Published Mar 04, 2014Hawksley Workman, Steve Bays (Hot Hot Heat) and Ryan Dahle (Limblifter, Age of Electric) have all been stars in the Canadian music scene for more than a decade, but they sound as fresh and vital as ever when collaborating as Mounties. The trio announced their formation in early 2013, and they began to get attention after rolling out a couple of hook-filled singles and signing a deal with Light Organ Records. Now, a little more a year after unveiling the project, they are releasing their debut album, Thrash Rock Legacy, which injects its high-energy rock songs with quirky synths and pop-friendly choruses. The album is made up of 14 songs, and the energy never lags over the course of the hour-long runtime. While taking a break during sessions at Vancouver's Greenhouse Studios, Workman, Bays and Dahle sat down with Exclaim! to discuss their jam-based songwriting process, their new outlook on music, and how they feel about being labelled a "supergroup."
How did Mounties form?
Workman: Steve and I were on [CBC Radio's] Q here in Vancouver when the Junos were here, five or six years ago . We were talking about how we were digging on each other's stuff, and how I'm a huge fan of [Dahle]. So then all of a sudden, the three of us were all in a room, having wines, declaring that one day we'd be a band. Then, a few years later — well, I always think that you've got to put it in the schedule. If you put it in the schedule, it might get done, and then it got done.
Do you always work in the same room together, or does any of the collaboration happen remotely?
Bays: Yeah, I guess so. Just out of necessity. We would rather just all be in the same room all the time.
Workman: I think, for the most part, it's always better when the three of us are in the same room. I've not entirely adapted myself to this whole new reality that you can be trading files in cyberspace. I need the energy of these guys in order to feel like what I'm doing is important.
Bays: The one time we did the trading files thing, Hawksley actually lives two-and-a-half hours out of Toronto. So we were like, "Can you sing a vocal over this part?" He said "Yup," and he had to drive to the Tim Hortons where there's Wi-Fi, download it, and then drive home to his studio, which is in the middle of nowhere, basically.
Dahle: It's true that when you're around people and you're doing it, it feels different. We're kind of our own best audiences. I play something for that person to hear.
Workman: That's what's cool about jamming with songwriters. Most of this music is born out of jams, but it's not like it's an American jam band, like a Phish or a Grateful Dead. It's not blues-centric. What's interesting is that, when the three of us are on our instruments — me on drums, Steve on synth and Ry on guitar — you can hear these puppies who are tuned into pop music. All of a sudden, when there's a hook that starts to materialize, everybody's mind goes into emphasizing that hook. So when we're listening back to an hour's worth of playing, it's not about guitar solos and drum solos and extravagance. It's really about mining those moments that are hooky enough to become a song. Sometimes, some of the songs on the record, we clued in early enough in the jam that it was an actual song that we actually have three minutes of that idea being played out as if it were a song. With fills leading into choruses. It's setting it up — "This is going to be a song, I can just feel it."
Why not write in a more conventional manner?
Workman: The process is so outlandish, in a way. I thought we would sit around in a traditional sense with maybe a guitar and a piano and write songs. When we decided to get together and do this, I think I was under the impression that's what it was. But Ry is a very funny guy. He likes to curate your day, and you don't realize what's happening, and all of a sudden, you're in the middle of a Ryan Dahle curated moment. Which is like — "Oh, the studio's set up and a wicked set of drums is there and a cool synth patch is happening." All of a sudden we're sitting down and the moment has been curated. He's really good at that. I was under the impression we were going to write songs with a synthesizer and try to make pop music. And then all of a sudden, we turned into this pop jam band. Within about a week, it became really clear what it was that we were called to do, which is to be live musicians first. It's not unlike the way Talking Heads worked. We just get the benefit of technology, which is, they recorded jams to tape and then had to go and figure out how to re-learn the cool parts. We get to decipher what it is digitally and then manipulate it all together. But with that said, we're rarely looping four-bar bits. We're usually looping these vast bits. "Headphones" was probably a loop that was 45 seconds long, which is why the chorus always sings itself over slightly different parts.
Bays: I think I'm under-precious about stuff, almost to a fault. And then Ryan is almost overly precious. Ryan just loves everything we've ever done. Every second of it. I'll be like, "Nah, that's gotta go." And he's like, "But that's amaaaaazing!" I'm like, "Nah, it doesn't keep me."
Dahle: I like the mistakes.
So you don't re-learn the parts? The jams are the final take?
Bays: We would never go and learn it again.
Workman: That's what so cool when I hear "Headphones" on the radio. It's always bookended by — or it has been, when I hear it on the radio — music that you can hear has been really highly tooled. Like you hear all the editing, and all the fixing. "Headphones" is a real free-for-all. What you hear was really played. There was very little manipulation. It sort of speaks to us. We're not so marinated in the future or the present, we're not so marinated in the past. I sort of feel like we were all working in studios as they were transitioning from tape into the infancy of digital audio. I feel like none of us really belong in the currency of what recorded music really is. The not editing, the jamming, the real musicianship-centric element to what we do is partly because we come from a slightly bygone era, maybe.
Bays: We're different spectrums. You [Workman] are all about analogue. You love tape. You just bought a massive console. You love outboard gear. Whereas I'm obsessed whatever the newest technology is. I'm such a tech guy. And then Ryan's adopted the tech stuff and knows all the tech stuff because he has to. But he loves the analog stuff.
Dahle: I master a lot of records, but I put all of them to tape, so Hawk and I are both really into tape machines. But then I'm super into new technology. Both Steve and I are great editors. When you become a great editor, it's one thing, but when you really realize what great music is, then you start to not edit. You start to know that when musicians actually lock together, it's more exciting. So then we start to utilize other things, like new technology, to loop something and play over it looped. Play bass over something looped so you can lock it together without editing it.
Bays: It definitely doesn't feel like a modern technology band at all. It's definitely more like an old school band. Which is why, like you [Workman] said, when it comes on the radio, it seems almost more jarring than it would have five years ago.
Dahle: It's also about what kind of singers these guys are. Almost all of the record is first take or second take vocals of something we just wrote. Being around singers that can just sing something and it sounds like in the right voice, the right tone, the right tuning and timing — it's pretty amazing to witness.
How do you go about adding vocals to your jams?
Bays: We'll be listening back to the jam, and it will be like — [snaps] "hit record." Run in, freestyle the vocal one time, and that's the final take. I've done so many songwriting sessions where you're sitting around with a pad of paper and a pencil and you're working on every word. It's not like that at all.
Workman: There's a lot of impatience, in many ways. There's a healthy feeling of — I hesitate say "competition," because it's not that — but I'm always busy trying to impress these guys. I sort of feel like we're all doing that. When the jams are born, once they start to find their way into a structure, we all get so excited to get our laptops out and start writing lyrics, and wanting to be the first guy to lay down the hook lyric on the hook chorus. There's always a real urgency to be the guy that sets the tone for the song. Steve will sing a chorus that's so hot, and I say, "Ah fuck!" So I have to at least one-up him on verses. Once it starts to feel like it's being born, there's this urgency that it needs to get done, now!
Where did the album title come from?
Bays: Ryan has a photo of a boat, this dilapidated, super shitty motorboat. You can faintly read that at one point it said Thrasher Rock on the back, back when being into metal was so cool, maybe. And as soon as you put "legacy" in an album title, all of a sudden you interpreting it as if—
Workman: —it's going to be around a long time.
How have you transitioned from being a studio project into being a live band?
Workman: I set out on this musical journey to be the drummer in a band, and I became the singer by accident. All of a sudden, I'm doing exactly what it was I always wanted to do. For me, the idea of playing drums in front of audiences and being the guy responsible for delivering a sweat punishment to an audience — I'm so over-geeked about it. Steve and I were talking — in a way, we hate the road but love playing live. I think this is our other phase: trying out how to be healthy guys on the road. We want to be the guys that, instead of arriving at the gig and then finding the bottle of wine, we end up finding the steam train museum and we go and get a brochure and go go-karting. We want to tour with a whole new focus.
Do you feel any pressure in being labeled a "supergroup"?
Workman: Obviously it's loaded and the history of supergroups goes back to what, Cream? It's pretty super what we do. [Everyone laughs] No, honestly! That's coming from a place with, relatively speaking, all humility and tact — I'm humbled by being in a band with these guys. Their super-ness is not lost on me at all. Their super-ness is what I want to work up to.
Bays: There's actually a lot less pressure overall because none of us feel the pressure to be a band leader, to have to do all of the organizing or all of the interviews. It actually makes the whole gig way easier, because, worst-case scenario, I just let these awesome guys take over and I can phone it in. Not that I would. I'm trying to play the best, most interesting thing in order to just stay even close to these guys.
Workman: It's reinvigorated me a lot. It's reminded me about a love of music as well. It feels exciting. It feels purposeful. I feel like I've got a place again in music. Realizing that music is a camaraderie. It's a shared experience, it's a creation of community. I'm reminded by being with these guys of all the reasons why I got into music. When you get in and you start trying to nurture a career — we've all been there — all of a sudden, the career aspect has a tendency to take over the whole garden. Just keeping up with interviews, just keeping up with label requests, just keeping up with touring, just trying to stay healthy. All these things. All of a sudden, the love of making music in its purest form starts to become rather obscured. It's been an interesting reminder, especially at our age — not that we're old, old guys — it's nice to be reminded that music can be this effortless thing if you pray to the right gods and bow to the right angels and keep it pure and keep it lovely.