Interview with NMC Artist in Residence Joshua Van Tassel

November 16, 2016


(From right to left): Joshua Van Tassel and James Bunton. The duo will collaborate on a project, called “Impossible Instruments,” as part of their artist residency with NMC. 

Joshua Van Tassel is something of a musical chameleon. Born in rural Nova Scotia, the now Toronto-based drummer, producer, and composer has toured with artists as diverse as Doug Paisley, Great Lake Swimmers, David Myles, Royal Wood, Justin Rutledge, Ronley Teper, Selina Martin, Valery Gore, and others.

As a solo artist, Van Tassel has become widely known for his highly sophisticated productions, which flow seamlessly between acoustic and electronic traditions. His distinct instrumental style highlights the beauty in ambient noise, something Van Tassel actively collects during his waking life and then juxtaposes with modern technology to create brand new sounds.

Sound, in all of its colours and complexities, is really what interests Van Tassel. It’s also the objective of his current musical undertaking, “Impossible Instruments.” The project, which is a collaboration with Toronto sound designer James Bunton, will see the duo taking over the NMC headquarters, November 21-30, to explore more than 450 years of music technology with the goal of remixing it in a way that’s never been heard before.

Juliette Jagger: You’ve studied music across Canada but you’re originally from rural Nova Scotia. Talk a bit about growing up out East and about in what way that shaped you as an artist.

Joshua Van Tassel: Well, I grew up in a pretty small community called West LaHave, which is about an hour-and-a-half from Halifax in an area known as the South Shore of Nova Scotia. It’s a really beautiful place right on the water so I think I had a pretty healthy musical environment to grow up in.

Mom and Dad don’t play any instruments but were always super big fans of music and so there was always music on around the house. I remember as a kid and on Sundays my dad would usually have on his big ’70s-style headphones with this long coily cable running to the stereo. That’s how my sisters and I knew we couldn’t run around or jump on things as kids tend to do––it was music time and that was his time to listen to records.

Looking back on it now, I think that early experience sort of taught me to have a certain respect for the practice of listening to music. There is something to this idea that you need to give music attention, you know? I mean it’s great to have it on, and it does perform a function in an environmental context, but to actually sit down and listen to music and focus on it, I think that was an important thing for me to learn at a young age, and that really shaped my relationship with music and certainly with sound.

JJ: I think that a lot of musicians probably have their parents or even older siblings to thank for providing them with that early musical base. Growing up in a small town though, was it difficult to come by new music?

JVT: Yeah, not being in a city centre there wasn’t a ton of availability for me in terms of getting new music, especially pre-Internet. There were definitely times when, if anyone I knew was going into Halifax, I’d say ‘I’m going to give you $25.99!’ [Laughs] And they’d have to pickup whatever had just come out and bring it back for me.

JJ: It’s funny because that excitement and anticipation that came along with being able to get your hands on a brand new record still feels palpable today even by memory, doesn’t it?

JVT: Oh yeah! I think that is part of the reason I still purchase vinyl and CDs or just physical copies in general. There’s still that little thrill that comes along with it like, ‘Okay, today’s the day and if I don’t get there by noon, I might not get it.’ I know that there are technically a million other ways that I can still listen to that record but I want to get it and sit with the whole thing. I want to read the liner notes obsessively and I want to just sit down and experience the thing. I think I’m probably still chasing some of that. [Laughs]

It really is interesting how, in those formative years, the possibility of disappointment in terms of not being able to get the music totally heightens the experience. I think that’s a bit different today.

I will say that when I look back on my early influences it gets pretty narrow because again it was about what was available to me. Now we are seeing a whole new generation of music makers who are looking at their computers as full on viable, legitimate instruments and they have no walls in terms of saying, ‘That’s country music’ or ‘That’s classical’––they’re all just influences to be had. It’s a whole new thing and it’s really very exciting, so I think that there is definitely a lot of good in the accessibility of music as well.

JJ: I think being an artist of any kind in this day and age comes with a particularly unique set of challenges, perhaps the most obvious being this compulsion that so many feel to have to constantly produce content. That sort of pressure can really detract from the creative process. Do you ever feel that pressure as a songwriter and producer and how do you stay plugged into your craft?

JVT: I think it operates a little differently for me within the instrumental world, and I talk a lot about that with the other songwriters I work with. I get a lot of freedom, because instrumental music and the musical world I exist in aren’t necessarily super popular. I am lucky in that I do have people who are interested in listening to my music and that’s really cool, but my label isn’t after me for a single like, ‘Hey summer’s coming up, it’s a good time to have car song.’ [Laughs.] Thankfully, I don’t really deal with that.

That said, I do put a lot of pressure on myself to make time to create my own music, because it’s then that I learn the most.

Even though I make my living as a drummer, I’ve always wanted to be more than that, especially for some of the people I work with. I wanted to be a producer and I wanted to learn more about engineering, but I also realized pretty early on that the only way someone was going to give me a chance to do that was if I created something of my own, so I did.

For me, it was a full on chicken and egg thing in that I thought, ‘Okay, I have to do something so I’ll do my own record and just make that happen.’ I just thought that if I kept doing that, and eventually people heard it and liked it I’d do something with someone else and that it would blossom from there. Luckily, it has.

I think that putting that pressure on myself to stay plugged into my craft, as you said, makes me better at all of those things. Plus it gives me a chance to experiment with weird concepts that I can’t necessarily try on someone else’s record.

JJ: What are you working on currently?

JVT: Right now, I’m essentially putting out a book and an album. We’re looking to do about a 50-page short story with nine chapters, and then there will be a piece of music that accompanies each chapter.

JJ: What is the focus of the project?

JVT: Giant squid. [Laughs] I guess about two years ago now I got pretty interested in them––they’re just such a total mystery for something that is so large. The thing is, we don’t really know anything about them and we can’t seem to find them either. Every 15-20 years one will wash up on the shore somewhere, but we’re talking a 30-40-foot creature here. We still don’t really know what they feed on, where they live, or how many of them there are out in the ocean. That just seems so insane to me.

One of my oldest friends is actually a marine biologist and so we’ve talked about this idea that perhaps they just aren’t from this planet. That’s sort of how this whole story, which I have been working on with another writer friend of mine, came about.

The project itself is called, “Crossworlds,” and it should be out fall/winter of 2017. We’ve actually been in sessions for it the past couple of weeks, and that’s been really great. I’m trying to give it a bit more of a larger sound than I have in the past, so I’ve been working with an orchestrator on string arrangements in order to achieve that.

It’s going to take a little while but we’re getting there.

JJ: Your work has been described as “electro-acoustic,” which is almost contradictory in a way. Listening to any of your past albums, that’s also a fairly poignant description. You’ve found a way to blend elements of the folk tradition with things like drum machines, melodic synths, and ambient sounds to create these incredibly cinematic soundscapes. Is it then fair to say that this next album will be an extension of that?

JVT: Definitely. With this album, I knew that I wanted to take the scope of all of my previous works and just broaden the whole thing.

There is this really amazing studio here in Toronto called Union Sound and it’s just this big beautiful-sounding classic room. I was lucky enough to be able to get some funding to take a group of people in there, and so in thinking about the size and scope of this creature that the whole project sort of revolves around, I knew that I wanted to have a bigger sound to go with it.

Having written all of the themes and the music before going into the studio we essentially had everyone come in and play live and in unison. Basically we had pedal steel, electric guitar, keyboards, and bass, and they were all in the room together. There were no close mics and there was no isolation––nothing that gave any one instrument definition. It’s almost as if I’m doing this record backwards, in a way, because normally people go in and do drums and bass as bed tracks and then go from there. I’m going in with this story and all of its themes, and then asking people to help me build soundscapes around them.

JJ: You’re no stranger to collaborative efforts but this one seems particularly inclusive.

JVT: Yeah, I’ve collaborated with many musicians and songwriters but this is one of the first times I’ve ever been able to bring other people in this early in the process. Plus, I know it’s working when my friends, who are these really incredible proficient musicians, look confused and aren’t quite sure what sound they’re even making. [Laughs] It’s just been really cool to get inside the process of how to make a particular sound, and there are definitely some very cool unusual sounds on this record.

JJ: What made you feel as though this project lent itself to both a book and an album, and that they had to be complimentary in some way?

JVT: Again, the idea really came from thinking about how we experience music in a physical way, which is something I really love. I’m also an avid reader, so this project was not only a cool way for me to take all of the things I like and put them into one, but also present them in a tangible way instead of just being like, ‘Here’s a digital download.’ It’s music that actually has a function––its function is to enhance the story and the story’s function is to enhance the music.

In an ideal world, I’d love people to be able to sit down with headphones and read. That way, they can see the illustrations and really be in that world. Even if it’s for 45-minutes or whatever, it’s almost like, ‘Here’s this little thing that you can take. Give yourself some time off and just be fully immersed in your imagination.’

JJ: Talk a bit about the importance of community in music, particularly at home here in Canada.

JVT: I think it’s hard here in Canada because there isn’t a whole lot of money; even the big acts that everybody knows aren’t making that much. I definitely feel very lucky, because I am working with a lot of different people who are busy and doing well, but everybody kind of still has to work and they’re working really hard all the time.

I think the community thing is really very important, especially for me as somebody who came here and didn’t know anybody. I realized almost right away that the only way I was going to be able to make something work was by just getting to know people, and being open to meeting musicians from all sorts of different backgrounds and genres.

Today, all of the work I have comes from being a part of that community, working with the same people, and becoming friends with all of them. Beyond that as a musician, I think you just have to be willing to be a nice, normal, human being because if you’re an asshole it’s just not going to work.

Again, I’m really very lucky to be surrounded by such an incredible group of people who are all pretty dedicated to making interesting music. What’s happening now is that everyone is starting to do these weird side projects and we’re all just trading services, you know? I think that’s the healthiest way to do it. It enables us to do the things we want to do at the level we want to do them at because we’re all helping each other get to that place.

JJ: Your current project, “Impossible Instruments,” is a collaboration with Toronto sound designer James Bunton. Talk a bit about the project.

JVT: James and I are freaking out about coming to NMC. You guys are like the instrument Internet, in that you have 450 years of musical innovation housed in this one place, and we’re going to get the chance to search it all.

We’ve been talking a lot about what we want to do during our time there, and I think it’s going to hinge on taking instruments from totally different time periods that would never typically exist together, and creating these completely new sounds. That’s really the idea of “Impossible Instruments.”

I mean, just imagine taking one note from Elton John’s piano, running it through some weird filter, taking that output and sending it to a speaker before playing the whole thing into the body of a harpsichord from the 1800s.

For us, we want to take things a step beyond just seeing all of these instruments together and actually hear them together. I have no idea what it’s going to sound like––I’m sure some of it will be totally useless. But, I also know that if I start combining stuff, we’re going to get all of these cool new sounds we haven’t heard before, and that has the potential to be really mind-expanding.

JJ: Talk a bit about why the Artist In Residence program is so important for Canadian musicians, and what music lovers can expect out of your residency, November 21-30.

JVT: It’s interesting to me to explore things that couldn’t exist together at the same time until now, so I think there’s definitely going to be a lot of experimenting and a lot of us just trying to figure out what the most unlikely combination of instruments would be.

I think what will also be interesting is to then build these sample libraries and have James and I actually play them––to take them and try and incorporate them into composition we’d actually make. Once we have these new sounds it’ll be like we’re combining them again and finding out how they work in context with the sounds we’ve already built.

I have a feeling that it is going to make for this really unique almost exotic sounding pallet of colours for us to actually use to compose with.

It’s pretty exciting and the count down is definitely on for us. Some days I feel like this evangelical preacher because I’ve just been screaming, telling everyone, ‘You have to go to NMC! You have to learn about this place!’ It’s an absolutely unique opportunity for us and for any artist out there.

JJ: What motivates you as an artist?

JVT: I think what motivates me is the idea that there are so many sounds in the world and all of them can be heard and shaped in so many different ways. I find that to be such an unlimited creative well to draw from. There are just so many sounds and so many natural rhythms and unnatural rhythms that can be formed into some kind of listenable music. It’s really just become a continuous challenge to push myself not only to hear in different ways, but to create something palatable as well.

JJ: As music lovers, I think we all have certain records that we associate with specific times in our lives. Talk about a record that is close to your heart and why.

JVT: Radiohead’s OK Computer is definitely one of them. I just hadn’t really heard sounds like that before. I remember when it first came out, I didn’t understand it and I didn’t know if I loved it or I hated it––that’s actually a really common thing with me. Now I can recognize that when I put on a record I don’t understand, but am compelled to continue listening to it, that’s when I usually know it’s going to be a bit of a lifelong companion.

Bijork’s Vespertine is arguably another one. That came out when I had first made the move to Toronto. I was actually living in a basement in Hamilton at the time, and there was no furniture and no bed. I didn’t know anyone and I didn’t know how far Hamilton was from Toronto either, so at that moment it felt like the wrong decision in every way. I remember getting the album and it was just so beautiful, so strange, and so overwhelmingly emotional that I honestly thought I should quit music. It really did feel like someone had hit the pinnacle of everything that I liked and found good about music and so I just thought, ‘I’m never going to make anything even remotely on the spectrum of this record. [Laughs]

I still love it though, and I take it out maybe every six months or so. I guess it just really caught me off guard at a vulnerable time in my life and shook things up for me in a good way. The more I learn about production and about making music, the more I appreciate that album because it’ll never sound dated. It’s a beautiful combination of electronics, orchestral elements, choir, and just really emotional raw vocals. It’s such an honest record and I think that was what made it so special––it was no holds barred and wasn’t trying to be on the radio.

It’s funny but I think for me personally, it’s always been the records on which I hear something I didn’t know you were allowed to do. I remember my dad playing Jimi Hendrix for me for the first time and just saying, ‘I don’t understand! What is he doing? Is that a guitar? I don’t get it.’ I just didn’t think that was something you could do with those instruments. I don’t know where this permission thing came from in music for me, but it’s always been those albums that are defiant and not in a strictly political way, the ones that just seem to defy all of the rules, that have really shaped what I’m trying to do at this time in my life.

About the Author

Juliette Jagger

Juliette Jagger is a Canadian music journalist. Her byline has appeared in such media outlets as The Huffington Post, Noisey, and This Week In Palestine. She currently is an editor here at Amplify, and is the creator of NMC’s ongoing interview series Origin Stories, which uncovers the stories behind hit songs. She is also associate editor of US-based outlet CelebrityAccess.

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