Taking their sound in new directions, Great Lake Swimmers playing The Ark
photo by Norman Wong
For starters, it's actually become more of a band, after a few albums where the “band” was really more of a solo project for guitarist / singer / songwriter Tony Dekker, who used a revolving door of other musicians to back him.
But since 2009, the lineup has solidified, and there is now more of a collaboration going on between Dekker and the band. The lineup that comes to The Ark on Thursday is the same lineup that toured in 2009 to support GLS’s “Lost Channels” album, also released that year.
And, their overall sound has been morphing a bit as well. The first few discs were mostly hushed, meditative and atmospheric, with very spare arrangements. But “Lost Channels,” from 2009, expanded their musical palette by adding a few, more fleshed-out, folk-rock tracks, where the band members played more prominent roles.
”I definitely feel like that was a natural progression that grew out of touring with a band, and continuing to play with the same small group of people,” says Dekker. “It’s a natural thing in that situation to move more toward a band approach, and still be able to make music that’s spare-sounding and thought-out. We weren’t interested in turning the amps up to 11 and blasting out a big sound, but we did want to use tasteful instrumentation to create more of that folk-rock sound where we felt the song required it.”
The instrumentation of the current five-piece lineup is guitar, violin, banjo, upright bass and drums.
And GLS have recently taken another step in their evolution. For several years, they recorded their albums in remote locales like old churches, community halls and abandoned grain silos in rural settings. “Lost Channels,” for example, was recorded in the Thousand Islands region of Ontario and New York state.
But their upcoming album, which Dekker says will be released in early 2012, was recorded in the brand new Revolution Studios in Toronto, the city where Dekker also lives.
“This is our first album we’ve recorded in an actual studio,” says Dekker during a phone interview from London, Ontario, where he and producer Andy Magoffin were mixing the album. “So, I do feel like everything is a bit more defined. I still do like using the ambience of a space, but now we’ve been able to use some incredible tools that we haven’t had access to in the past, like higher-quality microphones, for starters.“Those smaller, more remote locales we’ve used in the past imposed some limitations on us, but this time we’ve been able to explore some new possibilities. This really does feel like it’s our first ‘studio album.’”
But Dekker says that fans of the group’s previous music needn’t fear that their current big-city-studio setting is seducing them into a more commercial sound.
“No, I don’t think this album is a radical change from our previous work. Our sound is still going to have a spare quality, relatively speaking. People who liked our previous music will like this one as well, I think.”
Lyrically, most of Dekker’s previous songs have reached back through time, and evoked rural or rustic images, scenarios and “ghosts” from previous eras—and he says he’s still drawn to those themes.
“I’ve always been interested in the natural world, and spirituality, and where those two themes overlap, and I feel there’s a lot to write about in that area. I don’t feel like I’ve come anywhere near to exhausting the possibilities when it comes to writing about that. I think that, for me, personally, there’s still a lot to explore in that thematic landscape.”
Dekker says that one of his biggest inspirations while writing and recording the songs on “Lost Channels” was the music of the original Carter Family.
“They’re one of my favorites, for sure,” says Dekker. “I had been listening to their music quite a bit before making that album. A lot of their songs went way back to the early inhabitants of Appalachia—to the pioneers of the new world. And when I listen to their original recordings, there’s such a liveliness. Even though you know just playing acoustic guitars and autoharps, there’s something thrilling about those records, sonically speaking.
“And on a songwriting level, they fit these sublime, complex ideas into a two-minute song, told in universal ways. Listening to them is a great inspiration for writers who want to explore more complex ideas within that shorter framework of the two-minute song.”
On the topic of the “band” previously having such a fluid lineup—and then gelling in the last two years—Dekker explains: “It was so fluid because it’s hard to keep band together. At times, people move on to other bands, or start their own band, or want to perform solo ..
“But I feel great about this lineup, and I hope we can keep it together, because this feels like the strongest line-up we’ve ever had. It really does feel like a band now.”
The group is taking a break from recording the album to do the “mini-tour”—they’re only playing about 10 cities—that is coming to the Ark.
“It’s been exciting to watch these songs come to life, to watch the band interpret the songs that I wrote when I was all by myself,” says Dekker. “And I think doing a short tour like this, while we’re still making and mixing the record, is a great opportunity to try out new songs, to see how they translate to a live setting, while there’s still an opportunity to steer them in different directions before we mix the ‘final version.’”