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Geoff Berner Is The 'Festival Man'

Vancouver's carnivalesque artist turns to writing fiction and tells us about his fantasy folk festival.

There has always been something festive, or even carnivalesque about Geoff Berner’s performances. He’s a songwriter interested in ritual, subversion, and solidarity. The first time I saw him sing “Shut In,” he asked members of the audience to call a friend in town who’d decided not to go out, and to hold their cell phones in the air. Like a punk preacher, he then delivered a blistering critique of the slow death of live gatherings at the hands of digital devices and screens, addressing his words especially to those at home who’d opted that night for bourgeois comforts over human fellow feeling: “Shut In, the time to come is gonna be the test of us / Shut In, Shut In, Shut In, Shut In, come on out and suffer with the rest of us!” He makes records too, but one might say that the real works in Berner’s oeuvre are the interactions he fosters with a drinking, breathing bunch of folks.

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Canada’s Unofficial Political-Folk-Accordionist Laureate now brings his expertise in musical events and congregations to his hilarious debut novel, Festival Man. Presented as a memoir written by “Campbell Ouiniette,” it’s a story about a despicable/lovable, hard-living music promoter trying to make good in an industry that reeks of compromise and commercialism. After his biggest act leaves him to bask in the adulation and support of an Icelandic mega-star, Ouiniette devises a plan to sneak a truly revolutionary group into the Calgary Folk Festival, a gesture he hopes will right a lifetime of wrongs. Festival Man is a sharp portrait of a scene and a cultural moment; a quickly–paced and hilarious hero’s quest; and a sympathetic exploration of why people want to make beautiful, powerful things and share them together. It’s really good. You should read it.

Festival Man is available now through Dundurn Press. Geoff Berner himself is forever touring North America and Europe, but Noisey was able to ask him about Canadian folk festivals, writing on the road, and his looming feud with Great Big Sea.

Noisey: Do you like attending folk festivals? Are they fun to play?
Geoff Berner: Yes. They are. It’s a nice break from the bars. The sun shines. The audience is looking for new music to like. There’s a sense of occasion. Normal rules are suspended. Most importantly, they are not-for-profit events, run largely by volunteers, for the love of music and community, not for money. That really gives it a different feeling. Better.

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What is it about Canadian (or Albertan) folk festivals in particular that made you want to set your novel here?
Except for a few headliners, artists at Canadian folk festivals are usually in town for the whole weekend. They play their own concerts at the fest, but then there are also the “workshop” stages, where odd combinations of musicians are put on stage and given the opportunity to collaborate. Strange shit can happen there, like Leslie Feist fronting a band of percussionists from Mali while an aged British communist sings backups. And because the artists are there for the whole weekend, there’s time for them to meet each other, party with the locals, and get into lots of trouble.

Albertan folk festivals have that pugnacious Alberta vibe, but in a left-wing context. The people who go to Albertan folk festivals are generally pinkos of one kind or another. In Alberta, those folks have always needed to be tougher than BC and Ontario pinkos, and they had to truly band together to survive the shit storm. So there’s more of an urgent, us-against-the-world feel in Alberta.

Your narrator takes some hilarious jabs at some Canadian folk stars. Great Big Sea, for instance. Have there been any acts of retaliation?
Nothing yet. But you know how Canadians are. They hate confrontation. Retaliation, when it comes, will be lukewarm and passive aggressive. As for Great Big Sea, I’m sure it matters nothing to them, in their bouncy bouncy happy music world, what some western asshole thinks. Anyway, as with the cod, there’s not much to be done about Great Big Sea now. The damage to Newfoundland’s culture is done.

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Other characters in Festival Man might not be named after anyone real but might resemble actual, living musicians. Has it been weird at all writing about a world so close to you?
Nope. What’s been weird is how hard it’s been to convince people that the book is Fiction. Who knew people were so reluctant to believe a guy who’s trying to tell them he’s feeding them a pack of lies? Perhaps if I ran for public office…

If Geoff Berner could design, from the ground up, something like “The Calgary Festival of Folk,” how might it differ from other actual such festivals? You can do anything you want here—a thought experiment.
What would I change? There’s been an aggressive forgetting that Folk Festivals in Canada were founded as radical left-wing political organizing tools. The forgetting is so aggressive that I’m sure many Folk Fest folks would even argue that point. That’s how hard they’ve forgotten.

The last time I played Calgary Folk Festival, there were guys in TD Canada Trust uniforms walking amongst the crowd, doling out fresh drinking water to people from cooler boxes marked with the bank’s logo. As if to say, “We are the bank, we are the life-givers. We control the water, but you have nothing to fear.” Woody Guthrie would have chased them through the gates with his guitar first thing Thursday afternoon, wrote a song about it in the evening and played it, then moved on to the next battle by Friday.

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The last time I played the Winnipeg Folk Fest, there was a preferential parking lot for Volkswagen owners, closer to the campgrounds. I made a three-second joke about that from the stage, and that made the front page of the Free Press’ coverage of the event. People said I was “brave”. Fuck. I can’t say for sure that I've been blackballed from there, but I haven’t ever been invited back.

So I would stop almost all corporate sponsorship, except maybe for the participation of local small business, lose the Famous Headliners with their tour busses parked and idling behind the mainstage, and get folk festivals back to their purpose, which was to be a cultural tool for getting together, having a great time figuring out how we’re all gonna fight the Man the rest of the year.

I read recently that Festival Man is going to be a movie. Is that right? Will you get to participate in the process?
Yep. Sarrazin Couture Productions of Toronto and L.A. bought the rights. My hat is in the ring to be the screenwriter. But it’s the movie business, so you just never know, do you?

You are constantly touring all over the place, it seems. How do you find the time or the place to write? Or do you wait till you get home?
There is a lot of hurry up and wait time on tour. In Europe, I tour on the train. In-between tour time is time that you can’t do much in, but you can’t relax either. Many musicians have handled that time a lot of different ways, but I’m not like Nick Cave. I never had the organizational skills for a heroin habit.

After Dylan wrote “Like A Rolling Stone,” apparently he set aside his desire to write a novel, which he had really wanted to do, because he realized that songwriting was his medium. What about you? Will you keep working on both fiction and music?
Yes I will. Festival Man is the first in a planned trilogy of novels about musicians that I hope to finish in the next several years. I’ll alternate the release of books with album releases. My next original album will come out in early 2015 on Oriente Records, of Berlin.

What can you do in a novel that you can’t do in a song, or vice versa?
Far be it from me to delineate the limits of an entire artistic medium. Writing a novel requires an awful lot more blind faith, though. You can write a song in an afternoon and with luck there’s hardly enough time to start doubting it enough to contemplate abandoning the whole thing before it’s even done. With a novel, that’s the main skill to master. Not abandoning.

Henry Adam Svec is a writer living in London, Ontario. He's on Twitter.