Why is Rock afraid of Paper? Because Paper Beat Scissors

Illustration by Kristian Bauthus

Interview by Andrew Sisk with illustration by Kristian Bauthus

It was his environment growing up, a swell of songs emerging from his dad’s hi-fi stereo, that lead to Tim Crabtree being summoned into the continuum of music. The Beatles, Peter Gabriel, Joy Division, and the Smiths were his context of what music was meant to be and the edgy darkness of those bands were apt to the surroundings of Burnley, England. The knowing hands of broody English rock shaping his sensibilities, he began singing when no one else was in the house. Under the overcast morose weather of north western England seminal bands with a grey sophistication have been exported generation after generation and Tim Crabtree of Paper Beat Scissors is no exception, however, there is a Canadian chapter to his story.

Paper Beat Scissors emerged after Crabtree had moved to Canada to go to “uni” and was exposed to the Canadian music scene. Whittling away at material while building a reputation in the Halifax music scene he eventually found allies with the Forward Music Group and lined up producer Mike Feuerstack (snailhouse, wooden stars, and Belle Orchestre) which lead to his critically praised premier self-titled LP that ended up appearing on several “best of 2012” lists in as far reaching places as Mexico and Germany.

Melancholy seems an odd apparatus for the eternally optimistic Crabtree but his music pulls together the beautiful, catchy, and forlorn feelings of his home country in a very exciting way . He has spent more than a year touring Canada and Europe gaining praise and fans along the way and is already beginning work on his sophomore record. The future is bright, after recently being signed to German label, Ferryhouse, and releasing a live 7 inch, Paper Beat Scissors is set to tour Canada in the coming weeks.

I caught up with Tim Crabtree at his home in Halifax, NS.

You have a unique vocal style, how long has it taken you to find your voice? Who were your original vocal inspirations?

I was always very shy of my singing and when I was younger I’d only ever do it when there was no-one else in the house.  In the grunge band I was in from the age of 14, my friend John and I would both sing in rehearsals, but when we got our first gig John became the lead singer because he was slightly less terrified of singing in public than I was.  I ended up doing backing vocals in that band, but didn’t step out as a lead singer until I was 21, so I feel like I came to this late in the game, and I’ve been finding my feet since then.  I think the question about inspirations is particularly valid, as I feel like finding your own voice is as much about losing the overbearing remnants of the voices of your inspirations.  I don’t think I really found my own vocal space until I started touring regularly and performing a lot more, somewhere between the release of Flicker and the recording of Paper Beat Scissors. 

To get back to the inspiration question, Michael Stipe has to be the first reference point.  REM were the first ‘grown-up’ band I got into as a teenager, and I devoured their back catalogue.  I was a particular fan of the younger, mumblier Stipe – the one that existed between Chronic Town and Fables of the Reconstruction, and was brutally murdered by John Mellencamp’s producer.  I have to admit that Adam Duritz  played a significant role in my early music listening years, and I was actually listening to August and Everything After during Christmas this year and totally loving it.  After that it was Thom Yorke, then Jeff Buckley, then Jonsi, then Mark Kozelek.  Somewhere in the middle, and unfairly (to my mind) consigned to the historical rubbish bin of Britpop was Crispin Hunt.  I loved the 2 Longpigs albums and was really taken with how unrestrained and naked his vocal style was, how he could let rip in these really stark ways that seemed to leave him really exposed but with this great tonal control in the middle of it all.  No-one ever seems to talk about this band anymore, and those who remember them seem to give them short shrift, but they’re really up there for me.

What rules do you have for yourself when you’re creating?

“Don’t get too involved”.  Might sound weird and nonsensical, but things work best when I feel like I have as little control over the situation as possible – I’m playing my guitar and singing, but my brain is switched off and I’m just letting stuff happen.  The more I can ‘let go’, the more likely it is that something will happen that will turn into a song.  It’s really important for me, at least in those earliest stages, to turn off my analytical brain and just let stuff happen.

You’ve done a lot of touring over the past year, what have been some highlights? Challenges?

I’m a big fan of touring, even though it can be grueling.  As a whole, the best thing for me about touring is the people. I get to meet so many people from all over the world. I’ve often thought that it’s the best form of traveling.  If I was to just go backpacking somewhere, I would be too shy to just start talking to random people, and wouldn’t necessarily have any reason to just hang out and have a real conversation.  With touring I get to meet 5, 10, 50 people every night and have really interesting conversations with them about music, about our lives, get a really interesting insight into what it’s like to live in this place that I’m traveling through. 

In terms of show highlights, the two obvious ones actually happened pretty close to home, in Fredericton, and Halifax.  I had the pleasure of opening for two of my absolute favourite acts in the shape of Mark Kozelek (Sun Kil Moon/Red House Painters) and Clogs.  Clogs hold a double enchantment, as I’ve been in love with their classical/minimalist/pop music for years, and the members of the band are also involved, to various degrees with The National, another of my favourite bands.  They’re an incredibly gracious and down-to-earth bunch, and I had the immense pleasure of having them rehearse in my house prior to our show together.  Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) was also in town for the Jazz Fest and was performing with them.  I was keeping out of the way, sitting in the kitchen, eavesdropping on them rehearsing some of my favourite songs IN MY FRONT ROOM.  It was surreal to say the least.  They also invited me up onstage to join them on a song, and backed me up during the Paper Beat Scissors set on ‘Tendrils’.  The next day we all went up to Moncton and after their show Kyle (Cunjak, Forward Music) and I convinced Thomas and Ben from the band to go for a night swim in the Atlantic.  They’re all from the States, so the thought of swimming in the Atlantic IN CANADA was just insane to them, even though it was mid-July, but they were good sports. 

The biggest challenges are keeping healthy, and dealing mentally with the bad shows, whether they’re bad because of a bad performance, or feeling shitty, or a disappointing attendance.

What is your relationship with your music? What places does it hold in your life? Has that changed over the years?

That’s a tricky question to answer, as I haven’t thought too much about it in those terms.  I guess it’s just always there.  Even if I’m not actively working on it, it’s almost like it’s someone sitting in the room that I’m just not directly talking to at that moment.  I can’t think of a way of saying this without it sounding cheesy, but it’s probably the greatest source of joy in my life.  And I don’t mean just writing and recording – I could never perform live, never record another song again, but so long as I could just go off and play, it wouldn’t matter. Playing and writing to me, when it’s really flowing, happens when I can really shut off my over-analytical conscious brain and just be totally in the present.  I think it keeps me a much healthier person than I would be without it.  On a bit of a tangent, the lyrical content of a lot of my songs is about trying to be present (Keening is a prime example of this) in whatever situation I find myself in.  Music is one area of my life where I find this easier.  I think that listening to music serves this purpose to me, too, and before I was playing and writing my own music, listening and singing along, then playing along to other music definitely provided the same release for me, maybe that’s a change.  I guess I’ve always engaged with music in a primarily emotional way, too.  My parents were great in encouraging my brother and sister and I to take music lessons, and I learned piano, saxophone and double bass before I started playing the guitar.  But there was a massive shift when I finally started playing the guitar.  All of a sudden ‘music’ that I listened to and ‘music’ that I played were the same thing, not just black dots on a page, not just staid transcriptions of songs I never listened to.  Before the guitar, I’d been really turned off by the formal nature of traditional/orchestral music tuition.  Learning the guitar and realizing that all these notes and scales and chords were actually just tools for expressing things was a huge revelation to me. So I guess that was a massive shift, too.  Thinking about it, I feel like so much formal musical education is so backwards.  It takes the tools of communication that have been developed over the centuries, this musical language, and teaches it to people as if it’s only purpose is to replicate what other people have already said with it before.  It’s like teaching a child English so it can recite Shakespeare.  So it can read to you.  But not speak personally.  Not have a conversation.  Not even say “I’m hungry” or “I’m happy”.  Which I think is just so sad and stupid. 

Canadian Tour Dates

June 12: Toronto – Arts & Crafts Pop-up Show, Thrush Holmes Empire, NXNE, 1093 Queen Street W, 5pm FREE
June 13: Winnipeg – Crescent Fort Rouge United Church*
June 14: Regina – The Artful Dodger*
June 15: Saskatoon – The Refinery
June 17: Edmonton – Wunderbar
June 18: Edmonton – Cha Island Cafe
June 21: Calgary – Sled IslandHPX Showcase, Local 510, 2pm*
June 22: Kelowna – Streaming Cafe
June 23: Vancouver – Rickshaw Theatre
June 25: Victoria – Solstice Cafe

(* = With Gianna Lauren)