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Sean Nicholas Savage: the dream catcher

Hyper-prolific musical alchemist Sean Nicholas Savage turns his dreams into sex-pop gold. We take a trip inside his fantasy world

Sean Nicholas Savage has been having this recurring dream. He’s in a jungle, one packed so tight with brush that he barely sees the ground. He’s moving through the trees and past waterfalls as he leads a pack of naked men with spears and rocks in a battle against some more conventionally normal-looking guys in clothes. They reach higher and higher ground, until eventually his savage-looking pack manages to kill the enemies from above.

This is just one of several surreal fantasies and nightmares the 27-year-old Canadian singer relays to me at length over two days on tour from New York to Boston and back, during car rides and late night conversations. The stories are coherent for about ten minutes each, but what’s most impressive is Savage’s commitment to vivid details – colours, sounds, secondary characters – and the way his dreams cross-reference each other. He speaks about the recurring flying dreams he’s been having since childhood (over the years he’s been getting better and better, flying higher and higher) and the intricate, out-there sex dream that inspired the title track of his forthcoming record, Bermuda Waterfall, his 11th  album.

On the first night of our weekend in March, we cram ourselves with his musicians into a tiny black Hertz rental car and drive five hours towards Boston, where tonight they play the first of eight shows en route to SXSW. For this tour, his band are Canadian scene staples Daniel Benjamin (of Moon King) and Dylan Aiello (aka Dylan III), both on keys and backing vocals. Savage doesn’t drive, but the road is more or less his home for now, after growing up in Edmonton, Alberta, and living in Toronto, Montreal and then Berlin. (In Montreal, Savage was at one point a sporadic resident at Lab Synthèse, the legendary DIY show-space that morphed into Arbutus Records in 2008; Savage’s first record was also the label’s first release.) “I had a girlfriend in Montreal and she was kind of my rock,” he says in the back of the car, sitting up straight with his hands folded over a brown suede backpack. “Now touring is like my girlfriend. Touring is my rock.” The past month he’s been in New York, hibernating and laying low after a long nocturnal bender of sleepless nights and too much alcohol. He’s feeling better now.

Tonight’s performance is at the Whitehaus, a long-running “show house” in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighbourhood that’s a key platform for experimental New England music and art, known for hosting the weirdest of weirdos. From the outside, the house looks like a fairly unassuming co-op with some overgrown plants and bikes scattered around. Inside, the walls are completely collaged with crinkled posters and scrappy paintings that look like they’ve been plucked from dumpsters, and each room is packed to the brim with instruments, records and plants. Dominating all is an enormous ever-evolving hanging garbage sculpture called “The Unfreakable”, made of bike wheels, wood scraps and broken kitchen appliances. “We now return you to the present day,” reads a huge poster hanging in the living room. 

“We have a bunch of new songs,” Savage tells a crowd of about 50 later that night in the perfectly dank Whitehaus basement. In stark contrast to the grimy surroundings, Savage is sharp and chic in a white shirt, white pants and white socks (no shoes though), and his hair is stylishly slicked back. As always, there is a distinct theatrical quality to his performance. He closes his eyes and shakes his head as he sings, clutching the mic with one hand and throwing the other up towards the sky, swaying back and forth with his knees bent. Savage’s high, feminine voice is strange and stunning as he sings to an ecstatic crowd. “Play ‘You Changed Me’!” (from 2011’s Flamingo) someone shouts out from the back of the packed pitch-black basement. He complies, and also plays songs from 2013’s Other Life, a break-up album of sorts, offering a snapshot of his vast discography, which ranges from bright synth-centred pop to sadder, more minimal ballads. But it’s the new songs – “Bermuda Waterfall” in particular – that are alarmingly good. After his set, Savage pulls out his Club Monaco bag full of LPs and sets up shop on the cluttered kitchen table.

 “I start making her very wet with my wand, to have sex with her, and she starts just pouring a waterfall of cum between her legs, waterfalls pouring on to the dunes on the planet”

Hours later, the singer is sprawled out on a red plaid couch under a black blanket in a friend’s living room just up the block. It’s nearing 3am when Savage tells me the story of the dream that inspired “Bermuda Waterfall”. It starts out on a spaceship, where he sees the love of his life and her crew, but they’re not on good terms. “She knows I have a wand with me, and a kind of power that they need,” he explains. They need to land the ship on a dry planet, but don’t know how they’ll survive there without water and air. “I start making her very wet with my wand, to have sex with her, and she starts just pouring a waterfall of cum between her legs, waterfalls pouring on to the dunes on the planet,” he says. “Then green grass is growing. In a way the dream felt horrifying. This cum waterfall was just destroying the planet very quickly.” As Savage explains, “It’s a dream about lust overpowering knowledge, about lust overpowering good sense and the ignorance that is essential to survival.”

Dreams are a recurrent inspiration for Savage’s songwriting, from the bubblegum-tinged pop of “Dreamers Die Hard” from 2009’s Spread Free Like a Butterfly (When you have a dream the world is dreaming too / And life can be so strange when your sweet dreams are through”) to the shuffling, harmony-heavy “In My Dream” from 2010’s Mutual Feelings of Respect and Admiration. Even when they’re not being referenced explicitly in the lyrics, there is a hallucinatory quality about Savage’s music and the subtle drama of his show. 

“It’s like a theatre performance,” he says, explaining his approach to singing live. “It’s like being an actor in a play, but the play is about your own life. It’s a true story, so it’s arguably not acting, but it is performing.” The songs are all hyper-autobiographical, so delivering each one night after night is a task. “It’s like going through the photo book of the song,” Savage explains. “They pretty much pull you in. It’s not like a photo that you can just flip over. You’ve gotta look at it for three minutes and retrace your finger along the entire thing. So I do feel and see the same things every time.”

Savage has no formal acting experience, but he has been working on a film for months with his friend Angus Borsos, who directed the videos for “You Changed Me”, “Other Life” and  “It’s Real”. “We are going to finish it, because it’s really important to us,” Savage says. “If it doesn’t get finished, we learned a lot. But if it does get finished, it will be one of the best things I’ve ever been part of.” Savage recalls a particularly insane night on set when he and Borsos were up on the top floor of a skyscraper and the entire room filled with fog. “I’m in this crazy costume, and Angus is wearing a chicken suit,” Savage says. “It was super surreal. It was as strange as the strangest dreams I’ve ever had. Weird weird weird weird weird.”

“You’re calling me an outcast? I’m a confident guy and I’m confident in what I’m doing. I think my music is quality work. It’s not freak music. I don’t think anyone would ever say in an interview, ‘Yeah, I’m an outsider.’ Outside of what?”

Savage’s imaginative personality and prolific body of work is often interpreted for eccentricity, but he rejects the outsider narrative. “It comes off as a little hurtful if someone calls you an outsider,” he says with sincerity the next day on our way back to New York, crammed in back of the tiny car again. “You’re calling me an outcast? I’m a confident guy and I’m confident in what I’m doing. I think my music is quality work. It’s not freak music. I don’t think anyone would ever say in an interview, ‘Yeah, I’m an outsider.’ Outside of what?” He’s also generally dismissive of the genres and “grades” assigned to him by the music media. “I didn’t go to college. I didn’t have a good time with the system in school, being graded by these numbskulls and people I just really didn’t get along with. I think it’s rich that some websites now want to grade my work. Sorry, but I get 100 per cent on everything I do. I didn’t fucking go to college and I don’t give a shit about this system.”

Before long, he’s back in dreamworld. Savage finally explains the details of a dream he’s been alluding to since yesterday. He opens his laptop, pulls open a text file of a dream diary of sorts and reads aloud his recollection of an epic multi-layered nightmare he had recently, which included flashbacks to several of his recurring dreams at once. “There was a huge climax, it was so scary,” he says as we drive along a snow-lined Mass Pike (the major east-west highway in Massachusetts) back towards New York. “There was this man who was going to break my bones and tear me to shreds and it was real... And this alien voice telling me, ‘You can’t beat him.’” He calls it “the castle dream”, and it’s been haunting him. “It’s a riddle and I don’t know how to solve it. When I solve it, it will be a huge thing for me. Like a message from the other side. I think I’ll write a song about it.” No doubt he’ll get 100 per cent on that, too.

Credits

styling assistant Katie Eytch