The D'Urbervilles We Are The Hunters

The D'Urbervilles We Are The Hunters
Electric and nervy post-punk? Have we entered a time warp? If we have, well, fuck it, because when these young Guelph-via-Oshawa, ON natives get things perfectly aligned, these songs are some magical musical amphetamines. Though instrumental track "Knock Out the Fat” sets the mood, the proper introduction comes from the title track, which, at its peak, feels like a Memorex ad. Yes, when the shouts and calls, crashing drums and tight, layered guitars are going full steam ahead at the climax it’s akin to the immediacy of early Constantines. Though this tension and release has been heard before, these young musicians have an instinctive feel about how to make a maximum impact and then get the hell out. This can be spectacularly heard on the insane peak of "Belladonna, Deadly Nightshade” and on the crackling "Spin the Bottle.” Yet the true coup de grace of the D’Urbervilles comes on the note perfect "The Receiver.” Starting with a simple clockwork beat and John O’Regan’s plaintive vocals, it explodes on a dime and never looks back. When the bands starts shouting, "Speak into the receiver/Do you hear a believer?” I say yes, yes I do.

The band says you’re from Oshawa/Guelph? What’s the history there?
John O'Regan: Well, we’re confusing. Tim [Bruton, guitarist] and I are originally from Oshawa. We grew up down the street, we’ve known each other since we were seven and we started the band in Oshawa and our first drummer was from there as we all went to the same high school. We kind of started the band one summer in Oshawa then we were all in university in Guelph and that’s where we met Kyle [Donnelly], our bass player. And, we didn’t really start playing seriously until we had all moved here… here being Guelph. But right now, I guess if we were pressed to name just one place we would say we’re a Guelph band. Yet, just the way things have worked out in the last little bit, I’m living in Guelph, finishing up school, Kyle’s living in Toronto and Tim’s back living in Oshawa, saving money for tours. So that’s where the different cities and stuff come together, but they’re not really far away from each other, like a short GO train ride away. We practice in Toronto, though. So, yeah, we’re kind of from everywhere. It’s sort of fun.

When you started playing together, did you go for a literary name on purpose or did it just sound really cool?
We went for it because our original drummer and I were in this English class, since we all went to the same high school, and he was a few years older than us but we took the same class, like in different years, and we both had to read the book Tess of the D’Urbervilles for it. It was a commonality we had, but, I don’t know, we were like ‘Oh crap, we got a show, here’s a name that’ll make our friends laugh’ and it’s just kind of stuck with us, or we kept with it. We didn’t really set out for it to have any kind of specific meaning in the songs or point to us being a literary band or whatever. We just wanted to play a few shows. Our only goal at that point was to somehow open for Cuff the Duke in Oshawa or something. We’ve done that since then, so mission accomplished. Everything else is gravy, as they say.

How do the songs come together? Obviously you’ve gone through a rotating cast of drummers, but is just you three or do you lead and others tweak?
On this record, Tim laid a lot of the groundwork for each song, whether that’s coming up with a guitar riff or something on the keys, he does a lot of that work. He will usually bring an idea to Kyle or me, either at the same time or separately, and we’ll add our parts depending on what the song needs. I’ll do keyboards or guitar or sometimes work on the vocal melody and we kind of piece them together that way. The drums change throughout each song. Some of the songs on the album were written when Colin [Smith], our first drummer, was in the band and we’ve been playing them, or some of them, up to a year at live shows. And, then, half of the album we wrote with Adam Seward who we played with for the summer. The songs we did with him were written comparatively quickly, like he would come up to Guelph where we were practising and just work, work, work. Yeah, some of them were really different and some of them were really known and others we were going into the studio and just experimenting with.

The songs are very tight and controlled, so do like to really nail a song live or do you go and hack it out in the studio?
It’s interesting that you say that because it plays into what I was talking about. The half of the songs that were written with Colin and that Steve Hesselink drummed on, well, we had toured out east with those songs and played them and played them and played them, like you could play them in your sleep, and that definitely, especially when you’re paying for recording with your own dollar, makes things a bit less stressful when you go into the studio because you know you’ll be able to nail it. But, the others, we basically were going in and just recording. We played a few shows in the summer like we did Hillside and we always like to do a show once or twice a year in Oshawa for our friends, so we’d played one there but that was about it for a lot of the songs. If you play something live and you get the impression that people are into it then it gives you a bit more confidence to go and make it a permanent thing that you’re planning on sending out into the world and relinquishing control over. So, a lot of them, we were pouring all this work into recording them and not really totally sure people would be into it or how they would react, but, at some point you just gotta go for it because we want to finish this album. In a way, it was kind of exciting. We were putting these things together and we played the tracks for our friends, when they came in to do group vocals, and they’d never heard the songs before and I think that was neat, to have some of that on a record. If you’re into a band, it’s good to hear those songs you’ve been hearing them play live for a while but it’s also good that there’s some surprises. I think we struck a good balance. People seem to like it so far.

Which ones were the surprises?
The new ones we did with Adam were "Dragnet,” "National Flowers,” "The Receiver” and "This Is the Life.” Those were all relatively new. We played Hillside and some other shows, like small, tiny things with friends so that was pretty much it and we went in and recorded in August. The others had all been worked and re-worked for quite a while.

That’s interesting because it all fits very well together. Like on the "The Receiver” the cogs all fit together nicely and it sounds just as practiced as "Spin the Bottle,” which you’ve been playing for a while.
Yeah, that’s awesome. That was the kind of thing we were worried about and talking to other people too they’ve been kind of similar. Even talking to Steve, we gave him the album a long time ago, since it’s been done for a while and we’ve just been sort of sitting on it since we’ve not been wanting to tour in January or anything like that... just because we’re bad drivers. Yeah, he said the same thing. Phew! We know what we like but you can never really know about others so at some point you have to not care. People are going to like it or not.

When you were recording this album with your different drummers, were you concerned with the overall flow?
That was kind of in the back of our minds. It was recorded over a long period of time as well. It wasn’t quite as disjointed as it may seem. Steve was always going to be a temporary drummer in our band. We originally signed him on to do a brief little tour before calling it quits way back when and we just had so much fun playing with him that we just kept going at it for a while and eventually his other group was getting back together so we stopped playing. We knew that was temporary but we’d also played with him for so long we knew we wanted him on the album because he’d been with the band and we felt we’d grown and developed a lot with him, even as a temporary member. And with Adam, when we were recording those songs, the idea was that he was going to be a permanent member for the long haul or whatever. We had a great time with him but it didn’t work out musically. We’re happy with the songs we put together but I think when it came down to signing onto that commitment to touring with the band, quitting your job and all that stuff that was kind of necessary for an up and coming group, he just wasn’t wanting to make that commitment like the rest of us were. It’s totally fine since he and Kyle live together, so it’s not like a horror story with violent band fights or anything. The guy we have now, Greg Santilly, he’s super-awesome, he’s a great guy. We knew him from Guelph and he lives in Hamilton but he’s here in town all the time. He’s in Slow Hand Motem, which is one of Burnt Oak [Collective] bands from Guelph, so he’s pals with all those kids so it’s nice and comfortable since you’re getting a new member, but without any growing pains. It’s worked really well and we’re excited to hit the road.

On a bigger scale, in terms of the post-punk genre, it requires a real discipline to be a post-punk band. What draws you to this genre and its discipline?
Well, um, it’s hard to say. If you went out and looked at everyone’s CD collection in the band, like there’s quite a range of stuff that we all listen to individually. I think generally, I know for me, because I can’t totally speak for everyone else, I do definitely like the idea that’s it’s always been part of our goal that see how much you can cram in beginning to end without having to repeat yourself or really looking at cutting out the parts, that aren’t unnecessary but seem like. "Why put in another chorus if the song doesn’t need it? How much can we get away with working off the same kind of riff?” Or throwing in a few changes here or there that are going to keep people guessing as to what coming’s next. Our goal with a lot of songs was, since we all like pop songs, can you make a pop song without a chorus that repeats more than once? Is it even a chorus if it doesn’t happen twice? I don’t even know, but, kind of seeing what’s possible outside of that traditional pop song structure but still hoping to kind of create that feel that you can put on this song on a mix-tape or an iPod with a range of other types of music and still have it stand out as an exciting piece of music.

In terms of the lyrics, do you write them together or is it all you?
A small number of them were written by Tim. Actually, really funny, the ones he did write, and I don’t think he did this intentionally but he’s the first and last person to sing on the record. Like the first one’s an instrumental and he has that first little verse on "We Are the Hunters” and the last line at the end of "Belladonna, Deadly Nightshade” with the guitar going totally haywire and him screaming. I remember when we recorded it; I felt "Oh my god, you’re going to frighten the kids.” But, he did those parts and for the most part I generally do [the lyrics] on my own. That’s kind of how it’s always worked. I don’t necessarily know if it’s the best way to do it, but I’ve always kind of handled the singing, but I’ve always come up with the vocal melody before there’s any words. I’ll write things down and keep them in a binder and pull things out when I need to but, generally, everything’s structured to fit into a really, really, really specific melody like on "Hot Tips.” I remember we laboured over the vocal melody for that. For a long time we had quite a few practices where it was literally coming down to like, "I can’t fit this syllable in here” and "I want that to go there, so how are we going to push and pull the bass line around?” or "What are you going to do with the guitar riff?” We kind of find that exciting, that piecing together of something. I don’t know if it’s too idealistic or something, but there’s tons of directions you can take things in but there’s ultimately, sometimes, a best way and if you push and pull and dig long enough you can kind of find that buried in there and the result is that it comes out sounding really natural and almost unpractised and unrehearsed. But the reality, like a lot of things, is that you’re busting your ass to find that kind of hidden little nugget of fun times buried in the tune. So, yeah, I do the melodies and the lyrics come after, specifically, to fit the feel of the song and some songs feel a certain way and kind of necessitate certain subject matter that another song wouldn’t. It kind of depends what I’m feeling like writing about at the time and what kind of direction the intensity of the song is pushing things toward.

In terms the album artwork, are you conscious of trying to put forward a certain visual aesthetic for the band?
I don’t know if you say our first EP, but we made them as a nod to school. We had them as bound Cerlox with the plastic Cerlox bind and paper sleeves and put them together. Tim’s mom and my mom are teachers so whenever we’d be back in Oshawa to visit our family, we’d have them sign out the Cerlox machine and we’d be in the basement punching holes and putting them together. As far as this album goes, in the summer when we were recording the songs with Adam, I moved back to Oshawa or we all moved back home to live with our folks to save money and basically to practice all day while we were working. It was fun, it was like being in grade 11 again, you know? When we were learning how to play the guitar I’d go over to Tim’s house and jam in the basement. It really was kind of a throwback. We practice in Toronto now and we’ve practiced in Guelph at the Family Thrift Store and a bunch of other places but it was totally going over to the parents house, bring down the plate of cookies and just working on songs. Sorry this is a really convoluted answer, but the album art came from, well, we were in Oshawa and I was just going through my old stuff in my old bedroom…

I was wondering why the old Toronto Blue Jays are in the artwork!
Yeah, those are all from my old baseball card collection. All the dirt, there’s a really great bar in Oshawa called the Velvet Elvis and they’re building a new courthouse right across from it in this abandoned lot that used to have a GM factory in it. Which is where almost everyone in Oshawa worked or used to work, since they’re all closing down now. So they were digging this hole for the foundation of it and they made this huge mound of dirt that they were excavating. That’s kind of a picture of the mound from different angles and it’s stacked on top. The hockey players are stuff from my old trophies when Tim and I played together since we played house league hockey. And the tires are just another nod to being in the ’Shwa, because it’s cars that kind of built the town and it might be pessimistic to think about, but it’s our car culture that’s kind of undoing that city right now and not just in Oshawa, but everywhere. I feel ultimately it’s kind of an unsustainable industry and it’s kind of what’s gotten us to the point where we’re at and it seems in a lot of ways that they’re going to be one of the reasons for our downfall, I guess. I was going around, grabbing bits and pieces of our own histories and things we felt a connection with I guess with the art. I don’t know if it’s necessarily specific to the album or anything, but we were looking at the album as a culmination of a good many years’ work. And then we always wanted to keep things for our friends and have it be something that, ultimately, if your pals can pick it up and look at it and think, "Okay, yeah, that’s cool” then you’ve done your job. We just wanted to make our friends happy and if anyone else is interested beyond that, then great!

Also, looking at the lyrics it seems there’s also a pessimistic view of cityscapes as well, is that something you tried to get through as well?
When you’re writing short stories from grade three, they always say, "Write about something you know.” And there’s a lot of bands that I like where the lyrics are totally off the wall and crazy, fantastical things but I’ve always found for us, and for me in particular, that it’s always easiest to write about what you know and what you’re experiencing day to day. And, consequently, a lot of the songs on the record are about being in a band and what that’s like. I think that’s really fun and, as I said, we’re making music for our friends. Everyone here in Guelph is playing in a band of some kind and it’s great. Those are the types of people that I hang out with and it’s great to have people to bounce ideas off of and I find a lot of times, regardless of the type of music that it is, to go out and put yourself out on that line and write lyrics and sing them and perform them in front of people, it takes a specific kind of person to do that. There’s something to be said for lyrics that address what that’s like and that a lot of other people can maybe connect to that. So a lot of the songs are about making the record and putting it together, being like "Oh, shit, we’re doing this thing and about to go out on a tour and who knows what we’re going to do, we’re going to be sleeping on the floor a lot… hope I don’t throw out my back.” And a lot of them are, too, about the cities we’re living in and I am interested, to some degree, in the more political aspect of living. I think it’s kind of hard to escape that. I wouldn’t say we’re, necessarily, an overtly kind of political group, I feel uncomfortable doing that just because, as the lyricist, I don’t speak for everyone in the band. We agree on some things but others we don’t. I like that there’s a certain amount of ambiguity to things as well, I kind of find that adds more depth to a song or a piece of music. If you have to sit down and spend some time with it or if you can project your own feelings and your own inspirations into the lyrics of a piece of music, those are the songs I’m really drawn too. It’s like, well, I think they’re talking about this and I don’t really know but that’s what I think and then that becomes what the song means to you. It’s easy to attach that specific piece of music to a certain time of your life and a certain feeling and that’s one of the exciting things about making music to me. It comes from somewhere really personal but it offers people that option to make it their own as well. (Out of this Spark)