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Jon Epworth’s second act

The busy sideman takes a run at the spotlight with a new band, The Improvements, and a stellar sophomore solo effort, Wet on Wet. “I never felt we had a product that was super-wick-awes,” says Epworth, “but I feel like that about this album.”

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Jon Epworth doesn’t want to talk about his alter egos. He’d rather not talk about his various musical incarnations or how he spreads himself perhaps a little too thin. By now, the concept’s boring. This is just his life. Epworth states it simply: “I do a lot of stuff.”

But it’s a little hard to ignore. Chances are good that you know him. You may recognize him as the drummer in the Dean Malenkos, and Jonny Stevens and The Racket; or as the clean-living singer, Healthy Collins; or as primary time-keeper to a tape deck in the Lil Seifus Brown Collar Band; or perhaps as the weekly host for Rockin4dollar$ at Reflections. Maybe you know him as Horseface.

Increasingly, he is being recognized as Jon Epworth, frontman, lead singer and guitar player for The Improvements. A self-made man. Who just so happens to have an abundance of musical energy and his eggs in an endless number of baskets.

The best and brightest thing on Epworth’s immediate horizon is his new album, Wet on Wet. Produced and engineered by Laurence Currie, the album showcases some of Epworth’s best work, as well as the talents of his band, The Improvements, with departing Coast distro driver Mike Belyea on drums, Jay Vautour on lead guitar and long-time musical collaborator Shane Kerr on bass.

Epworth’s respect for his band runs deep. With this band and this album, he has given up his predilection to play every instrument, and hasn’t been disappointed. “I can’t play the drums to half of the songs,” he says of Belyea’s skills, “like ‘Extra Fries’? I challenge any drummer in town to play that song, and to play it properly. It’s one of the most difficult drum beats that I’ve heard.”

Beyond playing with Epworth in The Dean Malenkos and The Improvements (not to mention the rare appearance of the two alongside Wax Mannequin), bassist Kerr is a close friend. “Shane and I are hetero life partners—the girls in our lives may come and go but Shane will always be there,” Epworth says, touchingly, of his friend.

Having dinner at Satisfaction Feast (because Epworth eats a lot of salads these days), he’s on a rare break between working at his art store day job and being a full-time musician. His day planner is close at hand. He’s a little harried from the multitudes of to-do lists that are generated from a giant project like a new record. And being a bit of a perfectionist, he’s doing most of the work himself.

He’s very focused, however, when he talks about his music. It’s clear he threw an awful lot of himself into it, and is proud. In perhaps the year’s biggest understatement he says, “I’m a good singer. I know I can sing well.” His confidence is palpable. But he also refers to himself as the band’s “weakest link,” “an airhead” and “a fuck-up.” It’s classic Epworthian style: high-brow talent with low-brow sensibilites.

He carries this dichotomy into his live show. On stage, his energy is split between winning over audiences with his fine-tuned talent and making them blush with unbelievably crude stage banter. His album poses similar challenges. Musically and production-wise, it’s extremely attractive for the listener, but Epworth likes to make his audience work for it. His lyrics can be harshly descriptive and he doesn’t hestitate to throw in unconventional elements, ones that ultimately make the song much more satisfying.

“My stuff is somewhat progressive, but a little bit more palatable to mainstream radio,” he says. “If any of the songs are even suitable, and I always wonder. I’ve got some choruses that are pretty catchy and people always say they’re pretty hooky, but then there’s some weird parts where I’m trying to flex my art-rock muscles. I can’t just write a song that’s totally straight ahead. The song ‘Please Stop Celebrating’”—with guest stars Charles Austin on bass and Joel Plaskett on drums—“is probably as close as they come on this album, but then lyrically it’s really weird, really verbose...Shane and I have lots of discussions about what I want to do with this and what he would like to see me do with this, because he has a much better head for business than I do. I’ll make posters for shows that you can’t read, or that are gross, and he’s like, ‘Who are you trying to market to?’ and I’m like, ‘Me. I guess I’m the only one.’”

And yet, for someone who says he’s catering to himself, Epworth can be self-sabotag- ing. He has been known to drunkenly rant onstage, sometimes to the chagrin of his bandmates. Kerr once pulled him aside to remind him that he shares the stage with other people who don’t necessarily want to be represented by Epworth’s insults to the audience. His antics, while gut-bustingly hilarious and unforgettable, sometimes throw sets off track. Opening for Ron Sexsmith during the 2003 Halifax Pop Explosion, Epworth spent considerable time being carried onstage like a Greek god. His set was five songs long. Now he wants to tone it down.

But it seems to be his nature to shove fame away when it comes knocking. On “Don’t Worry” he sings, “the thing that makes you popular will kill your career.” Epworth’s cynicism is well documented on this album. In general, his songs lend themselves well to interpretion, but it’s often that the situations he explores are twisted and ugly.

At once earnest and sarcastic, he says, “I am talking about things that are important and things that I care about in the lyrics... when I’m not trying to guess the depth of a girl’s vagina from the stage.”

So what does Epworth care about? His songs refer to war, violence, greed and personal insecurities—serious themes for someone whose onstage persona is someone who doesn’t take himself too seriously.

Health and body image are also big themes of Wet on Wet. Health is something Epworth has addressed in his own life, at the suggestion of a doctor. His diet and lifestyle were causing acid reflux that was burning his esophagus and ruining his voice. But it may not have been solely for health reasons alone that he wanted to change his lifestyle. In the album’s liner notes, he acknowledges the work of those “trying to rid the world of the self-importance placed on self-image.” A genuinely honest person, Epworth wears his opinions on his sleeve, but this seems particularly close to his heart.

“It’s really important to me. I don’t always practise what I preach, I’m not a complete health nut,” he says, “but I basically changed my diet. I stopped drinking for half a year, which I can’t believe I did. Quitting drinking was huge. I wasn’t like a functioning alcoholic or anything, but I mean, it could be pretty close.”

He’s attempted to quit drinking again to fit into his custom-made three-piece suit, made especially for his record release party.

In addition to looking out for his own health, Epworth also has larger musical goals. With this record, he sets out to achieve them. “I never felt we had a product that was super-wick-awes but I feel like that about this album, I’m 100 percent happy about it.”

And for someone who says they sometimes “write a little more than they can chew,” Epworth sounds fully in command on the album. There are some heavy Elvis Costello influences, strong songwriting and fantastic production. Laurence Currie, his producer, was so impressed by his live show that he encouraged Epworth to record live off the floor, producing what he calls a “snapshot of the band. A good representation of what you would see live.”

The persistence and live energy paid off. “It just sounded perfect,” says Epworth, “we just turned our instruments on and started fucking around and he said, ‘This is amazing, this is just perfect.’ I even played guitar well those two days, which surprised me.”

Despite this serendipity, the album was a long time coming. Epworth and the band sunk some serious funding into the project, and wanted everything to be exactly right. “We took a long time to mix, we really really henpecked all the details. The guy that mastered it, Noah Mintz from Lacquer Channel”—who has mastered Broken Social Scene—“took basically one pass and he said to Laurence that it was one of the best-sounding recordings that he’d heard in a long time. Which is crazy, because, I mean, he probably masters a thousand albums a year.”

Currie, for his part, anticipates Epworth will make “a lot of new fans with this record.” But Epworth’s humility about his success is charming. “I never expected to even get to this point where I was able to go to a studio and make a CD that sounded like this. Everything since my first show where people actually came out and liked us, it’s all been icing.”

In Epworth’s case, this is not just something he says to give the appearance of audience appreciation. He’s genuinely grateful. Whether Wet on Wet is a national success or not isn’t important. “I get a lot of people telling me,” he says, “and I mean anybody will say this to bands that they like, they’ll say, ‘Why isn’t this band famous?’ They come up to me and are like, ‘Man, you’re going to be so famous.’ But I’m already 30. This is it. This is as famous as I’m going to get and that’s fine.”

Jon Epworth and the Improvements CD release w/Great Plains and The Nuclear, April 22 at The Attic, 1781 Grafton, 11pm, $6, 423-0909.

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