Great Lake Swimmers: Focus on dreamy, dynamic new folk

by Bailey Cheney

Masters of folk-rock for over the past decade, Toronto-based band Great Lake Swimmers head into tour with the release of their sixth album, A Forest of Arms.

While the band has been planning on touring for most of this year, the folk-rock outfit has also been exploring new ground for their latest album—both geographically and musically. The recording for their latest album in unique locations such as the Tyendinaga Caves and the Chalet Studio, a recording studio set on 40 acres of hills and trails, both located in Ontario, Canada, the band was able to push beyond their usual sound.

“We really focus on the dreamy and dynamic side of new folk music,” said lead vocalist and guitarist Tony Dekker. This dreamy and dynamic side has lead to a surging sound full of sharp violin and lavish banjo and guitar.

“As a group we have a deep respect for the folk tradition, although I would say that each band member has influences that are relatively wide-ranging,” Dekker said.

The mosaic of members includes Dekker, long-time guitarist and banjo player Erik Arnesen, Mirana Mulholland on violin and backing vocals, Bret Higgins on upright bass, and recent addition Joshua Van Tassel on drums. There are also guest appearances from Kevin Kane of Grapes of Wrath and help mixing the album from Howie Beck of Fiest.

Despite the group’s wide range of influences, the folk unit weaves threads of environmental themes in ever album they record. “I [try] to spend as much time as possible in nature when we’re not on the road or recording. There is a slow patience to the natural world that is really useful thing to apply to every day life,” Dekker explained.

This nature motif even relates to the band’s own name, “as a reference to the geographical pocket between the Great Lakes where myself and most of the current band grew up,” Dekker said. “It was also a homage to Canadian swimmers…the idea of endurance, determination, and getting across, through, and to the other side of something is inspiring.”

Great Lake Swimmers’ endurance and determination has allowed the group to step out of their comfort zone with their latest release, and according to Dekker, led them to “a new focus on the rhythm section and new percussive elements of the band.”

Dekker pulls from influences like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Hank Williams, and Gram Parsons and tries to spend much of the song-writing process outside to achieve the desired product. Once Dekker finishes his writing, the quintet focuses on working out the rough arrangements for their newest sound.

With exploring a new sound, the gang has created a “new rule” when it comes to their creative process. “Our new rule is to cultivate an atmosphere of trust within the band, and to have each other’s backs, especially while out on the road,” Dekker clarified.

“I think we have a renewed focus on musicianship as a group, and we’re increasingly taking chances in the performance, so it’s become important to us to trust each other musically as well,” he added.

Taking chances with Great Lake Swimmers’ A Forest of Arms has created their most energetic sound yet. Compared to styles such as Iron & Wine, Neil Young, and Sufjan Stevens, Great Lake Swimmers produce a captivating album full of spirit and interest. The folk-meets-bluegrass-meets-indie-pop creates a sound unlike any of their previous records.

To share their newest creation, Great Lake Swimmers decided to add an additional leg to their tour, stopping through the Pacific Northwest—including Bellingham—for several shows.

LIVE SHOW: Catch the Great Lake Swimmers at the Green Frog on June 6. For more about the band, see greatlakeswimmers.com.

Published in the June 2015 issue of What’s Up!