GREAT LAKE SWIMMERS PLAY THE POETICS OF TIME AND SPACE
by Peter Grainger
"We have that ability to create a vibe or atmosphere to take people through a story". So says Tony Dekker about Great Lake Swimmers, the Ontario-based band he has fronted for the past decade and who we caught up with, after their last visit to BC, when they
played the main stage of the Salmon Arm Roots & Blues Festival. The Swimmers can create a reflective mood that can last a whole record. Some might see that as a weakness, but not their singer/songwriting guitarist, "It's about setting a tone-- that's one of
the strengths of our band..."
The 'culture-of-place' thing is particularly strong in Canadian bands of a particular type. You can hear our landscapes reflected in their dreamy, undulating sonics, in the ringing of certain chords and the wide open spaces between them—think Joni Mitchell,
Neil Young, Daniel Lanois. Great Lake Swimmers may play typically Americana instrumentation on stage-- guitars, banjo, fiddle, acoustic bass and drums. But the way they play and the song forms they choose, is pure Canadiana. The Swimmers are not a Canuck Mumford
& Sons-- their music is less folky, less formal, more esoteric and atmospheric-- think a corn-fed Coldplay rather than a 21st-century Johnny Cash.
Yet it is traditional folk and country that Dekker first heard as a kid raised in rural Ontario. Then as now in his world, he feels music should be enjoyed and played by everybody. "That DIY spirit resonated with me as a young person. As people grow up they go
through their different stages and interests in different kinds of music. But for me the philosophy of that was almost more important than the music itself. Just that idea-- pick up the guitar, make a song, tell your story, share it with people. It's a participatory thing."
Dekker took to writing original songs right from the get-go, in relative isolation from any contemporary scene; his early heroes were Gordon Lightfoot and Leonard Cohen before he turned his gaze south towards Bob Dylan, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. Yet Dekker's lyrics
resonate with natural imagery that is uniquely Canadian. He's influenced the most now by observing the natural vistas around him and by the interplay of his four highly-talented bandmates, who seem to love the country as much as he does. "I think it comes from the idea
of telling part of the story of where you're from, from your particular corner of the country or province or whatever. Our songs are inspired not just from the Great Lakes Region, but beyond into Canada in general. Like that first time you cross the Rocky Mountains, you're
blown away. We as a band tell those kinds of stories."
Like "The Great Bear" for instance, from the "A Forest of Arms" CD-- their 8th release since forming a dozen or so years ago. The song chronicles Dekker's impressions after being invited by the World Wildlife Fund in 2013 to see BC's Great Bear Rainforest for the first time. It's poetic and powerful.
"In the call of the wind, in the waves of the sea,
You won't believe what's out there, tracing the great green pathways,
A forest of arms turning into fins..."
The experience has hardened Dekker's environmental resolve. The land lover feels petroleum-filled pipelines and pastoral beauty are a bad mix--like oil and water-- quite literally. "Running Alberta bitumen in a pipeline across the many mountain ranges of BC to Kitimat,
loading them onto oil tankers the size of two football fields, moving through narrow coastal passage ways to the Hecate Strait-- some of the roughest water of the world-- to be refined in foreign lands-- the whole thing seems like a bad idea."
After more than a decade touring Canada's vastness, playing every manner of stage, in every region, and recording in all kinds of places including cabins and caves, Dekker believes Great Lake Swimmers aren't even close to being tapped out. Rolling up the sleeves of the
cowboy shirt, he's loosely tucked into his faded jeans, he smiles broadly for the first time since we sat down 20 minutes before, saying with a warm finality, "I still feel there is so much to say. There's still a lot of work, a lot of territory, a lot of ground to cover.
We're approaching a spirituality in the natural world, in our landscapes. There's still an endless amount of inspiration there"
Great Lake Swimmers
TONY DEKKER: Lead vocals, acoustic and electric guitars, ukulele, mandolin
ERIK ARNESEN: Banjo, electric guitars, guitar effects
BRET HIGGINS: Upright and electric basses, electric piano, hammond organ, piano, mandolin, marxophone, claves
MIRANDA MULHOLLAND: Violin, backing vocals
JOSHUA VAN TASSEL: Drums, percussion, effects