Interviewed by Jake Shenker
At the beginning of March, homegrown icon Hawksley Workman began the Canadian tour in support of his new album, Between the Beautifuls. I caught up with him in Montreal, and we talked about his new record, his old records, his production style, and why The Beatles’ Revolver was so damn good.
MONDO: Well, first of all, welcome back. It’s been a while.
Hawksley Workman: Yeah. It’s weird how two years can just go past.
MONDO: But you’ve been working. You were in the studio, writing new material, recording two new albums.
HW: That’s what I mean though, you’d think it would be sooner. Writing and recording is the quick part. But once the record’s finished, that’s when the slowness begins.
MONDO: Between the Beautifuls shows a pretty different side to your music, and it strikes me as needing a special kind of treatment to play live. What kind of show will you be playing tonight, and who did you bring along to back you up?
HW: I really like Between the Beautifuls, I like how refined it sounds, and in some ways it’s the most straightforward album I’ve ever made. But I made the record last May. It’s just not where I am now, and I didn’t want to take that sound on the road. So I just put something together: I’ve got a guy from Halifax playing the bass clarinet, and Jesse Zubot playing violin, and of course [keyboardist] Mr. Lonely, and they’re all switching off — they’re playing guitar and bass, and I’m playing some drums. It’s a really fun show.
MONDO: Between the Beautifuls is your first record that wasn’t self-produced. How was it working with Andre Wahl, and what was it like to not produce your own record?
HW: Oh, it was great. Andre let me just be the artist. I wanted not to have to worry about how the drums were going to get edited, what we were going to use to mic amplifiers, I didn’t want to worry about a schedule. It wasn’t so much for stylistic direction, more that I could let go of a lot of the bad work involved in making a record. You know, sitting in front of the computer stuff.
MONDO: I noticed Andre’s also credited with mixing the record.
HW: That’s just it. I got to come in everyday and play and sing, and then at the end of the day he would take the hard drive home and sort things out, and I didn’t once think about how or when it was going to get done. When you sign on to be the producer, you effectively sign on to take the shit for anything that goes wrong. You also get to take a certain amount of accolades for things that go right.
MONDO: You know what it’s like to be a hands-on producer. Did you find it difficult to step back and let somebody else do some of that work?
HW: Not at all, because I feel pretty clear about who I am. I think for younger artists it’s more troubling to think that, uh-oh, somebody’s going to come in and change me, or somebody’s going to come in and take credit for things.
MONDO: Well, there are two kinds of producers: the kind that lets you do what you want to do and gets the best out of you, and the kind who tells you what to do.
HW: See that’s Andre, the first kind. [laughs] I’m kind of the second one, a little bit. It depends on the project, but I used to be worse than I am now. I have the wisdom now to get out of the way.
MONDO: You just finished producing a record with the young Newfoundland band Hey Rosetta! What kind of producer were you for that?
HW: That was a big “get outta the way.” They’re one of the best young bands in the country. And when we were recording, that’s the product we were making. We were making a great record. So I was there as just like, [cheering] “You’re the best! You’re the greatest!”
MONDO: Besides confidence and energy, is there a distinctly “Hawksley” sound to that record?
HW: For me, what I know that I brought out was just simple details, stuff that you maybe don’t think about when you’re first starting out.
MONDO: That’s one thing about your records, too. Over time your attention to detail has gotten better, and on your new record, you’ve got tons of texture and detail.
HW: As a musician, you never stop learning. But there’s something to be said about the naïveté and pure lusty inspiration of earlier records.
MONDO: Is that why you’ve been selling some of your older unreleased records at shows? Is it more for you, or for the fans?
HW: Both. It drives me crazy having that stuff sitting there. I know what kind of music fan I am, and I’ve always made my records for people who I think would be sort of like me, who would be in used record shops looking for European releases of Smiths’ albums and stuff. To me, that’s what’s fun, that’s what’s always been fun about music.
MONDO: Earlier records can often be pretty experimental, and for a music fan, that’s some of the most interesting material.
HW: Agreed. All my unreleased early records were really trials, experiments.
MONDO: But the energy is there. That “pure lusty inspiration” you mentioned.
HW: Absolutely. And with Hey Rosetta!, I think I just had to ensure that their energy was always 100 percent plugged in, that all the viewmeters in the studio were clicking off the scale. You can hear that kind of madness in young punk music. This is the first record I ever made where I never played anything on it, I would just listen, and the most fascinating thing was that I could hear the energy start to dwindle. Like, to feel the momentum of the song start to teeter and then realize that you can’t settle for that anymore, because you’d built this energy pattern, and that all of a sudden you’d feel something dragging on the record. And I never would have understood any of that because I usually sign on as the producer more because I want to be the drummer in the band [laughs]!
MONDO: Now I know Between the Beautifuls is a Canadian-only release, and you’ve got another record coming out soon in Europe?
HW: Yeah, it’s called Los Manlicious.
MONDO: Was that the record company’s decision?
MONDO: Did you make both records separately as two distinct records, or did the record company split them up?
HW: Yeah, they’re both records I deliberately made. Los Manlicious is a big hit pop-rock record. It’s a bit of a smoke show actually. I’ve got the new master in my car, and it’s really good. In some ways it’s modelled after [my 2001 album] Delicious Wolves. It has a certain obviousness. And I love it, it’s incredible. However… things happen. I don’t always get to make the decisions.
MONDO: Will it be available in Canada eventually?
HW: Well, it’s released in Europe, I would imagine it’ll be available that day online.
MONDO: But without the CD artwork and the physical box.
HW: Yeah, which is sad. I’m nostalgic for the good old days. You know, with record companies re-introducing new formats to sell, it really is a greedy kind of thing to re-sell Led Zeppelin and The Beatles and The Who.
MONDO: If it’s remastered though, it can sound better. I mean, they haven’t remastered The Beatles catalogue yet, but when they do, imagine being able to listen to Revolver with the same kind of clarity as Between the Beautifuls.
HW: But that’s the way the record is. Remastering is a farce, in my opinion. You’re looking for a crisper picture of what The Beatles probably sounded like than on the tape, but that’s not what Revolver is. It’s mushy. Anyway, that record changed my life.
MONDO: So what’s next for you? You’ve got a European tour coming up for Los Manlicious, and then what?
HW: Well, the life never changes, it’s always the same: make a record… same old same old. I’d really like to have a hit record before North America collapses into economic ruin, but it might not happen in time. [laughs] Maybe if I wrote it for someone else. That’s what I’d like to do.