One of the first sentences I was paid to write, almost 30 years ago, was one that kicked off a profile and interview with legendary guitarist and vocalist John Hammond, who was coming to town that week.
In it — and please keep in mind the acute self-awareness of how fucking hackneyed a lede it was — there was a comparison of the careers of Picasso and Hammond, noting while the painter’s Blue Period lasted only four years, the contemporary American musician’s had been going for more than 30.
Yeah. Nailed it.
Anyhoo, that’s a roundabout and possibly confusing way of segueing into an interview with former Calgarian, auditory avant-artist and Polaris Prize-listed Yves Jarvis and his connection to one of his biggest influences, David Bowie.
There are few musicians who’ve had more periods (settle down) than the late, great Bowie. To name but a few of his many personas: The Mod, Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, The Experimentalist and The Elder Statesman, who wrote his own eulogy so beautifully, eloquently.
He was a … no, he was THE rock chameleon. Meaning, whatever he did, whichever era he was in, whatever colours he dabbed his brush in, he could change and adapt, but he was never not David Bowie.
Which brings us to Jarvis
Down in L.A., hanging with some Canadian expat pals, Jarvis is pontificating on the fact he’s entering, possibly, his Ziggy period.
“Every three records there’s a good breakthrough,” he says, focussing on his current incarnation and not the work he did under the moniker UN Blonde or local band Faux Fur years ago.
“I feel like with this record I’ve carved out something that I think could be sustainable, too, something that doesn’t need to be …”
He pauses. “You know I love Ween, I’m obsessed with Ween, but I don’t necessarily want to do that, I don’t necessarily want to sound like a completely different artist every record — as much as I love Ween.
“I do feel like — my biggest beacon is Bowie. I feel like Bowie, while changing things from record to record, was always pretty central … That’s an important thing for me, too, to not get lost in trying to be all over the place.”
Bringing us to Jarvis’s latest release The Zug, which saw its release mid May on groundbreaking local label Flemish Eye (Chad VanGaalen, Women, Braids) and indie powerhouse Anti- (Neko Case, Daniel Lanois, Deafheaven, Nick Cave, The Black Keys).
It’s a psych-folk exploration of out there and inside. Alice through the looking glass.
The album takes its name from an interview with German jazz pianist and composer Eric Lewis (a.k.a. ELEW) — who Jarvis calls “a phenomenon on the piano”— and a chess term the composer used in an interview: “zugzwang.” For the non-Germanic literalists among us it means “a compulsion to move,” or in ELEW’s and other’s reading, when “you’re forced to make a disadvantageous move.”
To make things even more fitting of the album and narrative, Zug is also an actual town in Sweden — a specific location, a specific place you’re in.
And for Jarvis, it’s the perfect name to describe what he was attempting to do, where he was trying to go with this album.
“This kind of, uh, dream-like music was something I felt detached from, something I felt like a passenger in. I felt like a passenger in the kind of music that I’ve made in the last couple of records,” the perennial, Polaris Music Prize-longlisted artist says.
“The Zug feels very much like a more embodied sound.”
Like his previous outings, the collection of new tunes features a cornucopia of influences and sonic directions (electronica, bedsit-folk, pop, Brit-pop, ambient, funk, soul, disco, etc.), all written and recorded by the artist himself.
According to Jarvis, it was all “improvised one track at a time,” over the course of six to eight months. As opposed to likening it to freeform jazz, he compares it to freestyle rap.
“I guess it could better be called ‘spontaneous composition,’ and it’s something like improv in the acting world where the goal is to have usable material … or rather concise material and pithy — and it’s concise but it’s improvised,” the artist says.
“So that’s what I’m always going for in my improv: it’s not to jam and it’s not to have something that’s quite open.”
He approached The Zug in a manner that was more “one-to-one … and personal,” which he considers a departure from where his last three efforts — Good Will Come to You (2016), The Same but by Different Means (2019), and Sundry Rock Song Stock (2020) — placed him in.
“The guiding principle was really to have the extract of what the material is be one to one of who I am,” he says. “And while that’s always been a goal of sorts in a kind of diary way, I really wanted to explicitly have things that represent my personality.”
It’s what “solidified that new direction” he’s embarked on, or rather the approach to get him there.
For The Zug, and, he thinks, moving forward, that was “recurring imagery that is being used to guide the sound.”
“For example, with this one I was really obsessed with jets, aircraft, so I was … trying to depict that power and that drive, just a colossal force — trying to always have that as the imagery, the guiding imagery.”
That came from him, prior to recording the album, sub-letting a condo in Toronto, where planes from the annual air show flew directly over the patio in an incredibly loud and magnificent manner.
“I was just awestruck by the magnitude of the sound of the jet just tearing through the atmosphere. It was just completely jaw-dropping,” he says, noting, “it was just inspiring.” (Check out the album cover)
Pair that with the fact he was also “wanting to make something that was more stylistically who I am” as well as his countering the perception of those who perceived him to be a pretty laidback soul, and you get The Zug.
Lucky for locals — Jarvis performs at this year’s East Town Get Down festival on International Avenue May 28 — he’ll be testing material from the album, which, he says, he always envisioned performing with a band.
Taking the material on the road, including to his old stomping grounds, he’s looking forward to “changing everything, every night.”
“But the energy of the tracks I feel are so crystallized … the core of the track is such a robust and bold thing, that no matter what direction it goes, in I feel, at least I hope, it can translate,” he says.
“I definitely want to perform the record, I definitely want to perform this record more than I’ve ever wanted to perform another record.”
Yves Jarvis’s new album The Zug is available May 13. He performs May 28 as part of the East Town Get Down festival on International Avenue.