Since his first record in 2009, Toronto’s Afie Jurvanen, better known as Bahamas, has been a bit of a mystery. Rocking his pink stratocaster and a guitar style that many have compared to Willie Nelson, Bahamas shot to international attention with a soulful, melodic style that’s just as warm and exotic as his namesake. On the back of his newest endeavor, the enchanting and lyrically vivid Bahamas is Afie, Jurvanen plays with production, layering, and showing the passion that just one artist can carve into a record.
We got in touch with Jurvanen as he was pulling into a lot in Seattle, the second leg on his international tour. From the Toronto music scene that first gained him attention to the relevance of hip-hop to the challenges of playing in a band called Tickle, Jurvanen weaves a rich story of the beginnings of Bahamas and his life as a performer.
What’s going on with Bahamas right now?
We’re driving through a series of parking spots, trying to find this FedEx place—I think we’re trying to ship something. We’re in Seattle, playing a show tonight, cracking some jokes, having a good time.
You’ve just started your tour: how was Portland?
Portland was great! Portland, Oregon was great, and Portland, Maine a month ago was great. All the shows have been really, really nice. Good crowds, everyones singing along—it’s really nice!
How’s life on the road in general?
It’s quite good. I just picked up some coffee beans in Portland. We have a pretty regular regimen and stuff, a good routine going.
This tour will also be taking you overseas. Where are you most excited to play?
Probably Toronto. I live there, so I can ride my bike to the gig, sleep in my own bed—that’s always nice, you know? I probably only play in Toronto once a year, but it’s exciting. I get to hang out with my friends and family—it’s sort of the opposite of my professional life.
Before you were Bahamas, I know you played with Zeus and Feist. What’s going on in the Toronto music scene, and what makes it what it is?
You know, I don’t really know! I know a lot of people make a big deal about my involvement in the music scene in Toronto, but you know, I don’t go out very much. I went to high school with the guys from Zeus, but we grew up in a place called Barry, Ontario, so I didn’t actually move to Toronto until I was 14 years old—that’s when we started making music together. And it wasn’t until I was on tour that I met Feist. We were opening their tour, and by the end of it I was just playing guitar for the band, and I sort of did that for many, many years. I do think the music scene in Toronto is quite diverse, and there’s a lot of quality music being produced there, and it’s been that way for some time. Wherever you go in the music, you can find people that admire Canadian music, whether it’s Neil Young, Arcade Fire, or some underground DJ that I’ve never heard of that’s playing for 20,000 people in Ibiza. I think Toronto, proportional to how many musicians there are over there, is producing a lot of really quality music. It’s nice to be a very, very small part of that—like I said, I don’t play there all that often! I’d like to play there more, but we’re on the road so much these days that I’ll play in Chicago or Bradley, North Carolina more than I play in Toronto, and there’s kind of a cruel irony to that. At the same time, I can’t complain about it. I’ve always wanted to play guitar, and I’m really lucky to have been able to do that for more than 10 years now.
But nothing really matches the hometown vibe, right?
When you’re away, you pine for the things you are missing—your family, your friends, and all the routines you have at home. It’s nice to share with most people, because I don’t often get to do that as I spend so much time away from home.
There’s a lot of melodic complexity on Bahamas Is Afie. How did the recording process differ from Barchords?
It’s probably different in that normally I just set up with the band, we kick off a rehearsal, and we start playing—we just sort of rely on the musical instinct of all the players. And that’s worked very well for me in the past. It’s very exciting to record that way, you don’t know what’s going to happen, and as long as you have no expectations you often wind up with something that surprises you. For this recording, I guess the difference was that as I was writing the songs I had all these rhythmic and melodic ideas, and ideas for different instruments, because I also play keyboard, bass, drums, all of that. I just sort of decided to try that, and build up a track. That’s not necessarily a new idea—people like Elliot Smith did the same thing. But it was so exciting, and maybe some of the most selfish recordings I’ve ever done. It’s really fast that way, because you don’t have anyone you need to confer with, and if it doesn’t work it becomes immediately apparent, and you can move right on to the next idea without deliberation. I really enjoy the agility of that….by necessity, it ends up sound very different, just because the process is so different.
Speaking of recording, your signature instrument is your pink Stratocaster, which is also the namesake of your first album. What’s the history of that guitar?
I used to have this other guitar—this beautiful telecaster. I saved up all my money when I was 19 to buy it, and it was a great guitar. I really liked it and played it for a few years, but ended up losing it. I lent it to a friend, and it was left in a taxicab. So I had no electric guitar, and I was in a band, and I was very, very sad. But the universe has a way of presenting you things right when you need them the most. I found that pink guitar in Toronto for $400. I didn’t really hesitate. A lot of my friends were saying “What are you doing with that pink guitar?” At the time, strats were very not in fashion, and they still aren’t today, even though, ironically, they’re the most popular electric guitar in the world. Buddy Holly played one, everyone’s played one. It’s a cool sound. Anyways, I got this guitar, wrote a bunch of songs on it, did all kinds of recording, and got to travel all over the world with it. I’ve been everywhere with that guitar, and over time these things get more sentimental value—I have a lot of fondness for that instrument. Now I have several others that are of equal quality—it’s nice to have a few different instruments to choose from, you know?
Totally! I also heard a rumor that the first tape you bought was Run DMC. What are some of your favorite hip hop artists today?
I really like EL-P and Killer Mike. Their first record Run the Jewels was great and their second one is on the way, and I don’t doubt it’ll be a banger too. I’ve sort of been rediscovering Kanye West’s stuff, and man oh man on his last few albums there’s some stuff on there that’s just so amazing. The thing about hip-hop is that I really think it’s the pop music of our time, as the most popular form of music right now: everyone’s listening to it, whether you’re in the city or the suburbs, around the world, regardless of race or anything. It’s the universal music right now. It’s kinda funny to me when people are surprised—they’re surprised because they have this expectation of who I am and what I listen to. But how could you not hear that music, and upon hearing it, deny how awesome it is? It’s so powerful! It’s so relevant! They’re actually singing about cell phones and websites and things that are relevant to my life. I don’t hear a lot of that reflected in rock music. I don’t relate to a lot of that stuff.
Whereas hip-hop is kinda the modern genre.
A fun question—a lot of artists, when they’re playing in high school and just starting up, go through a lot of bad names. What’s the worst you’ve ever played under?
Uggh, I had this thing called…Tickle. It was really bad. Oh yeah, you better believe it. I had this one song called “Jolly Green Giant”, and another song about this terminally ill child. It was dark stuff. I had no idea what I was doing. I had it all put together in an orange duo tang full of songs—I took it quite seriously. We didn’t have a mic stand, so we used to put the mic in the corner pocket of a pool table that we’d fill with balls to hold in place, and I would just lean over and sing into the pocket of this pool table. We thought we were the smartest idiots around. Anyhow, glad I told you that story.
Finally, what’s next?
We’re on tour now for a good long while—basically the rest of the year. We’ll take a few weeks off at Christmas, then get back at it in January. This tour goes all through Canada, America, Europe, and back to America before the end of the year. It’s great to be playing. A lot people wanna play, and can’t, so when I get offered a gig I say yes as much as possible
Bahamas plays the Vogue Theatre on October 17th. Tickets are sold out, but any updates will be be found on northerntickets.com.