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Hawksley Workman - The Triste Interview
|At the start of the millennium Hawksley Workman arrived on the UK music scene with his flamboyant debut album "For Him and The Girls". A multi-instrumentalist, Workman recorded almost all the album single-handed, and used it as a vehicle to showcase innovative, quirky songs, in a range of styles. Live, Workman displayed the vaudevillian showmanship, vocal gymnastics and occasional bursts of tapdancing that had wowed the critics back home in Canada. Triste caught up with him in Manchester in June 2001 before a solo gig at the Live Cafe.
Triste: I know you've mentioned this a few times, but your record company biog tends to crop up time and time again in reviews, and yet I see it as very much tongue-in-cheek document. Every review tends to take it very seriously and I can't understand why?
Hawksley Workman: I can't either! It is a little tongue in cheek. I don't know what the critics over here are doing. In Canada, it was accepted as fun. It wasn't taken at all too seriously. But there are so many dreadful bands, with so many dreadful, boring bios, that I figured at least make, for the poor journalist, or the critic, or anybody who has to listen to us, that at least we could make it interesting, instead of a just a bunch of boring facts to sift through. But yeah, they do sort of focus on it.
Triste: And the tap dancing especially always gets a mention?
Hawksley Workman: Yeah, I know! Well, I don't really tap dance, but I do…
Triste: So it's based on a greater truth that you created just to make your bio more entertaining? I think maybe more people see you as trying to make yourself stand out from the crowd. The one person who comes to mind who really played around with the story of his origins was Bob Dylan. When he first came on the scene, he kind of made up this mythical past where he ran away to join a carnival as a boy and played with all kinds of bluesmen and touring rock and rollers. He basically invented his own creation myth to create a sense of mystery about himself. Do you think the critics think you're trying to create that same kind of mystique about yourself?
Hawksley Workman: I don't know, it doesn't even seem like they do it tongue in cheek. I think it's a good thing to do maybe a little bit. Because what you end up putting on a record, or performing on stage is only the best parts of you that you want people to see. So, yeah, if you can create a little area for those things to 'live' in, you can kind of decorate it any way you like, I guess. But also, after you've been doing things for a little while, you get so much criticism, and so much focus on your thing, that I think it's been nice for me to have a bit of a buffer, maybe, in those fictions, instead of having things feel so close, you know?
Triste: Okay, the other thing which stands out in the reviews I've read are all the different reference points quoted. People really struggle to pin you down, don't they? You look at some of the things people have written about you and they throw in names like Bowie and Buckley – Tim and Jeff, and in the end it's Queen! People just can't pin you down, can they?
Hawksley Workman: It's stupid, I guess. And it's funny also. There's a review in one of the London papers for the show I did last night and I was compared to people I've never even heard of.
Triste: Like who?
Hawksley Workman: Well, dozens! Today I was compared to three people, and only one of them I'd heard of. So I don't know, but it's good, I guess. I think most comparisons are generally made with people who, on the whole, are generally respected, so it's alright. If I was being compared to things that were dreadful, like Wayne Newton, that would be different!… (laughs) Although Wayne Newton's started working again. (laughs)
Triste: Another thing that always gets picked up on and actually it's only a small aspect of the record is the strong influence of vaudeville. It's quite rare to come through on a pop-rock recording.
Hawksley Workman: You know cilantro? The herb, cilantro? It's very strong tasting, you can taste it even in small quantities, it's so distinct. So maybe, that vaudeville flavour, which I think I put in just this much, comes across so strongly. Maybe we haven't heard it recently in pop music, really, so that's the thing that's focussed on. It's a little odd, you know.
Triste: When I first read about you, before I actually heard you or saw you live, I saw your promo pictures and I expected you to be some kind of Tiny Tim figure. Because you seemed to be pictured in jacket and tie, with black tousled hair and with the mention of your high voice, tap dancing, poetic flights of fancy and vaudeville influences, I thought, "He's a Tiny Tim for the 21st century!" (laughs)
Hawksley Workman: Did you? Again, it's funny, with journalists, everything gets judged on their own card, in their own way. By now, after a couple of years of reading about it, certainly, I don't put as much weight on it. When the first few reviews came out, with the first few comparisons, honestly, my nose was well out of joint. But now, I've read so many, and they're so varied, the comparisons, that, yeah, I would even expect Tiny Tim on some occasions!
Triste: It's quite amazing the impression an image can give. The clothes you wear are very formal, but extravagant, you know?
Hawksley Workman: Yeah, it looks like I could get married on TV!!
Triste: Going back over your history you're much more popular in Canada than you are over here, aren't you? You're playing to audiences of hundreds or thousands of people, while you're playing to dozens maybe hundreds over here. How soon have you got to that level in Canada? Have you slogged away for several years trying to break Canada?
Hawksley Workman: No, I'm still only new here. To break Canada in the way that I did, took a year - a good year. So I started coming to England this past December.
Triste: I saw you supporting Chris Mills' gig at the Band On The Wall earlier this year. So you've had quite a rapid rise, to be honest, from zero to the level you've reached.
Hawksley Workman: I've got the second record out in Canada and there's a song from it that's in the charts and on the radio, so, now there's a little more momentum, in that respect. I just think that in my situation, because I've been pegged as 'a little left of centre', even someone from one of the major labels who reads one of the reviews would think, "Why the hell would I want to sign someone who sounds like Tiny Tim?", because that's what they'd be thinking. For me it's been a lot of work, just because I haven't had that support. So, coming over to England, I just naturally assumed it would take the same amount of effort as it did in Canada. It might only have taken me a year, a year and a half, but I toured most of the major cities in Canada four times at least - yeah - four or five times…
Triste: You said that you had a chart single in Canada now? I don't know what kind of song it is, is it more commercial kind of stuff? Because a lot of radio programming is quite sterile to be honest.
Hawksley Workman: I think so too. I think that when I made the first record, I was frustrated with the fact that radio had been letting me down. It had been disappointing me so long that I thought, well I'd make a really good record so there'd finally be something good on the radio. But it wasn't accepted in any way on a commercial level, it seems. So for my second record, I purposely tried to hit my mark again, which I missed on my first shot. But by focusing on tightening up some of the loose bits. I think I'll probably make a freaky record again, but I really did want to have a song on the radio. I really did want to break into things that way as well. Beyond being a great performer or having a really good record that critics like, because critics never buy their own records. If critics bought their records, I'd be okay! But to me, the single that's in the charts in Canada has a more commercial standing, but I still think it stands out quite a fair amount from all the rest as something that sounds like it almost doesn't belong. But the response has been really good. I know on a lot of stations, it's the most requested song, and I think that probably it's because it sounds so different, in many ways. I could be wrong. Maybe it doesn't sound that different at all?
Triste: On the first record (which is the only one released over in the UK at the moment) the range of styles covered is quite wide. Was there a feeling like, "This is my big chance, let's chuck everything in"? Was it like being a kid in a candy shop, taking a bit of this, a bit of that? There's quite an exuberant feel about the album.
Hawksley Workman: I think so. In some ways, the second record, from what I can tell, critics think is even more diverse than the first. But I think maybe the reason for the variety is that I'm a drummer, first, and as a drummer, I studied so diligently as a kid to be able to play bossa novas, to be able to play a proper reggae feel, and to be able to play a lot of these different feels, and I made a living as a drummer for hire for a lot of years. I've played in country and western outfits, I've played in jazz bands - and I think that I approach recording and writing like a drummer. The most important flavour in musical cuisine is the rhythmic feel, you know? So, I think I'd be awfully bored if I did a whole record of rock 'n' roll songs: it's really selfish but I just get off on keeping things interesting. To me sometimes records sound pretty dry, but they always sound like there's one or two colours, and so I would just rather do a bunch of different things. I think I could be criticised for being a little unfocused, but I don't mind that.
Triste: I suppose that makes you unpopular with the record company? They won't know how to market you; where to put your record on the shelf?
Hawksley Workman: Yeah, well that's the thing, you see. It goes back to the point about journalists comparing me to other people. People are just monkeys, you know,? And we only judge our listening by what we have already: "Hmmm. Well this is a good tasting banana, because my last banana had a worm in it!" you know? So you only ever are judging it by comparison, instead of toying with a fresh idea. We're not doing that very often any more. Like, apparently the phrase "psychedelic" was coined first by a Canadian!
Triste: Some songs sound as they were constructed around a drum beat or a groove, whilst others definitely don't. What sort of processes do you go through when you're songwriting?
Hawksley Workman: Yeah, it does vary, actually. The more cabaret sounding songs were written probably on the piano, the more traditional song-writery kind of songs were probably written on the guitar, and then the very odd-ball things were written starting on the drums, probably. I always write the music and the lyrics together, because I think the lyrics are important on a musical level, just the way they sound. I just like using words that taste good in your mouth, you know? Nothing too pedantic, no words that are too laborious. I find sometimes if I'm at a loss for something conceptually, I just try and sing vowel sounds, with my mouth, and play until something emerges. It's almost like chopping away at a block of ivory, and finally the words start to, you know, show themselves? So it's extreme, sometimes, to write stuff on the drums because you don't have a harmonic template that you're working within. So you just play a groove and kind of sing whatever you want. 'Maniacs' was kind of a drum beat first, 'All of Us Kids' was a drum beat first, 'Tarantulove' was a drum beat first. So it's nice, actually. I should do that more.
Triste: So in that case we shouldn't expect to always find literal meanings in your songs because they're not always literal.
Hawksley Workman: I'm not a great story teller, I don't think. I know that in song writing, that's really respected. I think for me, it's really, I'll show you a photo album of my little world. I'm just better at snapshots and moments than I am at creating a whole story with characters and a problem and a resolution. I can't think that far down the line, most of the time. I need to just take pictures of this second, you know, and that second and that second. And I find that the story can be written for yourself. Sometimes, just the absurdity of putting two things back to back, you know? I grew up in the country, and now I live in the city, and I find the absurdity of the blend of those two cultures, or those two ways of living is fodder enough for me to be writing for years. I just think it's so funny how we're these crazy animals, and we build up all these things - they're like monuments to ourselves, here, the cities - that lets us believe for a moment that we're in control, and then a tornado comes in and blows it all down. I don't really remember what you asked!!
Triste: I know what you mean. It's like sitting in a field on a summer's day and seeing the cars going past, with people cocooned inside, and not taking it for granted, but thinking about it with fresh eyes and going back to first principles. Just really thinking about it.
Hawksley Workman: It's poetry. The whole world's used to it. And I think that in terms of writing, that's what I find best. To me, personally, when I read people who are trying to be obscure, by broaching, or introducing ideas that are really out there, they've never really appealed to me. But I think I'm really good at magnifying the really obvious. Good comedians, they just recognise all the silly things that we do. Like brushing your teeth seems very peculiar, and all these things that, like you say, are normal in our world. If you just take one half step back and think of it in a poetic sense, it's very funny what we do.
Triste: Your mother's a painter. I wonder if her way of looking at the world through a painter's eyes, which obviously is more concerned with spatial relationships and tints and tones than normal, encouraged you to take a more oblique look at life, which later spilled over into your songwriting?
Hawksley Workman: Well I think my parents were both very encouraging of me to be whatever I wanted to be. My mum didn't paint much when I was growing up, but dad had a set of drums, and he played the drums. I think mostly they just encouraged me to be whatever it was that I wanted to be, instead of forcing me to do things. I think when you record music, actually, that that's a good way to get them produced. There are a number of records from the past couple of years where artists tend to want to go with their song into being what they think their little compartment is. I think the sounds in my records are varied a lot of times because it's like having kids and just letting those kids – "Oh, that kid just wants to ride horses, and that kid just wants to eat candy" - and you kind of let them do it instead of forcing them in. So when you're recording, if you go along for the ride and kind of nurture, instead of trying to change anything, it sometimes works better. I think growing up in the country, too, you end up having to use your imagination a lot more. As a kid, back here in the city, where there's lots of things to do, the summers would roll around, time is forever when you're a kid. When you're an adult, you realise that time goes so quickly. But when you're young and the summers seem to last forever, you live in the middle of nowhere, and all you have is your brother and your dog, and a bicycle - you can pretty much keep yourself interested just by virtue of changing things for yourself.
Triste: Was school supportive? Was your artistic side allowed to flourish or were you encouraged to be a football player or something?
Hawksley Workman: I wasn't out of the ordinary. I had my fair share of teachers who didn't like me, but I had a lot of teachers, even teachers whose classes I was failing, who knew that I was good at something - not at their class - but still respected me. A lot of teachers who didn't respect me, though. But I mean, generally speaking, music was really encouraged at school, I was lucky again to have that opportunity.
Triste: You've played in a variety of formats live. You've played solo, with a guitar, with a pianist, with a band. You've even played with a string quartet.
Hawksley Workman: We did two shows with that, with a string quartet, to introduce the second record.
Triste: What are your general feelings? What do you prefer to do? Play solo or with a band?
Hawksley Workman: I like it all. I love playing with Todd, because we've played together for quite a while, now, a couple of years, and there's a sense that there's a connection? And I can be pretty free, and I'm not worried that there's going to be any problems; if I go off on a tangent, he's not lost. And we generally direct the band, even, when we play, because everybody looks at you. The rock band is great: it's a big powerful sound, and you know everybody loves a rock and roll band. So that's great too. I love them all equally.
Triste: What about playing with the string quartet? Were there any particular problems?
Hawksley Workman: String quartet? String quartets in general are kind of fish out of water in the clubs and in recording studios. There's always problems to contend with because they don't understand monitor mixes, or head phones, or these sorts of things, you know?
Triste: Do you find that classically trained musicians don't really understand the importance of rhythm in rock music?
Hawksley Workman: I think some of them really need to spend some time with a metronome. I'm not sure what they're used to, but I'm continually surprised by people who are alleged to be so schooled and trained. For me, I remember the first time I ever went into a studio, and heard the drums - I was horrified. I fancied myself as a really great drummer, (I was about 12 years old), and I couldn't keep time to the click track. And so, that was my main focus when I was younger: I wanted to be the greatest drummer I could be. I went off and bought a little, mini electronic metronome right away. I slept with it, I went to school with it on, I always, always, always listened to it,and from them on practised with it relentlessly. I think classical music could really go for a bit of that!! But it's not a violinist's job to keep a groove down, I don't think? But it's also sometimes the case with a lot of lead guitar players. I just see a lot of toe tapping by lead guitar players, and it's like, I don't know what song they're on, but their timing is all over the map!
Triste: Actually, you're not a bad guitarist for a drummer. (laughs) But you must have strong views on guitars yourself, because on the first album, you play guitar on most of it, don't you? So obviously you're quite versed in it?
Hawksley Workman: Yeah, I spent a lot of years, again, growing up in the middle of nowhere, and there was no one to play with, so I spent all of my money on instruments as a kid. I think I was perpetually tired. Most of my high school years I was up all night practising. I was living in the basement, and I remember my parents would have a signal in my house, which was flicking the lights off. And so many nights at two or three in the morning I would get the 'flip' because my parents couldn't tolerate any more, you know? Mixolydian scales and stuff on the guitar! I put the drums away for a while and just practised snare drum forever. A year, specifically because I wanted to make sure that I played the fastest double stroke roll ever. It's all being a geek! Any musician who's got some ability must have put something on the line socially, I guess.
Triste: People talk about musical genius, but often fail to take into account the hours and hours of practice they've put in. Many people know that Hendrix would be wandering round the house, going to the kitchen with an unplugged guitar strapped around his neck, but even people like Mozart: they all put hours and hours of practice in, and you don't see that.Maybe you can choose not to use all that technique, but it's always there informing what you do.
Hawksley Workman: It's a vocabulary. It's a language. For me, when I was really good, and people would say, "Oh, you're really good, you can't possibly be feeling the music". I've heard that. I think jazz guys give being a good musician a bad name. I put in so many hours. And sometimes in Canada, because the Canadians are famous for their humility, that sometimes they get criticised for being a bit too confident. But how can you not be confident? You've spent your whole bloody life doing it, I mean. It's just about what you've done for hits. Now that I've hit 25, 26, I've been playing the drums with serious focus for 14 years. Since I was eleven I decided to be a musician. You can't deny that amount of time. There's no lawyer that's put in that many hours!
Triste: You seem very confident with stage performance and the flights of fancy you weave into your song links. I take it you find that easy, or is that the result of a lot of hard work?
Hawksley Workman: Again, I did a lot of theatre when I was younger, and I also really love improvisational theatre. Which is something I really miss because I don't do it now. I toured with a musical for six months. That was the first tour I ever did, and I was lucky to have a couple of really good friends who I developed those skills with. This fellow I lived with for a long time we were really close musically. We would just shut the windows and doors and we would make these six hours long records, just lying about the floor and making up songs as we went, and those were really formative years: I should actually ring him up and say, "Thanks a lot!" Yeah, we would do crazy stuff. I sometimes wonder about getting older, and whether it's all that it's cracked up to be? We're making a little more money, but I sure had a lot of fun when I had no money. I didn't have anything else to do then, so there you go. The thing is, with the 'flights of fancy', as you call them, Todd and I have a friend in Canada, her name is Alexis O'Hara, and she's a brilliant performance artist. Her shows can be the most brilliant thing you've ever seen, or the most annoying, worst thing you've ever seen. And when you go on those 'flights of fancy' you just trust the angels are going to take you to a good place, that night, that moment: it can be very risky. Compare it with the guy who just sits there and does three songs, "Thank you very much, thank you very much. This next song is about my dog". (Play, play, play) "Thank you very much, thank you very much. That last song was about my dog." You know you're not going to go too far wrong. But you know, if you decide you're going to chase after this little idea, man, it can be terrible! Especially in front of dry audiences - I remember when I was in Leicester, I went off on a tangent, and by the time I got to the end of it, the audience was like totally silent!
Triste: Do you ever think along the lines of "This improvisation worked well here so I'll use it tomorrow" and then find it doesn't work? Isn't the success of a piece something particular to a certain venue and a certain audience at a certain time? Something which worked in a theatre setting one night might not work so well in a dive on another night?
Hawksley Workman: I think it is and I get superstitious about it, because in a flight of fancy, I can come up with something brilliant, and it really connects with the audience, and they LOVE it, and then I think, I can do that one tomorrow night! The superstition comes when I do it the next night and it doesn't work. And I think, "Oh God… It only worked because maybe it came from a special moment!". And for me to be appropriating it for another time is almost 'illegal'. The same goes for recording. The first take is normally the best. And that's the thing. Friends of mine who I did a demo with, The Cash Brothers: you probably know that? Their record company wasn't really so fond of the sound of the demo that we did at my studio. We recorded it two more times to try and capture the feel of what was on the demo, but it's hard. You can never re-create a moment in its purity, you know? It's never the same. It's not just - "This was really good because that day, the bass sounded like this and the drums sounded like this" - it's more like, "That was a great day because the moon was there, the orange juice tasted like this and you got up and tripped over the bed". There are just so many things that can't be accounted for. That's what makes music so wonderful, and I think that's what's really missing in pop music, is that, on a radio, you're not as likely to hear performances any more. You don't hear your Joe Cockers, your Led Zeppelins, your really energetic, truthful performances anymore, you know? And I think it's shocking, really, actually, on a recording, to hear something that sounds like it really happened. Because television and movies never really happen, and most things that we're used to never really happen.