Cheryl Hann was in a Portland laundromat cleaning some underwear when I finally reached her after a few failed attempts. Hann is one of two drummers in the Halifax-born indie band Heaven For Real, of which there is only one member with a U.S. cellular plan. Communication can be a struggle when the band crosses the border, but Hann is relieved to not only be talking but also to get some clean underwear after more than two weeks on the road. “It feels good,” she says.
Heaven For Real are just releasing their debut album now, three years after AUX first met them. Hann only joined the band a year or so ago, adding electronic drums and auxiliary noise to the steady, frantic, and fun rhythms of drummer Nathan Doucet while fraternal twins Mark and Scott Grundy lay down their twisting, intertwined guitars and brotherly harmonies. A lot of ink has been spilled on the other bands each member has or still is also a member of – Quaker Parents, Monomyth, Old and Weird – but for the time being, all of their attention is on touring across North America to support the new album. Well, some of Hann’s attention.
On top of drumming, she is also an accomplished comedian, both in stand-up and sketch. Hann was, maybe still is, always forever will be a member of acclaimed comedy troupe Picnicface, who are currently on a “permanent hiatus.” But recently she has been focusing her non-music time on being a PhD student and finishing up her Master’s thesis, which is due in just a couple of months. What better time to go out on tour?
Hann filled us in on how she balances all of the careers in her life, the differences between comedy and music festivals, and meeting some guy with a bleeding face in Arcata, California who may have been a ghost. We didn’t actually talk about the new album at all but we’ve got the full premiere of it below, and it’s out July 15 on Mint Records.
AUX: So you’re a comedian, musician and a student? Why?
Cheryl Hann: Comedy is what I actually do. PhD student is my actual job. But comedy is my actual job, if that makes sense. Right now it is kind of crazy because I’m supposed to be writing my Master’s thesis in the back of our tour van, that was the plan I told myself would be possible. Like, “I’m gonna write my masters on tour!” But it’s not working very well. It’s really hard to write in a moving vehicle, first of all. Second, I just wind up looking out the window and then falling asleep for two hours. Even just travelling and working are two different frames of mind, let alone travelling with a prerogative.
In the van we’re always horsing around and listening to the new Kanye record, like a million times, so it’s hard to exit that realm because it’s fun to be in. I will put on headphones and listen to alpha waves to concentrate and get me in the zone, but it hasn’t been working that well. So that is kind of an issue. There has been talk of me leaving the tour early because my thesis is the most important work of my academic career. I got offered a funded position in the PhD program for September, so I definitely have to finish it. And there is a lot of pressure on my for it to get published, so it definitely has to be good.
I imagine comedy and music have some crossover.
The comedy thing has actually really gelled well with the music thing because you wind up touring and I know a lot of people in the cities we’re going to. So I just get in touch with them a couple of weeks before we roll in to see if they know of an open mic I can do or if they have a show they can put me on. I know people in L.A. and New York and Vancouver, and I’m doing a spot in Toronto when we roll through at the end of the month. So yeah, it’s worked out really well. I feel like music and comedy are first cousins or something, because of the way they work. The communities are very similar.
Which do you find to be the tougher industry – comedy or music?
I think music. Like Sled Island for example, I got treated better for being a comedian than I did as a musician. They put me up in the Fairmont Palisser, this fancy hotel that they said was haunted but I did not see any ghosts. And then they put the band up nowhere. We were supposed to billet, and luckily the label got them a room at the Ramada. The difference in how I was both treated and in how I was paid as a comedian was so many levels above how the bands were treated and paid. And part of that is because as a comedian I’m one person, and the other part is Sled Island books like six comedians and hundreds of bands. The budget can stretch further for comedians I think.
I really feel like, with comedy, if you’re good at what you do people will notice. Obviously in a city like Toronto there are so many comedians, but it’s always clear who the cream of the crop is. But with bands the scene is so saturated that it’s difficult to break through, even if you’re really talented. The connections are more like who you know, whereas with comedy you can stand out if you’re just a good comic. Music just seems like a much harder nut to crack. I’m glad I just joined the band right after we got signed to a label.
What is the difference between playing a comedy festival and playing a music festival?
I just did the Winnipeg Comedy Fest a few months ago and I feel like comedy festivals are less relaxed. Being in a room with a hundred other comedians can be one of the most stressful and exhausting experiences, because everyone is trying to be funny, like do the goofier voice. If you just want to turn the comedian off and just be a person it can be tough. I find that music festivals musicians are more like people who just play music. It’s a much more relaxed environment. But comedy festivals are way swankier. Everyone stays in a nice hotel, there are catered parties, you get treated so well. It pretty much rocks. Music festivals are more like, “Here’s a tote bag with some stickers in it. Have a nice week.”
Do you ever write jokes about the guys in Heaven For Real?
I haven’t yet, but after the tour experience I might. A lot of funny things happen when you’re all cooped up together in a small space. But I try almost on principle not to write jokes about people that I know because it’s always really obvious when the joke is about them. There is so much going on in the abstract, conceptual world that it’s not very necessary to make fun of people. But a lot of comedians do and are really good at it. I might have some stories to tell about the tour though.
Yesterday in Arcata, California a guy pulled up to us in his van and his face was covered in blood. He was bleeding so much from his face, but he didn’t comment on it once, ever. He just asked us for a cigarette and we were like, “No.” And then he launched into a very casual conversation about how in 1997 he drove his van into a brick wall going 50 miles an hour. I was like, “Is this guy a ghost, and if we go talk to our hosts are they gonna tell us that he died in that accident and he appears on the street every few years to ask for a cigarette?”
I don’t even think any of us asked if he was OK because we just assumed he was since he was talking like he was fine. But he had a lot of blood on his face. It looked like he had a cut above his eye. He seemed fine and then drove away. Oh my God, now this story is taking a different turn where we are the villains of the story!
Do you ever discuss music in your comedy?
I haven’t really. No, most of my jokes are about culture. People tell me it’s more performance art-based. I wouldn’t willingly apply that label to my comedy but some people tell me what I do is bordering on that. A lot of it is abstract and conceptual in dealing with cultural concepts surrounding gender and stuff like that. So music hasn’t really come up. But when this tour is finished I might try and put together a set of stories from this tour, because I really like storytelling comedy. It’s not something I do very often but I’ve wanted to mess around with doing it.
So if I prepare a set of crazy stories from the tour… well, I’d have to work on them so they’re better than the one I just told you about the bleeding face man. But I could punch that story up a little so people can laugh. Yeah, so I feel like if I can get something out of this tour for my comedy it would be a storytellers set.
What’s harder: telling jokes or drumming?
Definitely drumming for me because I’m newer to it. I’ve been telling jokes on stage since I was 18, when I snuck into a bar and did my first open mic night. People always tell me that getting up on stage and telling jokes seems like the hardest thing in the world, but for me it’s second nature. Drumming is still new and I haven’t mastered it yet. There is always a fear that I will mess up. It’s fun, oh man, it’s fun as hell. Drumming and doing comedy in a way are similar because if you mess up everyone knows. Even more so as a drummer because you’re responsible for holding down the whole song, and if you miss a beat it’s so obvious to everyone. It’s totally nerve-wracking for me.
You’re in Heaven For Real and were in the comedy troupe Picnicface. Which would be better – Heaven For Real doing sketch comedy or Picnicface doing music?
Like which would actually be good? Probably Picnicface doing music. Andy [Bush] is an amazing piano player. Mark [Little] played bass in a punk band in BC for like five years. And Evany [Rosen] can sing really well. I feel like they could slap together a decent musical project if they tried. But then I’m like what would Brian [MacQuarrie] do? I think Heaven For Real would be good at comedy. But sketch comedy you have to write and that’s the problem. They’d probably be good at improv though.