Simone Schmidt :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Simone Schmidt never wanted to combine music with the collective activism causes they’ve been involved with since their teenage years. While countless artists now use progressive language as a tool of self-promotion, the Toronto songwriter has preferred to keep these worlds separate, despite their decades-long experience with direct action organizations such as the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. That changed in 2020 when the pandemic caused a pause to Schmidt’s plans for touring, shifting their focus to the foundation of the Encampment Support Network, a grassroots group dedicated to mutual aid for people living in parks after they were forced out of unsafe shelters. [Full disclosure: I am a volunteer.]

In the late 2000s, Schmidt emerged as the unmistakable voice leading bands like alt-country act One Hundred Dollars, psychedelic caravan The Highest Order, and their solo project Fiver. Many listeners were introduced to Schmidt’s songs for the first time when U.S. Girls covered “Rage of Plastics” on their breakout release, In A Poem Unlimited. Yet after working on Fiver’s densely researched 2017 album, Audible Songs From Rockwood, a collection of fictional field recordings gathered from case files of patients at the Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane between 1854-1881, Schmidt was ready to try a new form of expression. 

This led to the origins of the Atlantic School of Spontaneous Composition, a new Fiver band featuring Halifax-based musicians Bianca Palmer, Nick Dourado, and Jeremy Costello, who have recently performed with Beverly Glenn-Copeland, among many others. They debuted last March with the covers EP, You Wanted Country? Vol. 1, finding solace in the songs of Willie Nelson, Gene Clark, and Johnny Paycheck. On their recently announced self-titled lp, Schmidt’s lyrics are packed with evocative imagery and rich with meaning, while the players’ improvisatory backgrounds allow the songs to stretch into unexplored territories.

On the day when I connected with Schmidt over Zoom, they had already given a talk to York University’s Labour Studies program that morning, and were in the midst of dealing with an encampment eviction, hopping off to talk with fellow organizers throughout the call. These tireless efforts have now become their day-to-day reality, and I remain deeply grateful for the thoughts they shared in this compelling conversation. If you enjoy this interview, please consider donating to Toronto Indigenous Harm Reduction.| j locke

Aquarium Drunkard: Let’s start in the most obvious place—tell me about your band LSDoubleDCup.

Simone Shmidt: Ohhhh. Yeah. That was a band I had with Michael Comeau, who’s a great comic book artist; Mike Barry, who was in the Hidden Cameras; Hunter Cubitt Cooke, who was in Velvet Fist; and Ian Russell from One Hundred Dollars. I guess Simone TB was also in the band for a bit at the very end. 

The weird thing is that I don’t remember anything from that time, in a strange way, but Michael Comeau has a great memory. He was recently trying to remind me of everything, so I went back into our old emails and was like “whoa…” That was a very chaotic, involved time. We were a punk band, but I’ve never listened to punk. Like, I was just shown Crass this year. If you asked me about Black Flag, I’ll be like “I don’t know. I’ve heard of them!” I actually didn’t understand the music that we were making.

Michael Comeau and I shared a print shop called Punchclock. It was a collective of different printers. People that used the space included Will Munro and Kids On TV. It was on Sudbury Street and Dovercourt, where there’s a big condo now. We used to throw wild parties there all the time. A lot of what we did was print stuff free for bands. They would play shows and the proceeds would go to Indigenous sovereignty movements. No one would book us so we just booked ourselves at those parties. We always wore masks. That’s how I remember it.

AD: It seemed like a freaky performance art project combined with a punk band. One of the recordings I’ve heard reminded me of Buffy Sainte-Marie fronting DEVO.

Simone Schmidt: Oh wow, that’s cute! [laughs]

AD: How did you avoid punk as a teenager?

Simone Schmidt: I grew up in Toronto, so most of my live music experiences involved finding a fake ID to go see Crazy Strings at the Silver Dollar. I had an older boyfriend who was into ska, unfortunately, so I went to El Mocambo and hated it. I remember meeting Josh Zucker from Fucked Up because we were both in the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, but having no interest in the music. I didn’t feel like it resonated with me in any way, and I was more of a raver in high school. I wasn’t a hard raver but that was the party subculture I was into. 

When I was a late teen I fell in love with country music. The aesthetic sensibility resonated with me a lot more, and the storytelling capacity gave me something for my brain to hang onto. I wonder if I had been a teenage boy it would have been different, but I don’t even know if I’ve been to a punk show. I still don’t really know what punk is. [laughs]

AD: Back in 2008 in an article about your next band One Hundred Dollars, you were quoted as saying “I never set out to be a singer.” I also read that you left a position with OCAP to take care of your bandmate Ian Russell while he was sick with leukemia. What do you remember about the start of that band?

Simone Schmidt: Again, it’s hard to remember. That was a very intense time in life. I remember being an organizer with OCAP. We were doing direct action casework, which meant engaging in high intensity situations constantly and not being able to back away from them. I also worked with people who were non-speaking, so I felt a lot of connection to people who didn’t have as much freedom or mobility as myself. 

When I would see my friends who played music, they were part of a totally different subculture. I met people in bands through Ian Russell, who I started One Hundred Dollars with, and was just like “Wow, you guys get to relax? This is ridiculous.” I found there was a great barrier for me in terms of relating to people in the subculture of indie-rock. I just kept to myself and loved the craft of music. 

Ian had played in Jon-Rae and the River, so we ended up connecting with other musicians in his band. I had no literacy in the community or how it worked, but in hindsight I realized that I was playing with a very well connected guy. I got to open for Rick White, and then he and Brian Taylor invited us to record on Blue Fog. We assembled a band for that recording, and they were all well connected because they had played in Jon-Rae and the River, too. I found myself not having to try very hard to have certain kinds of opportunities.

I wasn’t a very good singer, and I didn’t understand how to sing. It’s hard to hear those recordings, even though the songs are cool, but I feel like I grew incredibly as a singer. To have a practice over the years has been deeply transformative for me. It’s a kind of expression that is so holistic and important, especially in crisis. When I was young I had a very black and white view of the world, and I think having a musical practice allowed me to see a wider breadth of the human experience.

AD: We’re circling around this topic already, but there’s a line in the bio for your new album that I found interesting. It says you’ve “rejected the logic of the music industry, employing many aliases in the course of creating a robust discography.” Was that a purposeful decision when you went from making music with One Hundred Dollars to your solo project Fiver and then your next band The Highest Order?

Simone Schmidt: I was also in a band called Coole & Downes that I never list, which was a duo with Chris Coole. To me what became really strange about being a musician was that suddenly there was this question of authorship. In visual art or organizing, you don’t sign your name to what you do as a necessarily creative endeavour. When you put out recordings and start playing shows, it’s evident who you are and it’s intellectual property. 

Older musicians would often approach me and say things like “You got it, kid, but you have to start focusing on how you sell your music.” They would ask me why I keep switching it up. I would be approached by business managers who said things like “People want to see your bands for you, so just keep the name.” For me, that was so strange because the cool thing about a band is that it’s inextricably the sum of its parts. It’s a collective endeavour, so it didn’t make sense for me to divest from that collectivity when it was happening. Maybe it’s a bad branding move, but that’s also fine.

AD: Music doesn’t need to be about branding.

Simone Schmidt: I know that it makes things harder because the challenges posed to me have been real. I was playing in Haida Gwaii a few years ago and someone came to my show, and they were like “Oh my god, you were in One Hundred Dollars?” It’s weird because ultimately I did write all of those songs, so I’m not sure why people can’t follow that. It just never sat right with me to take the full credit for the interests of my career.

AD: You’ve now formed a new band called Fiver and the Atlantic School of Spontaneous Composition. How did you first meet Bianca, Nick, and Jeremy?

Simone Schmidt: I saw Nick Dourado play at the AGO when I was doing sound for that conceptual art series Doored. Nick was there with a saxophone running through a delay in that huge AGO atrium. I was like “What is this?” I wrote to them afterwards, and they were like “Check my name in your email.” I searched and there was a fan message from them from three years ago. They basically said “I love your music,” so we were just mutually appreciating each other. 

From there we got on the phone and started talking about the conditions of playing music in Halifax and what that was like for them. We developed an affinity for sure. They said “If you ever want to play together, let me know.” It just seemed absolutely wild that this person would play with me. Then it was Sappy Fest and I saw Nick, Jer, and Bianca play together in Big BUDI, which was them backing Aquakultre. That was by far the best music I had seen in a really long time.

AD: That set was astonishing. I was watching from the side of the stage with my jaw dropped the entire time.

Simone Schmidt: I was like “Finally, real music. Weird.” After that I kept in touch. Nick and Jer came to Toronto for a Special Costello set and again I was so impressed. Then when they started playing with Beverly Glenn-Copeland, I asked them if they would be interested in investigating a musical relationship. I had all these songs that I really didn’t think I could arrange with anyone I was working with at the time. I was interested and ready for new collaborators. 

We worked on planning excursions over the next two years. I would go out to the East Coast to play some shows, then spend a week or two showing them songs, record those sessions, and bring them home to listen. I tried to work with their improvisational tendencies. It was a drawn out collaboration that was also rigorous when we got together. We always play shows but mostly our practice has been jamming for days on end. 

I think we were all coming from a place of having felt exploited and disinterested in a lot of the dominant modalities of music industry culture. We were trying to understand how we can work together in a way that feels respectable, actually, like we can have self-respect. The industry is so exploitative, racist, sexist, and transphobic. Outside of those big words it’s a terrible labor context. We had very different plans and thought we would be on the road together for years, but instead there’s a pandemic.  

AD: You hinted at this too, but I was planning to ask about Nick and Bianca’s background in improvisation. I know they both studied with the legendary jazz drummer Jerry Granelli. Did you try to tap into that with the extended jam sections that appear throughout the album?

Simone Schmidt: There are so many ways for music to go, and you just never know, so why invest in knowing? [laughs] It’s necessarily conversational and expressive when we get together. You don’t tell your friends what to say when you’re talking, you know? That freedom is something I really appreciate. It is about listening, so there’s a responsiveness. We’re all limited by our technique necessarily, how well we can listen, or both combined. 

I’m coming from a tradition where there is a certain way to play a song so it can be respected as a composition that contains meaning. Finding the balance between trying to make sure the song is conveyed but also allowing freedom of expression is a total joy to do, and is actually not that hard! [laughs]

AD: Your first release with the Atlantic School of Spontaneous was a collection of country covers. This album has a lot of country music elements as well, but it would be wrong to describe it as a genre exercise because it goes to so many different places musically. Did you hope to continue that tradition while also subverting it?

Simone Schmidt: My experience of playing within the country and North American folk traditions has been about both learning from the form, and what it shows you about history, meaning, ways of organizing human emotion, and narrative. And also subverting that because a lot of those things need to be subverted. I started that with One Hundred Dollars singing about domestic rape or lesbian exile. I try to subvert tropes or tell stories that haven’t been told.

The most obvious example is the last album I did that was about an asylum for the criminally insane in the 1850s. I tried to imagine what are the stories that have been missed in these traditions? Whose stories would have never been sung, or sung and then never resung because of the carceral system? There was an inability for those songs to get past the walls of the institution.

AD: That’s a good point because the artists we think of as outlaw country singers were almost always white men. Even for the outsiders there’s a single kind of person who gets to play that role. 

Simone Schmidt: Yeah. I find that it’s all about subverting while embracing the tradition. On this album I do feel like I’m working within a range of tropes or responses to things that I’ve learned from country music, but then musically working outside of it. 

I also think about country music as a total fabrication of the industry. If we look back to the beginning of recorded history, the divisions made between race records and hillbilly music ended up informing how we categorize and understand different traditions. I think about how much we refuse the Black music traditions that exist, whether that be the blues or jazz. In country music that erasure is just so real. This album is about time and how it folds in on itself. The way we’re playing is drawn from jazz, really, and Duke Ellington arrangements and things like that. It really informs Nick Dourado’s playing in particular.

AD: Your lyrics on this album are wonderful and fascinating, as always. I like how without ever name dropping anything specific, you write about the collective struggles of workers and artists against various forms of authority, while also sharing personal feelings of connection with people “in your periphery,” to use your words. Is that a fair way to describe some of the themes that connect this album? 

Simone Schmidt: Yeah. I think it’s a lot about labour and time, death, cycles of life, and renewal. For me there is never one meaning to any phrase. I write in a way that it might be interpreted in many ways. That’s also what life is life, you know? Experiencing something in a moment and it means something to you, and then in retrospect it means another. That’s just the reality.

AD: Like in “June Like A Bug” when you sing “Make me a steak/ Make me a stake in the order of things”?

Simone Schmidt: That’s a very obvious one. It could be something you use to stab a vampire, a share, or an actual steak. Even that line could be an appeal to make me the thing that will disrupt the world order, or it could be a really selfish plea to want to eat a cow. The way in which those feelings are seemingly in opposition is actually where the meaning lies. It can mean whatever you think it means.

Throughout time labour has meant so many different things, but at the moment gig workers and such are truly engaged in practices that aren’t considered labour. Often artists find ourselves in these positions, whether that’s washing dishes through an app or working for Uber. I think of this long history of precarity, and those themes appear across the entire album. I think “Sick Gladiolas” would be a clear moment of that being very explicit. 

AD: I wanted to ask you about a specific line from that song too: “Do you ever wonder what might have come of Alberta?/ If her finest children weren’t forcefully purged to the coast.” Is that based on anyone specific?

Simone Schmidt: You just see this displacement of bright minds from different places because the culture won’t sustain their presence. I first experienced queer exile from Alberta when all of my trans friends in Toronto had actually moved there because they would get the shit kicked out of them in Calgary. I wonder what would have happened if people had been welcome to stay there. 

AD: Another line from “Leaning Hard (On My Peripheral Vision)” references Martin Luther King in a really powerful way when you sing “The high road once proposed leads only to a negative peace.” What does that idea of negative peace mean to you in comparison to positive peace, which MLK described as the presence of justice?

Simone Schmidt: The negative peace he mentions is in reference to the reality that he was so disappointed by the white moderate. I experience this disappointment all the time as well. I’m not as impacted by it in a negative way as BIPOC, but the reality is that we are all being alienated and killed by colonialism and white supremacy in a variety of ways, and really nullified.

Often within the arts there are these great movements to talk about inclusion rather than dismantling the systems that are fundamentally exploitative and white supremacist. I have conversations where people from the establishment say they want to pick my brain and make an award more equitable. I might answer that you should start giving out awards, or ask where the money for the award is coming from. Those conversations end right there.

Whenever people, including myself, articulate what a real resistance or change might entail, we get cut out of the conversations. We’re told that we’re being rude, aggressive, and too radical. I get told that by my peers who are now putting out albums about climate anxiety and things like that. I just feel entirely alienated and cut out of communities because I speak the truth or ask for real change. It’s not even in ways that are mean. 

I’ll ask should we consider the settler-colonial foundation of our granting system? Or if we’re going to talk about the climate, then how are the extractive industries involved in the ways we run our careers? What are the structures we need to divest from in order to feel like the things we’re singing about are embodied in our practices? And what is the point anymore of singing about the things we say we believe in when we can’t even extricate ourselves from the super structures that propel them in our lives?

These questions are the ones on my mind. I don’t know the answers to them, but to know they exist is the negative peace that I experience. Looking at the way upholding all of these super structures are conflated with what it is to be polite, friendly, and diplomatic. I’m involved in a whole other context outside of music where people talk explicitly about what tactics we’re going to use to make change. People are engaged in conversations about strategy. They’re not engaged in conversations about how to employ our politics as part of a better marketing campaign. They’re not engaged in finding out how we can personally benefit from great thoughts that we have. It’s a collective process. The individualistic shit happening within music around propelling people as public thinkers while denying community and context is absolutely egregious. That’s one of the fronts in which I see the negative peace, but at the same time I see it on every level. 

“Leaning Hard (On My Peripheral Vision)” is a narration of the life I’m experiencing right now in terms of doing encampment support. There’s a part that talks about “The son with two tongues, he has come/ He’s not leaving/ You know we must face this eye to eye.” That’s about people speaking with forked tongues; saying one thing and doing another. That would be Canadian politics, as you can see with reconciliation while trying to forward more policies about privatizing reserve lands, building pipelines, things like this.

This is a modality of settler colonialism to say you mean one thing while doing another. We’re seeing that in the Encampment Support Network when we try to have a quote unquote civil conversation with the City. They won’t actually engage with us. The same people who are tasked with consulting with encampment residents are writing affidavits against them. This can not be the case. 

It’s really interesting to feel like there’s something about the dominant Canadian body politic that will always put you in the position to think it’s about convincing minds and education. But at the end of the day the broad majority of people are impacted negatively by policy. Then it’s about speaking truth to policy, I suppose, but there’s this whole other strategy of resistance that we’re too scared to get to. For white people I think that mostly looks like giving up certain kinds of privileges, living with the vacuum of that loss of privilege, and trying to figure out what could be the better thing to do. I could just go off. Wow, I feel like I’m stoned on Zoom right now. But do you know what I mean?

AD: I totally do. That leads perfectly into the last thing I wanted to ask you about. You recently said, “When COVID hit I was about to start touring like a maniac. Instead I ended up organizing locally with lots of musicians in the Encampment Support Network.” How do you feel now almost a year later about this work you’re doing to help keep people living in parks alive, and why volunteers are doing it, while the City of Toronto refuses to take action?

Simone Schmidt: I think the big question that comes up for me is how else are we supposed to behave? Could we even imagine a city that provides for people in the way we’re providing? Ultimately, I wouldn’t trust City workers to be engaged with encampment residents in the ways that we are. The mandate of the City is always about preserving green space as assets for developers. The deeper you get in, the more it gets interesting to think about other than public, decommodified housing, what else could we ask for?

After almost a year of this I definitely feel transformed, but I also have toured in a year or played music with my friends, and that’s devastating. That’s an expression that I’ve lost, but I feel fully realized in another way. There’s a line in “Sick Gladiolas” where I sing “Do you ever, come evening, in fine freeway traffic/ Collide with the fear of your talents misused?” A lot of the time working in music, I feel my writing and musical talents aren’t misused because they are just what they are for me and my friends. But I have felt that trying to fight for a better labour context with a bunch of peers, the most successful of whom have no interest in a collective good, is a misused talent.

What I like about the ESN is that we can organize together. There are so many talented people working to make things better, and I just adore it. I love how that modality is being practiced together. While we are always being exposed to death and suffering, there is some sense at least that we’re trying to create a world we would rather live in, instead of putting up with a context we would all roll our eyes at. That’s a lot better.

But I don’t know, man. For years I’ve been working in activist communities, and I’ve never wanted to use my music to talk about it. Activism wasn’t cool when I started music, and suddenly it became cool to be political. I don’t really want to conflate my work putting out music with the collective work that I do. But lately I’ve thought why should I lie? This is just the situation we’re in.

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