Q&A: Joshua Van Tassel

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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.

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.

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.

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?

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 in to Halifax, I’d say ‘I’m going to give you $25.99!’ [Laughs] And they’d have to pick up whatever had just come out and bring it back for me.

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?

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.

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?

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.

What are you working on currently?

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.

What is the focus of the project?

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.

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?

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.

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

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.

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?

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.’

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