Monday, June 29, 2015

Q&A: MARC BELL



I first met Marc Bell at the legendary five hour All-Star Schnauzer Band reunion show at the Grimey Gabs (now under different ownership, with a jazzier name). We were both wearing the same homemade Uncooked Zit tees and while watching an especially fine glockenspiel versus muted tuba Schnau-off, the skyful blues of our shirts caught the fan-glow in each others eyes. Only after weeks of in depth friendly Schnau-nalysis over countless ales and many pupusas, did I find out that Marc was (and is) a visual artist and cartoonist by trade. Inevitably, this admission of a celebrated life outside of Schnau-berg, slightly troubled me, and led to a few searching discussions (like the one about Mark Connery’s book Rudy, published here last Spring). I was pointed to many mini-comics, books, and art pieces that he’d assembled over the years, and was wowed by how ‘Schnau’ plenty of these were and continue to be. Imagine my giddy delight (!) when my investigations led me to the following description of Marc’s new book Stroppy by his publisher Drawn & Quarterly (25 years wise this year):

‘Our hapless hero Stroppy is minding his business, working a menial job in one of Monsieur Moustache’s factories, when a muscular fellah named Sean blocks up the assembly line. Sean’s there to promote an All-Star Schnauzer Band-organized songwriting contest, which he does enthusiastically, and at the expense of Stroppy’s livelihood, home, and face. In hopes for a cash prize, Stroppy submits a work by his friend Clancy The Poet to the contest. Mishaps and hilarity ensue and Stroppy is forced to go deep into the heart of Schnauzer territory to rescue his poet friend’.

I actually (very carefully) turned off ‘Father Ocean Wears the Water Trousers’ mid-song (!) and ran like a cartoon critter straight to Marc’s nearby door. Unbelievably, his hi-fi was blaring the burbly end of ‘Father Ocean’ and he immediately agreed to help shout the necessary word of the world’s greatest band from the small city rooftops of this (destined to be All-Star Schnauzer Band dominated) blog*.


- Brad de Roo, who thinks that you should buy Stroppy at the Bookshelf, for the pure joy of its visual Schnau, but also so that my hoarsely barking completest tendencies don’t bark me into purchasing every copy and extra storage to house them.

* The following interview is excerpted from exactly seventeen and 1/3 hours of conversation. Sadly, about 413 questions about the All-Star Schnauzer Band were excised. Contact me if you would like monitored access to the full transcription. 


"Stroppy"
Who is Stroppy? Where did he come from? What haunts him at night? Where does he work? What kind of comics and music does he like?

I'm not sure who he is. He is kind of a flat character I guess? I don't know a ton about him other than that he is a factory worker. Though, yes, he does seem kind of haunted. Haunted by life. At the beginning of the book he works at a factory owned by Monsieur Moustache, but he is quickly let go. I have no idea what comics he likes. I am not sure if he would have any time for them other than ones he might happen upon in the newspaper. Now I am imagining him being a big Herman fan (Jim Unger). I bet he might like a few songs by Supertramp or maybe Sugluk



In an interview by Xavier Guilbert with du9 you described Stroppy as ‘this shriveled weirdo on the inside, but that’s actually his exterior, and he’s being protected by this other… this false exterior’. You said this before this book came out. Now that it’s finished could you expand on the thought. Has Stroppy developed or grown? Or is he still protective in essence or stance?

Well, that statement was in reference to an early incarnation of Stroppy that appeared in Pure Pajamas (D&Q, 2011). Therein he appeared, as I say, a shriveled weirdo, and he would dress in these outfits to disguise his true form. He seems to have moved past that whole thing for his appearance here, he grew up a bit maybe? But he does make reference at one point to his previous state. In Stroppy, everything remains circular: changes happen in the system that is set up but it seems pretty clear the system does not improve necessarily. Stroppy is really put through the ringer throughout the book, and it seems his only escape in the end is going to sleep.
 

I was sad to have missed the All-Star Schnauzer Band the last time they played Bagtown at the Koolhundhouse. Do you ever go crate digging for their rare releases? Are they putting out something new soon? Do you think they'll do another music video?
 
I heard they are doing a split single with Wheels of Juice soon. Strangely, they are re-recording an old song written by Libby Schnauzer and Jim Boot Sauce Schnauzer called "Going Downtown With The Boxer". The fans always get worried they have run out of ideas but they always seem to pull something out of the hat. I try to collect the records but I can't keep up at all, there are so many of them. I know that Sean (from Stroppy) has a large collection of them, he might have the largest collection of anybody I know. He also clips all the press. I don't know how he can afford to house all of this stuff. If they do make a new music video, I would be happy to see it. I also heard that they are trying to digitize some of their old 90's home videos before those go by the wayside. 



Besides Billy Joel who are Monsieur Moustache’s musical forbearers?

You know, I'm not sure! Billy is likely a big one. I think he probably also listens to a lot of Paul Simon


"Monsieur Moustache"
You’re a big and eclectic music fan. Do your musical tastes influence your drawing, beyond the direct formal connection on something like your lyric-narrated comics for Vice? Do you listen to tunes while drawing? Say you’re listening to ‘Rotating Bucket’ by the All-Star Schnauzer band, instead of Dvorak, does it change they way your pencil boogies? Is your understanding or appreciation of music in any way analogous to how you view images? Is a panel like a song? Is there a sense of rhythm in comics that is musical?
 
People have told me that my editing can flow like music, which is something I appreciate but might not be aware of. I do listen to music while working often enough. I listened to a lot of The Cannanes while creating Stroppy, but if you listened to that stuff you would make no connection to the two. I don't really understand how to make music so maybe that is why I am in awe with those who can pull it off in a simple way. And, yes, I suppose comics are musical, or can be. There are certain beats. A lot of people have also described comics as being close to poetry.

Are there parallels between the Canadian indie music world (which I take the Schnauzers to partially inhabit) and the Canadian comics world? Is there anything comparably stifling about both? Is there an element of clique-ish competition which creeps into both worlds?

I'm not really sure how two worlds relate in a general sense: there are so many little versions of them under these headers. I suppose clique-ish-ness exists everywhere! So many sub-compartments. I do sometimes wonder where the weirdos went, but that is a whole other story.

Would you ever consider working on a music video? A musical? What about something like "Stroppy-Fantasia"?

Well, D & Q and I spoke about creating a life size version of the Mini Golf course that appears in Stroppy (for TCAF) but it appeared the budget would be to large. There would be all those insurance issues on top of the building costs. That's a lot of red tape. If it does happen at some point, it would be a great venue to present a musical. 


"Major Putts"
Have you ever entered a contest for anything? How’d it go?

I have. I almost never win those. Though: just yesterday all my art and life went into a storage space and I had to spin a wheel to see what kind of "prize" I would get (everybody is a winner). It was kind of humiliating but a nice gesture on their part. I won "$10 off" and so that paid for my new lock.

Big bucks. Would you fare well in an episode of Storage Wars?

Oh, man, there would be quite a plunder in there for fans of "art comics". A large Paper Rad zine collection. An entire run of Ron Rege's Yeast Hoist. More Marc Bell art than you would know what to do with (if that's your bag). There is also (literally) a bag with some running shoes in it (that I wish I had right now…my current shoes have sprung a leak).

Has Clancy the Poet ever happened into a poetry slam?


I bet he has!! On purpose!

Would he ever compose tributes to any of his co-characters if asked?

Hmm, I suppose he might. You should ask him? He loves being published. 


"Sean" and "Clancy the Poet"
Plenty of characters from your past comics like Shrimpy and Pure Pajamas co-habitate in this graphic novella. At one point many get evicted. Have you ever thought of evicting any of them from your studio? Have you or would you ever kill any characters off? Or do you prefer to keep them available to your overlapping story-worlds as familiar agents on a referential continuum?

I would probably kill one or more of them, sure, why not? There are a lot of them. I do like to have a lot of them on hand to insert into whatever screwball narrative I am working on. And I like that they all live in this same world.

Is it correct to say this is your first full-fledged narrative, your first uniformly created single story? It comes after collected comics books, petits livres, many strips, mini-comics, and art projects. I guess I am obligated to ask, why now?

It's what the market wants (a singular story). And, I am returning to comics from a time in the art market and the art market is not really that interested in me anymore. I do like the idea of switching around. The art market will forget you, especially if you are a tiny blip like I was…but comics is different, it's the elephant in the room for me. I love that in the world of comics, the people don't forget, even if they don't like your work they will check it out to reaffirm their dislike of your oeuvre.

Is this format something you’d like to pursue further in the future?


Yes, I have already orchestrated a new story, typed an outline into my blackberry in a "holy man" state. I have not gone back to look at it, but it has a good twist. It is in the same world but will have a different main character.

You move around a lot. Has moving or changing locations augmented your style over the years? Is it central to being productive?

Uh, I have no idea. I like moving. I don't mind it. I spent a long stint in Vancouver, 8 years in one building. I would have been happy to stay there, I'm not really that into camping, but Vancouver was like camping in the city: so lush. Life changes. Rents go up. People change. Shoes are put into bags.

Is it hard to keep a creative routine through all the change?

Yes, it can be. Even getting ready to go on a "business trip" like going to a comic event can disrupt a routine. There is the lead up time where you anticipate going away and you are planning for that. It's good to have little breaks in routine though, to get different perspectives.

In a recent review, the LFP has vaguely suggested that your work 'stresses mood' and lazily (and psychedelically) intimated that your work was influenced by a bookstore called City Lights run by pot activist Marc Emery. The mention of City Lights in Stroppy seems to be an obvious reference to the more famous CL in San Fran (especially since a main character of your book, Clancy the Poet is a bit of a beatnik). ‘Stressing mood’ seems like it could mean anything. Does the LFP's interpretation of your work annoy you? Have I committed similar errors in my interpretations?

That error was pretty funny! The LFP has written about me before and I am usually amused and annoyed by their interpretations of the work of this "hometown boy". They use that snippy contemporary style that a lot of papers use these days so it doesn't even seem that they wish to write a proper article. For one article they called up my mom and bugged her, which kind of annoyed me. I have to start gathering these articles from the LFP and make a scrapbook.

That is one great thing about London: you can be there and making work and London doesn't care. I imagine it could be a good place to get a lot done. I don't think you have been very far off at all about the interpretation of my work. Not that there is a specific one. 


"Guellphh!"
Your most recent home base Guelph is currently hosting James Janco (who is referenced briefly in Stroppy) on a film-set in the Ward. People are literally camping out to catch his famous droplets of sweat and front page squints of discernment. What would Stroppy do if he lived on the street that was closed down for filming? I could be wrong but I think they may be filming Stroppy with Janco playing both the lead and the arch Monsieur Moustache. Do you think it will be as good as Spiderman?

Stroppy might mutter a bit about how stupid James Janco is and then drop something on his foot. Then he would stress about having to pay a bill or his neighbour would bother him. Maybe there would be some long run-on sentence about what a gorgeous hunk James is. I can't really see James pulling off Monsieur, but if he could, that would be a real leap for him. I would stand up and applaud. And cash those cheques. Please send me some cheques, Los Angeles, I think you owe me.

What’s it been like being a cartoonist in the Harper decade?

I try to stick to my own little world. And visit HORLD DISCOUNT. A very fine 24 hr Mini Mart at Bloor and Roxton in Toronto (North side). He lays his chips down on their side like little babies.

And this might sound cynical but I think: "Maybe it wouldn't be such a bad scenario if we all disappeared…and some weird critters inherited the earth…I wonder if I should get another Club Soda from Horld…I think I will…support small business…Horld is a great guy"

Are in-jokes essential to survival? Is creating confusion a form of protest?

Yes. 


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

REVIEW: THE STORM MURDERS


I spent some of the more clement days of spring's end and summer's start cooped up inside with a book as though there were a winter storm rankling the outdoors. The howling weather battering my interior windows was John Farrow's (aka Trevor Ferguson) latest installment of his Emilé Cinq-Mars series, The Storm Murders.

It just so happened that before I started Farrow's newest book I'd been reading an anthology of "locked room" stories – that is, those crimes that seem to happen hermetically, with a body found in a room locked from in the inside with no evidence of ingress or egress. In that tradition, The Storm Murders opens with two Montreal police officers responding to a rural call in the midst of a heavy snow storm. They find two dead in a farm house, no footprints leading in, none leading out. When the two officers are themselves later found dead, it's confounding enough that the involvement of the FBI isn't questioned, and serious enough to contact the much lauded, recently retired detective Emilé Cinq-Mars.

Cinq-Mars first appeared in 1999's internationally acclaimed City of Ice, and carried on to Ice Lake in 2002, popping back up most recently in the time-trotting River City, where he appeared as a rookie cop caught up in a murder during 1955's Rocket Richard Riots with connections ranging back to Jean Cartier, all part of a conspiracy in which Pierre Elliot Trudeau is wrapped up in. Farrow has followed up that impressively sprawling caper with the drum-tight The Storm Murders.

Tempted out of retirement by both the curiousness of the case itself and the curiousness of the FBI's interest in a Canadian incident, Cinq-Mars becomes inveigled in cross-boarder conspiracies and departmental corruption, which might be a nice break from his daily crossword for him but turns dire when his wife gets involved.

Compared to the previous Cinq-Mars books, The Storm Murders is somewhat svelte, but don't take that as a lack of depth. Farrow's prose is taught, and confidently so, honed through experience (Ferguson has been hailed as one of Canada's best writers since the dawn of the 80s), mirroring the refinement of Cinq-Mars own ratiocination. Farrow is a deft, confident writer at the helm of a deft, confident sleuth, and the combination of the two make for a mystery that you won't want to put down, no matter how much the stupid sun in shining out there.


- Andrew

Monday, June 8, 2015

Q&A: ANDREW COLLINS OF THE SKELETONES FOUR




The venerably rocking Kazoo! Fest is turning 9 years awesome this week and they are celebrating with three days of shows (featuring 9 bands) from June 10-12. In keeping with the venerable rocking awesomeness, the Skeletones Four will be releasing their new album Petrified Forest (Squirtgun Records) on Friday Jun12th at the eBar. Already garnering great reviews and on sale on iTunes, the Skeletones new album will open up your skull with some proggy jabs at bliss. Not wanting to put flowery words into the mouths of rock and roll slayers and powerful sound occultists, I spoke with lead vocalist/ghost summoner Andrew Collins in the crumbling graveyard of my inbox. He struck me as a man well-possessed.

- Brad de Roo, who believes ghosts have an integral haunt in music, if only to remind us of the song’s coming end


Have you ever been to a petrified forest? What do you think they sound like?

I’ve driven through Petrified Forest National Park on highway 40 in Arizona but I was too overheated to stop and explore. Driving through the desert with no air conditioning is hot and you get weird looks from the locals when you stop for gas drenched in sweat. I imagine the faint murmuring moans of ghost trees and the gentle sound of wind blowing across sand and rock. 




Who’s in the band? What does each bring to the band table? What kind of food is in on this table, anyway? Drinks? Books? Does it have a ‘Dinner Bell’?

The band you can expect to hear on Friday is as follows: Jordan Howard on the guitar, Paul Lowman on the bass guitar, and John Merritt on the trap drums. Evan Gordon plays bass on the album and joins us on stage from time to time on the keyboards in between jet setting adventures. Everyone brings whatever they decide to heap onto their plate after circling the all-you-can-eat buffet a few times. There’s no ‘Dinner Bell’ but a certain member is often spotted at Taco Bell.

You strike me as a guy who likes different time signatures. Do you have a favourite? Why? Is there one that bugs you?

Different time signatures can be exciting but I never want them to take attention away from the song itself or to be the reason that a song exists. It’s hard to pick, there are so many to choose from - 6/8 and 9/8 are both very good. Same with 5/4 and 7/4. 4/4 might still take the crown for a top rock ‘n’ roll signature and can be very effective when used the right way.

Let’s play musical influences in four questions. A) Have you ever listened to or would you ever listen to Steely Dan? B) Do you like Robert Wyatt? C) Who has the best synth sound? D) Who has influenced you the least?

A. I have listened to Steely Dan, and plan on doing so again - mostly side A of Pretzel Logic. I’ve sung 'Rikki Don’t Lose That Number' at karaoke once.

B. I like Robert Wyatt although I’ve never gone too deep into his catalogue. I spent a summer walking around listening to a dubbed copy of Rock Bottom on a cassette Walkman. I’ve listened to the first Soft Machine album quite a bit as well.

C. French electronic music producer Jean Michel Jarre

D. Finnish electronic music producer Darude.

I’ve often heard your music described as ‘psychedelic’. Does this term have any particular meaning to you?

I guess the music we make might be enjoyed when paired with jazz cigarettes but a lot of music is. In my mind the term might describe music containing interesting sounds and sound combinations, rhythms, textures, and layers that reveal themselves over subsequent listenings, rather than being a throwback to the hippy-dippy music of the nineteen-sixties. I’m not sure we are a psychedelic band but it might be more descriptive than just saying, “we make rock and roll”.

Have you ever met a ‘Ghost Dude’ in real life?

I haven’t, but I hope to.

Ever had a ‘Phantom Love’?

Metaphorically, yes.

Your Press Play on Tape EP had 8-bit versions of some of the songs found on Petrified Forest. What attracts you to video game sound? Do you have favourite video game soundtracks? Ever thought of soundtracking one yourself? I’d play a Skeletones game, in a second.

The attraction is probably a nostalgic thing, and the lo-fidelity of those old video game sounds is very appealing to me. It’s nice to be able to write music that only a superhuman alien could perform without the pressure of having to play it myself. Once the notes are programmed in, all I have to do is press play and the songs will be performed with computer precision at whatever tempo I choose. Super Mario Bros 2 was a favorite of mine - by pausing the game the chords and melody would drop out and you would be left with bass and drums. Dr. Mario had two songs you could choose from: ‘Fever’ and ‘Chill’. Both were very good and are now etched into my brain after hours of gameplay. I would love to write the soundtrack to a game but I think it would have to be an old-fashioned sidescroller or action puzzle game like Dr. Mario.


 
What about horror soundtracks? Would you be interested in making one?

Absolutely. I would try to make it as horrifying as possible!

Revisiting songs seems to be something that intrigues you. How do you know when a recording is done – not to mention a collection of them?

If I feel like I did a good job the first time I won’t go back and re-record a song. In the case of ‘The Fish Rots From the Head’, the version on our first album was a demo and the new version is more representative of how the band plays the song live. ‘Ether Bunny’ was a song that I played and recorded with The Faceless Lazers but we continued playing it when the S4 got together so it made sense to record it again.

The framework of all of the songs on Petrified Forest were recorded over a weekend, with the whole band playing in a room together. Some of them had fragments of melodies and lyrics but most of them existed as structures with very little decoration. Once lyrics and melodies were written, vocals recorded and all additional instrumentation overdubbed to the extent where I couldn’t imagine adding anything else the songs were done. 



Who did the artwork on the new album? Are those eyes looking directly at ME?

I appropriated elements from children’s books and postcards and reassembled them for the album cover. Those eyes are looking right at you, and will follow you around the room, judging your worth. If that makes you uncomfortable, simply flip the album around backwards or put it back onto your record shelf until you want to listen to it again. Or close your music player/browser window, as the case may be.

You often play in other projects. What else are you involved in now? Anything coming up soon?

I play bass in LCON - Lisa Conway and I have been working hard on recording the new album. We’re also releasing a 7” single at the end of the summer at the Parkdale Film and Video Festival in Toronto. Hopefully we’ll add a Guelph date to that release, either in August or September. I’ll also be joining the Gordon Brothers (formerly The Magic) on stage this Thursday at Silence.

The Kazoo! crew is pretty awesome, hey? Do you have any reflections or tales or hauntings about Kazoo leading up to its 9th Anniversary shows?

The Kazoo crew does so much for music in the city of Guelph - I don’t think there would be too much going on here without them. I have a vague memory of attending one of their house party shows wearing chains and cutoff denim vests and playfully wielding baseball bats. There was a kind of made-up/kind of real rivalry going on between our gang of townies and the Burnt Oak collective who had strong Kazoo! affiliations. There was a breakdancing competition. The jury is still out on who was the victor, but I’m glad that we didn’t scare them away! 


Saturday, June 6, 2015

#BOOKSHELFtweetup


Time flies when you are having fun! We have been using twitter for a few years and have met so many great people through this awesome social media platform. We reached 5000 followers today! On Monday, June 15th we would like to provide you, the interesting and excellent people who follow us on Twitter with some FREE appetizers, and a chance to socialize at the beginning of the week.

Come on out and relax on our new patio, have a craft beer or a martini. Chat with old friends. Make new friends!

It would be great to see some of you folks out on June 15th. Visit the event site and please sign up so we can get an idea about numbers for food and staff!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE FANGIRL



I have been attracted to science fiction stories for as long as I can remember, but, for many years, I allowed the power of this attraction to go underestimated and under-appreciated. Recently, a series of wonderfully nerdy events has resulted in an epiphany of sorts: I am a geek – a fangirl – and it is high time that I embraced my geekiness with true zeal.

In hindsight, I admit that geekdom has, in many ways, always been my destiny. Many of my favourite childhood entertainments – Back to the Future, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Sliders - centered around the incredible concept of travel through time and space. When I was a teenager, my dad taught me how to drive by insisting that I “use the Force” to develop hyper-awareness on the road. I recall being disappointed when over the course of a four-year English degree, only one science fiction story was required reading. (Although, to be fair, if you're only going to read one sci-fi novel in four years, Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a pretty solid choice.)

To some extent, the experience of studying literary fiction for so long may have brainwashed me into thinking that genre fiction was a lesser creature, which is pretty damned sad. Although I have spent my adult life loving sci-fi stories told through film (District 9, Star Trek, Looper – I'm looking at you), I've been strangely reluctant to explore the genre in book-form. My reticence is especially extraordinary when you consider that I have worked in a bookstore for the past 7 years!

As it turned out, the sheer magnitude of books at my disposal resulted in my decision to do what any list-loving book dork would do: begin reading my way through a 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list! The inevitable problem with my insane mission was that since I hadn't created the list myself, I ended up being needlessly subjected to three underwhelming books by J. M. Coetzee when I really just wanted to skip most of the list's suggestions and get to the good stuff, namely the work of Adams, Bradbury, Atwood, Verne and Wells. To be honest, sometimes I would just skip ahead, because even the horrors of The Island of Dr. Moreau are a veritable pleasure cruise when contrasted with yet another tedious Ian McEwan novel <yawn>.

So what transpired to shake up my foolish geek-denying mind? Firstly, while receiving a shipment of books at work, I pulled out a damaged copy of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Curiously, the book wasn't even on the purchase order, so it was clear that we were meant for each other. For those uninitiated, Cline's first novel is basically an ode to several nerdy pleasures – video games, sci-fi and fantasy, virtual reality and, to a lesser extent, Rush. For further proof of this book's nerd cred, the audio version is narrated by Wil Wheaton <insert slow grin of glee here>. I immediately took this book home and began reading it voraciously at 3am when getting any post-horror movie sleep was officially a write-off.

My second serendipitous incident occurred when a customer ordered a book entitled Star Wars: The Adventures of Luke Skywalker, Jedi Knight. We stock a lot of Star Wars books, so there was no reason to think this one would be exceptional. However, when the book arrived, it wasn't just a blandly written plot summary accompanied by stills from the films – it was a lovingly composed storybook featuring the the original concept art by Ralph McQuarrie. I almost lost my mind with happiness and instantly ordered a copy for my sons (ostensibly). I then proceeded to sing the book's praises to anyone who would listen, and some who would rather not.

What really cemented my renewed enthusiasm for science fiction was picking up a copy of Sam Maggs' A Fangirl's Guide to the Galaxy, a fantastic book that functions as both a feminist manifesto and a celebration of the unapologetic passion that is fangirldom! Maggs' offers a wealth of advice to young women on how to embrace their (often male-dominated) fandom of choice. Highlights include a chapter entitled “How to Defeat Internet Trolls” and detailed instructions on how to get the most out of attending your first convention. I also adored Maggs' commitment to supporting "lady-created media and amazing female characters." Her unadulterated love for her subject matter was truly infectious, and it really inspired me to let my geek flag fly! You don't need to prove your nerd cred to anyone, ever – you can just love what you love however you want to love it, proudly.

I still very much enjoy literary fiction. If it hadn't been for my crazy 1001 Book list experiment, I might never have discovered John Banville, Haruki Murakami, or Carol Shields, which would truly have been a shame. That being said, I am officially resolved to stop thinking of science fiction as something I “kind of like,” and from this point forward I will welcome genre fiction in all of its imaginative, surreal, strangely philosophical glory. I will seek out new life and new civilizations. I will boldly go...uh, you get the idea.

Steph Minett is a novice squash player, an intermediate Anglophile and an expert LEGO repair artist. She has two sons and one husband.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Q&A: ANDREW SCHARTMANN



When I first read that the 331/3 series (Bloomsbury) would be releasing Koji Kondo's Super Mario Bros. Soundtrack, I immediately (and paradoxically) wanted to warp to a world where I could hold the book between the controller blistered forefingers and thumbs of my seven-year-old self. Nostalgic impossibility aside (I mean what remembered seven-year-old is going to tackle music crit when there are cartridges full of hopping, fireball shooting plumbers set to the 8 bit tune of Ba-dum-pum-ba-dum-pum-PUM!), I was wired to see how Andrew Schartmann's departure from 33 1/3’s template of classic album studies would transfer to the side-scrolling page. A pianist, composer, and music theorist Schartmann expertly connects the cultural contexts and note-by-note mechanics of Kondo’s inventive score. Carefully arranging detailed interviews, musical notation, clear accounts of Mario’s visuals, and bits of Nintendo’s history, he achieves a counterpunctual balance that gambols into a forward thinking homage to Kondo and his enduring work. I don’t think Schartmann will have to bash his head into many bricks to mass coin or critical life for this title, yet I couldn’t resist seeing how he approached each level.  

He was totally game.

- Brad de Roo, who suggests listening to Kondo’s themes as you read on


Are you an avid gamer? What systems do you own or enjoy or wish you owned? Have you or will you ever own a power glove?

Yes! 100%. At present, I own an NES, an SNES, an N64, a Wii, and a Nintendo 3DS. Next on my to-own list is an Atari 2600; I’m looking forward to playing E.T.the game that ruined everything. Speaking of ruining things, I did own a Power Glove. It’s an awful thing. I’ll let the Angry Video Game Nerd take care of answering why...




What other game soundtracks do you think are worth full-length study? What about them is salient or special?

I’m not sure any other individual game could sustain a full-length study. After all, a good portion of my book is about the unique context that allowed Kondo’s music to thrive. Video game series, however, are a different story. It wouldn’t be hard to fill 150+ pages on music from The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, Castlevania, and a number of other series. A favorite of mine is the original Mega Man series for NES (Any interested publishers reading this? Please get in touch!) Those 6 games have some of the catchiest video game tunes ever written. What interests me most, though, is that all of the games have a common sound to them—they all belong to a common “sound world”—despite being composed by different people. Untangling the details of that sound world would be a rewarding project.

Do you have some you hum in transit or play on piano?

I’m a classically trained pianist (my composer of choice is Beethoven), but I play a lot of video game music by ear at the piano. As for which tunes... There are too many to name, but I love improvising variations on the Tetris theme that everyone knows (“Korobeiniki”—a Russian folk tune).

You compose music yourself. Would you ever consider composing video game music? Is there a difference in attitude or aptitude between ‘classical composition’ and video game music writing? Are these traditions held unnecessarily apart in some artificial high and low art binary?

Absolutely. It would be a welcome challenge—very different from writing classical music, which brings me to the second part of your question: yes, there is definitely a difference in attitude between the two styles. Video game composition is dictated as much by the on-screen goings on as it is by the fantasy of the composer, and perhaps even more so by the developers, who might want a particular sound. For this reason, among others, it is often viewed as a trade rather than an art. That said, the binary you speak of is artificial. Well... At least it is today. In the nascent years of video game music, “composers” weren’t trained musicians, so there was a distinct difference in aptitude between practitioners of classical music and those of game music.

You speak of the technology limitations of the early NES 8 bit sound. Your exploration of the limitations (in terms of channels, memory, timbre etc.) that Koji Kondo – and other game music composers – had to embrace gave me a better appreciation of how ingenious these compositions can be. Is there a sense in which technical limitation pushes creative solutions?

Limitations do push creative solutions. NES composer Neil Baldwin bring this out nicely in my interview with him. As he explains, because the sound capabilities of the original NES were so limited, composers had to make the machine sound as though it was doing more than it really was. This spawned a wave of innovation, whereby composers simulated a variety of effects (e.g., echoes) with only bare-bones technology at their disposal. Perhaps more interesting is that solutions from the 1980s continue to define video game music, despite the lifting of technological restrictions. In other words, features that were inspired by limitations have become an integral part of the genre itself.

Your contribution to the 33 1/3 series is the first to depart from the Classic Albums template of past offerings. Did this add pressure to your endeavor? Do you feel akin to various titles or the series despite this apparent difference?

As I wrote in the preface, “This book had its detractors long before a word of it was written.” So yes! Deviating from the 33 1/3 template added a fair bit of pressure. But that was a good thing. The unorthodox nature of my project forced me to raise the bar—to not be satisfied with a run-of-the-mill product.

Regarding my book’s kinship with other entries in the series... Sure. Like many of the fine authors who have written for 33 1/3, I was inspired to write about a selection of music by a single artist (or group) that has touched a large number of people. I feel less kinship, however, in my approach to music criticism. One of the first things a person will notice when flipping through my book is that it’s filled with musical examples; I really wanted to dig deep into the notes themselves. If I’m not mistaken, this is a first for the series.

Do you foresee a flood of studies on classic soundtracks and jingle campaigns now?

Ha! I wouldn’t be surprised if someone pitched one of the obvious games, such as The Legend of Zelda. And given the current interest in retro gaming, I could see Bloomsbury considering another video game title. Then again, it’s tough to write a monograph on such small amounts of music, so perhaps people will opt to write about broader topics—music from an entire video game franchise, for example. Jingle campaigns, on the other hand...

I sometimes hear the term ‘leitmotif’ bandied about in discussions of soundtrack music or opera. Is this a helpful term in describing or understanding the music in Super Mario Bros.?

No. I don’t think so. At least not in the first Super Mario Bros. game. There’s no clear mapping between characters and musical fragments in Kondo’s original Mario score. That fact alone precludes discussion of leitmotifs à la Super Mario, at least in my view.





You touch a bit on later incarnations of Mario. I was raccoonish in my love for Super Mario 3. What do you think of its music?

It fits the game well, but it’s too eclectic to achieve the same widespread recognition as the original score. Of course, this isn’t really Kondo’s fault. If you think about it, in Super Mario Bros., all of the Worlds are more or less the same, so the exact same music could be used throughout the game, thus giving the player time to internalize it. Super Mario Bros. 3, on the contrary, introduced themed Worlds (e.g., a desert world, a cloud world, a plant world, etc.). Kondo had to compose different tunes to reflect each of these distinct areas. Four tunes were no longer enough; Kondo needed 8 (one for each World) in addition to the music for different environments (e.g., underwater, castle).

Why doesn’t Luigi get more love as a character? Is Mario in some way more of an every person?

Mario was inspired by a real-life man. Luigi was an afterthought (he didn’t come around until well after Mario had his debut in Donkey Kong). These troubled beginnings (at least for Luigi) account for the lack of love, I think. Nintendo’s marketing also plays a role—the game is called Super Mario Bros., after all, and Mario is always the first character you can select. Let’s just say that Nintendo “nudges” (Nudge is a great book, btw) us to love Mario. 


In your research did you determine whether or not blowing on the cartridge helps the game work?

Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, would like this example. Blowing on the cartridge has absolutely no effect on the game’s functionality (well...over time, doing so can actually damage the contacts), but we’re hardwired to think that it does. It’s actually the pulling out of the cartridge and reconnecting of the pins in a sightly different position that makes all the difference.

In a blip, why is Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. such a cartridge of ear-worms?

If I had a definitive answer to that question, we’d be drinking Diva Vodka on my 100-foot yacht.



Monday, May 25, 2015

ETCH ANTHOLOGY 2015




There's a misconception that today's teens don't write as much as previous generations did, but there has probably never been a time when so many teens have spent so much of their surplus time reading and writing. Conservative estimates suggest that the average teen texts in excess of a 350,000 words annually. Even at half that many words, most teens are writing the equivalent of a solid novel each year. This is in addition to writing for school and other activities. Clearly the problem isn't getting teens to write. It's offering them the opportunities to write that they find meaningful.

This is why Vocamus Press and the Guelph Public Library have begun collaborating to revitalize the library's long-running Teen Writing Contest. Last year we began by having the collection of winners and runners-up rebranded as The ETCH Anthology, a professionally published volume that marks a first publishing credit for most of the teens involved. We also ran a launch party that included appearances by local authors and musicians. The event was such a success that submissions to the contest almost tripled in 2015.

This year we've added an element to the program where the winners and runners-up are paired with local professional writers to do an editorial pass on their stories. Not only will this improve the overall quality of the collection, but it will offer the young writers a chance to experience something of the process involved in submitting to journals and magazines.

The resulting collection, The ETCH Anthology 2015, will be launched on Saturday May 30 at 1:00 PM in the main branch of the public library. Local authors Kira Vermond, Valerie Senyk, and Douglas Davey will be on hand to announce the winning entries, and Miriam Snow will provide music. There will also be refreshments available through the J.O.E. employment program, and people will have a chance to buy their very own copies of the collection, fresh from the press.

Next year, we'd like to launch a website that will function as a hub for teen writers in the Guelph area, not just for the GPL contest but also for high school writing courses, extra-curricular writing clubs, other library programs, or even community groups. The site would allow teens to share their work with each other and with the broader community as well.

If you're interested to know more about the program, please contact Elissa Davidson of the Guelph Public Library at edavidson@guelphpl.ca or Jeremy Luke Hill of Vocamus Press at vocamuspress@gmail.com.

- Jeremy Luke Hill