David Arcus: A Composer's Sonic Approach

Musician and composer David Arcus is a true original. Even in Toronto's many diverse musical scenes, he's carved out a special nook for himself. With a background and tastes that include classical music, retro film soundtracks, indie rock and jazz along with Brazilian and West African styles, Arcus manages to bring together subtle touches and intuitive emotional intelligence to his work. As a composer, arranger, and multi-instrumentalist performer, his ability to create compelling songs and arrangements -- from raw ingredients like a percussion or horn section, a vocalist, or a few killer sounds he's been dying to use -- never fails to please. 
The producer and arranger of the Juno-nominated Aline Morales album Flores, Tambores e Amores, David Arcus told us about blending Brazilian music with otherwise unconventional sonic pairings and more. All of this comes ahead of the first show he's putting on under his own name in June at Toronto's Music Gallery.
When did you know you wanted to work with music full-time?

David Arcus: Believe it or not, my original major in university was biology. Even though I had a love for music, especially composing, I didn’t quite have the confidence to take the plunge and commit myself to music full time. A big shift happened at the end of my second year of biology. I was unhappy and basically realized if I didn’t give music a try I would always regret it. I ended up dropping out of sciences and enrolling in classical composition at U of T.Even though classical music was my main area of study, my musical interests have always been very broad. I listen to everything from rock to jazz to film scores. It was during university that I was first exposed in a serious way to the music of Brazil. That’s also when I met and started working with Aline Morales.

Influences and touchstones

The Aline Morales record in particular includes a lot of "indie rock" (for lack of a better term) influences alongside various ones from Brazilian music and culture. How do you see the mix working? Were there challenges putting these two kinds of sounds together? What was your bottom line when producing and writing the album?

The blend of influences you hear on Flores, Tambores e Amores was the result of a long process of exploration. When Aline and I started working on Flores, we did so without any real gameplan. We’d been writing together for a while but I think we both felt we hadn’t quite found our sound yet. As the writing sessions went on, for whatever reason, the music that we were writing started to change. Whereas before it had been more strictly Brazilian sounding, the new songs were incorporating more diverse influences. I think we were just freeing ourselves up – we both listen to so many different styles of music, it didn’t makes sense to limit ourselves to just one thing.From that point on, things progressed very organically, and at a certain point I remember feeling like we had come across a sound that represented where we were at at that time. That’s when the album really started coming together.

Collaborative process

You do a lot of collaboration, especially with Aline Morales. How does it work? How do other collaborations work? How do you figure out who does what, and how much of the collaborations you do (including but not limited to working w. Aline) are you, and how much the other person? When we we listen to a piece, what is it that we'll hear that will make us say "that's Dave"?

For me every collaboration is different and has its own dynamic. With Aline and I, it tends to be very fluid – we’re both constantly throwing in ideas, to the point where it’s hard to say which elements come from whom. Often, I’ll have a vague idea for a riff or chord progression and I’ll show it to Aline. She’ll come up with a melodic idea and we’ll kind of go from there, bouncing ideas back and forth. I wrote a lot of the melodic arrangements on the album, but even in that department Aline had input at every stage along the way.If there’s one aspect of Flores, Tambores e Amores in particular that carries my stamp, I would say it’s in the sonic approach. As a producer, I’ve got a real love for analog sounds. I love vintage gear and we used a lot of it on the album (tube mics and preamps, tape). I spent a lot of time experimenting with different recording techniques and I worked really closely with the mixer, Chris Crerar, to craft the sound of the album.

The Music Gallery and beyond

What can we look forward to for this show? What makes it special?

When I was first approached by David Dacks to put together a show for the Music Gallery, I have to admit I was intimidated. I’ve seen so many incredible shows at that venue over the years. But I knew the opportunity that was too good to pass up. The Music Gallery is one of those great venues where you can try out all those ideas that wouldn’t be possible anywhere else.Some of the material for this show will be familiar to those who know the Aline Morales album and the music I’ve written for the Uma Nota parties. But I think people will be surprised at how the music has transformed. Along with some new pieces, the existing arrangements have been expanded and re-orchestrated for a new instrumentation.I’ve put together an 11-piece ensemble for this performance, featuring some of my favourite musicians in the city. We’ve got five horns, vibraphone, percussion, drum kit, bass and guitar, as well as some special guests. Musicians included members from the Heavyweights Brass Band, Kobo Town, Friendlyness and the Human Rights, Samba Elégua, Nick Teehan and special guest Aline Morales. This might be the only time you see all these musicians on stage together so don’t miss it!

What's coming up in the next few months?

Aline and I are currently at work on the follow-up to Flores. We’ve got a tour of Quebec coming up in August, finishing up with a show as part of the Summerworks Festival in Toronto. I’m also working on the debut EP for Hello Gumption, an alt-folk group I play with, due out later in the year.

David Arcus Ensemble performs at The Music Gallery's season finale on Friday, June 15th. Check out The Music Gallery online and their and Facebook event for more info.