Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Interview: Jason MacIsaac of The Heavy Blinkers

Just yesterday I had the chance to talk with Jason MacIsaac, the man behind one of the most gorgeous pop bands in the entire world, The Heavy Blinkers. For over 10 years The Heavy Blinkers have been releasing beautiful pop albums that have put them in the top tier of indie pop bands world-wide. Their music is often filled with tons of layers of instruments and vocal harmonies, not to mention brilliant song writing and production. The only other band in the world that comes close to their style is England's own The High Llamas.

I hope you'll enjoy hearing from one of the most intelligent and (in my opinion) under rated artists in the whole world.

Eric: First, thanks for agreeing to do the interview. I first found your music when your video for "Try Telling That To My Baby" was posted on the band Majestic's myspace and since then I have been a huge fan, but I really don't know much about the Heavy Blinkers. Could you explain how you started the band and what members are in the group?

Jason: In the late-nineties, about seven months after having moved to Toronto with my Pixies-esque band, I decided that I wanted to make a brand new musical project with an emphasis on classical orchestration. At the time, this project was going to be called Theremin. I imagined it as a six piece, consisting of a female vocalist, tremolo guitar (me), and string quartet. THIS was my original vision, anyway.

When I moved back, I started writing and doing 4 track demos in my apartment. It soon became apparent to me that to express the songs the way I thought they needed to be served; I would need a full band arrangement. While looking for a recording studio in which to record these new songs, I happened upon Andrew Watt (co-founding heavy blinker) and his recording studio. I invited some people who had been recording in his studio to play here and there on the record. Months later, when I was accepted to play in a pop festival in Halifax, it was obvious that I needed a live band. What began as a solo recording project eventually grew into the heavy blinkers as a quintet. The classic heavy blinkers as the world knew us from 1998 to 2004 was as follows:

Jason MacIsaac: vocals, guitars, keyboards
Andrew Watt: vocals, keyboards
Ruth Minnikin: vocals
Trevor Forbes: bass
Greg Fry: drums

Eric: What is it like living in Nova Scotia? It's only about 6 hours from Massachusetts (where I live) but I know it's a world of difference. Could you explain how life in Halifax has inspired you and your music?

Jason: On a conscious and lyrical level, there are three things about Halifax that informs my writing. The first is the bitter winter. The second is the Atlantic Ocean, and the third is the phenomenon of living somewhere with four distinct seasons. My lyrics, since day one, have been littered with imagery, and metaphors about these three topics. Halifax is a city replete in history and ghosts, and I touch on these elements quite a bit on the soon to be released 5th album HEALTH.

Eric: Your first 2 albums have a slightly different sound than your latest releases; they sound much more shoegaze and twee influenced. What kind of situation was happening in the band during the writing of these two albums and how do you feel about the albums now, a decade after their initial release?

Jason: The first album Hooray for Everything was a very transitional record for me. It saw me slowly eschewing my old influences in favour of my even older influences. I was trying to consolidate indie rock and loud crunchy guitars with the more pastoral music on which I was raised. The Beach Boys references became even more slavish on the second album SELF TITLED. My memories of making that album are the fondest that I have of making any record. The five of us were in a studio that was ostensibly under a bridge. We just made tons and tons of music until the wee wee hours of the morn. On the first album, I called all the shots for better or for worse. With the second album, and for the first time, I had this tribe who all cared about the same thing. It was a really great environment. We were this brand new near-virginal band, but with an engineer (Andrew) in the band, and a lead songwriter (me) who already made most of his worst mistakes on the first heavy blinkers record, we avoided so many sonic and artistic pitfalls. We played live off the floor to tape, and we overdubbed endlessly.

A decade later, I would say that I am starting to warm up again to Hooray For Everything. For years I couldn't listen to it (the instrumental END OF SUMMER SUITE notwithstanding). I have never really had an interest in being a singer, I just did it if no one else was around. If I could go back and re-record the songs with Ruth on most of the material, it would better serve the recording.

As for SELF-TITLED, there are some really good songs on that album,. Again, I think the beach boys thing was a little heavy handed in some areas, but I think this is very natural thing. I think the older you get, the more your influences become less obvious until such time that they are merely unconscious points of reference that become expressed in some arcane fashion.

Eric: I started to get into your music around the release of the albums Better Weather and The Night And I Are Still So Young. You wrote some absolutely genius songs like I Used To Be A Design and Filtered Light. How on Earth do you even write something that good! Honestly, explain to me how you write your songs and all the amazing orchestral things that you add to your music.

Jason: YOU ARE TOO KIND!!!! I used to be a design was written after listening to Bob Dylan's song Shooting Star from the album Oh Mercy. The first line "I used to be a design, but now I'm a tree" came from a book of poetry written by elementary students. I would like to take credit for all the chestnuts, but in the case of FILTERED LIGHT, Andrew wrote most, if not all of the music to that, and I merely contributed lyrics.

I write all of my songs on piano. This is one of the key differences between my songs and those of most guitar players. People will argue with me endlessly about this, but unless you are Antonio Carlos Jobim or something, you can more easily establish new voicings and chord progressions on piano than on guitar. When I stopped writing on guitar and started writing on piano, EVERYTHING changed. I felt like I had been writing with oven mitts on for years. It was as if I thought I was a painter and then someone gave me a camera, and a light switch went on above my head. I am very theoretical when I write, and with the piano, it is all laid out there for me.

As for the orchestral flourishes, I kind of just hear them. I know many people who, when asked about a song that they've written, say "I just dreamt that song" or "I pulled it out of the air, fully-formed" etc. I'm not that guy! I have to work my ass off for every chord. However, I do think I have a producers' mind, and once the song in question is written, I feel that (for my material anyway) I know just what will hit the spot. That aspect comes to me without any sweat or labour. Many times, while listening back to my piano and vocal only demos, I think that I have heard a horn or a string section. I will rewind it, to see what I had actually heard, and there is nothing there at all. It is as if my brain is arranging in real time. I know this all sounds ridiculous and self-aggrandizing, but it is a phenomenon that happens often enough, that I don't ignore it. It is most likely signals from space, being transmitted through my fillings, but I will chalk it up to being a gift.

Eric: You also made a video for the song Try Telling That To My Baby. How did you end up getting in contact with Fluorescent Hill and how do you feel about the video?

Jason: As I recall, Fluorescent Hill got in contact with us. When I saw that they had worked with Badly Drawn Boy and Sixtoo, I was sold. We had already hand drawn a video for the song "You can heal", so we had already delved into the animation world before. I think they did an absolutely amazing job. I think one of the great things about this video, and this is likely Fluroescent Hill's genius, is that it embraces all of the imagery that people who didn't quite understand us at the time, used to describe us. "Your music is like candy for my brain" or "Sugary sweet pop-confection". I mean we heard that ALL the time. So, in the same way that the movie HEAD embraced the Monkees manufactured image, this video was so over the top that it became subversive. I talked to them just a few weeks ago about shooting another video for us for the new album.

Eric: I know you've come across hard times recently as Andrew Watt and Ruth Minnikin have left the group. If you can, could you explain what prompted their departure and what you have been doing since (as far as trying to reform the band, or just going solo).

Jason: Initially, Andrew had some family issues that he needed to address. In the long-run though, the main issue is that he is a business owner, and he has responsibilities that preclude him from just picking up and leaving, or devoting his time to the band in the way that he wanted. Andrew co-owns one of Halifax's most successful recording studios, and it (rightly so) requires his constant attention. Without Andrew in the band, other members just didn't feel it was the heavy blinkers anymore. I wholeheartedly support everyone's decision, but it takes some getting used to nevertheless. As it stands now, myself and David Christensen (blinker since '05ish) are the only active members. I am sure that we will all be in the same studio or stage again at some point, but for now, and at least with the new album, it is a bit of a solo/duo endeavor. In a way, it has come full circle. I don't think the music will suffer terribly; it will just evolve into something different. David is a genius arranger/composer/musician, and he and I have worked on many non heavy blinkers projects in the past, and we work fast and intuitively together.

Eric: You've also been working on the Heavy Blinkers 5th album, Health, for quite a long time. How is the album turning out and will there be any sound clips of the band coming soon?

Jason: Health is the album that refuses to be released! It is going well, but it is so unruly and complex, that it has taken forever. To be fair, there have been giant chunks of time where nothing has been done on it at all, but it has been a battle, to be sure. It is 25 + songs and is heavily orchestrated, so it's not like going into the studio and just bashing it out with guitar, bass and drums. The amount of layering is obscene, and while computers have made my musical life a dream, it has also slowed down the process as well. I am now able to make everything as close to perfect as I can envision it. I am always conscious of not sacrificing feel for precision, and am attempting to have both with this album. The last thing I want is for the album to be technically perfect, and lifeless.

So much time has passed that I feel like I am producing someone else's album now. There is an air of objectivity in my decision-making at this point that was heretofore missing. I am not precious about these songs anymore, because they feel as if they were written by someone else. If something isn't working, I have no problem radically amending or rejecting it. In the past, I would walk into a studio with the exact number of songs, and we would record them, and that was that. I have grown up a lot since then.

It is a very theatrical album, and it plays like a musical. There are plenty of band moments, but overall, it is more like musical theatre than an indie-rock record. We have Sondre Lerche singing one song, Sean O'Hagan from the high llamas sings another and plays guitar. It sounds positively lovely.

I have been thinking of putting up some demos or rough mixes on our myspace, just to show everyone that I haven't been golfing for three years.

Eric: I know you've also been busy with writing film scores and musicals for a lot of other people. What kind of stuff have you worked on so far and where can we see/hear some of it?

Jason: I have been scoring for a Halifax based theatre troupe called Zuppa Circus for almost ten years now. Dave and I most recently scored their play Penny Dreadful and won BEST SCORE at the Nova Scotia Theatre Awards, so I was very pleased. I had never won an award in anything before in my entire life.

Earlier last year, Dave and I also produced the debut album by sometimes heavy blinkers touring vocalist Jenn Grant.

And I just finished producing the debut full length by an artist named Brent Randall. I think you would really love him. He looks like Harrison, sings like Dylan, and writes like Nilsson. The album isn't out for another month or so, but you can hear a bit of it on his site here:

I am currently in pre-production with an alt-country band called The Prospector's Union, and we go in the studio to record that E.P. in a few weeks.

Eric: Lastly, what do you have planned for the future with the Heavy Blinkers and with yourself? Any new side projects or art exhibits you want to share?

Jason: Well, once HEALTH is on the shelves, I have to start finding a way to bring it to people's towns. I really want to tour heavily to support this album, and I am trying to find a way to bring as many musicians as is possible, for as little money as is possible. In terms of side projects, I would like to do some more film scoring, and it has always been a dream of mine to score a dance piece, so maybe this will be my year. It is hard to tell, everything takes longer than I think, and I still have a day job that consumes a large part of my week. As always, The Heavy Blinkers will continue to be my main priority, and as soon as the albatross ( I mean this lovingly) that is Health is off my back, I can start releasing the other songs that didn't make it to that album. I would love to produce a Glen Campbell comeback record…can you make that happen?


While I am not entirely sure if I can help out with that Glen Campbell comeback record, I did go as far as to email Glen Campbell's publicist. I wonder if they'll ever write me back?

Anyway! Thanks to Jason MacIsaac for being so great. Check out the Heavy Blinkers music below.

Myspace | Website | Label | Jason's label | The Heavy Blinkers Blog


Anonymous said...

I have just recently found these guys. Really really great stuff. Do you happen to know what is going on with the release of "HEALTH" or the lack there of? I am really excited to check it out. I hope it won't be shelved. Anyways, nice blog Eric.

PS. I too am a Beach Boys B. Wilson fanatic and I also live in MA. :D


warnakey said...

it'll be out next month!

Anonymous said...

Sweet!!! This is great news! I cannot wait to get it!

Thanks for getting back to me.

Take Care,

Anonymous said...

Is there a link to where I can read about the upcoming release? Also, do you happen to know the date of release and where to purchase?


Anonymous said...

Hopefully it will come out this month. I Wonder why it wasn't released last month? I cannot wait to hear this album. These guys are excellent!

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm researching Glen Campbell for a Southern music magazine and I'm having trouble locating his publicist's contact info. You're one of the only people who've mentioned his publicity contacts. Could I get you to possibly share them with me?

Thank you!

Natalie Elliott
The Oxford American

Anonymous said...

I hate to bother you again, but do you (or anyone reading this) happen to know the inside scoop of when "HEALTH" will finally hit the shelves? I am dying to hear it! These guys are seriously one of the best bands I have ever heard! The album not being released yet is extremely negative to my health!! lol


warnakey said...

Hi Jeremy, I'll write an article on why soon! I can't wait either!

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,

I will be looking forward to to your article! Not only am I going nuts in anticipation of "Health", but also the "other songs that didn't make it to the album". I do realize I might be getting greedy, especially since "Health" isn't even on the shelves yet, but hey, Jason did say that! lol

Take care,


Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,

Any new scoop on "HEALTH"?



P.S. I just received The High Llamas "Talahomi Way" and it is easily their best work IMO. It is beautiful.