Published Sep 27, 2011There's no mistaking Toronto, ON's Bruce Peninsula when you hear them ― the group's indie rock meets gospel choir sound is one of the few musical amalgams to not attract a slew of imitators. Therefore, it's not surprising that the band stuck with the sound that brought them to prominence in the first place. Opener "As Long as I Live," with its pounding drums, is a clear highlight and the refrain from the choir on "You Can't Hide What You Are" provides a visceral, haunting counterpoint to Neil Haverty's raspy verses. The rest of the record lacks the first track's sheer forcefulness, but the group have honed their songwriting while keeping the choir, which included members of Snowblink and the Weather Station, and the pounding drums centre stage. On the album's best songs, like the Misha Bower-led "Warden," they help create a thrilling musical catharsis. Open Flames was finished before Haverty was diagnosed with leukaemia this past winter, but it's hard not to read into the themes of redemption and morality that have always been at the heart of Bruce Peninsula's music. Still travelling a singular path, Open Flames plays to the band's many strengths without a bum note in between.
Do the themes of redemption come from your old folk and blues influences?
Vocalist/guitarist Matt Cully: Absolutely. I think when it comes down to writing lyrics, it's a very difficult prospect, for us. It's nerve-wracking, not only because you're not expressing necessarily a personal point of view ― in some cases, I'm writing for Neil ― you're trying to get a Birdseye view of the story. It's always been interesting, to me, to talk about philosophical points of view or things aside from "I love you," "I want to sleep with you" or "I hate you."
Vocalist/guitarist Neil Haverty: I think we were drawn to that music because of those themes that everyone can buy into. It's not that we started writing about that because that music did, it's that that music spoke to us, because we were obviously thinking about those things.
Do you individually bring songs to the band?
Haverty: Matt and I have lived together for five years. One of us would be working in the basement and the other would be listening through the floor. We've always got a leader on the song. That seems to be the way it works for us. Then slowly it unravels ― you're imagining the choir, you're imagining what the drums are going to do.
After a long delay, your second record is finally coming out.
Haverty: Yeah. When you hold the real thing in your hand it's a lot different. We've had the master for a long time and that was exciting in itself, but holding the records themselves is a whole different experience. We picked up people on the way to a show the other night and every time someone got into the car we were chucking them a CD and everyone was smiles.
Some of the songs from the record were in Small Town Murder Songs. How did that come about?
Haverty: [Writer/director Ed Gass-Donnelly] asked us to do music for his film, sort of vaguely, so Matt came up with "As Long as I Live," which is the theme song sort of for Small Town Murder Songs. The idea was to write a few things for him, but I think we were in the middle of making this record. We ended up sending him every single recording we had and he systematically replaced songs that were already in the movie from other bands with songs from A Mountain is a Mouth. It worked out for us; we didn't have to do much extra work and we got a song out of it for the new record. But it sort of became an hour-and-a-half music video for us.
Was "As Long as I Live" written with the film in mind?
Cully: Yeah; we sat down specifically to write it for that film. We had seen a cut of it that ended up being completely different, in the end, but, thematically, the film deals with the redemption of the main character with a shady past who has to come to grips with what he's done to become a better man. And that sort of applies in a weird way to a lot of the themes we deal with on the first record and to this record too.
Haverty: The lyrics were definitely written with his voice in mind. That song was using him as a conduit.
Was "As Long as I Live" the first song written for the record?
Cully: No, there were two songs that we wrote, "Chupacabras" and "Moon at Your Back," which isn't on the record, and it took us a while to write those songs. It was right after getting back into writing after A Mountain is a Mouth and we got kind of bogged down with those two songs; it ended up being very helpful in writing the rest of them. We decided we wanted to do everything really fast and let it come through us fluidly and not second-guess ideas. "As Long as I Live" was one of the ones that came pretty quickly. From the time it was demoed to Mish [Bower, vocalist] coming over, putting some vocals on it to us being in the studio recording it, that's only a few weeks time and that's very fast for us.
Do the songs start out on guitars?
Haverty: I think more often than not we're not playing the guitar. It's more of a demo process where we're making weird sampled drumbeats. Or in Mish's case, she writes free-flowing lyrics.
Cully: Mish wrote four songs a cappella.
Do you listen to a lot of gospel or choir music, Misha?
Misha: My music listening is pretty influenced by a scattering of things, based on what the person I'm with is listening to. I definitely gravitate to a bluesier style at the outset, but I don't know where it comes from.
Haverty: I think early on it was clear that it wasn't about what we were listening to. Especially because we've been working in this language of Bruce Peninsula for four or five years, it's never been about hearing something and turning it into something that works for Bruce Peninsula. We all sort of aspire to be individual in our music making.
Cully: One of Mish's strengths is that she doesn't over think things and she doesn't have an ego about it; it's not about refining the blues chops.
Not smoking to get a raspy voice?
Haverty: Ah, guilty as charged.
Cully: What you end up with is intuitive and very honest on whatever she feels, and usually that offers a really awesome jumping off point.
Did working quicker change the sound of the songs?
Haverty: That's hard to say.
Bower: Yeah. I think that any member of the band with the previous album had a hard time throwing a description out there. I would have been in the category of here's a hyphenated [description]. This time, I'd say we're a rock band with a choir. I like the straight-aheadness of its feel.
The record was finished last fall, but then Neil was diagnosed with leukaemia. Was anything changed in the process?
Haverty: No. We got the master the day before I went to the hospital. The master means locked and done, and I think we were adamant at that point that it stay that way. I think if we'd left it open-ended at that point, I don't think it would ever have been finished; it was good timing that it was finished the day before. If it was a half-finished record, I don't know if we'd be sitting here talking about it. When I got sick, we just had a talk about it. At first you don't talk about it at all; it's just like friends being, like, "Shit, this is terrible." But then a week later, Matt came to the hospital and we said, "well what are we going to do?"
You organized the Bruce Peninsula Fire Sale in the interim, which as well as offering up a lot of unreleased material from the band, saw a lot of the individual members contributing material.
Haverty: It was a good place to put my wandering mind. There were a couple steroid-fuelled nights where I had Word documents about how we could structure the Fire Sale.
Bower: It's one of the most productive convalescences.
Haverty: It also allowed me to streamline video making before I got back into playing music again. My energy levels were really low, so sitting at the computer and rendering video is fine. I'm really happy it happened that way. At the time, I wasn't sure about putting out all that stuff first, but it's fine. It's a very long lead up to this record.
Cully: It's interesting because it's not necessarily representative of what the record sounds like, but that's not a negative. We've always been a band that are multifaceted, but I think it took me a few years to understand how we can exploit the individual strengths. Each person has their own individual project, but is also a contributor. So, how do we be different kinds of bands instead of this one monolithic one with a certain sound?
Haverty: All that Fire Sale stuff was supposed to show a different side of us.
One of the covers was a Jon-Rae Fletcher song. Was his work with the River in any way an inspiration for Bruce Peninsula?
Cully: We're all very influenced by Jon-Rae.
Haverty: That period in Toronto too. The Constantines were playing ― Hidden Cameras and Jon-Rae showed that a bunch of friends can get together and make this emphatic music. It was these little travelling posses. I think Jon-Rae should get credit for that. (Hand Drawn Dracula)