Dog Day + Seth Smith = Deformer’s trippy dripping head
Dog Day: Deformer [Aug/2011] — IT ALL STARTS with an honest (and clever) moniker for the third full-length record by this wonderfully, melodically loud and righteously Halifamous band. Previously a fuller, cleaner four-piece, partners Seth Smith and Nancy Urich decamped from Halifax after something of a slow-mo implosion (making the band only marginally Haligonian, actually) and decided to reinvent themselves as a duo while learning to live off the land nearby. What existed before, in life and in noisemaking, was becoming deformed, rather than forming.
“I always try to push our band to do something a little different, not having a cookie cutter sound,” explains Smith. “Doing the two-piece thing was basically the result of our band almost breaking up, having the other two guys kind of leaving, ending up with just the two of us, and doing something else using the same name. I already had a bunch of Dog Day songs, so we just decided to keep the name and go with it.”
A penchant for symmetry in the band’s visual aesthetic also stuck. Urich and Smith wanted something classic for cover art, a high-contrast piece with little colour that could easily be screen printable. “I really wanted one face,” says Smith, “but I didn’t want it to be our faces or someone that really existed, so we made someone up.”
Using a still image of Liv Ullmann's actress character in Ingmar Bergman's 1966 film Persona as source material, Smith followed the same creative impulses that he’s thrived on as an inventive, DIY graphic artist for more than a decade. “The actress has a real pretty face, and I’ve always been interested in making pretty things look ugly,” he says. “When I first started doing any kind of art it was with photocopies at Kinkos. I’d just take photos of Marilyn Monroe and photocopy them and then take that copy and scan it and copy it again, so there’d be these generations of decay and distress. I’m all about trying to see what the true image is in there after you take away all the make up and break it down.”
Smith also attributes the overall packaging style to an aesthetic that he was gorging on while finishing the album—film noir, silhouettes, creepy animals, and black-and-white psychedelia. These influences hail from another project that he was working on at the time, a short film (more on that in a moment). But the act of deforming from a city lifestyle certainly enhanced this broader affinity for spookiness.
“Thematically, the record is largely about me and my wife Nancy moving to the country and kind of living an introvert life out there.” This idea shows up obliquely in Deformer lyrics (from the song “Part Girl,” for example: The danger of trying new things / is a small price for fresh feelings), and more directly via the haunted landscapes and creatures found in the packaging art. “We spend a lot of time with our chickens in our backyard, so they made the cut,” says Smith of a hen’s head that pops from one particular image.
The couple’s dog Woofy also makes a couple of appearances, sporting a deformed snout in one (above; Urich’s face gets a similar deforming treatment in another image as well). The other Woofy influence is only in spirit, via another film still that Smith doctored in homage to their dog’s crazy dream behaviour.
“I have this film book that I got a lot of these pictures from, and that’s from Rin Tin Tin,” says Smith. “It’s one of the characters and the dog is just howling beside his dead master or something, and I thought it’d be cool if it was this dog ghost rising from the body. But also, the first song [on Deformer, called “Daydream”] has an intro recording of a dog dream that Nancy had done. Our dog Woofy always has these really loud, physical dreams, almost like he’s talking, and he runs sometimes, so she was recording it and capturing it. We were almost going to call the record dog dream, and I wanted to do something visually that would complement that.”
The movie Smith was filming—currently titled Lowlife—“definitely rubbed off on this record” thematically. “It had a lot of similar elements,” he says. “There are a lot of weird, slimy creatures, a lot of dripping. And in the film there’s a human character who deforms over time, he gets sicker and sicker, and I had to make these prosthetic deformations as makeup.”
Tight-lipped about specifics, Smith divulges that the movie was shot on a very small budget around Halifax and on his and Urich’s land in the country. When I ask about his attraction to black-and-white psychedelia, Smith says “that’s what really interests me right now. The movie is actually a drug movie. With your traditional drug movie, when a character is under the influence or whatever, you just see so many crazy different colours and it’s oversaturated, but it’s kind of neat to explore that in a black-and-white environment. It can even be trippier in some ways.”
As you’d suspect, music will also play a big part in setting the cinematic atmosphere. Smith says he’s using a lot of ambient stuff, but with a few left-field choices, such as a monastery monk’s choir and another song from black metal pioneer Varg Vikirnes (aka Burzum). Most of the soundtrack is being developed in collaboration with Halifax’s Divorce Records, drawing heavily from their roster of noise bands for an unconventional take on a mystery movie score. “It will be weird, if nothing else,” says Smith.
The goal is to wrap up audio and editing this winter and then submit Lowlife to some fall 2012 festivals, maybe do a small gallery tour with a few of the cast members or something. “It’s just an indie film, so we’re happy if we can get 10 or 15 people to watch it in one place.”
Smith has been developing motion pictures for close to a decade, including the Dog Day jam shown above. He was able to make this newer, much more elaborate film shoot happen because his friend (and Trailer Park Boys director) Mike Clattenburg lent him a professional camera and told him to do it. He borrowed some other gear and pulled together a skeletal crew of people, keeping everything easy and small.
This is an approach that has served Smith well. He got started as a visual artist by making posters for his band in the late ’90s, “before the Internet was really huge and you really had to poster to get people to know about a show.” He’d play around with photocopying, cutting and gluing images, spending small amounts of money over long stretches of time in the company of copy shop clerks.
Sometime after Y2K he ended up living with a guy named Paul Hammond, who was doing similar work. They began collaborating on screen-printed posters, which nobody was really doing in Halifax. “We just thought we’d give it a try, and so we did it out of our house for a couple of years,” says Smith. “Our bathtub got really dirty. It was fun. We started by doing show posters for local bands and the scene was very supportive, so we got a bunch of jobs and it became a second part-time job for us.”
Slowly it turned into a full-time job, and the duo formed a graphic arts collective called Yorodeo. For a while they produced advertising designs, but then quickly realized that they didn’t want to just be problem solvers for clients. “So we got a studio, and we shifted our focus more towards fine art and making prints and having gallery shows.”
Yorodeo’s most recent project, a mind-tickling and literally absorbing collection of two dozen pieces called Three-Dee Realms, has been exhibited in seven provinces so far. It stemmed from Hammond having this great 1970s how-to manual for making 3D images with math and angles, and Smith having a couple of old Basil Wolverton comics that he was really into. They realized that the two-colour method shown in both would lend itself really nicely to screen printing.
“Most of the 3D screen printing I’d seen hadn’t really been done that well in my opinion,” says Smith. “It would just be the same image printed over in a different colour and shifted to the side, or it seemed like some people didn’t even realize how it worked, they just put it wherever. We had a pretty good idea of how it worked because we’d both played with it as kids, using colouring pencils and wearing the glasses.”
They also both liked the idea of doing a print series that was based on science fiction and strange fantasy landscapes. And although a few of the resulting pieces feature alien characters, they were especially interested in creating worlds that a blue-and-red glasses-wearing audience could get lost in, perhaps even imagining themselves going to.
They did a small run, which sold out and then was reprinted and expanded upon. “It was before Avatar, before 3D got really huge again. But people were pretty excited about it because, like, a lot of the 3D stuff that was happening, all this Pixar stuff or whatever, it was very computery. And this was a hands-on, old technology version of it. People were enthusiastic about it so we decided to make it an ongoing project and keeping it going.”
Having toured Three-Dee Realms fairly extensively and given artist talks, Smith says they’ve been really happy with the levels of crowd interaction they’ve witnessed. To encourage more, their plan is try and add some more sculptural elements to the show, as well as 3D movie projections.
Experimenting with that in mind, Smith’s Lowlife will include a couple of 3D sequences. Naturally, his approach sounds deceptively simple, labour intensive, and ultimately pretty stunning. “It’s two images, the left eye image and the right eye image, and they just flicker intermittently,” explains Smith. “You don’t need to wear glasses, but it has a very shifty, strobic effect, which creates a three dimensional illusion. That was a neat way of adding some dreaminess.”
All Deformer images by Seth Smith; all Three-Dee Realms images by Seth Smith & Paul Hammond. Story by Eric Rumble. Buy Deformer from Dog Day’s Bandcamp page (or, better yet, get your paws on the rad screen printed LP from your local record store).