Accordion revolution


Geoff Berner

It seems that the rest of North America is starting to wise up to the fact that, when it comes to loving accordions, we’ve been right all along. While the rest of the West was busy lumping accordion and goofy people in lederhosen in the same category, Newfoundland musicians weren’t paying too much attention, and just carried on squeezing out dance music.

Here, T-shirts have long predicted a great accordion uprising, Harry Hibbs’ At The Caribou Club can be found in most record collections, and on August 6, 2005, the Guinness World Record for most accordionists playing a tune together was set in Bannerman Park—at 989 players.

Two popular indie music acts from upalong will be rolling into town in the next while, with accordions in tow.

Elling Lien asks Felicity Hamer (of The United Steelworkers of Montreal) and singer-songwriter Geoff Berner what the big idea is.

GEOFF BERNER
is Vancouver, BC musician who plays what could be described as klezmer punk folk dance. Or something. You can drink to it, think to it, and dance to it. He’s stopping here as part of a cross-country tour in support of his new album, “Klezmer Mongrels”, which is blocked with hilarious, wise, and raucous tunes like “Half German Girlfriend” and a song advising people not to put tobacco in the joints you offer him after the show. He’s written a book called How to be an Accordion Player, and he’s hardcore. Just look at his picture up there.

You’re coming to St. John’s again!
Yes, we’re very excited about coming to St. John’s. It’ll be the last show on this leg of the tour, and then we have a day off there, so we’ll be able to hang out on Sunday. Saturday will be a kind of celebratory blow-out, so it’ll be a big deal, and it seems like St. John’s is the place to do that. …It’s fun there.

Frankly, you’re exotic. You’re difficult to get to, and most Canadian musicians don’t make it there as part of the tour, because of the expense and distance and that kind of thing, so it would seem like a terrible shame to just go play a show and then load out. It would be pathetic.

Yes, but one thing that you didn’t mention is we have a deep, profound, long-standing respect for accordion players here.
I am familiar with that, and I have a deep respect for that deep respect. It’s an indicator of Newfoundland’s more-European style culture. The people in France and Ireland and Scandinavia and Germany, they never had that period where they all hated the accordion, and it sounds like Newfoundland didn’t either.

So you think there was a period in the rest of Canada where people hated the accordion?
In mainstream North American culture, there definitely was a time where people hated the accordion. Have you ever read the book Accordion Crimes, by Annie Proulx?

No I haven’t.
It’s a bunch of linked short stories about all the different cultures that came to North America playing the accordion. This one accordion travels between them, and it shows how people, when they melted into the melting pot of North American culture—especially American culture—they distained their original culture. They wanted to assimilate into the hip, modern, WASPy, Wonderbread culture, and the accordion was something their grandpa did that they wanted to forget. But, for some reason, I don’t think Newfoundland really went through that period of seperation between the generations, or something, like where “I don’t even want to know what my grandpa was into, because that was boring.” I don’t think that Newfoundland was touched by the dead hand of cultural assimilation in the same way.

Was there ever that kind of feeling inside you about accordions?
Not particularly. I was into punky, rocky music when I was a kid, and so I embraced the accordion partly just because regular people seemed to hate it. From a punk rock perspective, that’s a good sign. If everybody else hates it, then it’s definitely worth a look.

Was there a moment when you were younger when you heard an accordion and said, “yeah, I want that”?
Well, yes, about the same year I started listening to punk music, I discovered Tom Waits and the Pogues—pretty much in the same month, I guess—and there’s no question that they made the accordion pretty cool.

What was it about the accordion that interested you?
Well, I was a piano player, and I wanted to tour and busk, and I never was attracted to synthesizers and stuff like that. The accordion was an organic instrument that was portable, which is what really got me started playing it. Then it kind of took over my brain, once I picked it up. It’s a great singer-songwriter instrument, because you’ve got the bass in your left hand, and you’ve got the chords in your right, and you can actually get a lot more going on with it than a guitar as an accompaniment. And these days, there are a lot of people using it that way. Wendy MacNeill, Jason Webley, Anna Bon-Bon… You could definitely put on a festival of accordion singer-songwriters.

Anything you’d like to say about the show?
I’d really just like to emphasize that this music we’ll be playing is drunken dancing music. For us, the show will be a fun, drunk party, and I hope that the audience feels the same way.

Life is about accordions, drinking, and dancing.
Those are the good parts.

Geoff Berner will play at The Ship on Saturday, February 21 along with the Pathological Lovers. Tickets are $7 at the door. www.geoffberner.com


Photo by Jen Ford.

FELICITY HAMER of THE UNITED STEELWORKERS OF MONTREAL
This band has just released a new album Three on the Tree, bringing another dark-roast blend of upbeat music to dance and cry to. Some might call it country, blues, or bluegrass, but they’d be missing the point—which is that this is a six-member band that will be shaking the walls at CBTGs for three nights in a row. You will know Felicity by her raspy, powerful singing voice (she says she was taught to sing by bartenders) and her beautiful Hohner accordion—which she claims she bought for just 75 dollars on eBay.

So I mentioned before that Geoff Berner is coming to town a week after you guys, and he’s the indie accordion king, so I wanted to talk to you both about accordions.
We played a show with him a couple of years ago! And that was when I was just learning to play. One of our bandmates had just moved to Europe, and he was the only one who played accordion. Looking around at the band, I was the only one who wasn’t holding an instrument, so they passed it over to me. So that night I went over to Geoff and said, “hey, look! I’m trying to learn to accordion!” And he gave me a copy of How to be an Accordion Player, which is hilarious. There are full chapters on choosing the colour of your accordion, and the importance of the shininess. He goes off on these great historical tangents.

When did you happen upon playing the accordion? It was seriously just handed to you?
Yeah, I’ve since gotten my own accordion, because the one that was handed to me was in pretty rough shape. An ex-bandmate of ours, Sean Buymore—who is from Newfoundland, actually—he decided to move to Berlin, and he was the only one who played accordion in the band, so seeing as how I was the only one not playing an instrument at the time, it fell on me to learn his parts and create new parts for the songs. I have to admit, I don’t play very much accordion on the album, but it’s just enough so that we can put the accordion on our logo. [laugh]

It really is a beautiful instrument.
It is! It is. I’m just really bad about making the time to practice, but now that we’re going to be on the road, playing a million shows in a row, I will be actually playing the accordion every day, so perhaps I’ll actually advance. I definitely remember being very intimidated to play in front of Geoff Berner. I remember hoping he would go out for a cigarette during those songs. [laugh] But he didn’t say anything mean.

You guys are often described as folk-punk-country, but is there anything punk about accordion?
Because I’m playing it! [laugh] I bring the punk to the accordion.

We have a really hard time categorizing ourselves, because we don’t fall into the country niche, and we don’t even really fall into the alt-country niche. We don’t really fall into punk, or bluegrass, or any of that stuff, but we have all the elements. So we’re alt-country-cow-punk-grass-folk with some jazzy undertones and a little bit of polka.

The polka, that’s the accordion part maybe?
That’s just when I play the buttons on the left… oom pa pa, oom pa pa… [laugh] That’s the polka element. On the new album, there’s one song called “Son, Your Daddy was Bad” and that’s my contribution—oom pa pa—the whole way through. It’s very tiring on the left arm though, because I don’t practice very much. I’m sure a week into the tour, it’ll be a piece of cake and I’ll have an overly-developed left arm. Actually, until recently I’ve been doing a lot of waitressing, so maybe my arms will even out!

What do you like about the accordion?
I don’t know. It’s pretty. I consider it the better-looking instrument in the band, so it’s nice to be holding it. I never really took to any stringed instruments, and I did a little bit of keyboard when I was young, so a lot of the positions for the chords come naturally to me. As a vocalist, it’s a natural instrument, because it’s easy, even as someone who can’t read music, it’s easier for me to figure out my parts because it’s just like singing.

So you find it more intuitive?
Yeah, it feels intuitive. And also, it’s quite high, pitch-wise, which is great because it’s quite close to my voice. When I’m in a band, I’m used to being up in that range, so with this instrument it’s familiar territory. But mostly because it’s very pretty. [laugh]

The United Steelworkers of Montreal will be at CBTGs on Friday, February 13 (with Black Molly), Saturday, February 14 (with the Angelshakes) and Sunday, February 15 (with Jack Betty and His Bluegrass Boys). 10pm.

2 comments

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31 May 2013

  1. Geoff · May 31, 2013

    Jigger are not playing with Geoff Berner

  2. The Scope · May 31, 2013

    Corrected. It was the information we received from The Ship.