The Grimes sideman steps out.
Unless you were living under a boulder last year—and even that might not have been enough—you’ve probably listened to Grimes’ Visions at least once. It was an album that took the 24-year-old Canadian singer-songwriter from relative unknown to the front pages of relevant music blogs and fashion magazines, while being feted by everybody from dubstep don Skrillex to 16-year-old girls on Tumblr to underground rappers. If you weren’t paying close attention though you might have missed Devon Welsh’s backup vocals on “Nightmusic,” probably the best song on the album. Welsh also makes music with his friend Matthew Otto under the moniker Majical Cloudz. While that might sound like the name of some random, shitty psychedelic-pop band, their new EP Turns Turns Turns consists of four of the most soulful, heart-on-sleeve tunes to come out of Canada all year.
I met up with Welsh for coffee in Toronto the morning after a show, and we talked about the inspiration behind the duo’s live performances, the Pope on Twitter, and yes, how he became pals with Clare Boucher.
NOISEY: I understand you grew up in a religious community in California. What was that like?
Devon Welsh: I spent a couple of years when I was really young in Sandford, Ontario, which is super small, and then I went to California to an even smaller town which was like 200 people. Most of my first memories are from living in California, because I was like four or five, and I feel most people start remembering things at that age. And then I didn’t live there after that period, so that’s the place where I had a lot of imaginative memories.
Then you moved back to Canada and attended a Montessori school, but you never had any formal music training. What influences did you draw on when you decided to start singing?
My inclination when I’m making music is to make it be as powerful as possible or communicate things as powerfully as possible, and so the music that I make now is just following that pulse. If the song isn’t powerful or saying much, I’ll probably scrap it. The songs that I keep, the songs that I think are good, are coming from the heart or a real place. It’s not just about writing pop music, it’s expressing who you are as a person.
Growing up with a father who was an actor made me predisposed to want to perform, so what I do now is returning to more of the theatrical impulse, which is what I consider the core of what we do is the live shows. It’s just as much about a performance experience as it playing the songs.
Your father [Kenneth Welsh] played the villain [Windom Earle] on Twin Peaks. Would you ever cover the show’s theme song?
No, I don’t really do covers. Even if I knew how to play that cover—and I don’t—I wouldn’t, because it would be cheesy and while Twin Peaks is cool, it has no personal relevance to me.
You started religion in university. Was that a career path you were seriously interested in at some point?
That was at McGill [University]. I graduated in 2011. There’s no real interesting reason why I would study it, I don’t think there’s much insight into my soul or who I am, it was a convenient way to study human nature and imagination and societies and politics. When you’re in university, the horizon of possibilities that are open to you seem oriented around more university and more school, so when I was in university maybe it made sense at the time to be some kind of scholar. Now I’m completely deprogrammed from that kind of attitude.
What are some connections you see between music and religion?
Religion helps people organize what they think about the world, simplify and structure it, and I think that there’s something to be said for a spirituality in performance, in music. If a musical performance can engage with you and make you reflect and contemplate on life, being in love, and dying, then that’s kind of a spiritual exercise in a sense. Music serves many different functions, but I feel like it can serve functions that used to be served by things that were religious.
What do you make of the Pope’s recent decision to join Twitter? Do you think that’s an effective platform for him to share his views?
I can’t advocate listening to anything the Pope says, but from his perspective, I think that’s a really good thing to do. It’s an effective way to spread your message to people that otherwise would think it’s completely dead. But then again maybe I’m not in favour of the Pope having Twitter, because I don’t want young people to hear what he has to say. It’s a valuable technology for anyone that wants to use, but I guess it depends on what kind of message you’re spreading. Maybe if the Pope changes tact and starts promoting ideas that I can get behind, but until then.
Do you think it’s him tweeting or somebody from his team?
I’m sure it’s his team. I’m sure he tells what he wants to do or not.
How did you met Grimes and got involved with Arbutus Records?
We met at McGill. Friends of hers had started this venue space Lab Synthèse, so I started going there with her and hanging out with people, and this was during the early days when all kinds of people who play in bands now that are more popular were playing together in different combinations. Some of the first shows that I played in Montreal were there and my old band’s first EP release happened there. As Montreal’s English-speaking musical community tends to be, it’s kind of a ex-pat community, people from Vancouver, Alberta, the East Coast, Ontario, all meet up there.
When that place closed, the energy was put into starting a record label and taking that atmosphere into different venues and getting people going out. That’s when a lot of people got more serious about it and into the idea that we can have these bands, we can tour and play and record and make things happen.
Do you think the fact most of you weren’t from Montreal originally made it easier or harder to create this a musical scene like that?
I think the fact that everyone was not from Montreal created a scene that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Acts like Grimes, Mac DeMarco, Majical Cloudz, TOPS, Sean Nicolas Savage, all that stuff is so stylistically different, but it’s a scene in the sense that we all played and lived together. The music that comes out ends up being really different, but it’s a scene in the sense that it’s a community.
Describe what a typical Majical Cloudz show looks like.
Sometimes people will sit down. As an example of what I feel is a good reaction to us, and what happens in Montreal or Toronto last night, is when people are just focused on what’s happening. For some bands the best reaction would be for people to be rocking out and being loud, and that’s cool, but I think for us I think the best reaction is for the room to be silent.
What can we expect from the upcoming album?
There’s no firm date on it yet, but it will be out sometime in 2013. A lot of what we do live is going to be on the record and it’s probably even more scaled back in terms of how spare it is than the EP.
Turns Turns Turns is out now on Arbutus/Merok Records.
Max Mertens doesn’t have as many followers as the Pope, but he’s also on Twitter - @Max_Mertens