Chicago’s O’Hare airport is reckoned as the world’s busiest, making it a fitting location for an on-the-fly interview with guitarist extraordinaire Eric Schenkman, currently splitting his time between two touring bands and consequently, busy as a one-legged pole dancer.
Schenkman hit the big time as the Canuck component in Nineties stadium rockers Spin Doctors, currently on tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of their monster hit album, Pocketful of Kryptonite. He’s at O’Hare just coming off a leg of the Spin Doctors tour and waiting for a connecting flight to carry on with the Openhearts Society tour, which brings them to Toronto’s The Piston Wed. Dec.7.
Openhearts Society is one-third Eric, the other two-thirds being multi-instrumentalist/go-to roots producer Chris Brown and singer/songwriter Sarah McDermott. Seemingly, the band and its resulting original material just kinda materialised out of the air, the result of long-time friendships, shared politics and similar musical interests, marinated in the warm’n’fuzzy, neo-New Age activist vibe of Ontario’s Wolfe Island.
“Chris and I have known each other as musicians since the Bourbon (Tabernacle Choir) days in Toronto and have managed to stay in touch. When we connected on this occasion, I guess we could have gone out for a coffee but instead we ended up talking about music and making music. We scored a weekly residency at a bar in Kingston and that’s where the songs that would become (Openhearts Society debut album) Love In Time began to develop.”
“You’re right about the place having an influence on the music. The songs are all about the issues and controversies surrounding the wind turbine project on Wolfe Island and the industrialisation of rural communities in general by wind turbines.”
It was the pair’s ability to articulate these concerns in song and thereby bring them to a larger audience that brought third member Sarah McDermott into the fold. She’s a well-known community activist on Wolfe Island and acted as whistle-blower on the Wolfe Island turbine scheme, concerned about the lack of community input, the placement of the turbines in an highly sensitive ecological area and the general air of arrogance, cynicism and secrecy surrounding the project.
It got downright personal when Schenkman was approached to lease his land for turbine use, a situation that served to fire up the band no end. Chris Brown, who’s lived in both Toronto and NYC, has summed up the situation thusly; “It’s exploitation of people’s sympathies, where promises made in Albany and Queen’s Park are carried on the backs of rural constituents.”
Meanwhile McDermott was reacting creatively to the growing intensity of the situation by contributing lyrics and vocals to the mushrooming project. The song ‘Boat Builders’ was written on the day of the turbine’s opening ceremonies, an event from which the locals were excluded in favour of visiting government and business suits in sealskin loafers.
About now you might be thinking; This is gonna get some peachy. Fear not, with gifted songwriters like this lot on the case, ideas are served up embedded in gorgeous music topped with artisinal arrangements and come together like the most delicious sandwich you’ve ever had. The up-tempo numbers in particular sound like the kind of songs Broken Social Scene would very much like to be writing these days.
“For me the approach wasn’t so much that the listeners would ‘get’ the message so much as to simply put it out there and see what comes back. We don’t want to come across as pushing anything down anybody’s throat.
“We were pretty rigorous in putting together the album. Each one had to be sold as a stand-alone song; the music had to stand as strong as the lyric or the idea behind it.”
Soundwise, Openhearts Society trade in a style which uses traditional roots melodies and arrangements to carry contemporary messages. It’s what Elvis Costello called in a recent TV interview “meaningful music” and it’s the nexus at which the musics of Openhearts Society and Spin Doctors intersect.
“Spin Doctors always was a political band. I mean, the name gave it away but over time, as we got bigger and bigger in the mainstream, the politics got lost in the commercial music. That was just the perception of us; in fact, all of our albums have a political side.”
Which is why, buzzed as he is on the critical success of Openhearts Society, Schenkeman is confident in his ability to juggle both very different acts. should Spin Doctors decide to give it another go after the reunion tour is done.
“It’s all very up in the air. We went out specifically to celebrate the “Pocketful of Kryptonite’ album with no plans beyond the last date. It’s still officially like that; there’s been talk and stuff but we’re all gonna just lay back and see how it feels at the end.”
Meantime, there’s ‘Love In Time’ to take to Canada and not a moment too soon. It’s the kind of album Jack Layton would have applauded and most thinking folk will, especially after a few listens.
Its reflective and nostalgia-tinged tunes are perfect for fall listening and even with the strong female presence, generates the overall vibe of a ‘missing’ Neil Young album.
“I’m not sure we had a specific audience in mind. I think the audience is anyone into well-played music that has something to say. Anyone who’s interested in hearing an awareness that’s different from what’s offered by commercial music.”
Then the Doctor was gone, materialising in a nearby phone booth to change into Openheart Eric.