Call & Response: Culture Reject
Culture Reject is the solo project of ex-Black Cabbage songwriter/musician Michael O'Connell. I was a big fan of his old band - Black Cabbage were one of the most interesting bands on the club circuit in the 90s.
Culture Reject's first release (out now on White Whale Records) features local indie legend Jim Guthrie and is influenced by Michael's travels to Africa and Cuba, as well as his work with at-risk youth here in Toronto at Sketch.
I spoke with Michael about his travels, his work with Sketch and his show at Wavelength this Sunday.
blogTO: Where does the name "Culture Reject" come from?
Michael O'Connell: I was writing in my journal about pariahs, misfits, outcasts. I came up with a term that I thought anyone in the world could, at some point, argue applied to them and their place. I think everyone should feel like a culture reject at some point in their life, if only to make them less quick to alienate others when they are in a comfort zone.
What inspired your travels to Africa and Cuba?
Traveling is beautiful for me. An amazing education. I traveled so much in Canada and really wanted to get south. My wife and I took our kids backpacking through Cuba for a month, living with Cuban families, traveling by bus and 1951 Chevy's (with 1984 Hyundai engines in them), swimming. My kids weren't yet born and I was unmarried when I went to Africa. After first year university I realized that grade 15, 16, 17, etc. was going to kill me. I felt like I couldn't really absorb what university had to offer intellectually. So I went to Malawi before going back for second year.
What was it like jamming with locals in Africa and Cuba?
It grounded me to spontaneous music. It educated me on the roots of the simple intricacies of creating rhythm. I kept playing pop songs I knew with drummers and it showed me how you can mess with music in all time signatures, tempos, etc...
What kinds of instruments did those locals play and how did it influence your album?
Anything that makes a percussive sound. In Malawi, I went to Saturday afternoon dances around a tree where an old man played a marimba with bottle caps nailed to each note and a woman banged a railroad spike on a railroad tie that was hanging from a branch. But really it is the bold, raw and collective use of the voice. The first instrument. That really hit home with me. So much of my instrumentation came from melodies I had worked vocally and then turned into piano, guitar or horns and the rest from the simple bang/clang/tap things I found in baskets around my house.
How did Jim Guthrie get involved in recording your album? Has he played live with you as well?
Jim is an old friend. We had a mutual attraction to one another's music when I lived in Guelph. When I decided to record some songs, Jim and I went to Niagara to my friend's farmhouse and laid song sketches onto 8-track tape. I then took about 5 years to think about those recordings and then only one song came directly from that - "Ain't It On The Floor?".
Will you be playing solo or with a band this Sunday at Wavelength?
I'm with a 5-piece at Wavelength. Very excited. Piano/trumpet, backing vocals, drums, bass and I'm pretty much on guitar, vocals and loops.
It sounds like you're doing very important work with Sketch. How does that work with at-risk youth influence your music and lyrics?
I think Sketch is simply an important cultural centre that honours the work of culture makers. Homeless and at-risk youth are a powerful population. There is so much diversity within it and at the same time so much connection. It's really a celebration of diversity through action. I run the recording studio there with a local beatmaker/producer called Coco Dyce (Chris Akinbode) and it's a great hub of busyness and excitement.
Culture Reject started as an attempt to tell some of those stories of isolation, fuck the world, love the world, learning to love myself, realizing I have a lot to give that thread throughout that community. All in all I feel lucky to be involved there.
What do you like best about living in Toronto?
Neighbourhoods. I like how neighbourhoods blend into one another geographically. I feel at home in a place with so much diverse cultural expression. And I'm digging the green spaces with big Norwegian Maples.
What do you think of the big union strike? Has lack of garbage pick-up or outdoor workers affected your life at all? Do you miss Centre Island?
I can't say it has beyond the little stresses. I have kids, we create waste, it sucks we have to live with it, but it sucks that we create so much of it and then dump it in Michigan. That's just evil incarnate. Not to "turn the frown upsidedown" or anything, but we need to see what garbage is. We bandwagoned around recycling, a little bit around re-using, but we've totally given up on reducing.
It's shitty for people who count on city day camps and can't afford private ones for their kids over the summer (how are those parents working and getting all of that done?). Toronto Island? We could always get a water taxi I suppose.
I heard the Black Cabbage reunion at Hillside last year was amazing. Any plans for other reunion shows?
The Black Cabbage reunion really did it for me. I think it was one of our best shows. There was nothing sad, awkward or surreal about it for me. After 10 years apart, I think we had a great show still in us. I think we agreed it would be our last. But reunion shows take on a certain momentum, no...I truly love the people in that band. They are family.
Feat. SunRaRaRa, The Meat, Culture Reject
Sunday, July 19
431 College Street
Call & Response is a series of Q&A's with bands from or playing in Toronto. Photo: White Whale.