With his band the Acorn on the brink of big time success, Rolf Klausener's slow-but-steady formula for growth may be facing it's toughest test.
Story by Tony Martins / Portraits by Angelina McCormick / Band photos by Rémi Thériault
On a spring night this year, with his surging band the Acorn on a rare break from touring North America and Europe, Rolf Klausener made an appearance at the jam-packed Raw Sugar Cafe in Chinatown. Raw Sugar was new and hot and the place was full of Ottawa's cultural denizens, but local celebrity Klausener was not socializing.
He approached the trio I was with and after the briefest of greetings said in a businesslike manner, “Can I get you guys anything?”
Klausener, probably the closest thing to rock royalty in Ottawa these days, was tending bar. And it was no token appearance to help hype a friend's new establishment: Klausener was tending bar, with sleeves rolled up and furrowed brow. In this modest act he revealed something central about himself and about the mindset of Ottawa artists in general—a defining thing that he articulated to me in an interview several months later: “I've never really met anyone in Ottawa whose confidence outshone their ability to stay grounded.”
Klausener said this on a July afternoon on the porch of the Centretown house he rents with two roommates. He'd love to buy the house one day if he could convince the owner to sell and if he could raise the cash. I had the feeling that one day—maybe not soon—but one day Klausener would make those things happen.
Klausener was candid: he told me the precise balance of his bank account (it was in double digits). Minutes later a credit card company called looking for a payment. Klausener patiently assured that there was one forthcoming.
As Klausener sat and drank coffee and rolled his own cigarettes, I didn't have to read into his rumpled plaid shirt and wild, scruffy beard to see the dedicated musician and band leader has grown weary of the struggling artist lifestyle. At 33 years of age, the man has paid his dues. He has toiled and troubled. He has obsessed and “carried the band on his back,” according to longtime musical peer Jon Bartlett. He has written enough press releases, booked enough hotel rooms, committed enough fuckups, and made enough overdue payments.
No, the Ottawa music scene's greatest crusader Rolf Klausener can pay people—can just barely pay people—to do all that stuff for him now. And with the fate of the next record completely in the Acorn's hands, the Montreal-born, Ottawa-bred Klausener is poised to lead his group to the next level of success.
Just don't expect him to be in any kind of hurry about it.
In April and June, the road-weary core members of the Acorn (Klausener, Howie Tsui, Jeff Debutte, Jeffrey Malecki, and Pat Johnson) retreated to a cottage in Quebec to write and record the majority of the next album—the critical follow up to 2007's Glory Hope Mountain—an experience Klausener called “amazingly restorative.”
After touring almost continuously with the same material for three years, “We really needed to unite and remember who we are as a group,” said Klausener.
With no telephones or televisions to distract them, Klausener and band mates wrote the basis for 16 songs in four days.
“All you could do was write and relax and eat,” said Klausener. “It was heaven.”
Later in the retreat, 11 of the songs were layed down on tape, the majority of which will end up on the next album.
Aside from being restorative, the cottage sessions marked a significant shift in the Acorn's songwriting process. In four previous albums, Klausener wrote all the material and the band collectively arranged it, but this was more about the group.
“It was the most collaborative thing I've ever been part of,” said Klausener. “It's exciting for me as a songwriter... It's easy to fall into your own patterns.”
Guitar player Jeff Debutte was also pumped: “When we set out to start recording I wasn't sure how we'd handle dealing with the ghost of 'attaining industry success',” he said, “since it feels like we're maybe knocking on that particular doorstep, but the whole thing ended up being great and happily productive.”
Klausener feels the next record “feels more like a band record” and will be the Acorn's best yet. The themes will be restoration and self-discovery and the players are leaning toward an eponymous title: The Acorn.
After releasing material with Ottawa's Kelp Records for many years, the Acorn moved to Toronto's Paper Bag records for Glory Hope Mountain, a move that personally affected Klausener.
“You feel like you are abandoning your family,” he said. “It was sad for me.”
But the stint with Paper Bag was short lived: for the next release, due out in March of next year, the band has acquired an all-important FACTOR grant for independent Canadian recording. This time, with full control of the coming album, Klausener and the Acorn are going it alone.
PLANTING THE SEED
Through its origins as a Rolf Klausener solo project to its current state as five-piece touring machine, the Acorn has won over audiences and critics alike, but the deliberate growth has mirrored Klausener's development as an artist and band leader. In conversation he seems a touch uncomfortable with the word ambition, and friends say that his confidence wavers like that of any other artist.
“Rolf has always seemed to straddle the fence of self-deprecation and confidence,” says longtime buddy and band mate from the Recoilers, Jake Bryce. “He is inherently, to the bone, a true artist. I think that confidence and ambition most definitely comes across in particular settings—most specifically when it counts, like in performance or on tape.”
For seven years, Bryce, Klausener, and Jon Lomow were known as the Recoilers, a highly respected rock trio that did not tour or seek out gigs.
“We never really booked shows,” recalls Bryce. “We’d just get offers and luck out. It was a band that definitely could have used a manager and booking agent to get our butts in gear.”
After the Recoilers released 2 Years End in 2005, there followed burn out. Bryce, always more of a homebody, got married, but Klausener dug deeper into music with a then-solo project he called the Acorn.
“Rolf really kept what knowledge and momentum we had all gained and naturally channeled it into his own efforts,” says Bryce, “and just decided to move forward rather than let things come to him.”
Kelp Records owner Jon Bartlett may be the friend who knows most about Klausener's Acorn phase. Himself a frequent player with a good many local bands, Bartlett immediately tapped into Klausener's energy when Bartlett moved to Ottawa in 1999.
“I had roped him into playing bass in Rhume and later Greenfield Main, and we started working on this other duo project Hoffenheimer,” recalls Bartlett. “We were partners in crime essentially, feeding off of each other's insatiable musical energy.”
Klausener and Bartlett worked closely together to develop the Kelp label, giving Bartlett front-row seat for the evolving Rolf Klausener show.
“The early 00s were a real opening-up time for [Klausener],” said Bartlett. “He gained a lot of 'art confidence' feeding off Arts Court shows, trips to Montreal, and new friends he encountered everywhere he went. It was an inspiration to watch.”
But while Klausener's confidence flourished, his drive for industry success was less noticeable. When Debutte joined in February of 2004, the Acorn was at last a fully formed band, but a master plan was not in place.
“In those days I don't remember us having too much of a vision,” says Debutte. “Rolf had nearly finished recording The Pink Ghosts [the initial Acorn solo album] so the first goal was for us to be able to play the songs as a band and hopefully play a show or two leading up to the CD Release.”
Over the years, Debutte has seen Klausener perform through highs and lows and can offer a measured assessment.
“As a bandleader he can be hit-or-miss,” said Debutte. “Obviously without Rolf there would be no Acorn, so in that regard he's a very successful leader—we're still together, making records, and touring a lot. On the other hand, communication and foresight are not his strengths and we've ended up in a fair share of bummer situations as a result. In the end, though, his love for music and his underlying desire to make sure everyone is happy do save the day.”
LOVE IT, HATE IT
In his semi-autobiographical mockumentary My Winnipeg, acclaimed Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin exaggerates and mythologizes his home town but is bitingly honest about his conflicted relationship with the city.
In a telling piece of voiceover, Maddin says of Winnipeg, “I must leave it! I'll film my way out!”
It's the kind of lament that many artists make about the constraints of their spawning grounds.
Klausener, for instance, was raised in Montreal, but came of age in Ottawa and calls it “the city I love to hate.”
“It's a hard city to live in as an artist,” he said, bemoaning the high cost of living and abundant bureaucracy.
“The city is complacent and fosters complacency,” he said. “You have this city that thrives on rules.”
“I think the city has come a long way in improving its arts funding, but it still has a long way to go. The bylaw office needs to better facilitate the city's creative community to make events happen in this city. The amount of adminstrative hoop-jumping currently necessary to, say, throw a concert in a small park is pretty restictive.”
Yet despite the frustrations, Klausener is well-known as a tireless champion of the local music scene.
“He is always trumpeting new Ottawa bands wherever he goes,” said Bartlett. “I think he feels the same way as I do, appreciating music scenes in Montreal and Toronto, but frustrated that Ottawa is completely off of anyone's radar.”
“This is the pond where he learned to swim, said Bryce. “I think that he shows that pond as much respect as possible as he comes and goes and is a fantastic ambassador and champion of the scene here.”
More than a champion, Klausener is also a dedicated student of Ottawa's music scene.
“My research on Ottawa bands was never any sort of formal project,” he explained, “though I've thought about writing a book about the Ottawa scene for a long time now.”
“I came into the whole music scene thing really late, in my early 20s,” he continued. “By that time, the whole 5 Arlington scene was already done, and I missed the hardcore/punk heyday. I would have loved to have seen Nation of Ulysses, Archers of Loaf, Ida, and all those other legendary shows there.”
“This sounds like a really antiquated idea now, but the most important lesson I learned at that time was that there are no rules when it comes to music—and art for that matter,” Klausener said. “Given a bit of time and elbow grease, you can pretty much do whatever the fuck you want. I think those nascent experiences informed the rest of my artistic life and continue to do so today.”
INSPIRING, TRAGIC, MAGICAL
When Klausener conducted a series of interviews with his Honduras-born mother in late 2005, his original intent was to contribute to a long-running book of Klausener family history. Only after talks with bandmate Howie Tsui did the latest-generation Klausener realize he had the makings of an album of songs eventually called Glory Hope Mountain.
“The themes that resonated through her life and the stories that encompassed the first 30 years of her life were overwhelming, inspiring, tragic, magical and all in all astounding,” said Klausener of his mother Gloria.
“She's an open, nuturing and giving woman, but simultaneously private and engimatic. I wanted to know where those complexities were rooted, and how they manifested in myself—because I see them doing so more and more the older I get.”
If Klausener's work on Glory Hope Mountain was a return to the warmth of a motherly embrace, the next Acorn album—conceived without the home comforts of Kelp nor the stewardship of Paper Bag—may be the cutting of an umbilical cord.
“There's been a gradual shift towards it being more like a full-time affair,” said Debutte of life in the Acorn. “There's suddenly a bit of pressure for us to succeed which can be a good thing or a bad thing—it can push us and motivate us or ... well, you know. So far we've been faring pretty damned well, if you ask me.”
Despite the more collaborative element in the band's process of late, Debutte acknowledges that Klausener's obsessiveness and limitations still largely define the Acorn.
“He has a somewhat amusing and annoying combination of being a control freak who gets overwhelmed by too much responsibility or workload,” said Debutte, who freely admits that his own musical passions have led to self absorption, a trait that can be helpful when it comes to artistic success.
“I had a great answer typed up talking about Jung and talented lyricists having a deeper connection with symbols and the unconscious and how that invariably leads to being, or at least appearing, self absorbed,” said Debutte. “Being a control freak could, in theory, help someone be more likely to succeed in the music biz.”
“When Rolf has an idea about something and commits, you know it’s gonna be right up there,” observed Jake Bryce. “This is where I see his true ambition seeping from: his creative visions.”
“I think he's got a pretty good sense of what he wants to do with the Acorn,” adds Bartlett, “and those guys seemed to have worked out a formula for what works and doesn't.”
What Bartlett finds most remarkable about Klausener is “his ability to continue to age—though the women that swarm him stay within the same age range. I guess Hugh Hefner has that quality, too.”
Klausener, meanwhile, credits Bartlett as one of the key people who helped him realize that these days a music career can be almost anything you make of it.
“After Recoilers, I think Jon Bartlett was the next person that pushed me on. My hope at that time was always that Ottawa's music scene would flourish and produce increasingly better art. I feel like that time is really here. It makes me really proud to still be here in Ottawa and see how much has emerged in the last decade.”
Slowly and methodically, Klausener is using the lessons of history to make something better and richer through original music that shines a light on the entire Ottawa scene.
“I currently have a little pipe dream about holding a festival here next summer, bringing together the most interesting music in Ottawa and mixing it up with all the friends and talented artists we've met on the road over the last few years.”
We'd be wise to keep an eye out for that pipe dream. Klausener has a proven ability—given time and a little help from his friends—to nurture big things from a humble little acorn.