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A Bill King Conversation With.. Art Bergmann

Photo: Kenneth Locke
Photo: Kenneth Locke

It’s been 18 years in between full-length recordings for Art Bergmann, one of Canada’s poets of the long gone punk era. Debilitating health issues sidelined the prolific musician along with messy business ties with former labels. It’s the music business and there are days when business sours the process of making art. He now returns with The Apostate, an album whose storylines rotate through a litany of modern day afflictions from racism to misogyny - spoken with the urgency and passion of a man in his younger years.  I caught up with Art early in the week and here’s that conversation.


Bill King: Art, how are you doing?

Art Bergmann: Hi Bill King, where do you get a name like that unless you used to be a king?

B.K: Not much more complicated than waking up in this world.

A.B: Leeroy Stagger from out here – I was thinking of his name – the king in French.

B.K: I’ve been called Rex…

A.B: Leeroy Stagger – you can’t buy a name like that. That’s amazing.
I’m doing not bad. I just did a couple shows – first time at the annual Calgary Winterfest folk thing. It turned out really well – sold out everything.

B.K: With a band or on your own?

A.B: Depends where I am. In Vancouver I can put some players together, Toronto and here. Since I live pretty close to Calgary I have some players here too. I just got to live in Saskatoon, Winnipeg and St. John to fill out the rest of the country.

B.K: The new recording is called The Apostate – what’s the story behind this?

A.B: Every song is quite different. I wanted the songs to be cinematic with huge open bits in them. I wanted them to be suitable to be played everywhere from one format to another.

B.K: What are some of the themes – the storylines? Do you like to talk current issues?

A.B: The politics deal with life in general with a jaundice view of the human experiment. It starts off with "Atheist Prayer" – kind of a druggie thing. Praying for the comet to give us a boost in the direction we might need to go. Then there’s "Mirage" – which is a North African number dealing with idiotic fundamentalism that’s happening around the world. No matter what book you believe is right, I think – it’s my take on that whole thing. Then Cassandra is an update of Memphis Cassandra of Troy. I don’t know if you know the story. Apollo gave her the ability to foretell the future but when she wouldn’t give herself to him he spit in her mouth thereby making no one believe her ever. Hence the story of womanhood from time in immortal. I have an update on that – much more contemporaneous. With the big bust in the economy. domestic violence goes through the roof. Here we go again.

B.K: Plenty to write about.

A.B: That’s for sure.

B.K: Are you closely following North American politics – the elections?

A.B: Oh, for sure. It was exciting until this huge backlash happened – it started immediately when the Rachel Notley government came in – it was almost unbelievable – the shit’s crazy!

B.K: It seems you can’t get forward thinking people in place any period of time before hordes of crazies roar.

A.B: Yes. We live in a huge caldron of denial. Denial of what we are doing and outdated notions of continued growth. It’s not going to work.

B.K: Have your themes, topics evolved and changed since the early eighties – or are these variations on a theme?

A.B: I try not to lose my sense of humor. It shows here and there. I’m basically concentrating more on song crafting. I really worked hard on making the songs complete. Of themselves; each a different story. I’m really influenced by writers – its kind like my blood meridian if you know Cormac McCarthy at all.

B.K: No Country for Old Men – The Road..

A.B: It’s my response to dealing with rugged western values that hves been around here around 120 years or something. Not long to call it a heritage of any sort – I don’t think.

B.K: Do you identify more closely with a writer like McCarthy who has a more apocalyptic view of humanity?

A.B: I identify with a host of writers. The song "Mirage" was inspired by a Slavic writer who actually wrote an allegory about the Yugoslavic communist state and set it two centuries before the monolithic economic state of the Ottoman Empire. His brother disappears and a brother of a monk is taken away and murdered and he tries to find out why. He comes up against this whole Kafka-like monolith. He compares it to modern bureaucracy. He said a prayer in it “give me the peace before the first, give me the peace from after we pass – gives us the peace before the first, give us the peace from after we pass.” I quite blatantly stole that from the song. Then at the end, “let the rivers of blood that flow between feed the desert with the skulls of history.”

B.K: Are there other songwriters you consider craftsman you devote time analyzing?

A.B: Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of the Alt Country – Jeff Tweedy, I have been re-listening to Townes Van Zandt and realizing what an incredible writer he was. Those little stories- I wanted to get that kind of intimacy across.

B.K: How are you dealing now with the osteoarthritis – is it progressing?

A.B: It’s developing but currently at low ebb. Luckily we aren’t having too brutal of a winter – otherwise I’d be curled into a ball. Initially, I got titanium put in my neck and that helped a lot. We all approach our decline in different ways. I’m trying to go down with a bit of a legacy at least.

B.K: Is it centralized?

A.B: It was mainly in my lower spine. Now it’s all over. Everyone has their pain after a certain age. I tell everyone – here comes your sixties – get ready. They say keep moving and do the yoga. It’s hard to stay motivated some days.

B.K: Its eighteen years between complete recordings – a full album of music?

A.B: I did a four song EP a couple years back.

B.K: Was it necessary to step away for an extended period of time?

A.B: It was heartbreaking winning a Juno then get dumped off Sony Records on the same kind of day. I stopped making the business side of the effort yet kept playing the odd show. I never wrote anything deeply until now – the last couple years. It was fueled by a lot of reading of history – research, paleontology, anthropology, - trying to figure out this curious animal.
The beginning of "Atheist Prayer" I have this line – “somewhere in your past you learned how to burn then close the door with a clever right turn” like our separation from nature which started with our ability to control fire. I think it’s made a monster out of us since.

B.K: How close to nature are you where you live now?

A.B: Quite close. We lucked out here. We live on an old dilapidated farm. Our landlord is great – rent is pretty cheap and we're a half an hour from Calgary. We have a beautiful ten acres here. In the spring it’s really great.

B.K: The prairies are spectacular.

A.B: They are. We are right here at the foothills. We walk out the back acreage and can see the Rockies stretched out for hundreds of miles.