by Michael Thomas
Toronto is an amalgamation of so many different neighbourhoods that anyone living there can’t possibly picture every square metre. However, the closest way to truly understand the city is by walking it, and that was the genesis for the second album from EONS, the folk music project from Matt Cully and Misha Bower of Bruce Peninsula.
The idea for EONS began around 2011, Cully says over Skype. He began writing material that didn’t fit the scope of Bruce Peninsula, which was by that point a larger, more rock-oriented stage show.
“I wanted to pull it back and make quieter music—music that could be played in smaller rooms,” he says. “I wanted to explore different aspects of folk music that I think we had gotten away from because of the grandiosity of the band.”
By 2012 he had enough material for a full-length album, and in 2013 the first EONS record, Arctic Radio, saw the light of day. He described the album process as spontaneous, where the aim was “capturing the spirit of the songs.” But with the release of Long Walks, Cully had more studio time and more confidence as producer: “I was able to execute at a higher level because of that,” Cully says.
The thematic framework of Long Walks is exactly what the title implies; long walks. The concept wasn’t in Cully’s mind when he began writing material after Arctic Radio, but it came to him gradually as he noticed recurring themes in the new music. Of course, there were also the long walks he started taking in Toronto.
And by long walks, he means long walks. He would walk from Toronto’s west end to the Beaches, for example. As he took these walks, he listened to music, podcasts, books on tape, whatever worked, and would have the time to see things up close.
“It was a kind of therapy,” he says. Cully works odd jobs and generally doesn’t have a 9-5 schedule, so it gave him long periods of free time. “It was a time of heartbreak and a time of soul-searching and figuring out what I’m going to do, something I think everyone goes through. I felt very paralyzed—sometimes by how much shit I had to do at the time or by feeling guilty that I didn’t do enough with the time I had. And the only thing that really helped would be to go on these walks.” The walks let him feel productive and his travels also inspired him creatively.
“I got addicted to that pace of viewing the city and observing the characters that you’d encounter, the energy of the city. It became my form of meditation, essentially, and my practice in terms of taking a song that’s developing. If I ever hit a point where I’m like ‘I don’t know where to go with this,’ I would take the demo that I had of the song and go on a walk.”
There are all kinds of places in Toronto known for their beauty, like Trinity Bellwoods or Toronto Island. But you won’t often discover something elsewhere unless you’re walking. “I feel like walking…to me is the perfect pace for discovery,” Cully says. “You’re able to react because you’re not just zooming by.” Cully found a fascination in some less-traveled areas. The Port Lands, for example.
“It’s a weird area, not really developed at all,” he says. “There’s a garbage dump there, there’s Cherry Beach, which is not the nicest place visually.
Or the Don Valley Trail: “That is a beautiful part of the city as well. Even though again you’re brushing up against the polluted Don River, the Don Valley cars are flying by you, you can hear the traffic of the highway beside you. But yet you’re in this wooded, protected area. It’s a bizarre contrast that really is the hallmark of modern urban living and also specifically Toronto.”
Location is an important part of Long Walks. There are specific references in songs like “Leslie Spits” or “Back to Scarborough.” The former, for example, takes its name from another place in Toronto like the Don Valley Trail; a place where beauty and industry are perilously close together. It’s a bird sanctuary, but it’s also a dry dump for concrete and glass.
“There’s something science fiction-y about Leslie Spit,” he says. “It’s kind of a vision of the future. If certain trends continue in the way we treat the environment, it would be harder and harder to imagine that you would have these pristine beaches or untouched wilderness. So I conceived of [the song] as this trip taken by…two people—in which one is older than the other and saying ‘All this will be yours, you will inherit this.’ It’s not necessarily good or bad.”
Other songs aren’t necessarily about specific places, but the aspects of the walk and the journey are part of the songs’ DNA.
“Certainly ‘Long Walks’ (the song) is an obvious, direct, summary of the oblique concept at the heart of the record—that the individual in the song is walking to forget, or walking to remember, or walking to feel something,” Cully says. “To work through something. The process becomes this desirable, meditative state.” Sounds of the city also make an appearance on the record, such as “Waxwing on Waxwing,” which is an ambient piece that mixes samples and field recordings.
Cully also gave a lot of thought to the physical release of the album. Rather than go with a CD (“in everyone’s garbage bag these days”) or vinyl (too expensive), he collaborated with Arden Wray, a photographer and his girlfriend, to create a 44-page risograph-printed book. He initially envisioned an annotated map of Toronto that could serve as a listening guide for the album, accompanied by photography and the lyrics to the songs.
The process was not as easy as he thought:
“I totally overevaluated my skill at designing something beautiful in terms of the visual package. I was going to slap some images together and ‘Okay, here’s the lyrics,’ and it looked really shitty.” Wray and others helped perfect the final product, which ended up including a hand-drawn map of Toronto Island.
“It’s been interesting to see the way people engage with it,” he says. “Everyone’s used to the formats we have, and it feels like a new way to present the work. You see that in the reaction that I’ve gotten playing shows. People are looking through the book and you feel like they’re excited to take it home and sit with it.” Actually sitting with music is the opposite of a lot of music consumption these days; as Cully pointed out, we live in an age of Spotify playlists ostensibly about discovery, but are actually more fleeting than anything.
Outside of EONS, Cully is of course a member of Bruce Peninsula. He offers a brief update on the band’s activity:
“We’re 70 per cent done a record and have been for the last five years,” he says, laughing.
Until then, Long Walks is a good album to talk a long walk with. Or for curling up with that 44-page book and examining thoroughly.