Brian Borcherdt Gets Naked

By: Alison Lang

Brian Borcherdt Gets Naked
Photo: Mike Dach

Musician Brian Borcherdt represents different things to different people. Most of us know him best as the young guy pounding the shit out of synths and drum machines in the infectious and inventive electronic music group Holy Fuck. The group has risen to world renown in a staggeringly short period of time and their success has so far culminated in a nomination for this year's Polaris Music Prize as one of Canada's favourite independent acts.

But Borcherdt also had a pretty good thing going in his own right before the band with the highly bleep-able name made it big. As an up-and-coming musician in the tiny south-shore burg of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, he founded Dependent Music, the record label which artists like Jill Barber, Wintersleep and Land of Talk once called home. For a while he played guitar in By Divine Right and he's released three heartbreaking solo albums titled Moths, and The Remains of Brian Borcherdt 1 and 2. Now he's released Coyotes, an album of songs stripped to the marrow, consisting of Borcherdt's trembling voice, his guitar, ghostly harmonies from Toronto singer Audrey Bankley and the resulting echo in an empty room. It's haunting and heady stuff, not only in comparison to the gear-heavy Holy Fuck albums, but also the songs of Remains. Borcherdt says it's natural for him to step between the genres.

"It's kind of like when (Blue Rodeo drummer) Glenn Milchem plays with Holy Fuck," Borcherdt says. "People thought that was weird, but if you know him, it makes sense. This guy has commercial success in an alt-country band, but then he goes out to the van and breaks out this Black Dice record. I don't think anyone is quite so easily defined by one type of identity. We all have hobbies and passions."

Borcherdt recorded Coyotes in a single session in the home of his former By Divine Right bandmate Jose Miguel Contreras. Both men sat in different parts of the house through the entire process – Borcherdt in the living room, Contreras in his basement studio. "It's fairly typical home recording," Borcherdt says. "You make do with what you have. It's not like someone looking at you through the glass, giving you a thumbs up like in a Bon Jovi video. Because he was down there quietly listening, he could get all the little nuances."

The nuances are all there in Coyotes – the intake of breath, the finger thumbing the strings, the creak of the wood. Borcherdt says the barren effect wasn't always intended. "There were a couple of songs that I had envisioned recording with a full band," he says. "I pictured this big, grandiose thing. Then the hard drive crashed and we lost the files. As a result, I ended up playing the songs as they were originally written, which led to a more sincere delivery, I think."

Some reviewers have postulated that Coyotes is a product of Borcherdt's rigorous Holy Fuck touring schedule; that the guy is suffering from a musician's form of executive burnout. When asked if this was true, he admits, "I guess I am exhausted. [Holy Fuck] has become the butt of jokes in the Canadian indie rock landscape because we tour so much. I mean, it's true. What are we doing? Are we a circus?"

After some laughter, he continues, "I was afraid people would think the album was an underachievement. So if that's the response – that this album came out of a period of exhaustion – that's cool because there's some romance in that. It's better to think that people have exhausted themselves for their art, rather than underachieving."

When asked if he thinks the album is an underachievement, he pauses. "I guess it's a natural worry," he begins. "I think it's natural to have moments of doubt when working, especially when it's done and you're set to release it to the world for public consumption. That was my one greatest concern. Because it was so minimal, because you can hear the mistakes – I was worried someone would be like, ‘Enough already!' and put on a Weezer record or something.

“One of my proudest moments for me is when I try to do something new and figure out what it is I'm improving on,” he continues. “Sometimes it's hard to figure out what it is that we're doing wrong. Stripping everything away isn't any kind of underachievement. I think it's getting closer to what I want to express and what I want to share with people – what I want to contribute to this glut of music and media that's already out there.”

Borcherdt will be playing venues across Canada this month in support of Coyotes (and Martha Wainwright) with a rotating group of Holy Fuck-ers, Dependent Music labelmates and whomever else he can pick up along the way. He says it’s tricky going from group tours to solitary cross-country treks, especially if you don’t know how you’re getting to the next gig.

“I like doing organic, exciting tours,” he says. “Leave things open-ended. I’ve invited my friends to play along with me. But most of them are in Holy Fuck, and the last thing they want to do right now is go back on the road. So there’s a bit of loneliness to it. Sometimes I show up and people are like, ‘Oh! Where’s the band?’”

“And I have a show on Saturday in Kingston, [Ontario],” he continues. “I don’t even know how I’m going to get there. I might hop on a Greyhound or something. But playing Toronto will be fun. Really, it depends on which day you get me. One day it’s a compromise, the next day it’s a challenge.”

Here's hoping he remains up to it.

Brian Borcherdt
Photo: Mike Dach
Brian Borcherdt

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