Jack Garton is the bandleader for Demon Squadron—named for his grandfather’s WWII special ops flight squadron—where he plays accordion and trumpet, sings, and writes songs. He is formerly of the legendary Maria in the Shower, whose mixture of theatre, performance art, and music made them East Van legends. Our conversation ranged from the emotional challenges of making a living from art to the meaning of life in a small town. The undercurrent of anxiety and imminent deprivation (disguised as thoughtfulness) that runs throughout will likely be familiar to anyone who sells their art to survive.
Jack Garton. Image courtesy of the artist.
"So you wake up every morning and it’s daunting. What am I going to work on today? Holy shit, I could spend my whole life working on just my singing, or my trumpet or accordion playing."
Travis Bernhardt: What are small towns like?
Jack Garton: Small towns…
Small towns have more desperation. Not always a bad thing. It knits a community together. They have that in common.
Galiano as a small town is totally different than, say, Fort St. John. These small towns are worlds apart in many ways. But what they have in common is that it’s harder to ignore our human desperation in small towns, and that makes us rely upon each other as a community. I believe that for humanity to continue to exist we’ll need a level of concern for each other which doesn’t always happen in an urban setting—because you just don’t have to be as concerned about other people, or even about your own survival. It’s not at the forefront of the mind.
Small towns bring out a lot of ingenuity in terms of how to support each other, how to support yourself, because there are not many options. How do you create meaning in your life with such limited choices? It’s not like you can just go and do anything. There are only three or four jobs you could possibly do! So you’ve gotta create meaning in one of those for yourself. [laughter]
Or! Create yourself a new job, which is a massive amount of work and maybe is the best thing. But you’ve gotta create it from scratch. It’s not like, “I’ll just go join the thing.” That’s why I find that my practice, my art practice, works really well in a small place like that, because I don’t need to be close to any major schools or centres, I just need to be close to myself. That’s the way I’ve arranged it, I just need space to work. But let’s say someone was a... jujitsu instructor, or had a passion for that, there’s no place to do that in a small town, you’d probably have to create your own centre, your own classes…
Would you ever give it up to do something else?
I’ve started a second career! At a cemetery, as a gravedigger. I don’t know if I’ve seen you since I started. The gravedigger died on Galiano, very suddenly, from a heart attack. Not while he was working…
That would be convenient.
Haha, very convenient! And through a series of weird coincidences I got the job. I’m... filling in for him, you might say.
And at first I thought I’d just do this for a little while, but now I’ve been doing it for a year and four months, and I find that in fact I can put just as much interest into that as I do in my other work. So if I have enough time to do both things I’ll just continue to do both things. And I even think that I could probably find as much interest in many other disciplines, too.
I’ve been doing this music thing for this long. But sure, there might be something else that would be just as fulfilling—you know, I also enjoy baseball! I could probably get my skills together in a year or two, go out and play baseball at a similar level of like… low financial reward. Nobody would know me, I wouldn’t be famous, but I could put food on the table in the minor leagues, and probably find a lot of peace in it. But I’m already doing this thing, so why not find out how far that can go. It’s kind of like being married. It’s like, I could find another girlfriend, or whatever, but I’ve got this one who’s good, so why not just keep committed to it? That sounds sad… but it’s not! I’m interested to see how the relationship will develop, it’s a positive thing. Those alternate life paths are just... there.
Music is a set of skills, there’s the singing, the instrument, the writing component, performance skills… What do you see as the relationship of skill to music, and how does that affect you in terms of how you practice?
Training… I first switched on to this idea—and this is probably true for other art forms as well—from reading about the International School of Theatre Anthropology, and the Grotowski theatre. They wanted a new expression of theatrical art that wasn’t tied to traditional training, which they found inadequate. They thought that western theatre needed to develop a new training system, but after trying all these different ways they decided that there is no system. Not that you don’t train—you must be rigorous!—but that the artist themself must invent their own system of training.
I’m thinking more and more now that training is something that has to be individualized. Like you said, there are many different aspects: the voice, instrument, writing... The performance technique, too! That can’t be ignored. Music must be performed, and there’s a lot of technique there. So you wake up every morning and it’s daunting. What am I going to work on today? Holy shit, I could spend my whole life working on just my singing, or my trumpet or accordion playing. And it feels overwhelming, but I realized after a certain point that I actually need to spend time working on all those things in concert to develop my own thing that I do. Which I don’t even really know what it is! But it develops as I spend time doing it.
So it’s a simple fact of whenever I’m at home I get up at 5:30am, and I spend from 6am to about 10am or noon just working on songs, either writing a new song or working on one that’s recently been done. And I’m playing it on accordion, I’m trying it out on trumpet, I’m singing it in different keys, maybe a little higher, a little lower…
Some things are very technical. You know, you want to perform in an orchestra you have to have a certain level of proficiency. There are things I can’t do, only certain people can do them, but then I wonder: Would it be worth the effort? Like, I’ll never ever be able to play these advanced piano pieces, I’ll never be able to do it, but I don’t feel like I’m missing anything. You might wonder if that’s a sour grapes, “well I don’t wanna do that,” sort of a thing, but no! It just doesn’t appeal to me. Why would I want to get good at something I don’t like?
And does the world need another person who can do that?
And so the question I’m leading to is: Why do what you’re doing now? Why is this what you’re doing?
I feel totally convinced that what I’m pursuing now is something that I’m the only person who can do in the way that I’m doing it. So I need to do it. And you’re right maybe it is a sour grapes thing! I was rejected from theatre school, I was rejected from music school, and I dropped out of university! All the normal training methods are not open to me, so…
That sort of forces you to do it your own way.
And you know what took forever, the hardest part, was cultivating the discipline to do it my own way, and not be lazy. And, to be honest, I just told you I get up at 5:30 every morning, and I’m much better than I used to be, but there are some days when I say, “fuck it!” and I just sleep in. Oh, and if I was truly disciplined I would get up early and work while on tour, but I don’t.
Right, right. I’m very lazy with that stuff, too. I don’t work hard at things at all until… I have this sense of how long I can leave it, you know what I mean? “If I start working here…”
Of it being absolutely the last moment you can start.
And it’s not until that moment that I can start the work! I do feel like leading up to that there’s processing happening, internally. Decisions are being made, thoughts are happening... but I can’t use that as an excuse! Like, wouldn’t everything I do be better if I just did more work? Of course. There’s no way I could argue otherwise. But that’s a secret about working for myself: I like the laziness, sometimes. I like that I don’t have to work very hard! That’s part of why I do it. But it does cause stress, thinking it would be better if I did more. The gap between what I do and what I imagine I could do with any kind of work ethic.
We can’t help it. we’re conditioned to think that there’s a way we should do it, that there’s a system. There’s isn’t, and every day is totally different. I’ve found a lot of benefit from disciplining my work to certain hours of the day and doing it as regularly as possible, but then one day if it doesn’t happen? I don’t care, really, because there are other things to do, life to live.
I’m definitely proud of the system I’ve made for myself, because it took so many years of abortive efforts. I’ve tried to put in systems for myself over and over and over and over and always failed, and I think the reason I’m keeping it going this time is because I don’t feel bad if I fail. I don’t feel bad if I miss a day. It’s not really failing, it’s just a different thing.
Jack Garton. Image courtesy of the artist.
Where does your motivation come from? What’s motivation?
Well I mean, like, money. Part of it. It’s my job. I’ve gotta keep putting out new stuff and booking gigs or there’s no more money. Although obviously it’s not just that, it’s a career where there’s not much money...
If it was just about money you’d be doing something else.
I like the adventure of not knowing what it is that might be created. If I’m organizing a tour there are so many logistical details that are boring as hell, and it’s almost enough to make me think, “why do this?” But there are enough unexpected occurrences that are so interesting it keeps me wanting to do it.
I don’t really know what’s around the next bend, and probably working on the next album there will be some really difficult things that we work through—probably even the next song! I’ll come up against all my prejudices, and all the lazy things I do to make myself look good, and I’ll have to face that again, and that’s interesting to me.
So the song that’s on right now, in Café Deux Soleils, where we are sitting, is the Backstreet Boys’ I Want It That Way, which I guess for a lot of people evokes memories of their teenage years...
For good or bad.
But a big hit, and I think written by Max Martin, the Swedish pop guy. So his relationship to songwriting, he’s the guy who writes the hits...
Oh yeah, in a very mathematical sense. It’s so calculated. Apparently his approach to lyrics is that they don’t have to make sense as long as they’re the right sounds at the right moments.
Even if you’re a folk musician there are still the popular songs, which is a different thing than a big pop hit, which is different than a piece of classical music that we all know. How do you relate to the idea of a hit?
I’m a contradictory, conflicted person, so I relate to it in a contradictory way. I don’t sit on one side of the fence or the other in terms of what a song needs to have to be a hit, to me. I’ve worked with songwriters who have different allegiances. To some writers, and this is more in the folk genre, the lyrics are everything, the meaning: if it means something great then it’s a great song. Whereas other people I’ve worked with couldn’t care less about that, and to them a hit song might be something that exposes them to new sonic textures (which may not even have anything to do with melody or harmony). And then there’s the meaning of a song in its context: a song that hits you at the right time, or hits a community at the right time, because it’s the right kind of sound for their desires at that time.
For me, I find that meaning is important to a song, which correlates to my sense that there’s meaning in the world. It’s sort of an old fashioned idea, now, that there is meaning to our existence. To me a song is a hit, whether I write it or someone else writes it, if by the end it really said something. I love songs like that! Of course, I like the open ended ones, too, because I always doubt myself! I think pop music is definitely in that direction, and I think that's just the general attitude among people, most young people especially. The idea that your life has meaning? Like, fuck that, I’m just trying to have fun right now! The idea that there’s an overarching system is so outdated, and I feel that’s reflected in songs. On the other hand, I’m also somewhat of a religious person, I enjoy religious music, but there I find it often leans too far in the direction of having answers. I enjoy the music, but I think, “you’d be a better religious song if you didn’t have so many answers,” because the world is full of questions.
Yeah, and those songwriters manage to frame the world in a system that exists but there’s always an aspect of doubt or ambiguity. They use language very skillfully to convey those layers of meaning. To me those are hits, they’re hits in my life.
And who knows what song might be a hit for someone in their life! And it’s hard to know. I usually end up doing a little test. I’ll write a song, play it for a few people, ask them about it. I’ll very carefully go about that conversation and if it has a reaction that is good then maybe continue on with it.
So you find a focus group.
In small ways. Even if it’s just my band, or my family, or my neighbours. I don’t have any hit songs in terms of commercial success, but I do have a few songs that some people have said to me, “this really helped me, it meant something.” And that's a really big hit! It’s a private thing, but they were able to use that song.
Songs have such different uses, it’s such a wide ranging form. The song that really connects with a teenager who has no friends and just wants to zone into the music in private is quite different from a protest song at a rally, galvanizing people in public. I recently heard an album that was so important for me because I was going through a very difficult period of time, a lot of loss and sadness that didn’t seem to have an expression. All of a sudden this album comes along and I couldn’t stop listening to it. I was addicted to it. I had to put it on every day and I couldn’t listen to anything else. Nothing else seemed to do it, it had to be these songs, and it was useful for my grief at that time. The songs were vessels I could pour those feelings into. So songs get burned right in there… but there’s not much that’s in the song itself that’s particularly special in that way, it’s just a container that you pour your feelings into.
I was, and still am, completely uninterested in Coldplay—but then one day found myself going through a breakup, and wham! That damned Fix You, yanking emotion out of me like buckets of water from a well.
And this album that affected me greatly was not a very popular album. That one was the one for me, that Coldplay song might be that for you. I don’t know why that is…
Maria in the Shower
Music is about more than just the songs, though. One thing I think Maria in the Shower did was to create images that really stuck with you.
Yeah, that’s right. People remember those images. We worked with lighting and stage levels and stuff like that, costume and makeup. Trying to create this tableau, this image that will burn into people’s minds. And people still talk to me about that stuff.
Especially when it feels like it’s a special, one-time-only event. That's where legends come from, maybe… With your new band, Demon Squadron, do you have that same kind of focus? Because Maria seemed to aim for that experience.
Much less so, but we might do more of that. This time around it’s about working on the songwriting first. Because we didn’t work on the songwriting very hard in Maria in the Shower. In fact, people talk about us as, like, a great band, but really we were more like a great theatre group that played some music. The music was not as high quality as most of the other things around. And nobody really remembers that. Also, we didn’t record very much, we just did live shows. And the memory of a live show can be great, but I know for a fact that a lot of times we weren’t very good at our instruments, or good at writing songs, or singing! And we weren’t very good at going through a sound system, either, so sometimes it would sound nice in very intimate acoustic venues—in the right place, with the right crowd—but with the new band we’re trying to…
Get the songs up?
Yeah, and sometimes I worry that by focusing so much on the sonic aspect maybe our shows are more boring. It’s possible. We sound a lot better! I know that for a fact, but…
Maria also had variety, like, there were multiple songwriting voices.
That’s true, too.
The songs, maybe they weren’t up to your standard in your mind, but at least they had variety and texture?
That’s right, that’s true, and it would keep the show flowing along because you’d never get tired of one perspective, you could bounce back and forth between these different worlds.
That was a real pleasure for me, those different worlds.
And I would say that was probably in the writing, too: creating magical worlds in each song.
Let’s talk a bit about that: about bringing people into those worlds. The performance side. Because you can have the best written material in the world, but so many things can go wrong when it comes time to deliver it. So many things can break your connection, and pull people out of the world you’re trying to create.
For instance drunk guy, you know, drunk guy in the front row! So enthusiastic, gotta acknowledge drunk guy in the front row…
You have to.
It’s a peril not to. But then, drunk guy can drag you down. How do you shut down drunk guy but not in a mean way? How do you defuse drunk guy?
It happened recently. I had this great show, it was going so well, and this guy who, really, was kind of a mega fan. Like, he’s so awesome to have there, but he was doing all the audience participation stuff in the wrong spots and he was just... making a scene. I ended up singling him out for a little while between songs, being like, “hey dude, if we’re going to go on the road, together, we’re…” I was sort of doing a little scene with him and, anyway, he felt so embarrassed that he actually left. And now I look really bad, I think, because I just put someone on the spot and they walked out. Everyone feels kind of embarrassed for him, now.
But then actually he came back. He wanted to hug. I think he just went out for a smoke. He was like, “no bad feelings,” and it was a triumph. So I thought I had totally fucked that one up! All these spontaneous moments… They don’t usually turn into a story, but they can.
And then there’s my planned program, which is whatever the songs are. I mean, are they important? Should I even get to the program? You know, like, some people come for the songs… Apparently Geoff Berner will do a 45-minute set and only really get to four songs, or something, because he’s doing all this other stuff.
That’s one of those things where you just have to read it. You know, are they into it, or not?
Jack Garton. Image courtesy of the artist.
The difference between, I dunno, something like what we’re talking about where people are into it versus something like Kanye West freaking out and, like, going on a rant and cancelling the show.
Yeah. I think his whole career is like that a little bit. He doesn’t understand that people aren’t really that into it.
There’s maybe a better way to frame this, but the way that I heard it once was, “the audience doesn’t care.”
Right? Not that they don’t care about anything and are apathetic, it’s that they don’t… they’re there for them.
Like, when your mom comes to see you perform.
She’s gonna hang on every word, no matter what.
Because she cares. But an audience is not made up of those people.
Like, even if they’re your biggest fans, that only buys you a certain amount of time.
Your mom, no matter what your rant is, she’ll go with it, right? But even your biggest fan is at a certain point gonna be like, “play some music.”
“Why should I care?” The audience, until you give them a reason—and you have to continually give them a new reason, not just one cool thing—you don’t get a free pass.
In fact every moment, in a way, is a new reason to care. [laughs] And there are so many ways of cheating that, too! I usually go in with a bag of a few pre-planned “impressive moments.”
Right? So if I’m kind of floundering it’s like, okay, I can bring out this thing which is sure to kill, right? And that buys you a little more time. I mean, hopefully the show isn’t going that direction, anyway, but if it does then there are a few tricks that should definitely work. I try to put the flashier stuff near the beginning, sometimes, so that the momentum is going the right way, instead of the wrong way.
You’ve got to get people in.
It’s amazing once they’re in. If a show’s going the right way, and they’re caring more and more about everything you do, at a certain point you can almost do no wrong, you can almost do anything. It’s an amazing thing when that happens. You have so much more leeway. You can really mess around and they just find it hilarious.I’ve been surprised sometimes by audiences who start out like any audience, a room full of strangers. But then it hits them the right way and by the end there’s this weird status that I attain where they think I’m really funny and stuff, and… I’m not doing anything different! It’s almost like they become your mom. I can only think of a handful of times where that’s really actually happened. Where the magic really happens. Usually it’s somewhere in between.
I think a lot goes into that. You, them, the mood of the city in general...
Yeah, the mood! It’s like the zeitgeist, almost. Where everyone’s at. And if you happen to come at the right time, and be that person to say the right thing about how they’re feeling at that moment… it’s perfect.
How do you know, though? There are tricks to try to get people in. But sometimes those tricks can backfire.
Yeah. That’s probably the hardest thing to recognise: when not to. When not to use the heavy artillery. When you could just get away with being really raw, and present, and just there.
Well, it’s like, say you’re having a conversation with somebody. And maybe your hilarious anecdote that killed at that party isn’t working. Instead your friends are like, “wait a minute, you’re doing a bit”.
Yeah, and we’re not connecting, anymore. I end up with a situation, sometimes, while touring, where I’m playing for people that I’ve played to a handful of times, or sometimes many times before, and that can be really tricky.
Yeah, if they’ve seen you a lot before, you can still do your material, but you have to at least acknowledge it. You ever see that thing, Louis CK, Jerry Seinfeld, Ricky Gervais, and Chris Rock in conversation?
I have seen that.
Yeah, and Louis CK, or maybe Chris Rock, says if you do the same act they’ll come see you once, maybe twice, but they won’t come the third time.
Jack Garton. Image courtesy of jackgarton.com
I’m just thinking about this now, but it’s almost like three is a magic number. I’m thinking of an example where I played in Mission at the Folk Festival, so lots and lots of people. But that’s a festival set, 45 minutes, and a festival set requires a certain kind of material. And we killed it, we played a great set! We got the young people and old people dancing and all that stuff.
Then I came back and did a solo show there, in Mission, about a month and a half later. Very, very different. I spent most of my time just chatting with the audience, and trying to be as vulnerable as possible. In a small room. And then I went back with the band a couple of months after that, and played a whole bunch of new material. Small room again, but I’ve never had so much success in a place. And I think the key to it was that we brought a different show each time. I’ve been a lot of places where I’ve made the mistake of repeating too much, and then I have to win back trust. That’s a huge long road!
It’s gotta be harder to win it back.
Oh, man, you’ve already made a bad impression! The reason I’m doing so great in Mission right now is ‘cause I haven’t yet fucked up! It will happen!
Maybe once you’ve established a long enough pattern then you can fuck up a little bit?
A little bit.
“Oh, that was an off night for him, but I’ve seen him before, he’s really good.”
Yeah, if you’ve had three good ones. That’s a magic number. If you’ve done three good ones then there’s a loyalty, maybe, after that point. If you’re good once, fine. But if the second time isn’t as good, that’s probably going to be the last time.
I think if you really kill it you can make a fan in one go. But you have to really kill. “Holy shit, what was that? I have to see that again.”
But you can wreck your fan! If you make your fan in one go, your legend will live on in their mind and become huge. But if you go back two months later and you’re just so-so, that can hurt your legend. So it’s probably better if you don’t go back to that city or town for like, three years. Maybe never. Wait a generation.
Travis Bernhardt is a professional magician, street entertainer, neo-vaudeville variety act, MC, and just plain magician based in Vancouver BC. In this series, he was interviewed by animator Barry Doupé.