Practice Makes Practice: An Interview With Old & Weird

Interview by Andrew Patterson with illustration by Kristian Bauthus

At the onset of the 2014 holiday season, I spent a lazy Sunday afternoon in my living room with Old & Weird, a curious, three-piece band from Halifax, Nova Scotia featuring Allison Higgins, Danika Vandersteen and Hannah Guinan.

The past year saw the release of Old & Weird’s first proper full-length, What I Saw, an excellent 10-song access point for new fans and a triumphant culmination for those who’ve been following the breadcrumb trail of EPs, singles and festival appearances throughout the past four years. Sharp and surprising, the songs (and members) of Old & Weird move candidly between the profound and the quotidian. Their mood is wide-eyed and open. Speaking with them about interpersonal dynamics, putting practice into practice, and experiencing minor internet scandal made such topics seem entirely uncomplicated and, more to the point, inspiring.

The first question I have written here is: how does momentum work for you, Old and Weird?

Allison: It comes and it goes for sure.

Danika: It can be pretty contagious. When we go to festivals or we see other bands working on stuff, it gets us excited. Going to Pop Montreal is always good for that. But then four months might pass and we don’t feel any momentum.

Hannah: Sometimes it feels like we have no momentum, and then we look back and realize that we’ve done quite a bit.

A: When we’re recording it can feel like there’s no momentum.

D: Hmmm, yeah. We just finished recording something. Just two songs.

Oh, tell me about it.

D: It’s a split with New Fries.

Cool. They’re great. What’s that going to look like? Tape? Internet?

H: It’s going to be a seven inch. And on the internet.

Who calls practice?

D: Who calls practice? Who calls it what?

H: We usually call it different names. [laughs]

How do songs come to life? Do you each write songs?

H: Usually Danika and I come with something, and then we all add parts to it.

D: If we come with a full idea, that’s when we’re most productive. Otherwise it can take a long time, or never amount to anything.

H: And often Allison will work on guitar stuff at home and then bring the ideas to practice.

D: There’s lots of different ways it can happen.

How do you navigate that kind of collaboration?

H: I think we’re generally encouraging. We usually like what the other person’s doing, but we’ve also learned to call each other out on stuff.

D: Things don’t often end up the way I expect. Like, when I write a song by myself and then bring it to the group, it often ends up different. But I trust that it’s probably for the better. It’s nice to have two other really creative people adding to it.

I don’t quite know how to ask this question, but I’m curious about something you touched on, Danika, which is the discrepancy between trying to make something and then how it comes out. Sometimes it’s part of collaboration, but other times just the raw creative process alters the piece. Y’know? There’s a question in there somewhere.

D: I can think of a specific song. When I wrote it, I thought or hoped that it had a certain sound to it. Then when we played it together it was really rockin’. And I thought, ‘Really? Is that what this song is really like?’. But then I realized that hearing it on my own was kind of like looking at myself. Like…[sigh] You need other people to help you see it. It’s more well rounded that way. Do you guys know what I mean?

A: I do, yeah.

D: It’s like looking in a mirror versus seeing the way other people see you.

A: Or if you take a picture of yourself in Photobooth and you’re still moving a little bit, and then you wonder if that’s what your face really looks like.

Do things reoccur in your music or your process that you’re surprised by?

A: You mean like how every song you play is in ‘D’?

D: For me there’s a lot of guitar things, like trends that I do. Chords that always sound good to me, and so I keep coming back to them. I like ‘E’ a lot.

A: Definitely. I’m a ‘D’ and you’re an ‘E’.

D: But wait, do you mean themes? Like lyrics?

Umm… Sure. Themes, ideas.

A: Singing about friends. It seems like a lot of the people we know are always coming back to the same ideas.

Can you talk more about that?

A: Oh, I don’t know…

D: For me, I’m always sing about myself.

H: But the new song you wrote is about Kurt Cobain.

D: Yeah, but really it’s about me. Like, it’s about me telling a joke about Kurt Cobain. It’s my voice on him.

A: We’re often making stuff about making stuff.

Right. There’s definitely a lot of self-reflexivity in your music. The moments when your songs jump out at me, I often ask myself two questions at once: ‘What is this about?’ and ‘Is this about what this is about?’

D: [laughs] Yeah. Well, I’m always trying to show my experience, my take on things. And hopefully, somewhere in that, there are unique points that people can understand.

And trying to express your experience alters your experience?

D: [laughs] Yeah for sure. By choosing one way to see it or one way to put it.

One thing I hear over and over in your music is humour. How does that work?

D: That way you can get off easy. If you don’t take yourself too seriously, other people can’t take you that serious. Y’know? What do you guys think?

A: It can balance things out.

Some people think that humour allows you to get at a lot of ideas that are otherwise inaccessible.

A: Like, it’s easier to reveal certain truths with humour?

Or maybe you can get at a truth without having to reveal something.

A: Right.

You guys are all involved in the arts outside of Old & Weird. Where do you see music fitting in that? Would you say you’re musicians first and foremost?

A: If I was making a CV, I wouldn’t say ‘musician’.

H: Me either.

A: I’d say artist. I think in my head ‘artist’ is cooler than ‘musician’.

D: But it’s coolest to be an arty musician. [laughs]

It seems like being a musician is a more social existence. Like, not just being in a band, but how you present it…

D: What are you trying to say, Andrew? [laughs]

I don’t know. It feels like a really sweeping generalization now that I’m saying it out loud.

H: I go to more rock shows than I do art openings.

D: And you run an art gallery, so that’s fucked.

A: A lot of music happens at bars, and it’s late and loud.

D: And with art, my main experience is doing it in art school where there’s lots of critiques and discussions.

A: Yeah. I miss talking about things.

D: With music, it’s like, ‘Here’s the final product’. And if people like it, they really say so. And if they don’t, you don’t hear anything.

Did you say you miss talking about things, Allison?

A: Yeah.

I’ve heard a lot of people talk about there being a lack of critical discourse in Halifax.

D: And they find it elsewhere?

I’m not sure. People can only speak to where they’re from, I guess.

A: Sometimes with art, it’s easier to talk about it. Because you make something and you can separate it from yourself. But with music, you’re always doing it. Or hearing yourself do it. Hearing yourself recorded can be painful. Is that too sensitive?

D: We don’t really sit around and do songwriter’s circles. That’s not a real thing.

A: I think it would be kind of nice.

D: Yeah, I was trying to imagine the other day what it would be like to sit around with all my friends and work on songs. What would it be like? Would it feel really unnatural? Would I like what came out of it? Would everyone be way too uncomfortable to get anything done?

How do you learn to trust someone as a collaborator?

A: I think you have to know first that you like what you’re making. And then trusting that the other person won’t shut you down. It’s the same with any relationship. Time; being sweet to each other for a long time. We’ve definitely had bad times and hurt each other, but we worked through it. We’re encouraging.

What “phase” would you say Old & Weird is in?

A: Flange.

H: Mid-twenties.

A: We’re in a good phase. I feel excited about the future.

H: Yeah, we have a retreat scheduled.

A retreat scheduled? Can you tell me about that?

A: We’re going to New Brunswick in April with Tynan [Dunfield]. It’s sort of a deadline, but we’re going into it pretty open.

D: I’m in a phase where I don’t want to write songs the way I’ve been writing. And I’m not sure how else to do it. Maybe I haven’t had the time to do it? I’m hoping for some kind of transition. I think we’ve all started questioning what we’re doing a little. It’s a good starting point.

A: It’s often enough to do something just to do it, but then after a while you start to wonder ‘why’. Do you know what I mean?

Yeah. The process only gets more complex or intricate as it goes on. How long do you expect this retreat to be?

H: It’s only a week. We’re just going to go and see what happens.

A: There’s a lot of gear there, so we’ll be able to do whatever.

D: I think it’ll still be mostly a guitar, drum and bass thing.

A: There’s a lot of button stuff out there though, so maybe we’ll play with buttons.

Do you have any questions? For me? Or for each other?

D: Doing interviews always feels a little rude, like not having a dialogue with you.

Well, it’s a time for you to reflect.

D: True.

H: When is our thing with New Fries coming out?

D: Like, June or July.

H: On Pleasence [Records].

D: Yeah.

A: Oh, that’s who’s doing it? I guess I did have a question.

The last thing I want to ask you about is something that I only really heard about, which is the internet “controversy” surrounding Old & Weird being on the cover of [Halifax’s alt weekly] The Coast?

D: Oh yeah!

A: Oh god.

D: We were obsessed with it at the time, but haven’t really thought about it since.

A: There were, like, 200 comments about the article.

And what were the comments about? What were people saying?

H: There were some people who felt that we didn’t deserve to be on the cover.

D: Like we didn’t put our time in or something. And people were asking if our band was a joke. Or if we were serious. Mostly the sentiment was that we were undeserving and that, given more time, we might learn how to play our instruments.

A: Some people thought we were mocking them or making fun of music.

H: I think people felt threatened in a weird way.

Do you think there were gender politics at play?

A: Yep.

H: For sure. At first people were sort of talking around that. And then someone mentioned how St. Vincent was a good guitar player, but not the best guitar player. Which is weird because it had nothing to do with her.

A: The bands we got compared to mostly in that thread were the Sex Pistols, The Clash and the Ramones. [laughs]

H: It was so superficial.

A: Some people sent us apologies later.

H: But even when they apologized they projected things onto us, by suggesting that we were really upset about it; insinuating that we were really vulnerable or something.

A: That was a really frustrating part. We hadn’t said anything about it and people made all kinds of assumptions on our part.

D: I loved it.

H: We were pretty disappointed when it got deleted.

A: It was mostly thrilling, y’know?

H: Yeah it was. God, why do we like that kind of thing?

Ooh, that’s a good question.