Published Apr 24, 2015Tony Dekker was surrounded by darkness, and his voice echoed into those endlessly inky depths, but the Great Lake Swimmers' frontman was unafraid. In fact his chief concern, while descending several storeys into Ontario's pitch-black Tyendinaga Caves, was how to best capture the spooky reverberations of his voice during a highly unconventional recording session for Great Lake Swimmers' new LP, A Forest of Arms.
"It was hard to create a really high-quality recording scenario down there," Dekker tells Exclaim! of the elaborate system of microphones that he and his bandmates in the folk rock outfit set up in those caves. "That was the challenge of it. But the thrilling part was that, as far as natural acoustics go, it doesn't get more natural than that. The echoes were really cool, and the reverb and the sound bouncing off the walls was really cool."
That booming, cavernous sound is more than apparent on many of the new tracks, especially "Zero in the City" and "Don't Leave Me Hanging," giving Dekker's voice a haunting quality that was absent on the band's previous album, 2012's New Wild Everywhere. That earlier LP was Great Lake Swimmers' first to be done in a conventional studio (Toronto's Revolution Recording). After those airtight, meticulously crafted sessions, Dekker was ready for a follow-up in a more expansive locale, one that had even quirkier acoustics than the Legion halls, churches, abandoned grain silos and archipelagos that Great Lake Swimmers had recorded at for their first four albums.
But the band's work for Forest wasn't complete after they climbed out of the caves. The new LP's vocals and acoustic notes (mostly from Dekker's gentle six-string strums and Miranda Mulholland's slow-burning, heartstring-searing violin work) were recorded there. But the band did not lug their rhythm section's instruments into those rocky catacombs, in part because of the bulkiness of that gear, but also for a less practical, more noble reason.
"It's one thing to sing and play an acoustic guitar in that space, but I don't think it's right to have loud drums and electric bass swirling around down there," Dekker says, adding: "I feel like it might have been almost harmful to the environment. There's a fragility in those rock formations. So I was very conscientious of that."
That environmentally friendly mindset is more than apparent on one of Forest's best tracks, "The Great Bear." The frontman dedicated that song to British Columbia's famed Great Bear rainforest, after visiting the lushly beautiful — and increasingly vulnerable — locale. Dekker's trek there helped him realize just how dangerous it would be for Northern Gateway Pipeline's gargantuan oil tankers to embark on the company's desired journey along the rivers of that remote region.
"Seeing the route that they could potentially be taking, through hairpin turns and very narrow passageways that run alongside delicate ecosystems… knowing with one accident they could destroy an entire way of life… made it hard for me not to speak up," he says.
Specifically, Dekker spoke up by singing about the rainforest's "luminous green" waters on the heartfelt ballad that shares the rainforest's namesake, before dedicating the song's refrain to a crucial question: "Where do we draw the line?"
And while the songwriter remains steadfastly critical of such corporate enterprises, he is also undeterred by his own detractors, who might dismiss his socially conscious lyrics as heavy-handed.
"I don't see myself as someone who writes protest songs, because at that point it almost stops being artful, and just becomes a medium for a specific message," Dekker says, adding that his environmental muses are "not overt" before insisting: "I think the songs speak for themselves and work on many levels, and if you take the time to delve in and really listen, then the messages are rewarding. There's an element of poetry there that goes beyond typical protest songs."
A Forest of Arms is out now via Nettwerk Records, and you can see all their upcoming dates below, including a show tonight (April 24) in Toronto. Below that, you'll also find a full album stream of A Forest of Arms.
04/24 Toronto, ON - The Randolph Theatre
04/29 Burlington VT - Signal Kitchen
04/30 Northampton MA - The Parlour
05/01 Portsmouth NH - The Music Hall
05/02 Boston MA - The Sinclair
05/04 Brooklyn NY - The Music Hall of Williamsburg
05/06 Philadelphia PA - Johnny Brenda's
05/07 Washington DC - Rock n' Roll Hotel
05/08 Carrboro NC - The Arts Centre
05/09 Asheville NC - The Grey Eagle
05/10 Louisville KY - Zanzabar
05/12 Indianapolis IN - The Hi-Fi
05/13 Newport KY - The Southgate House Revival
05/14 Cleveland OH - Beachland Tavern
05/15 Detroit MI - The Majestic Lounge
05/16 Buffalo NY - Tralf Music Hall
05/22 Sault Ste. Marie ON - Loplops
05/23 Thunder Bay ON - Crocks *
05/25 Winnipeg MB - West End Cultural Centre *
05/26 Regina SK - The Exchange *
05/27 Saskatoon SK - Broadway Theatre *
05/29 Edmonton AB - Royal Albert Museum Theatre *
05/30 Calgary AB - Central United Church *
05/31 Cranbrook BC - The Key City Theatre *
06/01 Nelson BC - Civic Theatre *
06/03 Victoria BC - Alix Goolden Hall *
06/04 Vancouver BC - Vogue Theatre *
* with the Weather Station