Published Oct 26, 2007Eager and slightly impatient, the Most Serene Republic ring-leader Ryan Lenssen is ready to rant when it comes to his bands second full-length, Population. A high-concept follow-up to 2006s 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 bands chaotic sound with a lofty philosophical bent, the record digs deeper than first meets the ear. Discussing everything from slick production to evolution, Ryans 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 were going to be saying, I put up the frame of the house, and then everybody else in the band does something. Theyre electricians, theyre plumbers, theyre 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 thats it. So everyone is very much involved. You cant build a house without a crew, and despite the fact that I write the blueprints, I wouldnt be able to do it without the rest of them.
How did you approach Population differently from Underwater Cinematographer?
First and foremost, Underwater Cinematographer wasnt 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 thats 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 dont know, but the southern Ontario scene seems to think that its 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 wasnt one thing or another thing, and we basically just wrote notes on what was going on in that world at that time. And we didnt necessarily like it, and we didnt 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 thats 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: theres one half of the gate on the outside world that use iTunes and pirates, and then theres 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 its much different actually living in it. Its 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. Its 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 cant compare this next record Population to Underwater, that wouldnt 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. Its 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 were going to tell this tale in a story form, and its going to be our anti-record. Its going to be the anti-book that doesnt necessarily have a happy ending depending on how you look at it. And were 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 dont 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 theyre 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 youre thinking, "Oh man, this isnt actually perfect. This isnt actually how we needed to be at all. Maybe were not on the right path. Maybe this girl isnt the one I want to love forever. Maybe this boy isnt the one I want to love forever. And slowly throughout the record, as were 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, its okay. Im alright with all of this. We can get past this. Im a good person, youre a good person, and we can get through this. And I can overlook all the shortcomings. Hell, you know what iPhone? Youre not 3G, but youre okay. Youve got the fancy touchscreen! So we keep going on this and all of a sudden its not okay, because its already been tainted, and no matter how much you thought it was going to be ok its not. Because its too late, and the honest truth is that its time to end it.
So is this a kind of hopelessness that youre dealing with? Where does hope come from?
I would say that this record and everything that weve done recently is actually hopeful hopelessness. I know its completely contradictory, but its 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 cant deal with that. Im gonna seek the next thing, and even though it was so beautiful, its time to move on. Ultimately, at the end of this record, were saying what do we do? Were putting our hands up in the air. And saying what is it? Because we cant solve this problem yet. We dont 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 its really fast and it changes all the time, and everyone has ADD, and no one sits down for a meal anymore, and everyones gotta have the radio on, and everyones gotta make sure that if you go into a Tim Hortons 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 wasnt playing, and if an actual person made the honey cruller! Thats 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 thats whats 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. Nobodys doing anything with it. Theyre okay with MySpace and Facebook being the primary internet things they do. Theyre okay with MSNing. Theyre okay with communication without body language or the other aspects of communication. Were completely misunderstanding each other, and extending adolescence much further than it should be. So these are the problems were dealing with now. This is the chocolate bar you have to take away. Its all because of our evolution. Its because were exploding our evolutionary traits. You know, human beings, the fifth great ape, are inherently lazy. Why was that? Its 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 were doing to do it. Unfortunately, with todays technology, we dont 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. Its too much, and people are realising now. With this record and with all these interviews Ive been doing, Ive been trying to push this understanding that we all need self-control. Theres 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? Its 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 theyre 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. Were trying to make that sugar pill, but were 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 dont really understand that, and see it as another indie rock record that they listen to while they go on MSN or whatever? Isnt there that danger that it might not be obvious? In other words, who is this record intended for?
I know that this isnt going to be obvious, but sugar still tastes sweet to anybody. So people are going to have it and I dont think its 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 weve done is put a fail-safe in our music. You dont want to listen to our music when youre doing something else. Its too chaotic. Its constantly moving and its constantly reminding you of how stupid you are for doing that in the first place. And theres no way that people are going to do that. I mean, celebration if people can. Itll help me out; I dont make any money at all. Im 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, thats 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 theres entertainment, the one step above. Its like television or movies. Its a passive form of entertainment. And then theres art. It encompasses entertainment and medicine, but it is the extreme level of both, and its active. Thats the difference. Its 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 hes going through. Hes going through the frustration of being completely hated in his own land. Hes 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. Thats a full communication through time and space, and connecting with another great ape 50 years later. And I can still know what hes saying, and its 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 records 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 thats 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 theyre getting maybe one chapter of a book and its completely taken out of context. They dont know who the protagonist is, or who the antagonists are, or the main themes of the book. You cant recognise light motifs; you cant see word painting. You cant see anything. Its 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 its something that they didnt 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 youre trying to make an identity of your own?
No its wonderful. Its absolutely wonderful. I love the lazy comparisons. I wallow in them. Theyre hilarious. Ive seen reviews already that say, "Oh, the Most Serene Republic have come out with another happy, bright album. And I mean, basically, theyre just admitting that theyre idiots. Theyre going into a big room where everyone was told a joke and then theyre saying very loudly. "I dont get it. I dont 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 theyre laughing their asses off.
Why did you decide to produce this record yourself?
Well, Ive produced everything so far by myself, but its 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 dont know if theyre 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 dont think there are many people out there, and thats 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 were in, Im 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 were trying to say rather than, "Oh, its just some other indie band. Because indie now is much different than when we started. People have lost the idea that youre supposed to make records in your basement. Thats how you make indie rock. You can be raw because no ones trying to jump on you. Thats 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 theyre cool with this. Maybe theyre cool with the fact that American Apparel is pretty much is the official sponsor of indie rock. I dont know, but Im not. Im not cool with it. I came into it halfway and I remember what it was, and what it is now. Im not cool with the fact that you can play a show to the coolest people in the world. Thats not what indie rock was supposed to be. Indie rock was supposed to mean you could play to everybody who could possibly say theyd read an excerpt of Proust and know what were talking about. Its 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?
Were 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 dont know how you could live with that. Im 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.