Published Jul 01, 2005At four in the afternoon on a postcard-perfect summer day, about 50 young extras have gathered on a lawn. A few look like outcasts from a more awkward time in Old Navy's marketing career, but most have the appearance of the 15-year-old uber-fans they are: hair coiffed with mom's styling products, petite jeans, and a tight black t-shirt that likely features the initials "BNO." These fans, names registered and signed on release forms, have heeded the online call for today's video shoot, taking place inside North America's oldest community theatre, the Player's Guild in Hamilton, Ontario. They wait in the beautiful sunshine for an opportunity to go inside and clap along to a song about death and insanity.
Boys Night Out have had kids like this hanging on their every morbid word since even before their first official release, 2002's Broken Bones and Bloody Kisses. A mishmash of metal, punk, emo, and pure-pop sensibility, that EP set the stage for the band's debut full-length a year later, the immensely well-received Make Yourself Sick. They've grown from the two-person pet project of vocalist Connor Lovat-Fraser and guitarist Jeff Davis into a six-piece wrecking machine. Now they're one of the most popular bands on New Jersey-based Ferret Records' blossoming roster and arguably the most successful act from what some have dubbed the screamo Seattle: Burlington, Ontario. Their lyrics have been the inspiration for thousands of AIM screen-names, their heart-shaped flesh-wound logo for more than a few tattoos. They've spent the better part of the last two years on tour, and they've got the scars to prove it.
The kids file in around 7:30 p.m. Looking awkward, directly in front of them, are the members of Boys Night Out, now one stronger thanks to the recent addition of Kara Dupey on back-up vocals and synthesiser. As playback for the song's finale rolls, the words "Doctor, doctor, what am I here for?" echo unremittingly through the theatre. The song ends and the extras rise to their feet, as directed, and offer a most sincere round of applause. The exercise occurs two or three more times, they are graciously thanked for their time and ushered off the set. Less than half an hour has passed.
A few kids shrug, a look of, "Well, I guess that was it," on their faces, but no one looks angry. Outside on the sunny lawn, many loiter to talk about what they've just heard. "Medicating" is the first single from Trainwreck, the band's hugely anticipated sophomore full-length, which isn't due in stores until July 26. For now, pockets of kids can be heard quietly singing the now-familiar refrain of "Doctor, what am I here for?" and tapping out its strangely catchy rhythm.
It's cooler with younger kids, because no one's jaded," says founding member Jeff Davis. "They just come to have fun, as opposed to dudes who just stand there with their arms crossed, going Where's the metal?'"
Concerns over where, exactly, the metal has gone may rank high with some fans; Trainwreck is guaranteed to leave listeners with a grocery list of other questions, too: about the protagonist at the centre of the album's twisted fictional narrative, about the band's appearance at this summer's Warped Tour, and about changes to both line-up and sound.
"When we posted a new song online recently, we had hoards of kids asking, Where's the screaming, you pussies?!'" Jeff relates. "Our main concern was not, Holy shit, how are kids going to mosh to this?' This whole screamo thing exploded, not having anything to do with us or really even including us. It made for this fucking disgusting headache."
While screamo has entered the vocabulary of label marketers everywhere, Boys Night Out find themselves caught in the crossfire of a scene they increasingly want no part of despite the fact that they've already released an EP and full-length that fit snugly into it.
"There are big bands who sell hundreds of thousands of records that I just want to grab and say, You're hurting music. Stop it. Read a book,'" Jeff says. "But we were part of it. We tried to pretend we weren't, but when we stepped back and listened to our last record we realised, We're one of these bands. Holy shit. This sucks.' Those songs were fun, but we were really lazy. We knew we had to do something."
When their last tour ended in November, 2004, the band took some serious time off. An avid writer of short fiction, it wasn't long before Jeff had composed a short story that could lend itself to an interesting musical interpretation. He brought the idea to Connor Lovat-Fraser who, along with Davis, is the band's chief lyricist.
Building on Jeff's foundation, the pair constructed a narrative they felt could elevate their music beyond cookie-cutter screamo. What emerged was a story, spread out over 12 tracks, of one man's slow descent into complete and utter madness. The Patient, as the band have come to refer to the deranged protagonist, murders his wife in the midst of a terrifying nightmare. His remorse drives him insane, as does his growing obsession with expressing his agony through song. The Patient's creative frustration is compounded by the analogous, self-inflicted loss of his hands.
"That was our way of trying to get across how frustrated we were," Jeff says. "It's about us wanting to do something, but having never really written any form of real music before, and never being happy with anything we've done." In a genre of music that sometimes appears to have no greater ambition than to sell black hair dye and broken-heart tats, it takes some fortitude to construct a record that demands repeated top-to-bottom listens.
"We realised that the jump from Make Yourself Sick to something like this is big," Jeff admits. "It's very ambitious. Bands don't write albums anymore. They write three really catchy songs that are full of hooks, and then write a record around them."
"I think people are more open to the idea of records being made," adds Connor Lovat-Fraser. "Maybe I'm overly hopeful, but it would be nice for people to listen to it front to back and realise that something's happening. If not, that's cool. At some point, these songs have to stand alone. It's just a record."
The concept record conceit helped with overall vision, but both lyricists recognised that each song also needed to stand alone. "We were conscious of the fact that each song needed structure," Jeff says. "You can't have a song where he goes to sleep, wakes up, and goes to the store. It was a super-ambitious thing for us to do, especially with our fan base, and being in a genre where whatever can grab kids the easiest and the fastest is what sells."
One thing Boys Night Out knew is that they needed help. Initially, they were hooked up with David Bendeth, the platinum-selling producer of the Elvis 30 collection and Platinum Blonde's Contact. Demos were sent to the producer and the band prepared to buckle down. It only took one phone call to change that.
Jeff explains, "He left this message saying, I need more demos from you guys. I've got to hear more radio hits. You've got to realise that your band is going to get sold to a major label in the next year and you want to write a record that someone's going to want to buy for a million dollars.' I was like, What the fuck are you talking about?!' I called Ferret [Records] and refused to work with that guy. I have panic attacks thinking about what it would have been like."
From Bendeth, they moved on to veteran metal producer Machine. After flying up from New Jersey to hear new material and talk about the thematic direction they were planning, he signed on. It was new territory for the Burlington youngsters "we'd never even been in a real studio before" Jeff says but working with Machine, whose past work includes King Crimson's The Power To Believe and Lamb of God's Ashes Of The Wake, proved invaluable. "He taught us to write our songs better," Jeff continues. "It was very healthy for us to have someone pushing us, because we're naturally the laziest people in the world."
Machine proved particularly adept at bringing out the best in the band vocally. "I was so nervous about working with a producer for the first time," Connor admits. (Make Yourself Sick was produced by Scott Komer, one of the band's closest friends.) "I've never sung like this before. I was like, Let's see what happens. If it works, cool. If not, at least I gave it a shot.'"
The powerful vocal performances coaxed from the band are most evident on "Relapsing," the album's emotional centrepiece. In it, The Patient hears the voice of his dead wife, portrayed with disturbingly tragic vigour by Kara Dupey.
"Recording that was a really emotional experience," she remembers. "For everybody. Machine was having me picture different things as I was singing; what I ended up thinking about was my grandfather. He died recently, and I was really, really close to him. I've never had an experience recording like that before. It's hard to explain. I think we were all exhausted after that song was recorded."
Jeff had his own emotionally draining experiences during the month it took to record the album, particularly the single day he took to do all his vocal tracks. "I saved myself up. I knew I was going to blow my voice out. When it came time to do the screaming, after every take my head was swimming. I thought I was going to barf. I could never do that again."
As the recording wore on, the record's emotional turmoil began to bleed into the lives of the band themselves; it's evident in the half-finished, trailed off descriptions of the experience. "It's a lot more personal than I meant it to be," Connor admits. "There's a lot of me on it. The Patient definitely has a manipulative side. That may or may not be me."
Perhaps the most telling sign is the story's presence in their dreams. Kara recalls one recent nightmare: "I was driving my car along this two-lane highway at night. There was this one tree, and beside it was this guy hacking at the ground with a pick axe, with his dead wife next to him, ready to bury her. In my dream, I knew it was The Patient. I woke up, and I was completely freaked out. Not in the way you normally are after a nightmare, but because I was really living this. At that point, I started to feel a little crazy."
Nightmares and nausea aside, Trainwreck is an intellectually and creatively challenging record in a genre that rarely is. "This is the first recording that I've done that I can listen to," Jeff says. "There has never been anything I've been a part of that I've been this proud of in my entire life," Connor adds.
"I'm not trying to say that we've cured music, and that we've healed it and done this brilliant thing that's going to change the world," Jeff says. "But for us, personally, it's something we're happy with. Which is all we wanted."
"We're not pretentious people who are trying to say, This is what we have created. Now, go forth and listen,'" Connor says in his best hoity-toity voice. "I know we're going to get the Pretentiousness Backlash, 2005."
The underground success of Boys Night Out has resulted in a brand new experience for the band: expectations. A lot has changed since the days of their first two-song demo the prominent (and now irrelevant) straight-edge tattoos Jeff and Connor sport are just a superficial indication of their evolution. "Jeff and Connor were in Pettit [Project, another Burlington-area band] right when Boys Night Out started," recalls Scott Komer, Pettit's front-man, long-time friend and early producer of the band. "BNO fit perfectly for those two."
Following early demos (some songs from the period appeared on their debut EP), the band garnered local attention, as much for their murderous lyrical content as their music. (See sidebar.) By now, the controversy has passed as the band matures and explores new themes. "It's hard to write credible music when you're singing about chopping up girls and bashing people's skulls in," says Jeff. "We've forced ourselves to grow up."
The band grew up significantly for 2003's Make Yourself Sick, a smoother amalgam of pop, punk, and metal that brought them to where they are today. They may sell the record short in interviews, but there is no denying the brilliant guitar work and the stark, beautiful lyrical imagery of songs like, "Yeah, No I Know," a song whose lyrical hook of "Someone call an ambulance cause something's not right" becomes a repeated mantra throughout Trainwreck.
The heavy touring schedule that followed Make Yourself Sick's release took a significant toll on the band, leading to the departure of guitarist Rob Pasalic and drummer Ben Arseneau, leaving only Connor, Jeff, and long-time bassist Dave Costa.
"[Touring] is a really hard lifestyle and some people just can't do it," Jeff says. "For both those guys, it just wasn't their thing. It's still a super-touchy subject. I've been best friends with Rob since I was eight years old. I still haven't spoken to him since he left the band."
The loss of Ben and Rob left a substantial hole in the band's sound, and while they retained the single guitar setup for some time, Brian Southall (ex-Fordirelifesake) was brought on board as the group's new drummer. While writing the new record, the need for a powerful female voice became apparent, and Southall introduced the band to Kara Dupey. Finally, second guitarist Shawn Butchart completed the new line-up.
"Brian, Kara, and Shawn coming in right now is the greatest thing that's ever happened to the band. All these like-minded people that just love music and love touring makes everything so easy," Connor gushes.
In addition to touring in a bus for the first time ("Which is fucked," Connor quips), knowing that income is now coming solely from music puts additional pressure on the band. "Once we recorded Make Yourself Sick, we realised, We can make a go of this if we really bust our asses,'" Jeff says. "It's going to be a lot of hard work, but it's going to be a lot cooler than what we're doing now. Making that decision was scary."
"It's awesome doing this full-time," explains Connor. "I don't know what the hell I'd be doing if I wasn't doing this. I'd probably still be working in a warehouse struggling to make ends meet. I'd rather struggle to make ends meet playing music."