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Best of What's Next: Siskiyou

June 4, 2010  |  6:00am
Best of What's Next: Siskiyou

On “We Don’t Belong,” a barely minute-long track on Siskiyou’s self-titled debut album, Colin Huebert sings “We don’t go outside anymore”—but that's not entirely true. He delivers the line over a hushed piano and the sound of the ocean, which he recorded on a beach in British Columbia; the band, a collaboration between Huebert and Erik Arensen, is named after the Northern California mountain range, and their album—recorded on rooftops, beaches and in stairwells—perfectly captures the lush, often-chilly landscape of the Pacific Northwest. Huebuert used to drum for Great Lake Swimmers (and now works on an organic farm) and Arnesen still plays with the band, but they found time to make the album (perfect for folk fans who think The Shins are just a little too wild) without any label support or studio time; after sitting unreleased for quite some time, the LP will finally be released by Constellation Records on Sept. 7. Earlier this year, Huebert talked with Paste about the upcoming release (and Siskiyou's in-the-works second album), ending his run with Great Lake Swimmers and the benefits of growing his own cilantro.

Paste: How’s it going today?

Colin Huebert: Good. I'm in Grinrod, outside of British Columbia. It’s a little town.

Paste: How little are we talking?

Huebert: I would say the town is just a post office and a bar. A couple hundred people. It’s a good bar, though. Used to be a rock ‘em, sock ‘em place, but that burnt down. I’ve only been here for about a year. Before that I was in Vancouver for a time, for about 5 years. And I was born and raised in Ontario, so the significant start of my life was there.

Paste: What made you want to move to someplace so much more remote?

Huebert: My girlfriend wanted to try her hand at farming, and I came along. I’m from a small town but have been living in large cities for most of my life. I wanted to try that experiment—try living in a rural setting as an adult, without my family nearby. A lot of people don’t try that once they’re adults.

Paste: How does it compare with childhood memories?

Huebert: It’s quite different, being an adult in a small town. When I first moved here it seemed a lot like my childhood—biking around town. But as an adult, adult things creep in. It wasn’t as if I was trying to recapture my childhood, but more of an experiment in living. Ultimately my conclusions are that the human being is an incredibly adaptable creature. If you give them six months in any location, it’ll become normal and that will become home.

Paste: Do you feel like Grinrod is home now?
Huebert: Yeah, I do. We won’t stay forever. The job was a job, and it’s coming to an end in the next three or four months. I’m recording another record with Erik, my partner and whatnot, in a community hall in a neighboring town. I just rented a bunch of recording equipment form Vancouver, and I’m going to get started as soon as we’re done [talking]. But we’re not sure which way to go after this, West or East. I’ve a lot more musical and family connections in the East, in Ontario, but I’m still drawn to the landscape of the West. So when the time comes to play this music live, I’ll need to think about that.

Paste: The landscape probably can’t help you play shows.
Huebert: No, I don’t think I can enlist the trees to play the drums.

Paste: What have you learned or gained from farming this year?

Huebert: In terms of food production, I find that my diet is very different. We were growing about 60 different kinds of vegetables and herbs. My diet is much more locally-based. Before the winter—there’s about a foot of snow on the ground here—I could just go grab some cilantro if I wanted cilantro. We’ve been working on someone’s farm simply to learn the craft and the trade. It’s an organic farm.

Paste: You write that the album was recorded stairwells, bathrooms, hotel rooms, and on beaches and rooftops. The album does have a really organic feel to it. How important was it to you to avoid any sense of studio overproduction on the record?
Huebert: Very important. Making this record was a reaction to a more traditional approach to recording, where you go in the studio with set parameters of time and budget. Then whatever you come out with, that’s what you've got. Avoiding that mode of recording was important to me, and it was actually quite freeing. You could take your time and experiment more.

Paste: How did you pick which areas to record in?

Huebert: It was just experience—I’d walk through a stairwell that I knew I’d have access to and realize it had an interesting acoustic quality. Like, if it was dead silent. Most industrial spaces have some amount of noise, something that would limit you from recording. But the one we found was dead silent—we’d go into the stairwell at night and prop a sign against the door that said “Acoustics Testing in Progress.” And it worked—if anyone walked in, they were so shocked that at four in the morning there were two guys sitting in a stairwell surrounded by electronic equipment that they’d immediately leave. It went off without a hitch.

Paste: At what point did you record on a beach?

Huebert: The beach, to be honest, we just recorded the sound of the water. We were on the beach with recording equipment, but it was field recordings. We didn’t go down there with our instruments and do a little jam-along around the fire. It was a little more calculated.

Paste: When did the writing of these songs begin? At what point did you decide to turn your writing into an album?

Huebert: About a year and a half ago. I was touring with Great Lake Swimmers quite a bit, and in between tours I was writing. There was no idea about a finished product, but I was showing them to friendly people I knew who would give me feedback. They seemed to be in agreement that I should pursue a project to some degree. The songs picked up momentum from there.

Paste: And at what point did you decide the songs would create an album from an actual—would you call it a band? A collaboration?

Huebert: I’d call it a collaboration between myself and Erik. I wouldn't necessarily call it a band or call myself a solo performer. A partnership, maybe.

Paste: On the album, which sounds are coming from the two of you?
Huebert: Erik plays all the banjo. He does a small amount of acoustic guitar and a bit of electric. The rest I play. I did use the services of some local musicians in Vancouver for the upright bass and the horns. I can’t really play those two. My girlfriend plays a bit of piano, as well. So I’m not doing it all, but I am doing the majority of it.

Paste: Between your longing to try farming and the organic recording process, do you feel like you’re drawn to things that are very natural?
Huebert: As I grow older, I think there may be a trend in that direction. As a youth, it’s hard to look down on your life with any objectivity. But getting older, you can start to see trends. I’d say at this point, I see that trend. A tendency towards things outside, and so-to-speak organic, are very up my alley.

Paste: What draws you to that?
Huebert: Definitely not my upbringing. I didn’t grow up like that—my dad wanted me to be an investment banker or a stockbroker. There was no camping or outdoor activity. So it might be reaction against my upbringing. Or maybe it’s just something inside of me.

Paste: Why call the project Siskiyou? Is there a connection with the Gold Rush region in California?
Huebert: Yes. To me, the way I know Siskiyou is a mountain range that divides California from the Pacific Northwest. And I’ve traveled up and down the West Coast, and the transition from the lush, green, moist Pacific Northwest into the arid yet tropical California—it’s such a stark transition. You don’t see that very often in the world. That stark geographical change always had a deep impact on me. It’s very memorable. And I didn’t want to use my own name for this project... It was an interesting sounding word, without any official meaning. It’s a bit of a blank slate to me, which is kind of what this project is.

Paste: In “This Land,” you sing, “I am never going home, because I have never had a home.” It’s a pretty stark thing to say. But you seem to be at home wherever you are. Was it a more in-the-moment thought?
Huebert: It was in-the-moment, stream-of-consciousness lyric. I do think anywhere can be home, but I’m still in a state of flux right now, with no set destination. In that intermediate period between homes, there’s always uneasiness. Everyone wants to have a home ultimately, right?

Paste: Will there come a time when you stop moving around?
Huebert: I hope so, yeah. Eventually.

Paste: In “Funeral Song” you basically talk about laughing in the face of death. Have you been faced with such a task before?

Huebert: No, I haven’t. This is more of a pre-processing of that emotion. I was considering the passing of my father, who’s not sickly, but is in his 80s. I was trying to consider his funeral and how he’d feel about things in the afterlife, if there were one. It’s about a funeral that hasn’t happened.

Paste: I know that you’re no longer playing with Great Lake Swimmers. What brought that chapter of your life to a close?
Huebert: It just stopped being an enjoyable experience. The touring was becoming a little overwhelming. They’re a relentless road machine. I wanted time to pursue a project like this. It was becoming unbalanced. Like if I was an accountant and all I did was work on accounting until 2 A.M., then start over the next day. There was no other time for me to do other things, be they musical or romantic or whatnot. It’s hard to stay in a relationship when you’re on the road for nine months a year.

Paste: You played drums in Great Lake Swimmers. To step out front in Siskiyou, that’s a drastic shift. Is there anything scary about that to you?
Huebert: The scariest thing will be performing. I’m comfortable with recording, arranging, producing, the business aspect. But the one thing that hasn’t happened yet is performing. It’s true I’m more comfortable playing drums, sitting in the back there. So it could be nerve-wracking, but it’ll happen.

Paste: Tell me about this new record you’re already creating.

Huebert: This nearby town to Grinrod is called Mara. It’s smaller than Grinrod, and it’s got this old, wooden community hall. The residents of Mara have been kind enough to give me the key to the hall for this month. So I rented enough recording equipment to use in the room. After this interview I’m going to drive over there and start setting up, get a feel for the room, then I’ll proceed to record a new batch of songs. It’ll probably be done by March [2010].

Paste: Does it feel good knowing that you are totally in charge of when and how you record?

Huebert: Absolutely. There’s a sense of ownership. You get to do things on your own terms.

Paste: What are you most looking forward to in taking this project to the next level, with a label and touring?

Huebert: I’m excited about the record being officially released, and coming out on vinyl. But for me right now, I have to focus on recording. The thing I’m most excited about now is making another record, not because I’m bored or tired of the first one, but because I need to put my mind in that zone so it’ll be a successful venture.

Click above to listen to "This Land" from Siskiyou's forthcoming self-titled debut, and click here to download it at the band's official website.

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