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Talking The Wonder of Music and Life with Red Herring’s Enrico Renz

Vancouver progressive rock/art-rock band Red Herring is back together after going their separate ways in the mid-80s. Now they are revitalized by their connection and their desire to make adventurous music and have just released their EP Neon on all the major streaming platforms as well as physically. I hopped on Zoom to talk to the lead singer and lyricist Enrico Renz last week, which was an absolute delight. Enrico is intelligent, passionate, curious about life and music, and we discussed the history of Red Herring as well as Enrico’s history, and what to expect from Neon.

Art-rock band, Red Herring's 2020 band press photo. Shot by photographer Elizabeth Clark-Lazin.
Photo by Elizabeth Clark-Lazin.

How would you describe Red Herring to people who haven’t heard them? Enrico: I’d want them to think that they’re going to hear an adventure. If you like unusual ideas with a beat, then you’ll probably like Red Herring.

What are your musical influences? Enrico: Absolutely everything. Yodeling mountain songs in Switzerland, to the Alpine songs of Italy, to marches, opera, punk, music from Nepal, pygmy singing, and African drumming.

That’s quite an eclectic music taste. How did you come across all of those, and what made you want to experience such a wide variety of music? Enrico: It’s this thing called life. How can you avoid it these days? It’s all around us. And it’s so interesting, all these sounds that have been with us from all over the world, over all of time. It’s hard to think of a time or a place that isn’t somehow associated with a specific sound. It’s fun to delve into that.

What do you find yourself listening to the most? When you’re in the songwriting mood, do you go with what you’re feeling at the time, or try to draw from a specific influence? Enrico: Following the high silver nerve, I think I got that from a Leonard Cohen song, “following the high silver nerve,” is kind of my approach. Which is very dedicated, very intense, but it’s constantly going from one tantric to the next, so it turns out to be very convoluted, but interesting. It’s like a stream following the path of least resistance.

Being able to go with the flow and follow whatever your feeling must be a fun way of working through the process. Enrico: It’s a rollercoaster ride. Every day it’s like taking a mountain bike to the very top of the mountain and you have no idea what the trail is like, but having confidence that you got your basic chops down, so there’s a pretty good chance you’re gonna land on your feet. And you do that day, after day, after day. With music, you can’t break any bones.

You guys took a long time off, what made you want to pick up again all these years later, with the same guys and the same band? Enrico: Well, human connections are pretty mysterious, aren’t they? And it’s funny how after decades, you gravitate back to a certain group again, and it feels very comfortable and kinda like family. And I don’t think it was planned. We went our separate ways, never really deciding to go that way, everybody had life creep in in different ways, and we all went in separate directions, and pretty soon we were playing fewer gigs, and then none at all. We’d still get together casually with each other and jam and explore. So never really lost connection. At one point, Steve Lazin, the drummer and I, were playing together in Vancouver, The Prop House. So Steve and I would do free improv, with guitars and piano and the like. That was a lot of fun, and so at one point, Stephen Nikleva came and joined us, and at that point, we thought, “Holy smokes, this is almost Red Herring, we better give Martin a call!” And the Red Herring crowd came out again, and so we played the old Red Herring songs again, and that felt really great. And the thing about Red Herring, we always want to do new stuff. We’re always excited about where have yet to go. It always feels like an adventure, like I said earlier. Red Herring is about going where no being has gone before. And beings have probably gone there many times, but we have the feeling that we’re going there for the first time, which makes it so much fun.

What did life have in store for you during the hiatus? Enrico: Well, I started a family, got into teaching. I was an elementary school teacher for 35 years. With teaching that young, you teach absolutely everything. With that job, you become a jack of all trades, which is really cool.

You mentioned being inspired by many different cultures and places. Have you done a lot of travelling? Enrico: I’m not a traveller physically. Maybe sometime I’ll get to it. I do have a longing to see some of this music that I’ve been listening to all my life in its birthplace. On the other hand, I’m not a traveller. But it could happen in the future.

You guys are releasing your new EP Neon on November 6th. What can we expect from this release? Enrico: An adventure! All six songs are written by us, all original material. I think you’ll be struck by the variety, which we always have that explorer mindset, and studier mindset too. I think all of us in the band are really serious absorbers of stuff, putting in thousands of hours studying jazz and tango and you name it, so it all gets somehow stirred up, but not in a cut-and-paste kinda way, I think in a genuine expression of where we’re at. We study this stuff, but we’re really just trying to go somewhere new. And every song on the EP shows a different facet of our explorations.

Could you explain how “Julia” came about? Enrico: So “Brain Song” is the first single on the EP and the second single is “Julia.” And you’ll get a pretty good sense of the contrast and different approaches we do. I don’t know if you heard those songs back to back, it wouldn’t even occur to you that it’s the same band. And we’re hoping that people will get that feeling as they jump from song to song, and everything is a completely different scenario. But in some deeper sense, there’s still a connection from song to song. So think of it like reading a book with very sharp twists and turns at every chapter.

Tell me about the songwriting and musical camaraderie in the band. Do you guys write in the room, or do it piece-mail separately? Enrico: Well, it’s a process that has evolved over the years and hopefully will continue to evolve. In the beginning, it was me and Stephen Nikleva. I had written a whole bunch of songs…actually, I was a student at UBC at that time, and one of the courses I was taking was songwriting. It was taught by Keith Mallard, whose a wonderful novelist who always had quite an extensive musical background, the course was a very powerful approach to songs. When I was listening to Keith talk about his thoughts on songs, I really got that songs could be an important form of literature. Remember, he was a novelist, writing really serious novels that got you engaged in what life was all about, and here he was teaching songwriting. He played some of the songs that made him think, and they were from all different times and cultures. Everything can spark an idea from a different angle, so you want to look at everything out there. He really liked what I was doing and he gave Stephen a call and produced the two of us. So to have these guys interested in what I was writing was quite uplifting. And then Stephen and I were connected ever since, and we started charting out songs. He had a lot of experience not just with being a strong guitar player, but also a great arranger, how an entire band should sound. We were trying out different players and doing different gigs with different combinations, and Martin and Steve ended up sticking and becoming the real Red Herring. Then I always wanted to write more from a band, instead of just writing my songs. I was really pushing for that. We did stuff where we wrote some riffs and then I wrote stuff on top of it, and that was really cool. I hope we’re able to get back together and do it that way because it’s a very time-consuming thing. It takes nearly every day to get that to a really good level. But we want to make music that flows organically and so it’s not really clear who the leader of the band is.

What’s the next step for the band? Enrico: Well, I think a lot of it depends on what happens with Neon if that makes any waves. It would be energizing if it did, and whenever there’s energy in the room, things get very exciting. I would love to get together with these guys and make Red Herring a priority for all of us for a while and generate some new material. We all have tons of stuff bubbling up inside, and bringing it altogether would be great.

What is a question you wished people asked you more often but seldom do? Enrico: Definitely, “What are the words?” I find that not all that many people are interested in the words in the songs. As someone who is primarily a lyricist, that’s always been a tough pill to swallow. But I realize I’m the same way, I can love a song and have no idea what the words are. But still…if someone asks what the words are, and I can calmly just tell them what they are and what the story is and they can appreciate that, that’s always a thrill.

What influences your lyrics? Enrico: I’ve always been very interested in words. Poetry, philosophy, literature, novels, really good writing was always exciting to me, wherever it was. I’ve tried various types of writing, but songwriting ended up being the thing for me. It’s not necessarily other lyricists. With lyrics, I hear emotional content more than the words themselves, and I think most people hear songs on that level, that’s an important level. That’s why you can listen to songs in other languages, you can have no idea what they’re saying, but they sound beautiful and right somehow. I think I approach lyrics more as a storyteller, gotta keep your attention at every second, is what I try to do.

Is there anything else you wanted to say about Red Herring? Enrico: If you’re interested in interesting music made by guys and gals who are in the pursuit of adventure and new sounds, new ideas, new stories with pretty darn good rhythm, you should check out Red Herring.


Check out more from Red Herring:

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