riot nrrd was born Conrad Sichler and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on a steady diet of second-hand smoke and urban boredom. 'Settle' marks his first release of the 21st century, and is a song-cycle that circles around questions of roots, identity, and the connection to home. Musicmuso caught up with Conrad and we spoke about Billy Bragg, Sherlock Holmes and naked chicks, read on to see how we got on....
Please introduce yourself and your music in one sentence....
Greetings and salutations, my name is Conrad Sichler, aka riot nrrd, and I perform a wordy and musically interesting form of folk-pop-punk for anyone within earshot.
You’re called riot nrrd...why?
I was at an anarchist conference in 1998 and briefly met a young woman with an obviously home-made white t-shirt that simply said
in thin black letters. I liked it very much, laughed a lot, and then started performing as riot nrrd. It was as if I had looked into a mirror and found my secret name.
How has social media aided your music?
Well, in the absence of a major label putting out six figures or an indie label spending five figures to promote my music and put my “CD” into “music stores” (anyone remember those?), social media has been pretty essential to getting the word out about the songs. It has brought me fans in Florida, Israel, and various parts of the UK who otherwise wouldn’t have every heard the music. Which is pretty cool.
On the other hand, social media is very much a double-edged sword, isn’t it? Because clicking a button labelled “Like” or “Become a Fan”, while something real, is a pretty low-commitment action compared with going to a show and talking with the artist. I firmly believe that no social media wit or wizardry can ever replace the raw intimacy and immediacy of a live performance. I have some old fans from years ago who still hum and sing some of my songs, even though they hadn’t heard them for years. I wonder if that’s true of my social media fans. Hopefully so, but I suspect not.
Being unsigned how hard was it get ‘Settle’ out in to the musical world?
It’s an ongoing process. Definitely not a past-tense thing yet. I had the help of a fine gentleman named Adam Bentley (@auteurresearch) who has his finger on the proverbial and rapidly shifting pulse of how music enters into the world, and he put me on track with a few great suggestions and pathways, several of which I have yet to fully explore. As everyone knows, there are so many bands out there now, and a whole lot of good ones. It’s very crowded in the musicverse. But I’m proud of what I’ve recorded, and I intend to just put it out there and let it speak for itself and see what happens.
You’re inspired by UK legend Billy Bragg, what is it about him that inspires you?
Oh God, almost everything. He’s smart, he writes catchy and often quite beautiful tunes. He can write a flinty, razor sharp song of righteous protest, and then turn around and put out something tender and sweet. He’s an activist, and works in a grassroots way. Plus, he’s friendly. When I last saw him perform in my hometown of Hamilton, Ontario here in Canada, he was signing cd’s after the show, and taking time to be kind and talk with everyone who was interested. I told him I had re-wrote one of the songs that he re-wrote, There Is Power In A Union when some friends of mine occupied the office of the president of the university I had attended. I had played it (There Is Power In An Occupation) in the snow and cold outside the president’s office, and then in the echoed marble halls of the building. We had a nice little chat about the living stream of folk tradition, where songs are traded, adapted, and organically grow to suit the situation they are needed for.
He’s also someone who can play solo and still command attention, and as the years have gone on, he’s become very good on record with a full band. It’s a divide I aspire to, and some days, hit.
Plus, he comes across as a fine human, just real and unpretentious.
If you could describe your music in the form of a fictional character, who would it be?
Probably Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes. I’m brainy, I talk a lot, and I work to get to the bottom of something in all of my songs. Plus the songs (at least according to my recording band) are mostly a little bit off-kilter. You know, extra beats here, half-bars there. Reunion Song is in C# major, was amusingly exasperating for Bob Doidge, the bass player. On our last take in the studio, he fairly spat out the name of that key with a smile on his face, then nailed it.
Tell me a fascinating fact about you?
Well, in my life, I’ve had three different indigenous medicine people tell me that I can heal with my hands. So I trained in that for a number of years, and I do offer it to some patients when it feels right.
‘Melodies’ is a wonderful tune; explain the process of the writing of it and the inspiration?
Thanks! Well, I originally wrote the tune when I had just moved to Kingston, Ontario, for school, and was feeling pretty lonely and jilted – a feeling that has surely launched a million songs by now into the known universe. But I was sick of jilted songs, so it turned into a song where I got over that feeling of jiltedness and just celebrated the short time I had with a particular person. I played it like that for years, but a few weeks before recording it, I decided to re-write it to reflect the time when I met my now-wife. I used to write parody songs for fun, so I think I have this skill of altering lyrics to fit a situation. Amazingly, with a few tweaks, it ended up working as a song of commitment and excitement as well, with many of the same lyrics, rather than a song of jubilant disappointment as it was before. At the time, my wife and I were working through ways where I had deeply hurt her, and so it was intended as an offering to her as well. That all worked out very well in the end.
And musically, I imagine that it sprung out of listening to The Police as a teen until my ears ached. Plus the fact that the drummer on the recording knew that musical reference, but not really my more recent punk / indie influences.
If you had a chance to put together your own ‘super group’, who would be in it? (Only living members please)
Hmmm … I’d have to say Stewart Copeland on drums, Paul Westerberg on electric rhythm guitar, J Mascis on lead guitar, and Victor Wooten on bass guitar. Heck, I’d even give up playing acoustic guitar in that super group if Ani Difranco would be willing to pick up that role. Any or all of the above helping out with backing vocals, plus Sarah McLachlan on backing vocals.
Woah, that would be weird musically, wouldn’t it? I’m just also thinking of the dynamics of all of those world-class musicians accustomed to fronting their own bands, in one room with li’l ol’ me, and wondering how that would all pan out. I think for me, that group would just be about the thrill of working with those individuals in person, and the music that came out of it would be perhaps even secondary.
Pinch me, am I dreaming here?
Your alter ego works in medicine, do you get the two mixed up at times? Like singing when giving out prescriptions or asking the mic stand to cough?
Well, at a recent performance (I think it was the launch), I did at one point say “trust me, I’m a doctor” without it sounding creepy (this is actually one of the little games I play in my life – can I use that phrase without sounding creepy? The answer is apparently ‘yes’.). I tend to discourage my providing patient care while performing. I find it distracts my attention over much.
I did once sing to a patient when it felt like the right thing to do in the moment. And a song on my only other release (1999’s ‘free of the suburban dream’) called When’s the Last Time? was largely written while I was assisting during a colorectal surgery and had little else to do. No, really! I was holding a retractor from far away, and the more senior students and residents were crowded in and I couldn’t see a thing. So my mind wandered and wrote almost that whole song in an hour or two.
One of my patients, a retired immigrant from Hungary, bought the new cd and listened to it and reported back that “I couldn’t really understand the words, but I listened to it and felt light and happy and free.” So I suppose my cd appears to have therapeutic benefit. But it would probably be a conflict of interest for me to prescribe it to my patients. A conundrum, to be sure.
Who photographed and came up with the idea for your album cover?
Dang – I guess that information isn’t on the digital release. I’ll have to look into that. The photograph was taken by a guy named Derrick van der Kolk in Hamilton. His company is called Style Group. He’s a great photographer, and a very kind and interesting guy who now works professionally after finishing his career as a soldier in an elite combat unit. He sent me about 500 photos, and that one immediately stuck out, even after I had carefully gone through all of the 500 and picked my favourite 50, then 10, then 3 – it still came out on top. And then Mark Tharme at Muse Marketing did the surgery on the shot and came up with that disturbing yet compelling sliced up face of mine for the cover. I’m really happy with it.
‘Graft’ is an emotive track, what was happening to be writing this?
I was working up north as a family medicine resident way back in 2000, and had had the privilege of spending some time with a number of indigenous elders who took the time to talk to me and share with me about their worldview and their lives. It felt so generous and refreshing somehow. I put a bunch of what they told me into rhyme, and the song was born.
My parents were immigrants from Czechoslovakia to Canada, and even though I was born here, I’ve always wondered just where I belonged, what home truly was and is. I moved around Canada from Winnipeg to Montreal, Kingston, Burlington, and now Hamilton, mostly for medical training, and that question kept nagging at me. And then I meet these elders, who have far deeper roots in this land than I ever will (at least through my ancestry), and what they shared touched me very much. Because more than any other thing, it’s been my own direct connection with nature and the land that helps me to feel at home. And in general, that is a really strong component of the worldview of pretty much all of the indigenous elders I have ever met.
So that song was just a balm for that yearning and searching of mine, and forms one of probably a few centrepieces of the whole Settle album, which is about, well, settling on a number of levels. On the cd flap, I have seven definitions of ‘settle’ that sketch that all out – I should also put those up on the interwebs, rather than just on the physical release.
What classic song would you have liked to have recorded and why?
Hmm … this may be weird, but the song that popped into my head was “Man In A Suitcase” by The Police. And why? It’s just this concentrated 2-3 minutes of crisp, fun, bouncy, melancholic pop/rock on the B-side of Zen Yatta Mondatta that has this balance of lightness and power, sadness and jubilation. Plus it’s so tight and together and it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Was there a naked lady that inspired Humpity Hump?
Why, yes! I’m impressed that you were able to penetrate through the multiple layers of obscure symbolism that pervade that song to get to its raw essence (lyrics: “Naked lady in the bedroom / Humpity hump hump hump / Humpity hump hump”, repeat). Sometimes I will walk around the house and bump into my wife and we’ll make up silly songs that fit the situation. And well, that song was inspired by one of those times. I won’t tell you what we were doing – I’ll let the song, in its own eloquent way, speak for itself.
First gig you ever went to?
Tough call. It may have been INXS at the Winnipeg Arena on my 16th birthday, May 19th, 1988. A bunch of friends came over to my parents’ place, we had a barbeque and then we walked across the river on the tracks and went to the show. Can’t think of an earlier one. Strangely, I don’t think the concept of ‘going to a gig’ had really occurred to me before that. Not sure – does an arena show count as a ‘gig’?
Where did you record your debut album and what made you choose that studio?
Again, thank you for the reminder to put that stuff online. I appreciate it.
The album was recorded at Grant Avenue Studios in Hamilton, Ontario. I realized a couple of years ago that I simply lacked the skill to properly record an album on my own, and that I needed help. It’s actually an amazing place, where people including John Cage, Ani Difranco, Johnny Cash, Gordon Lightfoot and Bruce Cockburn have recorded. The current owner, Bob Doidge, is a childhood friend of Dan Lanois, and for years they ran Grant Avenue together. The gold and platinum albums for The Unforgettable Fire hang on the wall. Plus, a lot of the icons of Canadian 1980’s and 1990’s rock recorded there – The Crash Test Dummies, The Parachute Club, The Tea Party, and so on. Oh, and I just found out while Googling my facts, The Care Bears Big Wish Movie smash hit, “Big Wish Theme”, was also done there. Who can argue with that? I figured that if that studio was good enough for Johnny Cash and the Care Bears, it would be good enough for me.
But outside of all that starry-eyed nonsense, Bob and his assistant Amy King have a real commitment to the thing at the centre of it all, the song. We started with the song, and then served the song in everything we did. They use gadgetry there in an intelligent way, rather than for gadgetry’s sake. Plus, I probably developed a crush on Bob in the early stages, one that I am happy to report I have successfully overcome through intensive therapy. He and I have an interesting symmetry to our lives. He’s a record producer and professional musician whose private fantasy is to become a doctor; I am a doctor whose private fantasy is to become a producer and musician. So we fed off of each other like that.
Name three people (alive, dead or fictional) that you would like as dinner party guests?
Albert Einstein, for sure, not only for his smarts, but for his social conscience. Oscar Wilde, for his scintillating wit. And Billy Bragg, for all of the reasons I mentioned earlier.
There are many good bands and musicians out there, who would you ask the readers of musicmuso to look out for?
Well, they aren’t exactly new, but if your readers haven’t heard Do Make Say Think, I think they would really dig them. They are a Toronto band who do really well arranged, lush, and cinematic instrumental songs that just find a way into my brain and lodge deep inside of there. Their frontman, Charles Spearin, put out an album a few years ago where he sampled his neighbours talking mostly about happiness, and then wrote entire songs around those samples.
One of my Twitter finds recently has been The Bicycles from Toronto – entirely listenable indie rock / pop that goes down great. And Dawn and Marra from Hamilton, whose last album Teaspoons and Tablespoons is delightful. Oh, and Tribe Called Red, which is a combination of hip hop and traditional indigenous music. It’s really rad.
Who is Paul Quick?
Paul Quick is a Kingston-based activist who I was and am friends with. When I lived in Kingston, we found ourselves in a protest of the second Gulf War, and the song describes what happens. He was truly hardcore in acting on his beliefs – he was one of those handful of folks who occupied the university presidents’ office over proposed tuition hikes, among many other things.
His story is funny and amazing, because he was banned from campus for a time after that protest, at least for anything not to do with his classes. The following year, he entered into law school at that same university (Queens), and ended up graduating top of his class. He’s now practicing a lot of advocacy law. To my mind, Paul truly embodies the spirit of a riot nrrd, someone who’s smart as a whip and uses that intelligence to make good in the world, speak truth to power, and fight for his convictions.
What is your favourite lyric or quote?
The one that comes to mind is spoken by the character Morpheus in the third Matrix movie, right after his general has chewed him out for almost destroying his own ship, and then adds in “and I can’t believe that believe in all of that crap about The One.” To which Morpheus replies in his deep baritone “my belief does not require that you believe.” It’s so powerful – again, it has a respectful and compassionate message, but with real force and power behind it. Arguing over belief or trying to change someone else’s belief is, to my mind, such a colossal waste of time.
Also this lyric from Paul Simon’s song “Love and Blessings” just slays me: “Love and blessings / simple kindness / fell like rain on thirsty land / fields and gardens, long abandoned / came to life in dust and sand.”
Hard to answer that question, though – when I’m talking with patients, sometimes just the right quote will fall into my head at just the right time, and fit the situation perfectly, Hopefully those two are like that.
Do you think we can ever live in a world where a chicken can cross the road without having its motives questioned?
I sure hope so. Our motives are complex and mysterious and obscure, whether human or fowl. Would be amazing if we as people focussed on the ‘how’ of getting places, rather than our habitual and endless questioning of ‘why’. If the freakin’ chicken wants to cross the road, let it, or better yet, help it get there. Let it figure out its own motives!
What are your plans for the remainder of 2014?
Spend some time outdoors camping and being close to the land this summer. I’m actually leaving to dance a Sundance in a couple of days in Manitoba run by a friend and teacher of mine, That will involve a few days of fasting and dancing and such, and it’s been pretty amazing for me in the past.
Musically, I am lining up some gigs for the fall, working the social media aspect, hopefully playing a local festival in September. I took so much time birthing this baby named Settle that I want to set it up to succeed in the world, in as big a way as possible. Still working in medicine. I actually have a one-day per week job offer at a prestigious institution that I am contemplating, but looking to temper that with my own private practice and the need to spend time on my music for it to end up anywhere worthwhile.
We were still going over the chicken question when we thought we'd best ask Conrad some in-depth quick fire questions to keep his mind from wandering....
Coffee or Tea? Coffee. I like those really done-up ones with froth and mocca and sprinkles and stuff like that.
Coke or Pepsi? Coke – Pepsi just sort of tastes fake somehow. Did you know that Coke actually keeps a lot longer than Pepsi for some reason? In a month, Pepsi goes kind of stale. Found this out from a salesman in Belize who had worked for both companies and had stories to tell.
Drum machine or the real deal? Real deal, no question. Nothing like real drums and a great drummer to get all the juices flowing.
Mac or PC? Meh – whichever is convenient. We have both at home. I opened your e-mail on my Mac and I’m typing up my answers on my PC. Yes, yes, Macs are prettier, no question, but Mac’s corporate behaviour is probably uglier than Microsoft’s. Plus, that whole thing where people somehow find their identity by identifying with a particular brand of consumer product is silly and kind of depressing. Just be yourself, and use what you use.
Taco or Burger? Love Mexican food, so would probably have to go with tacos, but with burgers a close second.
Lemmy (Motorhead) or Ozzy (Black Sabbath)? Tough one – but I’m going to go with Lemmy on this one.
CD or Vinyl? Love both, but vinyl wins. Warmer sound, rich tone. Yep, vinyl.
Car or Motorbike? Fantasy – motorbike. Way cooler, more fun. Reality – I drive a car.
Acoustic or electric? Acoustic played with some punch.
Shower or Bath? Shower most days, bath when I’m drop-dead tired or want to decrease my sperm count.
Tattoos or Piercings? Neither – I choose to express my individuality these days by being neither tattooed nor pierced. Which may well place me in the minority.
Pancakes or Waffles? Love the idea of waffles, but based on my actual behaviour, I’ll go with pancakes. Have to have some kind of berry-laden coulis on top for optimal effect.
Robert De Niro or Al Pacino? I think De Niro has more range, so I’ll go with him.
God or Google? God is more surprising, Google more convenient. I’ll go with God. I like surprises!
We would like to thank Conrad for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions, we really do appreciate it. We wish him every success with future releases and gigs and look forward to meeting him one day on UK soil.
Interview by Mark Wincott