Published Jan 20, 2017Last summer, songwriter Danny Michel went on the trip of a lifetime: an 18-day Arctic cruise from Greenland to Nunavut aboard the Kapitan Khlebnikov, a Russian ice-breaker, along with his friend, astronaut Chris Hadfield, and nine photographers, bloggers and videographers from around the world.
Michel's mission was to write and record an album while on board; Khlebnikov, his aptly named album based on the experience, is out now.
Michel spoke to Exclaim! about the inspiration and challenges of making a record on an ice breaker. Here are some other things you might want to know before you get on board.
1. Keep it light enough to travel.
Michel, along with the other passengers, was only allowed to take a small bag onto the Khlebnikov, which he boarded via helicopter. (The ship made an exception for two parlour-sized Chris Hadfield edition Larrivée guitars, one for Michel and another for Hadfield.)
"I was literally counting out microphones and cables and weighing microphones. Which microphones are the lightest?," Michel says. Two Neumann TLM 102s ended up in his bag. The rest, he says, was mostly socks and long underwear.
2. If you're freaking out, keep your eye on Hadfield.
They say going to the Arctic is as close to leaving the planet as you're gonna get. And like space travel, Generator Arctic was full of adventure — and also danger. Guests were safety-trained for helicopters and Zodiacs, both requiring separate life jackets. "They say four minutes in that water and you're dead," Michel says. "So the idea of falling in that water by accident as you're getting in and out of the Zodiacs off the side ladder of a shaking ship is pretty serious."
Michel, Hadfield and other participants went on rides in old Russian helicopters with wood panel floors ("like an old train caboose") and they were driven by real "hotdog" pilots. "They would fly really low in front of glaciers and do lots of scary stuff and you feel like you're in an old lawn mower and you're like 'I hope this thing makes it and doesn't plummet into the sea,'" Michel says. "[At some point] you just kind of give up being scared and accept you're doing something risky and incredible. And I just kind of kept my eye on Hadfield too, cause he's a very smart man; he's done a lot of dangerous things; he's gone in rocket ships through the atmosphere, and he knows these machines better than anyone. If he's going, I'm going! I'm not going to say no to a helicopter ride onto a glacier with Hadfield."
3. A 15,000 ton ice breaker is really, really loud.
"[The Khlebnikov] is making constant smashing, banging, crunching sounds as it's hitting the ice, which is an incredible sound," Michel says. "I kind of grew to love it. When you're on a boat, you have that rocking feeling, but this is different. You're in bed and all of a sudden there's a real big jerk like it's hitting something.
"I remember it being four in the morning and it was like bang, bang, bang and I was like, 'man, we must be going through some huge ice, this must be spectacular.' I put on all of my gear and went and stood on the bow of the boat all by myself. It was light out (well kind of like sunset: the sunset would last four or five hours and the sun kind of dips into that area and then comes back up). I watched us crush through pieces of ice the size of downtown Toronto. It was nuts. I couldn't even comprehend what I was seeing."
4. Does it really take an Arctic cruise to get people off Facebook? Yes.
One of the big challenges for the Generator Arctic participants was that — for some of them, perhaps, for the first times in their young adult lives — they went for 18 days without internet or cell service.
"About a week in, we all suddenly admitted to each other how addicted we all are to it and, once we got over the little hump, we were just loving not doing it anymore," Michel says. "I would carry my phone around, which at that point had just become a camera, and I'd find myself pulling it out of my pocket, opening it, and then going 'right, I can't do anything.'
"We dreaded coming back and turning on our email and getting a thousand emails and we all promised we'd change our habits and we all kind of admit we got sucked back in again."