Published Mar 27, 2011You'd be hard pressed to tell when Mother Mother frontman Ryan Guldemond is making a joke, particularly when you've brought his band's authenticity into question. "What are you trying to say?" he asks with deadpan delivery.
On the phone from Washington, DC, the singer-guitarist sounds groggy while speaking about his band's new album, having played a gig in the city the night before. Under these conditions, sarcasm tends to get lost. What I was trying to say is that the band were able to strike a fine balance between their trademark quirkiness and radio-ready rock hooks ― something Mother Mother deliberately chased after in making their third album, Eureka. A lot of bands tend to lose what makes them unique when they decide to make their big pop rock record. But while Guldemond agrees with my point, he's also content to let me squirm uncomfortably for a minute.
In the lead up to its release, Mother Mother had warned fans that their third record would be a departure. Gone would be the acoustic and orchestral elements in order to make a more modern, "synthy" rock album. But in excising core elements of their sound, could Mother Mother retain what set them apart in the first place?
Mother Mother have harboured lofty pop ambitions since their inception in Vancouver back in 2005. "We've always been very focused on writing powerful songs that connect to a lot of people," says Guldemond. "Every songwriter, every band wants to produce those songs. That's a really healthy, really pure thing to want to do. It's just being superior in your expression."
Formed as a trio featuring Guldemond, his sister Molly and friend from college Debra-Jean Creelman, the three-piece made the rounds of local coffee houses and open mics as Mother (the second Mother was added for legal reasons) developing the interweaving three-part vocals that today provide the basis for their sound. They expanded to a five-piece with the addition of Kenton Loewen on drums and Jeremy Page on bass and independetly released a self-titled debut, gaining accolades in local media and the attention of Toronto's Last Gang Records. Last Gang signed the band and released an expanded version of their debut as Touch Up in 2007. Taking over the drummer's seat from Loewen, Ali Siadat signed on in time for the recording of O My Heart in 2008, expanding the band's sound to include crunchy guitars and massive choruses.
Eureka completes the transition they started with O My Heart, utilizing more synths, electric guitars and a more driven sound. "We wanted to take [our sound] in a different direction," Guldemond says. "We wanted to create something that was derivative of the band and its components. On our other records, we sort of treated the material as interpretive of the song as opposed to the band. We just wanted to use the elements that we posses to create the sound and aesthetic. We just wanted it to sound more like us."
Yet the band's self-actualization came at the expense of the folk elements that once defined their sound. On this point, Guldemond back-peddles a bit and amends his previous statement, explaining that Eureka offers a different side of the band as opposed to excising elements entirely. "The thing about getting to your third record is that it's part of a collection. Now we have this other colour to paint with at our shows. That's how we see it. This doesn't encapsulate us, in and of itself, it just adds to a larger whole."
Eureka reflects the creative breakthrough Mother Mother experienced in the studio. "It felt like this whole next chapter was part of an 'ah ha' moment," says Guldemond. "It kind of symbolizes how we feel about the record and how we feel about ourselves. We're free of stress regarding displacement. We're very comfortable with where we are and who we are as musicians. So Eureka seemed apt."
Teaming with hooks, it's hard to imagine Eureka not breaking Mother Mother into a whole new echelon of fans. Lead single "The Stand," which finds Guldemond playing psychiatric patient to sister Molly and Jasmin Parkin, who replaced Creelman in 2008, is already eating up airtime on the nation's music station. But Guldemond maintains that any thoughts of commercial success were kept out of the creative process. "We don't set goals beyond play well and stay happy. All the other logistical, industry-oriented milestones of success, we don't really bother with those forecasts. I mean, we have to talk about them. That's a concern. That's part of the band. The team will focus on that, you do have to pay some mind. But it doesn't feel as real as just playing the music well and approaching it with good intentions and letting the rest follow."
The band have always enclosed themselves in a creative bubble few seem allowed to enter. Molly has designed all three of their record covers and Eureka marks the first time they've opted not to record with indie pop maestro Howard Redekopp. But rather than inviting someone else in, Guldemond opted to produce Eureka himself, a task he describes as both "extra fulfilling" and "extra stressful." Without an outside source to bring in new inspiration and objectivity, Guldemond relied on engineer Shawn Penner (who worked on their previous releases) and his bandmates for creative support. "We were all there reinforcing ideas or posing concern. It was all very informed and self-guided. So I never felt like I was alone in the undertaking of the job at all."
Asked if this is where he thought the band would be when they started six years ago, Guldemond remains cagey. "We'd hoped that we'd be still working, still creating all these years later. What the periphery looks and feels like surrounding that… when you're naive you can have delusions of grandeur and when you're informed it's because you're looking back in retrospect." He similarly keeps his expectations for the future well tempered. "We definitely don't try to predict visions of the future. That's a recipe for letdown. Instead we just have realistic and productive expectations based on what we know right now."
In the meantime though, Guldemond is confident his band made the record they set out to without losing themselves in the process. "I think the band's quirkiness is well intact on this record. It has more quirky elements than O My Heart and certainly hearkens back to our first record, Touch Up more than anything," he says. "Our authenticity is safe."