Andrew Whiteman of Apostle of Hustle /Broken Social Scene
Story and Interview by Ryan S. Henriquez
If you’ve seen Broken Social Scene live, then you know Andrew Whiteman packs a wallop with his strat. As the gifted lead guitarist of the Toronto rock collective, he lords over the band’s huge major chords with a skill and swagger that elevate the songs into bona fide rock anthems. But when he’s not touring the world in a 14+ person caravan, you can find him strumming minor-key inflected tumbaos on his tres cubano, as the voice and leader of Apostle of Hustle. A 20-year veteran of the Toronto music scene and world musicologist, Whiteman was just waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.
I caught up with Whiteman the day between three sold out nights at NYC’s Webster Hall and the day of his band’s inaugural Late Night With Conan O’Brien appearance. Following Conan, Whiteman and company would depart for Europe and Australia to complete their six month tour supporting Broken Social Scene’s eponymous third album, after which he will begin recording the sophomore follow-up to Apostle of Hustle’s critically-acclaimed debut Folkloric Feel.
RH: Folkloric Feel is one of those albums whose songs reveal themselves over time. You latch on to one song for a while until another slowly starts to show itself.
AW: Well, it’s great when it works according to plan.
RH: Did you really set out to create an album like that?
AW: Well, once the album was done, and we listened to it, we looked at each other and we pretty much knew who was probably going to get it, and how it was going to go down.
RH: It’s definitely for a more sophisticated listener. The songs are very different from one another, and the song structure is very different across the album, and yet it still gels into a cohesive sound.
AW: That record was the product of 5 years or so of different influences, different people involved, 4 different studios, a bunch of scrapped songs - it’s a real mutt of an album.
RH: Did [Broken Social Scene producer] Dave Newfeld help a lot in creating Folkloric Feel’s sound?
AW: He came on sort of late in the game. But as you can tell with BSS, his thumbprint is all over it. We initially just wanted him to come in and mix the album because we had done all the recording in other places. And he wasn’t satisfied with that, of course. So we did a fair amount of re-recording at his place [Stars & Sons Studio in Toronto] to the point where in some instances we just trashed old versions of songs completely and recording them entirely new with Dave.
RH: My girlfriend plays the album whenever she’s taking a bath. She walks around the apartment afterwards just singing or humming “Animal Fat.”
AW: I love those stories, dude. I’m like the dark horse of Arts & Crafts [Apostle of Hustle & Broken Social Scene’s label], right? I like hearing little stories like that.
RH: Without giving up your right to artistic ambiguity, can you talk a little bit about the inspiration for that song, or what it means?
AW: It’s about getting back to the essentiality of things. We all need animal fat to exist and survive. Art was born out if it in some ways. Cavemen used to make drawings on the walls of their caves with berries and animal fat. It’s just about what is essential to all of us.
RH: Do you ever think Folkloric Feel was overshadowed by the BSS juggernaut and your involvement with that group?
AW: No. I mean I’m a realist. People would have never even heard Folkloric Feel if not for Broken Social Scene. I’m very thankful, actually.
RH: I know you’ve been making music for some 20 odd years, but for an official debut, Folkloric Feel really is commendable.
AW: I’m excited about it. I feel completely happy; completely at home; and I think it’s laid a foundation. Once BSS gets back from Australia, Apostle of Hustle will record in Montreal in March and April at Masterkut studio, which is the home of one of my favorite singers – her name is Lhasa. That’s her home studio so I’m going there.
RH: Are you going to stick with a similar sound as the last record?
AW: No, Newf’s not gonna do it. With my old record, and with what Newf did to the record, Arts & Records pushed it down a certain avenue when it came out. But I want to reach this whole chunk of people I’m not really getting to. I think I’m gonna try to make a folk record. Well, whatever my version of a folk record would be. I’m not sure yet. I want to make a record that will force Arts & Crafts, whether they like it or not, to not necessarily force it down the indie rock path which is so well oiled and starched with BSS. This new record is gonna force them to go to a different place.
RH: Any ideas for who’s going to help you produce the next record?
AW: It’s too soon to know, really. I do want to work with Marty Kenack. He’s been [BSS’s] live sound guy for about 3 years. If anyone loves our live show, it’s half his fault. He’s huge. I don’t know how he does it. We’ve got 6 guitar players and all this stuff going on, but with him I can hear everything clearly. It’s not mush. It’s all Marty.
RH: Do you already have the songs written?
AW: We’ve got about 18 songs; about half of them are done. That’s different from Folkloric Feel in that this time we’ll have a lot of songs to choose from, and ones to get rid of. Just so we can make the most cohesive album we can. I just want to make a record that’s a little more immediate for people – so they can get it a little quicker.
RH: Do you write songs when you’re on the road like now?
AW: I’m terrible at writing when I’m on the road. Just terrible at it. I really need to learn how to not be terrible at it [laughs] - like over the next five weeks as I’m finishing up this tour!
RH: Are a lot of the Arts & Crafts people going to be the next Apostle record?
AW: Hopefully Evan Cranley [from Stars] is going to be on the record. He lives in Montreal.
RH: Do you live in Montreal?
AW: No, I’m from Toronto but I’m recording in Montreal. That’s another step I’m taking is - I don’t want to be in Toronto. I’ll also probably have [BSS member] Ohad [Benchichrit] – he plays a big bar mitzvah saxophone. I don’t know who else - it’s hard to say. I’d love to have all those guys play with me, but it’s all about scheduling.
RH: With BSS, you get to play these major chord driven rock anthems. But it’s different with the minor keys of Apostle of Hustle. Are you more comfortable operating in a minor key mode?
AW: Yes. Well, not sure if I’d say more comfortable, but that’s definitely what Apostle is for. I know it’s a fantasy at this point - from talking to booking agents they tell me it won’t work - but I see myself as more akin to the old jazz musicians on 52nd Street, playing a 2-week residency at some small joint. Practice during the day, and any other musicians that are around, you invite them in. Your set changes night to night. I really respect that idiom.
RH: That’s a bit of a change from the way Broken Social Scene tours.
AW: It’s terrible for indie rock musicians nowadays. For them, when a gig is over a gig is over. There’s no ‘hey let’s all hop in a cab and go to this other place and we can still keep playing!’ That just doesn’t exist. Sometimes all you want to do is keep playing - I mean that’s what we’re here for, right?
RH: You’ve been touring with Broken Social Scene for several months, and you’re going to continue in Europe and Australia through March. Is it a constant euphoria or is it a grind?
AW: Well, we [BSS] haven’t really stopped that much really since we started. Especially for people like me who have other projects like Apostle, there’s almost no stoppage. Which is a blessing – it’s great on one level – but it can be an absolute grind.
RH: Does it feel the same as when you started?
AW: You have to realize that [BSS] changed hugely starting in September. There was a major shift.
RH: As far as what?
AW: Personnel. Integral personnel.
RH: Like Feist off doing her own thing?
AW: Well, we could only get a hold of Feist if we were lucky because her career has just taken off. But when Stars took off, it was the first time – with Amy [Millan] & Evan [Cranley] – it was the first time it was just a straight lock out. [They said,] ‘Nope, we can’t do it. We can’t do anything in the fall. Nothing. No. No. No.’ Same thing with James [Shaw] & Emily [Haines] from Metric: ‘Nope. Busy. The whole fall. Sorry guys. You’re on your own.’ It was the first time we had to go outside of the family to get a singer – which we did – with Lisa Lobsinger.
RH: Do you feel that Lisa Lobsinger feels some pressure…
RH:…in that she’s replacing Feist and Emily Haines.
RH: Do you help her with that a little?
AW: There might have been some hand holding in the beginning. She’s a young kid, walking in to fill some BIG SHOES. I mean you’ve got Feist, Amy [Millan] and Emily [Haines], who are in my opinion are some of the greatest female singers around right now. But I’m really proud of Lisa. I really like her vibe on stage, and she’s certainly grown a helluva lot in a few short months.
RH: It must be tough too in that Feist and Emily have such extroverted personae on stage, so it’s hard to live up to that. I think you share that – you have a charisma, a swagger to the way you play, where a lot of eyes are drawn to you.
AW: Well, I get a chance to have fun, you know? With so many people on stage, a lot of times you can afford to drop a note here and there so I get a little leeway. It’s different with Apostle where I might be responsible for singing or for driving the song. But with BSS I get to screw around a little. If I want to throw away my pick and see what it’s like to play a song with just my fingers, I can.
RH: I’ve actually thought at times that you remind me of Prince in the way you perform.
RH: You’ve never heard that before?
AW: No, I haven’t.
RH: You know, in the 80’s, when he was on his Hendrix high. The way you play with some of the notes, they sort of hang and hover above the rest of the melody…
AW: Oh! You know what you might be picking up on? In the song “Almost Crimes”? I don’t do it all the time, but for a while, to keep things from getting boring, I would pick a musical theme depending on what city we were in. I played this game for six months where I’d pick a theme based around a city. For example, we were in Manchester, England, and I’d play [Joy Division’s] “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Or in Berlin I’d play [Nena’s] “99 Luftballons.”
AW: In Seattle, I played [Heart’s] “Dreamboat Annie.” In L.A. once, I did the guitar solo for [Steely Dan’s] “Reeling In The Years.” In Scotland, I did the “The Skye Boat Song” which is this old bagpipe melody. Occasionally someone would get it - you know, actually hear it. And lately, I’ve been throwing in the guitar coda to [Prince’s] “Let’s Go Crazy.” You know, just lay it in there and have a little fun.
RH: One inspiration for Folkloric Feel you’ve cited is Manu Chao. Are you familiar with his touring video shot by Rafi?
AW: I am actually. I’ve seen it a couple times.
RH: In it, one of his bandmates describes him as a “mythical figure from Barcelona.”
AW: I’ve never met him, but I lived in Barcelona for a time, and from what folks tell me, he keeps himself relatively close to the streets, and to the people that he always ha. He has an elusiveness to him. He obviously doesn’t court celebrity and the things that are offered to him. But with his records, you gotta lay some of that down on Renaud Letang [producer of Manu Chao, Feist, Björk].
RH: With your connection to Feist, have you thought about seeking out Renaud Letang to help on the next Apostle record?
AW: I have thought of it, but it’s not the right time. Feist is about to work with him again. Besides, he’s a little, ya’ know, cha-ching?
RH: Yeah, I would imagine he would be relatively expensive. He just worked on Björk’s last record.
RH: For a while Manu Chao did this guerilla tour through Latin America, where he would just travel around these poor villages, set up in the local town square, and play for these people. Bring art to them in an immediate way which some of them probably never experienced in their lifetimes.
AW: I’d love to do that someday. To bring the music back to the people. Of course let’s face it you gotta be movin’ some units to be able to afford to do that. Hell, I’m not even sure how I’m getting paid for this tour! [he laughs]
RH: Manu Chao sings in French, English, Spanish. Have you given thought about singing in Spanish of French or any other language on the new Apostle Record?
AW: There are a few cuts on the vinyl [of Folkloric Feel] that are traditional Cuban songs, sung in Spanish. On the new record, there’s a poem of Garcia Lorca that I’ve put to music, and maybe a few other tracks will be in Spanish. I mean it’s a blatant attempt to get attention somewhere I want to be. (laughs) Blatantly courting!
RH: But the Spanish vibe is a great thing.
AW: Man, I love flamenco music. My favorite flamenco artist is Enrique Morente. He’s a bit of a genre-pusher in his own right. When BSS was playing Primavera in Barcelona last year, Enrique Morente was playing – I couldn’t believe it. I saw him at this little theater, maybe 500 people, and I was sitting RIGHT in the front. It was so shockingly good - one of my favorite musical moments ever. And then, as if that wasn’t enough, the next night Sonic Youth was playing. We had passes to hang backstage, and who else was hanging out?! Enrique Morente. I read that later Sonic Youth did a gig in Valencia in Spain where Enrique Morente came out and jammed.
RH: Does he play flamenco guitar?
AW: No, he’s a canta. A singer. He has this incredible, powerful, emotionally keening voice. I mean I wanna meet this dude. This is the kinda guy I want to connect with. I’m basically the world music geek of BSS. I admit it, I don’t shy away from it. That’s why the production on this record needs to be different – I need to connect with a different segment. It’s a bit of an obsession of mine.
RH: I remember reading your interview with Identity Theory…
AW: Oh yeah! That was good!
RH: …and I remember thinking, ‘Damn! I just got taken to school!’ I didn’t know any of these artists you and the writer were discussing.
AW: Yeah, well, I bet you could whip my ass at emo or something.
RH: Maybe some old school hip-hop.
RH: Maybe?! “Well Peter Piper picked peppers, but Run rapped rhymes..”
AW: THROW DOWN, MUTHAFUCKA RIGHT NOW!
RH: No, but you can tell from past interviews that you’re quite the musicologist.
AW: Maybe, but sometimes I go overboard. I had to completely cut myself off from Pitchfork at one point. I’d spend hours at a time on there, to the point, where I’d be like ‘Oh my God! Joanna Newsom pricked her finger?!’ It was getting out of control. I had to stop.
RH: In rock music over the last 20 years, who do you see as some of the best composers?
AW: I guess the one that comes to mind immediately in Tom Waits. He changes. He won’t stop. If you listened to his first record, there was no way you never would have imagined that Real Gone was coming out from this guy. What a great thing that the guy gets more fucked up as he gets older. He’s like that guy Hassan I Sabbah in William Burroughs “Old Man Of The Mountain.” That’s Waits – he just gets weirder and crazier as he gets older until he retreats up into the mountainside and makes these things – and if you’re brave enough to go up there and deal with him, you get rewarded.
RH: What about Jack White?
AW: I really don’t know him. I loved [Loretta Lynn’s] Van Lear Rose and I was well aware with how much he had to do with that. I’d love to see him perform live.
RH: They’re great. I saw them in Coney Island with the Shins last year and it was easily the best show of the summer.
AW: Does he do a lot of banter? Is he a chitty chatty dude?
RH: No, not so much.
AW: I wouldn’t think so.
RH: But he’s got these crazy toreador outfits – he’s just this force of nature. It’s just him and Meg up there, and yet he manages to pull off this huge sound.
AW: Well, Julian Brown [Apostle bassist] just got pinched by Feist! Which is great of course. They sound fantastic, he’s happy…and Feist, she’s happy - she’s got a Canadian hoser back in the band so she’s way more comfortable. But this is the game we all play in Arts & Crafts. Who do we have? Who don’t we have? So if I have to go out with just me and Dean [Stone] the drummer – well, if the White Stripes can pull it off, maybe we can too!
RH: Have you listened to Wilco at all?
AW: Sure. I did a heavy Wilco phase. Another band, that decided not to…Summerteeth is my favorite of their records, but at the same time, I’m glad they didn’t do another one. I’m glad they got all weirdo, and got Jim O’Rourke, and it turned out perfectly. Jeff Tweedy has a great surrealism in his lyrics.
RH: I think Jeff Tweedy came into his own as a songwriter when has reinterpreting Woody Guthrie during the Mermaid Avenue project – something just clicked.
AW: That’s important. You gotta realize that everyone comes from somewhere. I’ve just been thinking about that a lot myself these days. A lot of folks think that they can’t categorize Apostle into a genre – and I’m happy about that – it doesn’t mold into this or that. While I’m happy to be an outsider in those terms, I’m discovering that I can still lean on certain traditional musical structures or themes or forms – these are proven forms and they just work over and over and people respond to them. All I’ve been listening to this last week is Bob Dylan’s Live at the Gaslight 1962 and folk anthologies, and these things can be really instructive and helpful in crafting songs.
RH: I know that with BSS there’s a lot of collaborative songwriting. And yet Kevin [Drew] does the lion’s share of the vocals. Is there a consensus that Kevin’s voice is the best mouthpiece for the song style of BSS?
AW: He’s the jefe, man. Kev’s the jefe. In a lot of ways the [BSS] songs come from him and his acoustic guitar. He’ll say ‘here’s my song, here are the chords,’ and then we just have to jump in – it happens usually really quickly, 10 minutes, half an hour and the song’s made. But then the songs will always change over time. We all can’t even fit in the studio at the same time! I’d go away for 6 months on an Apostle tour, and come back and say ‘That doesn’t sound like anything like the song I did all my guitar parts on?! Where did that go?!’ [laughs]
RH: With a band so large, who decides when a song is done?
AW: Ha! They’re never done. There’s a great quote from French poet Paul Valery where he says, ‘A poem is never finished, only abandoned.’
RH: You just slave over the songs over and over?
AW: Dude. Newf’s a madman. You should hear the other versions of [BSS’s latest] record. There are so many alternate takes. I wish he would have quit two months earlier. That’s just my opinion.
RH: Did you transfer over a level of trust to [Dave Newfeld], where you’d say – OK we’re gonna let you do your thing and…
AW: What else could we do?! We were on the road! I mean Kevie watched over his shoulder as much as possible. But then Newf will freak out and he won’t leave the studio. He’d say, ‘You guys aren’t even around. I don’t wanna hear your shit! I just wanna stay here and finish this mix!’ [laughter] So we’d say, ‘Go ahead and do your thing, Newf.’ But you know what? It’s not hard to stay away. Stars & Sons is a very claustrophobic, crazy place.
RH: Is that Dave’s studio?
AW: Yeah. It’s also where he lives. The crazy thing about Dave is that he used to be a wedding DJ. So he prides himself on this deep understanding of what will make normal people jump out of their chairs.
RH: That’s an interesting sensibility – you wouldn’t necessarily think that that would translate into producing great records.
AW: He’s very analytical and a perfectionist. Every thirty seconds, he’ll say ‘Is this good? Are you bored by this?’ When you listen to the BSS record, you can hear it.
RH: Is it nice having more autonomy with Apostle of Hustle?
AW: Oh, absolutely. With Broken, we’re an experiment. We’re conducting an experiment. Now we look at it and realize that IS what we’re doing. It’s an experiment musically. It’s an experiment as an organization. It’s also an experiment politically in a way.
RH: After the next Apostle record, will you go right back into the fold of Broken Social Scene?
AW: It actually might time out well. Kevin is thinking about doing a solo record after this tour. I’m recording the Apostle record after this tour, I need to deliver it in September, and tour behind it. So by the time that finishes up, maybe Kevin will have completed his solo gig, and we’ll probably fall right back into it.
RH: You formed [now defunct Toronto group] Bourbon Tabernacle Choir 20 years ago, so it’s been quite a journey. Have you been playing out and touring every year since?
AW: Yes, the last few years; but no, not every year. I haven’t been that lucky.
RH: What was the worst day job you’ve ever had?
AW: Probably a waiter. I could just never hang as a waiter. But my best day job was driving a water taxi in Toronto. I’d spend all day out on this Boston Whaler, selling ice, and taking folks to and from their boats which were moored in the harbor. I loved it. There would be times when I’d be steering the boat out away from shore and I felt just like the Silver Surfer, which is obviously a pretty great feeling.
RH: Ok so you’re stranded on a desert island, and you need to choose one of the following.
AW: Oh boy, here we go.
RH: The music of Bob Marley or Manu Chao.
AW: Bob Marley. And early Bob, like the Wailers recordings with Lee Perry.
RH: The Upsetters collection? Like [Singing] “Mr. Brown is a clown, who rides through town in a coffin…”?
AW: Right right! Oh there’s another one too called “Stand Alone”?
RH: How does that one go? Wait, is that the one [singing] “There you are, crying again…”
AW: Yeah! [singing] “But your loveliness, won’t cover your shame.” There’s something about those recordings which really resonate. Jamaicans are sort of fickle with their musical tastes – they move on quickly to the next thing and they sort of did the same with Bob and his music when he became this international superstar. But with those Lee Perry recordings, the Jamaicans were really into Bob and his sound, and for good reason.
RH: Ok, back on the desert island. A tres, or a stratocaster with an amp.
AW: The tres for sure. I’ve spent enough time with the strat.
RH: Are you excited about appearing on Conan tomorrow?
AW: That should be fun. But I think it’s a racket for us Canadians. Metric played the show a few weeks ago; Feist has played Conan. Hell, this Friday Rick Moranis is playing Conan! He’s got a country record out [The Agoraphobic Cowboy, 2005] which I heard has been nominated for a Grammy! What a trip!