Stories Behind The Songs met up with Astral Swans in the basement of a Toronto house shared by a bunch of dudes. They were about to play their 13th house concert for the Madic House Concert tour that took them on an adventure across the country. Matthew Swann (aka Astral Swans) is the sole signed artist on Dan Mangan’s new record label Madic Records and has embarked on this tour with Distance Bullock (Port Juvee) who contributed drums, cello and backing vocals on Astral Swans’ first album for Madic Records, All My Favorite Singers are Willie Nelson. As we hung out in the basement drinking beers, the house party was underway above us. At one point we all stop talking to take in a live cover of “Hip Hop” by Dead Prez being performed by one of the host’s friends. Like all of the shows on this tour, the night was charged with the thrill of unpredictability.
Our interview turns into an hour-long hangout before we head upstairs to watch Swann’s pal Jay McCarrol (Brave Shores and Hayden) play a surprise set for the crowd. The night is one of unique intimacy as listeners circle around the performers and share each moment together. There isn’t a stage elevating the musicians, no bright lighting that separates the performers from the audience. Just one living room with a mic and an amp, some soft lighting and a group of music lovers who just want to experience some live artistry; and Astral Swans love every minute of it.
Matthew Swann: Well, they’ve all been really different… Distance was away for about a week of shows so last night I played in Bancroft in an artist residency space that was stunning. It was in the middle of nowhere but it was this community that was an incredibly highly cultured pocket of Toronto artists who were like, “Fuck this. We’re going to go buy cheap gallery and studio space in the middle of like, the Canadian Shield” and it was amazing. Most of those people were 40+ and a lot of really hip 50-something year old Toronto painters and stuff. Super cool. And then tonight, it’s like a college house party where everyone is sitting around an X-Box right now (laughs).
Distance Bullock: In the first three shows we did, I think we saw like every single variety of show that was going to pave the way. The first show in Calgary was a typical 20 to 35-year-old fan base, pretty full hometown show.
MS: Yeah that one was sold out and more. We oversold it.
MS: No, no, that’s the thing, it’s intentionally not people we know.
DB: And then Edmonton was an old, early 1900s character house with a young professional couple that was very quiet and respectful.
MS: Yeah and they make their own beer and they keep bees… It was a beautiful home with lots of teachers, nurses, professors there.
DB: Then the next night in Regina it was a full-blown kegger.
MS: Oh yeah, it was a keg party and some guy brought a half-pound of mushrooms! They were just sweet, kinda younger… The one guy was a video guy who did visuals and they were just hippie 20-something youthful kids who were living in the wrong side of town in a super old huge house.
MS: Oh awesome! There was one guy that was wasted and probably reacting weird to the mushrooms I think… Um, That was me… (laughs) No.
But, then the Ottawa show was totally like a hippie couple in their sixties and were grandparents but it was weird because I was outside and ended up smoking a joint with this like, 60-year-old man and he was like, “You remind me of like, Sun Kil Moon meets Mount Eerie meets Kurt Vile” and I’m like, “How the fuck do you even know who those people are?!” I was like waiting for him to be like, “Yeah…play a Tom Petty cover!” (laughs) It was great. I got there at 8:00 and it was packed and I was late and they were like, “Where have you been? Everyone’s ready!” It was a full age range from like small children to their grandparents and they were all like, really hip.
MS: Yep, yep. It’s been about half and half. A lot of them are places where they still reside, like an artist centre that offers retreats and residencies but they also live there.
MS: Oh I think I’m only going to do tours like this. In Canada. Yeah, it works for me. I like playing in a bar when I’m playing in a rock band but my objective as a musician is not “Bigger is better” and “I need to be famous and sell a million albums.” I would need to very dramatically change the nature of the music I’m playing and my image if I was doing that. I’m doing three shows with Dan [Mangan] next month that will be like theatre shows. I love doing support gigs in nice theatres but again, I just want to have a sustainable, humble artistic practice where I can continue to make records.
MS: I first met Dan in 2008. I was playing in a punk band on the first label that he was on. I would kind of run into him like once a year and, Dan being Dan, he was just a very nice guy. We would sort of share music a bit. I didn’t really know him that well but all of a sudden I got an email [from him] very much out of the blue being like, “Hey, I heard these songs and I really like this. Do you have anything more?” and I pretty much had a full album done so I sent him the rough mix and he was like, “This is really different. Can I call you?” And then he was like, “Do you mind if I send this to Kevin Drew and some of the people at Arts&Crafts?” and he sent it to them and a bunch of other people. People obviously respect Dan and love him but, I know I’m a hard sell for him to, like, a lot of industry people. I remember him writing back at one point and he was like, “I have like, fallen in love with this album. I wish I wasn’t so busy because I would be your manager” and I was like, “I fuckin’ wish!” And then at some point, he was just like, “You know what? Fuck it. I’ve always thought about starting a label…” – and this was the huge compliment – he was like, “People send me music all the time, I get 100 emails a week. There’s something very American about [your songs]. It’s hard to articulate that but it doesn’t sound like all of the Canadian indie music that I keep getting from people. It sounds something like old, American underground kinda music.” At the end of the day, it’s a massive compliment.
MS: We met at a show in Lethbridge about four years ago when Distance was playing with Reuben and The Dark and I was in a band called Gold.
DB: No, it’s really strange and very serendipitous how this stuff has happened. Even how I ended up playing on the record. We hadn’t really spent proper any time together, it just evolved into happening.
DB: Yeah, I drum in a band called Port Juvee. It was a last minute decision to do the tour with Matt because he had someone previously lined up to do the management piece on the road and the driving but they unfortunately couldn’t make it. So when I got asked to do it, I already had previous obligations with solo stuff and with Port Juvee in Calgary so I just missed the last week of shows with Matt and I just flew back today.
MS: Oh it was great because part of this is Dan knowing that I am kind of a strange person and I’m not that good with handling certain performing situations. Performing is a very moody thing for me so I was like, “Oh, this could be the answer.” I mean, I didn’t know what it would look like and it’s been, in many respects, a better fit than I expected. I don’t think it would work for everyone but it’s good for me.
DB: The best shows are house shows. [Typical] tours can be monotonous after a while and it kind of flatlines. It’s like, “Remember that show in Boston?” “No…” It’s just another show at another venue with the same band but then, always, the house shows are the memories that stick out in your head. To have an entire tour of that is pretty badass. There are so many specific details of every show so far that stand out whereas if we were playing a bunch of bars it would just be like, whatever, it’s just another night in a club. This is all very personal, very intimate and there’s a lot of distinguishing factors of every place we’ve been that usually just get lost.
MS: I love it. Again, it’s like an under-the-radar thing so if your ambitions are to be like, huge, it’s a different type of sustainability and a different type of growth. I’m way more comfortable in that. I don’t like dealing with just a bottom line and promoters and booking agents and having to alter what you’re doing just to get tickets sales. I can’t do that and with this I don’t have to do that, thank God. It’s a huge relief because I just want to find creative ways to be able to play music until I die.
Read more in our interview with Dan Mangan about starting Madic Records, the concept of the Madic House Concerts and his love for Astral Swans.
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