It's Valentine's Day, and I am sitting in a diner talking to a man about goat penises.
This is not the ideal day or place to discuss this kind of thing, but Jon McKiel is no ordinary musician.
In his short time on the Canadian music scene, McKiel has dazzled critics by creating dynamic rock which recalls the sounds of Neil Young and Destroyer. His latest EP, Confidence Lodge, sees its official release party at The Bus Stop Theatre on February 26. But it wasn't always an easy trek to get to this point in his career.
Growing up in Amherst, McKiel began his songwriting career by playing in punk bands at an extremely young age, before putting the guitar down for 10 years. After moving to the city for university, the spark was re-ignited. "In 2006 I made a record, and that was sort of the first thing I ever recorded. I don't particularly care for it now," McKiel says, between sips of coffee, of Jon McKiel. "At least it sounded cool then. I kind of hate it now."
Taking his songwriting in a different direction, he went on to release the acclaimed The Nature of Things, adored across the country for its bright mix of storytelling and indie rock. His lack of nostalgia for his past leaves the feeling that McKiel is the kind of person always thinking one step ahead. He did write a song about progression---The Nature of Things hit "123 My Friends," about travelling and being misunderstood by your friends because of it.
This probably lead to his future marquee of choice for performances: aboard a train across Canada. VIA had a unique deal that allowed free board, food and transportation for musicians who hop onto one of their trains and criss-cross the country playing for passengers. "I was all pumped because I watched Festival Express," says McKiel. But unlike that documentary---which follows a group of '60s rockers travelling on a party train---the modern-day form was slightly less rad. "It was claustrophobic some days, because you would spend three days without getting off the train." It also wasn't the most conducive environment for guitar playing. "It's kind of weird, because there is no amplification, so you can barely even hear it. Half the time you go to the activity room and play for people who may or may not be interested in you or what you're playing."
Since returning from his cross-country excursions, McKiel has found open arms in the Halifax music scene. He began hosting open mic nights at the Paragon on Mondays (he stresses he's just the sound man). He also played numerous shows around the city of previous material and covers, taking part in a ramshackle performance of Smiths tunes at an Andy Rourke and Smiths tribute show in 2009. "We sped the songs up and made them sound pretty grungy," McKiel says. "'The Queen is Dead' sounded pretty cool."
McKiel and his band were the best performance of the night, not because of their accuracy with the Marr/Morrissey songbook, but the sounds they triggered on stage. And although he has heard some people cast his music in the same vein as Beck or grunge monoliths Mudhoney, McKiel's songwriting sounds nothing like those artists.
This is evident on Confidence Lodge, a five-song EP that offers a taste of his upcoming full-length Tonka Warcloud. "Sometimes it's nice to do something smaller and work off of that," McKiel says of the EP. The album was made in partnership with his friend Diego Medina, who's the album's producer, and owner and creator of the Confidence Lodge. Originally used as an Oddfellows Lodge and music hall, the building was purchased by Medina and transformed into a massive recording studio with a cathedral-like performance room perfect for recording.
Based in Lunenburg (where McKiel and Medina now reside, separately), the album was named after the building due to the new atmosphere it created during the recording process. McKiel speculates it's probably the biggest and best studio in the area and the album undoubtedly supports that with its clean production and warm tones. "Luckily, I was able to trade some helping out in the construction for studio time," he laughs.
Although the EP was recorded during the same session as his future release, McKiel feels that each song carries a distinctive sound. Using different analogue recording devices and amps give each song on Confidence Lodge its own character, needed when you jump from a song about a serial killer, like the Allan Legere ode "Monster of the Miramichi," to the wintry "Snow Owls."
"We tried to just have really warm tones and make it as interesting as possible," McKiel says of the recording with Medina. "It's kind of maddening in a way. Every song we're switching drums or tuning the drums to the guitar and trying to make all the tones sing together, instead of making a record that has just an overall feel. But I like the challenge."
As Medina enters the diner and sits down for breakfast, the conversation progresses about the recording process, and it's clear that their camaraderie and work late at night in the Confidence Lodge created the unique textures on the album.
The waitress arrives and takes Medina's order for breakfast. McKiel leans closer and says, "You know, Diego once made a guitar pedal called the Goat Dick."
I stare blankly: "What does it do?"
"It's an octave pedal, but also a fuzz pedal," McKiel says. "Depending on the dynamic you play it, it changes the octave, so it's kind of cool."
They both nod their heads. It may not be an average conversation, but Jon McKiel isn't your average musician.
Matthew Ritchie is a journalist and arts critic in Halifax.