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The title of The Wooden Sky’s fifth full-length album is an abridged quote from Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi novel, Dune: “Survival is the ability to swim in strange water.” It’s a phrase that seems especially apt in 2017, as many of us are still reeling from the previous year. For Gavin Gardiner, the frontman of the Toronto-based indie rock band, the way to understand and reconcile these unknowns — from oil pipelines and refugee crises to his own family’s personal history— is through songwriting. “It’s how I filter a lot of things that come in,” says Gardiner, as he walks through the residential streets of Toronto’s Roncesvalles neighbourhood. “For better or for worse, it’s how I deal with things and how I communicate my feelings.” Swimming in Strange Waters is Gardiner trying to make sense of the world.
The band (made up of Gardiner, multi-instrumentalists Simon Walker and Andrew Wyatt, violinist Edwin Huizinga and drummer Andrew Kekewich) started writing and recording demos in a small farmhouse in rural Quebec in January 2015, but then put them aside as they embarked on a year-long tour in support of their previous album, Let’s Be Ready. When they resumed work on the album in March 2016, Gardiner says the band caught a severe case of “demoitis”, a condition wherein “you fall in love with the scrappiness of the demos.” So rather than completely re-working them, they decided to record the album in the same way as the demos: in Gardiner’s home studio, using old tape machines and live off the floor.
The resulting album is a sonic maelstrom that sees the band exploring unchartered waters, where textural psychedelia inspired by the Paisley Underground movement melds into quiet, acoustic cyclical guitar melodies, before once again transforming into a bombastic, Johnny Cash-esque rally against the XL Keystone pipeline in Canada. While Let’s Be Ready found the Wooden Sky writing a pure “rock and roll” album, Swimming in Strange Waters sees the band experimenting once again. “I feel like we’re back on track,” says Gardiner.
John Angello (known for his work with Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Phosphorescent and Kurt Vile) mixed the album at Water Music in New Jersey. Around 95 percent of it was recorded to an old tape machine at Gardiner’s home studio, and the rest was done at Hotel2Tango in Montreal and at a Toronto church where multi-instrumentalist Walker’s father is the Anglican minister.
“Deadhorse Creek”, which is named after the body of water that runs through Gardiner’s hometown of Morden, Manitoba, creates a layered soundscape with backward guitar, easygoing harmonica and a crooning slide guitar that all erupt in a foot-stomping, rollicking jam; “Black Gold”, inspired by the Keystone XL pipeline protests, features a 16-person choir, a Velvet Undergroundesque screaching violin undertone by band member Edwin Huizinga, and Gardiner embracing a lower register for the first time; “Riding on the Wind” tells stories about refugee families Gardiner met while working with Romero House, over a bed of dreamy reverb.
Meanwhile first single “Swimming in Strange Waters” glimmers like a technicolored circus with warbling synths and organs, cyclical, vocoder-drenched gang vocals and a spoken word interlude, performed by The Highest Order’s Simone Schmidt reading from Herbert’s Dune Messiah. “More now than ever, I feel the weight of responsibility to act and make things better for the people to come,” says Gardiner. “Maybe that sounds cliche, but it feels very real now. As an artist, you have your voice, and not much else. So you gotta use it.”
On every album, the Wooden Sky’s aim is to somehow capture the band’s live performance, to compress that adrenalin and vigour into a collection of songs that’ll inevitably be played through headphones and crappy computer speakers. It’s a tall order, considering the Wooden Sky has become known for both high-energy, sold-out rock shows and their charming, unconventional pop-up gigs – like 2014's series of three acoustic record store sets in three hours, where they biked to each shop with instruments slung over their backs.
Swimming in Strange Waters marks the closest the band has ever got to this coveted goal. To achieve that energy, Gardiner had to let go of any insecurities and garner new confidence, part of which he found after speaking with an opera singer friend and working with legendary producer, Angello, and part of which came from encapsulating that energy himself. “You have to give the energy that you want to get back,” notes Gardiner. “When I’m recording, I’m standing on a chair like I’m on stage, wearing my boots and my sunglasses, just trying to create this atmosphere of cacophony. How do you expect to convey that excitement if you don’t feel it? Let’s not sit here and be bashful.”