Interviews:: Colin from Canasta

We recently had the chance to ask Colin from Canasta a few questions. This Chicago band is creating some amazing, quirky pop records and are working on a new album. Hopefully it will make waves and start getting this band some attention.

HH:: Perhaps the most striking lyric that grabs me on the record is "great rock n' roll isn't something you pick up and play, great rock n roll should always have something of value to say."
This says a lot about the attitude of the band, but it makes me wonder how the writing and recording process for a six piece multi-instrument outfit works. Is it hard to decide what sounds good and when a song is done, especially when the subtle additions of layers is such a great part of your songs?
Colin:: Great question. This seems to be the most common line that's taken out of context in the song. The set-up is that the singer is sitting with writer's block and trying to write some lyrics before the show: "...minutes to go and I'm losing my cool. I start to resent all those of you who swear by the rule that 'great rock n roll isn't just something you pick up and play, but great rock n roll should always have something of value to say.' " So really it's just a very personal expression of frustration at people who want "deep" lyrics when you're in the middle of writer's block. But if you read just those two last lines it seems like we're telling you what makes rock 'n roll great. We don't know, really. The only point we try to make is in the chorus: "I find that my words get in the way of what the five of them are trying to play." Typically people latch onto the lyrics, and that's fine to a point. But Canasta is way more about the instruments than the lyrics. We're definitely proud of both in all our songs, but the music always comes first. We spend the majority of our time writing the melodies and orchestration. The lyrics typically come after we've polished the whole song off.

But our writing and recording process is definitely atypical. We don't have a singer-songwriter or composer who brings full songs to the group. It's all very democratic and process-oriented. Someone brings a riff or chord progression to the group and we work that over until we have a few sections and appropriate parts for everyone, but everyone writes for everyone else. This is all very dialogue-driven as opposed to jam-driven. We may jam out riffs at the beginning of the process, but past a certain point it's not helpful for refining ideas. And I wouldn't say it's hard to decide what sounds good and when a song is done, per se. But because the process is so democratic it's more a matter of consensus building than than having specific criteria for when a song is "done." There's usually a certain point where something clicks and everyone is like "YES" and we know any changes are going to be very minor polishes and flourishes. But sometimes songs take very drastic turns when one or two people are really unhappy with the way a song is taking shape. By the end we're guaranteed everyone is happy and proud of what we're playing.

HH:: Chicago is a huge music community, and your quirky style of pop isn't necessarily the sound most people think of when they think of Chicago. How much does the city influence your work, and has it been hard to harness local support?
Colin:: The Chicago music scene is so diverse and cross-pollinating that it's hard describe the "Chicago sound" outside of the simplistic "blues" or "jazz" genres. So while we play quirky pop music we feel like we fit nicely into the Chicago musical spectrum. If this town can create and support artists as diverse as Kanye West, Fall Out Boy, Tortoise, Bobby Conn, Wax Trax! Records, and Ken Vandermark, we like to think there's room for our sound. Sometimes it does feel like we're in this little "hard to classify" limbo; we're not pop enough to be just pop, or edgy or experimental or whatever. We make the music we want to make, and it meanders around a bunch of different genres, so that makes us quirky. But it hasn't been hard to get support. At heart we're a pop band and people respond to that. We have a really supportive fan base and continue to have a tons of support from many local radio stations, notable Loyola's WLUW. As for how much the city influences our work, it's impossible to be unaffected by all the sounds of Chicago. All the other great local bands we play with force us to play at the top of our game and constantly strive to get better live and make the next song we write be the best thing we've ever done. All the bigger Chicago bands and national acts that come through town inspire us and push us to incorporate new sounds into our repertoire. The city itself with its crazy politics, towering buildings, and constant buzz of activity invigorates and drains us at the same time, and you can't help but let that influence you both consciously and unconsciously.

HH:: You've shared the stage with some fantastic artists and bands that get a lot of hype from music bloggers. How much have music blogs and the Internet changed the music business and how do you as a smaller band feel about "fans" downloading your music. Is it hard to exist in a community that tends to move on as soon as the next big thing comes along?
Colin:: Music blogs have really been a boon. We're had people from all over the world (France, Germany, Italy, China, etc.) looking at our website and listening to our music because of sites like 3Hive and ZuneInsider. Some of that translates directly into sales, which is great because all that money goes to us at this point since we self-produced our album and have done everything ourselves so far. But even just knowing that so many people all over the nation, all over the world are listening to and getting excited by our music -- it's really invigorating. And we try to offer as much as we can to our fans. Our first EP sold out of physical copies, so we've made that available in its entirety on our website. As a band we have no official position on illegal downloading (though I guarantee each member of the band has some pretty strong feelings), but legally we do offer our music through a number of on-line retailers. CDBaby in particular has sold a lot of CDs for us, which is awesome. And while we've gotten some really nice press from some bloggers, we don't really feel like we've hit the "next big thing" stage. So in a sense we're looking forward to being moved on from, since that would imply we were the "next big thing" at least for a few minutes. Can we schedule that? How's "as soon as possible" for you?

HH:: Your songs are obviously influenced by a lot of different styles of music and musicians. Given the chance, who would you guys love to share the stage with?
Colin:: We've already played with one of my personal pop heroes, Sloan. So that was a dream come true for at least a few of us in the band. And Matt and EL were both super stoked to open for The Delgados. However, I'm hard-pressed to come up with even one band that everyone in Canasta would be ecstatic to play with. All our tastes are so diverse, but between the six of us I think the majority of us would be really excited to play with My Morning Jacket, Sufjan Stevens, The Flaming Lips... There's more of course. John and I would be out of our heads to play with Tortoise. Most of us would kill to open for Belle and Sebastian, The Shins, Calexico, Sonic Youth, Andrew Bird... All right, now you got me all excited. Where do we sign up?

HH:: The band has undergone some major changes with Brendan joining the band. What's up next for the new line-up?
Colin:: Well we just started song-writing with Brendan so we're working on material for our next album. We're also trying to get our live set in order with Brendan. His Canasta debut is November 5th at Empty Bottle when we'll open for Voxtrot. Outside of that we're trying to put together a fall or winter tour. As a small band it's basically impossible to put together a tour that will make you money all by yourself. So we're trying to ride the coattails of some larger bands and see if we can tour with them for a few days here or there. We were hoping for a summer tour but between all our personal schedules (two people in the band got married over the summer) and finding a new guitarist we weren't able to put all our resources behind getting that to happen. That's the one bad thing about the whole DIY thing we're doing. Each person is basically mission-critical, so when people are preparing weddings or gone on honeymoons and so on, it really takes the wind out of the Canasta sails. But we're back to full strength and moving full-steam ahead.

HH:: One last question – if you had the chance to recommend anything (things in your city, music, books, films) to one of your fans, what would you suggest?
Colin:: The Chicago Cultural Center has free concerts and events going on all time. It's a great resource. And Facets Multimedia is the best video store in the city, chock full of obscure and hard-to-find movies. And you'll find a number of us in the band are readers, with very eclectic tastes. A few of the books I know we've loved over the years are Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat by Oliver Sacks, and just in time for Halloween, there's House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. Musically there's just too much to cover but we'd say start with exploring some of the the local bands. Chicago's got some amazing talent that's right under your nose, you just have to find it.

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