Martin Tielli spreads joy

By Peter Hemminger

As I talk to him, Martin Tielli is in rural Ontario. His band is in a barn across what I imagine to be a snow-covered field, though the snow is more than likely still lingering somewhere on the horizon. They’re rehearsing, or possibly recording, playing loud enough that I can hear bits and pieces through Tielli’s cordless phone. At various points in the interview, they take a break from playing, opting to cook food and offer it to him. Campfire wieners, beautiful scenery and the ability to play as loud and as often as they want with one of Canada’s most talented songwriters. I’m jealous.

When I call him up, one of the first things Tielli asks me is, "do you know how to roast a chicken?" It’s a perfectly normal question, in a certain context. It’s not, however, what an interviewer expects to hear.

In that sense, it’s an introduction befitting of the singer/guitarist. His music, both with Canadian legends the Rheostatics and his own solo material, is multi layered and impressionistic, beautiful one moment and abrasive the next. After a few listens, though, the music reveals its deceptive simplicity. The layers drop back and reveal the songs beneath. The music is not instantly accessible, but Tielli doesn’t necessarily think that’s a disadvantage.

"I would give my left arm to be able to write ‘Louie Louie,’ or something simple, but there are people who do that better than me," he explains. "I try to write simple songs every once in a while, but in the end I have to write third and fourth layers, just to make it interesting. Generally, that’s what I pursue, because that’s my strength. And some people would say that’s my weakness too. ‘Why do you have to always be so complicated? Why can’t you just play a song straight up?’ And my response is, because you would be bored out of your fucking tree if you heard that."

As anyone familiar with Tielli’s work can attest, boredom isn’t the typical response–far from it. His shows span the full spectrum, from Queen-influenced pomp to fuzzed-out dissonance to haunting acoustic numbers. Only the most thoroughly jaded, or those with absolutely no interest in music, could remain bored throughout one of Tielli’s shows.

"It certainly ain’t run of the mill," he says. "I go to a lot of shows where it seems to be one kind of schtick and bands are fragmented into doing only one thing. Either their goal is to rock your face off, or their goal is to do all slow moody stuff. I like bands that really take you on a trip, where one song may just be piano and voice, and the next is a cascade of dissonance. One is exceedingly tight, and one might be just a complete hash of the sound of people trying to keep big machines from falling apart, and the next is a tight little Vespa scooter cruising down the highway."

It’s this desire for the tension inherent in live music, the dependence on the ability of fellow musicians, and the enthusiasm of the audience, that keeps Tielli interested. If it weren’t for those social aspects, he’d just as likely find himself secluded with a paintbrush and a canvas. Having spent much of his childhood alone, Tielli became familiar with art early. It eventually overran his other passions–he once fancied himself a scientist, a naturalist and a paleontologist, and still has huge collections of fossils–and, along with music, is the driving force in his life.

"If I wasn’t doing this I’d be doing visual art, and playing for pleasure," he explains. "I’d be a painter, which is really solitary, where music is more social. [In music] you’re dependent on other people: other people’s skills, other people’s commitment to it, the audience’s participation. But there are no rules, you can do it on your own. Those McCartney records where he plays everything are fabulous, and I’ve done that quite a bit, it’s really educational. But playing with other people is really entertaining, people do stuff that just blows my mind. So I’d like to pursue it in both directions, which I did that on this album."

Above all else, the key to Tielli’s music is authenticity. Regardless of the vocal theatrics or intricate instrumentation, nothing on Operation Infinite Joy rings false. In his view, putting on airs is high crime for a musician.

"If somebody making music isn’t enjoying themselves, or isn’t interested, it’s easy to tell and I think a discerning music fan can smell that a mile away," Tielli muses. "I think I’m not so different from other people that if I’m enjoying something, I generally think that people coming out to our shows will enjoy it too. I’m not concerned with being a special person, or with being misunderstood, or with being obscure. I want to be understood. But primarily, I want to entertain."

Martin Tielli plays at the Liberty Lounge on Fri., Oct. 17.

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