Most Serene Republic

Most Serene Republic
Eager and slightly impatient, the Most Serene Republic ring-leader Ryan Lenssen is ready to rant when it comes to his band’s second full-length, Population. A high-concept follow-up to 2006’s Phages EP and their breakthrough debut, Underwater Cinematographer, a 40-minute discussion with Lenssen revealed that Population is much more than another indie rock record. Combining the band’s chaotic sound with a lofty philosophical bent, the record digs deeper than first meets the ear. Discussing everything from slick production to evolution, Ryan’s wordy response required very few questions.

How do you write songs?
We use a house analogy that works very well. I write the blueprints, I say what we’re going to be saying, I put up the frame of the house, and then everybody else in the band does something. They’re electricians, they’re plumbers, they’re interior designers. And then Adrian [Jewett, vocals and trombone] pretty much cleans up, and right at the end I put the bow on it and that’s it. So everyone is very much involved. You can’t build a house without a crew, and despite the fact that I write the blueprints, I wouldn’t be able to do it without the rest of them.

How did you approach Population differently from Underwater Cinematographer?
First and foremost, Underwater Cinematographer wasn’t a record. It was a notebook. It was a collection of ideas and thoughts. It was more of a satire than it was anything else. It was messy, it was convoluted, it had good ideas, bad ideas, it fell short, and it overcame. It was just a collection of notes, and I think that’s the difference between that and Phages, which was widely forgotten, and Population. We were working at factory jobs — I was working at a candy factory, Adrian was working at the jail, sometimes I would do a job at a concrete factory and almost lose my hand daily. Nothing is like the solid fear of losing the most important thing to you. And then we wrote Underwater based on frustration. We were coming from a scene that was in Southern Ontario, and I don’t know, but the southern Ontario scene seems to think that it’s very important. They were doing a lot of the emo business, the screamo business, and all that kind of young, fast, ridiculous music. And we decided we could bring all that music together in a way that wasn’t one thing or another thing, and we basically just wrote notes on what was going on in that world at that time. And we didn’t necessarily like it, and we didn’t necessarily think it was the best thing ever, that was just our observation. And Arts and Crafts picked it up, and the rest was just history. Phages was our first attempt at writing a cohesive artistic piece. I think that’s the difference. Underwater was more of a journalistic piece, whereas Phages was more of a true artistic piece because it was almost an exposé on our own feelings, thoughts, and emotions being thrust into the world we had fantasised about. There are two gates: there’s one half of the gate on the outside world that use iTunes and pirates, and then there’s this side of the world that is being in the music industry and seeing the music that iTunes will be selling and other people will be pirating. And a lot of people fantasise about it. But it’s much different actually living in it. It’s much different actually becoming it. And Phages was the tale of ourselves getting wrapped up in that world, and being disillusioned, and coming to terms with heroes and villains and knowing that the fantasy is just that. It’s a fantasy, and there is very little reality in that fantasy. I think it was our frustration, our confusion, our happiness and our sadness all wrapped up in one, and that was the titbit that was Phages. So, really, you can’t compare this next record Population to Underwater, that wouldn’t be fair. But we can compare it to something like Phages. For Population, we swallowed ourselves in a world all our own, filled with books and Bill Hicks, and all the dystopian greats, and we looked at our world and we looked at ourselves, and then we looked at the world again and said, "What?” And then we looked at ourselves again and said, "What??” And then we started confronting ourselves. We started battering ourselves in the head with truths and honesty and we realised that it sucks. The truth of the situation and the honesty of the situation — it does really suck. And it hurts. It’s probably the most painful thing you could ever reveal to yourself, the truth.

Do you mean truth in general or truth about a specific situation?
No, I mean in general. The honest truth about everything. The truth about jellybeans. The truth about cars. The truth about the way you look. The truth about how you handle yourself in a social situation. The truth about your shoes, your cock, your asshole. The truth about everything. And that sucks. That sucks knowing the truth. Because everybody is so busy — including ourselves up until this point. We were so busy getting wrapped up in the fantasy of humanity and the truth is much darker and harder to swallow. So what did we do? We wrapped the truth up in a nice little sugar pill called Population and we said here you go, world! This is what we found out. And it sucks. But we’re going to tell this tale in a story form, and it’s going to be our anti-record. It’s going to be the anti-book that doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending depending on how you look at it. And we’re going to start out with the fantasy of everything that comes out of a relationship between two people or two things — the fact that you get so awestruck when you meet that new thing or person, how everything is fantastic, everything is blindingly perfect, and then slowly over time, things don’t go so well. Things start crumbling away, and the fantasy that you built up for that one thing or person is starting to crumble away. It starts to dissolve, and you see some truths, and they’re alarming, and you get upset because you thought this was it. You thought this was the end of it all, the end of the search. So you’re thinking, "Oh man, this isn’t actually perfect. This isn’t actually how we needed to be at all. Maybe we’re not on the right path. Maybe this girl isn’t the one I want to love forever. Maybe this boy isn’t the one I want to love forever.” And slowly throughout the record, as we’re telling the story, things start to fall apart, then they get back together as they always do. We can always reach a level of acceptance. We can go, "No, it’s okay. I’m alright with all of this. We can get past this. I’m a good person, you’re a good person, and we can get through this. And I can overlook all the shortcomings. Hell, you know what iPhone? You’re not 3G, but you’re okay. You’ve got the fancy touchscreen!” So we keep going on this and all of a sudden it’s not okay, because it’s already been tainted, and no matter how much you thought it was going to be ok it’s not. Because it’s too late, and the honest truth is that it’s time to end it.

So is this a kind of hopelessness that you’re dealing with? Where does hope come from?
I would say that this record and everything that we’ve done recently is actually hopeful hopelessness. I know it’s completely contradictory, but it’s the only way I can put it in an abstract tool such as language. Really and ultimately, this is a hopeful hopelessness because we end the record in a melancholy but understanding, almost motherly way. We say, "There were moments of beauty, humanity. There are moments of sheer beauty. But there were moments of disgrace and dishonesty, and there were moments of childlike behaviour, acting lower than ourselves. There were moments of complete sadness and distrust, and I can’t deal with that. I’m gonna seek the next thing, and even though it was so beautiful, it’s time to move on.” Ultimately, at the end of this record, we’re saying what do we do? We’re putting our hands up in the air. And saying what is it? Because we can’t solve this problem yet. We don’t have the answers yet, which sort of makes these records a trilogy, because Underwater was the journalistic look into what was going on. Observational journalism. "Hey everybody, this is what the world is all about and it’s really fast and it changes all the time, and everyone has ADD, and no one sits down for a meal anymore, and everyone’s gotta have the radio on, and everyone’s gotta make sure that if you go into a Tim Horton’s you better know that the Beatles are going to be playing over top, because how can you enjoy a cruller without ‘Yesterday’ playing.” You know what? I think I would enjoy that cruller a little bit more if "Yesterday” wasn’t playing, and if an actual person made the honey cruller! That’s what Underwater was, and Population is asking what do we do with all this information? Are we happy with this? We started off and everything was great because it was like, "Look, I can get anything I want. The internet is right there. I can read the histories and biographies of the most important people in this world, and at any given time I can expand my knowledge and horizons faster than any other time in the history of the world. But I think that’s what’s really destroyed us because for centuries, certain pockets of the world, the intellectual alumni, have strived to make this information easily accessible for everyone everywhere. But now that it is, nobody cares. Nobody’s doing anything with it. They’re okay with MySpace and Facebook being the primary internet things they do. They’re okay with MSNing. They’re okay with communication without body language or the other aspects of communication. We’re completely misunderstanding each other, and extending adolescence much further than it should be. So these are the problems we’re dealing with now. This is the chocolate bar you have to take away. It’s all because of our evolution. It’s because we’re exploding our evolutionary traits. You know, human beings, the fifth great ape, are inherently lazy. Why was that? It’s because it was better for us. If it was easier for us to use a tool to kill the mountain lion so we could eat it, then we’re doing to do it. Unfortunately, with today’s technology, we don’t have to hunt anymore, and this instinct is running very strong in our mentalities. All I have to do is pick up a phone and a pizza is delivered right to my house, and I can still surf the internet while listening to my favourite record while talking to people. It’s too much, and people are realising now. With this record and with all these interviews I’ve been doing, I’ve been trying to push this understanding that we all need self-control. There’s been a "demasculisation” of men in the media, but oddly enough, with the "demasculisation” of men, the women are not getting more masculine but rather the contrary. It seems that woman are becoming even more frivolous. Everything is becoming more and more irrelevant. Nothing has to do with the lives that we need to live. Why is this? It’s because of these things that are left in us from evolution. There was a time when Alfred Hitchcock movies were the scariest shit ever. Now they’re slow and boring. How did that happen? How is it that gory movies used to make people throw up in the theatres and now everybody and their dog can go in there, including babies. This is what this record is about. We’re trying to make that sugar pill, but we’re trying to make it jagged so that you have to swallow it, and you notice it going down.

But how do you feel about the danger that there could be a large mass of people who listen to it who don’t really understand that, and see it as another indie rock record that they listen to while they go on MSN or whatever? Isn’t there that danger that it might not be obvious? In other words, who is this record intended for?
I know that this isn’t going to be obvious, but sugar still tastes sweet to anybody. So people are going to have it and I don’t think it’s going to be hugely successful in the vein of Fall Out Boy or something like that, because that shit goes down smooth. Hit me with another couple of those! What we’ve done is put a fail-safe in our music. You don’t want to listen to our music when you’re doing something else. It’s too chaotic. It’s constantly moving and it’s constantly reminding you of how stupid you are for doing that in the first place. And there’s no way that people are going to do that. I mean, celebration if people can. It’ll help me out; I don’t make any money at all. I’m a poor fuck. But at the same time, I still think that this record is going to connect with the right people; the people who are into active, participatory art. There are three levels of art, and one is medicine, that’s the base level. The shit that people can put on. The Yanni. It may make them feel good, it may make them feel sad, but they can put it on without paying attention to it. Then there’s entertainment, the one step above. It’s like television or movies. It’s a passive form of entertainment. And then there’s art. It encompasses entertainment and medicine, but it is the extreme level of both, and it’s active. That’s the difference. It’s an active, participatory thing. Because when you are involved with art it makes you feel something. It makes you look at your own life and compare it to your own life, even if you disagree. When I look at Van Gogh I see it, I feel it, and I know exactly what he’s going through. He’s going through the frustration of being completely hated in his own land. He’s going through so much shit and I can feel it in his work, and it radiates like heat from the sun. Going to see a Pollack for the first time and having it wash over you. And having an understanding with that artist, almost an abstract conversation. That is art. That’s a full communication through time and space, and connecting with another great ape 50 years later. And I can still know what he’s saying, and it’s still valid.

You mentioned some things about piracy earlier. How do you feel about downloading and the fact that Population leaked early?
I had no control over it leaking, but the record label uses a leak as a barometer. The earlier it leaks, the more press and the better received the record’s going to be. It seems like the marketing guys were cool with it. For me, it hurt a bit. Because I understand that people want to listen to it, I understand that they are eager for another conversation with us, and I very desperately want to have another conversation with them, and that’s why we spent so much time crafting this conversation. But when it came out and it came leaked, and there was one song here and one song there, it hurt. Because they’re getting maybe one chapter of a book and it’s completely taken out of context. They don’t know who the protagonist is, or who the antagonists are, or the main themes of the book. You can’t recognise light motifs; you can’t see word painting. You can’t see anything. It’s all just a mishmash. To tell you the truth, I just think that our name being on Arts and Crafts makes people want to download our music. But what we have to say is dramatically different from what else is on the label. And it’s something that they didn’t even know they were getting involved with.

Being on Arts and Crafts, it must be difficult to escape the shadow of Broken Social Scene. Is it ever frustrating when you’re trying to make an identity of your own?
No it’s wonderful. It’s absolutely wonderful. I love the lazy comparisons. I wallow in them. They’re hilarious. I’ve seen reviews already that say, "Oh, the Most Serene Republic have come out with another happy, bright album.” And I mean, basically, they’re just admitting that they’re idiots. They’re going into a big room where everyone was told a joke and then they’re saying very loudly. "I don’t get it. I don’t get the joke!” And they expect to get a pat on the back? You know, they can be pat on the back all they want, because there are a select few people who do get the joke, and they’re laughing their asses off.

Why did you decide to produce this record yourself?
Well, I’ve produced everything so far by myself, but it’s funny that you bring that up because it assumes that we would have had a chance to produce it with someone else. We had the opportunity to work with a lot of the people that I highly respect, and never before have I felt an anxiety attack like when someone said, "Alright, so who are we gonna get to produce your record?” I thought long and hard about that. Other people wanted to get in there — some very well-known names — and I thought if I have someone else come in and produce this record, I don’t know if they’re going to be able to join us in this philosophy. There are very few people out there that I think would be able to sit down and have a philosophical conversation with us and actually agree with us wholeheartedly. I don’t think there are many people out there, and that’s probably for the best. Most of the work for this record occurred in a gazebo while smoking cigarettes late at night, and talking about what we need to say. That was the meat of the process. Recording what we needed to say was easy. Making what we needed to say cohesive, and also slipping it past all the guards at the watchtower, was the most difficult part. Now that we’re in, I’m yelling it. I almost want to put a disclaimer on the record: "Objects may be closer than they appear.” I almost want to do that because it seems a lot of people are missing the point. And it does make me a little sad. I do wish that the everyday person who listens to music would actually sit down and have a cohesive listen, just to try and understand what we’re trying to say rather than, "Oh, it’s just some other indie band.” Because indie now is much different than when we started. People have lost the idea that you’re supposed to make records in your basement. That’s how you make indie rock. You can be raw because no one’s trying to jump on you. That’s what indie rock was supposed to be. It was supposed to be leftfield and experimental, because there is no censorship. Somehow that turned into this big indie hipster art form. The godfathers of this art form — maybe they’re cool with this. Maybe they’re cool with the fact that American Apparel is pretty much is the official sponsor of indie rock. I don’t know, but I’m not. I’m not cool with it. I came into it halfway and I remember what it was, and what it is now. I’m not cool with the fact that you can play a show to the coolest people in the world. That’s not what indie rock was supposed to be. Indie rock was supposed to mean you could play to everybody who could possibly say they’d read an excerpt of Proust and know what we’re talking about. It’s not for the uninitiated, and apparently only the uninitiated are listening.

You said earlier that this is a true anti-record. Is it your goal, then, to always exist outside of the indie mainstream?
We’re always going to do what we have to do. We could have gone with a producer, and I could have for the rest of my life not been able to sleep at night because I would have made a ton of money but known that I sold my soul to the devil. That is a real fear. I don’t know how you could live with that. I’m in a position where I could have and I thought to myself, right at the last second, right before we signed the contract, fuck it. No way. Even if this bombs and I have to work at Starbucks for the rest of my life, I would rather be honest and true to what I can do and what my ability is able to present to the people than some overproduced crazy-ass bullshit that sounds the slickest. Like oil-greased money. Oh god, delicious. Shove that shit down your throat.