We are seated in the jamspace of Figure Walking, the new Winnipeg duo made up of longtime bandmates Greg Macpherson (guitar, vocals) and Rob Gardiner (drums). Full disclosure – we have been in this room before, when this writer directed a music video for the song “1995” from Macpherson’s 2013 Fireball LP. But we have not been here since, so sitting down in this space – one covered with a few decades of gig posters, one situated above local music venue The Good Will, one located on Winnipeg’s busiest street – to discuss the creation of something is new is fitting. Figure Walking’s debut, The Big Other, is certainly an “other”. It is the other point of view, backed by the darkest dance music this decade, and coming through loud and clear as the biggest voice for social justice in Winnipeg’s music scene.
While they have been playing music together since 2010, the decision for Macpherson (who has been writing songs under his own name for over 20 years) to make things with Gardiner (Conduct, The Playing Cards) more focused and direct was an easy one.
“We were pretty committed to trying to do something different,” Macpherson says. “We’re carrying a big back catalogue, and we enjoy playing all those songs, but for me as an artist, we’ve always wanted to play our new music.
“Thinking about how music’s consumed, Rob and I had a really good conversation one day about nostalgia, and how we felt like doing something new with intent and a new message, and something that says something about today is really important to us, rather than revisit old material and try to make it relevant in the present. I think we’ll play those old songs again someday, but for the time being it didn’t feel right to keep playing with my name, because we felt like we’re a band now.”
Playing under a new moniker with a focused ideology also gives the duo the freedom to say new things in a more concise way to a new audience.
“We’re at the age now where a lot of people who would listen to my music originally, they don’t go to shows,” Macpherson notes. “They’ve got kids or a job or they’re leading their own lives and going to see live music isn’t part of their day to day. It’s way more fun in some ways to play to an audience where seeing live music is exciting and new. We play off the audience, that’s how we perform. If we play to an audience that’s stiff and expecting an old song, and they’re not giving us back much, it can be a challenge. It’s a good challenge, but that’s why we created something new.”
One wonders if a drummer in a duo might be playing more so off of the manic energy of his frontman or the audience, without other bandmates to fill out the stage.
“It’s difficult to play off of Greg, I don’t know how to challenge that kind of energy,” Gardiner says. “I’m not sure that I’ll ever get there. I feel very self conscious, to be perfectly honest. Looking at all the shit that’s going on with what he’s doing and I’m back there stuck to my seat. I’ll flail as much as I can. (Playing off the) audience is easier.”
The closeness of the duo onstage, on the road, and in the studio has trickled over into their day-to-day lives as well.
“Rob’s like my brother, we’ve been through more together than I think I’ve been through with anyone in my entire life,” Macpherson says. “When I play solo now it feels totally different. It used to be no matter who I played with, I always felt like I could play these songs on my own and it would be as good. Now I feel like there’s a lot of work we do together that is its own thing and doesn’t feel right if I don’t have Rob with me. That happened pretty gradually, but in the last couple years we’ve been writing together, and that really became obvious to me when we recorded this album.”
The Big Other, released this month through Macpherson’s Disintegration Records in North America and Marathon of Dope in Europe, was recorded with longtime collaborator/producer Cam Loeppky at his Argyle Studios in Winnipeg. Continuing a trend of dark yet upbeat socially conscious dance rock which began with 2010’s Mr. Invitation (which Macpherson cites as is his first “good record”), this new 10-song offering is a true collaboration between Gardiner and Macpherson, who notes that while the musical collaboration is 50/50, the drummer’s experiences help bring about a great deal of lyrical content for Macpherson.
“As we travel together and go through our lives together, (Rob’s) experiences and his reflections on things have meant a lot to me,” Macpherson says. “We talk a lot, we practice a lot, and this is the first I’m probably saying this in front of him, but when he tells me things I try to take that and use it, and I feel like that’s how we collaborate on the content of the words.”
Often taking an approach that involves finding rhythms to accompany riffs (or vice versa), Gardiner notes that a lot of the best stuff comes about by accident.
“I would say that with Conduct and with Greg, the only two things I’m consistently involved with, there is actually a lot of alignment in both groups working a lot with rhythm in particular,” Gardiner says. “Just trying to find which rhythms are the ones that you can lock into or that people can lock into that aren’t obvious or innate in our bodies. I’m always trying to think of ones that startle you or feel different but that are catchy. You always think of melodies that are catchy, but I like to think of rhythms as something that are infectious, so both groups are trying to do that, maybe less with melody in Conduct’s case.”
Those rhythms deliver a “dark dance” sound throughout the material, something Figure Walking is conscious of.
“I’m approaching writing lately from a hope of getting people to move,” Macpherson says. “I think my own writing on this last batch of songs has been about reacting to the world, and I can’t separate myself ever, in relationships or from my community or as a citizen of Winnipeg, as a traveler or as an artist, from the world we’re in being so serious and so difficult.
“I feel really strongly that music in particular right now, as it can be when times are difficult, it’s a light in the dark. It’s a chance to give relief or a sense of possibility. Lyrics can do that if they’re really good, or some music can do that if it’s very interesting or innovative, but if you can get people to dance, you don’t have to be a brilliant guitarist or a composer. What we’re challenged with is trying to do that in a way that isn’t directly stealing or co-opting what’s already been done. To pay tribute to what’s come before you, but bring your own ingredients to the party and do something new and exciting and interesting for yourself and for others. My hope would be, if there is an intent, to get people to feel and to move together, and feel like they’re part of a collective, a community.”
While 2017 marks the release of The Big Other, it also marks the 20th anniversary of Macpherson’s first album, The Year of the Record Break.
Released exclusively on cassette and made up of lo-fi 4-track recordings and outtakes from a CBC session, Macpherson maintains his proper debut is Balanced on a Pin, released on CD through G7 Welcoming Committee in 1999. While Pin is more polished and focused, Record Break is still an important statement from one of Winnipeg’s most essential songwriters.
“At that time I just had tons and tons of energy and drive, I just wanted to be a musician and a writer so badly that I made that record for next to nothing,” he says, while Gardiner admits he’s never even heard the cassette. “I loved my band at the time, we had this guy who played all sorts of instruments named Mike Stecky and he was brilliant, just a really interesting artist. He changed the way I thought about music. At the time I was playing with Christine Fellows a lot, just a singular voice, very unique and original. Her guitar playing is incredible. To this day, when I listen back, I hear her guitar first.
“At the time I was just doing things on feel and I didn’t have very many frames of reference. I grew up listening to radio rock and my brothers had the Columbia Record Club, so we’d listen to a lot of classic rock and singer songwriter music, and that record sort of reflects that. I didn’t know a lot about alternative culture beyond what I was exposed to here locally. I love what it is, it’s a great snapshot of what I started as and there’s some songs on there that I still feel proud of.”