Palma Violets sound a little bit like Bowie doing his best Sid Vicious impression; it’s Garage Rock on peyote. The light organ play in the background, the overuse of the bass drum, the borderline manic guitar, it all works; even the happy shakers on their track ‘Set Up for the Cool Cats’ sound more like a social commentary then some motif they learned from Fleetwood Mac.
Admittedly I did not know who they were when they came on the stage. The Grove Festival was advertised as a ‘Boutique Festival,’ so I expected to see a few bands with street cred that weren’t booked to play Lolla. I gotta say though, these guys were so incredibly refreshing that I literally watched the whole thing with a sort of gapping crooked smile on my face, the kind you get when you see something ridiculous that’s impressive at the same time. And by refreshing I mean the lead singer, Samuel Fryer, worked the stage like some drunken nephew who escaped the family luncheon, stole a guitar, busted through security onto the stage, and proceeded to rock his face off to everyone’s delight. Think Michael J. Fox’s guitar rip in Back to the Future but instead of clean cut ‘80’s, it’s Edward Furlong two days into a binge, sweating twice as much, with all the on-stage presence of Shannon Hoon at his best. Simply said, they were incredible.
Twenty years ago the music industry started making anti-corporate statements that took the form of artists dressing like our grandparents. Reused clothing, greasy hair, vintage, vintage, vintage, anything that could be deemed anti-establishment was considered the height of political awareness; everyone knows Kurt Cobain’s iconic wool cardigans. I saw this I-don’t-give-a-sh*t-what-you-think attitude in Palma Violets, and for the first couple of tracks, I think the audience saw it too and didn’t know quite what to do with it. It’s hard for people to get into a set that they feel isn’t played for them, which arguably it wasn’t. The boys have this way of playing that makes you wonder if they think they’re still in their parent’s garage. After two tracks though, it would have been hard for anyone to argue their ability to rock, their talent, and how cool Fryer looked smoking on stage. By the time they played ‘Best of Friends’ the entire park was looking for a justifiable reason to break the cool-factor-scorpion-dance that both sides were participating in and just tell the band they loved them, but it’s hard when you think the people receiving the compliment don’t give a f*ck. Enter the lyrics of the song that received the first raised hands of the day: I want to be your best friend, and I want you to be mine too, I want to be your best friend, and I want you to be mine!!! The repetitive chorus gave the audience a chance to sing along finally, and connect. Fryer let his cigarette hang out of his face as he clapped his hands over his head. There. That wasn’t so hard, was it? No everyone’s friends.
I would like to take this time to give a shout-out/ extend my own hand of friendship to William Doyle, who is BY FAR one of the greatest drummers I have ever seen live. I kept screaming, “Look at the f*cking drummer!!! Look at him go!! Are you seeing this?!?! Good Lord!! Just look at him!!” You can hear the dynamicism on their recorded tracks as well, but I’m telling you, this drummer is the tits. The whole band it awesome, fine. But Doyle, in the litter that is the drummer pool, you are a special kitten.
Palma Violets was by far the greatest surprise of the day. Huge sound and their sweaty Hobart Salesmen work shirts brought me right back to the beautifully unwashed boys of early grunge. These hard rocking boys from London know how to make an audience feel like they don’t give a sh*t you’re there….but you’ll be glad you were. Rest assured I’ll be chasing them again.
The twang of the steel guitar hits you instantly; the silvery plying of emotion from your body. Something about the sound of wilting metal that takes you instantly to an expanse of field somewhere in the Midwest…Ken Yates debut EP Twenty Three is everything that that initial note promises, stories of love and loss, simple songs thoughtfully penned without grand ambition, secrets of life extracted from caught moments in time.
So here’s the thing about good folk music; its melody and lyricism in equal measure. You can say whatever you like about how a harmonica makes you feel, or what the twist of a voice catching does to your insides, but if you don’t get that you’re listening to a sung story then you’re dead in the water. Ken Yates understands this.
Curtain Call is a beautiful song, one that allows valuable insight into Yates’ pared down expectations of fame. This song could be written about anyone. At first listen it’s seemingly written about a love interest, a girl at a country dance who projects a better version of herself because her confidence wanes when she is without approval, but it could just as easily been written about him. If that’s the case, think about the introspection that would have to have gone into writing a song about being the best version of yourself, flaws and all, for no audience at all. That in itself is true artistic merit.
‘I don’t want to Fall in Love’, arguably the album’s most commercially successful song, has gotten an incredible amount of airtime on Sirius XM’s Coffee House station. You’ve heard this song. Everyone has. It delivers what a country folk song should; unpacking both the fearful and excitable side of love from the viewpoint of a shy and most likely twice burned man who refuses to give up on the idea of love entirely, even if he writes a song telling us otherwise. What an incredible thing, a five minute profession of self realization that we as listeners recognize as a lie. That in itself is songwriting magic.
There is something pure about the way Yates approaches music. Soft country may not be everyone’s cup of sweet tea, but I believe Yates has talent. He is a great songwriter, as confessed publicly by his hero John Mayer. Twenty Three is a dish best served while you swing lazily in a hammock, a bottle of beer warming in fading country light, your cowboy hat tipped over your face as you listen to life lessons stream from the speakers as weaving silver threads.
I tip my hat to the event planners who had the foresight to put Girl Talk on before Hot Chip, who played before Phoenix. The three of them were a proper jab-hook-uppercut combo that bowled us all over. Girl Talk…There are not a lot of curtains to pull back here, so-to-speak. No insights that one cannot deduce for themselves if they’ve heard even just one of Gregg Gillis’ tracks. You could play 30secs if any of his mixes to a stranger on the street who seemingly has no understanding of what’s hip, ask them three words to describe what they think his concert might be like, and they would be right. It’s like this: the songs sound the exact same, but instead enjoying it in your living room that’s the size of a hamster ball, it an entire square city block of sound. Bigger IS better. Always.
As I fear giving you a redundant perspective, I’m going to take an editorial risk here, and attempt to explain the concert as it banked off of my friend Amy who was standing beside me. It’s like this: I’m actually reviewing my friend Amy watching the concert, instead of reviewing the concert itself. It’s Girl Talk through an ‘Amy’ filter. Got it? Are we clear? A postmodern concert review? I don’t think anything would make Girl Talk happier.
First off you should know that my friend Amy and her better half Grant are easily the most decorated concert soldiers I know, which even if I was trying to be humble, is incredible. They have seen so many bands, have collected so many tickets stubs, seen so many venues, and in the specific case of Grant, bought a gazillion concert tees. Seriously. He had a tee for almost every band that played the festival, and he changed them as the bands changed to show his fandom. (I tip my hat to YOU, Sir.)
“Holy sh*t, write that down,” Amy says. She’s doing her condensed booty shake which means she’s feeling it, and wants to move so badly that only small movements will guarantee she moves enough. She’s points to the stage, “MJ’s Do You Remember vs. Daft Punk’s Get Lucky! That’s new. Sh*******t.” She continues to move. She looks at me again and this time taps my notebook. “Write it down.”
Girl Talk has revolutionized the mixed tape. I don’t think anyone can dispute that. Who else do you know who can mix like he can? Nobody. Maybe your mother, but we don’t know who she is. “Look at him go!” Amy’s screaming because Gillis has removed his soaked white t-shirt and is swinging it above his head. She turns to me, “He’s like a little DJ Ninja.” I look up to the stage and sure enough he’s making exaggerated Bruce Lee gestures.
Every DJ has his own dance persona. Some of them favour a simple fist pump, others make hands like they’re begging for justice while jumping up and down, not to mention the ever elusion no-dance-at-all which makes you believe the DJ doesn’t even know the crowd is there. Girl Talk is a full extension kind of guy. Finger tips, to pointed toes, he explores the full breath of bodily expression. Amy giggles, and then smiles affectionately. “Ahh, that’s adorable.”
The stage is flooded with people pulled from the crowd, and I would wager his entire entourage. Honestly though, thousands of people around us are having the best dance party of their lives “Lindsay, my mind is exploding right now. Aren’t you dying?! This is so awesome.” As the set progresses, the bulkier dudes up front who at first were dominating the stage are beginning to run out of steam. “Uh, oh. Some of them are slowing down,” she says, and raises her eyebrows in concern. She nods towards the pixie-sized girls with fairy wings who are covered in body paint. “At least we know some of them are going to make it.”
I can tell you who did make it. Amy. As Girl Talk’s last climactic beats echoed through the park, Gillis raised his hand as if the salute the drifting notes as they sailed away. Amy closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, then turned to me again. “Bathroom then beer.”
Occupying in my personal opinion the best time slot for natural light, Gaslight Anthem is one of those successful underground bands who everyone loves and no one has ever heard of at the same time. Proper Indie starlettes, it is so incredibly obvious when you see them live why they have accrued such a loyal cult following. They may not be mainstream, but when lead singer Brian Fallon offered up his microphone, like he did last year at another concert, it was Eddie Vedder who rose to the challenge to sing with the band. So…ya. You should know this band if you don’t already. Gaslight Anthem has a huge catalogue and generally isn’t one of those bands who really shine in a 45min time slot. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take what I can get, but after such a short set they left the stage and I felt like I was being left in bed just when things were really getting going. Bands like Gaslight Anthem need at least an hour and half for listeners to get their fix. They are just one of those bands; bands that bring you back to that time in your life when music was invigorating for the first time.
It might be easier for people in my age bracket to understand this, as Gaslight Anthem has been true to their sound since their inception in 2007, but their particular brand of rock calls to mind that early millennial punk-easy-rock sound that was equal parts Thrifty’s flare jeans and non-gendered nail polish, and ironically disintegrated most standards of which is socially accepted as cool at the time. Today, in 2013, Gaslight Anthem is the epitome of modern rock. They continue to push the limits of conventional songwriting while still honouring the rock elements that gave the likes of Springsteen and Billy Joel their mass appeal.
They played mostly from their newest release Handwritten, peppering the set with a few oldies but goodies. When ‘45’ started up there was an amazing moment in the crowd when those who knew the song roared, and those who didn’t know who they were watching looked to those who did and nodded emphatically. Crowd synergy. As musicians they are beyond talented. They know who they are, and their the sound seems to come effortless which is amazing because as performers they are quite adept at pulling the heavy single-foot-stomp that we as listeners employ to keep time along with the drummer when the beats are deep and the bass is as responsible for that as the drums.
Like I said, the sunset was tempering into twilight. After writing all of these reviews up today it is becoming increasingly clear that I am obsessed with light. Seriously though, no matter where you’re reading this from, no matter what time of day, make a note to wait for the sunset. Download ‘National Anthem’ from Handwritten, press play, and tell me if the orange light filtering from the West isn’t made better by that song.
Phoenix started their set with the first track from their new album Bankrupt!, aptly titled Entertainment. By this time the park had completely filled up, and people were pressing aggressively towards the blue lights filtering off of the stage. I was behind a fence, stage right, watching the sea of neon wayfarers fist pump through the first few tracks. By all accounts the energy was there. Girlfriends were propped up on their boyfriend’s shoulders, there was a lot of looking back to see if the people behind you were seeing what you were seeing, as we do when we are watching spectacle. We had all gotten to the point where we were screaming for the volume to be cranked all the way up in order to have our faces pushed back as we pushed forward with our arms raised. Matrixes of lights crisscrossed in front of us; floating pictures and video were projected onto a screen behind the band; and eventually we all gasped at pyrotechnics.
Somewhere around the third or fourth track however, Phoenix lost my attention, and I settled into really wondering if this band was worth the production value their team had quite obviously put into their show. So I did a little research and discovered that lighting technicians/ ‘The Light Show’ costs somewhere between $150,000-$500,000 per concert. That’s incredible! Especially if you take into consideration how much the musicians are actually making. If the record company is the one promoting the event, then they get paid and the artist makes a percentage of the total tickets sales and from that manager fees, promoter fees, road crew, road crew beers, and all the bits and bobs of travel are also paid out. In fact the only direct way to pay the band is by buying their merch, which if you like the band is something that you should be doing every time. I began to wonder what we as viewers are actually paying for: the music, or the show. Moreover, how have these terms become mutually exclusive!? Today, the relevance of these questions has become paramount when considering how music junkies can participate in helping the industry out of the red. Concerts themselves are becoming the last stand for listener appreciation. Music streaming, pirating, and a myriad of other ways to get your music for free is slowly killing the industry. As my friend Baz always says, businesses crumple under the pressure of these ‘million little paper cuts.’ Q Music Corp. has no other choice but to rely on concert goers for steady income, and so begs the question: What are we paying for?
This is not to say that Phoenix isn’t a band without merit, and that I didn’t enjoy feeling the swell of the music and the crowd. Phoenix IS popular for a reason. Somewhere during their set though, the lights took over and they seemed to be only a live soundtrack to the dancing blue beams, strobe lights, and eventually the fireworks. Bottom line, the lights outshined the band, and as a trend that’s a huge problem.
As the show began to power down, the lights went out, and we began to hear the tinkling organ keys of the title track, Bankrupt!. In those fleeting seconds of darkness and clean notes everything that I just said gelled in my brain and I understood how important clean music was to me. As the song transitioned, the lights flooded up, and we all broke into a comfortable sway, mesmerized by the lights and Thomas Mars’ cool vocals. When the song faded, so did the light, and so the day was over. When I walked out of the park ten minutes later, little yellow ringed black dots still plagued my vision.
Have you ever been to an outdoor festival that should have been rained out? Have you ever stood in a field with thousands of other sopping wet party-goers waiting for the last band of the day, thinking to yourself, ‘I’ve got this far. I can make it another hour’? Last night Edgefest was nearly obliterated by the rain. Rivers of rain and cried tears pooled in the park’s crevices, wet teenagers who couldn’t feel anything anymore anyway huddled under tarp that they ripped down from the fencing, and I actually picked up empty garbage bags from the ground and wrapped them around my shoulders to try to shield myself from the monsoon. Covered in a massive sheet of plastic, I crouched down and tried not to think about how cold and tired I was, how much I was looking forward to a warm bath and as many fuzzy layers as I could get my hands on. Water came off of me in streams. It got to the point where I was weighing how much The Lumineers actually meant to me – what I was willing to put myself through in order to hear them live…
When the filler music died down, and the crowd began to rush the stage, I stood and wandered closer; shaking the plastic wrap and feeling the falling water soak my feet. Pink flood lights beamed out over us, illuminating the rain in the darkened sky. The band picked up their instruments and as soon as the first few notes were strummed I knew what they playing; CCR’s ‘Have You Ever Seen the Rain.’ I closed my eyes and let the music wash over me. At no other time in my life has that song meant so much. Isn’t that the exact reason why we chase live music? To feel that perfect moment of calm amidst the chaos? To feel like the universe has purpose? How else could such a moment be designed?
Never in my life have I experienced such a concert moment; a song so perfectly chosen, one so soothing and so nostalgic, one that delivered such a sense of interconnectedness with not only the band, but the sky, and the day, and every decision that led up to the first words being sung. The Lumineers played that song for us, as a thank you for weathering the storm, and I looked onto them with new appreciation. Not only are they musicians with some great songs, they are a band who understands the magic of music.
Four years ago I met Ian Bevis at a charity event. He was raising money and I was throwing out my best moves in a dance circle. When I shake hands with him again he seems to recognize me and I shudder to think it’s because of my trademark Round-the-World move that I’ve been perfecting since high school. Since that night Bear Mountain has gone from relatively obscure musical peanut to being deemed Canada’s indie prodigies. It’s surreal. Perhaps it’s because I met him outside the context of his music that I’m having a hard time believing the person in front of me is human. Together with the rest of the band we are sitting on leather couches in the foyer of their record label and I scarcely believe what I’m experiencing. I am overcome with the feeling that I am interviewing a future version of him, an apparition. Like the entire band is the physical manifestation of the letter your tenth grade teacher asked you to write to yourself five years down the line; like I’m getting a privileged glimpse into Bear Mountain’s certain future. I have an eerie feeling that when I’m done they will disappear as puffs of smoke into triangular windows, and I will wonder if it was all just a dream; for me and for them.
Bear Mountain does not have a collective idea of how they met. When I asked after the band’s history I received muddled responses and even some alarm as to when Ian and Greg truly met Kenji. What did come through loud and clear was what Kenji remembered of meeting Kyle. “I fell in love with his guitar,” he says, and everyone turns their heads in mock amusement. “Seriously. He had this really awesome double sided guitar.” Kyle nods as he remembers. “I built this little attachment to my guitar,” he says. “It’s like a kaossilator, like a chord synth unit. I hacked into the electronics and rewired it to a Guitar Hero neck. Then I built this thing, and got a metal plate, and all this; rewired it. I made it into a mini guitar that I could attached to my real guitar so I could drop down and do all these weird sound effects with it. Like a double neck guitar.” He raises his hands up and gives me a few spectacular seconds of air guitar. The piece itself, which I will boldly name The Kylossilator, is not on tour with them at the moment, but we can expect a 2.0 version to come out soon. The band is experiencing what you might perceive to be a sling shot ride into the limelight. If you were to place their rise to fame on a life graph it would look like a vertical line; as proven by transitioning from the underground Vancouver scene to playing Governor’s Ball inside of a year. Talking with them you hardly notice that notoriety has touched them at all. They still sound amazed that this is happening to them, and talk humbly about the changes in their trajectory. “It’s been less than a year,” says Ian. “Playing NXNE last year, no one knew who we were. It was a fluke we got to play at all.”
So what was the spark? Bear Mountain’s story is of a contemporary design, one seen more and more nowadays. No one can deny that the industry experienced massive shifts with the invention of GarageBand and its equivalents. Expectations of both the artist and the label have undergone complete overhauls culminating in a discernable power shift; relationships are changing and what each needs the other for is no longer universal.
“It used to be that people thought that [labels] were the gatekeepers to the industry. A lot of bands still try to go through that gate; traditional ways, traditional press, traditional labels…getting a manager. So many bands are struggling by playing that game,” says Greg. “I think we saw a different opportunity, a different road. We produced, recorded, and released. We did everything ourselves. We put it on the internet and let people decide if it was any good or not, as opposed to whatever industry was there. The music speaks for itself, it got itself to that platform, without any help from industry.” He thinks for a moment then says plainly, “whatever tools you need to make your music, use them.”
“We uploaded some tracks onto Soundcloud, and it was nuts,” says Ian. “Some of them got 40 000 hits the first day. The record got a lot of blog love too.” And then the inevitable happened. “An A & R guy at a major label heard Congo on an underground radio station and started a relationship with us, flew us down to LA, hooked us up with managers, booked shows for us.” And just like that, Bear Mountain went from taxiing down the runway to liftoff.
I asked them how much bootleg stuff was still out there. “There’s a version of Two Step out there on the internet, like an original version. Some of the original Garage Band stuff too,” says Ian. “I bet if you looked on our MySpace there’s still some tracks on there, or LastFM. There’s song called River of the Goods, a song called A Song For the Kids. I was just making this stuff and posting it the same day.” I asked them if it was true for everyone, if their path was available to the entire Canadian music landscape, that if you have the will you can find a way. Was Garage Band opening up the industry to kids in the prairies and Peggy’s Cove? “It’s free software,” says Kyle. “It’s giving everyone the chance to create. If you have a laptop, you’re good to go.”
“The recording thing is a little more tricky,” says Kenji. “What people don’t acquire is the skill to capture sound and then properly process that sound; cause that’s a totally different technique. People [using Garage Band] get packages of already made nice sounds. The art of capturing sound takes a lot more time and resources.” Greg agrees. “A full studio is completely different. You see this more though, people make do with what they have, get a buzz from it, then get some money together, then go make a record in the studio and when they start playing with the sound engineering they do it in a really creative way because they’ve had to do it creatively the hole time because they had no resources. Daft Punk started that way.” What do you think of Daft Punk’s new album? “Amazing,” says Ian, “I don’t even think we’re going to know how amazing it will be for a couple more years; see what comes from it.”
“You know they’re not touring with it,” I say.
“I didn’t expect them to,” he replies.
“Here’s the thing,” says Kenji. “They’re going to remix it.”
We are in the midst of NXNE 2013, and the scope of the festival doesn’t escape me. All week I’ve been wondering about the differences between concrete festivals, namely those in cities, and field festivals, which are self explanatory. Bear Mountain is one of few bands that played both NXNE and SXSW, and Sasquatch, and Governor’s Ball. I asked them if they had a preference between one or the other.
“The Gorge is amazing,” says Ian, and when asked about it compared to concrete festivals, “Sasquatch; there’s nowhere else to go when you’re there. There’s no going into a bar down the street for one, or over to a friend’s house for a nap. You’re just locked in this beautiful space and you’re all together.”
“Governor’s ball was muddy,” says Kyle. “But when you’re locked on a field and nobody cares, that kicks ass.”
“When were in Austin we saw so many bands, though,” Ian says.
Greg, “Every band was there. It was mayhem.”
“It was crazy to walk down the street; a parking lot, show going on; a little café, show going on. Show. Show. Rooftop show.” Said Kenji. “Across the street, rooftop show. It was pretty wild, actually.”
Many are torn, myself included. Each space brings with it its own set of good and bad, reasons to sit back in amazement, and hurdles you’d rather give to the next guy. When you’re out in the city with a wristband there’s this sense that anything could happen. It’s the expanse. Lots of stuff happens in field festivals, but the number will always be limited to what can be contained within the fairgrounds. In the city, avenues are infinite. With so many choices there is no paradigm with which to make any. Your night will be determined by the unpredictability of a red light. You’ll stumble into a bar with decent line and ask the bartender what you’re in store for. “You’re in luck,” she’ll say, and Bear Mountain will be the band powering up on stage. That band you discovered because of a random event, the perfection of which begs no explanation. They are chance, the belief that all things have purpose, if not for a road map.
Ian sings just as we want him to, calling to us from an early nineties iridescent dreamscape. Greg’s drums are hands inviting you onto the dance floor; Kyle your feeling of adventure, and Kenji is the assurance that everything is going to work out the way it’s supposed to. This is the epitome of what youth feels like; visions through triangles hanging in the sky. Bear Mountain’s music pulls us places that we had forgotten could exist, places where deep relaxation and invigoration live in harmony. To places where every day is spent atop fresh cut grass, luscious yellow light moving in beams through the branches above; where every night culminates in a slow motion dance party with your best friends, heat from your skin vibrating against the cool summer breeze.
‘Curiosity’ is bass heavy electric infused rock. Rocky Tinder and Eric Phipps, the duo manning the Wampire control center, use their debut EP to explore the nature of death and existence. You can hear them sort the themes out through their instruments; the bass line illustrates their happy-go-lucky attitude, the drums exemplify the chaotic nature of their reality, and their voices show their languid acquiescence to the aforementioned.
The track Outta Money is extremely well layered. It, as with most of the other tracks on the EP, has a haunting feel to it. The reprise in the background, with the soulful moaning up front, paired with the electronic element as well as the general tone of their music…this could easily be the second favourite song of Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill; second only to Q Lazzarus’ Goodbye Horses. Even the reverberating notes that draw the tune to a close do incredible work making one feel the omnipresence of whatever it is that Wampire attempting to articulate.
Moving on to Trains, a track that has a vintage resort feel to it; a small nod to The Black Keys and Buddy Holly wrapped into one amazing song. It works too ways. Firstly as an important break in the heavy content. This song, written about one of the most trivial aspects of day-to-day life, waiting for the train, is surprising refreshing set against the deeper themes. Secondly as an incredible lay-up to the final track on the album.
Magic Light is a must listen. Positioned expertly at the end, it is the conclusion to their exploration, their findings if you will; the answer to their beguiling questions. Everything Wampire think about life can be found in this song. “…on this merry-go-round, your feet never touch the ground, I’ll be in the park, meet me after dark….Come a little closer, let me gaze into your eyes, magic never felt so good.”
There is no shortage of great tracks on this EP. Wampire has an uncanny ability to mix genres in an awe-inspiring way. True, there is a hint of ridiculousness to their approach to music, as exemplified by their name, and their cover art; but do not let the sarcasm of their Glamour Shot dissuade you from believing that this band is genius. True artistry went into the making of this album. The opening track The Hearse has all the makings of true murk pop anthem. It may take a couple of go-throughs to get used to the whimsical way in which they approach the idea of death, their use of the iconic image of a hearse to illustrate the intersection of the morose and celebration is just one example of many in which Wampire pokes fun at the seriousness of dying. Punch lines or not, this band has an amazing sound.
The Damn Truth’s debut album Dear in the Headlights has huge sound. So huge in fact, that as a listener you can actually feel the epicness of their vision and this in turn connects you to the legendary status classic rock n roll has always held in your heart; big drums, a guitar that rips through chords and drips gold, psychedelic bass that turns your vision kaleidoscopic, and a voice that literally opens your mind. You can actually see the spinning colours when you close your eyes. ..As a consequence you feel a tremendous amount of nostalgia; probably a little too much nostalgia for The Damn Truth’s liking. I asked them what they thought about being called a revival band.
“We mind,” says Tom Shemer simply, and he’s only half kidding.
The drummer, Dave Traina, agrees. “What are you going to do about it? People are going to label you no matter what. You are what you do. You could be the most innovative band and people will find a way to tell you that you sound like something they’ve already heard.”
For any band, being told you sound like Janis Joplin fronting Black Sabbath is never a bad thing. It’s not the comparisons that itch, their sound has been likened to the greats of classic rock; it’s about respecting an album that they poured their hearts and souls into, an album that demanded they delve into the darker parts of themselves. Dear in the Headlights is the sum of their individual experiences as humans. For them, defending themselves against the revival claims is more about honouring the process and what came from it, than denying that they sound one way or the other.
Their experience in the studio was enlightening, to say the least. I asked them if they cared to comment on the correlation between music and madness. “Oh, ya. The line is a thin one, man,” says Lee-La, the singer. “I think it’s not only music though, it’s artistry; to be able to put yourself in that place where, you know- you’re doing this- you’re naked in front of the world. I try not to think about it otherwise I’ll get lost in that part of it. For me, it’s my healing. Whenever I’ve been down, anxious, angry, in pain, I would sit and write. I feel like if I’m not writing, I’m screaming. I would break things.”
Do good artists need to touch madness? Downtown’s lyrics would suggest there’s some truth to the notion; I feel so grand, my friends, they all say I’m crazy. I’m not crazy. “I don’t think it’s direct; that to be a successful artist you have to have something off-putting about you,” says Tom. “But to be in a band, and maintain your relationships; to do this four way marriage, and family, and the rest of the stuff that comes with it. That’s where the madness would probably come from. If madness were to accompany being artistic, it would definitely come from everything being thrown together, but trying to focus on only one thing.”
You don’t seem insane to me, I say. David Masse smiles, “You put four people into a room with amplification, and anything can happen.” He continues. “We work in a collaborative way, so her madness affects everything, his madness is affecting everything. On a day to day basis I think everyone has to deal with madness. That’s the nature of the beast.”
In fact, their grassroots approach to recording is something undeniably classic about them. “We use a really old school tape,” says Lee-La. “There’s a lot of things we really like to capture. We just record the four of us in a studio. Then afterwards we re-record the harmonies and layer them on top. That’s the core of it. That’s how they used to do it in the 60’s and 70’s. It’s really important for us because that’s how we work best. I love looking into these guys’ eyes and feeding off of them.”
“It’s true,” agrees Tom. “We do draw a lot from the past in terms of the way we work as a band. We don’t go into the studio and do drums, and then bass, and then fix it all up. We just play in a room. We’re a live band.”
You can really hear this on the track, I Want You(He’s a Lightweight.) The recording session even captures the light static on their amps, and Lee-La as she inhales. If you listen closely, you can even hear them pulling energy out of one another, all the way to the climatic finish which I know culminated in a Technicolor-group-head-bang. I know this because I participated in their particular brand of gypsy-love-dance party when I danced my face off at The Horseshoe when they played there for NXNE. “We just like to play as if technology isn’t there to save our ass,” says David.
Fun fact about The Damn Truth, they were actually a backup band for someone else before they broke free and went out on their own. That was where they first fell for one another, where their onstage presence was first formed, and it is a powerful presence at that. “You never know what to expect when you go on stage,” says Lee-La. “ You never know what the people are going to give you, what the band is going to give you; what each and every one of us is going through that certain day. Every day is a surprise. We love it. I always find different things to tap into, and the more we play, the deeper it’s gonna get.”
I like that they’re looking into the future. Even though I looked into the past when I first heard them, I have high hopes that the rock movement coming out of Montreal will be the next big wave in the Canadian music tide pool. Tom nods, “There are a lot of really great bands coming out of Montreal all the time,” and about their sound specifically, Tom says, “The rock crowd there right now is thirsty for it.” Lee-La nods. “The Besnard Lakes are definitely doing something interesting. I like them! They’ve got a psychedelic tip to them I like that a whole lot.”
Psychedelic folk is another label that has been applied to them. “If there were to be a rock revival coming out of Montreal, that would be a great thing,” says David. “Reading about the Beatles back in the day and The Stones and Hendrix, and knowing they hung out together. These epic musicians all at the same place at the same time, it’s a great thing. If we could be a part of something like that, that would be awesome.”
If that’s the case, they must be having a hell of the time on the bus, I say. “We don’t have a bus. I was projecting into the future,” says David, then points. “That’s the bus right there.”
Is that what you guys drove in? The one with the duct tape? That’s spectacular! …Well, that’s all. I don’t have any more questions.
“You can’t leave it at duct tape,” says David.
All too correct, sir.
The Damn Truth’s sound will raise questions in your mind, but isn’t that what the best bands do? Notions about the cyclical nature of art and of innovation may not escape you, but that to me is the icing on the cake. Rarely does a band with such strong ties to the golden age of rock present themselves as the exception to the rule. Rarely does sound come at you presented as a conundrum: How does this music take me back and push me into the future at the same time? The chords make me want to lie out in the sun picking petals off of wild flowers, makes me want to spin in an open field as the sun rises up in the East, makes me want to dust off that velvet top hat and descend into a cavernous pub so I can melt into the music calling out to me. I’ll settle for a leather fringe vest and the front porch of my two-storey walk-up; summer BBQ throwing smoke into the air, and me tipping my hat to every single person who walks by nodding in appreciation of Dear in the Headlights which is blaring through the screened window. I’ll yell “The Damn Truth!” at them, they will slow to a halt, and together we will share a moment of deep music appreciation, because the songs tell us the good times are just around the corner. No other message is more rock n roll. No other message is more The Damn Truth.
Alpine showcases their languid vibey feel in the first two tracks of this EP wonderfully. Lovers 1 and Lovers 2 blend seamlessly into one another and the combined voices of Phoebe Baker and Lou James create a dream-like world where listeners are free to float down a rainbow river and wave to the unicorns munching lazily at the water’s edge. The drum play on these tracks, especially the continuous ripple of the symbols on Lovers 1, feels like a fat rain drops landing on a placid lake, an aqua shiver that excites the soul.
However, the tracks grow increasingly more complex as the EP progresses, and the ephemeral nature of the vocals are sacrificed when the focus is placed on the layers of disco beats, drum synthesizers, and all other motifs synth-pop. The overall effect is a seemingly hodge-podge final product, a musical soup made of muddled themes, garnished with glitter. There are so many things happening at once mechanically on so many of these tracks that it’s difficult to attach your ear to any one element, any one motif, as so many of them are employed at once. Even the voices, which were lulling and emotionally evocative at first, become repetitive and eventually invoke paranoia.
The emotional response of the listener is not the only thing affected by the pared down lyrics, the overall narrative of the album suffers as it is difficult to teach a lesson using a Socratic method when the conversation never progresses, and at the end of the day, the point of creating complexity through the synth layers feels misguided or even completely lost.
Having said that, there is a commonly agreed upon notion that a person needs to hear something seven times in order for them to remember it. Maybe that was Alpine’s plan all along. If that is the case, there is something to be said about their ability to choose two statements per track to express who they are as individuals. Who needs a biography when you can boil down who you are into two concise statements? Take the track Gasoline, saying over and over again, ‘I wish it wasn’t just the night time,’ after ‘There’s gasoline in my heart.’ Hard to debate the point when there is so little to the argument.
At first glance this album sorely lacks depth, but I found myself pondering the possibility that this could be the intended design, and that there was something to choosing simplicity of text over long-winded diatribes about the nature of good and evil, or for that matter the storytelling structure that folk employs. ‘A is for Alpine’ is an acid trip narrated by fairy voices on a loop; the instrumental elements deliver a journey into the ether, and the colloquial lyrical structure offers a simple perspective, an ethos declared via mantras. This debut album merits a listen, even if it is only to see what you can remember after listening to it.