The Acorn are like a weird combo of Sufjan Stevens and Poi Dog Pondering. Trust me on this. The Ottawa band’s second full-length Glory Hope Mountain is based on frontman Rolf Klausener’s mother, Gloria Esperanza Montoya. No worries, though, they don’t take it into the realm of Rehearsing My Choir: Gloria’s contribution comes via interviews Klausener recorded with her in 2006 about her journey from her childhood in Honduras (her mother died in childbirth, her father was abusive) to ’70s Montreal. So the Stevens connection is this accrual of personal details and a place’s history, as well as Klausener’s often delicate voice and the Acorn’s kitchen-sink of instruments. The Poi Dog? A connection to nature, a certain elemental hippie vibe (it was the ’70s, hey), and the humid feel of that already mentioned sink (i.e. the heavy use of ukeulele, marimba, foot stomping, hang clapping, and field recordings).
The quintet also labor away at various day jobs. Klausener’s been a freelance graphic designer for more than five years; more recently, he’s also working part-time as a communications officer for an environmental action group. His house mate, guitarist and bassist (and etc.) Jeff Debutte, is a web programmer. Fellow guitarist (and uke, e-bow, etc. player) Howie Tsui’s a visual artist who works at the Ottawa Art Gallery. Rounding it all out, drummer Jeffrey Maleckhi’s a freelance editor, cleaning up Ph.D. and M.A. students’s texts. (Keiko Devaux, who plays keyboards, marimba, and percussion, teaches piano for a music academy, her own freelance students, and teaches English as a second language … she’s so busy with work, in fact, that she didn’t have time to talk with me.)
We posted the polyrhythmic “Crooked Legs” some time ago — take another listen. After the discussion dig into the Animal Collected, chanty, free-flowing “Flood Pt. 1″ and smaller, still powerful “Low Gravity.” Also, when you take a look at the accompanying photo, please note that when Klausener sent it he said, “We have official press pics, but please use the attached photo. It’s a bit more representative of how we feel when we’re at our day jobs.”
STEREOGUM: Are you represented by a gallery?
HOWIE TSUI: I’ve been flirting with a commercial gallery, but haven’t commited to anything.
STEREOGUM: What are the pros and cons of making that sort of move?
HT: I think finding a good dealer can get my work to another level of exposure within the whole institutionalized system/aesthetic gatekeeper hierarchy, which I’m not so opposed of anymore. I had been doing the whole diy, underground art scene for a bit, but being based in Ottawa, it’s been hard to make headways in the cities that can take underground artists to the next level. It just seemed like I was taking part in really big group shows, with a trendy theme (ie. birds) and mediocre/inconsistent work, which was nominally beneficial to my career. Cons, I guess is once you have a dealer, they may try to influence your work or be not supportive if you take it into new directions.
STEREOGUM: Are you selling your work?
HT: I used to when I was hungry, just out of art school. I was making cute, colourful work with subversive narratives that folks lapped up. Now, I’m sort of making work that is less commercially viable but more challenging with more conceptual dimensions.
STEREOGUM: What’s the new stuff like?
HT: The recent stuff is on my website, but I’ve been receiving a lot of support from various levels of government for a new body of work, tentatively entitled “Horror Fables”. My intent is to use imagery from traditional Asian ghost stories to develop a drawing-based installation project that satirizes the disturbing social climate of fear and fantasy in contemporary Western culture.
STEREOGUM: And you do some commercial design?
HT: Here and there. I’m working on a Poster for the Ottawa International Animation Festival.
STEREOGUM: Do you advertise for this sort of work or does it come to you?
HT: It just comes. It’s not ever too frequent, but it’s usually a result of people seeing my work in galleries, magazines or online.
STEREOGUM: I’m curious about the influence of metal on your art.
HT: Metal as in Maiden or Metal as in Iron Ore?
STEREOGUM: Maiden, of course. Or both. I saw you mentioned “heavy metal” in your bio, which is why I ask. What else has influenced your visual aesthetic?
HT: a) Safaris in Kenya, b) concussions on the London Bridge, c) ghosts in a haunted hotel in Manilla, and d) near-fatal high fevers that produce hallucinations of ceiling-piercing rain that shower upon apparitions of Disney characters.
STEREOGUM: At your personal site, you refer to yourself as “the mongrel.” Why?
HT: It’s a pretty apt word to describe myself and my work. Based on my life, I carry equal parts Metropolitan Asia and Northern Ontario hickdom. I’m also sort of an unruly, misbehaved rascal with a loose mouth.
STEREOGUM: Did you go to art school?
HT: I went to the University of Waterloo for Fine Arts. Their faculty focused on painting at the time. My favourite prof was Art Green who was part of the Hairy Who? collective, based out of Chicago in the ’70s.
STEREOGUM: Rolf mentioned you’re also a DIY chef. What sort of cooking do you do?
HT: I’ve been engaging in various ethno flavours. Laksa (Malaysian), Tagines (Moroccan), lamb kafta (Lebanese) lately, but usually I stick with Chinese and Italian. I’ve recently learned how to shuck oysters, clean squid and make homemade pizza.
STEREOGUM: Ever work in a restaurant?
HT: I grew up in my parent’s restaurant doing prep work, waiting tables and doing deliveries. Currently, it’s just for self/partner/friends but maybe in the future, I’ll get back in the game.
STEREOGUM: What’s your parent’s restaurant called?
HT: It was called The Great Wall Restaurant and it served Canadian and Chinese Food. This is the menu you have to go with to stay viable in Thunder Bay, Ontario. On one hand you had mac & cheese and hot beef sandwiches and on the other chicken fried rice and bon bon spareribs.
STEREOGUM: And, as far as other current work, you greet folks at the Ottawa Art Gallery. What are you duties there besides greeting?
HT: Security, exhibition Information, some design work, audio editing/mastering work. Tech support and some other stuff.
STEREOGUM: Is it full-time?
HT: Naw. Three days a week and they’re really flexible with my schedule so I can tour and stuff. Still a tight balance to work at the gallery, band stuff, my own art stuff, and making ambitious, challenging meals at home.
STEREOGUM: I used to work in a gallery and had to often explain to folks that maybe their kids couldn’t paint better or do a more interesting installation. Do you get that?
HT: Once in awhile that happens. We have one gallery that exhibits a collection of 20th century art and one is for contemporary art. So sometimes folks walk into the contemporary space and walk back out and ask me where is the ‘art.’ And I’d direct them to the old paintings.
STEREOGUM: Where do you do web programming? What sort of stuff?
JEFF DEBUTTE: I do freelance work — I work out of a home office that Rolf and I share. It’s mostly PHP and database stuff.
STEREOGUM: Can you describe the home office?
JD: Rolf and I live with our roommate Stef in a really nice, four-bedroom house in Centretown. The extra bedroom (actually the biggest room in the house) got designated as the office that everyone shares. There’s a lot of bookshelves and CDs around and it’s attached to the balcony which is a pretty nice way to work. I love working from home because I can set my own hours, wear whatever I feel like wearing and take a quick nap if need be.
STEREOGUM: What sorts of sites are you working with? So you design it and set them up and then they’re able to update it?
JD: I have worked on sites for radio stations (U of O’s CHUO), the federal NDP, a little with Amnesty International Canada, and some more business-oriented stuff like Executive Recruitment firms. Content Management is kind of a buzz word at the moment — everyone needs it, apparently.
STEREOGUM: Can you explain “content management” some. I guess it hasn’t buzzed my way yet.
JD: A content management system is back-end program I install in the website to make it, in theory, super easy for people to update the site. It uses the aforementioned PHP and database to keep the content separated from the design of the site and hopefully lets the owner of the site keep it up to date without having to pay web dudes like me to do it.
STEREOGUM: Is this the sort of stuff you’re able to do on the road? I imagine being freelance makes it easier…
JD: I can work on the road but it’s not easy — especially in Canada. There are long stretches where it’s tough to get an internet connection. Also, the van environment isn’t the most conducive to working. Things that I can focus on in the van include: sleeping, looking at stuff, and playing NES on my laptop. PHP is just a server-side programming language that is really popular and fairly easy to learn. It’s pretty boring to talk (and read) about though so I’ll stop.
STEREOGUM: Have you ever worked in an office doing computer work?
JD: I have worked in offices, yeah. It’s definitely nice to have a steady paycheque but it’s often at the cost of joy and happiness. I much prefer working from home as there are less birthdays to celebrate.
STEREOGUM: Do you have a background in computers? I just wonder how deep your knowledge goes. Like do you have it in your capabilities to design an Acorn video game? I firmly believe more bands need to follow in Journey’s footsteps.
JD: I did a year of Computer Science at Carleton University before I switched to a Bachelor of Music program, so I do have a bit of background. There’s already an Acorn video game, though, it’s called Guitar Hero 4: Bedroom Acoustic Guitar.
STEREOGUM: Were you an English/Lit student?
JEFFREY MALECKI “Literature always anticipates life. It does not copy it, but moulds it to its purpose.” -Oscar Wilde
STEREOGUM: Ah, grad school flashbacks. How’d you get involved with editing?
JM By pure chance, as I recall.
STEREOGUM: What’s the most interesting dissertation you’ve read? Or are you more looking at the text as an object to correct and not absorb?
JM The one about the swarm intelligence of the Locust. I hate objectifying; all things exist in the relation between subject and object, silly.
STEREOGUM: What’s the most common grammatical mistake folks make?
STEREOGUM: How did you get started in graphic design?
ROLF KLAUSENER: I started teaching myself when I was in photography school. I made concert posters for friends, and eventually learned enough to do pre-press layout for album designs, and went from there.
STEREOGUM: You have a pretty diverse set of clients. How’d you hook up with these various government agencies?
RK: I live in Ottawa (Canada’s Capital), so there’s plenty of government scratch to be had. A lot of musicians in this town turn to the gov for quick and easy money. I remember bumping into Jeremy (Gara, of the Arcade Fire) years ago, back from touring in Julie Doiron’s band, as he was on his way to some life-sucking gov job. We waxed about the trap of falling back into gov jobs to pay off debt, etc. After doing a lot of design jobs for friends, I eventually started pimping my work out to the gov. It seemed intimidating at first, but expectations at the gov are often times so low, that you can get away with murder. I remember one job in particular. The workload was close to nil, and there was literally NO supervision. I was doing “desktop publishing” in a sea of puke-green cubicles. After two weeks at that job, I started leaving at lunch and no one would notice. Sometimes I’d go for bike rides in the Gatineau Hills across the river in Quebec, or go home and work on music. I kind of see job scams like that as an elaborate way of funding our nation’s starving artists.
STEREOGUM: Your design company’s Three Acorns. What’s the significance of Acorns?
RK: There are three acorns in the Klausener family shield.
STEREOGUM: Do you have a design philosophy?
RK: Not really, but I generally strive for elegant simplicity. That and I keep tricking myself into thinking that there is nothing I can’t learn how to do.
STEREOGUM: Is it different doing screens for your band versus, say, the poser of Meals On Wheels, or something … I imagine it is, so curious how.
RK: Shit that site is soooo old. I literally haven’t updated it in about three years. Basically, for bands I do anything I want. For the gov, and NGOs (non-governmental organizations), you start with something you like, and swallow your pride as they slowly veto any creative elements of your design. I still try to fight it, but rarely win.
STEREOGUM: Are you connected with the Ottawa art scene at all? Noticed the design for SAW … and then there’s Howie’s work. Do you do any of your own art?
RK: I attend a lot of art openings, as many of my friends are involved in the scene here, but that’s the extent of my direct involvement. I’ve never been much of an visual artist. I can’t draw to save my life. I do graphic design because I love organizing colors and shapes. It’s also a much needed visual outlet that balances out my musical work.
STEREOGUM: You guys can pretty much handle all your merchandise-making it seems … Do you?
RK: Yup, I design and manufacture our buttons. Howie and I design our t-shirts, posters and album artwork. We take a lot of pride in it, and really enjoy it.
STEREOGUM: Can you explain your job as communications officer for Project Porchlight?
ROLF KLAUSENER: It’s a relatively new job, but basically I work there part time, managing their website.
STEREOGUM: How did you get involved?
ROLF KLAUSENER: Jon Bartlett of Kelp Records works there, and he gave me a job at the end of the summer. It’s an amazing organization to be involved with. Basically, they are an environmental action group, getting folks to make simple, positive changes. Our current campaign, project porchlight, asks people to switch from incandescent light bulbs to Compact Fluorescents.
Loving your day job sounds quite contrary to being a “serious musician,” but I really don’t see it that way. My work outside music really balances me out, and keeps me grounded. It also gives me a chance to do something that isn’t as self-serving.
Glory Hope Mountain is out now in Canada and 3/4 in the US of A on Paper Bag.
[left to right: Shaun Weadick, Jeffrey Malecki, Keiko Devaux, Rolf Klausener, Howie Tsui, Jeff Debutte]