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Truth Marks: In Conversation with Steven Lambke

We talk to the Toronto-based songwriter about his new album, ‘Volcano Volcano’.

Like all prominent independent artists of the ’00s, two decades on, and those continuing their artistic pursuits are met with a life constantly spinning plates. Steven Lambke is no different.

As well as being a decorated recording artist, Lambke runs the Canadian label, You’ve Changed Records, alongside fellow artist, Daniel Romano. Prior to the COVID pandemic, Lambke was also the director for the New Brunswick festival, Sappyfest. A plethora of tasks and so little hours in the day to undertake them, however this is the reality for those in the creative these days.

Preceding these endeavours, and we arrive at Lambke’s band, The Constantines. With the Guelph, Ontario collective’s crunching surges of civic vitality, The Constantines were one of the most important bands on the planet.

During their four album journey, The Constantines were simply dynamic. Music that spoke to you. Following the release of their fantastic 2008 offering, Kensington Heights, The Constantines called it a day, and from there it was evident that any future projects from members of the band would be met with fervent interest.

Which brings us to Lambke’s latest solo album, Volcano Volcano.

Following 2019’s Dark Blue and 2015’s Days Of Heaven, Volcano Volcano sees Lambke dispensing a light-filled brand of electric folk splendour.

Packed with warm tones and homely melodies, thematically, Volcano Volcano focuses on nostalgia (the breezy April, May, and June) and navigating through an ever-changing world (the beautiful tonal rushes of The World Filled to the Brim, Bats In Blue Twilight and Sea Level).

Not only does Volcano Volcano continue Lambke’s stellar run of form; it’s his finest offering yet, capping off what has been a crucial month in the way of new releases.

At the beginning of March via Zoom from his home in Toronto, we had the honour of speaking to Lambke, who talked to us about songwriting and the inspirations behind Volcano Volcano.  

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Sun 13: I guess everyone’s had different experiences, how’s the lockdown been in Canada?

Steven Lambke: “Toronto has been pretty bad, pretty locked down. Across Canada it has been very different because it’s been sorted by province; most healthcare matters are run by the provinces in Canada, so it’s been sort of different rules across the country throughout. But Toronto has had, I think, the longest lockdowns of anybody in Canada, probably in North America, honestly. So it’s been a bit of a slog, for sure. But, ‘Lockdowns’ can kind of mean different things, and there’s been some things that are closed, but other things are open, and schools in or schools out, or all sorts of different parameters. It’s definitely felt like a long go of it here. (laughs) Especially when the rules don’t make any sense, and there has definitely been a few moments like that. Where things like playgrounds are closed, even long after we knew that outdoor transmission wasn’t really happening, they were still enforcing some pretty stupid rules like that. That kind of stuff made it pretty hard.

“But gigs are starting up again. There’s been a few different windows where shows and gigs started happening, and then got shut down again. So it’s been a bit of an off and on for the last couple of years. We’re pretty much wide open now.”

S13: Can you tell us about the process of Volcano Volcano?

SL: “Sure. It was written over the last couple of years. I ended up doing a couple artist residencies in those times, which I had never really done before, which was really cool, to go somewhere new and beautiful for a month and just really dedicate myself to writing and working on music.

“The first batch of the songs were written in a place called Sointula, which is a small island off the north end of Vancouver Island on Canada’s west coast, on the Pacific Ocean. Totally beautiful place, and I just had a little space in a barn. It was essentially like an old fishing shack where they would store the nets and stuff, but it was cleaned up and a very beautiful spot to work. It’s called the Sointula Art Shed. That was the first one, and then the following year I tagged along with my partner who’s a visual artist, when she was doing a residency in Norway. I treated that time away as my own residency as well, so wrote a bunch more of the songs there.

“I’ve had a certain rhythm to my years in that, up until recently, I was the director of a music festival in New Brunswick, which is in Eastern Canada, a small grassroots arts and music festival called Sappyfest, which would happen in the middle of summer. I would be pretty busy with that, and also with my work with the record label, You’ve Changed Records, through spring and summer. I basically would have no time to work on my own music, but I would do these residencies after the festival had wrapped up and I’d closed everything down. These residences were both in September. It was a really amazing way to reclaim my creative mind and reconnect with my process. (laughs) I had never done anything like that before, so it was really special for me to do that a couple of years in a row.

“So I kind of wrote all the songs mostly in those two bunches, and then with a little bit of stuff that was written either here at home or when I was in Sackville, New Brunswick working on the music festival. Then I recorded it with Daniel Romano and David Nardi. They both had played on Dark Blue, and Dave’s also a member of Daniel’s band The Outift. We recorded this in the studio that they had just built, which is called Camera Varda. They had just recorded the Daniel Romano album, Cobra Poems, just a couple of weeks before, so everything was still set up. It was great! This would have been the second real project done in that space.

“Then I brought it home and finished it all up here just in my little home studio. And I mixed it myself, which was the first time I’ve ever done that on one of these records, though I have done some smaller projects. So that was really fun and cool and it took some time to learn what I was doing. (laughs) We know the reasons it took a year to come out! (laughs) So it’s coming out now, and I’m stoked.”

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S13: What I’ve always found about your songwriting, which is probably what made The Constantines so good, because it was so contrasting between yourself and Bry, is that’s it’s quite poetic and surrealistic. Are you directly influenced by poetry and literature?

SL: “Absolutely, yeah. I mean, I’ve had other people describe it as surrealistic, and for me that’s definitely not the experience of it, because I know exactly what I’m talking about. (laughs) And I wouldn’t say surrealism is anything that I’m aiming at, but definitely… I will totally acknowledge that a lot of times I write the songs based on imagery and images. So that accumulated might seem surrealistic to somebody else, but to me I know where I’m drawing all that stuff from directly.

“The work is very connected to the real world, to me, which is the only reason I would push back on surrealism at all. Obviously there’s imagination at play, and creativity, but it’s also pretty directly responding to real life. I’d say that’s true almost all the time.”

S13: One thing I did notice with Volcano Volcano in particular, there’s a lot of use of animals as composites throughout your work. Is nature an influence?

SL: “Yeah, for sure. Like always, but in the sense of… it’s to sort of affirm the reality of those things. I have a bit of problem with the word nature, because it’s so often used to refer to something external to us, and I feel like the language that I’m looking for is more about connection and relationship and a sort of acknowledgement that we’re a part of all the same stuff. We’re a part of the same world, like, humans, animals, the weather. We’re all part of the same reality. And I feel like a lot of human language, or certainly contemporary language in capitalist societies, denies all of that, you know?

“So to me, there’s animals, and there’s spiders, and there’s weather, there’s all sorts of stuff like that in the songs, but those things are all real. I want that to be an affirmation of the real. They’re not symbolic, really, in any usual way. They are what they are, like the flowers that are coming up between the sidewalk cracks are actual flowers, they’re not really supposed to symbolise anything in any kind of direct way.”

Steven Lambke (photo credit: Colin Medley)

S13: Talking about that, and the two tracks that come to me are April, May and June and Truth Marks. They both have a real earthy quality to them. That kind of feeds in to what you are saying about everything being connected.

SL: “Totally. I would say that’s a bit of a reoccurring theme throughout. Specifically with this record, but I also don’t think it’s necessarily new for me. I feel like I’ve been working with those same thoughts for a long time, and they develop as you live life and learn and read other things and encounter other people and other ideas. So definitely, they develop, but I don’t think it’s totally new. But I do think that was a bit more consciously put into play in this group of songs.

“But then, at the same time, April May and June is a pretty playful song to me. I don’t write a whole lot with rhyme, you might also notice, but that song was definitely approached like, ‘This song is gonna rhyme, and it’s gonna take the form it takes based on following rhymes’, which I don’t do a whole lot of.

That song directly came from listening to a bunch of David Berman, like Silver Jews and Purple Mountains. Well, I didn’t actually listen to the Purple Mountains one too much, but Silver Jews, going back to that music, which I’ve loved for a long time. After he passed away I was on a long car drive by myself and listening to a bunch of those records, when some of the April, May and June lines started coming into my head by just being really thrilled by listening to Silver Jews. David Berman was so great with like… he beautifully and formally composed things a lot of times where the rhymes and the beats are really poetically solid, but he put such meaning and such insight and such delight into a lot of that lyric writing.”

S13: Silver Jews played the ATP The Constantines played.

SL: “Yeah, the only time… Actually I did see him again. I saw him in Montreal a bit after that. But yeah, that was the first time I got to see them play. It was so great.”

S13: The title track and The World Filled to the Brim encapsulate the world we live in, I think. It feels like they enmesh peace with the chaos that unfolds every day. Was that the intention?

SL: “Yeah. I mean, it’s funny to choose those two. Maybe not quite, but they’re almost like the first and the last songs written here. They’re the first and second tracks on the album, but The World Filled to the Brim was, if not the first, maybe the second of the songs written in this batch of songs, and Volcano Volcano was the last, I think. There was one after that’s coming out as a B-side that’s not on the album, but I think Volcano Volcano was essentially the last one written of all these.

(Pause)

“I put it first on the album because it feels like it summarises and gives a bit of a statement about the world that you’re about to enter on the album. I hope. It’s actually a bit of a hard one to talk about, because it’s one of those beautifully rare songs that came really easy and really quick. And that happens sometimes, and it’s such a wonderful feeling that I don’t even know how to describe when a song comes quick and easy; it makes it almost hard to talk about it after the fact, because it kind of arrived more as a gift rather than as a process.

“It’s not a pandemic or lockdown song, but for me it kind of relates to that. Because it was definitely written in lockdown, and the imagery in that song and the stuff I’m looking at are things I can literally see out my window. They’re right here. I’m in Toronto right now, in my house, and that song feels very much on that immediate scale for me, whereas some of the other tunes were written at these residencies or during travels or something.

“So the song Volcano Volcano, to me, has that feeling of the particular powerful quiet of those earlier lockdown times. I don’t think that would be anything anyone else would hear in it necessarily, but it’s hard for me to separate from it a little bit. But yes, I think those songs are connected, as the first two tracks, because they give you an entrance into the world of this, these songs, I hope.”

Steven Lambke - Volcano Volcano

S13: Bats In Blue Twilight feels like the centrepiece to the album. Can you tell us about that one?

SL: “That one is a bit of a unique one, because I’m very much writing about my family and my childhood in a way that I haven’t directly looked at or written about before.

“My dad’s a machinist. I mean, he’s basically retired now, he’s a bit older, though he does still have a shop actually. I grew up working with him a little bit, so there’s, like, a lot of grinding of metal, you know? (laughs) So I was thinking about the physical environment I grew up in. Relatively small town, working class, Southern Ontario, Canada. And then about my dad, and the shop that he had made for himself and where he worked; the idea of sound, and sort of how you orient yourself in the world through sound, is part of that song.

“But also, I’m 43, and so I was born in the late ’70s, and we didn’t learn about colonialism back then. The myth of Canada that I was taught and my generation was taught, it was very much of, like, the wilderness, you know? Now there’s a lot more public acknowledgement and understanding. There were people here! So many people here with cultures and lives and societies. So that idea of wilderness or silence was such an erasure. So that is in the song, too. A bit of like, ‘What was this so-called silence that I was given?’ That was way more violent than I ever understood until recently.

“I grew up in a relatively small town and my dad’s business was basically rebuilding car engines. And my dad was, like, a race car driver as well as a machinist…”

S13: Was this in Guelph?

SL: “Cambridge, Ontario, actually, which is 30 kilometres or something from Guelph. I went to university in Guelph, so if you see stuff about me connected to Guelph, that’s where I went to school. Very similar sized towns, but Guelph having the university gives it a bit of a different dynamic. Cambridge is a really sprawled out place, because it was three smaller cities that amalgamated. It’s disconnected, like, [it] doesn’t really have a single central downtown, which ties into what I was saying, which was that cars were very important in that life, both in my immediate family and also that environment that I grew up in.

“I have these really profound memories of driving, and driving being connected to freedom and listening to music. Listening to Sonic Youth, or Fugazi tapes (laughs), way too loud in the car, driving around. But also, on the rural roads, I would just see tons of frogs jumping across the roads, and insects all over the windshield, and all that kind of stuff. I’m totally aware that you see less of that now. In my lifetime, when I think back, there’s been a diminishment and a lessening of the world. There’s just less life, and so that’s another sort of form of silence that’s just horrific to contemplate.

“So that’s the other element in that song. It’s me looking at all of that. It’s a really, really personal song in a lot of ways, and there’s some real, violent, dark things in that, but I don’t feel like the song is a super negative song actually. It’s also, like, I am thankful for what my family gave me even though I’m not thankful for the erasure of history that was part of that gift, you know? I feel like for our generation, and for our time in this world, it’s our duty to reckon with that stuff in really profound and real ways, not just symbolic ways. So a lot went into that song, for me. Well, hopefully it comes across with integrity as a song.”

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S13: Talking about the working class, manual labour and industry, I thought that was one of The Constantines’ greatest assets. You could really feel that in your songs.

SL: “I mean, we’re all from that. I think both with The Constantines and with the work I do now, there’s no real putting on a pose. The work has always been, like, coming from my life or from our lives. From our reality. That doesn’t mean you can’t play around with presentation, but it’s very much connected to our real lives.”

S13: That’s why I’ve always been drawn to The Constantines and, by extension, yours and Bry’s solo records. Just that sheer honesty both in sound and lyric. You feel it both ways. That two-fold scenario and it’s really important because I think a lot of artists these days lose that.

SL: “I’m glad you’re connecting to the sound, because I’ve sort of been thinking about this recently and thinking about like, ‘Why does my record sound different to everyone else’s record’. (laughs) There’s editing and stuff involved – in no way do I want to pretend that there’s not – but the level of control that I hear people going for on modern recordings, it can be really powerful and creative, but can also like… sometimes when I hear it, I just hear the creator’s anxieties and fears in striving for control of every little thing. For me, I don’t want to make work from fear and I don’t want to make work from my anxieties, ultimately. I think that’s why I like when you can hear the drummer shift in a seat and when you hear the guitar ringing out on a note that’s not quite right. I love all that stuff, you know?”

S13: For sure.

SL: “Mixing my record, there’s editing and it’s crafted, but I wanted to include life. If you listen closely, you can hear a lot of breathing and you can hear a lot of stuff that people would eliminate otherwise, but to me that sounds good! It’s not even conceptual, but I’m trying to relate what sounds good to me to the concepts that we’re discussing.”

Steven Lambke (photo credit: Matt Williams)

S13: Dream With Me is a song that feels a little bit different because it’s just… I don’t want to say surrealistic, but it has a different vibe about it. And Turn the Planet Over, too. I don’t know whether they lived in a similar capsule…

SL: “Definitely. In Dream With Me, there’s a lot of me breathing in there, playing the melodeon; what that instrument is doing, like those sort of lines at the end as it opens up… it’s a breathy instrument and, to me… one of my favourite moments on any record is Chet Baker’s Time After Time. I don’t know if you know it, but Chet Baker has got a pretty breathe-y voice and a pretty breathy trumpet playing style, and there’s this moment before he takes his trumpet solo that like, the note actually comes in a beat late, because the entrance is just… kind of like you hear him breathe. That sort of delay in the music always draws me. It’s just really cool.

“I’ve thought about that moment a lot, and it’s not when I’m playing the melodica that I think I’m playing like Chet Baker (laughs), but hearing somebody do that and hearing that on what’s such a beautiful take of a beautiful song, it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, that stuff can enhance’. Too much contemporary recording would eliminate that. They’d be like, ‘Hey, Chet, do another take, and we’ll splice it’. Or they would cut it out because with digital, you can do so much stuff. You’d go in and you can just slice it right up and take away the human breathing. But we’re humans, we’re breathing and, again, we’re part of a world and we’re sharing all this air. I don’t have a problem with that stuff being on my record at all.” (laughs)

S13: As mentioned earlier, you also run the label You’ve Changed Records with Daniel Romano. Alongside running the music festival and writing your own songs, how do you do it?

SL: “Just every day, I just go at it. It’s a juggle, for sure. It’s hard to find the time to do everything with the label, because it’s basically me on a day-to-day basis. Daniel’s involved in some conceptual stuff, and definitely very much in his own projects, which are a lot of what we do. I try to only take on a reasonable amount to do, and we’ve been doing the label for over 10 years, and I do have some idea of what my capacities are, so I’m mostly pretty good with that stuff. (laughs)

“But it’s a lot and it’s busy, and I work on it every day. It’s a lot to manage. Every project is a little different, because it definitely is all collaborations with individual artists. That takes on different forms, depending on what that relationship is, and who those artists are. For some people, they’re kind of giving me everything in a relatively complete form and I’m just helping connect the dots and being a sounding board. For other people, they need or want a bit more, I’m more involved with, like, responding to mixes or things like that. It’s just different with every person.

“I find that really rewarding. And same with the music festival. I loved it and learned so much and got so much out of it – the relationships with artists and the conversations we were having through that. But sometimes I struggle with putting my own creative work aside to do these other things. I do have that feeling sometimes, but mostly when I look at it’s like, ‘Oh no, it’s all kind of the same thing. It actually doesn’t feel that different. It all feels creative, it all feels based on relationships and engagement with the world’.

“It’s like any kind of job or anything you do. Some days, you have to do the crappy work and some days you are doing the stuff that you really are motivated by. I just sort of get up every day and work at all of it in some capacity. (laughs) The label is essentially me on a day to day basis, and there’s other people that offered to help or be involved, but it’s hard for me to take that step. I’m not great at planning ahead in the sense of, like, I don’t know what I’m doing today other than, like, ‘Okay, these are the next things to do’. It’s hard to forecast, so it’s hard to pass stuff off. I do want to get better at that, because we are growing, the label’s been a good thing, and it’s been really great thing to see that happen.”

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S13: Have your songwriting challenges and processes changed from the early days of Baby Eagle and The Constantines to now?

SL: “Yes. In the sense of… I feel like every song is written a bit differently. And it was the same with The Cons. One of the things that was really good about that band, and I recognised it at the time, too, was that we weren’t tied to any one particular process. It was kind of anything goes, which meant some songs were literally written in the same room jamming, and then some songs Bry would bring in more or less done, or I would bring in more or less done, and everything in between on that spectrum. There’s probably an example for everything within that.

“For myself, I think I’ve gotten better at songwriting. (laughs) But I don’t know, it would be hard for me to sort of really elaborate on what’s different. I think I’ve got a bit better at not following dead ends. I think that’s just from experience. Your intuition develops about what works and what doesn’t. Obviously, I’ve also listened to an immense amount of different music in that time, too, and read different things and talked to different people and done different things. Ultimately it’s all connected to your life experience and where your curiosity is, and how you’re following that curiosity.”

Volcano Volcano is out tomorrow via You’ve Changed Records. Purchase from Bandcamp.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

8 replies on “Truth Marks: In Conversation with Steven Lambke”

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