What do you get when you combine the eloquent ramblings of former premier Joey Smallwood with traditional Newfoundland songs and electronic dance music?
Hint: it’s not a late-late-night NTV broadcast.
It’s an innovative — but controversial — CD by local audio engineers and longtime friends Lee Tizzard and Tom Ronan.
Tizzard and Ronan came up with the concept for the record after a walk down George Street late one night, a number of years ago.
“You know the awful cacophony of music that happens as you walk up George Street? I remember Tom saying, ‘Just check out right here.’ There was this trad sound coming from O’Reilly’s and a kind of disco beat coming from some dance bar and then some kind of Top 40 or classic rock band coming from somewhere else,” Tizzard explained. “We thought, yeah, that’s pretty cool.”
Tizzard and Ronan talked about the idea of combining local folk songs with ambient electronic music for more than a year. When Ronan discovered that some traditional songs are in the public domain and are able to be recreated without copyright infringements, the project got even more interesting.
It wasn’t until this year’s RPM Challenge — which encourages musicians to record 10 songs or 35 minutes of original material during the month of February — that the “Modern Archetypes” CD came to life.
“That was our kick-in-the-pants motivator,” Tizzard said.
The duo started by laying down beats and loops and coming up with ideas, going through old songbooks and building on what they found.
The idea wasn’t to copy the folk songs, Tizzard said, but to be inspired by them. Some of the tracks on the disc contain the complete melody and lyrics from the tunes, while others may have just a sample. Songs inspired by “Mussels in the Corner,” “Feller From Fortune,” “Lukey’s Boat” and others are on the CD. Where there were fiddles there are synthesizers; where there was an accordion, there are techno beats.
Layered over some of the tunes are never-before-heard recordings of Joey Smallwood, talking about things like resettlement, education, and his friends.
Tizzard owns the recordings.
“My mother, Joan Horwood, was an author and a historian. She did a lot of research for older television programs and CBC documentaries about Newfoundland history,” he said.
“She had a small casette tape recorder and she would often go interview people that were of interest for her research. The recordings I have are ones she made of Joey Smallwood year ago that were never broadcast, just used as a database for my mom’s research.
“Joey had this verbose way of speaking — he would say the same thing over and over, but in five different ways. That’s the kind of humour of it.”
CBC Radio has aired “Mussels,” the first track on the disc, and it received mixed reviews. Some listeners liked the contemporary twist; others considered the treatment sacrilegious.
“Somebody called in to say that it was an abomination and we should be ashamed of ourselves,” Tizzard said with a laugh.
“We expected that from the beginning, because we’re messing with traditional folk songs, and we knew there would be die-hards and traditionalists that would be offended by it.
“In the big picture, though, I think it’s a good thing to mix things up and get people thinking.”
Tizzard and Ronan have produced a video to go with “Mussels,” which they’ve posted online. In it, Ronan is dressed as Smallwood, lip-synching to his speech.
“It’s absolutely hilarious,” Tizzard said.
“The premise of the video is pretty ridiculous — it’s that Tom has an extremely rare personality disorder in which Joey Smallwood’s personality is superimposed on his. He actually believes that he’s Joey and he keeps re-enacting all of this dialogue, trying to defend the honour and integrity of Joey’s decisions about centralization and resettlement programs. He’s going through these big fantasies and re-enacting them, getting his family involved.”
Tizzard and Ronan had planned to perform the songs live, until Ronan accepted a job in Alberta.
“It’s not going to happen without Tom — he’s the musical impetus behind (the project),” Tizzard said.
Ronan plans to return home sometime in the next two years, Tizzard said, and the pair is planning to develop more of the music, which they call “folktronic.”
Modern Archetypes’ self-titled CD is available in St. John’s at Fred’s Records and O’Brien’s Music, as well as on iTunes.
The Modern Archetypes video for “Mussels” can be seen at www.youtube.com/user/modernarchetypes.