11 December 2012
Articles | Interviews

Interview: Slim Twig

Reclusive Canadian musician and wife Meg Remy on the lure of 'Lolita', and the importance of family

Words Jazz Monroe

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Max ‘Slim Twig’ Turnbull is an ideas man. For Max, the idea is not simply an embryonic phenomenon that grows, but rather the totality itself, spat out the womb six feet tall with good posture and a suit jacket. His latest release, the bizarro psych-rock concept album A Hound At The Hem, is brimful of the things. Influenced by both Nabokov’s Lolita, and Histoire De Melody Nelson, Serge Gainsbourg’s tribute to same, the LP is Slim Twig’s fourth and, arguably, finest work. It returns to a perennial archetype in Max’s output to date: the destructive male figure. From where does his morbid curiosity stem? That’s what we’re finding out.

Max calls to say he’s en route in a cranky white Toyota to take us to a quiet bar beside his East End Toronto practice rooms. In the driver’s seat, looking like a midweek Zelda Fitzgerald, is Meg ‘US Girls’ Remy, whose acclaimed Fat Cat album GEM has been making the blog rounds of late. Max fills out a trademark suit and trousers combo, wearing his dark scruffy curls like a secret weapon. As we zig-zag through the inner Toronto grid system, the pair are polite, warm and inquisitive. All the conventional pretence of suspicion and one-upmanship is nowhere to be found. At the end of the night, they invite The Stool Pigeon for tea before next week’s Tame Impala show.

Since tying the knot this summer, the 20-something couple have shacked up with Max’s parents in a modest family home, buoyed predominantly by the income of his father, Ross Turnbull. The family of artists define themselves by a philosophy of collaboration, which feeds neatly into a fundamental ideology of Max’s: the belief that consolidating into one driving stream your various tributaries — art, family, wage-earning work — clears the most direct route to artistic prosperity. (He currently works part-time at a downtown book-store, but it’s only a temporary thing.) Meg notes of the domestic arrangement: “It’s very… incestuous, for lack of a better word. Everyone has a skill, specific skills in the household that help what everyone else is trying to achieve.”

That doesn’t just apply to the washing up rotor: Max’s mum, Jennifer Hazel, worked on the video for US Girls’ ‘The Island Song’. Sister Lulu appears prominently in said video, as well as ‘North On 45’ — not to mention the cover art for the Slim Twig-produced GEM LP. Father Ross, meanwhile, found time to edit the videos for both ‘North On 45’ and ‘The Island Song’.

Meg’s album was laid down last year in a friend’s recording studio on Toronto Island, tucked away from the tranquil micro-community’s tourist enclaves. Its making coincided with Slim Twig’s A Hound At The Hem, an album whose completion-from-scratch spanned the month for which Max could afford studio time. Armed only with the notion of “some kind of narrative album,” the result is a wild, unpretentious concept record that leans heavily on harrowing bass, spectral strings and woozily addictive pop choruses. Limited to 300 copies and featuring the strings of Owen Pallett, the record has the air of a discovered ’60s psych curio, gaunt vocals veering between hyperactive Richard Hell yelps and the furtive drawl of a lobotomised Nick Cave.

“I made [previous album] Sof Sike’ with a lot of doubt, especially that I hadn’t achieved what I wanted,” admits Max. “And it really took spending some time away from Hound to see its merit. But now I’m really struck by it… not to sound arrogant or anything like that.”

Upon the album’s completion, however, they ran into some release trouble with their label, namely that they, er, didn’t want to: upon receiving the record, Toronto’s esteemed Paper Bag Records stonewalled Max’s emails. It wasn’t until he called in some pals for a second opinion that the realisation dawned: “I had the intention to give [Paper Bag] a pop album, which I thought Hound was. But all of my friends told me it was a very particular thing. And people like Alex [Zhang-Huntai], who makes strange music as Dirty Beaches, I sent him the record and he’s like, ‘This is the furthest thing from a pop album.’

This led indirectly to the founding of Max and Meg’s own label, Calico Corp, which ultimately co-released Hound with Pleasence Records. Before that, however, Max had to fulfil his contractual obligation to Paper Bag, which he ddidd by recording the swerving, hook-heavy psych-pop collection Sof’ Sike for the label. But that record’s warm reception brought fresh problems of its own: “I spent so much time trying to build my credibility as an experimental artist, and never achieved it! Because I was on this pop label. So people from the avant-garde community didn’t take me seriously,” explains a slightly disgruntled Max.

We arrive at the bar, which is soundtracked by Michael Jackson hits and Wednesday conversations. Talk moves onto the integrity of tight-knit family life. We delve a little further into the bizarre set-up that led music blog Noisey to title a recent post, quite simply, ‘Slim Twig Has Extremely Supportive Parents’.

***

The Stool Pigeon: Tell me about your lifestyle at home. Are there problems?

Max: One reason Meghan and I are together is that we’re very family driven, and we would like to have our own family. So we need more room. Aside from that, it’s a very fluid thing and a very positive thing.

Meg: See, in my family, I turned 17 and got the hell out of there. I wanted to get away from my family. And then I came into this situation, where I’m like, ‘Woah, family can be this thing that isn’t… the dark shadow that you’re trying to get away from.’ I spent 10 years trying to act like I didn’t have a family, which got me somewhere — I lost all inhibitions, and I didn’t have to answer to anybody; I was alone and I said, ‘Fuck it,’ and I tried to take the world over, and I could do whatever I wanted. But to be in this context of family, it raises a lot of things. Life could be a lot better in the world if family meant something else.

Family isn’t necessarily helpful.

Meg: Right. This model is very specific. But I don’t think it can only work with artists. It doesn’t have to be this hippy thing. It’s just a cutting loose of conventions of what family is, which so many people get tied up with. Which is why baby food companies and all these companies have existed. Because you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m not a real mother if I don’t buy this baby food or this specific toy.’ D’you know what I mean? There’s this whole model put in place that’s based in capitalism. I don’t know. I’m going off on a tangent. [Max sucks air through his teeth in mock disapproval.]

Max, the press release for A Hound at the Hem tells me you’re a “reclusive Toronto musician”. Any truth in that?

Max: I think it’s accurate. [Meg smiles] I’m certainly not reclusive as far as pursuing musical projects. I’m just not very social at all. My creative life is certainly not neared in its intensity by my social life. My friends are my collaborators, really.

A passing barman drunkenly leans in, asking Max: “Have I seen you here before? Excuse my memory… I drink away the pain every day.” He stumbles away.

Max: [To us, justifying reclusive aspect] Yeah. I’ve been here two times. Maybe once. [Meg laughs out loud.]

Did we figure out what drew you to Lolita, Max?

Max: Well, there are a lot of practical reasons why I was attracted to it. There’s so much wordplay and humour and ingenuity in the writing itself, I think it’s attractive to anyone who fashions themself as a writer in any kind of capacity. I wanted to emulate the themes, but admire the style. What I was drawn to initially was the destructive quality that desire could take on. That desire can exert a magnetic pull that ultimately is a negative thing. I think people can write about love in the very extreme, and it’ll reflect on our everyday experience of love. The book deals with self-reckoning, and seeing qualities in yourself that are ugly. And being face to face with that. How is that possible? How are we able to achieve that kind of balance? Is [Humbert Humbert] fundamentally evil? Or is he just held hostage to desire that he didn’t ask for? That’s a really interesting ambiguity that I wanted to explore.

On your White Fantassee EP, you also embodied a somewhat deviant persona. And you have an acting career [Max starred in his parents’ psychological indie thriller, Sight Unseen, as well as acting alongside Ellen Page as a bad boy rocker in Bruce McDonald’s The Tracey Fragments]. Do you have some innate desire to embody destructive male characters in the first person?

Max: Yes.

In what way, and why?

Max: You’re really on the money with that question. Because that’s something that has unified almost my entire output. And honestly, it’s a question that I’m unsure of how to answer. I know that I’m attracted to singing in that perspective, but I don’t embody that dynamic in my life, and so I wonder if it’s accommodating for something else. And honestly, it’s something that’s frightened me. And that, more than anything, is what drew me to the story of Lolita. ’Cos I’m frightened by the pull that those themes exert on me. I have a fascination for the morbid and perverse and depraved. I’ve always had that fascination and I don’t know the answer why.

Do you think that being a good person requires the suppression of morbid qualities?

Max: No, I think it requires the opposite. It requires accepting that there are gonna be things that transpire in your mind that are ultimately unacceptable. And everyone experiences those things. But very few people admit them. So stories like Lolita are important, because they’re frank. They reveal that, on some level, everyone is engaging with these sorts of things, whether or not they indulge in them. It’s nothing new, it’s nothing to be scared or ashamed of. So if you can face yourself and be comfortable with thinking these things, and knowing that they don’t represent you — that they’re just elemental concepts as far as where we are as a society — we’re forced to confront them. And that’s OK!

And the difference between you and Gainsbourg?

Max: I think that he was a provocateur, and had a desire for controversy, and that was mirrored in his social life. He was more of a debauched person and that spilled over into his art. So whereas my attraction to the story came from a desire to face that fear, his was a fondness for it, or an affinity for it. But he was French, so…

An hour’s passed. Meg and Max have left the bar. “I don’t think that barman was in any position to chase us,” Max grins, half-wrapped in his wife’s arms, acknowledging our failure to settle the tab. We approach the towering apartment building that houses their practice room. Marked out by high ceilings and stone walls and stern green metal doors, the hallways have the air of a former military-prison cum council-flat, in an interrupted state of renovation. Max’s allotted rehearsal space is, fortunately, somewhat homelier. Sheet-covered amps, an emptied-out beer fridge, posters beaming with plucky young Elvises. Synths and drums stacked on rickety shelving. Against one wall is a timid-looking standard piano, seemingly left as an afterthought. This is where the majority of GEM was put to tape. It’s also where Max, reclusive Max, spends hanging-out time with Meg and members of the Slim Twig band.

We discuss the electronic musical burblings of Montreal. There’s a conventional wisdom among party-smart Torontonians that the Quebec indie capital — a short flight or nine-hour Megabus away — possesses some mystical quality of freewheeling bohemian hope and glory. Max doesn’t buy it, and there’s something in his dismissal of Grimes, Arbutus Records and the loft-party scene as a whole that suggests a perceived lack in such cultures of the free-flowing authenticity to be found not just in his own work, but that of his family: “My parents have been working artists since I was born,” he says. “It’s the only thing I’ve known. And I’ve seen first-hand how much of a struggle that can be, but I’ve also seen how worthwhile it is. And how it keeps you vital. You can’t be complacent. And that’s a really appealing thing to me. So many people are complacent or unhappy—”

“Or just stopped living their lives when they turned 40,” adds Meg. “Max’s parents are not like that. And I’ve met other people like them. For me, it’s like, ‘You’re my mom’s age, while my mom is stuck in the corn fields working at a desk job.’ It’s still living your life and just waiting to die. A lot of people stop trying to live. They just give up. You’re going through the everyday motions of life, instead of trying to discover new things about life and keep growing as a person. You hit a point, and you’re like, ‘Hey, everything’s set in motion, the end is I die.’”

That’s all very well coming from a married couple, of artistic and popular mobility, in their mid-20s. But the question remains of whether they’ll keep it up.

“Yeah, we’re young, but we love the life that we’re living,” reasons Max. “And not from any kind of perspective where we’re like, ‘Oh I love this life, I’m fucking partying all the time! I love this life, it’s wicked!’ We’re pursuing things that are meaningful to us. We want to maintain that pace, because that’s what gives us our satisfaction.”

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