Music: Interview with Art Bergmann
The former Vancouver punk icon says his joints are sore, his back aches and his neck breaks, but the release of his first new LP in a decade proves Art Bergmann is more than a survivor, he’s close to folk hero
By Katherine Monk
For the first few minutes, we talk about sciatica, arthritis, spinal surgery and who’s dead. That’s just what happens when you’re over 50 and you haven’t spoken to someone in 20 years. Even if that someone is Art Bergmann – the iconic face of Canadian punk rock turned apostate.
Make that “The Apostate,” because after an extended recording hiatus that witnessed the release of just one EP and a lost recordings collection over the course of a decade, Bergmann has a new LP, The Apostate, what he calls his “response to living in the west.”
Bouncing from Vancouver to a small parcel of Albertan landscape situated near “the beige town of Airdrie,” Bergmann started a new life with his wife Sherri a decade ago so they could watch her grandchild grow up.
“We’ve been here ten years now. I can’t really walk anymore because of the trouble in my joints. But I can ride a bicycle. And I ride up and down the country roads.”
It takes a while for the image to sink in, but it does – and soon, you’re inside The Apostate’s headspace, loping along that country road, hearing acoustic guitar and an echo of the universe in every trademark Bergmann wail.
“There’s a shitload of history here. It’s evolution, archeology, paleontology, and it gives you a different view of how the west was won,” he says.
“There are a lot of end-of-the-native-life stories here. I just read a great book about how the Comanche were the last warrior tribe… but we’re all still smug and ignorant of what happened. Look at Attawapiskat. I just read a piece in Macleans about how the kids still have to go to Thunder Bay for school, where they get spat on. It’s still systemic. So it will take a couple of generations of work to turn it around.”
I used to go out of my way to make music that wasn’t soothing… But this time, I wanted to tone down the anger quotient a bit and make it more soothing musically. This is less abrasive than any of my past efforts…
Bergmann addresses the betrayal of indigenous people in The Legend of Bobby Bird, the closing track on The Apostate. Bird was “one of those who never returned from the school where souls are burned” – a kid who escaped the residential priests only to die from exposure.
“I read a piece about him by a writer in Saskatoon called Cold and Alone. His remains weren’t identified for 40 years. They sat in an RCMP office, and every so often, a constable would new run tests on the bones, and three or four years ago, they identified who it was. But there are so many who disappeared and were never seen again – so many who chose nature over staying in those prisons.”
The song is so moving it brought me to tears on first listen. I ask Bergmann if he ever cries when he’s writing. “Oh yeah. I cry. And that song, in particular, is really hard to perform. You can hear a pin drop in the audience.”
The Legend of Bobby Bird closes The Apostate, but the album opens with a tune called Atheist Prayer, a dreamy stream of a song that features guest players Ian Grant, Peter Clarke, Natasha Sayer, Emily Triggs, Jason Sniderman and Vancouver’s sought after strummer, Paul Rigby, who brings his six-strings to the mix and successfully adds another dimension to Bergmann’s sound – whether it’s through vibrating chords on steel or a fierce picking of Eastern scales.
“Paul played all over the record. I asked him if he could play North African shit and she said no. And the next minute, he’s playing that shit on Mirage and it was holy fuck! Where did you learn that? And he said he used to play in an African band in Calgary. That’s Paul. He’ll grab any instrument in the room and play until he’s exhausted.”
Bergmann says he’s already exhausted, but he still keeps going, in spite of himself. He explains the extended hiatus by saying he got tired of “banging my head against the wall” of the music industry.
“I wasn’t making any money and that was then,” says Art of his last record deal with a major label, Sony/Epic, back in the mid ‘90s when he released What Fresh Hell is This?
“It’s even more brutal now. So what the fuck am I doing?” he asks, with a rhetorical pause.
“I wish I could just put records out and not have to go play, but apparently it’s necessary to tour to sell my records. And now I find touring really hard to do night after night.”
But you still put on good shows, I insist.
“Not anymore. Close your eyes. Nothing to see here,” he says.
All the same, Bergmann will be touring across Canada in May, picking up a group of different players for gigs in the east and the west to spread The Apostate gospel, or more appropriately, the anti-gospel of songs such as Atheist Prayer: “What will it take/ to crush your belief/ in your mistake/ you’re the god you create/ at least an artist will hate/what she has made/ what a waste/ stardust come soon evolve us…”
Ask Bergmann what he believes and things get complicated.
“Religion is shit,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’m a traitor to everything – fucking everything.”
And yet, there is something undeniably spiritual in the sonic nooks and crannies of The Apostate.
“I search… I read,” he says. “Like the refrain in Mirage I got from this novel about a dervish fighting against the monolithic Ottoman Empire. ‘Give us a peace from before the first, give us a peace after the last, give us a peace from before the birth, give us the peace after we pass.’”
I ask Bergmann what that passage means to him. “I think it’s beautiful language… and I copped it. But to me, it’s about the peace before you are born and the peace after you are gone – but in between, no peace at all. So to me, it means don’t be afraid of death, because once you are old and full of pain, what’s to be afraid of?”
Religion is shit. I’m a traitor to everything – fucking everything…
At 63, Bergmann has faced down most of the demons, and somewhat miraculously for a former user, he survives.
“I was an evil drug addict for a while, actually I was just stupid, not evil… But I remember the feeling of it all being right there in front of you. You see a glimpse of the whole universe… and laugh your head off. “
Back then, Bergmann said he wanted the notes to eat their way through the tape of each recording. These days, the aesthetic aim is different. “I want people to hear every word. The song structures are classic. I used to go out of my way to make music that wasn’t soothing… But this time, I wanted to tone down the anger quotient a bit and make it more soothing musically. This is less abrasive than any of my past efforts.”
It’s true. The Apostate is an Art Bergmann record that’s easy to embrace on first spin, but it still has all the originality you’d expect thanks to the lyrics, as well as the arrangements and instrumentation.
“This was about finding happy accidents,” he says. “We’re artists, not scientists, dammit!”
And yet, for a brief moment, we talk about science. We discuss the great Pacific plastic patch, the pharmaceuticals in groundwater, the microbeads in marine life, and the movie Blackfish.
“When they take away that whale’s baby… That sound. The sound of her screaming… The sound of fucking grief…”
For a second, we both fall silent. Then Bergmann brings up the work of Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl. “He would give his last piece of bread to someone who was in worse shape than him. But we are so uneducated about this stuff and people don’t give a shit. People go into Superstore and buy products encased in three layers of plastic, then say I’m too old to fucking recycle.”
The face of evil will probably always be banal, he says. Goodness demands some form of sacrifice. “You have to sacrifice yourself to something,” he says. “You write. I write songs. It’s all I can do.”
Art Bergmann plays Litfest in New Westminster, BC, May 14 before his Vancouver homecoming and official album release party May 20 at the Fox Cabaret. For more dates and events, please visit the official Art Bergmann fan site.
Photo illustration by Victor Bonderoff
THE EX-PRESS, April 30, 2016