Sean Nicholas Savage has become water

Amelia Pitcherella

Photo by Adam Byckowski.

“I’m a freak—yeahhh!—wild and free,” is the liberated croon-and-screech refrain of Sean Nicholas Savage’s latest single, “Propaganda.” It’s a powerful affirmation from a pop savant who has in many forums been pinned an “outsider,” a tag he often questions.

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In a recent video interview for Arbutus, the Montreal-based label to release his upcoming full-length September 18, Savage remarks that the song is about the very real and frustrating “system” that has told him he’s a freak, existing outside of any “box” or in-group, and then later attempted to exert control over him by claiming that his “outsider” status actually puts him into a different kind of box. He says the word “outsider” with a discomforted half-laugh, half-scowl. Regardless, he wants us to know that the piece isn’t really about him; it’s an address to people who’ve been subjected to the same scrutiny. Over a soft drumbeat he lulls us with the line, “You keep your mind open, your body open.” Might as well embrace freakdom, as long as you can maintain the openness that it requires to navigate and deflect this endless jumble of make-believe boxes.

Perhaps as a result of this bent toward openness, Savage makes making art look effortless. Having produced a nearly a dozen studio albums since 2008 and having toured often since—and meanwhile having lived everywhere from Berlin to Montreal—the Canadian artist has the appearance of someone in constant motion, and he’s picked up a cult following at each point his feet have touched ground. Last year’s full-length, Bermuda Waterfall, is chock with sweet, sizzling anthems mired in reflection and nostalgia. But it was 2013’s Other Life whose breezy tunes of loss and yearning, with their cool, minimalist production style, received the most critical attention.

Now he’s poised to release the cheekily titled Other Death, whose cover—a busy, overblown pastiche on the restrained blue cover of Other Life—features a crimson-washed rendering of a shirtless Savage laid over a silhouette of water (or is it fire?) against the backdrop of a city skyline. Parallel with the portrait is a poem: “Ice/ fights to stay frozen/ and melts/ only to become water/ more versatile/ it’s truer form/ all along.”

The Sean Nicholas Savage that I connect with via Skype is a more relaxed version of the man on the cover—that same face and piercing gaze but suntanned, sporting a loose floral-print shirt and bearing an impish grin. He tells me he’s just moved into a new apartment in Montreal (he turns his laptop to show me the sunlit room with blank walls—“It’s pretty nice”) and aside from that, he’s been spending much of his time with friends. For someone who seems otherwise to be in a perpetual state of movement, he keeps a serene, unruffled demeanor. “I’m going to start recording tonight,” he tells me, “this thing I want to record.”

He says it nonchalantly, as if he’s an amateur and recording is something he does purely for fun. And it might as well be—compared with his previous three years of constant touring, the past several months have been much more low-key. “It got pretty tough after a while,” he tells me, “and then I thought I didn’t want it. You know when you’re in a relationship you might decide to take a break? I was taking a break from touring, and then I was like, ‘I don’t think I can tour now. I think it’s over.’”

So he spent this past winter in Santa Monica recording Other Death, in large part through an intensive collaboration with Alex Cowan, who records under AGOR. “I didn’t even play that much,” Savage tells me. “I don’t even know who played the music—[Cowan] played piano and I played a lot of bass, and we just took demos. I was jamming on my phone in the other room and then we would turn them into songs. We made tons and tons of crap.” In addition, he’s gotten a hand from other members of Arbutus’ open circle: Doldrums’ Airick Woodhead, Ramona Gonzalez of Nite Jewel, and TOPS’ David Carriere and Jane Penny. The result of so much collaboration is a record more free and daring than his previous—well worth the deep effort it took to weave so many disparate threads together.

People have cried at my shows, but I don’t feel that way usually. When I’m writing, it’s more common for me to be in an angry headspace than in a sad headspace.

Savage played a few shows this past summer alongside good friend Better Person, and the two have tour dates lined up in October across North America, but he says that this coming tour will be far less intense, less taxing for him. “I’m figuring it out. I’m not getting older, but a few years have gone by and I’m learning how I can handle it better.”

“My new set’s very energetic, and it will be a lot less tearful. People have cried at my shows, but I don’t feel that way usually. When I’m writing, it’s more common for me to be in an angry headspace than in a sad headspace. If you’re sad, you just…” He puts on his best crybaby face, “but if you’re angry, you’re just like, rrr… you know?”

This natural nonverbal expressivity that he’s just demonstrated is the root of so much of Savage’s appeal. In his performances he maintains a palpable bodily energy, which perhaps explains his live audiences’ oft-emotional reactions. But when he’s performing, Savage says he views his audience as more of a “host”: “They’re all there for the promise of a good time and entertainment. So I just try and take care of everybody and make sure that it’s good—that they feel good, or that they are moved, and that they’re entertained. The way I do it is try and really enjoy myself, and then they can watch and get in on it.” He adds, “It’s a bit alone—being alone in front of people, trying to bring them in.”

By that token, he’s shifted his attention toward making things less serious. The gravity of the cover of Other Death seems in itself a bit tongue-in-cheek, as he intends for the new record to be the antithesis of the heaviness that plagued his previous work. “I really, sincerely was really deep with Bermuda Waterfall, and I just couldn’t keep going deeper and doing the same thing. So to continue to be sincere, you have to change things up and be brave. I mean, brave for me. Not brave like, ‘Oh, I’m such a brave guy,’ but, for me, it’s brave to do something lighter.”

“You feel like it can be a cheap thing for an artist—not cheap, but, like, a crutch—and that being deep validates it, and if something’s light, you didn’t put as much into it, it’s not gonna be as good. It’s like they say, hard work is important. We play, but play is not as valued. I think play is where a lot of good things happen, and hard work is often where a lot of stupid things happen. So I was just playing around, trying to screw around. And your brain goes, ‘This is crap, no, he can’t do that! You’re not even trying!’ But that’s bullshit. That’s bullshit from my brain.”

Savage says Other Death is not so much a companion to Other Life so much as an insult to the themes on the album, a comeback to it. “Not like ‘my comeback,’ but kind of like a response. It’s less about Other Life but more using the name as an example to show—it’s like, death to that. Burn it, burn it! And I’m like, ‘Look! I’m even burning myself!’” He says this aggressively, resolutely. “I didn’t pick Bermuda, because Bermuda’s the last album, and I love Bermuda, that’s maybe my favorite album I’ve ever done. Bermuda didn’t do as well commercially or whatever, not that anything I’ve done has done too well commercially. Other Life was more of a success. This was really funny, I like this kind of humor, but I did a little jab at the album that more people know. Which also seems like the cheapest scheme, but I also don’t mind. I like cheap schemes. I think it’s funny. Like, Other Life had ‘You Changed Me’ and ‘Chin Chin’ on it, and those are songs from the album before it—we put them on the second album again. I love doing stuff like that. It’s such a Neil Diamond thing,” he laughs, “or something.”

Capitalism is looking out for itself. So we need it, it’s a tool, but if we let it run too free, a free market or free America or whatever, it’s looking out for number one. And if we’re living completely in it, then we’re serving something that doesn’t have life in its interest. So we’re gonna kill ourselves. It’ll kill you to make itself bigger—it wants to grow.

The poem on the cover, Savage’s own—he giddily explains that he “loooves writing poetry” and has a natural ability with the form—came to him in a vivid and vividly recalled dream. “This alien superstar kid was giving a speech at a Walmart or something, and he did three poems. I could only remember the last one, which was that one. When you die, you remember that you’re not ice, you’re water. And everything is; all the life is in the water, and everything’s connected. It’s not little snowflakes or chunks, it’s not solid, and you’re in everything, and there’s freedom to begin. It’s literally a death poem that I got from that dream. And then when I woke up, my alarm clock was this Michael Jackson song called ‘Take Me Back,’ and it’s like, ‘Take me back where I belong,’ which is pretty cool too. It’s a metaphor for letting go and then becoming what you are, which is… it’s not nothing. It’s similar to nothing, like thoughtlessness is not stupid. The way I see it, it’s just flowing. It has to do with faith and stuff like that.” Then he says bluntly, “I got a headache! My hair looks stupid.”

“I’ve gotten a lot more spiritual, or, not really religious, but into the concept of faith in the past few years. As an artist or human being, fear is absolute poison if you want to get anything done. If you’re trying to channel something, you gotta stay out of the way, ‘cause all kinds of fears are gonna get into your brain. Especially if you’re stoned or something like that—then you’re gonna get really self-conscious. And that just accentuates what happens onstage anyway. Performers often drink a lot to give themselves confidence. If you can just take that and use it in the recording, and see everything as a sign and follow the path—if you keep faith and stay out of it, and just channel the show or channel the recording or the vocal, it’s so much stronger to let nature record a song than to plan it out and do it yourself. If you’re open to miracles, that can be more powerful than you ever…” He takes a moment of pause before continuing, “Well, it’s more powerful than you. It’s not you. So that’s how you make good songs and good recordings and stuff: the more you can stay out of it. And that requires a lot of faith.”

The free-flowing, kaleidoscopic video for “Propaganda”—kitschy and over-the-top, spotlighting a floating Savage in staticky ether—harbors no trace of fear, and his iteration of the line “I’m not a country” as he drifts across boxy cityscapes might imply a cautioning against the fear that governments and institutions can instill. But Savage asserts that neither this nor “Suburban Nights,” the second single off the record, is intended as political commentary, in spite of their loose references to phenomena that might be termed political. Savage didn’t go into Other Death with the aim of making anything expressly political, though he concedes that even the poem on the cover could be read as such.

“Generally what I’ve done in my work is I’ve provided good metaphors, and metaphors can be applied to science—or, if they’re strong, sound spiritual metaphors, to politics or relationships or anything.” He assumes that his listeners share many of the same views, although he recognizes that that’s not always the case and he could stand to be more acute. “But there’s nothing acute, politically, on Other Death, really. ‘Suburban Nights’ is sort of observational. When it came out, I don’t know what kind of press release they did on that, but they were saying it’s some kind of comment on suburbia. But I grew up in a suburban setting and had a pretty good time. It’s more of an observation than a comment. I think I was angry, and I was walking around and I wanted to write a day in the life of the people around where I was walking. It was like, ‘I gained a bit of weight, I lost a bit of weight, my girlfriend’s going to fly over to Vancouver… I guess she’s tired of me talking about all this crap all the time.’ Like, yeah, probably. Or maybe it’s because it’s summer, or maybe because it’s winter, or it’s spring, or, you know, it’s fall. It doesn’t matter. Everyone just wants to get out. And then they drive and drive and drive and drive everywhere, and everything’s so far apart and hard to do for no reason because of these strange values.”

I don’t even believe in the concept of human death. I think it’s impossible, because everything’s infinite. There’s everything breathing in and out, waves going up and down, sine waves, sound waves, light waves, life and death waves.

“It’s all capitalist, really. Capitalism is really fucking shit up when it gets let to run. Because the thing is, a brain is just a depth. It’s a lot of variables, and at a certain depth it’s like the miracle effect, I guess—it appears to have a personality of its own. I think that living things can be possessed by non-living things. And that’s what I consider evil. It’s not that they want to destroy humans, it’s just that these organisms, groups of variables, this brain that is capitalism is looking out for itself. So we need it, it’s a tool, but if we let it run too free, a free market or free America or whatever, it’s looking out for number one. And if we’re living completely in it, then we’re serving something that doesn’t have life in its interest. So we’re gonna kill ourselves. It’ll kill you to make itself bigger—it wants to grow.”

Referring to capitalism’s lack of sustainability, he insists, “Anything too hard is unbalanced.” Following the same line of reasoning, he wanted to avoid making Other Death hard in any way. “I used to have a more sinister melody in the chorus [of “Propaganda”], and that’s when I addressed that I thought the song was sounding whiny, and I didn’t really believe in that. I spent awhile trying to make a major-key chorus that was still a good song, so that it wasn’t just a whiny thing. But then people maybe think it’s kind of whiny. The chorus is blissful, you know? Because I have a lot of good memories driving.”

The city has its appeal as an antidote to the yawning suburban lifestyle, but Savage isn’t opposed to moving out. “I’ve been dwelling in cities for a while. There’s a lot of country you can live in, still. Or go to another part of the world. I’ve been touring and travelling so much, but just always in North America or in Europe, and that’s not a huge part of the world. I’m not a very worldly guy, I haven’t been around that much, so I’d like to get around a little more, maybe not touring, and learn some shit at some point. I’m 29, so that’s so much time. Unless I drop—that’s a lot of time.”

And in the same breath: “I don’t even believe in the concept of human death. I think it’s impossible, because everything’s infinite. There’s everything breathing in and out, waves going up and down, sine waves, sound waves, light waves, life and death waves. That’s the ocean thing that I was talking about—variables and organisms. Everyone talks about reincarnation like it’s linear, but I don’t think it’s a linear thing. I think it’s like a shotgun blast. I’m you, right now. Not next time. Right now, I’m you. And everything. Certain depths of the same… depends on the depth. Also, in 200 years, I’m sure of it, you can show someone Mozart or my music, and they won’t know the difference. There’s a huge difference, but a lot of people don’t know the difference between Bach and Chopin. There’s a huge difference, but they don’t know. And that gap is gonna get smaller and smaller. Which is cool, because Mozart’s really good.” He cracks a wry smile. “It’s all gonna be classical, or, ‘that old style’!”

Savage reiterates his objection to pigeonholing himself into any specific sound—versatility, staying water rather than ice, is key. “I don’t get a new keyboard and try and see if I can make that sound I want with it. I just see what kind of sound it makes, so then I just make that sound with it, that it’s made to do. Going with the flow, you know? So whatever we have around and whatever we’re using, that’s what it is. I’m just a victim of circumstance, most of the time, with the way that my albums sound—which is fine, because that’s the strongest way. If I had tried to be more in control, it would have been way harder, and then, you know, you can hear how hard it is. That’s a bad thing. I don’t want to challenge anyone in that way.”

So I use the word “easy” to describe my own relaxed experience listening to the new recordings, and he’s quick to refute me. “But”—he wags a finger in playful consternation—“it’s not easy!” And then, throwing his head back laughing, “Nah, things are pretty easy. I’m tired, ‘cause I party a lot. It’s fun, but… it’s, like, really hard. That’s the hardest thing I do.”

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