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On to the End: Geoff Berner

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Issue: 16 Section: Arts

March 16, 2004

On to the End: Geoff Berner

by Henry Svec

Geoff Berner is forever touring. To learn more about him and his music visit www.geoffberner.com. photo: Henry Svec
Geoff Berner has played in a punk band. Geoff Berner has written for Sesame Street. Geoff Berner plays the accordion and prefers to drink scotch out of a wine glass.

The canuck's latest release, We Shall Not Flag or Fail, We Shall Go on to the End, has quickly gotten the attention of campus radio stations across North America and Europe. The record features his trademark stew of diverse and previously incompatible styles. Berner's work combines folk, punk, rock, pop, and traditional Jewish music into an organic whole. He is also difficult to pin down lyrically; Charles Bukowski, T.S. Eliot, and Naomi Klein all seem to have influenced these provocative songs.

While touring in Europe, the socially conscious troubadour took a breather to answer some questions for the Dominion:

Have you spent much time writing since the new album? Any songs you'd like to tell us about?

The next album is in the can. It's a live CD, recorded in Oslo, with Wayne Adams on percussion and Diona Davies on violin. It features some old songs, some odd covers, and a few songs that will be on the next studio album. The studio album will be called Lucky Goddamn Jew and will be a hardcore klezmer album. One of the highlights should be The Violins, a poem by the great Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, the laureate of the Intifada. This will be set to a klezmer melody and arrangement.

That's about as clear a statement as I can make about the current situation in Israel.

Is corporate power and influence something that you are concerned with? We All Gotta Be a Prostitute Sometimes and Porn Queen Girlfriend seem to be very critical of consumerism and its effects.

I think that whenever we fail to see other people as people like ourselves, we are vulnerable to the possibility of committing terrible crimes. And when we start to see ourselves as not worth much, then we are vulnerable to despair.

In Iron Grey you sing about the government not being able to find your hiding place; if you could have one minute of Paul Martin's attention, what would you say to him?

Paul Martin is an old man. He doesn't have much time to build a legacy, which is clearly his main concern, after the elections themselves. But money and power aren't all that matters to him, or he would have stayed in the private sector. He sees himself as a man of destiny, building a legacy for himself and for his dead father, who just missed becoming Prime Minister himself. I'm sure that he has dialogues with his father every hour of the day.

So if I had one minute, I'd say: If you want to make your father proud, remember that every ruler, every society in history, is remembered and judged mostly on this criteria: Hw effective was he at taking care of the least powerful, the very young, the very old, and the ill?

You seem to be much more a performer than a recording artist. Is the record just a necessary marketing tool, or an artistic medium in its own right?

A record is certainly an artistic medium in its own right, and requires a lot more hidden artifice. It's sort of like the difference between a play and a movie.

Here in Norway, where I am now, there's a place called the Vigeland Mausoleum. Vigeland the painter spent 50 years covering the inside of a church-like building with his vision of human existence. When he died, he had his ashes placed above the doorway of the building. When I die, my record company will pour my ashes into the vinyl vat at an LP factory. Each copy of this limited edition of my "Best Of" compilation will contain a little piece of me.

Do you ever get the feeling that no matter how potent or biting your art may be, the people who are most interested are already aware of the issues or sentiments you're dealing with?

The key is to find a new angle on it that strikes someone in a way that it never has before. No one's world-view is totally rigid. It's always full of swirling contradictory prejudices that can be plucked out of the soup and exploited.

Is the Canadian drunken accordion player the twenty-first century version of the Greek blindsoothsayer? Or maybe I've got it all wrong...

Why not? Homer was just a guy, after all. He probably wasn't blind, either. He just kept leaving his glasses in the previous town while he was on tour.

Is the bard a role that you want to play forever? Do you ever see yourself settling down?

[Not] until I drop dead on stage.

Henry Svec is currently studying English literature and history at Mount Allison University, New Brunswick.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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