After the release of the beautifully subtle Glory Hope Mountain in 2007, Canadian indie-folk group the Acorn went on to tour the world. Their travels brought them to humble towns along majestic bodies of water, rustic campgrounds atop acres of open fields, and pulsing cities inside entanglements of busy highways and streets. Every mile of every trip changed the band, much in the same way a sandcastle is transformed by a beach’s elements, wind and water. Follow-up No Ghost is a direct reflection of this transitional period. While the members of the Acorn chose to keep many of the traits that have made them so popular — the delicate lyricism, the tender, multi-layered arrangements — they’ve also learned to let themselves go a little mad, too. There’s a distinct boldness that accompanies the band’s transformation, one that’s loud and refreshing. Vocalist and guitarist Rolf Klausener explained the changing of the group, the difficulties of writing No Ghost, and how location influences his songwriting.
How are the festivals in Canada as compared to those in Europe or the United States?
On the whole, Canadian festivals are pretty wonderful in how they treat their bands and usually the collection of bands that play. It’s changed a lot in the past 10 years, too. Whereas before you’d have small Canadian festivals and a small number of Canadian bands play, now you have lots of Canadian acts. Generally the summer-festival season is like summer camp for Canadian bands. [Laughs.] It’s like, “Oh, yay! I get to hang out with my friends from Calgary and my friends from Halifax at the same time!” Canada in the summertime is generally when everyone goes crazy in the country, and we are all so excited to be outside and not bombarded with snow. We really know how to take advantage of the good weather. On the whole, I put our festivals on par with any of the European or U.S. festivals we play.
Which would you say is your favorite?
Well, for pure novelty and a very, very surreal experience, I would definitely say the Dawson City Music Festival near Whitehorse close to the Arctic Circle. It’s quite a trek, and there’s only about 1,000 people in the city there to attend and help the festival, but the lineup is always phenomenal, and they treat you like a million bucks. It’s really amazing because you really get immersed in the town. You’re in the Yukon, in “gold rush” country. The city looks relatively unchanged since the 1860s; it’s absolutely incredible. We were there last summer. You’re so far up north in late July, you’re basically looking at 24 hours of daylight. You could literally just see shows, have bonfires and party all day. I think for a really nice Canadian and, I guess, more professional festival experience, there’s the Hillside Festival in Ontario. They’ve had big lineups with bands like Broken Social Scene and Arcade Fire. It’s held on an island, and you can go swimming and camping.
It sounds like location is a huge part of what makes these festivals special to you. How important is location or environment to music? To the Acorn’s music?
It’s really interesting that you that brought up, because it’s something that’s really dawning on me. I’m slowly realizing how important it is to me, mostly because I’m a bit of a homebody and when I’m at home I tend to just putter and work on stuff and kind of get lost in the day-to-day shuffle. Traveling, moving around and seeing different places all provide infinite sources of inspiration and put you in different mindsets, and trigger different memories and sometimes bring out a part of your personality that just won’t be brought up in environments where you feel more settled or feel more familiar. So yeah, I think any band will attest that playing in an interesting location changes you.
It’s the same kind of thing for recording. I think Glory Hope Mountain really benefited from us recording it at home, at our own pace. I was sort of in constant contact with my mother over the course of recording that record, and it was just really important to be really settled, immersed and to be grounded and to be able to focus and not have outside things influence the songwriting. And likewise with No Ghost, it was really wonderful to let the environment [of the cottage we wrote in] to sort of wash over us. I think the album’s sense of space and the sort of overall mood of the record kind of really reflects just how relaxed we were at the cottage and how we weren’t spending too much time laboring over whether we should record a song or if a song is headed in the right direction. We sort of just laid it all down and walked away.
How would you describe No Ghost compared to Glory Hope Mountain?
I think it’s a bit of a transitional record. Even though sonically it’s pretty locked into the ways of working that we’ve done before. Obviously we love percussion and rhythm, and that plays heavily into the record. And there’s a heavy focus on lyrics, and so that element hasn’t really changed. On this record, I think I’m trying to tell a little bit of a story, without being too direct.
Glory Hope Mountain was a really interesting record in that the story was interesting and a lot was said about that, but we were still a very relatively new band. That album forced us to tour a lot and made us realize we were going to be doing this as a full-time thing. I think going into No Ghost there was a pressure; “OK, now more than our friends will be listening to our music, more than our community of artists.” There was a bit of pressure there, and I felt a little overwhelmed. For the previous record, I had been working with a concept and a plan for like 2 1/2 years, but with No Ghost there was no plan.
Also, we were all together for the first time writing, and for me it was really disconcerting, because I don’t really like being around people when I write. I really like being in my own head. It’s hard for me to let go of any sense of self-consciousness when I’m trying to create. So as sort of a sociological musicological experiment, it was interesting to be around one another while writing, but I think I’d prefer to just … not do that again. [Laughs.] I don’t think I’d come to a space to record either — even with a space as beautiful as the one we had — with the whole band. Maybe one or two people around, but with the entire band there it made it a little bit less relaxed than I had hoped.
How do you think that writing together as a whole band affected the songs in the end?
I think the goal was to have things be relatively spontaneous and kind of commit to whatever was coming out of our jams. There was a bit of tension while writing because the interpersonal connections in the band were changing. I was hoping the writing was going to be free and going to come easy, but I wasn’t anticipating feeling so self-conscious around the band. Oddly enough, the first four days I was at the cottage, I was with only one member of the band, and that’s actually when I wrote most of the songs on the record, during those first four days. The first song I wrote was “Restoration.” Later on that night I came up with the melodic idea or riff for “Misplaced.” Yeah, it’s funny, all that stuff came right away, but when the rest of the group came together there was this pressure that we needed to create as a five-piece, and that’s really hard. I don’t know how may bands do that. It’s difficult and ambitious to negotiate with five people over three-week period.
No Ghost deals with a lot of dichotomies, such as destruction/construction. Was the lyrical content something that you sort of planned ahead of time?
That realization of the dichotomies definitely came after the fact. It wasn’t like we had an idea and theme and then we wrote the album. It was very much like, “Let’s write songs, we’ll worry about how they connect later.” And it was only after we were finishing up the record and I was looking at the body of songs that I was really pleased to see a bit of a thematic thread running its course through the record. I think a lot of that came out of the fact that, well, I don’t know how many people in this day and age get to be completely disconnected from the world on a day-to-day basis. When’s the last time you had no access to an Internet connection, cell phone, TV or newspaper? For a three-week period, we were completely disconnected at this cottage. As a lyricist, I couldn’t help but get into my head and get into some bigger questions.
We also had fun with what was around us. We were reading a lot of astronomy textbooks and had some beautiful star-gazing nights, and there was that feeling of togetherness, that sense that we were creating as a group. I think it was also a really interesting period of reflection for everybody because we couldn’t help but reflect on our relationship as a group. I started the band on my own, and now we’ve morphed over the years into a kind of collective. For me it was a realization, as well as a reaffirmation, that I love writing and I love bringing music to people and I love sharing it with a group. But, at the same time, it was a bit of a hard realization that I really just like to write on my own, I like to be isolated when I write. I think that as a band when we are touring, moments of isolation and moments of privacy are very rare, especially today, when your average indie band has to tour incessantly just to make ends meet. So you really start to value your private time, and I think a lot of No Ghost‘s songs pull from that sentiment.
The new album features a more prominent use of electric guitars and overall just sounds a lot louder than the more folk-esque Glory Hope Mountain. Is this change part of the band’s transition?
We are pretty rooted in indie rock. We definitely go between rock-ish and folk-ish music. Glory Hope Mountain had a very specific theme, specific sound and atmosphere. With this record I think I can safely say that there was a reaction from us, like, “God, we just want to turn it up! Let’s turn up our things really loud and have fun and crank our guitars.” I think a lot of artists who like to dabble in multiple genres go through that.
I’ve read that “Cobbled in Dust” and “Misplaced” are your favorite songs on the album. Why?
I have to say that my favorites change from day to day. But on the whole I love them because lyrically they came together very, very quickly. Within a couple of minutes! I didn’t labor over them at all. I think a lot of songwriters will say this, or really anyone who feels passionate about their work, but you get into this proverbial “zone,” and you don’t know where it comes from or when it’s going to strike, but it constantly, always feels like a real gift when the right song comes to you. “Cobbled in Dust” I wrote when I woke up one morning and went into the empty control while everyone else was shuffling around outside. I just picked up my guitar and played the opening riff of it. I set up a mic, and recorded the riff as I hummed the melody of it. The melody [of the final version of the song] is literally exactly the same as the one that I hummed that morning.
A few weeks later, when I was back at my house reviewing songs, I just started transcribing what I thought I was saying while I was humming along. It’s pretty insane because the half-words and the mumbles actually ended up being about something very tangible and very present in what I was experiencing at that cottage. Around the time that I wrote it, I had been reading a chapter on the sun and about how everything comes from gravity and dust and just how it’s all miraculous and completely ridiculous at the same time. And when I finished transcribing my mumbles that’s exactly what I was writing about and what I had been thinking. It’s just a simple song about creation and about taking advantage of what little time we have on earth. It’s an appreciative song and reflects on my grumpy roommate who doesn’t go out very much and is very conservative.
“Misplaced” came about similarly, very fast. I was falling in love with someone, and the lyrics were a reflection of what I was looking at and talking about. The line about webs and brambles — I was standing on the porch looking at the trees and spiderwebs. And I was imagining getting caught in them. It was so beautiful and so easy and as a songwriter you really cherish those kinds of moments moments.
To go back to the question on location and environment, the reason why I really like traveling and going to different places to record is because you’re setting yourself up for inspiration. And even as contrived as that is, I think its’ a wonderful thing to kind of try to constantly keep your life in a place where inspiration is more likely than not.