The Dears Big Love Hits the Big Time

The Dears Big Love Hits the Big Time
It may come as a surprise to some, others won't believe it at all, but the Dears don't want to be rock stars. Mainstream affiliations, miles of newsprint and obnoxious aviator shades may suggest otherwise, but Montreal's chamber rock sextet remain obsessed with the music and the music alone. At a time when it's fashionable for rock bands to either play the dive bar circuit in complete obscurity, flirt with irony-laden gimmicks, or knowingly ride the nu-garage wave to fame, the Dears talk about art, about light, about creating with love, about music that gives you the shivers. In some ways, they're kindred spirits with Montreal's intensely ambitious yet guarded avant-garde, but you'll never catch Godspeed You! Black Emperor playing with Jane's Addiction at the Air Canada Centre, a "preposterous" gig the Dears landed in 2001.

They call themselves "an accessible art band," one that's trying to spread its gospel as far as possible without tarting it up and compromising their craft. That's why they're on tour with Matthew Good, and that's why they've signed to Maple Music, the Universal affiliate about to unleash the Dears' stunning sophomore album, No Cities Left.

From their debut LP, End of a Hollywood Bedtime Story, through their two EPs, Orchestral Pop Noir Romantique and Protest, distinctive sounds, moods and mindsets are woven through the Dears' back catalogue, despite a pair of major overhauls in the band's make-up. An orchestral lushness, classic pop melodicism, bombastic outbursts and theatrical tension, a sense of daring fuelled by desperation, a wonder and a hope, a sonic ambition that defies easy definition. No Cities Left has all of it, the urgent drama that whips into a symphonic maelstrom, the sleek, suicidal lounge française, the elegant pop, the raucous undercurrents, the sun-dried soul.

Despite their concise, thematic nature, the EPs provide a more accurate forecast for the new album than its predecessor, an album assembled on the fly and on the cheap. By contrast, No Cities Left is a bigger, longer and fuller album, but not for the reasons one might suspect.

"We were still broke, we were still struggling with this record," says singer Murray Lightburn. "The only reason we were able to make it a little closer to what we envisioned is because we have a lot of brilliant friends who play music." Among the musicians lured into the studio were Lightburn's long-time friend and new label-mate Sam Roberts on violin, as well as horn players Chris Seligman and Evan Cranley from Stars.

"I wasn't placing ads or calling people in the guild book, I wanted to keep it close," Lightburn explains. "We didn't hire a 70-piece symphony, we just had a few people playing a bunch of tracks, and they played so beautifully. There's just more love that way."

Lyrically, the album was initially conceived as a duality piece exploring the tangible and the intangible, the spiritual and the carnal. Where Hollywood was laid out as a madman's monologue, Cities was meant to convey a split personality, an idea that had the band considering a double disc release. "In the end, it didn't work as black and white, there was a lot of grey," says Lightburn.

After months spent writing and recording demos, Cities was set to tape at a fever pitch during Montreal's sweltering summer, a process book-ended by the departure of two band members. First out was Jonathan Cohen, leaving Lightburn to cover all the album's guitars, then cellist Brigitte Mayes, who "slipped out the back door" right after the wrap. Regardless, the remaining members and engineer Brenndan McGuire rushed into mixing the album, editing hundreds of takes and marrying all the disparate elements that would constitute their new sound — bigger, better, the Dears Redux. But the marriage didn't work out.

"Brenndan was fantastic to work with, but the project took on a life that was so huge, it turned into Apocalypse Now," says Lightburn. "He had Sam [Roberts'] record coming up, the clock was ticking, and we ran out of time. So the night we listened to that first mix of the album, I sat there with my head in my hands thinking, song after song, ‘Can't put this out, can't put this out, can't put this out.'" Lightburn's right-hand woman, keyboardist/vocalist Natalia Yanchak, adds, "I just sat there with the rest of the band thinking, ‘A year later, where's our fucking album?' So we lost our shit, which we do very well. And, again, we almost broke up."

Struggling to salvage the record, and the band, the Dears turned to Howard Bilerman at the tightly booked Hotel2Tango studio, where the OPNR EP was recorded. Ever accommodating, Bilerman juggled his schedule to let Lightburn remix the entire album in a series of marathon sessions. Then fate delivered another twist, upsetting the spirit of Godspeed's dead pooch.

"When we broke Efrim's [Menuck, from Godspeed You! Black Emperor] urn, with his dog's ashes inside, I really thought somebody had put a curse on us," says Lightburn. "I don't know Efrim, but I was expecting the worst. Luckily he was cool, he understood that we were flailing, just trying desperately to mix our record. Godspeed have been through it."

With an eight-day window, and the added pressure of trying, or needing, to live up to the band's standards, Lightburn bore down, hoping his limited technical know-how wouldn't be a major handicap.

"I don't know what ‘two-k in the horn' means," he says, referring to one of the band's long-standing jokes about tech talk. "I just want to get the shivers. If the mix is making me wanna cry, I know I've got something. Basically, it felt like delivering 12 babies. It was retarded."

After all the toil and sweat, the project was completed and the band remained intact, roughly. But, because this is the Dears, it's likely the album actually benefited from all the 11th-hour drama, something they admittedly revel in.

"There's always the threat that the Dears will be over tomorrow — that's part of what makes it so exciting for us," says Lightburn. "But that's why it was hard to lock down a record deal, 'cause they always wanna sign you for ten albums. We're constantly on the verge of collapse, so we can't see that far ahead. I mean, there might not even be a world two albums from now." Always the dry quipster, Yanchak adds, "At least then we'd be released from the contract."

After the lengthy major label courtship that Lightburn claims "ate away at the Dears like a cancer," the band happily went home with Maple Music, a company willing to take on a less than radio-ready act, with all their quirks and experimental leanings. However, the Dears won't block off all mainstream avenues, especially if they can infiltrate the "gross-itating" wasteland of commercial radio.

"It's ridiculous, but at the same time, it would be great to reach so many people," says Lightburn. "‘Lost in the Plot' has a really strong message, it's about love, not boyfriend-girlfriend love, but a big love, a love that can bring us together and save the world. That's not something that should be exclusive."

Lightburn and Yanchak share a frustration with indie/punk purism, yet they're invariably conflicted about each baby step they take towards the mainstream. They're also fiercely proud of their independent opus, Protest, made in the middle of the Cities debacle. With a limited run of 500 copies, all in painstakingly handmade, metal cases, the 18-minute, DIY disc was integral to the band's survival.

"It was an oasis, it renewed our hope and optimism when people were quitting and things were getting really dark," says Yanchak.

"It gave us a sense of accomplishment, and a reason to go out on the road and discuss our plan of action," Lightburn adds. "It was also really important for us to say something about what's happening to our world."

Written in three movements, the highly emotive, politically driven piece was recorded with a team of local musicians, including all Stars and ex-Thrush Hermit guitarist Robert Benvie, who soon became a full-fledged Dear. The all-important mix, however, happened in the Brooklyn apartment of Scott Harding — who's engineered everyone from the Crash Test Dummies to Medeski, Martin & Wood to the Wu-Tang Clan — a man Lightburn calls "a true artist, a genius" whose mixing methods he later attempted to approximate with Cities.

"His approach was all about love, it was from the guts," says Lightburn. "He stands up and waves his hands around and he wants to make sure the speakers are moving, which is brilliant. I like extreme mixes. Most of the music on the radio is mixed by the same two or three hosers, and it's all gross. Nobody's taking chances anymore."

With no label and potentially no future, the Dears took a chance with Protest, with urgent, escalated sounds and lyrics devoid of hope and romance. After desperate, choral chants of "Heaven have mercy on us!" and sinister promises of "Revolution!" accompanied by frenzied flute melodies, exclamatory guitars, police sirens and subterranean bass lines, the EP ends with a distant, devastating piano ballad, "No Hope Before Destruction."

"I remember listening to that first mix on headphones and getting shivers all over my body. And [Harding] had said the most hilarious thing, he said, ‘You hear that vocal, man? That's John Lennon beaming in from outer space, dude!'"

Outside of Harding's distorted wizardry, Lightburn's voice is most often compared to Blur's Damon Albarn and Morrissey, and not without good reason. But he's famously been dubbed "the black Morrissey," a tag Yanchak views as an easy way out of addressing the fact that Lightburn is a black guy, and a black guy making traditionally white music (as opposed to the more common and commercially viable vice versa). Perhaps surprisingly, this is something Lightburn enjoys talking about, but not without bitterness.

"I swear to God, the next journalist who compares me to Sly Stone or Jimi Hendrix or Bob Marley — it's been done, trust me, any black guy with a guitar, singing — I will find them and kick them in the teeth. It just makes me ill. And ever since I started carrying a guitar case, I get, ‘Hey, you play bass? You like R&B? You like hip-hop?'"

As one of the lady Dears, Yanchak is often perceived as a helpless damsel by mighty techs at sound check, so she's quick to pick up on music biz prejudice. The least photographed member of England's latest teen rock sensation, the Libertines, she points out, is Gary Powell, the black guy. And though the Dears have yet to negotiate UK distribution, this pair wonders if Lightburn's pigment would affect their chances of success, for better or worse.

"It's funny," he says, "we've sent CDs over to England — and I actually gave a tape to [former Blur guitarist] Graham Coxon once — but you can't come from Montreal sounding like the Smiths or Blur, the untouchables. But something we've never done is sent a photo identifying the singer — ‘Look, it's not some waify fuck from Sheffield!'"

Jokes aside, they say their sound has evolved far enough away from Britpop pastiche (as heard on their mid-'90s recordings, collected on Nor the Dahlias) to enter the UK market on their own merits.

"This is about something bigger than being black or being from fuckin' Quebec or growing up in a Pentecostal church," says Lightburn, the son of a preacher man. "In an ideal world — and we're so far from that — it would be nice to be able to transcend all that bullshit and just be."

And while they can't fathom using race or any other "dividing" factor as a gimmick, the band's unconventional, microcosmic make-up remains a point of pride.

"George [Donoso III] moved here from Chile when he was nine, Martin [Pelland] is as Quebec as it gets, au boutte, Natalia is a Pollack from a Pollack area of Toronto, Valerie [Jodoin-Keaton] is half American, Benvie is a straight-up Canadian white guy and I'm the son of immigrants from Central America," he says. "I think that's cool. Four white guys with two guitars is so tired. I mean, if that's what a band happens to be, fine, but it's become popularised by record companies 'cause it's so easy to promote four white guys. Everybody likes four white guys. Tried, tested, true."

Currently previewing No Cities Left for unsuspecting Matthew Good fans across Canada, the Dears' latest line-up is toughening up its road legs for an impending headlining tour of North America. They view van life, and their impassioned, dramatic live show, as a bonding experience, whereas recording has almost always been divisive. The band's newest members, already veterans of the Protest jaunt, are primed and prepped for this new tour of duty. With Thrush Hermit and, more recently, a solo project called Tigre Benvie, Robert Benvie has a decade's worth of road circus experience behind him. Lightburn recalls his recruitment last summer, at a Montreal resto-bar looking onto "the Main" (aka St-Laurent Boulevard).

"We were all sitting in La Cabane talking about where the fuck we were gonna get a guitar player. Martin had recommended Benvie on the strength of his solo stuff and a few minutes later, the guy literally walked right past us. We knocked on the window and called him over, he sat down with us and I asked him, ‘Are you a good guitar player?' and Benvie said, ‘I'm the best.' And that was it."

With lesser rock credentials, flutist Jodoin-Keaton is also battle-ready, having sung backup on Dears recordings, shot rolls of film at their shows and generally lived around the music as Pelland's "significant other." After Mayes quit, Jodoin-Keaton "muscled her way into the band," cramming parts for the Protest tour in only two weeks. Her presence, they say, maintains the band's "estrogen balance," an important ingredient in the chemistry of the Dears.

In fact, they speak quite seriously about "chemistry" and "vibes" and "jamming," which Yanchak sums up as "a lot of hippie shit," though only jokingly. But some fans might miss that one element of the Dears' constitution that Mayes took with her.

"I wish people would lay off the cello scene," Lightburn says, showing his frustration. "Even towards the end, when she was still in the band, we basically stopped using the cello live because it never came out right. It's a piece of fucking wood and a bow. If I can make the part audible through a sampler and a keyboard, I'll do that, because I'd rather have the sound than the decoration."

Clearly still bitter about Mayes' sudden departure "at a time when we needed solidarity most," the band refused to officially acknowledge the incident with a statement, which left some people wondering what had transpired. By contrast, Cohen wrote a letter to fans for the band's web site after his altogether more amicable break.

"We do worry about how the fans view it, but I guess Jon and Brigitte just lost sight of the chemistry we had together," Lightburn says, explaining that both former Dears had always kept one foot out. "At least now we have people who are committed so we can go out and deliver the goods, we can present something that's whole."

Although both Lightburn and Yanchak have essentially lived off the fat of the band for the past couple of years, they understand that freelance life doesn't suit everyone. Mayes has sought (relative) stability teaching music, while Cohen (they assume) is continuing his career as a hippie.

"Sure, there's no security in this band, but there's no security anywhere in life," says Lightburn. "That's why the record is called No Cities Left, because there's no escape, nowhere is safe, nobody really has a home."

As fatalistic as ever, the Dears are hard pressed to forecast their future or what the third album in their loosely conceived trilogy will sound like (though they promise there will be no Ewoks). In the short term, however, creative juices continue to flow.

"I've got something brewing for the next EP that's really, really abstract," Lightburn teases. "It's just gonna be ridiculous, like everything we do."

Still in self-deprecation mode, Lightburn dismisses the aspirations to fame he held when he founded the Dears in 1995, aspirations dulled by years of swimming with sharks — be they music execs, promoters, press or egomaniacs in other bands. The Dears, he says, is a team effort, a six-headed entity ready to offer respite in a miserable time.

"Basically, we live in a world of shit," he says, "but there are some beautiful souls out there that create light. We're not trying to re-invent the wheel here, or deconstruct it either, but what I hope the Dears can be is a light that people can connect with. No matter how much bullshit we have to go through, or how much hype we're gonna get, it won't change anything about what we have to say and how we're gonna say it."

"This album, this band, is not about people, it's about music," Yanchak states. "It's certainly not about us becoming rock stars — fuck, we'll play behind a curtain, it doesn't matter. Unfortunately, that's part of marketing an album, using people, but at the end of the day, you don't go home with the people. You go home with the music."