The Darcys Go To War

The Darcys Go To War
Photo: Zach Slootsky
Toronto-based art rock quartet the Darcys faced a major setback for the release of their self-titled record after their lead singer left the band, forcing several re-recordings and remixing. This setback resulted in the band returning better than ever, signing to Arts & Crafts back in 2011 and announcing the release of not one but three records, all released on Arts & Crafts in recent years. The Darcys was finally released in 2011 and the band's reinterpretation of Steely Dan's Aja in 2012, both made available for free on the band's website. Warring, the final part of the trilogy, hit shelves on September 17.

Exclaim! spoke with drummer and lyricist Wes Marskell about the band's recording process, the positives and negatives of releasing albums for free, and what experimental ideas the band is planning on doing next.

You guys have been busy since you signed, you got the two albums out and you've been touring a bunch. When you went back to revisit Warring, did the hectic schedule impact the recording in any way?
We had hoped that Aja would help us in the U.S., and that The Darcys would help raise us a little bit in Canada. We knew we'd be busy so we were always plugging away every time we had a day off on tour to work on Warring. When it came time to actually record it, we weren't just thrown into the space making a record that was under-thought and under-produced in that sense. We were in Minneapolis on a stopover between the Bombay Bicycle Club tour and the Clap Your Hands Say Yeah tour and we were working with a piano and that sort of thing and we had something like five days and "Itchy Blood" got written on that piano. We were just trying to move the record forward.

What were your goals that you set out to accomplish with Warring?
We had done our sort of lower-fi record with The Darcys and we had done our home studio record with Aja — we made the whole thing in our apartment — so we just wanted to make something big, beautiful, world-class; we wanted a studio record that sounded like we spent a lot of money on it, a lot of time and a lot of effort. We didn't want to make another record that was just sort of like "Oh we have fun, we'll record it, we'll make it sound okay and just get it out."

We wanted to do something really produced, but not overproduced, a big beautiful sonic record. When we went into preproduction we went through a number of producers and settled with Tom McFall and just the sound that he had been getting and the ideas he had and he was really willing to work with Dave Schiffman who was mixing our record and we knew we had a really good team so we could make this into a record for listening.

As primary lyricist, was it different writing for Warring than it was for The Darcys?
It was a very different songwriting process for this record. With Warring, [lead singer] Jason [Couse] and I made sure we had a lot of time to work through each song and come up with ideas, but the difficult part was knowing that people knew of our band at this point and that they would be listening. All of a sudden, you get all of these internal issues and your ego gets involved and you want to do something that's great because you know people will actually pay attention this time, or at least some people anyway. It's a struggle because you'll just scrap songs because you think they're not good enough, and then a month or two after the record's done you go back and you hear these demos and you play them and the guy that's producing the record asks you "Why didn't you send me this song?" and you thought nothing would work, and you had to essentialize the ten to 12 songs for recording.

I guess the core of the way the songwriting process worked is that I would come up with something that I thought was readable with lyrics. Unlike a lot of lyrics, when I get the record, I get the pull-out [liner notes] and so I thought something that I was okay with, and Jason would help sculpt it into some form of a song.

With Warring, you have some up-tempo tongs that are dancelike in nature, as opposed to the rock vibe of the first two albums of the trilogy. What led to that kind of stylistic shift?
We were listening to a lot of electronic music. Also, we were obsessed with a lot of the Questlove production work, Roots records. Obviously D'Angelo was a big thing to us. We wanted to get those static, consistent drumbeats. And then, when we were tweaking the songs, we were playing with speeding up and slowing down tempos until we felt like the pocket was right for the song, then we would go back and learn the song and the beat as a way of fulfilling that vision. That can be kind of difficult because if you program the beat and sped it up, all of a sudden you need to learn to play that and it became quite difficult. Just trying out as many ideas as possible to see where the song can go. We didn't want to get locked in doing The Darcys Part II or things we already knew how to do, regurgitating ideas. We wanted to explore where we could go with that type of stuff.

On the other side, you have "The Pacific Theatre," a bona fide piano ballad smack dab in the middle of the album. When did you decide the song was going to be a piano ballad?
The production of the song was probably the most dense for most of the recording session and we just kept peeling back things until the core of the song poked through. We would always break it down to this piano and vocal ballad. Every time we tried to add something to it, it just seemed like overkill and clutter. We kept adding and reducing, and adding and reducing and that was the best we got. We have about five or six versions that are full of drum machines and all these keyboards flying around your face and it just seemed distracting. We also thought it would be interesting to have this stark piano song right in the middle of the record instead of putting it at the end where most bands would. We thought it'd be nice because it's simple and also cleanses your palate for the next half of the record.

What is it about those lyrics that made it the ballad instead of any of the others?
That song is definitely a bit of an ode to scene change and the sombre, basic idea… Well we never really wanted to write about girls or love or anything like that, but just the simple idea of loss and the feeling of losing something and reflecting upon it and I think it broke down to this core idea that most people relate to and it's easier than to dress it up with production.

What other lyrical themes found their way onto the record?
The title Warring pops up pretty early and it seems like the title, y'know? Jason and I were reading a lot of [Cormac] McCarthy and watching these old war documentaries and things like that and that's the thing that kept coming up. It's an internal band metaphor for persevering and getting over losing members and all this stuff and finally getting to make the record that we wanted to make. There's a lyric in "Itchy Blood" that popped up when we're watching this Civil War documentary and it's sort of like the idea that all these kids are going to war and getting killed and the bodies still smelling like summer. They were just out playing baseball and then they were plucked from that life and put into this other situation. I mean, it gets pretty dark at times but it just seemed to be the place we were in.

What is at war in this album? What are the sides?
I think that there are so many different reasons for that title. There's us against ourselves, us against who we used to be, and then without being overly political or anything like that, looking outward into what's happening into the world and there's just so many things that seem to keep coming back to that idea and that's where that came from. I mean, it's sort of a simple idea but I think we thought that title was such a strong word so that was the title long before we went into the studio.

What lessons did you learn from tackling the entirety of Steely Dan's Aja and how did you apply those to Warring?
The big thing with Aja was that we could afford to make a record at home because you could work until five in the morning. We really wanted to explore sounds and ideas that we weren't used to, so essentially, if you take The Darcys, we were a guitar-rock band, we got shoegaze and somewhat of a big wall of sound type idea, and we wanted to explore drum machines and synths and a lot of bass synths and so Aja was sort of our space to go after all these new things that we didn't know how to do and just, day after day, learn how to use them in a creative setting. We had all these different possibilities to try to remake these songs in our own space and in our own light. I think that record sounds like us but the instrumentation on that record is so different from what was on the self-titled record. So that's why I think they formed a sort of a trilogy because Aja was the bridge between making that rock record and making something like Warring that has a lot more different elements on it.

What are the thematic links that bring the three records of the trilogy together?
It's the expression of being a musician and always wanting to do something different. I don't think people need or deserve the same record over and over again and I don't want our band to think "Oh, we know how to do this, we'll do it better." What's the point? Why didn't you do it the best the first time? We wanted to pursue the low end, we wanted a ton of low end on this record and so we went out and found these records that we or other people thought had great low end and we wanted to put this body into the song and we wanted to create human drumbeats that sound similar to drum machines, or are drum machines. And so I think that what Aja did was help bridge the two records so we could explore what we could do and what we'd be able to do later on that record and take what we learned there and apply it to making a record with a team that actually knew how to make a big record like that.

You released the first two albums for free but Warring is seeing a more traditional release. What benefits came out of releasing The Darcys and Aja for free?
Well I think that the thing with putting out a free record, especially when you're on a record label, is that the record label is selling records so that ideally piques interest. It was just a way of engaging with potential fans immediately and cutting down any obstacles between somebody having some interest in your band and being able to listen to the record. They just went to our website and downloaded the record, which you can still do, and you saw our band growing very quickly because all of a sudden people could hear your record.

I think Warring, in a way, is a very traditional release in the sense that we spent money on it and we toured two records that have done quite well as far as downloads are concerned but we're not making any money on it and our livelihoods depend on selling some records at some point and there's sort of an older system with getting grants and stuff. It just allowed us to get into people's ears and heads quickly. I think it was also a pretty good press story, we're putting out free records. We just wanted to engage with people and all of a sudden people were writing about it. People seem encouraged to want to buy this record and we've been getting a lot of tweets and emails about it. Stuff like "put it up," and "let me buy it." "The River" did really well and I guess people felt like they could support us.

Black and white is a huge part of your aesthetic. Your tumblr features exclusively greyscale imagery, and all three album covers are greyscale. What is it about that stark contrast that is so appealing?
I think that there's just a boldness to it. We always talk about introducing colour into our band and I think we will eventually, but there's something so strong about those images and I think that ever since we were two or three guys... Jason and I have been writing songs together since grade five or six and we've always wanted to be a big band. There are all these real strong and bold images and we've wanted to be this bold, strong thing so it just became part of who we were and what we were doing. And then the tumblr is great because as far as social media is concerned, you're forced to update what we're doing, when our next show is, tumblr you can just search out beautiful images that other people have put up. Or taken themselves and it's a bit of a creative outlet for us, this is what we think is cool and interesting.

Do you feel indebted to social media?
Yeah, it's crucial to our development. I want people to think that they can get to us if they want to. We put up the stems for "The River" and said anyone who wants to remix it can download them, send them to us, and we'll put them up on our website. And then someone asked, "What's the BPM? What key is it in? Is it in 4/4 or 6/8?" I want to feel like we're close enough; we're within reach if it's important. It's a big thing for us.

Moving forward, which music videos do you have planned?
"The River" video is done, "Muzzle Blast" is done, "Pacific Theatre" is done. I have a treatment for "Hunting," two treatments for "Horses Fell," and we're trying to do a ten-minute film/music video for "Lost Dogfights," which might get shot in Cuba, which is really cool. We're hoping to do ten videos for the record.

On Twitter, you have mentioned a 20-minute instrumental song inspired by literature. What can you tell me about that?
Jason and I have been working on the mix and it's exciting because we had been reading the Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy and we wanted to go away to a different space and record this record. Not being in Toronto, not in a studio. Something happened to us, said that there was this barn in the Grey Highlands, "if you know anyone interested in using it for a creative endeavour, " and our manager said to keep us in mind. We said we were recording a 20-minute song based on the trilogy, especially the last book, which takes place on a farm off of Mexico, and it just connected. We got to go up there and record it, and we got to record the space and the sound of the space, and try to engage that with the music we were recording. We ended up with a 20-minute song that tried to deal with a lot of different emotions without the use of vocals. We tried to get emotions and feelings and seeing if we could conjure up the feelings, like anxiety, trying to get those into the song and affect the listener in that way. We're still working on that and we're trying to get that out, maybe hopefully for Record Store Day.

As much as you go in to make a record, there's a sort of archetype as to how to make a record and see what you come out with. But when you're making a 20-minute song on your own in a barn, hours away from anything, it's a very different process. It was difficult, I felt like I lost my mind a few times.

Does that translate sonically at all?
There are definitely moments where it sounds like tension and release. It's challenging to listen to but then all of a sudden it changes, it brings you back into the song. I hope people can eventually relate to the song because I think it's something really cool, something we really wanted to do. If it's done well, then it allows us to do other really weird things.

What is the story of Warring?
It's funny because we've just started doing interviews for this record and I realized how deeply personal this record was for all of us, but for Jason and I, it's like I can always feel like record reviews and all these press pieces about records create this moment, people care about your record in that moment and then your moment's over. But I'm not sure that… as much as I know what went into making this record, I'm not sure I know exactly in the end what it's about because… well I'm not sure yet exactly. And I know that sounds weird but that's what feels right to me, it just feels like something I needed to get out of me and I think Jason needed to create it as a way of moving forward and finishing the trilogy of making a big studio record, from being able to move on and do other things. We have a lot planned, and I think that's what Warring is. Overcoming all these obstacles and feeling like we're getting to a good place where we can move forward.

So are you winning the war?
Y'know, you never know. I don't know if I know yet. And we'll see. The difficult part about making a record like this is that no matter how I feel about it or how you feel about it, it's what everyone feels. If people don't like it, then maybe I've lost. But I feel strongly about this record, and I think that it will do a lot more for people than the average pop record.