Amid the fog and scenic splendor that is Nova Scotia, you'll find a group of young men and women plying their craft and making some of the most heavenly orchestral pop music anywhere on the planet. Halifax's Heavy Blinkers may still be something of an anomaly at home but it's certainly not for lack of vision. Their latest release, the band's fourth, is 2004's The Night And I Are Still So Young.
"I think maybe our music just doesn't resonate as well with Canada as it does with other countries," says head Blinker Jason MacIsaac. "Canada is, above and beyond anything else, a pretty rocking country. Maybe there's a lightness or a density to the music that people in Canada are missing?!? Honestly, we've been in Rolling Stone magazine in five countries, colour pictures in Uncut, Mojo, Q… everywhere. And literally, there's been next to nothing in Canada."
While the Heavy Blinkers have always been Halifax-based, it was MacIsaac's brief residence in Toronto during the mid-1990's that planted the seed from which the band germinated. "I had just moved to Toronto to try and make it as a musician but nothing was really happening so I eventually moved back to Halifax. In my mind, one of the reasons I was leaving Toronto was because I had just bought this theramin and I wanted to start a band with a female vocalist, and I wanted this to take place in Halifax. But really, I started the Heavy Blinkers as an opposition to what I was hearing on the radio at the time, especially what Edge 102 was playing back in Toronto. I know it's such a clich» but there was just so much angst in music back then. The world just didn't need another distortion pedal. So once I got home, this concept turned into something a little more realistic and that was the first Heavy Blinkers album."
Beyond the borders of their homeland, the Heavy Blinkers music has found a loyal audience amongst those in tune with the underground pop fellowship. Ex-Brian Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks and the High Llamas' Sean O'Hagan are both fans. Yet since the release of The Night And I last winter, the Heavy Blinkers have ever so slowly been gaining a measure of recognition within Canada. "Since we've signed with [Winnipeg-based indie label] Endearing, they've been very conscious of the Canadian market with us. It's a point of pride—I really want people in Canada to hear our albums. I know there are people in other parts of the country making music like us and sharing the same frustrations. At first it was romantic… being totally unknown. But now, I'd certainly settle for relative obscurity."
Strangely enough, MacIsaac's blueprint for The Night And I was never meant to be obscure in any sense of the word. Almost two years went into the recording, mixing and mastering of the album and this painstaking devotion ultimately paid off in full. Alongside his core bandmates (vocalist Ruth Minnikin, bassist Trevor Forbes, drummer Greg Fry and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Watt), MacIsaac was able to pare down hours upon hours of tape into 12 tracks of pure aural bliss. The result was an album that has already drawn favourable comparisons to such pomp-rock landmarks as the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and the Zombies' Odyssey and Oracle. "We were going pretty much full tilt from April to June of 2002," says MacIsaac. "We were literally living out of the studio during that time—we had ping pong tables set up and were cooking meals for each other. It seemed very much what The Band must've gone through when they were recording Music From Big Pink. But then the technology kicked in. We were using ProTools and carrying around laptops to university music rooms, where we'd record the strings. None of it was done live off the floor. That's definitely not something that I'd be bragging about because you always want capture something as organic as possible. I bring it up only to suggest that while most of the songs are around four minutes long, they each contain 20 to 30 tracks. Even if we got every track right on the first take—which was NEVER the case—you're still looking at hundreds and hundreds of hours logged."
This density makes touring The Night And I as is a logistical nightmare. Still, the band has made a select number of live appearances in support of the album, including a rare Toronto stop during Canadian Music Week in March. "If you've seen us play live, it can definitley look a bit tedious," says MacIsaac. "We're all sitting down with the exception of Trevor on bass and Ruth on vocals. It may look like a Cowboy Junkies show but it's still very high energy. During Canadian Music Week, we had our friend Dave Christensen play a MIDI Controller with actual sampled versions of strings—not synthesized versions. It looks totally ludicrous and it's the last thing you think of when you think of rock and roll, but it's a necessary evil."
The band will soon take its show overseas for the very first time in support of some much-belated European tour dates. "Our German label, Apricot Records, are flying us over to Germany for the last week of September, which is amazing because we've only toured Canada at this point," says MacIsaac. "This will be the first time we'll have hit Europe even though we've had many offers in the past. The demand has always been there but this is the first time somebody's put their money where their mouth is. We're really hoping this will be a new chapter for the Blinkers and a great opportunity to reach our fans so we're all pretty excited."
Yet even the prospects of autumn in Germany hasn't been enough to keep MacIsaac from plotting his next masterstroke. While it may simply be a case of cabin fever winning out over common sense, he seems quite intent on rolling the dice with the next Heavy Blinkers album through the most heinous of all rock and roll gambles: the dreaded double album. "I was trying to explain to the band that if you put out a double album—be it Exile on Main Street, London Calling or The River—inevitably somebody's going to say it could've been a great single record. Personally, I want to make a double album that doesn't have all those self-indulgent vignettes or filler. I would approach it like making two really good single records at once and then selling them for the price of one."
While MacIsaac's conception is still very much in the infancy stage, he is hoping to rope his fellow Blinkers back into the studio by November. In the meantime, he'll have to make do with touring and talking about The Night And I, which already bears all the earmarks of a career-defining work. "The Night and I is definitely my favourite Heavy Blinkers album," says MacIsaac. "I have very fond memories of making it and we all worked really hard on it. It was pretty overwhelming but really inspiring at the same time. The environment really informed the record in a really great way."
For more information about the Heavy Blinkers, visit their official website at www.heavyblinkers.com
Writer: Cameron Gordon