Music — November 10, 2015 10:47 — 0 Comments

It’s Not Good for Anyone to Have a Body of Work Denied: An Interview with Stephen Wood

Stephen Wood is a Vancouver-based musician who spent a good portion of this new century, as well as the end of the last, leading a band called the Battles, which he later renamed Giantess (for more on the Battles/Giantess – grab a comfy seat and read this). Wood also served as a sideman, playing guitar in the classic, pre-Merge Destroyer lineup that gave the world City of Daughters, Thief and Streethawk: A Seduction. His latest project, which serves as the jumping off point for this interview, is an instrumental duo called Kensington Gore (named after the famed recipe for fake blood used in classic Hammer horror movies). The eponymous debut Kensington Gore album came out in 2014 on digital and vinyl and is ace.

Q: Can you talk about the Kensington Gore project? Why the shift from guitar-based pop to Goblin-esque prog soundscapes?

Stephen Wood: I guess I was a bit fed up with songwriting. I was struggling to find conviction in my lyrics, and felt a bit trapped playing the same local dives. I started playing bass for Bonaparte, a sort of proto-Hello Blue Roses, and liked the freedom of just playing, and learning a new instrument. Scott Gubbels (of Superconductor) and I started to play around with some of my left over bits and pieces of songs, and gradually the songs gave way to instrumentals. It’s nice not to carry the burden of something said, or to say. I found the Kensington Gore material challenging, most of the time I was playing new instruments and inside the constraints of a two piece instrumental band. If you want to say something, you’d better learn how to play it.

Still, if you listen closely, there is a follow-through with my previous material: the Battles, Giantess, etc. Perhaps more directly with the experimental stuff I was doing with the Multiplex Grande Collective, under the moniker of 5T-3V3, with Scott Morgan’s Loscil, and Lester Smolenski’s O2.

Q: I can definitely hear hints of Battles/Giantess songs in the Kensington Gore record, especially on “De Apoteeker” and “From Below”, but were you going more for interludes or set pieces rather than expansive instrumentals (with the obvious exception of “Black Tusk”)? With a few exceptions, the tracks on Kensington Gore are shorter than most of your older songs – is that a deliberate homage to the Goblin soundtracks or just a function of the process with Scott Gubbels?

SW: Initially we didn’t have much intention other than to have some fun and try our hands at something a bit different. I didn’t have much interest in writing songs, so that was a starting point, and instrumental pieces quickly took on a soundtrack flavor – old movie soundtracks being a touchstone. So, the album is a showcase of a year’s work towards that end. As far as the length of the tracks goes we would let them play in until we felt that they were losing interest and that would be our editing point. Sort of a sound library or showcase. We had local film makers do shorts off the album, I thought that was fantastic.

Q: Did you grow up in the Vancouver area? When did you start playing music and what were some of the bands or artists that meant most to you early on?

SW: Early teenage me, grew up on Vancouver Island, I moved to Vancouver for my last year of high school, then snuck into Art College. Although I was noodling around with a guitar throughout that time, I didn’t really start anything “musical” until around 90-91. I actually had wanted saxophone lessons, but received bagpipes for 8 years. I started playing with Mark Szabo and Rob McBeth in the Infernal Devices, and with Scott Morgan in our long term project the Lido, around 90-91. Then, I guess it was a solo project Steep and Old Man Wood, then on to first line Battles stuff in 95-96.

Growing up pre-internet, on the Island, music exploration was a real slog. Luckily my Dad had a fantastic collection of British Invasion LPs he brought with him on the boat. So, The Kinks, The Troggs, Them, Beatles, Zombies, got me through darkest adolescence. I discovered my uncle’s records later, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple. Then onto the Glam classics via my first boss, Mott, T-Rex, Roxy Music, Eno, Iggy Pop and of course Bowie. Then NY punk, London Punk. Throughout it all, the Velvet Underground.

Q: The only thing I know about Mark Szabo is the Hearkbreak Scene tribute record (which is great) that came out in 2007 or 2008 and the praise heaped upon his songwriting from John Darnielle around that same time. Does Infernal Devices predate Szabo’s Good Horsey & Capozzi Park? Is the cassette listed on Discogs the only Infernal Devices release? And were there any bands in Vancouver that had were established a bit that you looked up to as you got started?

SW: I think there may be one other tape floating around that Mark put out. The Infernal Devices were a year or so before Mark’s other projects, I believe. I remember seeing a lot of bands back then, mainly friends finding their feet. The Thinking Feller’s Local Union 282 was a big hit with me. I liked Blaise Pascal and Meet Daisy, Superconductor. Other local heroes whose names elude me.

Q: How did the Battles get started? Was “Lycanthropy” from Vancouver Special the first recording to surface? How did the first LP come about?

SW: After Infernal Devices I worked on few projects, put out a tape under the title Steep, and started to be asked to play live. So a band of best friends was put together, and after a few name changes, Old Man Wood, and the Latter Day Saints, we ended up as the Battles. A few months later I was recording our first songs on my first computer. I believe the Good Jacket’s compilation (Vancouver Special) features the first recording of “Lycanthropy”. Shortly thereafter the first CD was released. I was working with Carl Newman at the time in a guitar factory, and we hit upon this idea of a loose thread between all these Vancouver projects we were part of. The idea in practice would be to release our materials by whatever means necessary, and somewhere have “Blue Curtain” inscribed on it. Sort of a breadcrumb trail for the keen listener.

Q: “Blue Curtain” was/is the name of Carl Newman’s label or collective entity, right? Kind of a Cascadian Elephant 6? What was the path between first recording “Lycanthropy” for Good Jacket and the first Battles full-length? Was the Battles a regularly rehearsing and gigging band? Did you tour at all? How did you balance getting the Battles together and playing guitar in Destroyer during the Thief / Streethawk period? And is “I.H.O.J” on Thief the kind of electronic music you were making in Vancouver with Scott Morgan and others?

SW: Yep, Blue Curtain was collective idea. I don’t think it lasted too long but a few things came out bearing its mighty branding. Elephant 6 exactly.

From the Good Jacket release to the CD Lycanthropy was a relatively straight path. I released it myself and Scratch Records here in Vancouver released a second print. We were playing and rehearsing all the time back then – both Destroyer and the Battles. Scott, Dan and I were in both bands at that time. I don’t know if I ever thought about how I was balancing anything, the whole time was a lot fun. I was learning a lot and felt really engaged. We never toured and only went down to Seattle with the New Pornographers, later in the Tomorrows Eager Hands era. I think we always regretted that.

Yep. I.H.O.J., which stands for International House of Jazz, was Scott and me fooling around on an old Lowery organ as a small unheard side project. It was pretty indicative of what I was doing then with sound mangling as 5T-3V3.

Q: What was going on with the Battles between the release of the Lycanthropy CD and the release of Tomorrow’s Eager Hands in 2005? It seems, per the liner notes to Tomorrow’s Eager Hands, that you added some members? Were the songs newly written for that record? And how did you get hooked up with Soft Abuse? Through the Frog Eyes guys (I know Soft Abuse put out their early Emboldened Navigator ‎7″)?

SW: Well Scott moved over to drums, Ted (Hamilton) moved, I think, to Montreal. Tim (Lowen) took over the bass, Jeremy (Schmidt) started to tickle some plastic and magnetic tape. I think Dan was in Montreal at that time too. All the songs were written fairly close to the time of recording. I spent a lot of time learning to record then. It’s maybe a little amateur, but I think Tomorrow’s Eager Hands is quite charming. Like a snake. Chris Berry from Soft Abuse put out Tomorrow’s Eager Hands on Dan’s recommendation. Thanks Dan!

Q: So you toured with the New Pornographers in support of Tomorrow’s Eager Hands – how did that go? Was is just the West Coast or further afield? How was the overall reception to the record as you remember it? Did you get a sense of people discovering the Battles and getting into the album?

SW: No we just played a show with them at the Crocodile. I think the show went rather well, it was nice to be playing outside our own city. Canned Hamm played with us too, and they were fantastic. Honestly I’m not sure how much press we got. What I read seemed to be generally positive. Actually I remember a review citing the Soft Boys as an obvious influence. That was a great way to discover the Soft Boys.

Q: At what point did you guys change your name to Giantess? Did you get a letter from the Brooklyn band or anything? Did Soft Abuse support the name change?

SW: I’m sure I’ve got the timeline all mixed up, however… the Tomorrow’s Eager Hands line-up had kind of disbanded/ broke up/ hiatused itself, and I put together essentially a new group of friends. We played as the Battles for about a year and even recorded the Giantess CD, as the Battles. Giantess was merely meant to be title of the album. But as time passed, I thought it was unfair to both line ups to keep the name going, this was a new project! I definitely would have still used the Battles if the line-up remained the same. I really don’t know what Chris Berry was thinking at the time. Maybe a sticker or the, I dunno. He was always super supportive and the name didn’t come up until I decided to change it.

As for the Brooklyn band I was and remain ambivalent. We were the Battles. Emphasis on the, not thee, i.e.: the Houses, vs Houses. I wish them well, it’s a great name, ours will always be better.

Q: What was the run up to the Giantess release like (new name, new band)? Was the more muscular, garage-y sound a deliberate choice or just what this band sounded like? How did you approach songwriting for Giantess? And once the record came out, what was promoting it like (any touring? radio stuff?) and how was it received?

SW: The meatier sound of Giantess certainly came from the new band, in particular Ted Hamilton’s massive drum arms. I’m sure I started to write towards that, and pushed my voice a bit more. Also the band was relentlessly positive, everything I demo’ed was invariably met with an emphatic ‘Yes!’. Self-editing was out the door. In fact the album was a lot less edited than the previous two, which I had recorded and poured over for at least a year. Giantess was a happy blur. Then it abruptly ended. We played a release party, where we were lucky to have a few to sell and we disbanded. I’m not sure how it was received, in fact I’m not sure it was received.

Q: What was the span between the end of Giantess and Kensington Gore like? Did you work on anything else? Were you playing in any other bands or did you take a break?

SW: So after the Giantess project, I took long break slow time getting back into something. Scott Morgan, Tim Loewen and I started playing again. I was excited with the direction that was taking, but, I struggled with coming up with new songs. Doubt had crept in, I suppose.

I think it was at this time I started playing bass with Boneparte, a band Sydney Hermant fronted. That was a lot of fun with little pressure and I enjoyed learning another instrument, even though it could be said I played it like a guitar!

Q: Whatever happened with Bonaparte? I remember hearing a few songs online (like “Downtown Ambassadors”, “Tree Song”), then nothing, then the Hello, Blue Roses album came out. Was that just a reformation under a different name?

SW: Not a lot that I remember. There was a recording made. I know Sydney was becoming a stronger songwriter all the time, so everything starts from somewhere, and I don’t really know.

Q: What’s next for Kensington Gore? Are you and Scott Gubbels working on anything new? Do you have any other projects in the works?

SW: We’re currently part of a magazine Pythagoras Records, in which we supplied a KG sound track to a SF short story by Michael Cook and illustrations by Mark Hall Patch, via a Flexi disc. New album is getting shined.


Jon Rooney is a member of the band, Virgin of the Birds.

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