It's 10 minutes to showtime and Rich Aucoin is in his street clothes in front of hundreds strong at St. Matthew's Church. It's already hot in here. The stage holds four drum kits, a grand piano, eight chairs for the string section, microphone stands, music stands, guitars and horns leaning everywhere---it's not ready, and neither is Aucoin. He dashes up the right aisle, dashes back a couple minutes later, offers a distracted, off-centre high-five.
"I'm such a stress case right now," he says.
This is not how it usually goes. It's him and his micro Korg, a projector and props--- confetti guns, a parachute, balloons, 3D glasses. Sometimes there's a band, but it's often a one-man show. A whirling dance-pop dervish of a one-man show, not to be undersold, but one man nonetheless, one man to worry about.
Tonight is different. Tonight Aucoin will finally---seriously, finally---release We're All Dying to Live, the long-gestating full-length he began recording, with 500 guests from across the country, three years ago. Two release windows have opened and closed. He's been running around the world performing its songs, with only a teaser EP to sell in support. But the album, the whole thing, is really here now, in the building---audience members are currently examining the insert's photo grid of the record's participants.
This is said all the time, but tonight it's true: the buzz in the air is palpable. This feels like something before it's even started, before Aucoin, admirer and exploiter of spectacle, has even put on his nice show vest. Tonight there will be no confetti, no parachute, no crowd surfing board---but nearly 80 players from every nook of the Halifax music scene will stand in front of the altar supporting Aucoin's vision, as grandiose as it is absolute, and their horns and strings and sticks will not overshadow their conductor, a tall, soft-spoken slip of a man.
It will be the show of the year.
Earlier in October, Aucoin is in the middle of a two-week stint at home, a rarity now. Before his release show at the Pop Explosion he'll travel to Iceland, come back two days before and rehearse with six dozen people, and the day after the show he'll go to New York for the CMJ festival and from there the day afters go on until Christmas.
He's using the downtime, of course, to work---"I'm re-doing the set," he says as he waits to order at the Good Food Emporium on a sweater-warm afternoon.
He's readying an updated cut of the We're All Dying to Live version (a narrative he cut together from 40 public domain movies synced to the record in the style of his first EP, Personal Publication) for the internet. When he "re-does" the set, the video must match it. His phone lights up constantly.
This was his life before he had a record, anyway. He's been touring his guts out for the past year, opening for Of Montreal, The Flaming Lips and any cool mid-range indie-dance band you'd a PBR at. Locally, you'll find him at venues large and small--- the Multi-Purpose Room, Grand Parade, the Seahorse, Gus' very possibly your own living room. (His next show is at Reflections on November 26.) There's no question he's an entertainer, but as We're All Dying to Live demonstrates, he's also a composer, sound engineer, motivational speaker and uniter of dance floors and musical genres.
In film the term for someone like this is "auteur." It fits him like skinny jeans.
"I made a decision that whatever I do musically, so as not to repeat myself, I'll do opposite the next time. So I'll just pick one element," he says over a bowl of soup. "The first thing I chose was since I did the first record by myself, I'm gonna do this one with people. That was as far as the idea was at first. It started to balloon from there."
"Balloon" is an understatement---after a year of touring the country, Aucoin came home with a computer full of 500 people, more than 300 individual recording sessions, across nearly two dozen tracks of soaring, beat-packed pop songs about "life" (he was a philosophy major at King's). The full name is We're All Dying to Live (Public Publication EP/Over the Top! LP) and it was stitched together in 10 cities outside of Halifax, in six professional studios---including Abbey Road---and through hundreds of field recordings.
"I did the math one time---even though there's 500 people, there's some choirs and stuff, so I recorded probably 300 and 20-some people individually and each one of those people gave me six takes of three different parts," he says. "It took two years to edit everything just so I could make sure I wasn't missing something.
"It's a weird feeling to work on something for so long. It's going to be weird when I'm done, because I'm still actively working on the show to release it, I feel like I'm coming to the end of a long TV series and I'm savouring the last few episodes."
Despite the album's delay, because of Aucoin's relentless touring, the songs are all familiar to a crowd that's significantly larger than it would've been had it come out earlier, the two times it was supposed to.
"I've been joking that you don't need a record to get bigger show opportunities and stuff. Everything good that's happened has happened on the strength of the live show, not recordings," he says. "There's definitely a lot of people I've played for that will just experience it live and never listen to the recording. Essentially, right now is the time to be focusing on the live show, because it's where the music business is still thriving."
Not thriving? Hope, positivity, dreams. That Aucoin's brand of feel good is breaking through the fog of these cynical, beaten-down times is a testament to his tenacity and his talent. His vision.
"The show always gets compared to religious-type things but I keep it away from ever getting corny or preachy or anything like that," he says. "It's just awesome, the shows that really go well---when everyone's connected and doing this thing together---are the fuel in the tank to get to the next one."
WE’RE ALL DYING TO LIVE SELECTED tracks
All You Cannot Live Without
This seven-minute high point is a philosophical conversation with dozens of singers that explodes in a cathartic chorus after a long, ethereal slow burn. “It opens with saw, lap steel and pedal steel and bowed vibraphone,” says Aucoin, “all these non-percussive tonal instruments.”
This refrain of this live favourite has gone through a lyrical pruning process---one version was “We don’t want to leave it all in our heads/we don’t want to leave it all in our beds.” It ended up at “We won’t leave it all in our heads.” Aucoin brings up the Owen Pallett song “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt:” “At the end when he’s like [sings] ‘Never gonna give it to you/never gonna give it to you?’ He performed that at St. Matthew’s a few years ago and the lyrics at that point were ‘And only then I’m gonna give it to you.’ I said, ‘It’s crazy you changed that.’ He was like, ‘Yeah, I think I’m feeling more negative.’”
Please Give This to Seymour Stein
This breezy noise piece runs less than a minute. Aucoin met the music icon at the Atlantic Film Festival two years ago. “I ran home and did a new mix of the song “It,” and burned it onto a CD and ran down to the Prince George and had this CD in my hand and gave it to the concierge and said, ‘Please give this to Seymour Stein.’”
Brian Wilson is A.L.i.V.E (All Living Instantly Vanquish Everything)
This synth-heavy jam gets people jumping and screaming the chorus: “Remember what we’ve been/give in.” “It goes from this negative beginning: Think of all the things that have gone wrong and just give into it,” says Aucoin. “And then the last chorus, which I’m not sure anyone ever notices at the live show, it switched from two words, ‘give in,’ to ‘given.’ And switches from a minor chord progression to a major chord progression, so it’s more hopeful.”
Watching, Wishing, Waiting
The video accompaniment for this propulsive, percussive song, the record’s darkest, features Superman being captured. “Superman’s saying that you can’t wait for someone else to help you,” says Aucoin. After the unfortunate news that “it’s you that’s gonna have to save yourself,” the whole thing goes half-time: “It’s saying but even though you’ve gotta do it yourself, you’ve got the lot to hold you up. And that’s usually when I crowd-surf.”