Papal Visit’s latest full-length is as much an act of friendship as it is a work of collage and community.
Are they a supergroup? Are they a collective? Is collective just a polite way to say supergroup? Could a Saint John supergroup even exist without Brent Mason? Without Ken Tobias? Without Andrew Earle? None of this really matters. What matters here is that Papal Visit has a new album out. Their first full-length vinyl release. And as the title alludes, Five Fathom Hole is a deep collection (30 feet deep if you’re pausing to do a little nautical math), packed to the brim with songs and ideas performed by a formidable group of Saint John’s indie music nobility in all their true to life low-fi splendor.
The significance of this record – as much an act of friendship as one of community – cannot be overstated. Whether or not you’re a fan of music broadly classified as indie, a fan of garage rock, a fan of gritty love songs, or a fan of music from your own hometown, it would be next to impossible to not hold some degree of appreciation for what it is Papal Visit has done in creating this document. From concept through to delivery, Five Fathom Hole is a significant achievement, the magnitude of which could easily be missed without first establishing some context.
Those with an ear for what’s been happening in Saint John as far as music goes are most likely already familiar with Papal Visit or its many moving parts. Founded initially as a means of long distance collaboration between two friends and former bandmates who ended up living in different cities, in different provinces, after many years of writing, recording and performing together, Papal Visit has grown to become one of the most prolific creative projects to call Saint John home. Or to be more precise, Papal Visit could be called the city’s most prolific group since the last group to feature founding members Adam Mowery and Pierre Cormier. High volume output is their modus operandi. It’s what they were put on this earth to do.
With a collective lineage spanning nearly two decades of music making, Mowery and Cormier are responsible for an enormous amount of music that helped to create the sonic identity many now associate with Saint John independent music. Outside of their primary projects – Cormier with The Organizers (2000-2005) and Wooden Wives (2005-2015) and Mowery with Port City All-Stars (2004-2005), Wooden Wives (2005-2015) and his ongoing solo work – both have become pillars of the scene releasing a non-stop stream of new music while also contributing to the work of other artists either as performing musicians or on the backend just helping to make things happen. I tip my hat to them here, even before we get into their current work. I’m a firm believer of giving respect where respect is due. Maybe someday when they decide to add new faces to the “A Few Famous Folk From Saint John” billboards we’ll get to see Mowery and Cormier up there alongside Alden Nowlan and Stompin’ Tom looking down at the cracked pavement, cigarette butts and empty tall boys. Yeah, that’ll probably never happen. But it should, before they die. I’ll leave it at that. Let’s start a petition when we’re done here, OK?
So let’s get one thing straight. Papal Visit is Adam Mowery and Pierre Cormier. They wrote and recorded every song. But on Five Fathom Hole, Papal Visit is also Chris Braydon, Jason Ogden and Geoffrey Smith. They played on just about every song. And if you want to go even broader you can. Papal Visit is also Dan Boyer, Dan Chamberlain, Jud Crandall, Corey Isenor, Alex Keleher, Sadie and Adam Kierstead, on this album at least.
Here’s a different way to look at it. If you were to examine this entire group of collaborators through a six-degrees-of-separation lens, you could easily draw close connections to every single independent rock band going back through more than thirty years of Saint John music. How’s that for context? The crazy thing is, it’s not an exaggeration. Not even a little. There is zero hyperbole in that statement. With Five Fathom Hole, Papal Visit offers us 25 songs that in some capacity embody elements of an entire community. A community where Mowery and Cormier found a home for their own voices and in turn helped others find a place for theirs. That’s almost enough to bring a tear to your eye.
But as big as this record may be on paper, many of these songs can trace their roots back to the original concept Papal Visit was founded upon – long distance songwriting. Mowery in Halifax. Cormier in Saint John.
“Many of the songs were done in the pen pal manner. That is our usual approach. Pierre writes the music, enlisting Geoff [Smith], Chris [Braydon] and Jason [Ogden] to fill out the parts with him. They are our live band of regulars as well,” said Mowery.
“Most Saturday nights you can find them having a drink at their rehearsal space and trying to put together a structure and get a recording done to send to me. That being said, like our other records, there’s some spill over to me being at the sessions and appearing on tracks, sometimes even bringing a song I prepared earlier.”
There is a lot happening on this record. Five Fathom Hole is as much a collection of songs as it is a collection of vignettes or ideas for songs that never made it past the “hook and few good lines” stage of development. There are songs in the form we think of when we think of songs, mixed together with what could best be described as audio transcriptions lifted from notebooks and scrap pieces of paper, anything used to document a thought that had some merit. Like a series of voice memos with a backing band. This collage-like approach to creating an album breaks up the traditional song, song, song idea by creating a series of short pathways or back alleys that lead from one idea to another. It’s a lot like navigating Saint John on foot. Some of these passages take a minute to get through while others take just a few steps. Whichever path you follow, you always end up somewhere fun. That’s right. I’m saying this album reflects the very DNA of Saint John, right down to its urban planning or lack thereof.
“It’s sort of a grab bag of different approaches and sessions,” said Mowery. “Most things get edited way down, so songs that may have been five minutes, you might just get a minute and a half of, to try and create this sonic collage element.”
This collage concept extends beyond the subliminal references to the city, varying song structures and the musicians who perform them. In a way, Papal Visit’s collage connection has been active since April 28, 2017 when they released their sixth single, What Makes Him Win Like That? This was the first single to feature Mowery’s album defining collage work that would become as much a part of each new Papal Visit release as the music itself. This single also coincides with the first time musicians outside the group’s Mowery/Cormier core were featured. With the exception of the following single (It’s Been Discontinued – August 2017), the next nine releases from Papal Visit would go on to feature both Mowery’s distinct visual designs and a corresponding collage of musicians, eventually landing on the lineup featured predominantly on Five Fathom Hole.
The whole collage concept has become a defining characteristic of the band and is at the heart of this new record, even extending to who plays what on which tracks.
“If you hear drums it’s probably Geoff, but not always,” said Mowery. “If you hear bass it’s probably Pierre, or me, and guitars are usually Chris and Jason, except where guests are noted.”
As a direct result of this approach, nothing on Five Fathom Hole is formulaic. There is no apparent songwriting formula that seems dominant across this album. Each song is its own thing. There are verse-chorus-verse songs, sure, but they are scattered amongst so many other approaches to structure and storytelling that no method can be named dominant. Five Fathom Hole finds its strength in its diversity. From the songs themselves to the people who perform them. From individual recordings that range from ultra low-fi to the more contemporary low-fi qualities that have shaped career defining albums from some of indie rock’s best known exports. We have Cormier to thank for this. His ear for tone and mixing is as much a part of this record as Mowery’s voice and words.
For all the highs the Saint John scene has experienced over the years – all the great performers, writers, and musicians the city has generated, including the many who have contributed to this album – the lows have always been present. As an example, there hasn’t been a music venue in the city that’s lasted more than a handful of years. And the ongoing gentrification of the city’s cultural core – its uptown – continues to shrink future possibilities by squeezing out options and welcoming residents who expect silence after 9 p.m. Perhaps that’s one of the contributing factors as to why so many distinct projects were born there. If you can’t play, you can at least practice. I’ve always found Saint John musicians to have this roll-with-the-punches attitude which I believe has fuelled creativity in the face of adversity. That’s part of the reason Papal Visit came into existence. There’s always a way forward. Five Fathom Hole is proof.
As Saint John currently exists without a home for live music performances of the rock and roll persuasion (That’s right. A city of 70,000 people and no current, consistent home for “loud” music), the band will be hitting the road to celebrate the release of this magnificent album later this month with a show at The Cap in Fredericton on November 27 with Maiden Names and Doctor, Mother, Father. See you there.
Five Fathom Hole was released November 12 via Monopolized Records. Grab a copy at Backstreet Records or one order online.