A Conversation with Olivier Clements

On February 2nd, Olivier Clements and his band played Dissonant Histories, his debut album, at the Copper Owl Lounge for the third issue launch of this zine. The eight-piece jazz band fit along the seams of the lowered stage area. Their group combines drums, stand-up bass, keys, and a horn section comprising two trombone players, two trumpets, and a bass clarinet. The venue web-march-olivier-iaitself might fit a sentimental idea of a jazz bar… red carpet and gold fixtures, mixed with earthy colours… intimate and relaxed, but electrified by the music. Olivier’s stage demeanour was earnest and friendly; talking about his songs just enough to pique our interest, and cracking just enough jokes to make us all feel like friends. He works endlessly to make his ideas for music a reality and to continue to make music his life. One afternoon, some time before this show, I met Olivier at a Fairfield pizza shop on his lunch break to have a conversation about him, his music, and Dissonant Histories.

AR: Are you touring for this album? OC: I want to, but right now I’m in a huge challenge with this album because it’s so big. It’s an eight-piece group and touring it is… kinda nuts. Just that alone makes it really difficult… It would cost a lot of money. However, what I want to do is (get the) band that recorded the album in Toronto. I lived in Toronto for four years, (it’s) where I did my degree (Ed: Olivier studied the trumpet). Hopefully I could fly to Toronto in late April or early May and tour Southern Ontario. Then, we could come back here and do three or four days and just try to slowly expand from there. We’ll see. It’ll be very limited at first.

AR: So the band you’ve got here, is it mostly friends you know from home? Your dad is in it too, right? OC: Well that’s been really fun because I’ve basically been able to hire my dad to play bass clarinet. The other guys are professional musicians in the Victoria music scene. Most of them I met growing up here, but there’s a few positions in the band that have been getting filled by different people. After some trial and error, I’m really happy with the band I’ve got now. It’s composed of some of the best musicians in Victoria — two trombone players who’ve both played with the Symphony, the other trumpet player is one of Victoria’s iconic jazz trumpet players… the whole band is just awesome.

AR: You’ve got to hold down a job at the same time as orchestrating all this of course, too. OC: (Laughs) Yeah to pay everyone.

AR: What are you doing for that? OC: Right now I’m painting houses… and I do a lot of professional work on the trumpet. That definitely helps financially, but I guess my game plan right now is to take (this project) one step at a time… Victoria, on to Vancouver — one city at a time.

AR: What was the impetus to record the album in the first place? I read that you were in Toronto on tour with a different band and it seemed like an impulsive decision. OC: Oh it was just… a hair away, from being the most rash, impulsive decision ever. I guess for a year prior to that, I’d been exploring writing for eight-piece ensemble. Just trying to figure out how to write music that wasn’t strictly jazz, but would still incorporate my influences. I’d done two shows early on and thought, well, it’d be cool if I could really start pushing this project and apply for grants… but I need recordings. I thought I’d just do it really cheap with a mic in the middle of the room but it just never sounded good. My buddy Colin kept saying, “you can’t cheap your way out of a good recording, you can’t just swing it. Do it right!” So we were both on tour with Aidan Knight, and we thought, “we’re going to be in Toronto, let’s record it there!” We both went to Humber and had a bunch of friends from school there who’d all become incredible musicians. Our engineer we knew from being in a band called The Oh Darling back in school, so I had an engineer and a band… Colin lent me the money to get a good studio and we got this amazing (space) in Revolution Studios! I convinced the (Aidan Knight) band to stay an extra day in Toronto and that night we went into the studio to record for six hours… and six months later I got a CD.

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AR: Six hours, hey? That seems fast! OC: It was really fast. It was definitely like we were sprinting to get something good. Thankfully the musicians were all really good and we were able to pound off. It was crazy because we were sound-checking for two, almost three hours, and we were able to bang off almost two or three takes per song. For six months I worked on editing the tracks with the engineer, mixing and mastering to try and get the best results possible. The end (product) is something that I’m really proud of.

AR: How do you feel about the bands here, after coming from music school in Toronto? OC: It was interesting, coming from a really hardcore jazz school. I would compare it to the football team of Canada’s jazz (laughs) because the mentality there is to be your best. To play as fast, as high, as low, as loud, as virtuosic as possible. It’s about chops.

AR: Was it militaristic? OC: No, not militaristic — I mean the kids going there are so good, the level is so high and everyone’s pushing themselves so hard. You really get into making it about how virtuosic and how technically complex you can be. And when I left Humber, I started playing with indie bands and folk bands. For the first while I was like, “What, I don’t get a crazy solo in this song? You only want me to play this one low note in the chorus?” It bugged me — and then I realized that what I was doing was so much more powerful than any solo I could do. Because you’re adding this one thing that brings the energy of the whole group together, and that makes the music more impactful as a whole than just doing a bunch of soloing. That’s the idea, the idea of unity that I wanted to bring to my own jazz music. That everyone is here to work towards making music together. With the Dissonant Histories band I was trying to be really conscientious about simplifying—and bringing that indie folk aesthetic. The harmonies and the forms are simple. Yet the musicians are skilled, and the way the melodies and horns arrangements work with each other are really complex.

AR: Is that how you interpret the title? OC: Well, for sure, the Dissonant Histories name is about how I have all these different influences, like jazz, folk, and indie pop — and I listen to a ton of hip-hop. They’re all styles that kind of fundamentally clash with each other. They all have different ideas and ideals about music, and I wanted to find a middle ground — to reconcile those different styles. And it’s not about just mashing them together; I really didn’t want, you know, a bunch of jazz chords and a guy playing a solo over a hiphop beat. You know? So I was thinking, what’s the power of indie folk, or the strong suit of hip-hop? How could I take the harmony of jazz and all these things and make something new?

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AR: It brings to mind a Venn diagram. Looking for that small, shared space. OC: Yeah it’s been a real thrill after doing so much jazz… everything I’ve been trained to do and what I studied. To try to write music that’s in a totally different way of thinking for me has been super rewarding.

AR: What can you tell us about your writing process? OC: I feel you need to tell a story when you’re writing music… also, it’s hard to guess where the song’s gonna go when you start writing. It definitely takes a life of its own, and you can’t really control that. The sound you get from hearing the album played live is gorgeous. Olivier put together a fantastic band of accomplished musicians who had fun on stage and made his music come alive for us. It’s the sort of music whose merit I can judge on how much it feeds your soul and stimulates all your senses at once — never an easy feat. Olivier and his Dissonant Histories band have a show at Hermann’s Jazz Club on March 5 to release the album’s CD. He also has a show on March 12th at Hermann’s, with the Gord Clements Quintet (Gord Clements is his father). The album can be streamed on Bandcamp, at www.olivierclements.bandcamp.com.