June 6, 2020
On March 14 2020, Ron Leary and Dean Drouillard played to a small but engaged crowd, tightly packed around the stage at Phog Lounge in Windsor, Ontario. The energy in the room was electric. Though they had performed together hundreds of times, it had been years since they took the stage as a duo. The next day the city, country and world began shutting its doors. Everyone locked themselves in their homes and consumed the news as the COVID-19 pandemic changed life as we knew it.
Twenty-five years earlier, when Leary was a music student at the University of Windsor, the two met at The Coach & Horses, a downtown dive where Drouillard hosted a popular weekly open-mic night. The chance encounter led to a decades-long friendship, several albums and countless shows together.
Barely into the shock of the lockdown, on March 25th Leary emailed Drouillard a phone memo recording of a song called “Bled to the Bone,” a song he’d written the previous night. It was a poignant and revealing folk song about the struggles that come with working hard to eke out a living as a performing musician – Leary and Drouillard’s vocation up until COVID-19 hit. With no end date on the government-mandated isolation and all but essential businesses closed indefinitely, the lyrics strike an understandably heavy tone. The song is a reluctant surrender to the powers that can make living as an artist an unbearable challenge. “Bled to the Bone” would be the first in a series of reactive, emotional vignettes that Leary sent to Drouillard periodically over the locked-down spring of 2020.
“Frontline” arrived in Drouillard’s mailbox a week later. In it Leary expresses the need to appreciate the sacrifices medical practitioners make for the health and well-being of the public on a regular basis, but especially in the midst of the pandemic that was raging. He also praises and sympathizes with the low-wage essential workers for their service – for putting themselves and their families at risk. Drouillard responded to the honesty and urgency in the song and inspired further fleshed out the tune by adding instrumentation and contributing to its atmosphere.
Leary continued experimenting further in new pieces - translating his solitary experience into words. He laments the loss of normalcy and social contact in “Feelin’ It Tonight,” and catches up with a past romance in “First Love.” But in “Deserted Streets,” any previously unspoken creative boundaries were blown wide open. Ron’s spoken word delivery brings the listener on an eerie walk through the empty streets of Windsor – a ritual for Leary that had suddenly become utterly alien. The piece reflects on the absence of people and traffic, particularly in what was an already struggling downtown. Drouillard contributes abstract percussion while Windsor’s electronic inventor Mike Beauchamp layers atonal drones from synthesizers and his renowned musical invention, the Therevox.
No plan had ever been discussed for these recordings. They were simply an outlet for Leary and Drouillard to exercise creativity and to ease the ennui of being stuck at home without paying work or hope thereof in the foreseeable future. But after the first few pieces were completed, they realized they were onto something exciting and necessary. They would make an album.
Their modus operandi was to create from instinct and emotion, be in-the-moment, and not get hung up on rough edges or blemishes since each piece was meant to reflect the raw experience of life in uncertain and unprecedented times.
They mainly kept the project as a duo, but it was graced with a couple of special guests. Aside from Beauchamp, haunting harmonica was contributed to the biting, one-chord “Curating Death” by Kelly “Mr. Chill” Hoppe. The Windsor music veteran, who has toured the world with Big Sugar and spent countless nights on stage with Leary, also recorded his part into his phone.
“Table 17” and “As Long As I Don’t Think” further explore spoken word and sound design. The album concludes with a chorus of banged pots and pans – a nightly celebration that began in March and still continues in Drouillard’s Toronto neighbourhood to show support for the frontline workers.
As Long As I Ain’t Thinking About the Future has an inherently low-fi sound for an album, largely due to the media (iPhone, 4-track cassette) it was recorded to. But the practice of making this record flows naturally from the way Leary and Drouillard created recorded music together in the 90s when Ron would pass along cassettes of his original songs for Dean to add additional instrumentation, each welcoming the other to share their artistic choices.
As Long As I Ain’t Thinking About the Future is a paramount creation in a still maturing partnership.
* Listen to the album on Bandcamp
- Post written by Dean Drouillard, with input from Steven Palmer and Ron Leary.
- Photo by Kenneth Mills (Phog Lounge, Windsor, ON, March 14 2020)