Christian Hansen walks us through ‘Small Fry’

Photo courtesy of Christian Hansen
Photo courtesy of Christian Hansen

by Michael Thomas

Very soon, Christian Hansen will be releasing a new EP called Small Fry (you can listen to the EP here). The EP is a bit of a departure from his utterly danceable albums, but is easily recognizable as something only Hansen could come out with. In anticipation of the EP release, and of his performance at Grayowl Point’s next Crosswires co-pro in Toronto on April 13, we asked Hansen to walk us through each song, from how he came up with the ideas to his ideas about the recordings. The following is all in Hansen’s own words, edited for length.

On the EP in general

It was inspired a lot by ultimately the feelings I was having, where I was walking around the city. We’ve been here two-and-a-half years, but the first year is this weird honeymoon period. You’re not really sure where you are in the city, learning the city, meeting all these people. Once that year goes by, you’re settled in, it’s the reality of everyday life in the city, and you realize you don’t really know anyone, yet you’re in this city with millions of people. The feeling of the record started there.

Hip-hop has always been there. It’s always been the most consistent music I’ve been listening to since I got into music as a teenager. Obviously there’s punk rock, there’s new wave, there’s metal, but there’s always hip-hop. I was really really getting into the more southern hip-hop and rap. The Houston-type stuff, so the screwed and chopped stuff, the slowed and throwed. DJ Screw, UGK, Three 6 Mafia, you know, the foundation for what is now trap and gangsta rap. Walking this weird line between listening to a lot of that but listening to a lot of Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen. I really got back into the Smiths which I hadn’t been into since my early 20s. it’s pop music but it’s moody. I think what came out with this EP is just the smushing of those things together. I wanted to have those cool, weird 80s sounds, those moody keyboards and synths, but mixed in with the menacing aggression from the drum sounds of UGK and Three 6 Mafia, the snap-snare and the hi-hats, that whole thing. There’s an edge in Toronto, and I think the edge of the city took my mind to darker places. That and feeling like a bit of an outsider, maybe a bit isolated at times.

“Small Fry”

On the inspiration for the song: I was going to shows here in Toronto. They were full of people, they were all there to see the show but everyone’s acting like they’re not really excited to be there. I was also at a wall in my writing, I don’t know what I was doing but nothing was coming. There were a couple of hip-hop shows coming through town and I was like, “You know what? I’m going to go to one of these shows.” One in particular I went to alone, at the Hoxton—it was Riff Raff. I was blown away, not necessarily by his performance, he was just catching up to his buzz. But the vibe, and the crowd, I was like “Yes!” People were just there to have a good time and party and turn up, as they say. The mixture of the crowd was so funny, there were some indie kids, hipsters, super scary dudes, goons, hip-hop heads and whatever. A lightbulb went on for me. That gave me permission. I was going to write this super-heavy, old-school slowed-down hip-hop beat, and that’s where it started.

The song materialized in a couple minutes. The lyrics took a while, but the music was just there. Lyrically, it was my mind going to that place, I don’t know if you want to call it existential. That concept that we’re lost in the world and you look up to the sky—you look for God, you look for whatever, but in this instance it’s the mood. You throw your wishes and your thoughts up there, but it’s a scary thought that the heavens are listening but they don’t really care. I think the beat informed how I wanted to personify the moon, as this gangster, and the stars are the soldiers of the moon and they run the block. That’s how it feels sometimes when you look at what’s going on in the world around you. Sometimes you feel like the moon is looking out for you big time, but other times it’s not.

On the recording: It was the first song we started. It went pretty well. Everything was recorded with Doug Organ in Edmontone Studio in beautiful, cold Edmonton. He’s a true producer, I know I always say that, but I call him the whiz kid because him and I are sympatico, we just click. I was like “Yeah, I want a big, growly, gross, crazy synth sound that’s kind of detuned and boom, we just made it happen. The sample was key to the track, it announces the track, the attitude of the moon…We brought in a rapper from Edmonton, Mikey Maybe. He’s also the guy who made the video “Anthony at Your Service.”

He’s Anthony’s key support worker. Before that, I was Anthony’s support worker. I transitioned the job to him before I moved away from Edmonton. Weird connection. I really like his style—it’s funny, it’s aggressive, but it’s also kind of cerebral. I think you hear that in his verse, he personifies the moon, like the waves, the dark matter, “He thinks I hate him, I made him.” We did two versions. I wanted to have one without the verse that might have more legs on radio, maybe not, then we did an extended version with Mikey. He came in, banged the verse off in half an hour.

“The Claim”

On the inspiration for the song:  I’m really interested in this concept of heritage and legacy. And how legacy and how the people in our family form us and inform us, and how that’s passed onto kids. This idea of having something passed down from generation to generation that’s tangible, like a physical thing. In this case it’s a gun. I’d been thinking about that and talking about that with some of my friends. Along with those conversations, I really got into Robert Service. Everyone grows up reading Robert Service in school but you realize when you go back and read it how amazing those poems are. They’re so powerful—the images stick and they’re so simple. It inspired me to think about how that’s so foreign to me—living that hard life, physical, where everything’s about the elements and you have this base knowledge of how to survive on the Earth without having real technology. I don’t know anything about that. Just thinking about what specifically men had to be like to live in that world.

It just took me to that weird place of the father’s father who was a trapper. The gun definitely killed animals, maybe killed people. Or maybe he was a miner in the Yukon and had to stake his claim with the gun. Who knows how many men it had killed. Then the family mythology coming around it. Then the father had it, maybe used it for hunting but didn’t use it in a real deadly way, against another man. And then it gets passed down again and again, and it gets less removed from its original use and more put into this family mythology. I wanted to get more of a dark feel for this EP. I wanted it to sound a little more foreboding. I wanted it to sound a little bit more gangster, but I don’t mean real gangster, just that tone. I wanted to talk about things in that world that were real to me. Things that have an edge, like putting the gun you inherited into your trunk and driving home and thinking “This is so weird.”

On the recording: We chose some big, big, big bassy sounds for the drums and we worked for a long time to get the right little synth lead in the choruses. We took the sound of some recording we found somewhere of some Canadian First Nations tribe chant. Then we reversed it and put it in the end of the second chorus. It just felt right.

“Sunday”

On the inspiration for the song: Even before “Small Fry,” it was the first song I wrote that was kind of hip-hoppy, like “Okay, I can go in this direction.” It was the track that took the longest to develop. It really developed when I heard this story from a co-worker of mine about a person that she worked with who was this young offender. From the beginning of his life, he was just born into chaos. As a result, because of these awful things that happened to this parents and him, he became a Crown ward, which means basically you’re taken out of your parents’ care, or your parents give you up, and you belong to the Canadian government.

It’s written from the perspective of someone in the public service sector, a social worker—which I’m very familiar with, I work in that world—basically trying to help this kid who’s just so damaged. Done really bad things, like the lyrics infer, like shot someone. He’s done time, here he’s out and he’s in one of these like “We’re gonna build your skills, work on your employment strategy, work on your interview skills, we’re going to push you out into the community.” Like you could be a regular, functioning member of society when basically all you know is violence, survival, that’s all you know. You’re damaged, damaged, damaged. That’s where the line comes from: “You’ve got a bug in your brain/Grinding on the gears as it tries to drive a human frame.” I don’t know if you’ve met anyone like that—they’re there but they’re not there. I’ve been that guy at the community agency, working with someone to put their resume together, their interview skills, conflict resolution skills. But the person is so damaged that it’s just this struggle for them. The weird feelings you get when you’re interacting with someone like that.

On the recording: We just played around with a lot of older synthesizers and keyboards to find the main piano line. That’s two different sounds layered together. We just wanted to drum sound to be a little tighter. The drum sound in most of the other songs—the kick and snare is a big bassy 808 kick. I wanted to have more of a 90s hip-hop feel, so as a result you have a tighter kick, a broader-sounding, deeper snare. We played around with the instrumentation a lot and found something that worked for us. Threw a couple of cool, sad pads and kind of filled it out. It’s pretty intuitive—I usually go in with a rough outline of what I want to give us room to experiment and play around.

“Protect Me”

On the inspiration for the song: It’s kind of a cliché, there’s that line in that Will Smith movie, where he says something like “You have to protect your dreams, ‘cause people will tell you that you can’t do something. Especially if they can’t do it.” So you have to guard your dreams. If you let people get in there, they can destroy your dreams. Being here in Toronto, so many people trying to make stuff happen. I’m sure it’s not just the creative field. So many dreams and a lot of hope and aspiration. It gets wrapped up in your personal identity and who you think you are. There’s a lot of casualties that come along with that. People tell you “This isn’t good” or people that tell you “You need to do this and this and this instead of this” and people that tell you you’re too old, people that tell you’re too young, you’re too fat, you’re too skinny…You name it, people will tell you. It’s a mantra to listen to that inner voice. Find it and listen to it. Sure, consider what other people say, but that the end of the day you have to protect that vision you have, or people will fuck it up.

In the chorus, my dreams are talking and I’m always listening to what they tell me: “Don’t neglect me, respect me, protect me, come and get me.” It’s kind of a cheesy concept now that I think about it—“follow your dreams.” But you got to, you just go to, or else what. The lyrics, it’s more general—you get challenged all the time with every conceivable thing. Sometimes you have success but often it’s an uphill grind. That’s kind of what you have to accept when you want something where the road isn’t as clear. Any creative pursuit, making a living at it and realizing your potential—the road isn’t as clear. There’s no credentials, there’s no training. You can make a career in music knowing nothing about music, you can make a career as a savant, knowing everything about music, you can be a beatmaker, so it’s unclear. It’s about protecting yourself against the bitches and the beasties.

On the recording: It was pretty good except it was the last song we recorded. In the chorus there’s a sample of something from YouTube, and because I’m paranoid I don’t want to say what it is. But it’s in an episode of a show that I’m into. So it’s this one phrase you can kind of hear in the choruses which is “Go get it.” It’s underneath the part that goes “Come and get me.” So it was down to the wire, our session was almost done, and I’m like “Okay, okay, it’s in this episode,” and we literally burned like 45 minutes in the studio, without watching the episode, fast-forwarding, trying to find the part in this thing where the guy says “Go get it.” So I ended up going back to the place I was staying and rewatching the entire thing and finally finding it at the three-minute mark in this hour-long thing. Next day we had a short session to tie up loose ends and we finally found it and put it in. Now it’s in there. Other than that, it was pretty straightforward. Finding the sounds that conveyed the mood. There’s one instrument that I’m super, super into which is called a Polymoog. Doug has one and it’s got to be from the late 70s but it’s the most amazing-sounding organ. It has this one setting and we’ve used the setting on so many songs. It’s in the second verse of “Protect Me” and it’s also in “Hurry Up and Die.” It’s in so many songs. And probably will keep being in those songs.

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