bullshitting or bragging or anything, we’re all like fuckin’ geek music fans and we know music intimately. If we put all our record collections together we’re looking probably in the vicinity of 35,000 records and a wide spectrum of every genre imaginable that goes back in time fifty years. The bottom line is if all our places were burning down, the one thing we’d all think about, aside from the loved one who might be asleep is fuck, my records! That same thought, that’s what makes this band good and why we keep going. It’s all about music.”

TBWNIS are an example of how to get out of your own way and just make. No doubt it isn’t all easy. Creative partnerships never are, but it seems they’ve dodged a lot of the hurdles that can slow a band down. Part of the ease has come out of plugging into their community.

There’s the community around Birdman Sound and then there’s CKCU, where John has had his radio show Friday Morning Cartunes 20 years running and where Bill also has a show. The relationships that have grown out of these hubs have fueled the band. Through CKCU their music reached Mary McKinnon, who also has a show. As a fan of both TBWNIS and Damo Suzuki she saw a potential for a creative collision and arranged for them to meet up and create. They performed together three times, and now there’s a TBWNIS song named in her honour. It was also at CKCU that John and Bill got to know David Sarazin who offered to record their first studio album at Raven Street Studios. It’s currently in the works and set for release later this year on Cardinal Fuzz. If you’re curious to hear what’s coming John recently posted the teaser track “Irene’s Meadow.”

Another big piece of their band’s power has been making the band a self-contained, super DIY operation where almost all aspects of production are done in-house. Bill’s covered recording, production and mastering for most of the band’s records. Nathaniel and Jason handle printing and design while Dave contributes artwork and John stocks the records and promotes it through his network.

It’s an exciting time for the band. Their music is reaching new listeners with their recent releases on U.K. based boutique labels Cardinal Fuzz and Drone Rock Records. Their 2015 release Masters of the Molehill was the first time their music has been widely available outside Canada and it sold out in 2 weeks. Next came the release of Live at the Dominion 2010 which was also quickly snatched up by eager listeners. Most recently, Cardinal Fuzz put out a 3-LP box set featuring re-releases of, TBWNIS vs. the Purveyors of Conspicuous Authenticity, Scrappy little jaw and Pathfinder, all re-mastered by Chris Hardman. The box set addressed scarcity issues for a brief time before it sold out too. You can still find it in digital form on the TBWNIS Bandcamp page though, and it’s an ideal gateway into the band’s extensive oeuvre.

It was interesting to hear how the guys in TBWNIS have reached a point where they talk the way they play, each bringing their own distinct style to the table with an uncanny sense for how to play off each other to create something bigger. Here is a remix of excerpts from our conversation about improvisation, sidestepping commerce and reaching listeners on the other side of the world.

We’re just a bunch of Wednesday guys at a terrific record store who really like to make noise and make each other laugh and respect one another.

Apt613: How do you approach improvisation?

Bill: The range of concepts of improv that we run is: from the absolute start to finish, the whole thing is created on the spot and never to be revisited because we can’t remember what the heck it was, to things that have some bones to ‘em but everything that’s around it is a little less nailed down.

Jason: It’s calculated dowsing from the ether. You strike upon these moments and perhaps one member will come up with a particular riff and we explore it and sometimes it turns into what you still might consider to be improvisational but more of a structured piece that we work on. Very much with many of the recordings we just find ourselves in a spot and we really listen to one another. A big part of playing this music is really keeping your ears open and sharing in the experience that you’re making something out of nothing. And we’ve gotten quite confident I think in it too. We really trust each other.

John: There’s nothing we played the other night that will ever be played that way again, even though we will play those pieces maybe as early as next week. They will basically have the same key and concept and skeletal structure but they will never be delivered the same way a second time. One night it could be six minutes, the next week the same piece could be twelve minutes.

Jason: It is really about sharing moments in many respects and being open to the process taking you over, the idea that the muse is different for all of us, but because we’re in a group there are hive mind aspects to it, in terms of us trying to reach a goal. When we enter into this agreement creatively, we do keep ourselves open to this notion that we may wind up somewhere we’ve never been before, but the freedom in that is we don’t have to focus on what we think the record should sound like for our listeners or what we need to produce as our art. In our case I think it comes from that place where we really love to fulfill our relationship with the process and we hope that people will dig it because we really do.

I read one review that began “with a name like The Band Whose Name is a Symbol they’re playing hard to get.” Is that fair?

Bill: Having a band name is so loaded as a marketing tool. We have this kind of name and we’ve written it in this kind of drippy font, and therefore we must be like looking for this kind of listener. Or we’ve chosen this kind of name and it’s very removed and distant and non-committal, so we must be this sort of band, and have this kind of haircut, and probably are in this age range, and I just don’t really want to play that game because I’m just naaaawt interested. I just want to play music with my friends, put it out and if somebody’s digging it, that’s awesome.

Jason: Maybe it is that symbolic idea of needing to remove our identities from the music, but it’s also a representation of our, dare I say, fuck you to the idea that we need to be named something like DJ bad guy and the fun bears. We’re two diamonds and four chevrons and we hope you enjoy two diamonds and four chevrons or whatever you need to call it. It’s getting back to process, you know, freeing yourself from having to be a blues band or having to be something.

Bill: I think that’s actually one of the things I really like about doing this band. When you describe the band, you sort of have a description of action words you would use. You would have to say this is how we do what we do.

On reaching listeners abroad:

Jason: I think if you unlock the personal creative wealth that is probably the antithesis of modern conventions of wealth, what you receive back is “I’m free to do as I please and share this experience of making with my peers and in our case, like holy shit, with some guy in Greece and some girl in Scotland”.

It is pretty great that where some bands are so intentional in developing a marketing plan so they can say, well, we reached Greece for you, it was like throwing a message in a bottle and tossing it into the ocean

Jason: And it bumps up onto the shore and someone walks by it and there’s something just for them. And there’s no 8×10 glossy with us mugging standing in front of a brick wall, holding onto our instruments like a bunch of dopes. When I read some of the reviews from the European and the American blogs and well respected music sites there’s part of me that just wants to laugh because we’re just a bunch of Wednesday guys at a terrific record store who really like to make noise and make each other laugh and respect one another.

Nathaniel: Not only do we get to play a weirder type of music, feeding off the enthusiasm abroad as well. It’s always really reassuring to know that there’s people in other cities and other countries who dig what we do here. Reading some of the reviews of the Live at the Dominion thing, it was pretty stunning to hear what someone halfway across the world is getting out of a gig we did at the Dominion on a Wednesday night. Granted, it was a pretty cool thing that happened that night. We had people who aren’t usually with us to feed off that enthusiasm, not just in Ottawa and the region but over in Europe and around the world. It’s pretty remarkable.

John: And that’s still not why we do it. Bottom line is we have fun together, we get along, we like each other, and we have a blast doing it.

If you’re still wondering what improvised, free rock psychedelia is, come out to the Dominion for a trip with TBWNIS Saturday. Your ears will thank you.

TBWNIS perform with The Radiation Flowers and David Jackson Saturday July 23 at the Dominion Tavern. For details, see the Facebook event.