Rolf Klausener is someone who lets creativity guide him through life. Not only is he lead singer and principal songwriter of one of Ottawa’s strongest indie music exports of the last decade, The Acorn, but he’s also a unique personality that embodies the transformation of Ottawa’s arts and culture scene over the years. For the better part of a decade, Klausener has gone through the highs and lows of being a local musician — including at times questioning whether Ottawa is the right place for an artist to be.
But Klausener has stuck around O-town. And with the band going through a transition phase in the last few years, he’s taken the opportunity to explore his creative desires in different ways. Here, Klausener chats with Matias Muñoz about his other projects — including the Arboretum music, arts, and food festival, and his new musical venture Silkken Laumann — as well as how the city’s arts and culture scene has transformed over the past decade.
You’ve had a busy year. How has 2012 stood out for you?
My first significant year off the road was 2011 and I spent that year exploring all these different facets of the city. I started working at Arts Court, I started working at The Manx, and I began getting exposed to the arts, restaurant, and food culture. Then 2012 was the year I spent going to all the restaurants, meeting all the chefs, and putting that all into Arboretum and these external projects. It’s funny, I feel like 2012 was one of the quietest years of my life as far as music is concerned. It’s the first year I’ve had completely off touring with my band The Acorn. Since the band was in a transition phase, I began working on putting together Arboretum for most of the year, and then also had some new singles come to light with a new music project called Silkken Laumann with my friends Adam Saikaley and Pat Johnson. That was really born out of spending all this time at home in Ottawa, getting to know all the DJ culture that is so pervasive and so awesome in the city.
What inspired you to get involved in all these projects?
My whole life I had moved around. I came to Ottawa from Montreal when I was 12, and then about 12 years ago, I kind of felt like “wow, I think Ottawa’s my home.” As I found a home here, I’ve also really wanted to see the city find its own cultural identity. Arboretum was really born out of my incredible friendships. It came out of dialogue, and the fact that some of us were tired of going to other cities to go see small boutique festivals. Why not create our own? We were just lazy, really. We didn’t want to drive to other cities for good music, and it’s something I feel like Ottawa is ready for. And Silkken Laumann was something I’d been doing already with Pat Johnson for three years — it’s really just our love of dance music taking on a tangible form.
You’ve been involved in Ottawa’s arts and culture for a long time. How have things changed over the years?
Oh, it’s amazing. When I was 22 or 23 starting to play live with The Recoilers and Kelp Records had just moved to Ottawa, there were some incredibly talented people in the city. To give you an idea of the scene at the time, Jim Bryson was putting out his first record, Kathleen Edwards was putting out her first album, and DJ nights were scarce. Trevor Walker had a residency at Mercury Lounge, the DJ crew Timekode didn’t exist, and we didn’t have any of the dance nights at Babylon happening either. No one really toured, and there were also way more clubs than there are now. But there was a crazy talent pool here, like Jeremy Gara (drummer of Arcade Fire) played in a bunch of local bands – he’s from Ottawa. Some of the other guys in Arcade Fire were also living here at the time or had just moved to Montreal. So it was weird, Ottawa had a very insular scene but very disparate at the same time – no one really talked to each other. Very few of us went outside our city borders, and if you think about it, that’s pretty self-destructive.
When I came back to Ottawa and off the road in 2011 [after seven years of touring with The Acorn] I was completely blown away by what had happen. Clubs were closing down all over the city. As all these places closed, but the contrast to that was 10 or 12 new restaurants opened. There was a community of restaurants and a food scene had developed where everyone was talking to each other, and everyone communicated. There were also like 12 awesome DJ nights every month, such as Timekode, KitchenParty, Grind, Shameless, and Grillz & Glam.
What had also come to fruition is the solidification of social media. When I started doing my own shows in 2005, I would go plaster the whole city in posters and bug XPress, and bug everybody. Now it’s so easy, it’s incredible. If you have 200 or 300 people you really want to know about your event, then it’s easy to let them know about it. I don’t want to give too much credit to Facebook, but it’s amazing to see your city’s whole cultural fabric and patchwork there. You had to put in so much effort and really run around to do that seven or eight years ago.
What is the current state of the arts here?
I see Ottawa as a small city where everyone is talking and everyone is trying to engage one another in creating something momentous; something simple, but something huge. I can honestly say that the last two years in the city are the most exciting, invigorating, and inspiring that I’ve seen in the last 15 years here in Ottawa. Not to say that cool things weren’t happening before, but more than ever, the dreams I had for Ottawa are actually happening. I look around and I can’t choose what to do each week, there’s too much! There are so many people who are so hungry to see this city keep moving. It felt like 12 years ago was the final heat in an Olympic race, and there were eight racers in the blocks still tying their shoelaces. Now it feels like they’re halfway around their first lap, and they are hustling. That’s what the city has — hustle. It never used to have that.
What does 2013 have in store for you?
I have a few plans. Silkken Laumann finished two singles last year, so we’re looking to finish a record for that. We’re also looking to finish the new Acorn record, hopefully sooner rather than later. We’re playing a big show on January 25, so that will be a testing ground for some of the new songs, and to see whether the time off has allowed us to shape the project into something new that we can feel excited about again. We’re also planning the new Arboretum Festival for the upcoming year. I’m just looking to see how I can contribute to Ottawa in a bigger way. I’m really interested in working with the city to understand why certain roadblocks exist that make cultural development more difficult here. I’m looking to facilitate those things for me and my friends, and those who want to create art and cultural events in Ottawa.
To read an extended version of this interview, see Matias Muñoz’s Ottawa Showbox blog.