The remarkable tale of Axis of Conversation

So, imagine you’re in a band. Things are going pretty alright. Then, your drummer joins another band that loves to tour — or another three bands that love to tour. Or your violinist moves a few hours south and has to rehearse with you via Skype. Or maybe you start recording your second full-length, only to have the producer/engineer quit, selling all of his equipment to boot. Or one or your members — or three of your members — has a young baby, which naturally reduces the amount of available free time for rehearsing.

Or what if all of these things happened to your band? Well, then you’re probably a member of Axis of Conversation, a Calgary-based orchestral-pop band who are dealing with no shortage of challenges, but keep moving forward anyway. At the end of the day, the music is good enough not to quit on it. Just to really send that point home, Axis of Conversation are coming to Toronto this month for NXNE, where they’ll play at Bread and Circus on June 18. We got some insight from band member on Chris dela Torre on how kids make it both harder and better, why they keep playing together, and who they want to check out at the festival.

Q: You’re dealing with a lot of challenges that most bands don’t have — why do you keep it going despite the difficulties?

A: We’re definitely at a point in our lives where we’re asking ourselves what it means to play in this band. There are certainly days where it feels like the universe does NOT want us to play together. Still, when it comes to the songs on the record we’re in the process of making, I’ve never felt stronger about anything I’ve done. It’s The Album Of Our (still relatively short) Lives, haha.

Q: Your record is in the works and you lost your producer/engineer — are there any plans for what comes next there?

A: Everything’s still in the air as far as that goes. We’ve been tossing around the names of some other producers, a few of which are pretty well-known. But out of respect for everyone involved (including the producer/engineer who quit on us), I can’t name any names at this point.

Q: How has being a parent affected your work in music, in terms of your ability to rehearse and tour? Has it affected the songwriting process at all?

A: It has made everything harder. EVERYTHING. As it stands, half of the band are parents and there will soon be six kids between us (Shelly’s third child is due this summer), which means there are as many kids as there are bandmembers. This means we all have to work much harder to get together and rehearse (let alone tour), and there’s far less time to lock myself away and write a song. It also doesn’t help that Shelly (our violinist) moved three hours away from Calgary and we have to share Matt (our drummer) with a handful of other bands that LOVE to tour. That said, all six of us are still very excited to be here, and are fighting very hard to keep this band alive. We all see something in this music that we aren’t hearing in the music we listen to, something that holds enough meaning for us to keep making it.

As far as the songwriting process goes, I’m fascinated by the experience of parenthood and how it has affected my wife and I. On one hand, becoming a parent is the most mundane of human experiences — there’s obviously nothing groundbreaking about procreation. But you can’t prepare yourself for how it will change you. It’s also hard to believe how much you can love someone. Having a family tends to dwarf everything else in your life in terms of its importance. There was certainly time when I thought I would never say something like that.  A few songs on our new album address these things directly.

Q: How is the music scene in Calgary?

A: It’s great to be part of an unproven scene. I’m sure that many people can name at least Calgary band that’s “made it”, but no one has been able to pin down or pigeonhole the sound of the city, and I don’t think anyone ever will. It’s always changing.

Q: Which challenges have you found in touring a country as enormous as Canada? Do you have any strategies for making it work?

A: I have nothing but utmost respect for bands that can live in their van for 10 months of the year. But that’s not our fate. Aside from one-off shows in other cities here and there, we haven’t spent a long time on the road since summer ’09. When it comes time to tour our next record, I imagine we’ll take the Carlos Santana approach: a week or two on the road, followed by a week or two off. It’s going to take some skillful planning, but I think it’s the only way it’s gonna work for us.

Q: You’ve played quite a few festivals — do you have a favourite?

A: No favourites, really. Each has its own charm. I love the wall-to-wall, multi-venue approach of Sled Island and NXNE. It’s an amazing feeling to have a downtown core literally engulfed in live music. But I’ll never forget when we played the Calgary Folk Music Festival last summer. I love it’s family-friendly, eco-loving approach, and the weather on Prince’s Island was incredible. Plus, I met St. Vincent backstage and made very nervous smalltalk with her. Oh man.

Q: What’s your favourite city in Canada to play in?

A: So far, it’s got to be Lethbridge Alberta. We’ve played there a million times and have never EVER had a bad crowd there.

Q: So, with everything in your way, why DID you decide to come to Toronto for NXNE?

A: For the money. That’s a joke, obviously. (For more serious answers, please see questions 1 and 3).

Q: What are you hoping for for your NXNE showcase? Do you come in with any expectations?

A: We seriously were not expecting to be accepted this year. We had the good fortune of playing NXNE ’09 and had an amazing time. My only expectation is that we have as much fun as we did last time. It’s really a huge honour for us to be invited back.

Q: And finally, which other bands are you excited to see while you’re in Toronto?

A: Digable Planets! Even if they play terribly, this will fulfill a 20-year-old dream for me. The Pharcyde will take me back too. Otherwise, I’m very excited to see fellow Calgarians like Samantha Savage-Smith and Chad VanGaalen. It’ll be great to see people on the other side of the country get excited for something that comes out of my hometown.

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