SameDiff BNL

The Artists Behind The Rock Stars

By FINBARR O'REILLY, National Post, April 10th 2000.

Some musicians are happy to subsidize 'their own thing' by playing second fiddle to big-name acts.

It's in a place like this — a small bar with a low ceiling criss-crossed with water pipes, sightlines obscured by pillars and barely enough room for the serving staff to slip in and out of the bar area — that the real art of music is practisedon any given night, even a Thursday.

It takes maybe 100 people to fill the place, and on this particular night it's packed. Most of the crowd at Toronto's C'est What? bar is part of an insiders music scene that has little to do with the corporate world of record label mergers and overgroomed publicists. Except perhaps for a few celebrities in the room. Barenaked Ladies frontman Ed Robertson is present, but he's nowhere near the stage. He's at the bar ordering drinks for himself and his wife before becoming another member of the crowd trying to scout a decent vantage point from which to catch the show. He doesn't get a seat and stands at the back.

Onstage are a bunch of guys you may never have heard of, but they're important players nonetheless: Toronto percussionist Andy Stochansky was Ani DiFranco's drummer for seven years, and a freaky-looking dude in a gold suit (with silver make-up covering his face and bald head) is actually Barenaked Ladies drummer Tyler Stewart, a.k.a. MC Squared. Then, in addition to a number of backup performers, there's the man in charge of the evening, long-time Toronto guitarist Kurt Swinghammer, who is showcasing his latest solo album, Vostok 6. Most recently, Swinghammer provided the guitar tracks on DiFranco's latest album, To the Teeth. Last week, he opened for her in Banff, Edmonton and Vancouver.

Swinghammer and Stochansky are part of an extensive tribe of musicians who provide support for major acts — either in the studio or on tour or both — and then use the money they make to do their own projects. (Stewart is a guest on this night.) Aside from Swinghammer and Stochansky (whose second solo album, Radio Fusebox, just won a Juno for cover design), other such artists include Andy and Jim Creegan (one a former member of the Barenaked Ladies, the other the band's current upright bass player), currently on tour in support of their Brothers Creegan album, Trunks.

Yet another Barenaked Lady, Kevin Hearn, does his own albums. Russ Broom from Jann Arden's band also does his own stuff, as does Sarah McLachlan's guitarist, Sean Ashby. The Rheostatics' Donn Kerr recently released a children's album, while Ontario singer Emm Gryner has seen her solo career get a boost from recording and touring with David Bowie in recent months. (Incidentally, Toronto guitarist Craig Ross — who is not doing solo work — has been Lenny Kravitz's main sidekick for years.)

Also, on the same stage at C'est What? the night before Swinghammer's gig, another Toronto guitarist, Kevin Breit, was flogging his dizzying talent, which is more often on display across town on Monday nights at the Orbit Room (co-owned by Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson) as well as on the albums of leading jazz singer Cassandra Wilson. All these musicians are a bit like the legions of actors who would "rather be directing."

"Most musicians do have material in them," says Swinghammer. "Everybody I know — guitarists, drummers, bass players — everyone wants to do their solo album. It kind of validates your existence as an artist, but often, yeah, the economic reality is that you can't support that. So most people make their living somehow and a really good guitarist or drummer hooks up with someone and they do their little side projects."

Breit, who often tours with Wilson (and has performed with her on Jay Leno and David Letterman), has his own record label, Poverty Playlist. He presses about 500 copies of each of his musical ramblings, which he loosely calls albums. They are somewhat esoteric, but Breit is a master admired by Toronto musicians, including Swinghammer, who talks about Breit with the same reverence with which young musicians watch Swinghammer when he's onstage.

"Like every Toronto guitarist, I'm a huge Kevin Breit fan," says Swinghammer. "He's on another level entirely. I've jammed with him and have played on a few albums with him, but too many times a producer or artist has said, 'We were considering calling you, but we went with Kevin instead.' On one hand it's a compliment to be even mentioned in the same breath, but on the other it's, 'Of course, go with the god of guitars — I'm not worthy.' If I ever want to feel humble I go to see him play."

Breit (whose brothers, Gary and Garth, form two-thirds of the Breit Brothers band and have worked with Amanda Marshall, Kim Mitchell, Dave Wilcox and John Baldry) sees working as a hired gun as a means to an end. (He has also worked with k.d. lang, Holly Cole, Natalie MacMaster and Melanie Doane, among others.) He has released several of his own albums, which are sold at gigs and at local record shops. The money from sales goes toward making the next album.

"That's all I want to do," Breit says. "It would be great to make a living at that, but I know what I'd have to do."

Signing with a major label would inevitably require Breit to incorporate commercial considerations into his artistic concerns — adding vocals, for example, to make the music more marketable.

"It's too much business. I like pretending that I have a label, even though it's a little delusional."

"Musically, it seems like you don't have to be very different to be considered unmarketable," says Swinghammer. "There is clearly a lack of risk-taking [by major labels], but their hands are tied often because they have limited resources that they throw behind the couple of big artists that they do sign."

And with so many major record label mergers, it's almost certain that artists such as Breit, Swinghammer and the rest will soon be running in a busier musical playground. Still, Swinghammer is doing more pure recording than ever before because people are asking him to play on other people's records.

"Vostok 6 has generated some interest among musicians because it's not playing into what's expected of a record, and I guess people are interested in anybody who's taking a chance."

With its elaborate cross-fades and layers, Vostok 6 swirls around the story of Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, who, in 1963, became the first woman in space. She later married fellow cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev, and together they conceived the first child born to parents who had both experienced space travel. If it sounds like an outlandish concept for musical interpretation, it is, but the 42-year-old Swinghammer is unapologetic.

"It was something that hadn't been done, and she's such an amazing figure. It also seemed like such a rich metaphor because there are so many different tangents that you can take off on. There are the obvious metaphors of distance and separation, but the music allowed me to reference things from that period when I was a little kid."

Vostok 6 revisits later musical ground first explored by Brian Eno, the Talking Heads and the Orb — electronica that was never really advanced by the techno beats that emerged in the late '80s and '90s. While making Vostok 6 over several years, Swinghammer's collaborator, Michael Phillip Wojewoda, tracked the Mir space station and tried to grab transmissions whenever it passed over Toronto. (The Mir sound files, however, are mostly downloaded from the NASA Web site.) The concept album (which warns in the liner notes: "Avoid Random shuffle mode when playing this disc") is alive (often satirically) with the conspiratorial whispers and paranoid tones of the Cold War.

Played live, the music is more acoustic than the recorded version and seems to span just about everything from folk guitar finger picking to sequenced synthesizer arpeggios, sometimes sounding like Jimi Hendrix's Little Wing before wandering through a dreamy Pink Floyd-type guitar aside. Swinghammer describes the album as a "switched-on Bacharach hybrid with a slice of cheesy listening, prog-rock time signatures and spy movie chord changes."

After the show, Ed Robertson just calls it "Amazing! Kurt calls it hip pop and that's what it is. It's a collage. We've had art rock and this is art pop."

(Robertson adds that Swinghammer was a "real inspiration" when he and fellow Barenaked Ladies frontman Steven Page were starting out back in the late '80s. "I still do his songs all the time.")

As a multimedia artist, Swinghammer makes his living from music, art projects and the occasional commercial jingle while promoting his work through his Web site ( And, like many independent artists, he holds up Ani DiFranco as the prototype for success. (She has her own label, Righteous Babe Records.)

"She's probably one of the most successful performers because she doesn't have a label taking all her money from her. She has an incredible work ethic — just so prolific. She's also one of the biggest musical models over all right now, especially for younger women. Her influence is profound, even on people like Alanis Morissette."

While DiFranco has managed to break into the mainstream without major label support, most independent artists remain firmly on the fringes of the mainstream musical scene — which suits some of them just fine.

"To shake hands at an industry function — I can't do it, not that I've ever really had the opportunity," says Swinghammer. "I'm a bit more reclusive and I don't go out of my way to seek that sort of thing. It's kind of a classic kind of temperament of artists, being a little bit at odds with the business and self-promotion. Often the artists you hear about a lot are the ones that are squawking about themselves a lot. I find that's just not in my nature."

Still, there are few artists who don't want to be more successful.

"You always want to do better, but with this project I feel more satisfaction than anything I've ever done. I feel like I met my goals. The response from other people like Ed [Robertson] e-mailing from a plane over the Atlantic saying, 'I've just listened to it twice in a row and it's blowing my mind.' That sort of thing from people like Ani and Ron Sexsmith — so many people who are important to me who genuinely appreciate it and let me know — that's the biggest reward.

"There's great reward when you sell things, too, but that would be sort of a novel thing for me. That's never really been part of my life."