Douglas Tewksbury – Paths

We were able to catch up with Douglas Tewksbury, a Buffalo music veteran based out of Hamilton, Ontario, about his beautiful new album Paths. The album was inspired by Tewksbury’s travels to remote parts of our planet and his reflections on climate change. Check out our conversation below – and be sure to check out Paths, released June 1st by Geertruida (Netherlands).

As a member of Canary Girls, you released one of my all-time favorite albums to come out of Buffalo – Everything is Changing. What have you been up to, musically and otherwise, since leaving Buffalo?

Thanks! That was an exciting time for us all. We had a lot of fun making that record, and I still like it quite a bit, almost ten years later. We never got to record the follow-up, which was really too bad. Each song we were writing—Bill, the lead singer/keyboardist in particular—was better than the last and riding the emerging wave of synth-pop during that era, but they all remain unreleased today. It’s alright, though. Life took us each in different directions.

I left Canary Girls when I fell in love with Christine, who’s now my wife, and moved to Hamilton. And since then, I’ve been spending time with my family and parenting. Our kids are getting a little bit older and slightly more independent now, and it’s been nice to have at least a small amount more time to spend on creative projects and putting some art into the world. I’m glad I can balance these different parts of my life.

At Into Fruition we’re hoping to help nurture a more regional scene. We’d like artists to grow their audiences and we’d like audiences to be exposed to more great art. How would you describe the music and art scene in Hamilton?

Hamilton is fascinating. It’s always kind of been viewed in Canada kind of like Brooklyn in the 1990s: affordable, gritty, filled with artists and musicians and authors and such who were priced out of Toronto and started their own thing here.

And today, it’s followed a similar path of Brooklyn where the quality-of-life is great for those who can afford it, but it’s also become extraordinarily out-of-reach for the very people who built its creative culture. Most of our galleries and performance spaces have been lost to gentrification and shocking rent increases. The neighborhood art galleries have closed and been replaced by ‘Art Lofts’ owned by conglomerated Russian tycoons looking to park their cash in real estate for a few years. I guess the story is kind of a boring one, where interesting culture ends up becoming a simulation of culture and then gets sold back to people. Those that can afford it, anyway.

That being said, it’s still great here, and it continues to be a very exciting city for creativity. It’s not enough, but there’s at least some amount of government support here for independent musicians to sort of, kind of make ends meet, and it’s still common to meet people who are full-time musicians or artists or writers or some combination thereof. The community here continues to be supportive, even if people like myself are pretty grumpy about some of those changes. I wish the support were better, but it’s nice that it’s something.

Who are some of your favorite artists out of Hamilton? Who should we know?

Jessy Lanza, for sure. She’s amazing in every way. But also, there are lesser-known super talented artists like Low Chord/Scott Orr, Wax Mannequin, Matt Paxton, Timid the Brave, Terra Lightfoot, and lots of others. Elliott Brood is an amazing band, too. The drummer, Stephen Pitkin mastered Paths at his Modest Heights Mastering studio.  With lots of huge synth swaths and quiet, delicate piano parts, this was a difficult album to master. He’s astoundingly talented as both a drummer and an engineer.

What are the chances of a Canary Girls reunion?

Ha! Zero. I wish, though – I love each of those guys. I moved to Canada in 2012, lead singer and keyboardist Bill moved to NYC in 2013 or 2014 and later to North Carolina, and drummer Josh moved to Atlanta last year. Bassist Keith has remained in Buffalo. He now owns the amazing design and renovation studio Acme Cabinet Co. I miss each of them. I wish we saw each other more often.

I understand Paths came into existence following some pretty extensive travel ( Norway, Newfoundland, Alaska, Sweden, elsewhere). What inspired the travel?

Hmmm, I don’t know. Partly it was work, since I’m a professor of media studies at Niagara University, and much of my research is on climate-change denial. But there’s something about open spaces and more rugged climates that have always attracted me. Maybe it’s growing up in Arizona, where much of the land is simply unowned and open, and raw and indifferent to you, as a human. Untamed places seem to be where my attention goes, and we’ve been lucky to be able to bring our family with us. It’s taken us to some pretty interesting places, especially Newfoundland and Norway, both special places to exist on the earth. Each is mostly empty, with a rich history, amazing people and incredible, impossible landscapes and shoreline around every bend.

The untamed, raw places you connect with the land, with space. You can’t not think about time and changes and human endurance – how did people survive this place, winter after winter for millennia? How long has it been there? How long will it be there? What did it used to be like? I remember seeing a time-lapse video of a glacier in retreat in Alaska, and then hiking with one of my daughters along the trail, where there were rock carons every ten minutes or so, showing where the glacier’s outer edge used to be in 1920, 1930, and so on. It was so sobering. We both cried watching the time-lapse video, and I showed the video to my students once, and several of them started crying, too. An actual understanding of land, time, and our place in both, those things help us to know what we need to do, even if it doesn’t seem to be getting done.

How did your experiences in these places lead you to Paths? Did you have the album in mind as you were writing, or did the album come into view after you started writing?

The album came together as a concept when I was digging through some old field recordings in 2020 and found one that was a thirty-minute recording of waves, recorded on the shore of Fogo Island, a small island off the coast of Newfoundland. I had hiked by myself out to a rugged point—Icebergs were passing by like a hundred yards off the shore during the recording and a pack of caribou was in the hills behind me—and I encountered this amazing, haunting four-foot bronze statue in the middle of nowhere of a great auk, a bird that was hunted to extinction. I looked it up later and it points to an identical statue in Iceland, two extinct birds looking at each other, a memorial to their extinction. I loved that challenge of art existing in unexpected, not-easy-to-get-to places, and that says some things that might be difficult for us to hear.

In terms of the album, I started challenging myself to actually finish songs. I’d been recording for years, but falling into that trap of “This is good! I’ll finish it later…” And then “later” becomes months, then years, and then never. And you keep piling up hundreds demos and sketches and doing nothing with them. It was like, “What am I even doing with these, if I’m not going to release them? What’s the point of all this?” I kind of made it a mantra: “You’ve got to finish your songs. You’ve got to finish your songs.”

I set myself a date when it was going to the mastering engineer two months out, since having external deadlines is really the only way I finish anything in my life. Surprisingly, dedicating myself to finishing old songs inspired me to write new ones as the project started to come together. I didn’t end up using any of the old ones on this record. All of the songs the songs on Paths ended up being written and recorded in a few weeks. I’m glad the process unfolded in the way that it did.

Your use of space and time seems significant. There is a lot of openness and negative space in these tracks, and there are moments within Paths that exist outside of a traditional time signature. Can you talk about this? How much of this was consciously considered versus how much unconsciously flowed from your experiences?

Yeah, you know, like a lot academics, we think about time and space in much of what we do. Understanding how humans relate to time and space helps us understand what things mean, and I think a lot about how meaning is constructed through our understanding of the day-to-day relationships of these things.

For this record, parts of it are meticulously clocked to a tempo or programmed very carefully via MIDI. Others, like the 8-minute dense wash of ‘Viscosity,’ I played live for each pass of the ten or so tracks on it with no click, trying to emulate a John Luther Adams composition, whose work I like very much. I’m not a very technical musician, but I really like arranging different components into a finished thing and working at a sound or texture or melody.

I was surprised at how much piano there was on the record, that I kept returning to an instrument that I’m not terribly adept at, but I really love to write for. Since the record was finished in February, I’ve been doing a lot of recording of works for prepared piano, which will be the direction of the next album, as I’m trying to incorporate more chance and probability into the creation of music. I’m really inspired by the work of Dawn of Midi, Olafur Arnalds, Max Richter, and especially Jon Hopkins. Polish pianist Hania Rani is especially incredible to me right now.

There are some beautiful and complex tones on this album. They speak in a range of temperatures, textures, elevations, colors… Can you share anything about your process of finding these tones?

Sure – there are a bunch of different instruments on Paths, but on this record, I was extremely inspired by the ASM Hydrasynth. It’s so different from any other synthesizer I’ve owned in how you play it, how it’s organized, how you interface with the sound.

Normally, synthesizers are designed to have clear expectations between the player and the sounds coming out of the instrument—turn X knob and Y will happen and you can understand why it happened if you understand the instrument’s components. But if you let it, the Hydrasynth can feel uncontrolled and feral and unpredictable, and I love that. It’s changed how I think about sound, texture, design.

And then a lot of the sound of this record comes from a pair of Roland Space Echo pedals running in series while I’m slightly adjusting the rate and feedback on the two echoes. I used a lot of bowed guitar through them, or synthesizer sequences of notes played very fast to build pads or textures. The Space Echo really does sound great on everything. And then, lots of chains of plug-ins and different processing chains. Soundtoys’ plugins are really inspiring, a few of Valhalla’s reverbs. Waves plugins are easy, standardized, and familiar enough that I don’t have to think about them much to get the sound I want. They sound dependably great.

The last song on the album is titled “Maybe Things Are Not So Bad, After All”. Is this where you landed? / Have you landed? / Is it possible to land? What are the takeaways you’d like to leave with your listeners?

Ha! No. I wanted it to be as Douglas Adams tongue-in-cheek as it could be. We’re probably fucked. I tend to be pretty pessimistic about our long-term odds as a species when it comes to climate change and mass extinction, and here, I think I’m definitely taking the piss.

In the end, this is an instrumental album, and it can be about whatever any listener wants it to be about. I often have to teach my students that once you put a piece of work out there into the world, you also give up the ability to interpret it for the audience. To me? It’s about climate change, and pessimism, and in the fact of it all, trying to make something beautiful and thoughtful and peaceful because there are other things to be done, but this is important, too. For others? It can be about anything that they want it to be. I hope that it brings people joy, and that they find some beauty in it, no matter what it means to them.

Interview by Joel Russell – June 2021

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