It’s received by Edmontonians with almost universal dread, every year, without fail. Winter comes; winter stays far too long; winter goes, in fits and starts, with sudden, astonishing, blizzardy reversals. The season of weird, most-of-the-clock darkness is a defining feature of Prairie life, an annual disruption that sometimes drags us back in time, to when Nature dominated us instead of the other way around, and seems to be a constant source of frustration for its inhabitants. Human inhabitants, anyway. Beneath the snowpack, rodents do their rodenty thing in a micro-environment around a stable zero degrees, and everything green waits for spring, dreaming of the sun in their seeds, pods, and burrows. Come winter, the land is no longer yours. The land has its own needs and its own desires. You, my friend, are incidental.
On his latest release, In the Dark on 99, Jom Comyn—aka songmaker Jim Cuming—captures the season and its indifference to us in exquisite detail. Not necessarily in a physical sense, although there are plenty of references to weather, but in emotional and experiential ways—winter’s interiority, its deep silence, its pervasive melancholy and isolated feel. 99 is no concept album, and not all the songs are winterized, but enough are present and explicit (“O Frozen Sidewalk,” “Drift” and “Shivering Cold,” for starters) that some thematic outlines are clearly visible.
According to Cuming, 99 had a humbler genesis than the epic record it eventually became suggests.
“I had made Sunstroke, a summer EP, so I thought I’d write a winter EP as a companion of sorts,” Cuming recalls. “But no. It didn’t really work. So I wrote more songs; winter was only one aspect. But I was interested in how the landscape changes in winter: how we can be in the same place, but it changes. How you could walk on the ground all through spring, summer and fall, but in winter, you can’t walk on the ground. All these places you see in the warmer part of the year, carelessly zipping by on a bike, you see them again when you trudge by, step by step, in the snow, and those places are different then. You feel each block, when it’s so cold, and it’s snowing and the wind is blowing, and whatever.”
The season lends itself to metaphor, especially for the darker areas of human experience, and Cuming made use of the traditional evocations.
“There’s that kind of hippy thing of relating the passing of seasons, something that’s so impersonal, rhythms that are just imposed on us, to metaphors for cycles of life,” Cuming offers. “There are changes; things come to an end. In 2012, when I was writing most of [the record], I knew people who died. I went to, like, four funerals that year. And death went from being on the periphery of my mind to being more central, and I thought to myself: ‘I’m going to be going to funerals for people I know for the rest of my life, unless I go first.’ So on the album, that’s there. It’s not explicit, but there’s a nod to it. It’s such a cliché, but it’s also primordial and elemental.”
Cuming speaks in a low rumble, like a cartoon bear, and could easily sound gruff if he were not mild, affable and thoughtful. He answers questions in circuitous chunks, during which he strikes out in one direction before he circles and backtracks, qualifies and self-corrects and reconsiders before arriving at his final point. It’s like he’s machete-ing through a thick overgrowth of ideas and words, hacking away at the foliage until a sudden breathtaking vista is revealed. You can almost hear his writing process when he talks, and perhaps also his more general stance of being in the world, a kind of attentive, omnivorous curiosity coupled with an introspective temperament. (The album contains multiple references to wanting to be alone.)
That particular combination of traits serves him well as an artist, as his EPs and albums prove, although it also lays the ground for tortuous self-doubt. Cuming bats away the suggestion that he’s a prolific creator, despite the fact that he is well under 30 and has at least 6 recordings to his credit.
“It seems pretty patchy to me,” he contends. “I envy songwriters who can really churn stuff out, like Eamon McGrath and Sean Savage and Renny Wilson and guys like that. Those guys are always writing and they seem to have found a pretty uncomplicated and unobstructed way, like an assembly line, but without the negative connotations of an assembly line, from the impulse. They embrace the fact that they have this songwriting impulse, and they’ve all kind of taken it more seriously, and I still don’t feel I’ve done that. From the time I’ve started working on  up until now, it’s been weird. I haven’t really been writing a lot lately, and I’ve been going in circles about how I feel about what I’m doing, so I sort of feel I haven’t come into my stride yet.”
If that’s the case, he’s going to be truly formidable when he does. But then again, he judges himself harshly not so much because of what he’s done, but what remains to be done: all the little nuggets of ideas lying around in his brain, all the little lines and seeds of songs waiting to be nurtured into full-blown creations.
Music has been a primary outlet for Cuming since he was a teenager, and was a defining part of his childhood in rural Alberta.
“We always listened to music, for sure,” Cuming notes. “My dad’s a lifelong musician. He was a professional; he’d play in bars. I think he did some original stuff, but the emphasis in that generation—like, he was playing it for a living—so there was a jukebox, and you’d come in and learn all the hits of the day. He’d play in blues bands and in country bands, but mostly rock bands. There was definitely a prejudice in the house away from newness and towards the mid ’50s to ’70s rock music, that sort of canon, and that’s definitely where my kind of inclinations lie, still.”
You can hear the canon in Cuming’s work: elements of doo-wop, spacey and deconstructed, the deep melodicism of pop, but smudged and blurred, and warm AM rock, but spaciously stretched out and rendered with more intimacy.
“It was a very opinionated household on music,” Cuming continues. “He was like everybody’s dad, but then the extra push of it was that it was his professional concern as well. When me and my sister were listening to TLC when we were eight, he’d come along and go. ‘What is this? They’re not even playing instruments!’. It was hard for him to grasp. And then I got into punk, and I realized that this was happening at the exact same time that my dad was playing, that my dad was my age. And just learning that, what a different divide their reality was in London in the ’70s than what my parents, and all of our parents, had—living in Alberta in the oil boom, where you go to work and you have lots of money and you go and have steak and you drive your van or car around. It’s a different lifestyle. But it was a very mainstream kind of musical palette. We’d listen to stuff on the radio, and we’d listen to older stuff from tapes, taped from the record player. But me and my sister would branch out. At first, it was Power 92, so all the top hits, like, hit, hit, hit. Alannis Morrisette. That was the first concert I ever went to.”
His father bought him a guitar and other instruments followed, leading Cuming’s listening into wilder territory.
“I was not a rebellious kid, at all. I was always into the classic rock of my dad’s sanctioning and whatever the pop hits of the day were, and then I picked up guitar, and that’s around when I got into Metallica,” Cuming remembers. “I don’t know how I got into Metallica, but I really got into Metallica, all this tech stuff, like, I taught myself all this really hard stuff that was really fun to play. How I got to punk was very watered down, like I would see it off the TV, MuchMusic and VH1, which is obviously really not the best way to learn about punk. But I got a copy of the best of the Clash, out of curiosity, maybe because I’d heard some of their songs in movies. I got a lot of music from movies, like Guy Ritchie, like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. This whole culture of specifically British punk. I was never aware of American punk or hardcore, it was the Clash and Sex Pistols, and maybe from there I ventured off into the Specials, and from there the Pogues, which laid the seed for years later, but mainly the Clash. And of course, you follow the Clash and you’re soon out of punk and into world music and reggae and Joe Strummer’s solo stuff, and he did all kinds of stuff.”
Cuming’s limited punk knowledge was a source of mirth when he played in the hardcore scene. “I was in a band a few years ago and we did a Halloween cover show of Minor Threat. I don’t know where it was, probably in a jam, but I said the name of a title wrong, and the cat was out of the bag—they realized I’d never heard Minor Threat up until that point,” he laughs. “But I don’t go for new bands. I’ll find things that I like and I’ll just listen to them over and over and over and over and over. I wish I could be a little more encyclopedic and I do try, a little bit, but if I like something I’ll listen to it day and night. When I got into Celtic music, I started with The Best of the Dubliners, then instead of branching out, I would just listen to that, over and over and over and over again.”
He describes his first, teenaged songwriting and recordings as being “a lot of pop-punk, like Blink-182 stuff,” that eventually morphed into “either Weezer ripoffs or Strokes ripoffs, or when I was being really original, I would combine the two.” Cuming still has them, but they were recorded on four-track, and he doesn’t have the gear to bring them to life.
“Part of me wants to listen to them again. It’s like having an old photograph. I’m curious about what ideas I had then and how good I was getting them there,” he says. “I had a long gestation period where, effectively, no one heard me. The first five or so years I had of writing music was a period where if I had an idea and I could write it out, I could record it and arrange it for drums and bass and guitar and play all of those, and no one would hear it. My mom and dad would, because I was in the basement, and I would show the odd friend, but I had to be confident about it, and I wasn’t confident about most of it. Because it was only me who ever heard it, I could make my own decisions about it.”
Cuming’s still uneasy about the desires and conflicts inherent in creating art. “I think every single songwriter—well, it’s very common—has this thing. You have to turn off your critical faculties to write. It’s a playful balance. You have to have the impulse and you have to make sense of it, and you have to know it’s a worthwhile impulse to follow through on to allow the sort of unconscious dreamwork or whatever it is to happen, that will make it a song instead of just a little idea. Afterwards, you can look at it critically, but there has to be a germ inside of it you believe is worth working on. It’s easier when you’re young, because your critical faculties are much more developed when you get older. I can make a horrible racket on a guitar when I’m 14, and I don’t think it’s a horrible racket—I think it’s great. And if I thought it was a horrible racket I would not make it. I tried learning accordion and it’s hard, because you suck for a while, and it’s hard when you’re an adult to surrender yourself to that inability. And I think with songwriting, that feeling never quite goes away. The further I go and the more I know people are listening, it’s harder. That way of songwriting I got used to when I was younger, when I had to fool myself into thinking that no one could hear me, not even my mom, because otherwise I probably couldn’t do it. And now it’s weird, when I get an idea for a song, I know in the back of my head that I have the ability to put it on a record if I choose to.”
Cuming tapers off and considers a moment.
“And maybe I want to,” he concedes.
Sat, Dec 21 (9 pm)
Jom Comyn Band
With Energetic Action
Wunderbar, $10 (advance)$12 (door)