The Hustler

Andrew Whiteman of Apostle of Hustle, the subject of this profile in the April 19 Westword, is among the brighter singer-songwriters on the current scene, as the complete text of his interview indicates. Below, read about his first musical influences, a little-known poetry album that didn’t exactly fly off the shelves, his entry into Broken Social Scene, misunderstandings about his love of Latin music, and intriguing information about the sequencing of the latest Apostle disc, National Anthem of Nowhere.

Consider this another chance to do the Hustle:

Westword (Michael Roberts): What’s the first music that you remember making a big impression on you?

Andrew Whiteman: There’s a bunch of early, early ‘70s pop music, because the radio in the ‘70s was so much more eclectic. Obviously, there was payola, but it was still slightly DJ driven. So I remember when my older sister got a copy of Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, that old Elton John thing, and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. And I was reading the lyrics, because I was an early reader, and looking at the pictures, I knew there was something forbidden about that shit. And I was really attracted to it. I must have listened to “Bennie and the Jets” a thousand times a day. I knew there was something I wasn’t allowed to get into. And also, I grew up in this sort of semi-upper-middle-class-white neighborhood, and you’d go to a party, and they’d give you this little loot bag. And this loot bag was good stuff. At one party I went to, I got a little tiny, purple transistor radio – the kind that were really popular in the ‘70s. So that thing, I honestly did that thing where I put it under my bed and I fell asleep to it every single night.

WW: How old were you when this happened?

AW: Maybe seven, maybe six, maybe five. In that zone.

WW: Did you always like listening to a wide variety of things?

AW: Oh, absolutely. If you wanted to, I could recite chapter seven of Alice in Wonderland off of the top of my head to you, because I listened to that record over and over again. I listened to this record we got at the drug store called Great Moments in Hockey. I listened to anything.

WW: Did that taste of eclecticism have a big influence on your music?

AW: Yeah. When I started writing songs, part of me, the first start of feedback, when I first started getting feedback, it was the same kind of feedback I get now, which was, “Wow, it’s all over the map.”

WW: Like that’s a bad thing…

AW: Yeah, like that’s a bad thing. And then I used to be jealous of people like Bono, who write the same song over and over again. It could be argued with someone like Dylan; they write the same song over and over again, and just make their little fine adjustments on it. I used to be very jealous about it… Maybe even more so now, because there’s such a glut of everything, maybe it’s easier for people if you know what you get right away. But that’s how it goes for me.

WW: When did you start writing your own songs?

AW: Kind of late, late in the game. I started writing tunes probably when I was around twenty.

WW: In some ways, are you happy that you waited – so there aren’t a slew of songs you wrote when you were fifteen that you look back on with dismay?

AW: No, I’m a late bloomer for sure. I look on some of my songs from yesterday with dismay.

WW: I understand that you made a solo album during the mid-´90s…

AW: Yeah, I did. It’s called Fear of Zen, and it was a poetry record. That’s my uncanny sense of the market. I was like, ‘I know. I’ll make a poetry record.’ There was this American poet I was just massively influenced by at the time, a guy named Kenneth Pachen, who wrote in the ‘40s and the ‘50s. He did spoken word stuff with Charles Mingus. He was one of the few white people that Mingus gave the okay to. He was an accurate judge of character. So I was very into Pachen and what he was doing, and I was also feeling idealistic about things, so I made a poetry record.

WW: Is the music on it jazz?

AW: No, not at all. Again, there’s like two songs – there’s one that’s kind of like surf Latin and another one that’s more stately Latin. There are a couple more straight-up Canadian folk tune type things on it. There’s one outside weirdo jazz thing on it. It’s the same thing. It goes all over the map. I think that’s up on the Arts & Crafts website. I’ve still got hundreds of copies.

WW: How did you first wind up connecting with the guys in Broken Social Scene?

AW: Because I was dating, I was with Leslie Feist at the time. The first Broken Social Scene record is essentially just Brendan and Kevin, and they were releasing the record and the idea was to put on a little show. Leslie sings one track on that, so they wanted to put on a show. And I knew Brendan a little bit, but I didn’t know Kevin and I didn’t know Justin. But they came over and we jammed out in Leslie’s kitchen, and then we did a show, and the chemistry was sort of instantaneous.

WW: One of the interesting things I found when reading about the origins of Broken Social Scene is that a lot of writers don’t seem terribly sure when various people joined the band. Is that because it’s hard for the members to know when they joined, too?

AW: Exactly. To some degree, it’s who shows up.

WW: So there wasn’t a kind of formal, you’re-in-the-band ceremony?

AW: For me, it was from that first show. That was the first sort of official Broken Social Scene show. I think we even called it Broken Social Scene. It was me and Feist and Kevin and Brendan and Justin, and like I said, it was instantaneous. I think we played four or five Feist songs and we had made up three or four or five other songs on the spot, which was kind of the template for Broken Social Scene shows for the next year and a half. Every time we played a show, we had four or five new songs.

WW: It would seem hard to keep up that pace…

AW: That’s the way it went down. It didn’t seem difficult at the time at all. And after that night, we got another show, and for that show, Charles came in, who had done a lot of stuff with Kevin on other things, and John was in.

WW: Did that approach have a lot to do with how you created songs together?

AW: You know how they say in poetry -- they say form follows function, or form follows content. It’s kind of like that. You can’t separate the music BSS makes from the way it’s not organized, because we’re not organized at all. That’s a chicken and the egg kind of thing. I can’t really figure that one out.

WW: A lot of the articles trace your interest in Latin music to a trip to Cuba that you took. But since you mentioned that there was some Latin music on your poetry album, are all those articles wrong? Were you into Latin music before you ever visited Cuba?

AW: My love of Latin music would probably start at a party back when I was a kid. Parents go away and just full-on raging teenage party, and someone thought it was funny to put on my dad’s records. And I guess he had a Getz-Gilberto record, and someone put that on, and the vibe of the party changed. Instead of just being wasted teenagers, people started dancing, and I remember someone jumped up on the table, because it was all kitschy and funny to listen to “Girl From Ipanema” and samba and those tracks. People were doing the twist on the table, and I really felt that. I felt that a lot.

WW: So by the time you went to Cuba, you were already into the music?

AW: I went to Havana to visit my godmother, but I already was deep in the music, for sure, because I had become addicted to a certain rhythm. Not Brazilian music so much, as more Cuban music specifically. It’s based on a rhythm called the clave, and the clave essentially is like the Bo Diddley beat – one version of it. And traced through New Orleans and through Cuba. So I was obsessed with that rhythm and found out it came from Cuba, I started listening to a lot of Cuban music. And then I went to Havana.

WW: One article I came across talked about you being “wounded” when you got there?

AW: It talked about me being “wounded”? That’s awesome. I had a crazy injury when I was in Havana. I stepped off a curb on, like, my third night there. We were in old Havana. And my foot went through a grate, a sewer grate, and my ankle was really fucked up. And as a result, I didn’t go traveling around. I wasn’t like running down the sunset beach with my lover. It was like, hey, I was hanging out with old people and kids. Interestingly enough, when I went back, I found out that the street that I wiped out on was named after Lazarus, which totally makes sense, since Lazarus is the patron saint of the wounded.

WW: Do you follow current events in Cuba?

AW: No, I don’t. Cuba isn’t this weird little pet thing I have. It’s just part of it. Musically speaking, where my attentions have been lately has been the axis that starts in the south of Spain and then goes to Morocco and northern Mali. That music, that’s what’s interesting to me now.

WW: That’s interesting, because a lot of reviews of the new album seem to portray you as some sort of Cuban-music purist.

AW: Which is so wrong if you listen to the album. I have this weird peeve about people who talk about records and drop these names. Motherfucker says “gypsy” this or “Cuban” that. He wouldn’t know a Cuban song if it came up and bit him on the ass. There’s a bit. I understand. But come on.

WW: I think some writers just love the opportunity to print Spanish words in italics.

AW: [Laughs] Sure, that’s one way of putting it.

WW: Calling you a purist after the first album never made much sense to me, either. Even the title of the album should have given people a clue that you weren’t trying to reproduce anything: Folkloric Feel…

AW: Not Folkloric Steal. I’m not into purism at all.

WW: When you started working on the new album, did you consciously try to come up with material that sounded different from your last CD? Or is that just the way it worked out?

AW: No, no. Really, that’s the way it worked out. From the birth of those songs to the ending of the recording, it was about two years. So those songs are relatively newish, and they just came out that way. I just tried to follow the song.

WW: What was the recording process like?

AW: We did a lot of demos in my bedroom, took those to Montreal. We were in Montreal for three weeks, and when we were in Montreal tracking the bulk of the record, 70 percent of the material was done in terms of melody, arrangement, structure, lyrics. But a good 30 percent was still up for grabs, up in the air.

WW: How did you decide what order to put things in? Are they at all chronological in terms of when you wrote them?

AW: In terms of sequence, sequence is a very sensitive, tricky part of it when you’re putting the record together, unless you decide to have a predestined formula – an acrostic formula or a chronological formula. But that thing, I just had to go talk to the songs, or let them talk to me, and then speak to each other, and think about the pacing of them. When I actually did that part of it, it was really interesting. I hadn’t expected them to start speaking to each other. The songs started speaking to each other, and then talking to me, and telling me that there was an actual sort of thematic thing going on with the record, which I wasn’t conscious of up to that point.

WW: And one song told you it wanted to sit next to another one?

AW: Slightly like that. Saying, like the things in “My Sword Hand’s Anger,” certain images and certain things, saying, “There’s a sailor, there’s an abandoned bedroom, there’s a gun, someone’s getting beaten up. Where would that happen? That feels like a pulp novel.” And the third song, “The Naked and the Alone,” it was chosen because it sounds so dramatic – like, “ooooh, the naked and the alone.” Like pulp fiction. It’s like that Robert Mitchum movie where he’s that deranged preacher, Night of the Hunter. And then that speaks to a song like “Rent Boy Goes Down,” which is inspired by a book called City of Night by John Rechy, which is a total pulp novel. It’s an autobiography, but pulp. So things started talking to each other like that. Like, I was talking about supernatural things on this song, and that really connects with that. It was neat how that happened.

WW: Do you read a lot of pulp novels?

AW: Because pulp comes through more in the movie sense these days. I haven’t read many true pulps, like crime pulps. I’ve read a couple of Raymond Chandler things and seen a lot of the movies more. Maybe I go highbrow pulp, like Jean Genet or shit like that. Burroughs has an element of pulp in it, and I have a good friend in Tokyo, and he sent me a couple of books by this guy Ryu Murakami, and there are some pulp elements in that, too. I like it. I’m downwardly mobile.

WW: Have people been picking up that influence?

AW: You know what’s awesome? I don’t read any reviews. But someone sent me a review of “Sword Hand’s Anger,” and it was from Philadelphia, and this guy tapped in so hard – he’s even talking about the heroine in the song, who he pictures as being Veronia Lake, with like a swath of hair in the middle of her face. He totally felt the noir thing, and I was like, “How did he get that? How did he make that connection?” That came early on, and I was like, “Wow, man, people understood!” And then I read a couple more and I was like, “No, I guess they don’t.” I can’t read what people write. It freaks me out.

WW: Do you firm recording plans for the next Broken Social Scene album?

AW: No, just a loose plan for next fall, let’s see what happens kind of thing. That’s the way it is for Social Scene. Our best tunes came out of the basement, go and jam in the basement. That’s what we’re going to do. Kevin’s got a new record coming out. Brendan’s now got a record. That came out of the blue. It’s not finished, but it’s really close, and I’ve been trying to push those guys to package it together, like Outkast. I don’t know if they will, but I really want them to do it. It’d be so excellent.

WW: Do you feel that being able to go out and do solo albums will make Broken Social Scene stronger when everyone comes back to it?

AW: This will be the big test of it. I agree with you a hundred percent on that. Folkloric Feel came out in the midst of everything, so there was no tour for that, and Jason Collette’s first record came out in the midst of that, so there wasn’t really a thing. Jason stopped playing with BSS when his latest record came out. That’s when he stepped out, because he needed to follow that for a while. So this will really be interesting, with Kevin and Brendan and myself all with records out, and Charles, they’re touring right now. So we’ll see what happens when we get around to the fall. Who’s still on the road, who’s around, and what comes of it. It’ll be super-interesting to find out.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts