"I have a small selection of cheap guitars," deadpans Stephen Lyons, leader of Vancouver ensemble Fond Of Tigers, professing himself only marginally eligible for a What I Play profile. But Lyons' true talent is the arrangement and conduction of his seven-headed beast ― composed of two drummers, electronically processed violin and trumpet, keys, bass and guitar ― to act in concert. To use an analogy with pro sports, Stephen Lyons is a player/coach. "To be honest I've never spent more than $200, $250 with case, on a guitar. So I always think I should upgrade, but it's not really my focus. The main thing I think about is the overall dynamics of the band."
Fond Of Tigers vacillate between minimal washes of sound and gales of loudness that incorporate jazz, rock, European classical and electronic accents in grand, sweeping ways. In a sense, Lyons' uncomplicated sound is like a conductor's baton. It drives everything, but its impact is discreet. "I like it pretty clean to the point where it starts to break up a little bit. I always use humbuckers. But even [violinist Jesse] Zubot, before a show, looked at my setup and saw the guitar cable going to the tuner pedal, then going to the amp and he was, like, 'I don't think you can do that.' I just play a clean game, a whole 60 minutes."
Coach Lyons and his guitar call out the Xs and Os for the band. Literally. "There's no one set way we work" he says. "Sometimes I'll have a guitar line and I say, 'I want to hear this song, so who wants to play it?' I'm the main author but more and more there's more interplay. I never write anything in notation, I write in symbols for a lot of things are more structurally based. It can be Xs, triangles with dots, there are always a lot of numbers, and it kind of works. It allows everyone to find their own way into it, use their own language. But I had to arrive at it in a chaotic, empirical way."
Within such a game plan there is a great deal of improvisation within definable songs. As a result, they're more rhythmically freewheeling than similarly large bands such as Do Make Say Think or even Arcade Fire.
The biggest problem with a large ensemble is creating a balance of sound in which everyone can hear each other and perform at their highest level. It's one thing to be able to achieve this in the deadened rooms of recording studios, but when you're squeezing onto a tiny stage in a bar, it's a new ballgame ― especially with two drummers. "I think now the drummers are playing mostly riffs instead of over and through things," Lyons observes. "But like the rest of the band there's a lot of self management; a lot of sound guys will tell us 'we didn't do anything while you were playing.' They won't even touch the faders."
Fond of Tigers don't tour with their own sound engineer or custom monitors. "Zubot plays a little larger amp than he would in some other cases, and my response to that was to get professional earplugs made! [Trumpeter] J.P. Carter, over the last couple of years, has used a two-amp option. Mostly it's [them] who have had to make adjustments."
A new challenge on their recently released Continent And Western (Drip Audio) sees the band working with a vocalist for the first time. A very distinctive vocalist at that: Sandro Perri. Why now? "The main thing that kept it away for a long time is lyrical content. People interact with a band in a certain way, and the more we thought about that we realized it's not in the spirit of the band. So we had to get past that. But the lyrics Sandro wrote ― we just melded with him. It was like we were an eight-piece band all of the sudden."
So what words of wisdom does Lyons have for aspiring coaches? "When I'm sitting around planning travel and rehearsals, I think, gee, a trio would be nice. Once we're at the point of 'Let's pack this thing up and take it to Toronto or Montreal' ― it's like 'What was I thinking?' So I guess my advice would be if you create a difficult beast, don't hate the beast for being the beast that it is. You gotta embrace the beast."