BACK IN THE GAME: Former Unicorns and Clues member Alden Penner is back on the road, traveling at his own speed. Nathan Westley met him in Brighton


Life, sometimes, can send you in circles – Canadian musician Alden Penner knows this more than most. After moving to Montreal as a sixteen-year-old and quickly forming no-fi indie pop band The Unicorns with Nicholas Thorburn, he embarked on his first real tour that saw the due travel down the west coast of the States into California, which he describes as being “an entree into another level at around that time.”

The Unicorns one and only studio LP, ‘Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’ve Gone’, released at the tail end of 2003, brought widespread critical adulation, but this unexpected success turned out to be the beginning of the end. With an extensive tour schedule that followed, relations between Penner, Thornburn and third member Jamie Thompson soured, which culminated in the group dissolving little more than a year later.

Penner returned to concentrating on his own musical endeavours before forming the more polished indie rock group Clues with Arcade Fire member Brendan Reed, who would go on to release a self-titled album in 2009. The same year, Penner delivered his most notable film score to date, for the independent rom-com Paper Heart.

As I meet the sensitive 32-year-old ahead of a solo show in Brighton, to promote new solo EP ‘Canada In Space’ (a 5-track collection of proggy glam and space pop that touches on Arcade Fire operatics at one point and also features a track in French), he tells me that much has changed in the past decade, but much has also stayed the same.

“Touring is very much the same,” he says, “and that was the last time [with The Unicorns] that I did a lot of touring. The last ten years have gone by very fast – we played some gigs last year as The Unicorns but that was in a very different context to what we had experienced before.

“I guess I’ve dabbled in a lot of different thing in those ten years,” he says, “I guess that I was kind of very unhappy, searching for something else to do and things not really working out with other projects, endeavours and relationships and things like that… and musically too. Some of it worked and some of it didn’t, so I figured coming full circle, coming back to my own music, which is what I did before the Unicorns as well… I had lent my songs to the band as well, ones that had already existed, so I figured that it was both the most reasonable and balanced thing to do; it’s also a merging of a lot of extremes.”

With the cyclical nature of Penner’s work in mind, he says that he hasn’t fully ruled out the idea that The Unicorns may play more shows. “I’m open to it,” he says.

“Those shows [with Arcade Fire] came up kind of randomly and we accepted them because of the significance of them, the year [10 years after their split] and the symbolism and all that. I don’t think we’ve necessarily sorted out a way of playing more shows that feels comfortable for everybody. Largely, those shows were not comfortable, they were just kind of interesting and kind of insane, playing in stadiums after having not played together for ten years apart from one homecoming show in Montreal, which was fantastic and felt really good.

“It was starting to feel like the first time around, where we got pulled into this whirlwind worldwide tour that was an uncomfortable feeling at the time and something I don’t really want to repeat again.

“I don’t necessarily think I’m committed to playing in that band as it is indefinitely, I’m just waiting and seeing what comes up and take things more slowly this time around.”

He notes how he’s spent the last year attempting to record and mix his own music, which has been “fulfilling and overwhelming at once.” His first solo album, ‘Exegesis’, was released via Bandcamp last year, followed by two EPs, with plans afoot to release an album next year.

“The last two EPs – ‘Canada in Space’ and my last one before that [2014’s ‘June 04’] – were just recordings that had been started quite a while ago,” he says, “and once I had got into the process of working intensively on them they became something. I’m sort of in the same position now, where I’m unearthing some archived material and am layering over the top of it and seeing how that blends in with some of the more recent songs. It feels like its necessary to get that out of the way before moving on to newer stuff.

“I get a lot of ideas and I also think about making a techno album or something like that, but it’s all in due time.”

Part of his recent reintroduction to making and releasing music once again has also seen him return to playing live. Tonight is a stop on a short European tour accompanied actor and musician Michael Cera, the star of Paper Heart and guest on new track ‘Mediate’, although he’s more recognized as the mousey all-American kid in Juno, Superbad and Arrested Development.

“I’ve done tours completely alone before and that was terrible, extremely lonely,” Penner says on the importance of having like-minded individuals and a community spirit around you when on the road. “Some people learn to cope with that in a way, but it’s at the cost of some sort of normalcy that might otherwise be had.

“I’ve not really toured much in the last ten years, so I don’t really have much to complain about. I guess I’m just more sensitive to it then some people perhaps – I prefer keeping it short and doing that more regularly, keeping it fun and light. You can develop this extreme commitment to the road, because in a way musicians are kind of forced to do that to make a living if they’re extremely committed to that lifestyle, or, alternatively, they have to get a job back at home.

“There’s an incredible freedom to just be going from city to city – you don’t think about time anymore, I don’t even know what time it is now and I’ve just looked at your watch. It’s just an abstract idea to me, I just know there’s other stuff to do later and I’ll get a little bit of sleep and it’ll be the same thing tomorrow, although slightly differently.”


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