Canadian indie rock circa the late 90s / early 2000s could be compared to the late 60s and early 70s in terms of promiscuity. Not in the “keys in the bowl, let’s see how freaky we can get,” kind of way, mind you … except for maybe Broken Social Scene. But no, this was more of a crazy melting pot of great musicians being as polyamorous with music as they possibly could, with pretty amazing results.
Collaborating on everyone’s projects while trying to juggle their own, it wasn’t abnormal for people to be playing in three or four other projects, while still doing their own thing… most likely featuring the members of those other projects. It was an exercise in collaboration, but it was also necessity – once you found a good musician in your city who dug the kind of stuff you wanted to play, you kept them around and didn’t let them out of your god damned sight.
The result? Cities with dozens of great Canadian indie rock bands that worked like revolving doors, with members flowing in and out when they could. This is the incubation period that gave us monolithic bands like Broken Social Scene, Arcade Fire and New Pornographers, after all. However, one of the many incredible bands that evolved out of this primordial soup of musicians that got lost in the annals of time and short attention spans was Ottawa’s Kepler.
The band was a vehicle for the songs of Samir Khan, who as well as backing up Michael Feuerstack when he was known as Snailhouse with now-Arcade Fire drummer Jeremy Gara, was part of the frenetic and hilarious math-rock group Weights & Measures. Drawing comparisons at the time to US slowcore bands like Codeine and Low, Kepler developed a pretty rabid underground following, but then eventually dissolved around the tail end of 2006.
Before breaking up, the band released 2005’s Attic Salt, which was a dramatic departure from the brooding slowcore sound that had defined much of their first records. This album was proper post-rock territory melded with fuzzed-out stoner jams and a hard singer-songwriter lean.
It was also really, really fucking good.
Unfortunately, the record was largely ignored after it came out, and eventually the band all went their separate ways. It’s all been pretty quiet on the Kepler front since then, with most everyone moving on to play in God knows how many other projects or settle into day jobs. However, this year - seemingly out of nowhere – a teeny-tiny German record label unearthed Attic Salt and treated it to a dramatic and elegant vinyl reissue for what seems like no apparent reason other than, “holy shit this sounds good.”
Needless to say, we were intrigued, so we tracked down Samir Khan to talk to him about why it’s so weird that they choose to reissue this particular record, how the band had pretty much no involvement in it and how everyone wanted to steal Jeremy Gara for their band.
Noisey: Given that Attic Salt is kind of the outlier in your discography in a lot of ways, do you find it funny that it’s the one that got the reissue treatment?
Samir Khan: I really don’t know how these things work. I figure most reissues are kind of a business or marketing decision, but we were never much of a business and failed miserably at selling ourselves. For me personally, Attic Salt is one I can remember because it was the record that kind of finished me as a guy trying to be a musician full-time. With the money and energy I spent on stamps sending the damn thing out, I probably could have gotten a Masters in something complicated.
Attic Salt is an odd record for Kepler because it moves away from the more slowcore influenced stuff of your early records. What was the reason for such a stylistic shift?
I kind of went into a Motown/ Stax /Curtis Mayfield wormhole. Jon basically stopped listening to anything but hip-hop and hardcore/ metal, which was perplexing to me and almost everyone else. We were also creatures of our peer group, especially in Ottawa, where there were, in my view, some really unique bands making relatively original rock and roll: the Wooden Stars, Snailhouse, Yellow Jacket Avenger, Clark, Hilotrons to name a few. We wanted their approval.
What was the writing process was like within the band?
I wish I could say that the songwriting was done in some kind of Ottawa opium den. I wish Ottawa even had an opium den. There's no real mystery. We just played a lot together. Some people would be thinking about starting their careers or going on vacations. Rock and roll was our vacation. I’d write songs and when I was ready to give it to the band, we’d just hammer it out through repetition. Usually the dudes would come up with stuff on their own. Sometimes I’d have really vague non-musical directions like “this should be more sparkly here”.
Did that change with the recording of Attic Salt?
We used to more or less record records that sounded like the songs that we rehearsed. This time around we wanted to make a kind of more studio record. A big thing was that we got less precious about how our records should sound. There are some passages where all the instruments kind of blur together in a gauzy wall. If you listen closely, you can hear all the little pieces that went together, but if you aren’t paying attention
I thought the sonic effect was kind of cool and reward a certain kind of stoner ear. Dave Draves, our longtime producer/ engineer let me do some things that weren’t technically cool but sounded cool. He’s great that way.
Do you think there was a backlash to the change in style?
I wouldn’t say there was much of a backlash. It was more of a no-lash. It would have been kind of cool if there were like some kind of swarm of animosity about it. But it was kind of… nothing, really. We had some reviews and most of them were kind of like “hey this is a pretty record that I didn’t really care much about.”
Jeremy Gara left after the recording to play with Arcade Fire just as they were starting to really blow up, right?
He left about a year after the record was done after waiting to find out how or when it would come out. You have to remember that Jeremy really stuck out a midst a sea of very talented people as having something especially special about the way he played, especially with his drumming. He could make anything sound like it had a chance to be great. We both had the pleasure of being Mike Feuerstack’s rhythm section for a few years and logging some time in this kind of comedy math-rock band we had called Weights & Measures. I always wanted to hear him play on a song I had written, and so for Attic Salt we said farewell to our old drummer Mike Sheridan and put him behind the kit.
When we started working on Attic Salt we were all pretty enthusiastic about the new configuration. But it took a long time to complete the record. Jeremy, in particular was getting some recognition for being a solid touring partner.
When we finished record there was an extra layer of delays with finding out who would put it out. There were a lot of changes in the indie world going on and it meant that you needed to have things like booking agents and publicists and money to get behind you. We didn’t have that much luck with that stuff.
It was only a matter of time that people with real careers would come knocking. I remember sitting in the studio during recording and hearing a knock on the door. This older, kinda cool-looking lanky guy with horn-rim glasses and salt and pepper hair opens the door. I think [Kepler member] Jon Georgekish-Watt was mid-way through guzzling a beer because I remember him doing a spit take and blurting out “Holy shit, it’s Howe Gelb!” I think Howe may have been sort of put back on his heels a bit.
It turns out Howe was in town to make ‘Sno Angel, which ended up being a great record he made with a group of Ottawa-based gospel singers. Two days later, Jeremy’s sitting in on a session with Howe. That was a pretty big deal – Howe’s one of those people who a lot of people we liked. And we were somewhat familiar with Giant Sand and appreciated how important a band they were. I seem to recall that Jeremy was going to open for Howe when Howe was going to open for Wilco. The tour fell through, but that was a big deal for an Ottawa guy.
As for Arcade Fire, we knew they were interested Jeremy. We already were really good friends with Tim Kingsbury when he lived in Ottawa. We knew Ritchie Perry as well because he’d be this enormous goofy redhaired guy who would show up at random shows across southern Ontario and Quebec. I seem to recall Win and Regine coming to a show of ours and staring fairly intently at Jeremy. This was all before they got a record deal. At the time I hoped they wouldn’t ask. But if anyone deserved a career in music, it was Jeremy.
After that you guys played a handful of shows to promote the album, with Jeremy gone what was the lineup for those shows like?
We had for a while some pretty stellar players: Me, Jon, Mike Feuerstack, Mike Dubue (Hilotrons), Jordy Walker (super great studio guy). We thought we did a pretty good version of ourselves, but not many people seemed to want to see those shows to find out.
The band then kind of dissolved after the initial release of the album – what happened?
I moved to Toronto. After Jeremy had left, the band we reconfigured lived in three different cities right when we stopped getting guarantees for gigs. There was some real enthusiasm about that version of the band, and we actually started recording a record almost entirely live off the floor. But it was kind of ridiculous having a band with members in three different cities.
Do you all still keep in touch?
As much as is reasonable. Jon lives kind of off-the-grid in Ottawa. I think he's a bike courier still. Though I’m happy to report that he has a cell-phone and can be texted.
I think the thing I miss most now is the closeness of certain aspects of our friendship. We literally toured around the world together and had a lot of fantastic once-in-a-lifetime experiences playing music and meeting all matter of wonderful and strange people. That kind of builds some kind of shared experience bonds. We also grew up in music with each other, and it's hard to find that sense of shared interest as you get older.
So, about the reissue of Attic Salt – was that something you pushed for, or did someone just approach you about it?
Last fall, I got an e-mail from Matthias who runs [German record label] Oscarson. I don't know too much about them other than they: a) Exist and b) are fans. He offered to do it and was insanely excited. I have no idea why, but I’m still humbled that he bothered. If he hadn’t done that then it wouldn’t have happened.
“Attic Salt” is actually a really weird phrase, what does it mean?
We’d had such thuddingly obvious names for our records: Fuck Fight Fail!, Missionless Days! Looking back, I’m supremely embarrassed at how much they sound like they were developed by teenagers reading a book of psychiatric disorders. A friend of ours stumbled upon the phrase, which means something like “refined, incisive wit”. We thought it was clever and sounded cool.
The packaging of the reissue is really beautiful, especially with the accompanying photo book – how involved were you in the art direction?
The original artwork was done by a fantastic artist, Molly Kalkstein. Mattias took her work and re-laid it out in a booklet format. I looked at the file he sent me and said “ok.” But I agree, the whole thing looks and feels great.
Where did the photos in that book come from?
From our last show, which was in July of 2006, I think. We had actually stopped playing and sold off all the records I still had.
Now that this is out there, do you think you’ll reissue any of the other Kepler stuff?
At this point, it’s a matter of economics. If this goes ok, then we’ll absolutely reissue the whole shebang. If not, then that's that, for now.
Have you guys discussed any plans to reunite to do some shows in the future, or is that completely off the table?
We haven’t even thought about it, to be honest. I know lots of bands reunite now for one off shows and it can be a good time for everyone: the band gets paid, old fans get to relive some of the younger times. I guess I just don’t know if we were ever good enough or big enough to merit the treatment. The old records and music are like old photographs – they mean something to you because you see your own story through them. I don’t know if anyone else needs to go there.
Nick Laugher is a writer living in Montreal. He's on Twitter.