Oboes! Tubas! Baritone ukuleles! Saskatoon's Minor Matter is the result of five multi-instrumentalists coming together to create stunning orchestral folk, and I bet you haven't heard anything like them in a while.
The band sprouted up around solo experimental compositions by helmsman Jeffrey Popiel, a multi-instrumentalist in the true sense of the word: on Minor Matter's brand-new self-titled debut album, released independently on June 17 (see our review), he plays guitar, baritone ukulele, tuba, trumpet, valve trombone, accordion and flute, and contributes vocals.
Jeffrey and percussionist/vocalist Jon Henderson took the time to share with us some wonderfully thoughtful insights into their musical process, from their influences, which are as many and varied as the sounds you'll find in their atmospheric pieces, to their delightful outlook on the use of instruments and vocals (the idea of each instrument as a cartoon character's voice will be sticking with me for a long time). They embark on a Western Canadian tour at the end of June, and I really hope you'll get to catch one of their live shows (tour dates on their website, below) — they sound like they'll be an absolute treat.
Geyser: So much great Canadian music comes out of the Prairies. What is the music community like in Saskatoon?
Jeffrey Popiel: There are a few different niches in the community of Saskatoon, as with any common music community, but almost everyone seems to be friendly. People offer to help others with recording or performing projects at no expense a lot of the time. We have a good amount of variation in music here, while there is always room to grow. From my perspective, SaskMusic plays a huge part in helping our musicians grow musically and feel a sense of community.
Jon Henderson: I think our band is a good example of this community in action. Jeffrey has written and performed songs with a number of different artists, Steph [Unverricht] plays with the symphony and the opera and has recorded with other bands, Skyler [Cafferata] is half of a post-garage punk duo and also plays in a party-rock band, Heather [Lake] is a music teacher and works with youth, and I’ve played with people in the blues scene.
G: What has it been like transitioning from a solo project to a five-piece group?
JP: In one sense, the solo project is ongoing. I changed the name to Juniperus, and Minor Matter has become its own entity that represents our band. At first, some thought it was still just me performing, and were a bit surprised to see a full band at the show.
JH: Building the band around Jeffrey was a gradual process that took some time to discover how everyone fit together musically. We had the skill set to cover a broad range of genres and explore a variety of themes, but it took some time to feel things out. Over the past four or five years the band has matured musically and we’ve grown to be really good friends.
G: What kind of musical backgrounds do you all come from? Are they similar or quite different? How does that affect the way you work together?
JP: I may have the most diverse set of influences. I stuck through the band program and played tuba in wind ensembles after high school for years; I play in a swing and polka band from time to time. Most of what I have been exposed to in recent years is actually independent Canadian music. On a total flip side, even though it isn't apparent, I was heavily exposed to independent Japanese electronic music for about seven years. The musical backgrounds we have all have overlap in big ways because we are all from around here. They may in some ways be contrasting, but we use that to our advantage by trying out each other's ideas until we achieve what we feel works best to everyone's liking.
JH: Heather and Steph have music degrees and are classically trained in terms of performance and music theory. I went through the school band program which introduced me to a broad range of genres and styles, and Skyler has more of a free-form musical background, being brought up in a pretty experimental and open musical household.
G: You all play so many different instruments. Do you have any favourites or is that like choosing between children?
JP: To me, an instrument is sort of like a cartoon character's voice in that it works well for some images and not for others. The voices are the sounds of the instruments, and the images are the genres of music. Certain timbres are more effective in different genres, and with what we have available, we are able to get somewhat of an ideal selection for each genre we play.
G: I love that you don't feel pressure to include vocals in your music — nor to remain exclusively instrumental. What informs the decision to bring vocals to a song or not?
JP: The human voice is yet another instrument we have available, as I see it. It is special in that it connects more easily to certain listeners, though we know when not to use it. The decision to use vocals lies mostly in how well the vocals lead the music. If the instruments can tell an enticing story, then there is no need to say a single word.
G: In my experience, with largely instrumental music, it's up to the listener to develop their own imagery and emotions that the music evokes for them. But for you, the people who write and play them, are there often particularly strong stories, settings or emotions behind your songs? Care to share an example or two?
JP: With our piece Stuck in Serenity, oboe and clarinet are featured over the baritone ukulele. The feeling of this piece comes from the sense of being lost while adventuring in an intriguing or exciting place. In this case, it reminds me of being in Venice, Italy. It is a very curious old place that was new to me, and there are so many odd paths that it was easy to end up mistakenly turning in a circle to be back where I started. The end of the piece leaves the listener feeling as though we are "stuck" after all.
G: What are your live performances like compared to your studio recordings?
JP: We have worked very hard on our studio recordings, and we are working even harder to represent them well. Of course, with recordings, you don't get to see our chemistry on stage, and a lot of people get quite a kick out of seeing our band switch instruments so often. We will try to stretch the dynamic of the show if the audience lets us, whether that be playing a fully acoustic song, or getting really pumped up for our heaviest rock-out. Being there in the moment is really what it's all about!
G: What are some of your many musical and non-musical influences (literature, art, etc.)?
JP: My musical influences include Mirah for her experimentalism, The Delgados for their humble and grand musical styles, and Patrick Watson for his vivid musicality. My non-musical influences are calm warm sunny days, and great food/potlucks.
G: You're all about pushing boundaries with your music. What new styles or elements would you love to add to your songs in the future?
JP: I like to try new things whenever I can. What I really want to happen is getting more effects on those wind instruments! It would be great to do subtle and beautiful things; at the same time, I would love to bring in some really odd things to create new and more expansive environments in the music. To create more and more of an adventure in the music is what I wish to do.
G: What are you most excited about for your upcoming tour?
JP: I'm most excited to see how the audiences will react to us. Meeting new people is something I always enjoy as well, and seeing the landscapes of the west is always a nice treat.
JP: I am excited to put all our hard work to the test and to see how we do transitioning from city to city and venue to venue. It isn’t a long tour, but it will be new territory for the band in terms of travel and performance. Meeting new people, other bands, and getting a chance to see the music scenes in other cities will all be part of the fun!
G: Thank you so much, Jeffrey and Jon! It was so wonderful to hear from you. Best wishes for the tour!