- November 2014 -
HAVE A BEER WITH BAHAMAS
Afie Jurvanen isn’t from the Bahamas. He’s a Finnish-Canadian from Barrie, a working class town in rural Ontario. But his chosen epithet is fitting. Since 2009 he’s been making music under the name Bahamas – writing songs about sunsets, love affairs and making out with crooked smiles. Through simple arrangements, he charts an escape route from the snow belt to the coral reefs. His new album, Bahamas is Afie, was released Aug. 19, 2014, on Brushfire Records/Universal.
Bahamas is Afie is a coming-of-age record. Self-titled and self-produced – it is the next step in the evolution of Jurvanen’s songcraft, guitar mastery and melodic pop hooks – following his previous full-lengths Pink Strat (2009) and Barchords (2011). Bahamas is Afie remains a sparse, moving, headphone album, complemented by a more developed arrangement of strings, brass, winds, orchestral percussion and chamber choruses that transport the listener from moving seas to a search for strength, to a place of resolve and comfort.
We sat down with Afie in the greenroom of Schubas to talk about his recent release, Hawkins Cheezies and one-armed push ups.
The Show: Bahamas at Schubas //Oct. 1, 2014
Drink of Choice: Coffee
Kristen from A Beer with the Band: So, coffee as a drink of choice. How do you drink it?
Afie from Bahamas: I drink it black. I love coffee. I have my own little system that I travel with here.
Kristen: Is it a Keurig?
Afie: It's a pour-over. I don't care for those Keurig things. I feel like they just make garbage. You make one coffee and then it spits out a piece of garbage; it just turns me off. With this kind you just pour hot water over it. I put it in my thermos here, and I can share it with my bandmates. Little luxuries like that go a long way when you're traveling. It’s not that hard to find good coffee in Chicago, but you should try being in Ames, Iowa, or somewhere like that.
Kristen: Yeah, probably not many options. You’ve played Schubas before and Chicago many times. What would you say is your favorite thing about our city?
Afie: I like Six Corners; Damen and Milwaukee, you know that area. When I came here 12 years ago, when I first started playing music, I went there and I found a guitar for $100, a jean jacket for $5 and I got a cup of coffee that was really good. I thought, This place is amazing!
Kristen: Yeah, where else can you get a jean jacket and a cup of coffee and …
Afie: Now I think the jean jackets are like $200 bucks in like that same neighborhood, but it was pretty cool there. I have a lot of fond memories of when I first started coming to Chicago.
Kristen: Your record Bahamas is Afie came out in August. It’s an interesting name, and it’s not a title track. Why did you choose it?
Afie: It's not something that I did to be confusing or anything. When I first started touring, the idea of being Afie Jurvanen just seemed a little weird to me. The name is a little foreign for most people – at least in North America anyway. It just didn't seem right, so I came up with this idea of Bahamas. It was just an art project. And then I made an album, and then I made two albums, and now we have a third album. It’s become my career; it’s become what I do. I'd be touring, and I'd say, “Hi, I'm Afie, and I'm going to play some songs.” I pretty quickly realized I wasn't playing a character or anything like that. So, when I was thinking of titling this record, I thought about trying to do a self-titled record, and Bahamas didn’t feel right. I was really confident and comfortable with these songs, and I thought this would be a nice time to attach my name to the thing. “Bahamas is Afie” is a weird statement to make, but if you saw it on a T-shirt or something, it’s intriguing. It just furthers the art project that I started seven years ago.
Kristen: How do you like this record is a progression from your previous ones?
Afie: Oh boy. These are really heavy hitters right at the top, eh?
Afie: You know, you could ask any artist about their growth or about their change, and I think most people would say they’re unsure of what they’re doing. I don't necessarily have some master plan of world domination. I'm always trying to make something that's interesting to me. And when I write songs, the part of it that I really enjoy is that it's so selfish. I would hope that each one is different from the last. You never want to the same thing over again.
Kristen: Does that ever intimidate you?
Afie: I think it's the opposite. It's the thing that's most exciting, you know? It's fun, especially when we’re playing the songs live. It’s not necessarily like recreating the albums or these perfect versions every night; It's fun to mess with them and allow the moment to inspire whatever you're doing. I think for me, this new album was really inspired by this one guitar that I just couldn't stop playing, and I ended up writing all these songs on it.
Kristen: It's not the one you bought at Six Corners is it?
Afie: No, I sold that one. I wish I'd held onto it. It was a great guitar and I don't know why I sold it. I probably wanted to use the money for something stupid. The guitar that inspired this record is a Bourgeois guitar made by this guy Dana Bourgeois who sells guitars in Maine. I was playing it a lot and it just changed the whole way that I played. It was wild to me because I've been playing the guitar for so long, and to think that this one guitar – the way it sounded, everything about it – just coaxed me to play differently, it’s wild. And therefore, the songs I wrote on it came out in a really different way. More than anything else, that had a really defining quality over the songs and made it a lot different than the last few albums.
Kristen: When you get stuck, what's your process to get through that?
Afie: I do push-ups. I like to jump rope or go jogging. I'm into boxing, too, so pretty much if I’m not playing guitar, I’m going to the gym.
Kristen: I'm the exact opposite. I'm like, “I’m uninspired. I'm going to go lay in my bed and eat some Cheez-its.”
Afie: Well don't worry, I do that, too. We all do that. In Canada, we have this amazing snack called a Hawkins Cheezie. If you come to Toronto, I recommend you seek them out. They're really crunchy and they use real cheddar cheese. Oh boy. They're fantastic.
Kristen: So, is it like a chip?
Afie: It's not a chip. They’re made of corn and it’s a sort of bent shape. They're made in Ontario, and it's a family business. I fully endorse their junk food.
Kristen: You're going to be the sponsor.
Afie: If they send me a bag of them, I’ll be psyched.
Kristen: What's the hardest thing about being on tour? Do you ever feel like you’re living two separate lives?
Afie: Yeah, but I don't necessarily think about it as in two separate lives. I think now more than ever there's all kinds of ways to stay connected, and so I'm grateful for that, but it is tough. You miss out on a lot of stuff while you're gone, for sure. I think more than anything, not knowing what you’re going to be up to is tough. I think there are a lot of other professions where the ladder that you climb is a lot clearer. As an artist and as a musician, everyone's situation is their own, everyone's story is their own and it's very difficult to emulate someone's career. You sort of bounce around and hope that the places that you're bouncing to are worthwhile and suit you. A lot of times you're just stumbling through your career. I’m really lucky that I'm surrounded by friends; I have my friends on tour with me and we have a lot of fun. When I was a teenager, I really wanted to play guitar and now, many, many years later, I'm still doing that. In a lot of ways I feel that's kind of a success in and of itself. It's not about riding around in limousines, obviously. We're sitting in a basement drinking club soda right now. But I get to play music and see my friends every day, so if there’s anything difficult about being on tour, you forget about it pretty quickly.
Kristen: Yeah, I'm sure once you get up on stage, that all disappears.
Afie: Yeah. For sure. Playing's fun too.
Kristen: What’s the least rock-‘n’-roll thing you’ve done in the past year?
Afie: Just check out my entire life. I don't know. I was watching YouTube videos about how to do one-armed pushups the other day. I had this idea that I'd love to learn how to do that. Do you know who Jack Palance is?
Kristen: I don't.
Afie: He’s an actor. He's an older guy, very successful, has had a long career ... Many years ago he was at the Oscars – and I think he was like 75 years old at the time – and for some reason, he got down and he started doing one-armed push ups. It was so amazing. It came into my mind the other day, and I thought, I want to learn that. I tried to do one, and I almost broke myself in half. They're so hard. I can do a fair amount of regular pushups, but a one-armed pushup …
Kristen: Yeah, that's a different level.
Afie: Yeah, so I don't know. Maybe that is rock-'n'- roll.
Kristen: What’s the best advice you've ever received?
Afie: The best advice I've ever received was from this guy named Joel Plaskett. He's a great singer, and a great songwriter, and he's from Halifax, on the east coast of Canada. Many, many years ago, I saw him play in a bar. During his set, he took a moment to tune his guitar. I'm sure you've noticed this at some point: When a band tunes their guitars, there's this quiet moment, and the audience doesn't really know what to do. I remember him tuning his guitar, and it seemed awkward or whatever, and he said, "It's better to tune than to suck."
Afie: And I totally remembered that all these years. I'm sure there's some bands that can make it charming, like Matt DeMarco or something. But for me, I can’t stand it. If I'm playing the guitar and there's a string out of tune, it just hurts me. So, when he said "It's better to tune than to suck," I thought, that's good advice. That's solid.
Kristen: It's kind of a testament to embracing the awkward silence, too, right?
Afie: Yeah. Absolutely. It's not that big of a deal. I'm talking about 20 seconds or so, but when the show is happening and the songs are just flying by, and suddenly there's nothing, you start to get self-conscious.When you get to the popular bands, you pay some guy a lot of money to hand you a new guitar, but we’re not there yet.
Kristen: What has been your favorite venue that you've played in the U.S.?
Afie: There are so many beautiful old theaters, but playing the Ryman Auditorium was a real treat. There's so much history there, and you definitely feel that when you're playing. It also sounds amazing in there. I think a lot of people who are going to shows don't necessarily understand the difference between what they're hearing and what the musicians are hearing. There’s a PA system with speakers that are amplifying what we're doing, and then it's being mixed for an audience. For us, we're not getting that. We're hearing this odd, far-away reflection of what you guys are hearing bouncing back towards us. So, it doesn’t always happen, but in the case of the Ryman, that reflection is actually really clear and pleasant sounding, and you end up playing to that. It's almost like playing in front of a mirror. You’re hearing the sound coming back at you, so you're anticipating, and you're changing things as you go. In my opinion, that is the best way to play: when you can just keep it like a conversation, like a musical conversation.
Kristen: Yeah, and with an audience, too. That's the nice thing about Schubas. The audience is usually pretty respectful and intent on listening.
Afie: All the crowds have been really nice. I think the music attracts people who want to hear it, if you know what I mean? We're not really synonymous with party bands, but by all means if it’s your night off and you don’t have to work tomorrow, party on.
Afie: But generally, people who are coming to our shows, they want to hear – literally hear – the music. And I try not to take that for granted. It's flattering. Whenever it’s really quiet, and everyone's really, really engaged, I think that adds a lot of power to what you’re doing. That's so far beyond the band: that’s 200 or 1,000 or 2,000 people who are all choosing to be quiet at the same time, and in a lot of ways, that speaks louder than the music itself.