With the amount of time I've been doing interviews for, it's pretty rare that I find myself intimidated by a group of people. A few nights ago, however, entering a full venue of late-twentysomethings or older, I was nervous as a first timer. The crowd, consisting of literary types, including a former professor of mine, were there for Ross Hawkins. Hawkins is a charming English man residing in Toronto that plays under the moniker Idle Tigers. Maybe it was in my head, but coming in as an undergraduate who grew up on punk rock, the room carried a vibe like an inside joke I only vaguely understood. Here I was in a backroom that felt somewhere between an art show and a concert, about to see a former TA of mine perform a set to his graduate study companions and a few others with their ear to the ground. I sat in the back and tried to draw as little attention to myself as possible, but nonetheless I was excited for what was about to go down.
A few drinks later Idle Tigers took the stage playing a set like nothing I've seen before. Peering at the audience, some looked confused, some looked smitten, while others politely laughed with the antics happening in front of them. Personally, I found myself intrigued, and while I'm still not sure I fully understood what went on that night I was impressed at just how outside the proverbial box something could be. Idle Tigers are creating music in the ethos of early post-punk, bringing something truly different to a stagnant music scene.
Scene Point Blank: Typically I avoid asking this question because it comes across as cliché, but seeing as I can't really find a proper way to do it myself, how would your describe your music?
Ross Hawkins: That's difficult! Electronics in the hands of an enthusiastic amateur playing rhythms borrowed from cheap circus songs or music hall numbers. An early idea was to make what sounded like the ghosts of folk songs, filtered through lots of electroacoustic experimentation. But at the moment there's a part of me that seriously believes that I'm just making friendly, accessible pop songs. Only a small part of me believes that, I suppose.
Scene Point Blank: Your live show lends itself to a performance aspect of rock that's rarely seen with current acts. For those who have yet to have the pleasure, would you mind explaining some of your stage habits, and what you feel they bring to the music?
Ross Hawkins: Sometimes I decide to slip into a certain character for live performances. It depends on how I feel on the night, but this character is often some sort of failed or disgruntled light entertainer. I'd previously looked at live performance as something that was presumed to be about bombastic celebration, bands telling you how much FUN they're going to supply, and so on... So I thought it would be interesting to perform a kind of character study of quiet disappointment instead. I also try to use a bit of costuming. It gets me in the mood. Whenever I choose what to wear for a show, I try to get some kind of balance between the "masculine" and "feminine" elements of the costume. Besides, there's a kind of joke being played out. I'm quite aware of and always drawing attention to - shall we say - the limitations of my stardom! At the same time, the less famous I become, the bigger the spectacle I try to create.
Recently I had a dancer perform during a part of my show, and I'd certainly like to do more of that in the future. The very first Idle Tigers performances, in fact, consisted of instrumental electronic pieces played to accompany a poet who was reading his work, and ideally I would continue to integrate other arts into the show. One of the guest vocalists on the record is a London-based burlesque dancer called Alaska Blue. Hopefully when I get to play in England, we'll create up with some kind of spectacle together.
Scene Point Blank: A lot of the lyrics of The Spirit Salon are referential to literature or high art. Do you ever feel as if this isolates those unaware of the subject manner from fully grasping your music? Is there a need for accessibility within art?
Ross Hawkins: That's a good question. My first response would be to say that yes, this could potentially alienate certain parts of a potential audience. However, I sincerely hope that this isn't seen as part of an arrogant elitist agenda. Quite the opposite, I think my decision to include all of that material came from humbleness on my part. It was a case of me being super-realistic about who my audience/public actually is. You know those bands that just send unsolicited friend requests through Myspace to people, regardless of how compatible their music might be with that person's tastes and interests? That just seems like the height of idiocy. They fail to KNOW their audience, and have this kind of imperialistic desire to conquer EVERYONE'S affections. I believe that my audience is likely to be people who have some similar interests to me, so I sing about my own enthusiasms.
The things that interest me are sometimes part of what might be called "high culture," but that's certainly not always the case. This particular record was written around more literary themes, but I've also seriously considered making an album of songs about various sportsmen.
Scene Point Blank: You were once quoted as saying that in a round about way you owe your existence to David Bowie. Could you elaborate on this, and do you feel as though this fact had any impact on what you are currently doing with your life?
Ross Hawkins: Yes! Family legend has it that very early in their courtship, my parents went to see Bowie at Bradford St George's Hall on the Ziggy Stardust tour. I like to think that this convinced both of them that the courtship was worth pursuing, resulting in my eventual birth. Because most of what I do as Idle Tigers is very much about honest, self-conscious performance, there's clearly some Bowie there, although I couldn't honestly pretend to be fit to dine at his table. Most of the Bowie that I've been listening to recently, though, is the very first album which mixes a more cynical take on 60's psychedelia with a revival of campy Edwardian music-hall habits. I find this record all the more compelling because Bowie was still a bit of a failure at that point. "Please Mr. Gravedigger" is a truly frightening piece.
Scene Point Blank: If you had to pick a track as a representative of Idle Tigers what would it be and why?
Ross Hawkins: Do you mean one of my own tracks? If so, that would be "Treat Me Like a Fairy." It's a song about children making fake fairy photographs in 1917. The theme acts as a synthesis of lots of the things that I write about: the early twentieth century, childhood and adulthood, technology and art, issues of authenticity, and forgery - and it all takes place in my hometown of Bradford. My friend Anne Marie Varrella contributed vocals, so sonically the song has a feminine sound that would ideally always be in my music.
Scene Point Blank: Between Lord Byron and Marinetti, who do you think would enjoy Idle Tigers more? Alternately, do you prefer speed or romance?
Ross Hawkins: Hmm, I'm not sure! I think I used Byron and Marinetti (they're both on the record, in semi-fictional form) to stand as two examples of the same thing: a kind of devil-may-care masculinity, and in their two respective songs I was sympathizing more with the feminized victims of their swashbuckling.
But aside from gender, Marinetti would certainly despise the nostalgic tendencies in my music, and I suppose it's good to have him there as a critic to prevent me from over-indulging that part of my character. Hopefully Byron would be more into it. I'm planning on making a sexy pop record soon. I reckon that'll be right up his street.
Scene Point Blank: Thanks very much for taking the time to do the interview.