The Stayner, Ontario quartet Left by Snakes exudes an elusive, distinctive sound they call “anamorphic pop,” which is essentially niche anthems and garage neo-glam classics. The band features award-winning author and screenwriter Tony Burgess on vocals, Chuck Baker on guitar, Keith Elliot on bass, and Gordon Way on drums; the latter three all sing back up as well. Having just released their first full length album Automatic Radio, the band is touring southwestern Ontario and working on more new material. What follows is an interview with lead singer Tony Burgess.
When did you form Left by Snakes?
About seven years ago, my kid’s daycare had a meet and greet barbecue kinda social thing you look forward in a small town, mostly ’cause it doesn’t involve Patriarchal Church Elders or whatever. Anyway, at this one barbecue, the entertainment is this husband-and-wife team in full bunny suits singing kids songs while we eat hot dogs in a sand pit. I noticed something odd about the guy…not sure what it was…his voice, the way he was playing guitar made me yell out for a Clash song, and bam! He just delivers it…and he did it defiantly…defiant of my heckle, defiant of the event, and defiantly in a bunny suit.
Shortly after that I notice the guy bundling his kids up and we strike up a conversation. That was Charlie Baker. We started meeting on weekends, drinking on his sun porch and playing these mad late night improvisational sessions. It was, of course, terrible sounding, and we knew it and our families thought we were crazy and the neighbors thought we were howling drunks. So (defiantly) we did this two or three nights a week for a couple years, recording every ridiculous thing we did on an iPhone.
One day we were sitting around and, probably having just met some mild resistance to playing that night, decided to listen back to some of this shit we had accumulated — probably a thousand songs. We started to notice this odd thing evolving — we were anticipating each other, interpreting each other, and, well, writing songs on the fly. Most were two minutes or so. We culled the few that we thought an objective ear might think were real songs and started organizing them. That changed the way we recorded and wrote.
These were “taps” — complete songs written and recorded on the spot. We didn’t really develop a system for a couple years, still believing we were more or less wrong about this music being valuable beyond the great thrill of making it. We now firmly believe that it will never be valuable beyond, but have now systematized a posture to deal with this which we call “swagger.”
Obviously there are influences here – a loose and heavy Elliott Smith, Built to Spill, (let me know when I’m offending you) Modest Mouse, Sonic Youth, Violent Femmes, etc.
Funny that at our last show at The Opera House, someone came up to me and said she had really dug the show and couldn’t believe how much we sounded like the B-52s! Then, a friend, who has (I think) an impeccable ear, said it was all neo-classical punk (Toronto late ’70s). I usually just mention a decade they don’t – ’90s or ’60s, even ’50s. Mott The Hoople, for instance. April Wine. Joy Division. Buddy Holly. The Grifters. Pere Ubu. Alex Chilton. The Fall. I mean, each member of the band brings a pretty wide and deep experience with “boho pop” over the decades…and our mutual crotchetiness over the state of so-called indie music…. precious infatuations with ’90s bands. Bands we do love, (excluding Nirvana who we detest) like Pavement, Built to Spill, Archers of Loaf – who ever. I suppose we are fighting with ourselves to some degree on how to interpret the music we love or whether to even bother.
The elephant in the room, for us, is Guided By Voices. Robert Pollard is the only writer, after all, still worth listening to for instruction and, as the DNC calls it “a permission structure.” We are, as writers, constantly aware of the Pollard rule — unguarded pursuit of hook and rigorous publication of the song-sketch. It is, as the poet said, an “antiseptic bath” after which we don’t care or recall what the influence was — the song is the original place it appeared. Believe it or not I mean this — the tap. Process over influence. Foolishness, always, over credibility. Proper swooning.
The 1990s are back in a big way. Early 1990s in particular. Does this mean anything to your sound?
Well, as above, I suppose, but it is never anything we would, or could, ever get behind. If we think a song sounds like the missing show tune that the Velvet Underground recorded for West Side Story we shrug and say, “Is it any good? Is it a Left By Snakes song?” We try our best not to interfere with what we sound like and only ask simple questions when the rules apply. For instance: Fidelity to the tap – including timing anomalies and structural deformity. Is there a mighty hook and have we been careful not to privilege it? We have spent innumerable tedious hours settling these distinctions and are terribly conflicted about making anything sound “better.” We believe that there is an elusive category we are trying to define for ourselves and we have to know when we get things wrong. This sounds like we take ourselves very seriously — I’m a writer so I have a “tone” — but probably good to point out that our first show was as a Frogs cover band. Swagger.
What is the process like: jamming or lyrics first? I recall at a reading once, you were holding a piece of paper. I later asked you if you consulted it and you said no.
There are two stages really…maybe three. First is the tap. We record 20 to 40 songs in a session. Anyone involved can call “tap” which signals the song is written — usually one to two minutes. No lyrics, melody or instrument is prepared before hand. The tap has to arrive complete. We are nearly superstitious about this. We irrationally believe that a good tap can be aged to perfection by not listening to it for a year or more. At that point, when we harvest, we grab, say 25, and burn them to a disc and listen exclusively to that disc for a month to six months. Then we become essentially a cover band trying to reproduce them. We have gone through several line ups of members who, after being forced to learn from the original incomplete, sometimes grating recordings, declare Left By Snakes shit and leave. The current line up – Gord Way on drums and Keith Elliot on bass. If you hear the word “tap” at the end of a song it marks it as, at least in part, the first recording of the song. If we do reconstruct it, or build on it, we do not add structure, melody etc. that didn’t exist in the original tap. Pretty easy to sympathize with past members who shook their heads and left the band – we put a lot of restraint into making uneven things. No one get’s to “play” a snakes song for fun. It’s probably fair to say that musicians are suspicious of us. Which brings me to a central feature of rebuilding a song: anamorphic harmony. Anamorphic harmony is taking the flat and sharp elements of the original vocal tap — keeping that central — but applying corrective harmonies that push it further into flat or sharp territory. Also accenting the vocal lines indifference to where it should live in the count. Instead of righting it, you bend it backwards. You can only imagine what it should really have sounded like. Anamorphic. I should point out that my bunny, Charlie Baker, is absolutely key to our orthodoxy. He knows exactly what we are doing.
How important are the live shows? You are a recently formed band and touring must be both exciting and nerve-wracking. Do you learn things from these live interactions?
The live show experience has been great fun with this band. It’s really what we wanted to do all along. That is, transform even the most obtuse 37-second song into manifest swagger. Maybe I’m misrepresenting the experience a bit though. It sounds like from the beginning, back to the bunny suit, that we wanted to exclude the listener, but, I mean, if we are willing to become utter bliss clowns with a monster sound, it is our hope that it feels like a invitation, even if the song itself is not exactly knowable.
I don’t actually know a lot of the lyrics myself and have had to resort to phonetic cobbling that drift a little every time. And, by the rules, I cannot rewrite lyrics wholesale to improve the song. The rules do allow, however, for me to make the lyrics up on the spot and that probably accounts for 30 to 40 percent of them on any given night.
The new album is your debut — how was it all put together? So much folklore goes into the production of a given album. What was that experience like?
Well, we’re working on the next couple albums now and that was always the reason for putting out the first. The first is fairly good sampler of things — we have discussed this a lot — that we don’t write songs but advertisements for songs — and we are anxious to get the next ones out…create a massive, wet context for any given song. The next one will include more of the current band, including some tapped by them. We do everything in house: recording, mixing, mastering, art design, t-shirts, buttons, stickers, videos, etc. We are well aware that we will give more away than we will ever sell, but we are also convinced that everything should be made this way and hope that that part, at least, lasts.
Who comes up with the titles? What is a typical session like for Left by Snakes?
Usually me, but it’s also understood that they won’t be very good. Song titles are a bit of a joke for us…possibly because of the sketchy condition of lyrics. One of the running jokes is how you can tell the month or year of a song by the lyric…everything in may 2013 uses the phrase “the last time,” and everything in June “could do better.” We have many songs with the exact same title. We are also fond of the “part two.”
Typical session? It starts out a bit like a committee meeting. “We have four matters to deal with…” Then we run a set several times until it’s where we want it. Then we pull out one or two processed taps to learn as a band…then, and it’s really what we’re here for, we record a couple dozen taps to bottle for 2018. That’s a band session.
If it’s just Charlie and me, we select a tap from an approved list and figure out how to serve. Is it an as is, a bed track, an aggregate or a full reproduction? Believe it or not this can result in several eight-hour pit sessions where we try to figure out a single 45-second blitz of automatism. Sometimes we take a tap that is utterly formless wailing and shredding and commit to adjusting the focus on it. That can be the most rewarding thing…finding out that a mindless shuffling degradation is actually a dazzling 57-second anamorphic hook. I believe our method, and we’ve proven it, can be reproduced by starting with inanimate objects dropped repeatedly from specific heights. Really it’s all about chasing killer songs with epic hooks. Actually if I was to be honest, mostly we say things like, “Marc Bolan and Helen Ready! Go!”
Music and books have always seemed to collide. William S. Burroughs was a music journalist in the 1970s, befriended those types of folks, in Toronto Dave Bidini is the city’s most prolific nonfiction author from the industry. How does singing different from writing for the page? I know personally I enjoy the different tone of my words when it comes out in a performance on stage versus some fiddled with edited book.
Huh. You know, lately I’ve been really struggling with fiction. I have a bunch of ideas, worked out more or less on pages but I’m like why? Just cause I can? That’s the worst reason to do anything. So it’s been mostly songs and film — and exploitation film at that. And even there, the last film I wrote I told them, “Hey just improvise and pull my writing credit.”
Writing phrases, sentences, paragraphs feels ridiculous to me now…rather it didn’t cause I can do it…but I wish writing didn’t act the way it does, the way its anticipated, expected to. These days when someone wants a book, I’m tempted to say, “Here, use this word. It’s enough. Repeat it until you’re satisfied it’s a novel then we’ll figure out what it is.” It’s a bit like a mechanic saying “we know how all this works, here’s a wrench, let’s whack the carburetor with it and tell ‘em you cant win em all.” I want an attitude in a thing that that thing wasn’t designed to convey. I actually started making improvised furniture out of firewood to quiet this a bit. I made a kick-ass spinning ottoman out of punky willow.