Interview with Great Lake Swimmers, e-interview, April 2009

Interview and article by Aline Giordano

Great Lake Swimmers With a fourth album just released (Lost Channels) Great Lake Swimmers are back on the road for a North American and European tour. Front Man and singer Tony Dekker very kindly answered some questions I sent him about Lost channels and more personal ones about, for example, his approach to music composition and living in Toronto. But first, let’s go back a few months to how I discovered Great Lake Swimmers…

January 2008. I remember. I had just parked the car. I had a few moments to spare. It was a cold and wet evening, one of those morose evenings. I was feeling a little lost and certainly sad. I switched on BBC Radio 2 to hear the warm tone of Bob Harris. I like Bob Harris, I like the music he plays on air. So I listened intently when he introduced a band I had not heard of, called Great Lake Swimmers, performing live “I Became Awake”. The gracefulness and fragility of Tony Dekker’s voice enveloped my mind which certainly needed to be transported far away from my daily routine. The experience was magical: “I became awake. I thought I was sleeping, but I was only forming a structure with no ceiling. With words like a runway, a cloud of a person drifting away. I was heavy, but now I am light.” When the song came to an end I felt like I was waking up from a deep state of relaxation.

I went on to buy Great Lake Swimmers’ first album (untitled), Bodies and Mind and Ongaria. I love them all, but particularly Ongaria, perhaps because it contains “I Became Awake” (the experience in the car was so cathartic!). I knew Great Lake Swimmers were on their way back to Canada and that I had missed their tour. I knew it would be a while before they would release their next album and come back to Europe. And the moment has now come as they are back in Europe for a few dates.

From an abandoned grain silo to a church, or the Aeolian Hall in Ontario; these are the chosen locations to record their full length albums. I asked Tony Dekker what the most important criteria when choosing a location in general and more specifically for the recording of Lost Channels are. “At first it was important to choose a space for its unique acoustic properties. Then I realized that choosing a special place draws out a certain kind of performance from the musicians, myself included. It has become an important part of the creative process.” He wrote.

Lost Channels is in fact a historical place set at the border between Canada and the USA. The band spent some time there in between recordings with the historian and photographer Ian Coristine. Does Tony Dekker feel a connection with Canadian history/geography? “I think that musical ideas transcend those kinds of physical borders. I am proud to live in Canada and our music can be looked at as being distinctly Canadian in a way, especially given my interest in Canadian history, but ultimately, a song must go deeper than geography.”

I think that Great Lake Swimmers always come up with beautiful, fresh and inventive melodies. Ongaria is particularly full of these melodic gems! I am currently listening to Pulling on a Line from Lost Channels, and they’ve done it again, coming up with great melodies. Do they come naturally or are they the result of hard labour? “Some songs are written easily and immediately and some songs take years. There is no proper way to write a song in my mind. Each one follows its own unique and twisted path”.

The Lost Channels tour is a pretty intensive one (over 60 dates in three months!), how do they keep focussed and on top of things with so many performances scheduled? “I think the key is to eat properly, get a lot of rest and most of all try to stay healthy. And also try not to burn out on doing too many interviews.”

Ongaria has dreamlike and beautiful lightness in the music, contrasted with darker lyrics which particularly come through in I became awake. What dictated the mood of Ongaria; the lyrics or the music? “I think it was a combination of both the lyrics and the music that dictated the mood of Ongaria. I think the best songs come through when there is a good balance of the atmospheric and the abstract with a narrative form.”

Great Lake Swimmers: Music as a means to escape from the every day life or a means to engage in it (e.g. from a political viewpoint)? “I think that people generally turn to music as an escape, even if it is political. I think that people react to our music in a lot of different ways though, and it’s unclear to me if more are planning an escape or becoming engaged.”

Last but not least, a few more personal things about Tony Dekker: “I prefer vinyl but I also appreciate the economy and usefulness of the mp3. In Toronto, I like the changing of seasons, the lakefront, and the green spaces like High Park. I like riding my bicycle in the Annex in the summertime.”

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Photograph © Aline Giordano 2009