[Cover photo credit to Vanessa Heins]
Canadian artist Sean Sroka, aka Ten Kills The Pack, recently released the EP Thank You For Trying, Act I, via Nettwerk and has a double dose in store for us since a second EP, Act II, will also arrive in March 2023. Together they form a very interesting assemblage of songs that taken separately each speak to their own message and sound, but placed together form the equivalent of a long-player concept album. The concept in question is that of the artist’s journey through their younger years. Act I roughly corresponds to those internal events the young person faces encountering the strange outer world, and Act II engages more fully with the struggle to create and the art that comes out of that period in life.
All of that may sound rather abstract, but in the hands of Sroka, who handles things in such a personal way, it becomes an emotive journey for the audience, too. It also contains a lot of relatable emphasis on things that all young people struggle with, including relationships, self-worth, and being undervalued. The EP was Produced by Marcus Pacquin (Weather Station, Arcade Fire, The National) and two recent singles, including “God, Love, Prescriptions & Politics”, and “You’ll Like To Believe”, which arrived today, also hint at some of the directions we’ll find on Act II.
I spoke with Sean Sroka about the evolution of this idea, his choice in structuring the EPs, and why these songs sound more layered but avoid becoming too polished.
Hannah Means-Shannon: The first set of songs has come out, but I understand that we’re really in the middle of the process for a second act.
Sean Sroka: There’s a lot of music coming up, and we’re just at the kick off of the second act of the album.
HMS: The recent single, “God, Love, Prescriptions & Politics” is the first indication of Act II, right?
SS: Yes, exactly. That kicks things off and the next track that comes out will signal the next act.
HMS: This release plan seems like an interesting hybrid of gearing things towards streaming with singles but still creating a complete album cycle through two EP collections.
SS: Singles keep up the pace for streaming, so keeping that in mind, I wondered, “How do I utilize that and still continue to be my creative self? How can I marry these two concepts?” One thing that happened as I was making this album is that it occurred to me that this was a kind of process album. The songs all tied together as the journey of an artist, to sum it up. When that became apparent, choosing songs became easier. Even finishing songs and using the correct perspective made more sense.
When it came to dividing the songs, it seemed like there was a first half that was more about internal things, the struggles that all kinds of artists face. The second half felt louder, and more external, related to the art that people create. Knowing how I wanted to release things, I felt like we could achieve this pacing by releasing an EP leading up to the big picture.
HMS: I have a lot of respect for that approach. That’s really taking the bull by the horns in combining something that’s fairly traditional, having a unified, long album, with the modern way of releasing, which is more singles-based.
SS: I hadn’t thought about it like that, but it’s a good way to put it. There are fewer concept albums out there that feel like one whole piece these days. It takes a strategy.
HMS: Something that probably helps with that is that you’ve allowed a lot of musical variation between the songs. That probably allows them to function as singles a little more easily. I did notice the set-up, though, of having interludes on the EP, so I see how you bring them back together as well.
SS: Absolutely. The structure is that there’s a narrative that runs through it, but I definitely wanted independent pieces, too. A lot of these songs that were chosen as singles were ones that had an identity by themselves before the structure came in.
HMS: Talking about the journey of the artist, I was reminded of a tradition in novels that writers sometimes write books about the first part of an artist’s journey as a young person. For instance, James Joyce’s Portrait of An Artist. The stuff that happens to someone creatively early in their journey is so weird, and wild, and carnivalesque that it makes sense to try to capture that.
SS: It’s true! I’ve definitely recognized that as well. It’s not often that you come across this in music, and I’m not necessarily telling my exact story with these songs, but I know that my experiences relate to the broader narrative of an artist going through what they have to go through. I’ve heard people use the expression that I’m a “songwriter’s songwriter”, and especially in this case I hope that it makes other artists of all mediums have a listen and feel related to. It’s the inside scoop of an artist’s life to the outside world, too.
HMS: On a couple songs I noticed that you might want to share awareness of how difficult some of these experiences can be. Because not everyone has had the experience of being a touring musician. Then, there’s also the fact that it’s kind of glamorized to the outside world, so this is a way of being more authentic and direct about it.
SS: I think that’s totally accurate. I think there are a lot of documentaries and things that show the darker side of music, as well as movies, but I feel like there’s no longer look at that kind of thing. There are struggles and weird mental states that people can be in and I feel like those are not represented in music. Also, as you said, less than 1% of the world has the experience of a touring musician or recording artist. There are also some terrific, amazing experiences, and “aha” moments that I wish other people could feel. I’m still someone who’s chipping away in the music industry, and those kind of feelings don’t happen all the time, but it’s a unique position to be in and try to explain to others.
HMS: It seems like the best way to bring that across is in the first-person, narrative way, remaining fairly unfiltered like you do with these songs. You’re not cutting things out or watering them down.
SS: There’s a certain approach you can take. I think this album also keeps some ambiguity, too, when I was wondering how to present feelings in a song, so that helps. There are some songs that are more direct, though. There’s one coming out in the new year called “Critics (aka 50 Bucks)” and it’s a very literal story, told front to back. It reiterates the whole process of the album. One of the lyrics is “Is all that work worth this much? I’ll have to take your word for it and take your 50 bucks.” It comes from playing all these shows and getting only 50 dollars. It became a reoccurring joke among friends that you don’t want to say no to people in the industry, and then they offer you 50 bucks.
There’s also a song called “Theo” that’s out, and that one is purely the parallel of telling my story and the story of Van Gogh all in one. It’s based off of his life, but it relates to exactly how I feel as an artist and how they are parallel. It’s biographical of someone I’ve always looked up to, but it’s also my journey.
HMS: That’s a really intricate task to bring those two things together. I did hear that song took a long time to write. Is that true?
SS: It’s not an exaggeration to say that it took six to seven years. It wasn’t writing every day, but I’ve had this massive book of Van Gogh’s letters. It’s a great read. It’s super-inspiring and feels very poetic. I read and reread these letters, hundreds of them. I’d bookmark them, then create my own storyboard of how to convey this person’s life in three minutes. I had anchor-points, and had to keep changing things when they didn’t match. I’ve written and rewritten it.
Sometimes I’d come up with a cool line, but it just wouldn’t feel like me. Also, this happened a hundred years ago, so I’d struggle with phrasing things, but sometimes I’d just find exactly the same words coming from artists on TikTok. It’s the same arguments, the same struggle. It’s so wild. But yes, it took a super-long time! Then there was recording and Production to make it feel the way it feels. It was the biggest thing I’ve ever taken on. I felt pretty scholarly! I think an art historian might appreciate it. I’m really proud of it, but I would never do a biographical idea again! [Laughs]
HMS: I love the fact that you felt this responsibility towards the source material and worked so hard on this.
SS: I just wanted it to feel super-true. Sometimes you just come across something and say, “I’ve got to do this right!” I think everyone has that in them at some point.
HMS: I actually love it when I come across something from the past that’s incredibly relevant and you’ve really done that with “Theo”. We should be looking at stuff people have created in the past rather than assuming they are too different.
SS: Sometimes it’s just dead-on accurate. You have to ask, “How has this not changed?” People are still feeling and thinking the same way about the arts, how they are funded, or not. It’s insane to see that parallel.
HMS: Some of these songs have a longer timeline than others, but when you were working with Marcus for these songs, were you talking about what kind of sound you wanted? Your last work was only released in 2021, but I feel like this EP does level up in terms of sound, orchestration, and Production.
SS: Hopefully I’m always levelling up in some way. It was a bit more natural, even, than the previous EP I did. I love that one, but maybe some of the things might have levelled up because of sonic quality and choices, but a lot of it was also because I used the natural demos that I did at home. That was surprising for me. There have been times when I used a demo as a song in the past, like with “Barcelona”. But when working with a broader project, with bigger instrumentation, I haven’t done that.
Before working with Marcus, I did so much of the work at home, recording more layers and doing more things. I did it with the idea that those elements would be replaced, so for a lot of these vocal deliveries, I didn’t really think twice about it. That might have helped them sound more relaxed. When it came time to talk about Production, we went through the list of things, Marcus would say, “We can keep that.” I was surprised. He’d say, “No, that bass is great. That guitar is perfect. Why chase a different version of that vocal? I’ll always choose performance over what mic you used.”
Quite a lot of stuff remained, setting the tone for Production. I had just been doing this out of my bedroom with simple layering of stuff. With the things that we didn’t use, I had at least laid it on, and that was partly due to the pandemic, because I had the time. I love arranging. I was able to do a lot of the groundwork. That was a big revelation for me. From there, Marcus also has great connection with great players, and we went after an organic feel that’s clean but kind of thrashy and a bit imperfect, which made it perfect for this. It was a cool process. He’s a phenomenal mixer, as well, so that was the cherry on top.
HMS: I can how see being too polished would actually not go as well with the theme of the album. Because the theme is all about these crazy experiences and trying to bring audiences into that feeling. The scenery kind of evokes the same feeling as the lyrics.
SS: That’s exactly it. We wanted it to feel the way the words felt. That’s so hard to do, but as you keep going with the process, it makes sense. You can have a nice soft song, with lyrics that are kind of Punky, and you find ways to echo that. It’s hard to explain how these things happen. There’s no right or wrong way to do it, but you figure it out in the choices and performances, as well as choosing takes.
HMS: You’re an outspoken person, but with the song ““God, Love, Prescriptions & Politics”, I feel like you might have hit some kind of breaking point where you allowed yourself to talk about some more openly about things going on in the world. Was this a turning point?
SS: It’s actually not really because there are some other political songs that I’ve written but they have never made the cut over the years. They are more solo, stripped down, Dylan-esque kind of protest songs. With this one, it’s just more public. The other ones just didn’t fit in with the EPs I was putting out, often sonically. This one, sonically, did make sense, and the theme I was going with as I was writing allowed me to shape it to go with the second half of the album. There’s internal stuff and also external factors happening in the world. These are the things we observe.
The main thing about this song is manipulation. It’s kind of about all these avenues where people are able to talk to other people in certain ways to get them to do things. It’s also about the vulnerable state that people are in. That’s what the verses do, showcasing these different issues. Then, in turn, is shows how people are taken advantage of. That’s how I see a lot of world issues. It’s people wanting some flicker of light to hold onto. They are exploited. It’s really sad. They don’t realize how they are being sucked into it. It was nice to be able air some of those thoughts in my head that I haven’t been able to share on albums before.