No. 41 - An interview with Eamon McGrath edition
Plus dance-punk's return and new music from Hayden, Feist, Chappell Roan, Miss Grit, Model/Actriz, and Mandaworld
Eamon McGrath is going through changes. A lot of them.
Frustrated with banging his head against the wall as he sounded the alarm about the dwindling opportunities for artists to make a living, this past winter the veteran artist abandoned the traditional album rollout to drop a whopping seven new albums of new material simultaneously, all pressed onto limited edition CDrs. He got sober, and on the day that we spoke for this interview, the Edmonton native had just uprooted himself from Toronto, where he’s lived for more than a decade, to settle in Windsor, ON.
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Now, as he readies yet another album of new material, the mostly acoustic A Dizzing Lust, out Friday, March 31, McGrath is embracing a newfound clarity of purpose in both his career and day-to-day life. “The bottom line is like, what do I really love,” he asks rhetorically. “Well, I love traveling the world and playing my songs and selling my songs to anyone that will buy them, and I love the act of playing music.”
Before the holidays, you dropped seven albums and sold them as limited edition CDrs. From what I’ve read on your social media accounts, this was your way of circumventing vinyl pressing backlogs and the piss-poor streaming royalty rates?
Definitely. Including the record I’m putting out at the end of the month, A Dizzying Lust, all of this stuff is part of that equation, the frustration and reality of being an artist, and the grim future that I think we're facing. I always use the Minutemen as the biggest example of how circumstance affects the artistic process in the most beautiful, fascinating way. The Minutemen would record overnight to save money on studio time, and they would bring recycled tape to the session. Sometimes they'd only have a certain amount of tape to record on like, say, 15 minutes. So they would play all their songs twice as fast and fit them on the tape they had. That's the most incredible way of explaining the effects of circumstance and opportunity. You can only paint a picture with the paint that you can afford to buy.
I recorded and I'm releasing a solo acoustic record, because for me right now playing shows alone and touring alone is the only medium by which I can support myself. I wanted to make a work of art that matches my situation and in doing so, make a really beautiful record that touches on a different set of emotions than maybe people are used to. It's a very punk rock approach. It's super DIY. It's very utilitarian. I'm trying to spit in the face of a record industry that I see as being increasingly exploitive of, not just the artists that it depends on to make its money, but also the fans that it's continuously ripping off to benefit the select few people at the top. I want to show people that there's a better way that's mutually beneficial to everybody involved, and that doesn't require you to live in squalor, which is this assumption that gets made about being a musician. I know that it's not true because I do it. I want to show people that there's hopeful change on the horizon. All that stuff was the impetus for me making like a really sad bastard folk record.
It's a really beautiful record. I love all your records, but this one really took me by surprise.
Yeah, and that's the idea. I want people to feel the fire in it, and get away from just being pissed off all the time. Musicians have been through so much shit in the past four years, and our lives have been destroyed and rebuilt time and time again. I wanted to make a record that makes someone feel like they’re being hugged. As lame as that sounds, that's where my head was at. I didn't want a record that might inspire someone to just get hammered anymore. I want people to feel invited and welcomed and that this torrential downpour of garbage is not forever.
My day-in and day-out realities are touring and playing music so it's hard for me to not politicize all that stuff. But I've done so much traveling because of music and art that, I do have a front-row seat to what's happening in the world. When people talk about the rising energy prices in Europe, I see all that stuff firsthand, and my life gets affected by it. My livelihood has taken a hit because of Vladimir Putin. When you have to get to the show and you're on the highway in Austria, and you're behind a convoy of Ukrainian refugees and displaced people, all of a sudden all that stuff takes on a whole different meaning to you. It's a different way of thinking about the news. Here you thought you were someone that lives so far away from all that stuff and you realize that you're actually fairly close to it. It's hard to not want to put out music in this politically charged way. A lot of bands I love always did that. The Clash were a really political band, but they also sang love songs.
Did you actually got stuck behind a caravan of refugees in Austria?
Yeah. Bells of Hope, the last album I released, came out on February 25. We played the release show the day the war started. We got on stage at Lee's Palace, and that morning, we found out that Russia and Ukraine were at war. Essentially from that moment, the whole year was navigating through that nightmare. I went to Europe twice. I was totally fucking connected to all of it. We went to Japan and COVID was still full tilt — regulations were still really strong, and numbers were really high. This album that I thought was gonna be this really beautiful, optimistic record ended up being this thing that sort of guided me through the world in a really dark time. I made a record that needed a full band and that came with its own slew of challenges. I wanted to do something really soon after that wasn't so arduous. I wanted to put on a record that was easy and fun and seamless.
The bottom line is like, what do I really love? Well, I love traveling the world and playing my songs and selling my songs to anyone that will buy them, and I love the act of playing music. But if the only way that I can still do that is by doing it alone, well, then I will.
Between Bells of Hope and A Dizzying Lust, you released those seven albums as well. That seems like something that is very unique to you, or to the few people who can produce that much material in a given time span.
It was a way of making the statement, that I don't need the established presumptions of the record industry to have a career. I don't need a marketing schedule. I don't need arts funding. I don't need a video rollout. I don't need a big budget. I don't need all this stuff. The important thing is that I'm playing shows and that I'm working and I'm enjoying it. All that stuff doesn't matter. I've always believed that there's an input-output equation to playing music for a living. If you want to play 100 shows a year and you set out to do it, you plan to do it, you will play them. The heart and soul and energy that you invest in something will be reciprocated by people connecting to that. Again, that's really all that matters. Those seven records you're talking about, the pressings sold out in a week. I don't know when the last time I sold out a pressing where a label and FACTOR money was involved. I'm still sitting on those albums. I put so much spontaneous heart and soul and energy into those seven albums and people connected to them.
So all the music that’s come out in the past few months — the seven albums you released at the end of 2022, the new album — was that music you wrote after Bells of Hope?
Bells of Hope was the first album that I made in lockdown. I gave myself a quota of a song a day and I just didn't stop. I pretty much recorded every day for a year and a half of hell. I made about eight records. I made most of them with Danny Miles from July Talk, he and I are longtime collaborators and friends. We were debating how to put it all out. At the end of last year, we were just like, “Why are we waiting?” There are already production delays and vinyl delays, why would we give ourselves more time to sit around? We were just like, “Fuck it, let's put it out,” and I'm really happy we did it that way because the response was great.
You’ve always had a very diverse taste in music and those records really seemed to tap into some of those influences that haven’t been front and centre on your albums in the past.
That was a really intentional thing. A fear of mine for the past couple of years — maybe it's already too late — is that I'm going to be misinterpreted or misunderstood as a shitty sandal-wearing, fedora-wearing, whiny coffee shop, singer-songwriter. It's just that's not what I do. I hate the fact that some people think that I'm an acoustic skatepark, stretch lobes and tattoos, shouty folk-punk songwriter. That’s not what I do, either. Bowie and Mark Lanegan and Neil Young and all these guys, they're songwriters. But they're just so diverse and eclectic and hard to classify. That's the stuff that I really love. Greg Dulli from the Afghan Whigs, that guy is a songwriter, but he's not a singer-songwriter. That's always been what I think about what I do and that was what I really tried to get across with most of the music that was on those albums.
The point of being a songwriter, of being a solo artist, and not having the constraints of other people and opinions is that you want to be able to do whatever the fuck you want. That's the whole point. It's the freedom of not having a boss. That's what being a songwriter means to me. It's not having to answer to anybody, and not having to answer to a classification and to a label. I am not a business. I run one, but me personally, I'm not one. That's why it was really important to me that all the music on those albums is really different.
The amount of activity you've got going on seems to speak to that. On top of the new album, you’ve got Weld a sort of Crazy Horse tribute/side project. And even since we connected about this interview and actually doing it, you’ve announced a split EP with The Hills Mover.
I like putting out records for people that want to hear them. I like touring and playing shows for people that want to see them. What I don't like is the maneuvering and the posturing and the clamoring and believing that you're fucking bonehead advertising theory is gonna play out in an impossible situation. The people that it works for are like clothing companies — they're not even artists. By the time you've heard of a band now, they’re a media conglomerate. People talking about Amyl and the Sniffers like the token punk band. That's not a punk band. That's a media empire. They have like, 20,000 followers on Instagram. That's more than the readership of most major market print newspapers now. Give me a fucking break! So that's where my head's at.
At the end of the day, is it working? They'll have a career like any other band. They'll rise, and they'll fall just like everybody does. Anytime there's ever any attempt to generate hype, the hype gets to a point where it reaches a limit, and it explodes, and the band fucking crashes. But none of that matters. All that matters is that the band is out playing. That's it. That's the only thing that brings anyone any actual joy. No one gives a fuck about anything else deep down. We've gotten to this point where it's all so ubiquitous that no one's even paying attention anymore. I'm sick of trying to pretend that people give a fuck about your record cycle or about what clothes you're wearing. It's all bullshit. The only thing that matters is the sauce. It's probably always been that way. I think people have convinced themselves and maybe there's been some added importance to social media because it was new for so long. But it's just not anymore. If you do that, then you'll have the energy to go and bring some other people joy.
You’ve just decided to leave Toronto, where you’ve lived for over a decade to move to Windsor, ON. Why the move and how did Windsor become your new home?
I'm the stereotypical Torontonian artist: getting fucking kicked out by capitalism. It's the same story man everywhere. It sucks. I mean, I'm really happy here [in Windsor]. But it sucks this pattern. Everywhere in the world, every single person that had a hand in making big cities awesome can't afford to live there anymore. Now they've just become these homogenized cesspools of bankers and lawyers. It's just stupid. For every condo that gets built, it's got a Loblaws on the ground floor or the LCBO, and I don't really know what they think that all these people are going to do because there's nothing left to do. It's really weird. It's a recurring theme everywhere in the world. Whether it's New York or London or Paris or whatever, no one can afford to live in the city that they really had built for themselves. Toronto used to be really cool. It was a really vibrant arts community and it was the best city in the world. Now I don't even know what there is to do there anymore. For someone who doesn't drink anymore, either — I quit drinking almost two years ago, that’s a whole other thing — I'm paying $1500 bucks a month to sit at home. Long story short, I made the move because CBC Radio 3 got taken off the Sirius XM satellite network in the fall, so my royalties dried up and I straight up can't afford to live [in Toronto] anymore. So I sought out a better life.
What caused you to get sober?
I got sick of getting arrested, I got sick of waking up in the gutter, and I got sick of feeling shitty all the time. COVID was such an eye opener in so far as if there's any good thing that happened to me, it was that I really had a fervent understanding of what it is that really mattered to me in my life. What mattered to me was punk rock, and playing shows. I went pretty far into the abyss during COVID. I'm sure a lot of people did. But I was drinking like a fucking idiot. That was my way of coping with the fact that my life is just continuously falling apart.
I got to this point where I was just partying so hard that it wasn't even rock'n'roll anymore. I was the equivalent of that post-gentrification neighborhood where it’s gotten so cool that it was like shitty yuppies with jogging strollers. That's where my drinking had taken me.
I'm way more rock and roll than I ever was now that I've taken all that self-destruction out of the equation. I thought I was Iggy Pop, this stereotype. Now all that's out of my life and I can go and do all the things that make me an actual badass. I can put on shows for people and put out records and I can release nine records before July. I can go on a tour that's three and a half months long and not feel like a bag of fucking shit at the end of it. I can do the stuff that counts. You look in the mirror one day and you're like, “I'm not even badass. I'm just to some pudgy fucking bloated bag of milk.” So that's why I quit.
How did you choose Windsor as a place to live?
Well, my manager and I started seeing each other, so I had a place to stay. We worked together really well and I got a home base here. I mean, I've been playing here like, all the time. Detroit's here. I'm four hours from two major airports, and 20 minutes from another one.
One of the things I used to love about Toronto was, I'd be able to get to Paris, France, from my front door and nine hours and I can get to Paris, France, from my front door and nine hours here. It's pretty awesome. You couldn't really pick a better place in Canada or North America to live in as far as centrality goes. If you do a 401 tour, you're starting and ending in Windsor. It's pretty great. If you want to do a Midwest US tour. You're starting at ending it in Detroit. Like I said, if you want to do a European tour three major airports are pretty close.
It's also really a hidden cultural gem, which I think is cool. It's actually insane how diverse of a place it is, and how amalgamated the two municipalities, Detroit and Windsor, become. Windsorites just laugh at me for even saying that, it’s so obvious to them. But people from Toronto don't understand it at all. Going to Detroit is like going to Manhattan. I think of living over on this side of the river as living in Brooklyn or Queens. I have learned to consider them as one big city. Going through the tunnel, you're really just paying a toll.
The weather, it's fucking killer. The music scene’s amazing. Touring from here is really easy. I can actually see bands because it's a total rock town. People still love going to see rock and roll here. Toronto for me has been consumed by really shitty TikTok artists. A lot of promoters that I work for as a day job — I'm a production manager for a couple of people now - all the shows I do are really, really bad mumblecore hip hop or TikTok artists that are 25, going on their first tour and just hemorrhaging money, insisting or touring in a bus. It's just so not who I am. Since I've decided to move here I got a job booking a club and mixing bands. I get offers to mix actual bands all the time and people go to see them. I can put shows on that people go to. It's awesome. I'm just really happy. I just have come to terms with how miserable I've been in Toronto for the past little while and it's gotten associated with a lot of pain for me. So I just decided to move.
Where are you working there?
There's a place called The Chelsea. It’s having more shows as a basement venue. It's like a classic punk rock room. So good for that kind of show. I'm looking forward to bringing bands to town and trying to continue this regional expansion. People are kind of cluing into the 401 as a route and Ontario as a territory and I want to be a part of that. I've been doing it on the artist's side for so long. I've compartmentalized Canada into different territories. I'll fly to the Lower Mainland and BC. The Island and the Lower Mainland is one sort of route and come home, and then I'll go to Alberta, do that and treat the Prairies as its own thing. I’ve done Ontario and Quebec as two different separate territories, and then the mainland Maritimes as one and Newfoundland as one. I would really like to be a part of being able to make a really tight lucrative tour for Canadian bands in the Windsor-Quebec City corridor. That's kind of my goal, I want to try and give back to the community that supported me a little bit.
Over the past few years, you’ve become quite outspoken about the issues facing artists, writing op-eds, etc. Do you see this as part of a solution to the problems you’ve highlighted?
I kind of realized that banging your fist on the podium, so to speak only gets you so far. I've really tried to raise awareness as to what's happening in the music industry and what I see as s the crumbling demise of it, and what I personally believe is going to be a more widespread social and economic problem. We still haven't fully seen the full collapse yet. I really do think that we're still on the doorstep of something a little more ominous than what people are expecting, and I think that the music industry will be the first thing to go. People are ignorant of it. They don't want to hear the bad news. But ultimately, you kind of have to just sort of settle into the reality that talking about all this stuff is gonna get you nowhere and you just have to actually act and try and come up with some solutions to the problem before the problem really becomes a problem. What I'm trying to do is fix the leaking faucet before the basement floods. I want to make a really cool, awesome destination for Canadian artists to come and play and do it before it gets to the point where no one has the ability to do that at all. My method has been pretty lucrative in the past couple of years. I own all the tech you need to put on a show anywhere. Since June of 2021, I've done shows anywhere you could possibly do a show. I've been able to make a living, playing when no one else could. I know that there's a way to make that attainable for other people. Community for me doesn't mean guarding your information and stockpiling wealth. Community for me means trying to empower everybody and share that knowledge and bring other people into it and show people that there's a better way. I'm gonna do shows here and help out bands and put records out and do all the stuff that I once was able to do in Toronto that I stopped being able to do in the past couple of years for so many reasons. The world is not going to get better, but I can get better, and I can do better things. So I might as well focus my energy on doing what I can control.
A Dizzying Lust is out Friday, March 31 via Saved By Vinyl.
Kool Kids Self-promotion Club
Putting on my “Losing My Edge” hat (I really was there!) I cherry-picked eight Canadian dance-punk and dance-punk adjacent bands from the 2000s who are primed for a comeback for Exclaim! As I point out in the piece dance-punk, which posited the idea that indie rock and dance music need not be mutually exclusive, is having a bit of a moment.
That original scene’s time in the sun coincided with a larger international spotlight on Canadian indie music, so focusing on the Northern side of the border made sense from both a historical POV, as well keeping this list from spinning out of control. More on this in a future edition of KKMC.
Kool Kids Recommendation Club
Check out the “Concert Recommendation” section with Toronto-area concert listings for shows that have caught my eye and ear.
Chappell Roan’s story is an all-too-familiar one. The Missouri native signed with Atlantic while she was still in high school and moved to Los Angeles. But she got dropped after an EP and a handful of singles failed to sufficiently set the world on fire. Roan re-emerged post-pandemic as an indie artist, falling more in line with the likes of Grace Ives than the more grand stentorian pop of her major label days. The more personal sounding “Casual” perfectly captures the new Chappell Roan, a little rougher around the edges both musically and lyrically than in the past. The song finds its protagonist stuck in that liminal space that exists when you’re not “together,” but still getting together. “I try to be the chill girl,” she sings, “But honestly, I'm not.” That’s very reasonable!
I wrote about Miss Grit’s Impostor EP back in KKMC No. 11, describing the New York artist’s music as “lacerating mantras of self-doubt.” Her debut album, Follow the Cyborg sees Margaret Sohn background the personal for a more allegorical record about an AI becoming self-aware. “Like You” feels like a pivotal song in this story, where the protagonist — the AI — chaffing at the expectations its programmers have placed on it. Who can’t relate?
Hayden and Feist both experienced surprising mainstream success, albeit a decade apart, only to continue about their careers without much concern for whatever expectations their newfound fame might have placed upon them. The breezy “On a Beach” actually sounds like something those fleeting audiences might have gotten down with. It originated in a songwriting workshop in which the two artists participated in 2021. Hayden described it as “what I thought hypnosis may sound like” while the lyrics suggest that this hypnotic state might be a mental escape from reality (Maybe. I’m not the best at interpreting lyrics). “On a Beach” is from Are We Good, Hayden’s first new album in eight years, out April 5. The video features the National’s Matt Berninger and actor Steve Buscemi, who helped propel Hayden to new commercial heights when he tapped him to provide music for his movie Trees Lounge wayyyyyy back in 1996.
Post and noise rock aren’t subgenres particularly known for producing charismatic front people, but Brooklyn’s Model/Actriz might prove an exception. A kind of North American counterpoint to all those English dudes yelling over noisy post-punk riffs (many of which I love), frontman Cole Haden writes confrontational, hypersexualized lyrics from a queer perspective over noisy post-punk that flirts with an industrial thump. “Crossing Guard” which references both greek mythology and Lady Gaga, is a clear highlight from their debut Dogsbody, easily one of the most fun and inventive rock-adjacent records I’ve heard in a minute.
Mandaworld is the musical nom de plume of Amanda Hicks, a registered hypnotist (maybe she’s got something to do with Hayden and Feist’s new track?), who also happens to write dance-pop bangers. She made her just-released debut album, For Emotional Use Only, with partner in music and life Matty Tavares, formerly of BadBadNotGood. In a recent Instagram post, Hicks described the album as an ode to many things, including “the girl who had trouble being loud. It’s for the girl who was afraid to hear her voice. It’s for the girl who was too afraid to be imperfect,” a sentiment well captured on “U Can’t Stop Me Now.”
Ian Gormely is a freelance music journalist based in Toronto.
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