Our “Ya Herd?” series features Q&As with some of our favorite artists and labels. For this installment, we spoke to Claude Lavender, a talented multi-instrumentalist based in Toronto.
Thanks for doing this interview with us. How are things going in Toronto?
Thanks for having me, it’s my first one! Groundhog Day is ongoing here in Toronto, but I just moved a couple months ago into a quieter part of the city and I’m settled in pretty well.
You released three records in 2020 — your self-titled debut in March, Control Point in June, and Lavender II in December. March was notably when the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders started going into effect. How were you able to still be so productive last year?
Well, the first tape was more or less finished by January of last year, as I’d been fastidiously recording it for many months prior. I actually ended up releasing the first album a day after Covid was declared a pandemic and Ontario was starting to lock down, which was not great timing promotion-wise! But at that point I just wanted to get it out there.
After the lockdown orders, like many other folks I was out of a job, and just treated music like a 9-to-5 to keep myself busy. I’d get up and eat something, boot up the ol’ brain and get to writing. The Control Point album was the result of this initial lockdown period. I had decided to try and make a short cover of a different video game song each day (although some ended up taking a bit longer) just for fun. Most of the time I’d start in the morning and then hang it up for the day later in the evening. Many hours were spent on those recordings, likely an unholy amount of time. But eventually I ended up with an album’s worth of material so I decided to release them all as a tape. Looking back, I wonder what I would have done without the music outlet during those times.
By the time Control Point was finished I had developed a pretty strong work ethic and was in the mood to write some original material again. The stuff for Lavender II came semi easily and I chipped away at it from June until November.
You obviously record with a lot of different instruments at home — can you talk us through your setup, and recording process?
I can sort of get away with a few instruments. It’s the usual suspects: you’ve got your keyboards, and your guitar and tambourines and things like that. One song on the new album has a pair of water glasses being tapped with a pencil on it. In terms of process, I’ll generally start with an idea to make a tune in the style of this or that. Perhaps a new synthesizer has come into the fold and its sound will prompt a certain idea. I like to follow the finite verse-chorus-verse form and map the skeleton out, then program the drum part one voice at a time. From there I look at it like a painting – what spaces need to be filled and which just need to go by and remain empty. The other real trick is sifting through the sound pallet of synths (which is quite expansive) and blending those sounds. For the most part I do all DI style because the amp I have is blown, but I have also shoddily recorded the mic on the amp with dubious results that made it to the final product. It’s all recorded into the computer and then sent through a tape machine afterwards, on a Fostex 1-1/4” at 15 inches per second. A great friend of mine, Jeff, takes the finished tracks and runs them through some tube equipment he made himself! Then he also runs it through stereo bus compressors and another tape machine at 7.5 inches per second, so by the time he prints it to cassette at 3.75 inches per second it’s sounding a bit degraded and hairy. Another great friend of mine, Ian, will make the art look really clean for the cassette jackets. I think the cover art is what lures people into giving a toss and having a listen at all in the first place. So I’m a lucky bugger I know these guys and they’re willing to help me!
Now I want to talk about your latest release, Lavender II, because it really covers a ton of ground. I love seeing how artists tag their own music on bandcamp — on this release, you’ve got “ambient, chillout, chillwave, chiptune, dark ambient, relaxing music, synth, and weird” … Have you always been so drawn to crossing genres?
I suppose it does! I’m not sure what I was thinking with the tagging, perhaps just picking genres I thought the album would appeal to. Some are probably leftovers from Control Point. Recently someone said that what I do sounds a lot like “library music”. Kinda funny that there are labels out there for everything, and that I was writing music in that style without even knowing it. It may not be direct on the nuggets library music but it’s certainly of the same ilk. Anyway, I think I was just trying to make a sturdy follow up to that first Lavender album and wasn’t too cognizant of the genre crossings.
I hear such a wide range of potential influences on Lavender II. The hook on “Lucky Spot” sounds like it’s out of a Beach Boys greatest hit. “Thinking Song” reminds me of Styx for some reason. “Smooth Succession” has so much going on — it’s like a mix between an ‘80s power ballad, a ‘90s R&B slow-jam, with some vaporwave mixed in. “Landlines” makes me think of Tangerine Dream. What are some of the artists, genres, or periods that you draw the most inspiration from?
“Lucky Spot” was done amidst a brief McCartney phase where I was really into the Wings album “London Town”. I tried jamming a cut up mouse pad into the bass bridge and rolled the tone off for an effect like his, not sure how well that went! I was listening to that Carlos Jobim album “Stone Flower” and came up with “Thinking Song” out of a CR78 drum pattern and a primitive attempt at a Brazilian bossa nova guitar thing. I suppose with a lot of these tracks I really don’t know what I’m doing, and they could be spectacular failures, but I just forge ahead unless the wheels fall off. “Smooth Succession” was born out of two songs I had in mind: Alexander O’Neal’s “If You Were Here Tonight” and TOTO’s “Without Your Love”. The FM synthesizer has some great syrupy pads that have a lot of interesting artifacts in them, and I found that the tape distortion sound accentuated them in a really colourful pillowy sparkle with that song. There is a Haruomi Hosono cassette rip on YouTube called “Watering a Flower” and the first long drone-like track called “Talking” is what inspired “LandLines”. In his track there is a synthesizer dial-tone-like chime that I felt could affect some kind of dread in the listener. To me though, I could live inside that feeling a long time and I found it quite healing and beautiful, thought provoking and all that. The song is quite static and the harmonic content only rhythmically varies to evoke an unsettling feeling. I set out to try the same thing, starting with a static beeping sound and building some sort of music around that. The album “Pier and Loft” by Hiroshi Yoshimura also inspired me quite a bit, along with a lot of other new age-like ambient music coming out of Japan in those heady 70s and 80s. Video game music by composers like David Wise and Koji Kondo to name a short few were also on the brain, especially for that first album.
It feels like the element of nostalgia is a common theme across your releases — especially on Control Point, which is an homage to classic video game soundtracks. Do you feel a connection to certain cultural “golden ages” of the past?
Being the old toad of 33 years that I am, I had the pleasure of peeling back the cellophane on some classic consoles in the simpler era of gaming. The music is this mysterious magical thing – it’s got a way of bringing you right back in time to being a kid again. I’m not sure I’m tipping the chapeau to any specific cultural connections, I’m just looking to relax the listener through the familiar fuzzy glow that nostalgia can inspire in us so easily, even if it does err on the melancholic side some days.
So what’s next for Claude Lavender? Are you already cooking up a new record?
I sure am! I’ve invested some money into studio equipment for better or worse and have broken ground on a couple songs. Things aren’t coming as easily this time around though, so I’ll have to be patient and enjoy the process. I’m not sure I can do 3 albums this year but maybe I’ll prove myself wrong, we’ll have to see! It’ll probably have that elevator music kinda quality, here’s hoping folks will still enjoy the ride!