Thursday, February 18, 2010

Interview with Blaine Komatich

The Sunday before Christmas, I was reading the Times-Colonist newspaper, when I came across a photo of accordion player Blaine Komatich and his canine companion Ranger, under the heading “Busker doggedly pursues the holiday crowd.” After the new year had arrived, I made a point of searching them out to see if I could get an interview for the blog.

Blaine, 23, was born and raised in the north end of Winnipeg MB. When he was 8 years old, an uncle who was visiting from Gabriola Island gave him a little baby accordion, and he took beginner lessons until he was 10. He later attended Music Conservatory where he took piano lessons for a while. He also played guitar in his high school band. At 19, he decided to take a couple of months of classical lessons, but decided later that classical accordion wasn’t what he wanted to do. Blaine also spent a bit of time in a street marching band that walked around the neighborhoods once a week playing in outdoor bandshells and parks.

I thought I’d start by asking Blaine about the busking scene in Winnipeg, and he told me there were a few magicians and jugglers, but not a lot of music buskers. “Sometimes they’re passing through town and they’re playing fiddle or something in front of the liquor store, just trying to make enough money to get out.”

CD – Do you know if you need a license to busk in Winnipeg?
Blaine – You do in certain spots, down in the Forks, (at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers) some of the tourist traps down there, you need a license.
CD – Have you ever busked in Winnipeg?
Blaine – No. I liked to play outside a lot, I’d go play in the park more often than go out on the street. I had a little bit of change thrown in my case, but never really made a point of doing it every day.

When he was 20, Blaine got an offer of a job in the Northwest Territories, so he left Winnipeg and headed north to Yellowknife, where he did maintenance work on Twin Otter floatplanes. He spent the next 2½ years in Yellowknife and it was there that he got Ranger, a Canadian Inuit husky, and they have been partners since.

Not too long after he arrived there, he moved onto a houseboat that was only accessible by canoe, which he tipped one day with his accordion in it. He managed to save the instrument, but all the seals were broken so he had to get a new one. “I had a nice one shipped up from Winnipeg, one I kinda had my eye on before I left. The fanciest accordion in town, and probably the only guy who could play it.”

According to Blaine, Yellowknife is a small town, but it does have a pretty good music scene with a few local bands, and some open mics and jam spaces.

“I ended up living in the backyard of, this guy, Chris, who played in an 8-piece bluegrass band, and I was playing in the backyard one day and he walked over and said he’d love to make it 9. They had a nice medley of instruments, and they wanted to have it all, banjo, ukulele, electric bass, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, mandolin, fiddle sometimes and accordion.”
“The coolest place I ever jammed, the band’s jam space was an old derelict ship, a surveying vessel called the Aurora Surveyor, that had all the engine ripped out, it was rusted away, and anchored out on Great Slave Lake, you had to canoe to get there. We had a nice jam space, carpets all over the walls, it was safe, quiet, good vibes in a rusted out ship.”

In August of last year, Blaine and Ranger left Yellowknife and hit the road together for “the long trip down,” to Victoria. They finally arrived here this past October, and since then they’ve been busking along Government Street.

“I came here and I got a brand new accordion, dropped a whole bunch of money on it as soon as I got into town here and decided to try and pay it off. I met all these buskers that were working down here everyday and just felt like joining the family” he said.

CD – How have you been finding the busking here?
Blaine – Oh, great. It’s a lot of fun, yeah. I get to come out and practice, got children dancing, and smiles on people’s faces. And it’s a really nice way to sustain yourself to get your groceries and whatever you need, food for the day, beer, (laughs) it’s a really nice way to live, fall in love with the life, just playing music everyday in the street.

CD – Do you have a favorite spot to play?
Blaine – Starbucks (on Government). I like it ‘cause it’s dry, ‘cause you never know when it’s gonna start raining, and water and moisture’s not good for my instrument. And the sounds, I have a hard time time hearing myself when I’m too close to traffic, even though the thing’s bloody loud, other people can hear me but I am distracted by the traffic a little bit, and at Starbucks there, I can stand back, and you have stone walls behind you and above you. I can hear myself a lot better, it’s helps me play better. Playing outside’s difficult sometimes. I don’t know how those guys do it up on Douglas (Street).

CD – How would you describe your style of music?
Blaine – Oh boy (laughs), I don’t know, that’s really hard to do. It’s really my own style of accordion. I like alternative accordion. Right now, I’m more inspired to play rock oriented style. You know the accordion’s like an acoustic organ I can carry around with me. That’s the way I’m seeing it now. I really like playing with guitar players, and improvising and jamming, and finding the right keys to play in, and soloing on the accordion like a rock organ player would solo a bit.

CD – Who are some of the musicians that have influenced your style?
Blaine – Tom Waits, I guess. Ian MacKeye (from Minor Threat). I listened to lots and lots of music, and I went through lots of different phases. Listening to Robbie Robertson particularly, and the Band, for sure.

CD – Do you write your own material?
Blaine – Yeah, it’s almost all original and it’s all starting to come together the more I play it. I really improvise a lot of it and what’s happening after you improvise a lot, is you start to remember things and you write, you keep on playing and you keep improvising and you end up getting something together, trying as best as you can to play it exactly the same. (laughs) That’s why I have this (digital palm) recorder now, so I can record myself, if I forget, I can listen to it.

CD – What’s your most memorable busking experience?
Blaine – All the crowds of people around this (past) Christmas, and lots of little kids dancing in front of me. When there’s lots of people out, it’s nice, when you have people who are going to sit and listen, and it happens. I don’t think I have one that’s most memorable. I’ve had a lot of (laughs) interesting offers. Somebody offered when I was playing with a guitar player, told us to come and play at their hot-springs. I had a lady come and ask me if I wanted to come live on a farm with them.

CD – Have you played at any open mics around town?
Blaine – Yeah, I’ve done a few. The Hootenanny at Logans. Ocean Island a couple of times, I was living at the hostel when I first got here, so I did the Ocean Island one. Cabin 12. I prefer open jams rather than open mics, I perform just about all day, every day, so when it’s time to go to open mic, I’d wanna go there to be playing with a bunch of other musicians who wanna jam together. That’s what I prefer, and you can find things like that. Once in a while, the Hootenanny’s all right for that, you can kinda just go up and play. I’ve been to open mics where there’s more of a circle, like a song circle, and you can play, everybody can either request something, play something, sing something, and pretty much anybody can play, if they want to, everybody in the circle.

CD – I’d guess that when you’re busking, Ranger here, is probably a big part of the attraction?
Blaine – Yeah, talk about the dog. He’s become part of my act more just because I can’t leave him at home, but, he’s become part of it, yeah. People like seeing this guy. It’s a little bit like a circus sometimes, when I’m playing something fast and weird and the dog’s tied to my leg, trying to chase after another dog.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Interview with Sean Winter

Just last month I was walking down Fort Street when I came across Sean Winter playing his tenor saxophone halfway up the block between Douglas & Blanshard. I introduced myself and we arranged to meet after he was done his set, and headed across the street to Delicado’s at Fort & Blanshard, where over coffee we got down to the interview.

Sean, 21, is from Victoria, and he has been playing saxophone, and busking for about ten years. While he was attending high school, he played with the Vic High R&B Band. Sean spent the last three years living in Vancouver where he also did some busking. Since moving back to the island in October of last year, Sean has been spending quite a bit of his time playing on the streets of Victoria.

Since the interview I have seen him busking at Douglas & Yates in front of the Scotia Bank, and he has also been regularly playing evenings outside the Market on Yates at Blanshard. Both are spots that are pretty non-traditional as far as busking goes, but Sean says they have been working out quite well for him.

CD – What made you decide to try busking?
Sean – It was pretty much pressure at home. My mom said “If I’m going to be paying for these saxophone lessons and renting this instrument, at least you could go out and try and make some money”. I was terrified, I thought that people would laugh at me, or point and stare, but then I just got out there and started playing and realized that half the people aren’t even listening (laughs). So, it was really scary at first, the idea to go out and make some money because we were poor, and at the same time not being confident because I’d only been playing for two weeks at the time.

CD – And how did it go on your first few times out?
Sean – Well, I really didn’t know what to do, so I just sort of noodled around and surprisingly, I was so young, that I think people were giving me money because of the novelty of it, that I was a little kid and I was out there by myself playing and that seemed really cool to them. So, that part was good and I guess right away I started playing more and more, just because I had to go out there. I found it pretty easy, not as scary as I had originally thought. Now I can’t even really imagine anything else.

CD – You mentioned that you did some busking in Vancouver, where would you have played?
Sean – On Seymour outside of the Granville Skytrain station, it would be one of my favorite spots because it was good for late and it was close to the big intersection, you know, Georgia and Granville. I played in Gastown almost every day because I lived there. The west end around Davie and Bute. I didn’t have my license the entire time that I was living in Vancouver, never really got harped on about it, but it did mean that I couldn’t play in certain spots.

CD – And you mentioned that you were thinking of going to Europe, maybe try some busking over there?
Sean – Yeah, I’ve been to Europe twice on school band trips, one I was of age and the other I wasn’t. It wasn’t that I was making any more money, it was just that the smiles were more plentiful and the people stopping and talking were nicer. I played in Copenhagen and in Liverpool.
There was a funny story, I was playing, and this little boy probably like 10 or 11, was holding his mom’s hand and (he) looks up at me and goes “Oh, why don’t you get a bloody job?”, and I pulled my saxophone out of my mouth and I said like “Hey, that’s not very nice!”, and he goes “Eh, you f---ing yank! “(laughs), and I’m like “Oh, okay.” And yeah, there’s gonna be bias anywhere, that we’re just like glorified panhandlers, but none the less, you know I was making good money, so you know, who’s to say that that’s not a job (laughs), yeah.

CD – Tell me about your experience with the Vic High R&B Band?
Sean – Oh, that was good. It basically was my professional training. Elementary school and middle school and even just like concert band in high school, got me learning my instrument, but there’s no real place to take a course to learn how to be a musician, to learn how to be a gigging on-call musician. And that essentially was it. We’d have such heavy intense rehearsals, and we’d be reading charts, and you know getting everything really polished and tight, and (it was) probably the tightest band that I’ve ever been in. Yeah, it was real like life experience, career experience, and now I know hundreds of songs, and I’ve played hundreds of songs with them.
When I first moved to Vancouver I auditioned for a band called Soul Assembly and got in, I think based on the fact that their entire set list, I knew, just because I was in the Vic High R&B Band.

CD – What do you enjoy most about busking?
Sean – I think I enjoy the freedom of busking the most, the nomadic kind of nature, basically, you can just go anywhere, any city in the world and just plop down and make a living. I don’t know, I think a lot of musicians are very self-critical and self-reflective and at the same time as it not having to matter if you’re doing good or you’re sounding good, it’s nice to have people stop and chat and saying ”You’re good, you’re great.” It’s a lot of fun, the social interaction (but) at the same time you don’t technically need that, you can just go play and do your thing, and you can close your eyes if you want and just be alone, doing what most of us love, be alone and intimate with your music. Then every couple of minutes somebody stops and says “Hi”, and chats, and you just keep going (laughs).

CD – How would you describe your style of music?
Sean – When I filled out my application for my busking license, it said style of repertoire or whatever like that, and I put “jazz standards & familiar tunes on tenor saxophone.” I guess that’s what I try to do, because I do movie themes and stuff, recognizable little riffs and things like that even if they aren’t real songs, they’re things that people can kind of recognize or latch onto. As well, I try to do like all the jazz tunes and things that I know. I got straight-up jazz like some improvisational kind of, no matter how much of a rock ‘n’ roll tune, or how much of a blues, or how much of an old sad song, I try and make everything a bit jazzy. And sometimes I play too many notes, so that’s jazzy (laughs).

CD – And what are the songs that you really enjoy playing, never get tired of playing?
Sean – I kind of have my repertoire that I do and it’s sort of about an hour, and I can stretch it and do maybe an hour and 20 minutes, or so, and then I just kind of repeat it, but there’s songs certainly that I play maybe a little bit longer or that I really stretch out on because I just like playing them, (like) Georgia On My Mind by Hoagie Carmichael, and Summertime by (George) Gershwin. I really like putting songs together, so if a song’s in the same key and maybe it’s around the same feel, I like to put them together as maybe a little medley, and so the one that I like the most is putting On The Sunny Side Of The Street and Makin’ Whoopee, together because they’re kind of in that same feel, and they’ve got good changes to them.

CD – Who are your musical influences?
Sean – Really, anybody who’s just rippin’ on their instrument, you know. On tenor saxophone specifically, Frank Catalano is a great player from Chicago, with a great sound, who I try to sort of emulate as much as possible. Also on tenor there’s pretty much all the big greats, Dexter Gordon, and (John) Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins. A lot of people tell me I sound like Sonny Rollins, but it’s funny ‘cause I don’t listen to him as much. We have the same kind of quirky mentality of playing, and I think that’s why people say that. I like guitar players and drummers, you know, if I’m ever at a jam I’m always listening to the drummer the most I think, yeah.

CD – Have you done any indoor gigs around town?
Sean – Oh yeah, mostly with the Vic High R&B Band. We did so many shows each year, and I was in the band for three years, probably did like 150 shows with them, just around in different venues and things. We played Hermann’s (Jazz Club) a couple of times.
I’ve played outside of the R&B band with people at Hermann’s. I like playing at Sopranos for the blues jam, but there’s been a couple of venues, and there’s coffee shops and things around that do open mics which I love going to, and just jamming.

CD – Do you have any memorable busking experiences?
Sean – I was playing in Gastown a couple of years ago and I was just on the corner and kept seeing this guy looking over from the table at the Chill Winston, it’s like a lounge, and there’s an outside patio. He kept looking over and finally he gets up and he’s wearing really nice clothes, nice jacket, and really expensive jeans, and was well manicured and all that, and he comes over and he said like “Hey man, you sound really good, that’s great”, and I said “Oh, thanks very much.”
He asks “So like, do you do any recording? Do you play around town or anything?”, and I said “Of, course, like what musician isn’t.” He goes “Would you be interested in listening to something to play over”, I’m like “Okay”.
So he said “Well, it’s just in my car.” And I go “That’s a little bit weird,” I’m not gonna go to his car. And he says “Oh, no, my car, right there”, and he points to the big limousine right outside of the Chill Winston, and I’m like “Okay, that’s kind of even weirder” (laughs), and he’s sensed I was a little apprehensive. So he says “Well, no, just let me put something in the CD and you just stand outside and just listen, and start playing along”, and he puts in, ah, what was it?, um, Easy Star All-Stars Dub Side Of The Moon, and he says “Can you play stuff like this?”, so I start playing and he’s like “Oh, this is great”, and he starts putting on other stuff, and he starts sensing that I need to go “Oh, you’re workin’ right, I’ll give you some money for your troubles”, and he opens up his wallet and he hands me a hundred bucks. And I went “Wow, thanks very much. Is there anything else?”, and he says “Come have a drink with me”.
So I come over and sit down and he’s got a $300 bottle of Cristal (laughs) on the table, and we just chatted and drank and had a merry good time, ended up being good friends for about a year. He was just a really nice guy, and that was just an interesting connection, meeting a lot of people, and he was an amazing drummer, so we’d go out to Delta for after hours club and then jam there, and play at the Yale all the time, just playing blues. Yeah, that’s probably one of my more memorable experiences.

CD – What’s the strangest thing that anybody ever threw in your case?
Sean – You know what? That’s a hard one, because I’ve had some weird things, I’ve had some really cool things, like little bouncy balls, some people put like candy or a cookie, or like an apple, or things like that. I’ve made beer, people would give me pot, maybe the strangest thing which somebody threw in a little while ago was (reaching inside his shirt collar) this dog tag, that you know, I just wear it for fashion, I don’t much support the military, that’s why I’ve got my little pot leaf here (laughs).

CD – Any other thoughts you’d like to add?
Sean – I think I mentioned it a little bit before, that there’s a really unjust misconception about buskers, that a lot of us are homeless, or a lot of us are feeding a habit or something like that, that as soon as you’re on the street, you’re essentially begging for money. There’s a lot of people who think that it’s something that it isn’t. But, we’re professional musicians, and we need to make money however we can, and busking is a great way to do that. It’s its own marketing system. If I could count all the people I’ve met, and the number of gigs or business cards, that I got from just playing on the street, I’d be very surprised. It’s far more exponential than if I was just sitting at home practicing, which would be good, but it wouldn’t be the same.

You can check out some of Sean’s tunes at the following link:

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Good, The Bad & The Weird

In August of last year, I did a couple of posts in which I related a few of the memorable busking moments that I and some of my fellow street musicians have experienced. All of those stories shared were all on the positive side, so this time I've also asked around for some that maybe weren't so wonderful, and some that were, shall we say, on the odd side. But, lets start with the good:

I think it might have been my first or second summer in Victoria, 1989 or ’90, I was playing an early afternoon set on the center spot of the causeway when a couple of guys came up off the docks and asked me where the nearest liquor store was. At that time there was one just off Government on Courtney, so I told them how to get there, and they threw some coins in my case and headed in that direction. About half an hour later they were coming back towards the docks carrying some cases of beer and wine coolers, and one of them asked me what I was doing later. When I told them I had no plans, they told me to come on down to their sailboat with my guitar around 4:30 and play some tunes and they’d feed me a meal and a few beers. So anyway, I showed up and was welcomed on board by the guys and their female companions who were all visiting from Anacortes. One of the guys pulled out his guitar and we ended up jamming for a couple of hours, and at the end of it all they sent me on my way well fed and de-thirsted (is that even a word?), with an American $50 in my pocket. So that ended up being a lot of fun and profitable as well.

Dave Harris (one-man-band) – I've had many fine compliments. One special one was one day about seven years ago. A lady came by and said she had seen me playing for many years and always thought nothing of it, just went on by. But one day I guess she stopped to listen, and it had jogged her memory to when she was a girl. Her mum would take them out, I think they lived in the States, for some reason, and while they were out, her dad would set up his one-man-band and play. She remembered seeing him through the window. She said I reminded her of him and she thought my talent was taken for granted by the local public, as she herself had. (That) definitely made me feel good.

Ian Daykin (fiddle) – I was playing at the south corner when two girls stopped and watched for a while. They tipped me and also gave me this folded up piece of paper, which I later opened, they had written this poem about me, and I guess they had just written it as they were sitting there listening to me. I wish I could quote it, but I can’t really remember it all. But that seemed pretty neat.

Jay Garnett (guitar/vocals) – The nicest thing that was said to me, was a young lad in a wheel chair who could not speak, but he had a machine that typed out words for him, and he typed "I love you, Jay."

Jean Bedard (guitar picker/singer) – I was busking outside the James Bay liquor store on Menzies Street when this woman comes out of the liquor store and opens up her bag and she pulls out this bottle of wine and says “I want you to enjoy this.” And I said “Thanks a lot,” and then she looks at me, I swear she was so emotional, I thought she was gonna cry or something, I don’t know if she thought I was down & out or what, but she says “If you ever want a steak and prawn dinner, give me a call and then she starts to walk away and she says “I forgot to write my phone number on the bottle.” (So) I got a free bottle of wine for busking, that was kind of neat.

Jen Book (marimbas/vocals) – I had someone record me singing and playing guitar on the causeway my first year out, and sent it in as a demo for a folk club in Europe. They accepted me without any info and he tracked me down to tell me the good news. I wasn't even aware he had recorded me. This was one of the nicest things that ever happened while busking.

* * * * * * * * * *

If you’ve put in any amount of time as a street musician, as well as the really great moments, you will no doubt probably have a few experiences of the “not so good” variety. I myself remember a couple such incidents.

Back about 1986, I had been busking for about an hour and 20 minutes one morning in front of a liquor store on Davie Street near English Bay in Vancouver, when a guy walked up to me and said “This is my spot, take off.” I politely responded "Look, if you go across the street to McDonalds and have a coffee, I’ll be done in about fifteen minutes, and you can have the spot.” Well, he went away and I started into another song, and about half way through it, here he comes back again waving a 2x4 at me, so needless to say, I was outta there.

Probably, the worst experience that I’ve ever had, was in early 2006, I was down on the harbour waiting around to play, and my guitar case was sitting on the steps holding my spot. Meanwhile, I was not too far down the causeway chatting with one of the artists. While we were talking, I was also kind of peripherally keeping my eye on the guitar, but obviously not well enough, as Dean, the artist said “Dave, your guitar.” When I looked over, there was a guy running up the stairs by Milestone’s Restaurant with the case under his arms. Dean and I and a couple of others who were around at the time, gave chase up Government Street, but we never caught up with the guy. I was very upset at the time, but there was bit of a silver lining to the incident. A week earlier, I had just started a janitorial job, so it wasn’t as bad a situation as it might have been had it happened ten days earlier, when I would have had no other means of income.

Dave Harris – Some of my worst experiences have included dealing with bad drunks or occasionally, the mentally ill, or getting rained on unexpectedly with all of my gear and no umbrella.
(One time) my steel body guitar got blown over and broke it's neck! I had put my umbrella on the tripod guitar stand and the wind took it over. I was able to glue it, and I use it to this day.
In my early years playing on Government Street, maybe 1979 or so, an elderly man came by and said I was the worst singer he'd ever heard in his life. I was hurt at the time, but tried to turn it into a positive, using it as motivation to improve.

Jay Garnett – The worst thing anybody said to me was a couple of times I heard “Why don’t you go back to the East where you came from."

Jonathan Bennetts (guitar/vocals) – I was arrested and beaten up by the Danish police, then thrown out of Denmark for street singing.

* * * * * * * * * *

Sometimes, along with the tips that a busker might receive in their case, there are the strange or weird things that they may find themselves the recipients of. When I asked a few of the other buskers, I found that there were some things that seemed to be commonly received by a number of us, such as bottles/cans of beer, cigarettes, joints, flowers, candies, fruit, foreign currencies, condoms, drawings, tracts, etc.

Over the years, I myself have had cookies, lasagna, video arcade tokens, lottery tickets, guitar picks, once I even got a can of Carnation condensed milk put in my case. The one I remember most was the day a number of years ago, I think it might have been in the off-season, when I was playing down on the harbour. There were several people walking around handing out little bags of peanuts that had a label/tag advertising some airline’s new triangle schedules between, I think it was Victoria, Calgary and Edmonton. Anyway, these people were walking back and forth around the causeway handing out these bags of peanuts to passersby, and several times when they’d pass me, they’d toss a bag into my guitar case. I believe I ended up with about five or six of these bags. So, I guess the gist of the story is that I can quite literally say that “Yes, I have actually played for peanuts”.

Dave Harris – I was playing down here last summer, and a guy came up and put something in my case. I really didn’t think anything of it and I said "Thank you," and then a couple of minutes later, I happened to get up to do something and I looked in the case and there’s this big piece of dry toast.
Another time I was doing some filming of fiddler Graham Sullivan while he was playing, and a young kid came along and he put something down in Graham’s case and Graham says "Thank you," and he’s sawing away on the fiddle. I looked in the case and then I said "Hey Graham, look what you got," and we both couldn’t believe it. It was a woman’s shoe, like an Italian shoe not a high heel, like a wooden sole kind of thing, so that was pretty unusual.

Dylan Driscoll (guitar/vocals) – I once got some really vibrant looking crystals, like gems, they were just really wild patterns and looked pretty magical like.

Ian Daykin – I got a container of yogurt from a fellow who was flying out the next morning. It was really good, Liberty Mediterranean yogurt, that’s like five bucks for a small thing. He said he had planned to eat it that night, but went to dinner instead. He said “I don’t know if you want this”, but I was stoked, I mean, I was happy with yogurt.

Jay Garnett – I have received tokens for the bus, vouchers for free meals and a few hot phone numbers.

Jonathan Bennetts – I had an experience in Amsterdam, when a lady came up, and she’d just been shopping and she said "You boys look very hungry", and put two tins of meatballs in the collection hat.

Micah Walker (guitar/vocals) – I’m not sure what the weirdest thing I got would be. I got rocks, bracelets, pictures, cardboard, individual personal art that people have made, picks, cake. I’m not sure, I’ve never had like panties or shoelaces or anything like that.

Tristan Teal (guitar/vocals) – Me and Micah were busking at Murchies together, and this guy that we kind of know a little bit, one of those crazy out-there street guys that you always see around, and always kinda has something to say to you, he’s walking by and he’s searching in his pockets, smiling at us trying to find something to tip us and he tips us three little maple syrups.

So there you have it. Some of the good, the bad and the weird experiences in the lives of local street musicians. As these are but just a few of the stories out there, no doubt there will be more in future posts.