“I like to think that everyone and everything can have a second start and reinvent themselves”: in which we take a walk on the wild side with the Ottawa band’s frontman Rolf Klausener.
BY SUSAN MOLL
What is it about the Great Lakes hinterlands that engenders them so to the search for song and soul? Tony Dekker holed up in an abandoned grain silo in southern Ontario to record the first Great Lake Swimmers album, and the winter Justin Vernon spent in his family’s Wisconsin hunting cabin begot For Emma, Forever Ago. Perhaps it’s the panicles of wild rice that sway in the wetland breeze, the loon calls at sundown, the promise of peace and solitude. For the Acorn, whose music invites comparisons to both of the aforementioned artists, the area is fertile, almost sacred ground. It’s especially fitting now, as the earth thaws and everything wakes from hibernation to propagate, including its leader, Rolf Klausener.
“There’s obviously a romantic singer-in-the woods quality to that,” Klausener laughs. “When it comes to music now, to writing anyway, I need to completely disconnect myself from day- to-day responsibilities and sequester myself. To really get into my own head, I need to get away.”
Klausener leads what he dubs “a quietly busy life” in Ottawa, his adopted provenance. As artistic director of the Arboretum Festival, which has hosted Owen Pallett, the Constantines and Broken Social Scene mainstay Kevin Drew, he helps dispel Ottawa’s unfortunate reputation as a boring government city. It convenes every August, the same time the eastern timber wolves rendezvous in the Algonquin heat. Klausener need not venture far to commune with the natural world when it comes so willingly to him.
For a dozen years, the Acorn has built its career on imagistic idylls of the Canadian wild, spirited missives on love and endurance, and celebratory odes to heritage. A masterful storyteller, Klausener is never short of an intriguing narrative: Glory Hope Mountain, released in 2007, chronicled the turbulent life of his mother and her desperate escape from the horrors of her Honduran homeland on limbs maimed by polio. (Kanye West even paused from his customary dickishness to Twitter his approval of the video for “Crooked Legs.”) After the Acorn’s road trip with Fleet Foxes concluded, Klausener packed the entire band off to a lakeside cabin in the woods of northern Quebec, where they wrote No Ghost as the shadfiles clustered on the windows and the stars twinkled with improbable brightness. The band’s ensuing tours attracted them much-deserved international attention and acclaim, but when the time came for Klausener to retreat once more into the forest, he did so alone, taking with him the demos that became the Acorn’s fourth album, Vieux Loup (Paper Bag) and little else.
“I had to reorganize the band,” he remembers. “Once we stopped touring in 2011, most of the band were living in other cities. I had to reexamine what I wanted to do musically with the Acorn, if I wanted to do anything with it at all.”
With the future of the ensemble in doubt, Klausener teamed up with bandmates Patrick Johnson and Adam Saikaley to form the electronic side project Silkken Laumann. While they wrote, recorded and booked gigs for their first album, Klausener, a life-long fan of hip-hop and dance, began revisiting the programmed sounds of the Acorn’s 2004 debut, The Pink Ghosts.
“When we got these grants to do Glory Hope Mountain, I really dove deep into more traditional musics and not using as many effects,” he says. “We’re defined as an indie-folk band, but the heart of the Acorn started out as an electronic project.”
On both Glory Hope Mountain and No Ghost, acoustic instruments were abundant and electronic flourishes scant. Gone now are the banjos, the e-bows and ukuleles, all banished for programmed beats and synthesizers. The vibrant energy of songs like “Restoration” and “Crooked Legs” has all but evaporated, and Vieux Loup is steeped in a subtler state of mind, low in tempo and subdued in mood.
“I wanted there to be a lot of space and a lot of silence,” Klausener says. “The more somber mood is probably reflective of the soul-searching that I’ve been doing for the last four years.”
Vieux loup, pronounced, “view loo,” translates from the Franco-Ontarian dialect into “old wolf.” When Klausener’s first gray hairs sprouted, a friend promptly nicknamed him “vieux loup,” and the alias stuck.
“Vieux loup is a nice symbol for a paternal figure, an aging leader of a pack,” Klausener contemplates. “I am reaching my mid-30s and started feeling like an older wolf as well.”
One’s mid-30s are hardly Jurassic by any means, but Klausener has come to embrace them as ardently as he does his role as the leader of the Acorn clan. “The vieux loup is also symbolizing the old self,” he explains. “When the old leader of the pack dies, there has to be a new leader to take over the pack. That plays into it as well: Can you let go of your old pack leader and find new leadership within yourself?”
In First Nations legend, the wolf spirit is an emblem of humility (a trait most Canadians, including Klausener, share), and as a shapeshifting being, it has the ability to change physical form and assume a new identity. As Klausener discovered while making Vieux Loup, so did the Acorn.
“I started realizing that a lot of the songs dealt with transformation,” he recalls. “There was this connection in my mind, this idea of evolution, of changing and adapting to your surroundings and to your needs. I like to think that everyone and everything can have a second start and reinvent themselves.”
For the Acorn, Vieux Loup accomplishes both, most notably on the opening track “Rapids,” whose chorus asks, “Are you caught up in a memory or a path to the future?” When the shoegazy guitars and sultry beats surface on Vieux Loup’s most alluring track, “Palm Springs,” things turn oddly apocalyptic.
“There’s an imaginary narrative about a couple who are stuck in California at the end of the world,” Klausener says. “The fault line cracks and California is drifting into the ocean. The sense of the song is real satisfaction in being where you need to be, as opposed to longing for other things.”
“Influence,” the album’s first single, is ripe with visions of reflection and metamorphosis. By leaving room for piano, acoustic guitar and live drums, Klausner ensured that the songs retained an earthy touch. “I did want the record to have a naturalistic feel,” he acknowledges. “But at the same time, the electronics and some of the sounds that aren’t as present on older Acorn records hopefully makes it feel more contemporary.
“I felt really pigeonholed after Glory Hope Mountain and No Ghost,” Klausener admits. “I felt really trapped by my own writing. I was like, ‘Every song has to have an acoustic guitar, and it has to have this natural feel, it has to be kind of folky.’ I think it took doing Silkken Laumann and taking the time off to remember that the Acorn is me, and it’s anything I want it to be.” Spoken like a true vieux loup.
This story was originally published in the June 2015 issue of Atlanta music magazine Stomp and Stammer and we suggest you start reading that long running publication pronto.