I recently caught up with musician Dan Griffin, founding member of Arkells, who released his debut solo album Leave Your Love in 2011. Dan is following that record up with his new EP Bordertown, which he wrote and recorded in Windsor.
During our chat, I learned more about Dan’s time in Windsor, how his music has evolved, and the inspiration behind Bordertown.
IHH: What brought about your relocation to Windsor?
Dan: I’m studying law at the University of Windsor.
You just released your new EP Bordertown – what was the inspiration behind these songs? There are specific nods to Windsor – what was it about the city’s feel that found its way into these songs? Even with Arkells, you often included specific references to Hamilton – I like that approach. It’s reminiscent of classic singer-songwriters who would write about their cities or wherever they found themselves as they travelled around. How did your location influence your music?
One of the things I loved about Hamilton was how much character it had to draw from. And over the last couple years I’ve had the chance to get to know Windsor as well and it’s a really interesting place… part of its identity has been shaped by Detroit, this old industrial giant that is now declaring bankruptcy. The changes have had a huge impact on both sides of the border and it feels like everyone’s still trying to figure out where to go from here – I can relate to that. There’s a resilience and sense of hope in both cities that I found inspiring.
One theme I picked up on with Bordertown is the feeling of isolation that can come with being in a new location, or even just feeling in an unsettled state in general. I tied it to the “be a tourist in your own city” mantra that I run with here and the idea of being able to make a home anywhere, and finding what’s good about wherever you find yourself. Is that something you wanted to explore with the EP?
Yeah that’s definitely one of the main themes on the EP. Trying to overcome the feeling of isolation and the discomfort of change with the possibility of finding meaning in the people and places around you. I really like the way you put it: “being a tourist in your own city.” When I left the Arkells and started school, I felt pretty disoriented and I spent a lot of time just being a hermit and worrying about everything. I found the only way to feel better was to become curious again and try to take part in what was going on around me.
Are Bordertown‘s intro and outro “The Storm” and “The Calm” indicative of moving from a more restless time to reaching peace, as we move through this collection of songs?
Yeah, exactly. It’s kind of a three part story – introduction, climax and resolution. I wanted the introduction to set the tone and bring the listener into the environment. I remember there was a big storm while I was recording vocals – the thunder was so loud that you could hear it in the vocal tracks so I just gave up and stuck the microphone outside my apartment window… there’s definitely an awesome tension and power in thunderstorms that you can’t mess with.
I really like the black and white visuals that accompany the EP. It gives it a mysterious feel and also a timeless one. It reflects the album well. The video for “Bordertown” (directed by Nadia Tan and Maya Bankovic) is like a short film. How important are the visuals for you in complimenting the music?
Thanks! I’m really fascinated by the visual side of albums. EP’s are a tough format because they’re like short films – they have to tell a good story but have less time to do it. So I try to look at visuals as an extension of the music – it all adds up to create a certain atmosphere and a sense of depth – which is why art direction on an album is so important to me.
On this EP I was fortunate to get to work with super talented people like Maya and Nadia. They really helped capture the spirit of the city and the feel of the song. When most people imagine Windsor and Detroit, they picture them as these old abandoned cities. So we wanted to play on that conception but also show the parts that people don’t always hear about – there’s a lot of beauty and life there.
They also introduced me to Dave Todon, a really great photographer from Windsor. I saw his gallery in Toronto and asked to use one of his photos for the album cover. The guys in the “Bordertown” video are actually friends of his that were nice enough to show us around the city and be subjects as well. I also worked with Kaleigh Tait who is an awesome graphic designer who helped bring all these elements together for the website. It’s really cool to see these songs interacting with other people’s work – and when the visuals and music come together to create an environment, I think it has a big impact on the way the album is perceived.
What’s Windsor’s music scene like? Did you have any opportunities to play live there while working on this new material?
Windsor has a small community of great musicians and venues… it’s a lot like Hamilton in that there’s a few really dedicated people that play a vital role in keeping it alive. Tom Lucier of the Phog Lounge in Windsor is like our Brodie from the Casbah – they both bring great music in from out of town and give young local bands a place to start. I’ve seen a lot of great shows in Windsor and I hope to play there in the fall.
What was the recording process like for Bordertown? You wrote, recorded, and mixed it yourself. How was it finding the sound for this album? How do you feel your music has evolved since Leave Your Love?
I’m always learning when I’m recording – it’s a lot of trial and error. But it’s really therapeutic for me because I get to sink in and tune everything else out. It’s different when you’re working on your own, as opposed to being in a band – you don’t always have people around to bounce ideas off so you have to learn to trust yourself. It’s easy to lose perspective though, so every now and then I’ll ask friends to listen and get their feedback. For me, the hardest part is learning when to let go and stop making changes.
Musically, I’m trying to let myself experiment and take more chances. I tried to use new sounds that felt fresh and exciting to me and I also brought back some elements that I started exploring on Leave Your Love and on the last Arkells record as well – so there’s a mix of acoustic and electric guitars, synths, gated reverbs and vocal effects.
There’s definitely some sonic references to late 80’s and early 90’s pop like Phil Collins, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Springsteen etc… I was exposed to a lot of that music as a young kid walking around with my parents in shopping malls and grocery stores, and it really stuck with me.
Do you have plans for another full-length album?
Yeah, I hope so. There’s really no pressure other than wanting to share music I’ve been working on with people. Sometimes it’s frustrating not having a plan, but writing songs has always been more like inconsistent diary entries for me. It’s just a personal thing that I do when I feel like shit or I’m going through something – then over time there’s usually a batch of songs that I’m excited about. I really can’t force it, but it’s a good outlet for me, so I just try to keep at it.
You’ll be back in Hamilton to play at TwelvEighty on McMaster’s campus on November 26th – that must be fun returning to your alma mater to play! Are there any plans for a tour or more shows to come with your full band Dan Griffin & The Regrets?
Yeah! I’m really looking forward to the show and I’m hoping to bring the full band back soon…
Favourite place to eat in Hamilton: Breakfast at Harbour Diner
Favourite breakfast food: EGGS
If you were an alcoholic beverage, what would you be? An Old Fashioned
Your go-to karaoke song: “Moon River”
If you could speak flawlessly with any other accent, what would it be? Cockney-style British (like Adele)
Favourite word: Dingus
Favourite concert/live performance you’ve seen: Constantines at The Underground, Hamilton in 2005
What is on your playlist right now: Kurt Vile, The National, DIANA, Divine Fits, Ariel Pink, Doug Paisley, Jim Guthrie
If you could detour to anywhere in the world right now, where would you go? Some small Italian village where they make everything from scratch and say “mooozzarell”
Favourite mode of transportation: Motorcycle (I wish)
What’s one thing on your bucket list: Get a motorcycle
Thanks very much to Dan for taking the time to chat! Be sure to check out Bordertown, which is now available on iTunes.