Bare-boned and badass

From Holy Fuck to his solo stint, Brian Borcherdt doesn’t hold back

Brian Borcherdt’s solo work on his album Coyotes displays a stripped-down approach to music.
Image supplied by: Supplied
Brian Borcherdt’s solo work on his album Coyotes displays a stripped-down approach to music.

Brian Borcherdt doesn’t want to be the guy who complains all the time. His 2008 solo release, Coyotes, is a somber record, but definitely not a sob story. It offers the intimate story of a different side of the frontman of high energy, low-fi Holy Fuck.

First impressions of the album might include laughter at the cover art, which features a tough-looking hawk glaring over its shoulder, cigarette in talon—a contrast to the more serious affairs inside.

“I became obsessed with the idea of trying out various animals smoking,” Borcherdt said. “A predatory bird would be the best because it’s kind of stoic, badass—a hawk smoking.” “Badass” serves as a useful descriptor for the artist himself. Borcherdt is best known for Holy Fuck, who supported M.I.A. on tour in 2008. But there is much more to Borcherdt’s story than his recent popularity. In 1994 he founded Canada’s first not-for-profit collaborative record label Dependent in Nova Scotia. In the earlier 2000s, he also worked with Trephines, By Divine Right, and he recorded Moth and The Remains of Brian Borcherdt 1 and 2. He’s currently involved with label Hand Drawn Dracula, which is resonposible for the release of Coyotes.

Although his latest album has drawn comparisons to both melancholy-inspired songwriter Elliott Smith and Canadian legend Neil Young from his Dead Man days, Borcherdt said he’d rather forgo labels and nationalism.

“I didn’t want to become a ‘Canadian musician’ …. I want to be a contributor to the planet.”

With Coyotes, Borcherdt draws nearer to this desire by creating music with a near-universal resonance. Even though Coyotes is comprised of only seven tracks, Borcherdt draws the listener into an unforgiving examination of humanity’s relationship with evil, escape and loss.

When asked about the phrase “I will kill all the coyotes” in the title track of the album, Borcherdt laughed.

“[My family] grew up in the woods, and we were very nature loving. My Mum asked ‘what does that mean?’ I had to assure her that I don’t really want to kill coyotes. I was thinking about fables and about how certain animals become a personification of evil, like the wolf is a bad character. … That evil is part of ourselves as human. We are much more evil.”

The track “The Drugs” illustrates this role in evil. Borcherdt makes sure it’s clear that “It’s not the drugs that I take / it’s not the truth that you make / that’s got us feeling low” with his lyrics. He emphasizes the importance of personal responsibility when it comes to fear and failure.

“I wanted to write about our insecurities that we’ll lose those dear to us. It’s more something we’ll fuck up. You can’t blame it on anyone.”

Borcherdt’s understanding of ego has served him well. When asked how his two projects influence each other, he said he allows himself some indulgence on his solo work so Holy Fuck can be more of a collective vision.

“What gave [Holy Fuck] that courage was we all […] had other projects. We approached it with less of an ego. We weren’t trying to persuade each other. If it was my only project it would have been tougher.”

He said he would try to pour more of his identity into Holy Fuck more if he didn’t have his solo project as an outlet. Coyotes is an honest depiction of a vulnerable, lyrically-laden contemplative self while Holy Fuck is more of a daring group project in noise. Both strangely bold—just in opposite ways.

“If I was asked to give advice on music […] my advice would be try to be bold, whatever that means. There’s so much out there. You can’t hold back.”

This ethic shows in the experimental vigour of Holy Fuck, and the bare bones of the closet skeletons revealed in Coyotes. Borcherdt chose not to bring in drums and bass on this album because it was a distraction from his initial imagining of the song.

“On this record, because I didn’t dedicate a lot of time to flourishes, I ended up with something more true to the spirit of the song.”

There wasn’t much flourish throughout the recording process of Coyotes either. The album was recorded by friend and By Divine Right musician Jose Miguel Contreras in his living room. If you listens closely, Contreras’ baby can be heard crying on “Scout Leader.” Some of the songs weren’t even written until Borcherdt was on his way to Contreras’ place in Toronto.

“I always wanted to leave Toronto. The city is noisy, stinky, the people are rude. I became obsessed with idea of wanting to move,” he said.

This itch to leave the city and keep moving is behind the track “Means of Escape.” “I’ve got to stop thinking about moving. It’s about trying to find other means, to not make excuses all the time. Ultimately we can go somewhere inside ourselves to escape—drinking or whatever we do,” he said.

He argues that the song offers a strange optimism despite the vice.

“I’m still here. There must be something keeping me here.” This is reflected in the more upbeat musical approach which contrasts the haunting lyrics but Borcherdt said this juxtaposition wasn’t premeditated.

“It’s more a natural process of strumming chords and seeing what I come up with.” In the case of this track, and the album as a whole, Borcherdt’s organic approach has led to a striking honesty.

“Even though it’s slow, it’s constantly slowly going uphill. It will be tough when things start to go downhill, and I haven’t gotten there yet.”

Despite Coyotes’ melancholy, Borcherdt is far from dwelling at rock bottom, he’s currently doing a mini-tour with Julie Fader, and then playing in Europe and the UK with Holy Fuck starting in April.

But despite his success, Borcherdt maintains he’s more comfortable existing on the fringe of celebrity and notoriety.

“That’s where the true spirit is. I’m happy to be there.”

Brian Borcherdt plays with Julie Fader tonight at The Grad Club. Tickets are $10.

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