Posted January 9, 2015 by Jeff in Tunes

Slim Twig: More of a slow burn

Slim Twig photo by Meg Remy
Slim Twig photo by Meg Remy

Toronto-based singer-songwriter and actor Slim Twig (Max Turnbull) has released a slew of albums over the past decade. His discography to-date culminates with a self-produced orchestral art rock album, A Hound At The Hem.  Featuring string arrangements by fellow Canuck Owen Pallett, it’s a suite of narrative songs thematically inspired by Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. As a concept album, it can be interpreted as a response to Serge Gainsbourg and Jean-Claude Vannier’s Histoire De Melody Nelson, another recording inspired by Lolita. Turnbull phoned us from his Toronto home to discuss the album, which was recently reissued in the States on DFA Records.

Your musical career began back in 2005. What initially inspired you to start singing and writing songs?
I’ve been in bands since I was 13. I didn’t grow up playing music or anything like that. My parents are filmmakers. I’ve been exposed to all kinds of art and culture and I’ve been creatively inclined in that way for a long time. As a young kid, I got into punk. One thing led to another. It’s a combination of playing music with friends and being in an arty family.

Did you have specific musical inspirations?
I’ve always liked interesting songwriters who kind of transcend regular songwriting and do something new with it — people like David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Nick Cave or Tom Waits. Those guys were important to me as people who can flip the script but still be approachable in their music.

Does your first album, Livestock Burn, sound like what you do now?
It’s totally different. It’s weird the way the Internet archives everything you’ve ever done. Livestock Burn was the first thing I’d ever done but it was literally something I burned to a CD-R. And yet, if you look at my discography, it seems like it’s my first album. The only similarity is the name. Those are songs when I wrote when I was 14 or 15. Stuff that I consider the body of my career starts much later than that, maybe in 2009 or 2010. It’s an evolving thing. My earlier work is sample-based. It is trying to incorporate techniques from hip-hop and adding vocals that were not conventional. Since then, I’ve moved on to playing real instruments and composing songs with more of an art rock approach.

Can you explain the concept behind A Hound At The Hem?
The concept is collage-oriented. I’m taking the inspiration from the book Lolita. “Concept album” sounds pretentious, but I wanted to make an album where the songs formed a narrative instead of having songs about a girlfriend or not having a job or whatever. I wanted an album where there was some kind of narrative cohesion. Serge Gainsbourg made an album where he had taken inspiration from Lolita as well. It’s a postmodern twist to make an album inspired by the book and by an album of music based on the book. I tried to collage those inspirational elements and make my own voice through that.

Does the album’s narrative follow that of the book?
It doesn’t follow it exactly but borrows character dynamics. It’s the story of an older adult man who has an infatuation for a younger girl and where that takes off. There’s a mother figure as well. As far as symbolism, I found that to do an idea that is so ambitious it was easier for me to take something that already existed and graft on top of something.

What do you like about the story?
It tapped into a place where my writing was coming from, not specifically in terms of the taboo aspect of it but in terms of someone who has a questionable sense of the world. It really spoke to me. There’s also the idea of lust being this unobtainable thing that’s imposed on you. It does stem from your own experiences and choices. It’s fertile territory for me to draw from. I think the book houses interesting contrasts. It’s really dark but really funny at the same time.

The string arrangements are great. What does Owen Pallett, who did them, bring to the table?
He’s a great person in the Canadian music scene. He’s really unique. He’s classically trained but also experimental. He’s community minded too. I wanted to stretch what I thought I was capable of as a musician and really challenge myself. I wanted to do something with the narrative structure. I wanted to match the baroque quality of having these connections in the tunes. I had the idea of having an orchestral element. He was the first choice I had. I recorded the songs with him in mind and sent them to him. He was really open to it. He did an amazing job.

It sounds theatrical too and seems to draw from Kurt Weill.
I think that’s somewhere in the DNA of my writing. I approach it from a very theatrical perspective. [It has] that theatrical element, not that it’s musical theater at all. I wouldn’t want to invite that comparison but there’s a certain amount of drama to it.

You’ve done some acting too. Did you ever think of just acting or were you as committed to making music too?
I don’t think about my creativity in a rigid sense like I can only do one or the other. I think they’re somewhat related. There are songs I’ve written that are conducive to performing them and not just writing them down on a page. If you’re able to get that kind of work, it’s more lucrative than being a musician. Musicians are broke. I’m interested in making my way with creative stuff. I’ve been fortunate to have a few opportunities to do the acting.  I do enjoy it. I don’t get the same sense of satisfaction in terms of flexing creative muscles but it pays well, it’s interesting work and, in my mind, it’s related.

Other musicians like Bowie and Waits have acted too.
Even Serge Gainsbourg or people like that. They’re interested in making music for movies and being in movies and doing all sorts of projects.

I would just like to pursue interesting work. It’s a fortunate position to be in.

I heard you admire David Lynch’s films. Why do the appeal to you?
I’m attracted to any kind of artist who can create a world of his own. When you’re watching a David Lynch film the universe makes sense and relates to other films. It’s clear he has some vision of the world that’s different from the reality we all experience but is still really interesting. Across the board, filmmakers who can do that or musicians who can do that with albums are the ones I like. They’re alternate universes and there’s something stimulating about that.

Has it become more difficult to create that kind of art?
I’m interested less in a culture for artists and more in individual artists and what they have to say. The stuff I like going back in decades in music and film has less to do with scenes about what it was like to be in someplace like Paris making art and more about individual artists. I don’t know if it’s easier now or not. The Internet has a say in how it’s distributed so there’s more of an appetite.

What projects do you have in the works?
DFA reissued A Hound At The Hem — it originally came out in 2012 on a small run on my own label— and that hopefully brings a larger audience to it. I’m also working on a new album that will come out this year. It’s just finished and will come out in the next couple of months. It’s a good situation for me. There’s such a distinct divide between living in Canada and having an American label put out your album. It really gives you a heads up.

The label has a loyal fan base too.
They definitely have that as far as their dance music is involved. I don’t know if it extends to my music which isn’t oriented in that way. Maybe it does. I don’t really know. It’s been great so far. They want to put out music that’s particular and I’m happy to be part of that lineage.

One writer has said that Canada has failed “to recognize the genius in its own backyard.” Do you feel underappreciated in your hometown?
I think the Canadian industry in a mainstream indie sense is more conservative than my music. I don’t have the experience of living in an American city so maybe it’s the same there. It’s harder to break out if you don’t stay in one place and allow people to finger you as the garage pop guy who makes music with fuzz guitars and then do that for three albums straight so that people get the idea. And that’s not the kind of artist I am. Canada is a difficult place to tour because the cities are spread so few and far between and there is a wall that keeps you from coming down to the States if you don’t have an American label. I don’t know if I’m underappreciated or not but I just make music that’s more of a slow burn. If people get turned on to me, hopefully they’ll follow me longer than they would a buzz band where they might come to one concert and then forget about them. So it’s been for the best.

Do you have a band that you’re taking on the road with you?
I do. It’s a four-piece band and this iteration is pretty It’s pretty rocking. The album I have coming out next year doesn’t hew to the same kind of formula as the Hound album that’s come out. I think the new album reflects that. It’s more guitar-centric. People will be surprised.

Upcoming 2015 Tour Dates

Jan. 15, 2015

Jan. 16, 2015

Jan. 17, 2015

Jan. 18, 2015

Jan. 19, 2015

Jan. 21, 2015

Jan. 22, 2015

Jan. 23, 2015

Chicago, IL – Empty Bottle

Cleveland, OH – Happy Dog

Brooklyn, NY – Palisades

New York, NY – Cake Shop

Boston, MA – Middle East Upstairs

Montreal, QC – Bar Le Ritz

Quebec City, QC – Le Sous-Sol du Cercle

Toronto, ON – Silver Dollar



Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.