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Bob Hallett of Great Big Sea: The Popdose Interview

Great Big Sea XX

It’s cold in Newfoundland. Must Wear Scarves.

Popdose talked to Bob Hallett from Great Big Sea about frozen horses, the music industry (or what’s left of it), the songwriting process, Christmas music, asking fans to buy a $400 box set, and how the band compares to Rage Against the Machine.

“You can’t tweet your way to rock stardom” – Bob Hallett, Great Big Sea.

Such is the life of up-and-coming bands trying to make it in the music business. But it’s also true for bands trying to stay relevant. Bands like Great Big Sea got their start long before the internet sucked the life out of the industry. But trying to survive and make a career out of being in a band is becoming increasingly difficult. We talk to Bob about all of that.

But first, let’s talk about Rage Against the Machine.

Both yourself and Rage Against the Machine are releasing 20-year retrospectives called XX this fall. What are the similarities between the two bands?

(Laughter) 20 years old, and that would be about it. And I can’t imagine actually a band with whom we would have less in common than Rage Against the Machine. And they’re very political, where we’re not. They’re sort of informed by various strains of hip-hop, where we’re not. They’re very much in rock, you know — sort of a drums, base, lead singer, lead guitar band, which we’re not. There must be some kind of common ground, but I’d have to look long and hard to find it. We both played Los Angeles. That would be as far as it goes.

Surviving for 20 years in the music biz is pretty much a rarity. How have you guys been able to pull that off?

I think early on, we really decided that this was going to be our career and that we both wanted to and we’re determined to do this for the rest of our lives. That gave it a level of ambition and commitment that I just don’t see a lot from other bands who sort of see it as an artistic project that has a beginning and a middle and an end. But for us, we didn’t want to do anything else. For Sean, Alan, me and Darryl it was a family trade. Our parents and our uncles that played music sort of professionally and semi-professionally. So it wasn’t an absurd thing to do.

We’re there ever any moments where you thought you couldn’t pull it off? Or did it help that you had a big core following in Canada and if you could be big in America, that would just be gravy?

Well, there was no kind of ‘a-ha’ moment on any front, really. We would still do it to some degree. You know that we’re underdogs. We come from a very obscure, isolated corner of North America with a very distinct culture and language that’s not necessarily appreciated by the mainstream North American culture and we’re making music based on the rhythms and melodies of traditional Newfoundland music. We weren’t using any of the sort ‘hits of the day’ to determine what our sound was. We already have strikes against us. I just get that kind of survivor and determination from the word, go. There’s lots of ups and downs and we fight just as hard as any band, but our determination to keep the band going forward has never waned.

Your music has evolved but at the same time stayed true to your Newfoundland roots.

I mean, we never tried to stay in the same place. The idea was to be sort of true to ourselves and for me in particular, that was the world that I came out of. The traditional music wasn’t sort of a passing fancy, you know, something that I learned at summer camp. That was something that I heard every day of my life growing up and it was important to my family and to my community that I know how to do this. That I learned that art form. It was easy to and it remains easy to do that. But we’ve also known from the beginning that this people aren’t going to buy the same record over and over again. They’re not going to go see the concert over and over again. And we we’re also sort of stimulated and interested in everything that came our way and work with a lot of different people and bringing everything in through our sound that fit. So, you know there’s nothing really orthodox about it. Newfoundland music — unlike say, bluegrass — isn’t particularly orthodox. Like, there’s no kind of one way to do it. It’s very open to ideas and interpretations and influences. And so, we probably should of taken advantage of that.

All three members of Great Big Sea are very strong songwriters. When you’re in the studio, how does the flow go with being critical but supportive of your bandmates at the same time?

The biggest thing is that every song starts at an equal footing. We don’t call it based on who wrote it or who’s the biggest bully that day or anything like that. It’s essentially all of the songs go in the hat when we’ve come to a point where we think we can make a record and the best ones win. And if that’s one guy gets 12 or one guy that gets two, that’s not important. What’s important is that we make the best record possible. And for us as writers too, we’re also competing with not just the hits on the radio but our repertoire of traditional music, which is very important to us. It’s often songs that people remembered without the benefit of electricity or a tape recorder or even a pen and paper. Songs that people just remembered in their own heads and kind of learned from each other. It had to be very good, because they had memorable ideas and images and lyrics and melodies or people forget them . So, you know we’re competing against songs in some cases that are five or six hundred years old and that’s how it’s kind of leaning over our shoulders too.

On the retrospective XX album, there’s a cover of Pete Townshend’s “Let My Love Open the Door.” Cover songs have always been a strong part of the band — how does the process come about picking that song?

Essentially it comes out in a good song versus a bad song. I mean, people are always bringing covers to the band. But they had to be, you learn very early on in your career, especially if you’re aiming for a lifelong career as we were…..that you had to make friends with these songs because if there good and people like them, there’s a very good chance that you’re going to play it at every concert for the rest of your life. Therefore (laughs), it’s got to be a good one. So…you know, sort of passing fancies and tunes learned for a show or whatever, you know, might get played once or twice and then abandoned. Whereas “Run Runaway” or “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” were very, very strong songs that have remained in our repertoire. When we made the greatest hits package, we knew we wanted to include some new music and we were very conscience about trying to touch all the sort of main threads of our material. There is a cover that idea of reinventing pop songs as Newfoundland songs. There’s a couple of very traditional pieces. There’s a sort of folk rock song, “Heart of Hearts,” which is that genre that Sean is very fond of. It’s a big kind of FM radio song. We try to capture all the various influences. We nailed all the kind of prime influences, anyway.

I’ve been to some of your concerts where you bust out a five-minute interlude of all these different, random pop songs and you never quite hear the recorded version. I’m always curious about how the song selection process plays out.

Well the biggest thing is, is how can we take the elements of those songs and make them fit within the instruments we have? I mean, electric guitar is not a big part of our sound. So songs built around the electric guitar or Hammond organ or hip-hop samples have to be turned into something else. And often, the melody is the part I play; you know, the accordion and the fiddle, various flutes and whistles and whatnot. And when you do that, then things get a lot more interesting. You know, once you’ve stripped down that kind of convention, it’s down to the song and the lyric and the melody and you build it back up again and often, you end up with something very, very distinctive.

You’ve brought other songwriters in the mix, like Chris Trapper and Jeremy Fisher just to name a few. How does that outside voice help the process?

It’s surprisingly uncomplicated, actually. And we found that by doing it, sometimes the songs themselves are not necessarily that great, but you just put your thinking in a different direction. And working with other writers forces you to try harder. If it’s just yourself, you’re not as critical and you tend to fall into sort of established patterns in your playing. Things you do well, as well as the things you don’t do well and chords you like as well as chords you don’t like. And you know the same kind of rhymes and same kind of ideas. I mean, when I write songs I always gravitate towards stories where the guys are more about sort of emotional states. And you know, people like Chris Trapper and Jeremy Fisher and all the other writers we work with, the idea is to just to shake ourselves up. Make it harder, make it more interesting. Dream it all up again. And you know, often it’s just a matter of sitting down and saying, “hey are you interested in writing a song?” Most writers and players, even ones who are very well established. You can’t have too many and you can’t have too many good songs out there and you’re not going to run out of ideas, hopefully. And expose yourself to other people and put it out there is, there’s no danger in it, you know. There’s nothing going to come out of it other than a good song.

When the song ideas come to you, do you sit down and write or does it come and go to you whenever it pleases?

Each of us is very different, Sean will sit down with an acoustic guitar and that’s how he starts it. When he starts with the guitar and playing guitar chords and will build at a very kind of classical singer/songwriter sort of fashion. Alan always thinks of what the band would play and his demos are often very, very elaborate and there will be drum ideas and keyboard ideas and background vocals. And whereas for me, I always start with the melody. Like, it’s the melody will kind of catch my attention, as I’m not really a guitar player. I mean I can play it but I’m sort of a campfire guitar player. So I had to figure out how to play it and then I have to figure out what’s a great story that I’ve been trying to tell and sort of marry those things together and my demos are often full of fiddles and accordions and other instruments and I like to play because that’s how I imagine my song sounds best. And then we bring them to the band and everyone adds their two cents and “well I don’t like that,” “why don’t I try this,” and “can you move this here,” and “hey why don’t we bring in this instrument” or “why don’t we turn the groove inside out,” and the arrangements are really another half of that because that’s when the band takes the song over and makes it, breathes life into it.

You know Sean has put out solo records. Alan has put out solo records but you have kind of been dabbling off in different things. What are some of the things that you’ve been busy doing?

Well, the biggest thing that I do, you know and I probably get too distracted to finish it is… I read a few books, which is you know, not all that time consuming. The most well known, in which is this is kind of a semi memoir called Writing Out the Notes: Life in Great Big Sea. Which essentially ties various songs from various places to the music of Great Big Sea and the weirdness of growing up in a place as strange as St. John’s. I own a pub in St. John’s so you can spend as much time there as you possibly want to…and I manage three bands from Newfoundland. The folk sounding band the Once are pretty well known in Canada, and two others: The Dardanelles and Sherman Downey & the Ambiguous Case. That also has a potential to take as much I possibly can do. I have a whole bunch of other small things I do too. I write, I’m sort of a contributing editor for a magazine that’s sort of a culture magazine called the Newfoundland Quarterly. I write about pop Newfoundland music and what not. I just have a, I have this huge pile of projects on my desk and every day I kind of, I describe myself as like one of those Chinese acrobats that spins plates you know and sticks…every day and spin all the plates. (Laughs)

Have you reached a comfort level with Great Big Sea and the band? Where you can expect that each record will sell x amount of copies and you can live comfortably and you’ll be able to fill x amount of seats in a venue?

No, I wish it had, but the reality of businesses, the foundation in which we built the house in the ’90s completely washed away in a giant Internet flood (laughs)…….iTunes doesn’t really make money, you know, the way that making records did. So, I mean, this greatest hits package and the box set, the extra big box set when it was ready, our record contract with Warner Music Canada came to an end. You know, there was no hostility. The second of our contracts with them finished and we owed them a greatest hits record. So well, if we’re going to do a greatest hits record, there’s not going to be, you know some 10-song piece of crap that’s just going to Walmart. Look, we’re gonna make this interesting. And then we’ll let’s do a box set and said if we’re doing a box set we might as well do a book and a calendar and let’s do a proper DVD and then…well, that’s boring. Let’s do something more interesting and over the space of a year, sort of this very interesting, elaborate and exciting project developed. And that’s our whole approach to everything. It’s like, how can we make this something more than just going out and playing the tour and here’s a new record, ho hum? You know, that’s not good enough for us. I mean, it’s a sport metaphor, it’s only good if we’re out there trying. We got to motivate everybody else and just playing gigs is never enough for us. There has to be a greater goal in mind. And the commitment on that stage is sincere, everything has to be 110% or it just couldn’t be us. And that’s the aesthetic we bring to it. How can we make this better?

You had a box set and then a deluxe box set that was set around $400 that sold out almost immediately. How encouraging was that when you saw those numbers come through?

We were ecstatic. We were also probably thinking we should have raised the limit. (Laughs) You know you couldn’t be more flattered then to see people still interested in music that we made, particularly in some of this music that’s, you know, over 20 years old. And to see this kind of excitement for a record at this stage in our career, I just see people so, so excited to see us. It’s tremendously gratifying. We knew we didn’t waste our lives. We hadn’t knocked our heads against the wall. And you know, we always knew people got it and our dream was that if we could do something interesting with Newfoundland music we could have the career that one of the bands we admired, the Chieftains or the Dubliners. It could be one of these bands that plays their whole lives and ages with some grace in the music business. And we don’t take it lightly. I mean we are tremendously…we have a tremendous amount of gratitude for what’s happened to us. To still have people interested in us at this stage in the game is wonderful.

Has it been difficult to realize that the old school record contracts are gone? Basically if you can’t perform live, your pretty much dead in the water.

Your career now as a musician is about your ability to perform and your ability to compel people to buy tickets to see you. There’s lots of talk about making soundtracks or video games and blah blah blah, but I don’t know anybody who’s not actually in Los Angeles that are making money at soundtracks. It’s very competitive. The biggest loss — and it hasn’t affected us as much as others, though I see it in the other bands that I work with — is that the labels, you can say what you want about them, but they have the muscle, the kind of promotional capital and the kind of advertising power to make something out of nothing. They literally could make rock stars. And they only got their successes, one out of 20. But that was enough to pull the whole trade. And without them, it’s not happening anymore. Like the B team and the C team and the D team, they used to drive the music business, and they’re gone because there’s no opportunity for kids. Ten years ago, there were acts that were worth 10,000 people, there were acts that were worth 7,000 people. There were acts that were worth 5,000 and so on. Now, there’s acts that are worth 200 people and acts that are worth 10,000 people and nothing in between, because without the labels to try and create that buzz to make videos and to get people on the radio and to create media interest, it’s very, very difficult to tweet your way to rock stardom.

Speaking of social media, I follow your tweets — is Twitter a blessing or a curse for you? Does it take away from the mystiqe of the band?

I try to avoid the mundane. And if I do, it’s for comedy only, you know. It’s misadventure…as opposed to “I’m picking my nose.” I find it tiresome, and I think everybody does. And it can’t just be self-promotion, either; the people that follow what’s up, the people that have interest and introspection, you know. They’re obviously promoting their product, but it can’t be “Hey, check out my new video, hey, look at the poster, hey, come to my website.” You know, that doesn’t work either. It has to be a blend of access and a wall. You know there’s a few times in my life I’ve never tweeted about, never said a word about and it’s a complete mystery to most of our fans. I’ve never had a picture of myself taken with my children. You know, it’s relatively easy to avoid it and to quote Eddie Vedder, “If you don’t wanna be a rock star, then don’t be a rock star.” You know…I’m willingly giving up a chunk of my private life in order to achieve the success that we have achieved. I’m well aware of that. However, to people around me, haven’t necessarily made that agreement. They haven’t necessarily decided to give up their private life to help my career. So, I’m very cautious and very careful about finding ways to talk about the band, talk about music and talk about my interests and do so in a way that doesn’t necessarily create a pot of scrutiny for other people who have not embraced it.

It’s Christmastime, and the song “Merry Christmas Everyone” is getting played again. Has there ever been a thought of putting forth a full blown Great Big Sea Christmas record?

You know, it comes out at a yearly basis and it always gets, it always gets pushed aside by something more interesting. We wouldn’t want to make a Christmas record unless we could make a good Christmas record. And making one, I can’t imagine us recording “Silent Night” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and whatnot. If we had more material as good as “Merry Christmas Everyone,” then we would probably consider it. But we have never done that. And there’s tons of traditional Newfoundland music that is associated with Christmas, but very little of it is obvious. More songs that are sung at Christmas as well as the songs directly about Christmas, and you know a song that comes in a footnote is never very interesting so…I don’t know. I mean, you know having sort of dropped this huge pile of work on the marketplace…it’s a conversation we’re having as to what do we do next. And we would rather do things that are interesting. A Christmas record that has sort of really brought some new material, where we capture the essence of Christmas in Newfoundland, it would be a wonderful thing. But I don’t know if we’ve accumulated enough material to make that possible at this stage.

Is life on the road easier with wife and kids or does it make it more difficult?

On any day you would probably get a different answer. When we were younger, as soon as we went on the road, home was literally put out of our mind. Like it just went away and it didn’t come back to me again until I returned. You might phone home, but there wasn’t that sense of looming crisis. Where I would go away with children at home, you know, you tend to really worry (laughs) and be distracted while your job is always there. For example, a couple Sundays ago we were playing a big concert in Toronto in central Canada and my wife called about a half hour before we went on and sent me a text and just said “do you have so and so’s number, we’re locked out.” You know and it’s like five o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, and it’s like oh, fuck. So I’m trying to phone people, and phoning family — “If you’ve got that key, can you go down to the house? They’re locked out.” Getting a locksmith involved, and the kids are getting pissed off. So things like that which would never have happened 10 years ago — that’s a very minor example, but you know, people do get sick and things happen at school and the burden of the person at home is much heavier. On the other hand, you know, not to be mean but the women involved with us knew exactly what they were getting into. It wasn’t like they thought they were marrying shoe salesmen…there would be difficulties when they tied themselves to us. So it’s not like I’m not unsympathetic, but I’m also realistic about it.

Two final questions. One came from our staff member Michael Parr: “Ask Bob if he’s actually ever encountered a horse frozen in a lake?”

No, which I’ll be grateful of. I imagine it would be somewhat unpleasant and a frightening site that would stick with you for a long time. I don’t know why that happened so often in Newfoundland, I think that when we get snow here in Newfoundland we don’t get that soft, powdery stuff that Vermont gets. So the snow we get here, is very heavy and soggy and wet and walking through the woods is a tremendous pain in the ass. It’s not falling it does on a Christmas card…it’s tedious. It’s like walking through quicksand. And therefore taking the short cut across the pond would be a very attractive.

The other one came via Twitter and asked about the live shows. Where is your favorite home away from home crowd and why?

That would be the most easily asked question of Great Big Sea by the media. The best shows are actually not in Newfoundland. Not because we don’t try, but we tend to be distracted by the process here compared to elsewhere. You’re walking on stage and Nan can’t find her purse. Or you’ve got to get a seat for Aunt Joan or whatever. There’s always distractions at home or many (laughs) but, I mean every concert has a potential to be amazing. The last big tour, you know we played Salina, Kansas at the main sort of theater downtown. It’s a town I’ve never been to and you know it wasn’t a place that I was interested in going to in the way where there’s places in the world that compel attention. Salina wasn’t one of them, but we had never played anywhere near there and because of that, you know our…there was a hundred people everywhere that wanted to see Great Big Sea and fans had driven for hours all over the Midwest to come see this show, and we walk onstage and there was this huge burst of applause that contained a lot of gratitude that we’d come there. And you can’t help but respond to that, so the show was was tremendous — we played for hours and really dug in, dug as deep as we could because we know it meant a lot to the people that we were out there. And nothing about that day or that afternoon indicated that this would be such an amazing night and that’s so often the case. It has nothing to do with geography. It has everything to do with the spirit in the room.

Great Big Sea’s 20-year retrospective, deluxe box set or CD, is available on the band’s website.