by Jack Derricourt
“There it is you know . . . don’t you feel this?” – (The Reverend) Al Purdy.
I’ve never felt in tune with ambient music. Growing up on a steady diet of pop, rock, and Big Shiny Tunes, I didn’t really grapple with anything outside the simply structured chart topper until I was into my mature twenties. Now, in order to grip onto something that spans more than three or four minutes, doesn’t feature lyrics, and is primarily invested in soothing your mind or grating against your ear (with creative, not malicious intent), I find I need a metaphor. And the one I most often resort to, the one that jumps into my lobes with the most ease, is the landscape.
I construct a geography as I listen to ambient recordings. The sweeps of synth or guitar fuzz create slopes and valleys, shorelines and ridges, glaciers and volcanoes for me. It’s the easiest way to notice the changes in tone or direction, often subtler than what I listened to most recently, while spot-mopping the kitchen floor. Like one of those promotional fly-overs of the Canadian landscape found in the carcass of in-flight programming, my mind sets up a progressively widening shot of the artist’s scope and creativity.
This process fits right in with my experiences of C Diab’s music. I’ve been listening to the Cowichan Valley native for many years now. His geography is by now a favourite of mine; it’s a distinctly Canadian scenery, that’s both expansive and isolated in its expressiveness. And if that’s too high-minded, then I guess you could say that his music would make a most appropriate soundtrack for having sex in a canoe.
The collection so far: Interludes, Beacons, and No Perfect Wave. The latter two having been reviewed for Grayowl, I feel like I know C Diab’s music fairly well. A bowed guitar is the man’s main instrument, filling space with improvised aplomb. Though the sweeping gestures of this device are often accompanied by gritty tape recordings, little nuggets of celestial talk, or quotes from poets. This unique approach to album craft pours out of a “really weird community of humans,” the place that C Diab calls home, Vancouver. I’ve always been fascinated by the unabashed capital of West Coast Canada and its collection of wild drones and ambient stillness; the music stemming from this place has always drifted towards the avant garde in the most wonderful ways. The character of Vancouver and its inhabitants enters into his material, informs the atmosphere of his creation.
“It’s a more ambient and weird place. You have this deep, dark everything surrounding us for the vast majority of the year. You have this very dark, very wet landscape. And in this city, you can’t really escape that. In most cities, you’re in the city. Your mountains are the skyscrapers, you’re in the city, the metropolitan air. But here, you’re constantly reminded of how nature can just come and kill you and crush you at any moment. You’re surrounded by these massive mountains. It’s a dark, scary place, so I think the music reflects that.”
C Diab is no stranger to this wild side of nature. If anything, he’s graduated from a colder, lonelier type of wilderness.
“I think the music that is coming out of me is coming out of a very Cascadian place. I grew up on northern Vancouver Island, and spent a bunch of years up there. And the deepness and the darkness up there just informed the way I look at the world absolutely. The woods of my childhood haunt me everywhere I go.”
Both Interludes and Beacons channel that strange setting through wholehearted expressions of distant, drifting guitar work. The rather singular approach C Diab finds comes from bowing the strings and feeding them through effects pedals. It seemed so singular to me, for someone to take this on as their primary instrument. Where did this technique stem from? Like so much else in the artist’s oeuvre, it all evolved very naturally:
“I started a band, and there were a whole bunch of us. We didn’t know anything, we just had our guitars and just made sloppy rock music. And we had three guitars. You probably need only one guitar, so I was often left looking for a thing to do at all. It made sense if I just took a shitty old bow we had lying around the house and swiped it across the guitar a few times to make this ambient noise in the background. It would just make this kind of squealing sound.”
Years passed, as they do for most musicians, and C Diab drifted between the winds of folk music and no music, reducing his output to a collection of ideas bleeding over cassette recordings, smatterings, but no cohesive project. Then, in a moment of surreal chance, “I found the old bow in the back room when I was cleaning my house, and I just started playing the guitar with it again. And I played “Brief Prelude to Infinity.” And I realized suddenly that I had exactly just what I wanted. It was the sound that I needed to use. It was the sound which was able to perfectly express sonically what I needed to express.”
To hear that piece now, knowing that it was the spark for what would come is intriguing. Everything else that followed is there: the distance thrust between the listener and the source; the chorus of the ocean in a lot of the rhythms; the layering of tones that swoon and shift through time.
Stories erupt with such a profound shift in direction and intention. “Stone” is named for the rock gifted to the artist by his now-wife, a gift that stood by C Diab’s side throughout the recording. Beacons is greatly the channeling of the artist’s trip to Sweden. A great portion of these recordings feature fixed thematic sentiments, an intentional choice on the part of the composer.
“The song titles are usually picked from specific moments in my life. I’ll never sit down and say this is something I want to write about. I’ll just sit down and something will come to me. And somewhere along the line, whether it be the moment I sit down to write it — and finish it in that moment — or a couple of weeks down the line, I’ll realize it’s eliciting a certain thought.”
This might seem counterintuitive to the focused void of most ambient work. But C Diab is decidedly filmic. There’s a breadth present in his recordings that invites interpretation, rather than shunning it. He spends a great deal of effort to make his tracks approachable.
“Any concept I take, I know I have to get my hand around the neck of the thing and shorten it a bit, or else it’s just going to go on for minutes. When I’m recording I find myself with a ten minute track that I had tried to shorten from twenty minutes, and then I can’t imagine that particular track being shortened. I think that was kind of a flaw on the first album, because it ended up lasting like 55 minutes. I just don’t know really where to stop and start. And that was one of the good things about working on this one with Ian. He was another set of ears.”
That would be Ian William Craig, one of Vancouver’s most prolific ambient explorers. Craig recorded and engineered No Perfect Wave, an album that was mostly pre-written, a huge step in a different direction for C Diab. The result is a “sonic collage,” a combination of one style on top of the other, as C Diab would put it. Craig’s portion is most certainly the stellar effect manipulation on the recordings. “We threw all the muck and dirt we possibly could on top of it, record just through the crappiest oldest tapes. It was something that was really exciting to try.”
The tested elements of field recordings and surreal experiment continue on, however. This is after all, a record by C Diab. But Craig’s influence brings out something distinct from the two albums prior. The loneliness, the darkness of the established geography is focused through the lens of the producer’s manipulation. The narratives gain layers of obscurity they never had before, enhancing the listening process. It almost makes one want to moralize on the growth of the Canadian artist. Almost.
But C Diab doesn’t need to build the story up beyond the music, or even build up the importance of the music itself. No, it’s just a job without a paycheque as far as he sees it, a task to set upon and never relinquish, because it springs forth with easy electricity.
“Making music right now is very weird. I don’t have any manifestoes as far as music goes. If you were to talk to someone like Douglas Coupland, he’d probably say, “The musician’s purpose is this . . .” But I don’t believe in that purposefulness. It’s all very open and very personal — I don’t believe anyone should have to do anything in particular. I’m just doing this thing.”
Al Purdy is not C Diab’s grandfather. Yet, in my eyes, and the eyes of anyone who sees with a Canadian poetry heart, that pumps red and white and maple leaf blood, it’s a distinct possibility. There is a heritage alive in the minds of those that would keep it going; there is a place being brought forth by artists and composers and anyone with a wish to nurture its existence. Even in the deepest, darkest, weirdest corners of the country, artists like C Diab continue to manipulate and grow the Canadian consciousness. He’s just a dude, making music, like Purdy on the porch of his prairie cabin, drinking beer. But, like Purdy, he also knows how to walk the line.
“Music is the cosmic dart, Jack. We’re all just floating around, and we have no idea we are.” – C Diab