“I did not expect this to happen,” states John Paul Kleiner, a Toronto-based singer/songwriter. “This” is his new album InterCity, a gem of melodic, guitar-based melancholy. “When I embarked on project more than two years ago, I just wanted to record some demos with a rock trio I’d been working with.” He smiles wryly before adding: “Things ended up taking a different direction.”
This change in direction was largely the result of Kleiner’s decision to work with Neil Clark, a guitarist / writer / producer best known for his work with 80s British pop band Lloyd Cole and the Commotions and the group’s highly-acclaimed debut album Rattlesnakes.
“The Commotions were musical heroes of mine and I never stopped listening to their music over the years. I heard their first single ‘Perfect Skin’ when I was young and impressionable and, looking back, I think that it helped shape my template of what a good song is: melodic, guitar-driven and intelligent. So I worked up my courage and approached Neil.”
Clark was open to working together, but suggested submitting the songs to an intensive process of demoing and analysis to ensure that they were as strong as possible before actual recording began. This approach had a profound effect on the direction of the project.
“In the 90s, I had a couple of bands (Pasty White Boys, Thumpy) which played ‘power pop’, music that combined strong melodies with a very direct, American approach to rock ‘n’ roll and this is what I had been revisiting with the trio,” relates Kleiner. “When Neil and I started off, I was expecting to continue down that path, but after we got down to it, the rock tunes weren’t working and the emphasis shifted towards songs with more filigree and delicacy. It became pretty clear that we were working on a solo album, not a bunch of demos. And once that decision had been made, songs I’d written but given up on began to suggest themselves and, with Neil’s input, they suddenly made sense; others I’d thought were finished were improved upon too.”
As a result of this openness in approach, Intercity runs the stylistic gamut. From the wide-screen optimism of the lead track “Equilibrium”, to the biting and bitten “Just Because You Can” – featuring a succinct and searing outro by Clark, through to the Bossa nova-inflected “Someday, Girl” and the cabaret-steeped “Berlin Blue”, the album manages to pull off the difficult trick of covering a lot of ground while remaining a cohesive whole.
Kleiner suggests that it was a shared aesthetic sense with Clark that resulted in this outcome: “Neil and I come from very different backgrounds. He went to art school in Glasgow and his Dad was a trade unionist turned art teacher; I studied 20th century German history and grew up in Saskatoon the son of a pair of Lutheran pastors. Musically, his approach was shaped by jazz and I grew up a rocker. But it was clear right away that we shared a musical vocabulary and that this understanding went beyond that to include a broader cultural space. I mean, within 15 minutes of meeting, we were immersed in a conversation about Weimar-era art, the visual artist John Heartfield, Brecht and Weill, Neil’s family’s vacations to the East Bloc and prairie democratic socialism. Coming out of the bar that night, I had a feeling that we were on the same wavelength and that turned out to be the case.”
“It’s my folk music.”
Musically, InterCity frequently conjures the aesthetics of many classic “guitar bands” with the Beatles, Pretenders, the Smiths, the Commotions and even U2 serving as reference points for several of the album’s tracks. “I really imprinted on the guitar music coming out of the U.K. in the 80s and early 90s,” explains Kleiner. “In many ways, that’s my folk music, that is, the songs that I carry with me which help frame my own writing.”
Examples of this include “I’d Like To See You Try”, a tune Kleiner openly admits to having been a “Smiths homage” until Clark took things a bit further north with solos giving nods to Glaswegian guitar greats Malcolm Ross (Orange Juice) and Roddy Frame (Aztec Camera). “Someday, Girl” was gilded with a solo recalling both George Harrison and Jorge Ben, “Lullaby” arranged to fit onto Abbey Road (“Probably a Ringo track,” deadpans Kleiner.) The riff for “Dinner With Friends” began life channelling the shimmer of Pretenders’ James Honeyman-Scott, while Kleiner openly admits that the figure opening “Train Has Left The Station” was his attempt to write a Neil Clark-esque guitar line. (“I thought I’d nailed it,” smiles Kleiner. “Neil remains unconvinced.”)
The German Connection
Lyrically, InterCity provides ample evidence of Kleiner’s interest in and connection to Germany. “My ties to Germany are quite strong. My father’s family was originally from there, I speak German, have an MA in modern German history and lived and worked there for a several years. These experiences have been really important in my life story and seep into my work from time to time. When we started working on this project, Neil asked for some musical signposts and I included tracks by Blumfeld and Element of Crime, two German bands I’d discovered while living there in the 90s. Neil’s positive response to them encouraged me to present some of my “German songs” to him, something I was hesitant about doing because I feared that they wouldn’t be accessible. But Neil encouraged me to proceed with them, to keep their particularities in there and once we recorded them, they seemed totally natural and coherent.”
“Dinner With Friends”, a look at the state of today’s world at the micro level, introduces the German content with a quote from Brecht and Weill’s “What Keeps Mankind Alive”, a song from Threepenny Opera: “Food is the first thing, morals follow on.” The echo of Brecht and Weill’s cabaret style extends to “Berlin Blue”, a co-write by Kleiner and Clark designed to fill a stylistic gap identified in the album’s track list. With Clark providing a dense musical bed for Kleiner to melody to lie in, this song is a haunting piece of bittersweet nostalgia for the promise and possibility that permeated the German capital in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Wall.
The Title Explained
As for the choice of InterCity as the album’s title, Kleiner says, “The Intercity Express are train routes in Germany that connect major towns and cities. While we were recording this record, I realized that the songs, some of which I’d been carrying around for years, evoked a number of cities and towns where they were written. The Intercity, a train that connects a series of different places, seemed to me a perfect unifying symbol for the album. What sealed this choice was the album art created by Jo Zarth, my friend who’s a German artist and designer. I think Indian ink drawing and collage that he came up with really captured the different strands that came together in the songs on this album.”
InterCity features John Paul Kleiner (vocals/guitar) and Neil Clark (guitar, bass, programming) along with drums by Ambrose Pottie (Crash Vegas) and bass by Alisdair Jones (Ani Difranco/Andy Stochanski).
“I’m immensely proud of this record. In many ways, it’s the culmination of life long dream,” states Kleiner, “and my wish is that this music is heard by as many people as possible.”