Geoff Berner describes his latest album, We Are Going To Bremen To Be Musicians (Coax Records), as a compendium of strategies against despair. Songs like “Swing A Chicken 3 Times Over Your Head” and “I Don’t Feel So Mad At God When I See You In Your Summer Dress” may not be everyone’s idea of feel-good pop, but it’s certainly true that Berner’s unique brand accordion-driven klezmer punk is never anything less than life affirming, even at its most cynical.
The album’s overarching theme is based on a German folk tale about a group of elderly farm animals who escape their ultimate fate by becoming musicians in town. The reference is classic Berner, drawing as he often has from the long tradition of Jewish absurdist humour that has made the 44-year-old Vancouver native a cult hero both in Canada and Europe.
But over the course of his six-album career to this point, Berner has proven to be a songwriter of great versatility. He’s had songs covered by Corb Lund and The Be Good Tanyas, and earned the respect of many other artists through his intense character studies and explorations into political subject matter few have the courage to write about. No matter how heavily he leans on Old World traditions, Berner’s music always sounds invigoratingly fresh, rooted as it is in the universal desire for freedom from oppression.
Berner took some time to answer Five Questions prior to embarking on his latest run of dates in western Canada this month, beginning Friday in Lethbridge, Alberta. More info can found at www.geoffberner.com.
How does this album stand apart from your past work?
This album has the same producer, Josh Dolgin aka Socalled, as the last album, Victory Party. Also most of the same musicians. So it’s part of a continuum. I guess it’s more political, more offensive, and oddly more traditional.
What has been your most memorable experience while touring in Canada?
Getting the hook from the Winnipeg Folk Fest main stage for making a teeny little joke about how the sponsors, Volkswagen, were brought to you by Hitler. Which is funny because it’s true. Not everyone saw it that way.
What song by another artist do you wish you had written?
“Seasons In The Sun” by Terry Jacks. It’s a terrible song, but I’d have the money it made AND know the existential power that would come from surviving the self-loathing that came from having written “Seasons In The Sun.” Think of that self-assured feeling!
Which social media platform is most effective for you and why?
People sign my email list at shows. I send them a silly letter once a month and they read it because it’s semi-amusing. I don’t have to depend on some asshole billionaire’s website to mediate the information I’m trying to get out there. It’s better; it survives the fads.
How have agencies such as FACTOR, MuchFact or crowd funding services been beneficial to you?
They’ve been essential. But I wish they funded more people with smaller chunks of money and less paperwork so young artists didn’t have to hire a pro to write the grant applications.
[Bonus Question] What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned on how to survive as an indie artist, and what advice would you give?
Try to be like Joe Strummer… and also inherit money.