As a fan of one-person music projects and guitars layered with lyrics of love, Montreal-based Miracle Fortress dovetailed perfectly into my music collection. The summer of 2007 was bathed in the melodies of Five Roses, a beautifully dense album which made it on our list of top 20 Canadian albums from the aughts. When Van Pelt returned to Toronto in March for Canadian Music Week, the difference was striking. Accompanied by a drummer and effect lighting, he provided a danceable live preview of Was I the Wave?, his second full-length, released on April 26 by Secret City Records. I recently spoke with Graham over a static-ridden Skype connection about his new album and old influences.
Sabrina: It’s exciting that you have some new material coming out; we haven’t heard from Miracle Fortress in a couple of years. In the hiatus, you have been doing a lot of touring and recording with Think About Life. What’s the future looking like for that band?
Graham Van Pelt: We’ve been working on a new record; we’re in the recording phase now, just getting some songs mixed. The group has been writing pretty steadily for a couple of years since Family.
Sabrina: I read that you deliberately avoided any influence of music from after 1980 while recording Five Roses. Immediately upon listening to Was I the Wave? it seems like you have turned full circle on that quest.
Graham: Wouldn’t a full circle mean that I’m still the same?
Sabrina: This is true. I guess I should say a semi-circle. Do you feel like it was an active decision to change your approach?
Graham: It definitely was not an active choice to focus on any particular era. I started adding different elements and sounds into the music, especially drums and drum patterns. It ended up leading things into new territories. But there wasn’t any real premeditation about where I wanted to arrive. It’s always a goal of mine to explore something else every time I work on a piece of music. I just keep myself occupied by finding new challenges and combinations. A lot of it is just experimenting: setting up a bunch of gear up and not really knowing what you’re going to do. Let the experiment progress, and in the end if there’s a germ for a song then you’re pretty lucky. I take it from there.
Sabrina: The sound of some of the tracks are very full like ‘Raw Spectacle’ and ‘Spectre’, and other songs are more sparse and direct. Were you conscious of that when you were arranging your album?
Graham: For sure. ‘Raw Spectacle’ and ‘Spectre’ actually came out of a session from a while ago; that was the earliest stuff that I worked on that ended up on this record. I had a lot of other material that went along with those two songs which also were very packed, dense, with moments of claustrophobia. But I wanted to try to go for some more open songs with a bit more headroom to mix into the record. I also inserted a couple of the instrumental tracks.
Sabrina: I noticed there were quite a few smaller instrumentals breaks within this album. Do you consider these to be the germinations of tunes that you mentioned before, or distinct songs?
Graham: I definitely treat them as complete songs. I listen to mostly instrumental music in my own collection. I enjoy that genre and give it equal stock when I’m working on music. I just happened to come up with a few that I quite liked, and I felt like they played off of the lyrical songs pretty effectively. It made for a nice album that had a lot of variety of intensity and moments that were distinct from each other.
Sabrina: For this tour, you have a new musician playing live shows with you, correct?
Graham: Yes; Greg, who has been involved for a couple of months, plays the drums. We’re still fleshing out the show that we’ll be taking on the road this summer.
Sabrina: Did you decide to have a smaller backing band this time around because this album is a bit easier to perform by yourself?
Graham: Well, we’re going to be performing material from both of the albums. But this set-up is working very well. Greg’s a powerfully effective drummer, and when it comes to steady beats I thought it would be wise to have some live drumming happening. It brings the energy up and drives the more drum-heavy parts of the album across. In my experiences watching other acts use backing tracks and drums, their canned sound can be hit-or-miss depending on the type of room you’re playing in. It’s nice to have a pretty dependable supply of energy.
Sabrina: I understand that Five Roses was written while you were in the throes of an early romance and also dealing with a lot of heavy personal questions. Do you still feel like you maintain this heart-on-your-sleeve approach to your songwriting or do you expose less of your emotional side?
Graham: The songs that I end up keeping are pretty personal. I don’t really tackle the great subjects of Western Civilization very acutely. I think there’s always going to be a pretty earnest aspect to this project, for better or worse. I didn’t happen to be in the mood for love songs this time around. But, I’m still trying to be honest with the things that I’m thinking about and feeling when I’m making the music.
Sabrina: Do you ever find it’s a bit difficult or awkward to be that direct when you’re playing the songs live?
Graham: It can be pretty difficult; it depends on any given night. It can swing pretty far one way or the other. Lots of people would tell you that, people who get up on stage who aren’t necessarily stage naturals.
Sabrina: Do you feel like you’re not a stage natural? It seems like you commanded the crowd pretty well during Canadian Music Week.
Graham: I wouldn’t really list that in my personality traits on a dating website or anything. I think I was lucky that night. I was having a good time, people were receiving what I was doing and donating some of their attention. That doesn’t always happen depending where you are.
Sabrina: I guess festivals can be hit or miss sometimes too, yeah?
Graham: Oh, everything’s hit or miss in this business.
Sabrina: I saw that you grew up in Stratford. How was the music scene down there when you were younger? Did you ever perform or attend shows in Stratford?
Graham: Oh yeah! I was deeply involved in the music scene. When I was a teenager there were underground venues run by teenagers. One was called The Sound and Fury; when I was around 14, the people running it were around 16-17. I idolized them, they were my heros. Tons of bands from the town would play at these joints, and it was a touring destination for a certain size of band. It’s a little liberal enclave, very into arts, there was a lot going on. I spent my formative years going to a lot of punk shows and electronic music shows and jazz shows. It was a thrilling little scene for a small town kid to experience. I’m not sure if it’s like that anymore because the youth-run venues had a life expectancy of only 3 or 4 years. Once the city got hip to it they tried to open their own sanctioned youth centre, which was of course a couple of degrees lamer than anything that the kids were coming up with themselves. Locking the doors at 11pm and not as much partying. Yeah, I caught a sweet spot in the Stratford music scene, I think.
Sabrina: It sounds like a good segue into the Montreal scene.
Graham: It was a smooth transition because [my friends from Stratford and I] moved there after we had just met a bunch of Montreal musicians who had been through Stratford. So we already knew people. Then we opened a Montreal loft venue, with all the Statford people running it, and we came to meet everyone that way. It was a lot of luck.
Sabrina: Is there any music that’s getting you excited right now? Anything interesting or motivating?
Graham: I haven’t really been paying that much attention lately, honestly. There’s a new Burial record that’s coming out which I’m excited for. Also Grimes, she’s a Montreal artist. I tend to listen to a lot of old music. I don’t really organize myself into comprehensive up-to-date lists. Music is coming out at a pace now where if you blink you can miss a whole genre of music that you may have really liked. It’s easy to get overwhelmed.
Sabrina: It can be a blessing and a curse, because you do have the opportunity to reach a far larger audience, but that audience is also under a deluge of information.
Graham: It ends up balancing out a bit. I personally had to tune out and take stock of the things that I had heard about and only had a chance to listen to once. It’s like an endless fountain of chocolate: it’s really amazing until you visit it one too many times.
Sabrina: Do you find that you’ve been using the internet much to promote your music?
Graham: It’s ground zero for musicians these days. All of the social media avenues are fantastic as far as getting in touch with people who might like your music.
Sabrina: It does demand a bit of categorization though. I know a lot of bands are getting a little sick of being labelled into buzz genres and the internet tends to speed that up.
Graham: That has a lot to do with the people who happen to be writing. I’m sure it’s a tempting proposition.
Sabrina: It’s tricky to avoid. I felt bit guilty asking about your ’80s influence since that plays into the categorization.
Graham: It’s okay. What we’re talking about is pretty appropriate; it’s just that all these categories for music don’t exist in my head. Most of the music I end up listening to hits me in a similar way, or I focus on specific artists. It reminds me of when I got into Godspeed You! Black Emperor around the time that people decided that they were post-rock. Then I was thinking about myself as a post-rock listener and found myself searching for post-rock bands, when ultimately I realized that I just wanted to listen to Godspeed.
Miracle Fortress will be touring Canada through May and June (returning to Toronto on June 9th with Junior Boys at the Phoenix) and heading to the U.S. for the rest of the month.
Tags: Miracle Fortress