BEAMS is a seven-piece ensemble based in Toronto that mix a healthy dose of country folk with avant garde, to create a fresh sound in the indie scene. Their full length album Just Rivers was released in 2013 to critical acclaim, and they are gearing up to release a brand new single The Gutters & the Glass recorded at John McEntire’s SOMA Electric Music Studio in Chicago. You can catch beams at CMW this week at the Dakota Tavern on May 9, 2015. For more show details, click here. For music, videos and more, visit their website at http://beamstheband.com We had the opportunity to interview BEAMS singer, banjo player, and main songwriter Anna Mernieks who tells us all about BEAMS, her Ontario inspiration, and has advice for emerging artists:
Are you all originally from Ontario? (if yes, or no, tell us where you are from!)
We are all originally from Ontario! We all grew up in the GTA. Whether anyone was born anywhere else, I’m not sure, but we all grew up more or less along the 401 between Mississauga and Oshawa.
When did you form as a band, and tell us about that process.
We formed as a band in early 2011. It wasn’t a pre-meditated thing, my previous band folded the summer before and I missed playing with people so I made a shout out to some friends to come down to my basement and jam. I was sort of playing solo shows at the time for my own stuff, and so we never really ended up truly jamming – they wrote parts to my songs and started joining me on the shows. We really became a band by accident! A lot of us had already played in bands together and we all knew each other somehow so it felt very natural. The only person not from the original jam is Martin, who ended up replacing the original guitarist.
What Ontario landmarks, cities, (people?) have influenced your writing the most?
What a great question! I am very inspired by landscapes. A lot of my songs are inspired by things that I’ve seen and felt while hanging out at my cottage – walking through the woods at night, meditating up on the rocks, walking on the frozen lake under a full moon. I’m also inspired by suburbia, half nostalgic for the quiet and space but also very critical of the mass consumption and isolation that it breeds. Now that I’ve lived in the city for a while I’m starting to write about it a little bit, too, but so far, in Ontario, it’s been mostly the forests, lakes, and suburbia that have informed my writing.
Is The Gutters & the Glass then an homage to city life? How does the urban environment affect your songwriting?
Yeah, The Gutters and the Glass is an homage to city life, particularly the aspect of it that wears me down. I can only really speak to my own experience but I’m pretty sure that others go through it as well. I find that it’s hard to find peace in the city, it’s very hard to find quiet time to recharge. Also, a lot of things are pretty difficult when you’re working around the clock just to get by, and the infrastructure is pretty good for people without cars but it’s still difficult when you’re dodging potholes all laden down with bags while cars brush by and clip you with their mirrors, or if you’re working the night shift and the buses aren’t running. Or if you live too far away from a grocery store and run out of good food. Those kind of inequalities. The title “The Gutters & the Glass” comes from the lyric in “The Way We Run”: pushed to the sides with the gutters and the glass by the cars/ I am happy if my blindness keeps me from seeing who you are.” I came up with it after I saw someone avoid a car on their bike, get tripped up by a pothole and smash their head on the curb. Not that it’s all bad, that’s not really what I want to convey, but lately it’s been inspiring me to write more about looming insanity, isolation and just write more critically in general.
What are some of your upcoming shows that you are most excited about?
Well, we have two shows this week, one at the Casbah with The Human Orchestra on Friday May 8th and one for CMW at the Dakota at midnight on Saturday May 9th, and I’m excited for those because our bassist and drummer are both away and it’ll be interesting to play with a sub-in rhythm section. Aside from that, I’m excited about our show on June 12th at the Junction City Music Hall – first, because I love the Junction, and second, because Nathan Hunter is working there now and he’s awesome.
Do you listen to music in the tour van? If yes, who gets to DJ, and what are your best sing-a-longs?
We usually let the driver DJ, or the passenger if the driver runs out of ideas, or someone else if they really want to listen to something. But “driver DJ’s” is the usually unspoken rule. Right now the tape player in the van is broken, though, so it’s just whatever radio station is best, or least bad. We don’t really have singalongs that often, but if a good song comes on we’ll all sort of sing it quietly to ourselves in patches. I suppose the Weakerthans and Robyn usually get people singing along pretty good.
Tell us about a random act of kindness you experienced on the road.
We recently went to go play in Wakefield without arranging a place to stay. We had heard that the venue had an apartment upstairs for the bands but when we got there we found out that they no longer lent it out, so by 10 or 11PM we were still stuck. After the gig, though, the other band on the bill invited us back to the cottage that they were staying at and we had a great time! It really was the nicest thing. We try to open our homes to traveling musicians as much as possible, too. It’s actually one of the most fun parts of touring, most of the time.
Your full length album Just Rivers was released in 2013 to high acclaim. Can you explain process of releasing that record, and what steps you took in the years after its release.
We were pretty methodical with the release of Just Rivers. We took great care with every step of the recording – pre-production, choosing to work with Peter J. Moore, to print with MMS, why to make CDs, even details like the quality of CD case and the re-usable sleeves was carefully thought out. We worked for a long time on the design and when it was all done we hired Pigeon Row for publicity. We started the campaign by releasing two singles, building hype for the full-length release. We supported it with a 10-day tour out east and a bunch of shows sporadically. If we could go back in time, it would have been nice to do a couple of videos and a slightly longer tour. We’re still promoting it, it’s still a great-sounding album.
How did you fund your first album?
We funded the album with money that we made playing shows, selling burned CDs of live music, and through individual contributions. We applied for some grants but we didn’t get them. Our residency at the Magpie was a great help for income!
What advice would you have for Ontario artists starting out in the music biz?
The advice that I would give to artists wanting to start out in Ontario would differ depending on their goals. If the goal is to make a living, I would suggest really focusing on your chops, punctuality and repertoire. If you’re in it for the artistic aspect and are prepared to work a job on the side, I’d say just jam with different people until it clicks and don’t commit to things just because they’re there. For either person, I would have two conflicting pieces of advice. It’s necessary to incubate your art and find time to develop it, in whatever way works for you, but it’s also necessary to push yourself to get out there – go to other people’s shows and hang out. Be generous with your time and spirit as much as you can.