A Fireside Chat With Neil Haverty

Interview by Dave Crosbie with illustration by Kristian Bauthus

SS: Bruce Peninsula seems to be back with a vengeance. It looks like you guys have been busy as hell, what with the Bruce Trail Fire Song videos on Southern Souls, the Fire Sale songs up on your site, a new album coming out in October, and a tour out to St. John’s and back. Are you guys crazy?

NH: We’re just productive, I guess. But we also had a lot of time to load up our shots. Not a lot of bands have 10 months between the day the record is done and the day its released… or that time is usually full of shows anyways. We’ve only played 3 shows in all that time. I mean, a lot of that time was a write-off for me, but the rest of the members kept the ball rolling while I was sick.

Truthfully it’s only just starting to feel busy. This summer has been the most relaxing summer I’ve ever had. It’s starting to get hectic but I’m really looking forward to going on tour. We’ve never been to the rock and its always been a goal for us. I truly can’t wait.

SS: You’re all involved in other projects. Is it hard getting together? Are you all generally around for the writing process?

NH: It is difficult to schedule this band but we’ve somehow made it work. Sometimes we have to turn down shows because our members have shows of their own that night. But I really believe in all the music that’s coming out of our camp and I’m really happy there’s so much of it.

One positive aspect of my time away from it all was that the other members had time to work on their own projects without BP in the mix. Tamara finished and released a record, Ivy is releasing hers in September, Daniela finished a second Snowblink record, Misha sang on those Daniel Romano records and helped Matt start his side project Eons… That stuff would have happened anyways, but everybody took this winter to focus on their own thing. I’m a bit jealous because my own thing was cancer, rather than making music, but I’m just pleased that everybody is working hard.

One cool thing we are doing on this upcoming tour that we’ve never done before is a sort of BP revue thing. At instores and places with small PAs, we are all gonna play solo songs in the in-the-round style. I think it’ll be a fun change of pace and actually the idea came as a result of the Southern Souls videos we did.

SS: Where did the idea for the Bruce Trail Fire Songs come from?

NH: It was honestly a steroid-induced idea. I got bad headaches during treatment and the only thing that really beat them was steroids. The first time I ever got them I was awake for 48 hours because my mind was racing and bursting with ideas. My girlfriend came to see me the next morning and I showed her all these stupid little sketches and diagrams of all these things I wanted to do. They were terrible, little stick figures or whatever, but some of the ideas were actually alright. That photo with just our eyes painted with red face paint is also a direct result of a drawing I made on steroids. But the Southern Souls cover was the best idea that came of it all, I think.

SS: What about the Fire Sale songs? Is this stuff from the new album?

NH: We had a plan while we were recording the record that we wanted to end up with a lot of extra material. The idea was to put out the record and then follow it up with a bunch of one-off tracks on the internet. So they were never intended to be on the record, but the order got switched up when I went to the hospital.

Just after Christmas, the rest of the core band had dinner to decide what to do while I was out of commission and that’s when they came up with the Fire Sale, which is just sort of a vehicle for songs that aren’t part of a larger project.

The Fire Sale ended up more ambitious than we planned. First, our friend Ted built us this awesome website. Then when I got out of the hospital I wasn’t too interested in playing music and got into video editing instead, so that’s why most of those songs have videos to go with them.

That was also something we talked about a long time ago. Video is an important part of presenting music nowadays, with YouTube and embedding on Facebook or whatever, so we decided we wanted to do some of that last year. The Fire Sale has been a really good testing ground.

SS: The new album’s coming out October 4; is this the same album you had recorded about a year ago?

NH: Yep, we recorded it in May of 2010. The mixing took a while and we got the master on December 20th. I went into the hospital the next day. Crazy huh? Needless to say I’m pretty excited that it’s finally coming out.

SS: You’re on the other side of a battle with acute promyelocytic leukemia. What the hell was it like going through that?

NH: It was unlike anything I’ve ever gone through before, obviously. I had never been in a hospital more than a day and honestly I’ve spent the last 10 years intentionally avoiding the doctor at all costs. It was a pretty abrupt change from never seeing the inside of a doctors office to actually living at the hospital and seeing new doctors every hour and getting all kinds of tests constantly. I’m totally desensitized to the whole thing now. What? You want to run a test? Take some blood? Have at it.

It wasn’t fun but I will say that I’m thankful to live in Canada. I never once worried that I wasn’t in good hands. Its still scary to be as sick as I was, but at least I knew I was getting proper care to fight it.

That said, if I never have to sleep another night in a hospital, I’ll be a happy man.

SS: How did you react to the news?

NH: When they first told me, I thought for sure I was going to die. Leukemia has always been in my “top 5 diseases you definitely don’t want to get” and I was shocked when they told me.

For the first hour there were no details. I wasn’t even sure what Leukemia really was, that it’s a blood cancer even, so I was scared. The doctor eventually came in and told me it was Acute Promeolycitic and that I got the “good one”. There are many different kinds of Leukemia and if I got ANY of the other ones, I’d be in a much worse position. Because of a wonder drug called ATRA, APL is highly treatable and the doctor was pretty much like “no biggie”. But then he told me I was checking in to the hospital right then and I couldn’t go home for a month, so it was still kinda a big deal, but at least I was gonna live.

SS: How did you deal with the experience?

NH: In retrospect, the luckiest part about the whole ordeal was getting to see all the love that surrounds me. People living their everyday lives don’t get to see that so plainly.

From the moment I told everyone I got sick, it was a parade of affection and well wishes. My family did everything for me and my girlfriend came to be by my side every single day. My friends threw a party in my honour and some of my favourite bands played and 300 people showed up. It was amazing!

So as hard as it all was, I was really well supported and so it was a lot easier to stay optimistic about everything. Beyond that, when someone tells you that you were three days away from dying but that you’re gonna be fine after a little treatment, it’s a bit easier to keep the pep in your steps. I got pretty close to the fire but now I’m on the other side unscathed and everything is a bit rosier than it was, you know?

SS: Was music still a part of your life throughout?

NH: I sort of shut off that part of me while I was going through it all and it’s been tough getting the engine going again.

I listened to a lot of music while I was in the hospital. In Rainbows most days and James Blake and Timber Timbre in the night just to freak myself out. And I watched a lot of BET.

I think I went pretty deep into my brain about it all when I couldn’t play and that messed me up. I kept wondering things like “why does it take a band 2 years to make 10 songs when a song is only 3 minutes long?” or “why are all these videos just people doing stuff? What’s exciting about people?” and I got a bit disenchanted by it all.

When I came out of the hospital I was still pretty low on energy so I never felt like picking up my guitar. Then when I did, I couldn’t help but write these confessional cancer songs and I really didn’t want to do that.

I’m really lucky though because we have this finished record and enough distance from the songs that they all feel new again. So just rehearsing for the record release has started to bring back the things I love about playing music. I maybe have been a little detached from it but I bet by the time tour is over, I’ll be right back where I was before. Music making and I have been together for more than a decade. That’s not something you just walk away from.