Doug Tielli on his Forthcoming Album and Growing Up Tielli

Interview by Chris Hampton with illustration by Kristian Bauthus

“There was no reason for me to make a record at the time. No one was waiting for it anywhere. So I spent most of the time in quiet, listening to and watching the animals – mostly different waterfowl and small birds, lying on the beach, looking wordlessly out to the horizon, finding interesting things to bring back to my portable like stones, beach treasures, butterflies, sticks … It is a beautiful place. It is odd too, because you feel like you are in the middle of nowhere, but you can also feel the huge energetic shadow of the big city right behind you. Agnes Martin’s (a minimalist painter) book entitled ‘with my back to the world’ comes to mind … yes, my back was turned to the world, but the world was also at my back, and over my shoulder too.  And so if I went indoors to record something, and it didn’t make me shiver like a good breeze, or warm me on the inside like a crabapple in the sun, I knew that the music wasn’t ripe yet, and I just went back outside to wander.” 

The excerpt above was taken from Doug Tielli’s press release for his new album Swan Sky Sea Squirrel.  I find it quite telling about Doug’s character – gentle, thoughtful and brimming with integrity.  I recently had the opportunity to correspond with Doug, to learn about his new record and to gain a snapshot of what it was like to grow up in one of Canada’s first families of alt-rock.

SS: You’ve recorded your first proper solo release, why’d you call it “Swan Sky Sea Squirrel?”

DT: I like the way it sounds, and looks. I like the letter s visually, the lack of a straight line … the endless curling … it has visual poetry. The words in the title are all titles or parts of titles of songs. And when I was looking at the track listing, I was surprised by all of the s’s, animal names, and elemental references.  It is also gentle and strange.

SS: When can we expect it?

DT: It will be released by Tin Angel in September … maybe the 26th, maybe a bit later … but this fall.

SS: What other players have lent helping hands?  Who produced it?

DT: I did everything … no engineer or producer … just me and an ADAT in an old school portable on Toronto island. Otherwise, Nick Fraser who I play with in Drumheller, drummed on two tunes, and Jennifer castle duetted with me on ‘Deer’, and then JC, Aimee Robinson, Claudia Wittmann, Cindy Carroll, Josh Thorpe, and my brother John Tielli sang on ‘Yes I am Lonely’.

SS: What could you do on SSSS that you couldn’t do on a Silt record?

DT: Follow through on my ideas. Allow things to be simple and clear. Overdub to my heart’s content.  Playing with The silt I really enjoyed allowing Ryan and Marcus to take the song where they wanted to, even if sometimes it meant that I had to abandon what I initially thought-felt the song was supposed to be.

On ssss i never had to consider what anyone else might want, or think was good or bad … there was no one else’s inclinations to honour. So I just took my time and let it come.

SS: How will you be performing it live? Stripped down or with accompaniment?

DT: Both. But mostly solo on the first bunch of Euro tours this fall.

SS: All three of you Tielli boys are accomplished musicians; Martin with the Rheostatics and his own stuff, John with Rock Plaza Central and now his own Metal Kites, and yourself, also with RPC and more recently, The Silt.  Was music something you guys always shared?  I mean, did young Martin and John and Doug Tielli all jam together in the living room/ basement/ garage?  Did you make homemade music-videos or cassette recordings or play together in school talent shows?

DT: My earliest and most effecting musical influences were bedtime songs my mother would sing. It was my favourite thing in the world. She had a great set of songs … which included Teddy Bear’s Picnic, a Bach Minuet with words about fall leaves, Robin in the Rain, and Down By The Old Mill stream … and an Italian one, Nina Nanna Bell Bambino.

I shared a room with John, and I was quite a bit younger so I just listened to what he listened to. I’m sure he was influenced by Martin’s tastes, but I wasn’t directly, although I did get to hear Martin playing guitar along to Neil Young from downstairs.  In my bedroom it was mostly Rush and The Police in the early days. john eventually started learning the Rush songs on guitar and I would sing them. And then when he started writing songs, I would sing along with, and harmonize with him.

SS: What else did the young Tielli’s do? Did you play hockey like the Rheos’ lore might suggest? Or other 3-boy-family type stuff like tackle football or wrestling?  I know you and Martin both paint, were you guys always arts-minded?     

DT: I was the only really sporty one. I played hockey, soccer, tennis, and ran long distance. Martin practically nothing.  John and I played quite a bit together … road hockey, tennis, board games, bike rides. adventuring.  And yes we all did art all life long … a lot.

SS: Was there something of a favourite album for you three?  Something that spent more time on the turntable or cassette player than most?

DT: It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I had tastes that differed from John. I remember the first one I got stuck on was Rush’s 2112 (I was probably 10) then, NY’s Harvest, Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car, Mary Margaret O’Hara’s Miss America, JM’s Blue, … these were the albums I got into growing up.

SS: How old were you when Whale Music came out?  Did you know at that time that you too were going to make a lifelong commitment to music?

DT: 15. The early Rheos recordings were very inspiring to me as a young teenager for sure.

No, I didn’t know that I would be playing music now at all … I didn’t think of it. I almost still haven’t thought of it. Music has been a companion for me so far … a way of being with people, learning to communicate, to express myself in sounds and words, and learning other peoples’ languages, and seeing how it changes my language or what I might like to say. It has been a way of trying out ways of being. Every music carries within it feelings and consciousness, beliefs and outlooks which both resonate what is already within a person, as well as changes a person.

SS: Any other musicians in the family?  A parent, grandparent, or other that inspired and encouraged you Tielli boys to embrace music in the way you have?

DT: My father plays guitar and sings, and my mother sings. They met while my father was playing guitar and my mother was traveling.  My Italian grandfather played many instruments including accordion and started the Caprino town band, for which he was honoured in his later life. His aunt was an opera singer who sang in L’Arena in Verona.

SS: So now I’m confused about you guys, are the Tielli boys more Staal brothers or brothers Karamazov?  Care to weigh in?  

DT: I don’t have a clue!