You are playing acoustically with vocalist-clarinetist Ariel Sharratt this month and then in September the full band join you. How differently will you treat the songs?
Playing acoustically as a duo lets Ariel and I do a lot of different material, but it also lets us be a lot looser with how we interpret the songs, and I really enjoy the changes from night to night. Unpredictability is a wonderful thing. That said, I absolutely love playing with the full band. The energy of performing in bigger clubs and getting the chance to be loud and jump all over the stage like a happy little monkey is addictive.
Would you see yourselves as being a Berlin band now, seeing as you’re based there?
I definitely don’t think of us as a Berlin band. While I really enjoy it here, I can’t see us staying in the city forever. But I’ve loved the opportunity to get to know so many amazing German songwriters and bands, and some of the different music scenes in Berlin are extremely inspiring. My German was improving quite a bit for a while, but we’ve been on tour elsewhere so much that I’ve been losing it again, even though almost everyone speaks English it’s not so cool to live somewhere and expect everyone to change the way they communicate just for you. Related to that is the ongoing and relentless conversation about gentrification in Berlin that often puts foreigners – especially people from southern Europe, North America and the UK – squarely in the blame seat. We’re constantly reminded – and sometimes not so gently – that we don’t belong and we’re not particularly welcome. So no, it’s not a place I would settle down for good. A move back to Canada might be in the cards, but anything is possible at the moment. Ariel and I both like moving around and experiencing different places and different music scenes. Who knows where will be next for us, really – what’s it like in Milton Keynes, for example? Maybe it’s cool there. Maybe we’ll become Milton Keynsians.
Were you worried that this tour would coincide with the World Cup?
I was worried at first about touring during the World Cup – even our most highbrow fans seem to love watching men in shiny shorts chasing a ball around a field. But especially now that England is out, I’m hoping that the more part-time football fans will consider coming to one of our shows. Ariel and I could even act out important moments from the World Cup on stage in musical vignettes so that people could get a bit of both.
Do you scrutinise your lyrics knowing people expect them to be something more than just a mindless bumble of syllables?
I’ve always second-guessed and scrutinised every line of every song I’ve ever written, and even when I get the occasional compliment about my lyrics I still harbour a deep suspicion that the person is lying just to make me feel better about myself, because I have kind of a sad face.
I know you probably aren’t taking baths in Euros and hanging out with the Kardashians, but do you think that being an independent act who have relatively few overheads, you actually get to experience the joys of being in a band like playing house parties or disused venues/ old nightclubs and having promoters and fans genuinely connect with you? Or would you rather someone just paid you a fortune and put you up in a 5 star hotel with a limo straight to the venue?
Any promoters reading this that have a fortune and a five-star hotel just lying around, we will happily take both. But in general, I always prefer playing in smaller clubs where people might actually be listening or at least interested, and getting a chance to talk to people in the audience – even if it does mean sleeping on the dirty kitchen floor of a student residence and waking up with orange peels and cigarette ends in your hair.
Since you’ve been in the spotlight you’ve always sported some well-maintained facial hair but now there’s something of a backlash against beards. Do you ever forsee a time when you’ll face the audience with a baby face or do you think the The Burning Hell’s image would fall apart?
There’s a backlash against beards? Where? Please don’t tell the men of Eastern Canada about that. I’ve had a beard since I was seven years old, and my beard hair is actually so dense and thick that only fire will remove it effectively. So seriously, I don’t have a choice about the way my face looks. One day my face will be fashionable again. Until then, I will just have to endure the ridicule.
I read about your mum passing away and I’m really sorry to hear that. Was she supportive of your music and has it given you a different perspective on life that may now translate into your music as well as your everyday business?
My mom was my biggest fan, full stop. I don’t know if she really approved of all of my lyrics but she was always so encouraging, and so happy for me when I released a new album or toured in a new part of the world. She would clip out and save every interview, every little mention that she could find. She told me last year that she would often dance around to my records at home, all by herself. It’s really, incredibly hard for me to accept the fact that she’s gone, but if anything her absence makes me that much more determined to keep making music. Life is short and we all need to do our best to fill it with the things we love. It’s our job.
Is there a place in the world that you would really like to play an outdoor gig no matter what the impracticalities?
Antarctica! I have dreamed about touring research stations in Antarctica for so many years now, and all I need is someone who knows a thing or two about it to help me organize the details. Oh, and a whole boatload of money. But hopefully there’s a Big Issue reader reading this right now who moonlights as a penguinologist or something and wants to help me out. Please get in touch, penguinologists. I’m serious: firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll call it “The Burning Hell Freezes Over”, and the documentary will be made and narrated by Werner Herzog. That’s my plan, anyway.