Since he was a li’l boy, Li’l Andy has been obsessed with trains. His mom would let him jump onto the back of the rinky-dink steam train that lay at the heart of the tourist trade in his hometown of Wakefield, in the Gatineau Valley. He would ride that train to the other end of town where he would jump off once it slowed down. His teenage brother did him one better and learned to jump the train at full speed, one day even penetrating the dessert car, boss-like.
As a teen Andy started listening to country music, where trains play a huge role: lonesome train whistles at night speak to the lonely hearts of those whose loved ones are taken far away. Andy’s latest album, While the Engines Burn, grew out of this fascination with trains: “I was trying to write trains songs, and became interested in the history of how trains and early technology changed North America.” Despite a tendency (like much technology!) to increase loneliness, in the North American landscape of the 1800s a town with a train station was a hub of economic and civic life, the place where things were happening.
Andy compares the early technology of the train to modern cell phones and computers. Andy’s predilection for writing on paper in cafes and bars makes him conspicuous today, whereas ten years ago it was perfectly normal. He only got a cell phone in the fall, and that was to facilitate a particularly complicated 3-D show at the Rialto. All of this got him thinking about what it must have been like to have never seen a train before, and then to see one come through the neighborhood, or arrive from 100 miles away. Did people see the technology as destructive? It seems not. Yet today, in Andy’s view, people are kept from being fully present by their tech obsessions.
This lack of presence drives him crazy: “The best thing about being a band on tour is that you’re the modern equivalent of pirates or a motorcycle gang. When you’re going from town to town and your job is being at a party at a bar, you’re quickly given over to appetite and fun.” And when you’re in the tour bus, you should be joking and discussing the night’s activities, not checking facebook!! Andy has a strict no-cell rule for rehearsals.
Andy’s musical influences are diverse. His mom listened to Anne Murray, and his dad had one tape: Stompin’ Tom Connors’ Greatest Hits. Hank Williams, Townes van Zandt, Loretta Lynn, Lhasa de Sala, and Neil Young all feature heavily in his musical makeup. Neil Young’s album Harvest was recorded in a barn on a PA system, and Andy was hoping to follow suit with his last album, All Who Thirst Come to the Waters, but due to winter and other minor issues he opted to record it in the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Cathedral on the Plateau. He was hoping to replicate the feeling he had when he first heard de Sala’s music, which to him “sounded like you could crawl into it and swim in it and there would be room for you to move.”
He wants his recordings to be a snapshot of a performance, where you can hear the musicians, rather than an overproduced digital byte: “The toughest thing in the studio is how the technology works against the music. You’re at risk at the end of the day of having music that doesn’t sound like it’s made by humans.”
A lot of Andy’s music is heavy on gospel, which means he’s “talking about death and life and love—the important things we yearn for but don’t talk about.” It also means he mentions God, and Jesus, and an afterlife. This confuses people: is he being ironic? It seems that talking about God and religion is the last taboo, far more shocking than talking about sex and orgasms. But people who come to country music via bluegrass “and think it’s all about being a hillbilly and crying into your beer and shucking corn and playing the banjo” are merely slumming it, approaching the music ironically, which Andy finds irritating. Country music is about loneliness and heartbreak, and you can’t understand it if you don’t come to terms with gospel. And although he doesn’t consider himself religious, he wishes he was, and even fantasizes about becoming a monk. A train-riding, cell-phone shunning, foot-stompin’, crazy pirate monk.
Don’t miss Li’l Andy’s show at the Sala Rossa (4848 St. Laurent) on January 30, where he’ll be playing with his touring band, featuring pedal steel virtuoso Joe Grass, drummer Ben Caissie, bassist Hans Bernhard, and avant-garde composer and fiddle Joshua Zubot. 8:00pm. $11.