“Bands competing with each other, that’s anathema to me. Truly, I can’t understand that.” When Alden Penner points out to State the absurdity of bands on the same circuit jostling for prominence, it’s more than a little ironic that we instantly draw comparisons with other bands. In particular, The Fall. We are reminded of an infamous spite Mark Smith carried around for Billy Bragg due to him being alone and cheaper to book than Smith’s band of misfits. Alden Penner is the indie kids’ indie kid; now a solo artist he has been based in a hotbed of new musical talent, Montreal, for the past few years and despite being surrounded by emerging talent he couldn’t be any further from Smith if he was from another planet. His belief that collaboration trumps competition only reinforces his position as a true and prolific talent in a city of true talents and yet he manages to take it all in his stride.
“Pressure? No, there’s no pressure. I like being busy, I like the contrast of extreme leisure and extreme busyness and being on the road lets me do both. Music is a habit that I formed at a young age and I’ve been able to consistently make it even between projects”. These projects, from the criminally short-lived Unicorns, the Clues and now on tour with Michael Cera, Penner has an astounding back catalogue that would rival somebody three times his age. “I just wish I could have a bit more structure to it. Now, I’m trying to establish a kind of schedule in terms of trying to confine writing and recording to specific times of day. A semi-normal life! It doesn’t work that way, though.
“I don’t know how much of my output has been by design, so to speak. I mean, it’s intuitive as much as deliberate. There’s a creative process, obviously. You need something to get the ball rolling in terms of writing so you can’t really plan that, it just happens. But everything after that, the technical process, that can be either scheduled or impromptu.” Penner started his musical life in the Unicorns in 2000, releasing their debut EP on the band’s own label, Caterpillars of the Community. Noted for their bright, engaging and wonky sound they were forerunners for pretty much everyone who came after them, from Vampire Weekend to Arcade Fire. But it was Penner’s prolific writing and arch lyricism that first endeared them to most. “Writing is just something that happens, you know? It starts with being inspired or influenced and then everything else just adds to it, all these peripheral things that help build a folder of work. I think the more I do the more I want to do.”
“I’m lucky though, I have found a middle ground with my writing so even though it’s work, I tend to look at work as a form of worship. It’s necessary for the advancement of any project really, so I don’t look at it disdainfully at all. It’s just a case of finding a balance.” Having disbanded the Unicorns in 2005 after brief but resonant success, Penner’s output was as steady as ever. A solo stint followed by him forming the Clues with soon-to-be Arcade Fire member Bendan Reed, there was barely time for Penner to take breath before going again. “It’s nice when things are going well and it makes it hard to stop. The feeling of playing shows every night isn’t something you can easily turn your back on and it can only be seen as a gift. But then, it solicits the question; ‘why me? Why do I get to do this?’ Like everything, though, the trick of not growing to hate something always lays in the detail. Being sensitive to your work environment – and this goes for anybody in any line of work – and understanding that the pride you get from your own work is undeniably uplifting, that’s how to keep going.”
Briefly re-forming the Unicorns led Penner to supporting Arcade Fire in 2014, since then he has been writing and touring with an unlikely bandmate in Michael Cera. The erstwhile musician has been a fan of Penner’s for decades and when the chance to work together presented itself it was too good to pass up. Cera is no passenger, however. “We spent something like two weeks fleshing out some of Michael’s songs before even attempting anything. Sure, there was a lot of just jamming and trying things out but some time went on making sure this was a collaborative thing. A lot of back-and-forth which was great for me because it had been so long since I’d make music that way. My previous touring band was the Clues and before and after that I had been doing pretty much everything myself. Now we have a band which ironically had only formed out of necessity in order to go on a solo tour but there are endless possibilities in this now. I envisage that the next, maybe, three albums will be solo albums because I have to maintain some authority over this, haha!”
“But now, especially live, I feel I can draw from my back catalogue and everything kind of blends together. My older music, my new music, influences, everything.”
You can catch Alden Penner with Michael Cera in Dublin’s Vicar Street on Tuesday, June 30th. Tickets are available here.