Inside the Big Tent of Saxsyndrum's Future Circus
The jazz-turned-experimental-pop duo from Montreal talk late night loft parties and the importance of networking.
Saxsyndrum are two dudes from Montreal who make more noise with a saxophone and drums than a funk band, a jazz-fusion combo, and a hip-hop DJ combined. The duo of Nick Schofield (drums) and Dave Switchenko (sax) are jazz-trained musicians who have shunned the traditions of their genre, playing with enough electronics to launch a spaceship, and exchanging jazz clubs for late night loft shows. They're also versatile musicians who perform with a ridiculous number of artists from around Montreal. Schofield has played the drums for Folly & The Hunter, Jef Barbara, Karneef, Holobdy, ¡Flist!, Syngja, and Slight, and Switchenko taken the stage with AKUA, Harvest Soon, and Year of Glad.
This collaborative spirit shines through on their recent Fairground: Future Circus Remixed, where they took their Future Circus LP and let their friends play around with it. Remix albums don't always work out—who needs to hear their favourite songs with a four-on-the-floor beat and some synth vamps thrown into the background? But sometimes, a remix album offers genuine artistic synergy and a document of how musical ideas move, shift, and influence each other. Future Circus Remixed is the latter. Its sixteen tracks bare little resemblance to their originals, coming off less as remixes and more like new songs inspired by the originals. Its contributors really left their fingerprints behind, as it apparent when you listen to the album's multiple versions of songs like "Heartstrings" or "Les Belles Nanas," which hardly sound like one another.
The end result is a compilation that offers a snapshot of the Montreal DIY music scene as it exists right now. With the Arbutus Records crowd busy touring and Arcade Fire playing arenas (and picking fights with deadmau5), a newer wave of artists is filling the everyday performance slots at small venues and late night parties around town. It's a group with members that defy easy labelling, but one thing that's certain is that Saxsyndrum are right there in the middle of it, and they've miraculously managed to capture the city's pulse on tape. We recently spoke with Saxsyndrum about the Future Circus Remixed project, the Montreal music scene today, the jazz/electronic crossover world, and the duo's unique method of playing and writing music.
Noisey: How in the world have you made such a big-sounding band out of a saxophone and drums? What do you include in your live rig to fill out the sound?
Saxsyndrum: For our first few shows we used a very bare bones setup, just a drum kit and tenor sax. These days, Dave fuzzes up his sax sound by looping it, then modulating the loop with a synth and glazing all of it with a really classic reverb unit. It kind of sounds like a storm coming towards you from across a lake. His main inspirations for expanding the saxophone's sound were Eddie Harris, a funk saxophonist from the '60/'70s who was one of the first to push the boundaries of the instrument by mixing it with electronics. Also, we often cite the more contemporary artist Colin Stetson as an influence. He gets his tremendous sound using technical prowess and a handful of well placed microphones.
Nick also plays drums standing up, which would be called a cocktail kit in jazz circles. It's just a floor tom and snare drum with a few aux percussion items. Drummers are always tucked away at the back of the stage and sitting down, so this setup lets Nick dance around and be closer to the audience with Dave. For electronics, Nick uses a synth for bass parts and plays a drum pad connected to a sampler for triggering classic 808 drum sounds and sampled vocal hits.
How long after releasing Future Circus did you decide to make Future Circus Remixed?
Actually, Johnny_Ripper created the first remix before Future Circus was even released so that sparked the idea for making an entire album of remixes, along with Nick kind of taking the idea from Feist's Open Season remix album. We were already in the habit of collaborating with artists from having so many guest vocalists on Future Circus, inviting friends to remix tracks just kept that ball rolling.
How did you get artists involved?
We had previously connected with all the artists in different ways. Getting them involved was as easy as sending out invitations, audio stems and BPM's. The connections came from playing at the same gigs (Pick A Piper, How Sad, Syngja and Loopsy Daisy) and Nick meeting artists through his radio show, Underground Sounds on CKUT (¡Flist!, Wake Island, Norvaiza and Stefan Christoff). The artwork has also been majorly revamped. L Ron contributed a remix to the album and since we love his graphic design style, it was natural to ask if he would remix the Future Circus artwork, too. He took the original double-diamond design, which is by two En Masse artists (Jason Botkin and Jeremy Shantz) and turned them into a series of trippy kaleidoscope wheels.
As a jazz/electronic crossover band, what kinds of venues do you enjoy playing? Are you more into audiences who listen, or audiences who dance?
We've made it a point to be able to adapt our music to any situation. We currently have an all-acoustic band for un-amplified environments, an ambient setup with just saxophone, sampler and synth to play more chill shows, and our full setup for big club shows. Our music is very much groove-based, which is what gets people really dancing, but we're trying to incorporate atmospheric lulls in our set to give the audience a breather.
You play a lot of late night loft shows, which is one of the hallmarks of the Montreal scene. What do you like about that environment? Have you seen it change at all in recent years?
We love the late night loft shows, they're often DIY gigs where people are there to dance and be with friends. Our music just works in that environment, probably because of our playful style, energetic performance and minimal setup. One change we've noticed is the blossoming 'drone' scene in Montreal. Thanks in part to 'drone sleepover nights' happening at a popular loft space and a few artists really promoting the drone culture, this is likely going to become even more common.
One of the notable things about the album is the number of jazz-trained musicians on it. Do you think that's an important part of the scene in Montreal?
Ya, it seems there are a lot of crossover jazz artists in Montreal and on our remix album. It's probably a combo of the city having a few universities with well known jazz composition/performance programs, Montreal's inherent weirdness, and lately, a new venue called Café Resonance that is quickly turning into a breeding ground for jazz-trained artists. A portion of what Constellation and Suoni propagates also has a degree of jazz roots, like Colin Stetson and Matana Roberts.
Is there anything you'd like to see done with crossover jazz music? Anything no one is doing, or not enough artists are doing?
Personally, I love jazz standards and think there's potential for tunes from 'The Real Book' to be modernized with electronics, especially in the sub-bass range now that PA systems can handle it. Also, since jazz historically focuses texture and technique, jazz artists could employ new effects to recontextualize instruments we've become accustomed to. Some truly talented saxophonists who are doing exactly this are Adam Kinner, like in his piece 'Body Star Explosion', and Jason Sharp's experimental collaborations with Kaie Kellough.
The transportability and projection of acoustic instrumentation traditionally associated with jazz (drums, horns, upright bass) has led to some jazz-trained musicians taking to the streets and experimenting with new types of on-the-go live music. This is becoming particularly popular in NYC, with artists like The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Moon Hooch, and Too Many Zooz. I'd love to see more of that happening here in Canada, but our weather can make that difficult.
Greg Bouchard is a writer in Toronto. He's on Twitter.