I sat down with Rolf Klausener last week for Ottawa Magazine and had an amazing chat. He was kind enough to invite me into his home, and we started with a cup of coffee (and a tiny bit of Baileys) – a necessary beginning to any in-depth conversation. I must say, I learned a lot about Ottawa that afternoon as he opened up about a lot of different things. With new music on the way from The Acorn, as well as a handful of fascinating projects he is involved with, there was no shortage of things to talk about. They’re playing at Blacksheep Inn with Roberta Bondar + Kitchen Party on January 25. Here is the full version of the interview, I hope you get as much out of his words as I did.
Rolf Klausener is someone who lets creativity guide him through his journey through life. Not only is he lead singer and principal songwriter of one of Ottawa’s strongest indie music exports in the last decade, The Acorn, but also a unique personality that embodies the transformation of Ottawa’s arts and culture scene over the years. For almost the better part of a decade, Klausener has gone through the highs and lows of being a local musician – and at times he questioned whether Ottawa is the right place for an artist to be. As The Acorn burst onto the international touring circuit in the mid-2000’s alongside bands like Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Calexico and Elbow, they received critical praise for albums such as Glory Hope Mountain (2005) and No Ghost (2010).
With the band going through a transition phase in the last few years, Klausener has taken the opportunity to explore the depths of his creative desires in different ways. His new project called Silkken Laumann is influenced by his fascination with dance music and DJ culture. He is also a curator of a brand new boutique music, arts, and food festival called Arboretum, which succeeded in its goal of creating a “cultural snapshot” of Ottawa in its 2012 debut. Matias Muñoz speaks with Klausener about his many projects, his growth as an artist in Ottawa, and how the city’s arts and culture scene has transformed over the past decade.
It’s funny, I feel like 2012 was one of the quietest years of my life as far as music is concerned. I guess what’s changed the most is that 2012 is the first year I’ve had completely off touring with my band The Acorn. Since the band was in a transition phase, I began working on putting together this new festival Arboretum most of the year, and then also had some new singles come to light in a new music project called Silkken Laumann with my friends Adam Saikaley and Pat Johnson. That was really born out of spending all this time at home in Ottawa, getting to know all the DJ culture that is so pervasive and so awesome in the city. I wasn’t able to get into all that when touring so much with The Acorn.
2011 was really my first year off significantly from the road, and I spend that year exploring all these different facets of the city. I started working at Arts Court, I started working at The Manx, and so I began getting exposed to the arts, restaurant, and food culture. Then 2012 was the year I spent going to all the restaurants, meeting all the chefs, and putting that all into Arboretum and these external projects.
My whole life I had moved around, I came from Montreal when I was 12 to Ottawa. I never had groups of friends, I never felt like I was part of a clique, I never had that. About 12 years ago, I kind of felt like “wow, I think Ottawa’s my home” and felt an identity in the city for the first time. I’ve lived in other cities and I’ve visited several incredible cities all around the world, but I’ve always felt like Ottawa is a city on the brink. It has a lot of heart and is filled with so many creative and inspiring people.
As I found a home here, I’ve also really wanted to see the city find its own cultural identity. Arboretum was really born out of my incredible friendships. It came out of dialogue, and the fact that some of us were tired of going to other cities to go see small boutique festivals. Why not create our own? We were just lazy, really. We didn’t want to drive to other cities for good music, and it’s something I feel like Ottawa is ready for. So that’s why Arboretum came to be.
Silkken Laumann was something I’d been doing already with Pat Johnson for three years – it’s really just our love of dance music taking on a tangible form. I was listening to music and DJing parties in high school before I even picked up a guitar. I feel like Silkken Laumann and DJing now is just me feeling more comfortable expressing that part of myself. When I started playing the guitar and playing with The Acorn, it felt like that was my identity. I don’t go to dance nights or listen to lots of DJs, I don’t know why there was that rebellion there. Funny enough, when The Acorn would be on tour, the one thing we would do together is try and find a dance night and go dancing. So that side of me was always there, it’s just more out in the open now.
Creative people have lots of interests – I’m jealous of people that have a singular focus. I don’t say “creative people” with any sort of mysticism or sense that we are privileged in some way (it can be a curse). What I think is more important than balance is not seeing all these interests as different things, but as part of a whole. That’s something I’m trying to do more now in this part of my life, realize that my work at SAW Video and creating the festival and expressing myself musically, or even designing a poster. It’s all part of the same thing. The challenge now is to figure out how these things are all similar rather than how they are all different and making my life more complicated. They enrich my life. So what I try and do is focus on a thing when it needs to be done, and as I’m sure any creative person will testify, your attention span will sometimes waver. I don’t really take breaks — I just focus on other things.
So it’s just staying true to that, expressing a different part of yourself at different times. The most important part of that is that you feel passionate and inspired by what you do. To answer your question, I don’t really balance all these things. I just accept them as thing that I do, and accept them as different facets of the whole.
Oh, it’s amazing. When I was 22 or 23 starting to play live with The Recoilers and Kelp Records had just moved to Ottawa, there were some incredibly talented people in the city. To give you an idea of the scene at the time, Jim Bryson was putting out his first record, Kathleen Edwards was putting out her first album, and DJ nights were scarce. Trevor Walker had a residency at Mercury Lounge, the DJ crew Timekode didn’t exist, and we didn’t have any of the dance nights at Babylon happening either. No one really toured, and there were also way more clubs then there are now. But there was a crazy talent pool here, like Jeremy Gara (drummer of The Arcade Fire) played in a bunch of local bands – he’s from Ottawa. Some of the other guys in The Arcade Fire were also living here at the time or had just moved to Montreal.
Things were really different in 2003, the scenes were all really disparate. The punk scene didn’t talk to the indie art-rock people and lived in its own bubble. Snailhouse was here, Kepler was here, and the bands Jeremy Gara was with were all a part of that art-rock scene. That was the scene that I fell into a bit more, and there was also a folk scene that didn’t really talk to anyone either.
So it was weird, Ottawa had a very insular scene but very disparate at the same time – no one really talked to each other. Very few of us went outside our city borders, and if you think about it, that’s pretty self-destructive. And oddly enough, people moved away. Mike Feuerstack and Jeremy Gara moved to Montreal, Samir who did Keppler and Weights & Measures moved to Toronto, Kathleen Edwards moved there too and became a huge success.
After my band played here for five years without touring, I needed something different. I want to see the world, I want to tour – and that’s how The Acorn came to be. It started off by me wanting to do art and my own music, but then I wanted to get out on the road and tour. That’s the city I left behind. Our second EP called Blankets is all about our resentment for the city, our resentment for the scene. People held onto the city for comfort, but it didn’t grow it just sat there and seemingly started to rot.
So seven years went by, and when I came back to Ottawa and off the road in 2011 I was completely blown away by what had happen. Clubs were closing down all over the city. As all these places closed, the contrast to that was 10 or 12 new restaurants opened. There was a community of restaurants and a food scene had developed where everyone was talking to each other, and everyone communicated. The punk scene had merged into the Ottawa Explosion scene that was born out of the Gaga Fest people, and all of a sudden they had their own festival and they were bringing in like 60 bands each spring to do the Ottawa Explosion festival. There were like 12 awesome DJ nights every month, like Timekode, Kitchen Party, Grind, Shameless, Grillz & Glam – a lot of them at Babylon.
What had also come to fruition is the solidification of social media, as trite as that sounds. When I started doing my own shows in 2005, I would go plaster the whole city in posters and bug Xpress, and bug everybody. Now it’s so easy, it’s incredible. If you have 200 or 300 people you really want to know about your event, then it’s so easy to let them know. I don’t want to give too much credit to Facebook, but it’s amazing to see your city’s whole cultural fabric and patchwork there. If you want to dabble in it, you can, and that was so hard to do back then. You had to put in so much effort and really run around to do that seven or eight years ago. I used to think of myself as a cultural chameleon but I feel like everyone is like that now. Your belonging to a cultural or community niche really has no bearing any more. So that’s ubiquitous, every city in the world now does that.
In relation to Ottawa, this weaving of social fabric was exactly what the city needed. It was a big town where some neat things were happening but there wasn’t a way to see it as a whole. But now I see Ottawa as a small city where everyone is talking and everyone is trying to engage one another in creating something momentous, something simple, but something huge. I can honestly say that the last two years in the city are the most exciting, invigourating, and inspiring that I’ve seen in the last 15 years here in Ottawa. Not to say that cool things weren’t happening before, but more than ever, the dreams I had for Ottawa are actually happening. I look around and I can’t choose what to do each week, there’s too much! I remember thinking 10 years ago, “I wish there was too much to do on any given weekend”, because back then there were like two things a month that I would look forward to.
I look at all these people and I know they feel the same way I do. These cultural mavens in the city, like Stephanie Vicente of Herd Magazine, Kelly Brisson of The Gouda Life, chef Steve Mitten of Murray Street, Adam Kronick of Babylon, Emmanuel Sayer who does Ottawa Explosion, and Jon Bartlett of Kelp Records – they all feel that way. There are so many people who are so hungry to see this city keep moving. It felt like 12 years ago was the final heat in an Olympic race, and there were eight racers in the blocks still tying their show laces. Now it feels like their half way around their first lap, and they are hustling. That’s what the city has – hustle. It never used to have that.
Well six years ago when The Acorn was building things up, we had gotten our grant to do Glory Hope Mountain and we were in the studio to do our third recording Tin Fist. Our drummer at the time Jeffery Maleki moved to Montreal and he was trying to get me to come with him. It was partially me chickening out, but I had also moved into this great new house in Ottawa and I realized that this was the house where The Acorn would record our next record. I didn’t want to leave that, and I also felt like my work wasn’t done here in this city. So I didn’t move. But I was really close, there was one month where I was making the plans to move – looking at apartments, I had a girlfriend in Montreal at the time, but I thank my lucky stars I didn’t move. I realize now that I’m part of a community of people that are trying to make the city a better place, and in my own small contributions I hope I am too. I would rather be here in Ottawa making whatever contributions I can, than be in cities like Montreal or Toronto that already have hundreds of people making those contributions there.
My great uncle in Switzerland put together a book of our family history and it goes way back to 1319. My family shield is in here, too. My father had passed away and my mom thought it was time I have this book, and so when I was looking for a name I looked to my family’s coat of arms. The first name for the band was Drei Eicheln Musik, which means “Three Acorns Music”. I was just starting, and that was my first gig as part of the Kelp Records family.
So, more than anything, The Acorn has always been an expression of my deepest personal thoughts. It started off as this super honest and innocent expression of my thoughts with The Pink Ghosts, when there were only three of us and it was a tribute to Ottawa. We called it that because it was inspired the Pink family who settled in the Gatineau Hills, and some of the artists in town like Amy Thompson. It was mostly instrumental, but when I listen to that record now it really just sounds like Ottawa in the summer. That’s all it was supposed to be, and it became so much more. It became a vehicle for touring and meeting people all over the world, as well as a vehicle for expressing my thoughts about the city, my family’s history and all that.
But then in 2010, I felt like I lost that. It became my job and it became a way for me to pay my hydro bill. So I needed two years to dismantle the band and take a step back from all that. And now I think it means more to me now than it did in the very beginning, when we were the most successful. The Acorn project is just a way for me to look at my most intimate, honest thoughts and express them.
I have a few plans. Silkken Laumann finished two singles last year, so we’re looking to finish a record for that. We’re also looking to finish the new Acorn record hopefully sooner than later. We’re playing a big show on January 25 with Ottawa’s Roberta Bondar and a Kitchen Party after party. So that will be a testing ground for some of the new songs, and to see whether the time off has allowed us to shape the project into something new that we can feel excited about again. We’re also planning the new Arboretum Festival for the upcoming year.
I’m just looking to see how I can contribute to Ottawa in a bigger way. I’m really interested in working with the city to understand why certain roadblocks exist that make cultural development more difficult here. I’m looking to facilitate those things for me and my friends, and those who want to create art and cultural events in Ottawa.