Interview: van der Wel

Photo: Victor Alexeyev 

van der Wel is the musical project of Hamilton-based Phil van der Wel. We first met through a shared love for the slowcore narratives of the American artist Pedro The Lion, and it's wonderful to see Phil's music developing in a way which shows that influence while moving into its own space as well. He's recently released an EP called O Canada, and one of the tracks - British Columbia - is pretty magical. So - before you do anything - I'd really like you to go on and click play right here.

Phil took time out to answer a few questions about his inspirations and the making of O Canada. You can buy a download of the EP for the affordable price of $5 NZD (or more, if you wish) at his Bandcamp.  

Can you tell me about how you got started playing music? What inspired you to get started, and what did you initially set out to do?
Sure. I have been playing music in one form or another since a young age, and first picked up a guitar when I was 11 or 12. I played songs with various school mates throughout middle and high school, and after leaving school started a band with a few friends, playing mostly melodic rock along the lines of Further Seems Forever or Jimmy Eat World (or something). A defining point for me musically was in 2007 when I moved to Canada. Suddenly I was separate from my friends and the music we listened to, and immersed in new friends and new (better?) music - David Bazan, Damien Jurado, Jon-Rae Fletcher, Phosphorescent, Iron and Wine, Fionn Regan, Danielson Family, etc.. I had previously been introduced to some of the music in New Zealand, but more as a side dish rather than the main course. I wanted this music for my starter, mains, and sides. There was no objective in mind, only a desire to sing songs.

We’ve talked before about our mutual love for Pedro the Lion. What drew you to David as an artist, and what's your favourite song of his? (I know this is a cruel question because there are a lot of good ones)
It's Hard to Find a Friend was my ticket in to Pedro the Lion. His honesty (both in his lyrics and in the quality of his recordings), cynicism, humour, and obviously his writing (particularly his storytelling) all appealed/appeal to me. Also T. W. Walsh is my favourite drummer (especially his work on Headphones). No one favourite song, sorry; here are four: The Longer I Lay Here, Priests and Paramedics, Slow Car Crash, Transcontinental. Ask me again next week and I'll tell you four more.

Can you tell me about the recording process of O Canada?
Luke Thompson was fundamental in the process. We recorded a demo of British Columbia last year, after which I decided I wanted three or four songs to match. We spent four days over February and April recording in a tiny dungeon-like basement beneath Luke's house in Tauranga. I had ideas of what I wanted the songs to sound like so we kind of worked from there.

What did you want to do differently on this recording after I Am a-Roaming?
I Am a-Roaming was very bare - only a guitar with my wife, Talia, and myself singing. O Canada is bare too, but comparatively there is far more to the arrangements. A few major differences were playing the electric guitar and utilising more vocal tracks (doubles, harmonies, etc.).

British Columbia is a pretty spectacular song. Can you tell me about the process of writing that?
Thank you! British Columbia was born in my bedroom in early 2009 when I lived in Canada. When I heard the first few notes/chords I knew it was a keeper. After a month or so I had a vague melody for the verse and chorus with some idea of the subject matter (swimming in Lake Okanagan). Six months later I was living in Australia hearing reports of forest fires where I had lived in Canada, and behold, a second verse. For the five years following I struggled with the words, phrases and arrangement, finishing it (for now) a week or so before we recorded. It sounds drawn out, and it is. I might say, "New songs!" but most are old to me.

The arrangement and ‘feel’ of the recording of that song feels like a big part of its magic too – can you tell me about how you discovered the way that song needed to be played/recorded?
I think I wanted it to feel like winter - not the cold and miserable winter we encounter most mornings in Hamilton, but rather the refreshing and beautiful winters I sometimes experienced in Canada. I remember walking to work; I started at 6:00 am, so left my house at 5:30 am. I was generally the first person trudging through the foot or so of snow which perfectly blanketed everything on the ground, including trash bags: what a sight. Winter was often miserable there too, but those mornings... those mornings.

Sometimes EPs and albums are tied together by virtue of theme, and sometimes by virtue of just being recorded in the same place at approximately the same time. What brought these songs together as a group?
I compartmentalise my songs into different genres, so it was reasonably clear which would fit. Musically we limited ourselves to electric guitar, lap steel guitar, and later on, electric organ. I think the commonality aided with the cohesiveness I wanted, where someone can hear one of the songs and think, "This is definitely from that record." Also, the winter thing I poorly described above.

Do you still live in Hamilton? Can bands still play shows there and will you play a show with them?
Correct, we do live in Hamilton. Hey, if it's good enough for Dylan... But seriously, I cannot speak for the music here (to my shame), but I would like to think there is a crowd, albeit small, who would lend us their ears. I would love to play a show with someone I would love to play a show with. Contact me!

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