"There isn't a movie called Death Dreams, is there?" Paul Saulnier asks over french fries and pints, hours before PS I Love You play their Canadian Music Week gig. The bearded 'n' bespectacled singer/guitarist for the Kingston, ON band is about to learn that the title he's given his new album, as well as two of its songs, shares a name with a piss-poor 1991 TV movie thriller starring the late Christopher Reeve and C.S.I.'s Marg Helgenberger.
"Nothing's original anymore," chimes in the band's other half, drummer Benjamin Nelson.
After describing the film's laughable trailer to the two band members, they are intrigued, but also a little thwarted.
"I never thought to Google it," Saulnier adds. "I should have."
PS I Love You have had some remarkably bad luck when it comes to choosing names. Aside from Death Dreams and their band name ― which was later spoiled by the Hilary Swank/Gerard Butler rom-com ― they've recently been informed that the namesake for their debut album, Meet Me At The Muster Station, has been changed.
"A kid came to a show after our last tour, I think around Halloween, dressed as a muster station. It was pretty cool. [But now] they've changed the sign on the Wolfe Island ferry to 'assembly station,' which is annoying," says Nelson. "I don't know why. It takes a little bit away from our album now."
"Meet Me At The Assembly Station doesn't sound as good," Saulnier adds. "The muster station on the Wolfe Island ferry is near the front of the boat, so when you stand there you can see the entire city when you go to the island. That album is almost the same length as the ferry ride, so I always told people that the ultimate experience was to listen to that album while you ride the ferry, look at Kingston and see if you feel anything in your black heart. And now that's all ruined because they changed the name to assembly station."
During a 2011 North American tour, Paul Saulnier had a crazy "death dream" that inspired him to write the title track and as a result, name the album. In the "death dream" that haunts him, Saulnier is a ghost trapped outside of his old elementary school in Gander, Newfoundland, where he grew up. He keeps running around the block, but is unable to escape. Hardly competition for Frederick Charles Krueger, but enough to get the creative juices flowing.
"It's scary because there is no actual event of death," he says. "I just realize that I'm already dead and no one can see me. I do have a lot of vivid dreams about my own demise. But being followed around by death is what inspired the song."
"Death Dreams" and "Death Dreams II" are instrumentals that drone with just enough cinematic quality to evoke visions of Saulnier running scared with a sheet over him. "Death Dreams" is admittedly a recreation of the melody played by a death march band in Saulnier's dreams. There is a reason why they are lyric-free though.
"I mostly sing about wanting to get more out of life because I've wasted so much time until now," Saulnier explains. "And girls. I sing about girls. Those are the two major themes and now they're more informed by this subconscious paranoia that it is all going to end."
One lyric you will hear throughout the album is "all I want is more than I ever had." Appearing on half of the songs, the phrase became somewhat of a personal and musical mantra for Saulnier after he discovered it in one of the most unlikely places.
"Our U.S. tour with Diamond Rings had a lot of influence on this record," says Saulnier. "We were shopping at this roadside stop near South Carolina with all of this crazy crap for sale, including this novelty license plate that read 'All I Want Is More Than I Ever Had.' I freaked out when I saw it, because who writes that? For me it was something I've never said, or even thought. So the idea of thinking that became exciting and I started saying it in my songs because, well, it's easier than coming up with other lyrics. But I also sort of applied that statement to a lot of aspects of my life. We aren't that young, but we're growing up and I thought maybe I should start doing something about the things I want in my life. That's an important step for anyone. It fits in with my living in the moment, not giving a fuck sort of ideals. But mostly it was funny. And so I started carrying this thing around, and it's still in our tour van. And of course, Colin [Medley] named a book after it. It sort of became this saying we adopted."
Once upon a time there was a four-piece band from Kingston with the magnificent name of Magic Jordan. Self-described as "high-energy, dance punk music," the band featured Saulnier (bass/yelping), Nelson (drums), and friends Jeff Barbeau (electronics) and Jenni O'Neill (synths/vocals).
"We bonded over nostalgic stuff, like basketball stars of the '90s," says Nelson, who preferred Air Jordans to Saulnier's Converse Weapons. "[Paul and I] came up with Magic Jordan at the coffee shop where he worked and thought, 'Well, we had better start a band.' It was during that era of group vocals."
On the side, Saulnier had a "one-man band" he formed in 2005 called PS I Love You (a flippant nickname for Saulnier by friends based on his initials), with which he made noisy, '90s-inspired, guitar rock, complete with fret-tapping solos.
"I don't like taking too much credit for it because the fret-tapping I do is like fret-tapping for beginners," Saulnier says earnestly. "In the actual world of shredding, I'm a poser. In the indie rock world, I'm a real shredder. I've always idolized lead guitarists and it's an equal amount of loving soloists, but also loving people who can turn the guitar into a noise-making machine, basically."
Though it began as a solo project accompanied by a Casio drum machine, he eventually sought Nelson's assistance on drums to play a release party for his PSILY EP. From that moment on, things began to take off for PS I Love You, the duo.
"We became the go-to band in case [artists] playing Kingston needed an opener," says Saulnier, who also moonlights as the drummer for False Face. "So that was one way we got to meet some cool bands. One band we met was the D'Urbervilles, and we became tight. It was through them that we got our first out-of-town shows. I think Hamilton was our first."
As part of Apple Crisp, a non-profit organization that put on concerts, published zines, released records, and baked "excellent" examples of its namesake, both Magic Jordan and PS I Love You were deep into the Kingston music scene. While MJ ultimately called it a day, PS flourished. A trip to Pop Montreal with the Apple Crisp gang in 2009 gave them the exposure they needed. Soon interested parties began emailing friends of the band, trying to track down its two members and in the end, PS I Love You signed to Toronto's Paper Bag Records.
Stuck in between Ottawa and Toronto, Kingston is sometimes seen as a stop-over town for road-weary bands to pick up some grub. Aside from the Tragically Hip and the Inbreds, K-town has never made headlines for its music scene. But for PS I Love You, the city is a significant part of who they are.
"I think for us, we just did what we did with PS and it became something else," says Nelson. "Obviously because of Paper Bag Records, but I feel like there are fewer inhibitions in Kingston. In a big city like Toronto there is a lot more competition and bands that are exactly like your band. So we just do what we do and support our friends.
"Kingston is great, it's wonderful," continues Nelson, an artist and graphic designer who designs all of PS I Love You's album covers and T-shirts as well as Apple Crisp posters. "I honestly miss those days of putting out zines and compilations and records when we did Apple Crisp Records and had little projects."
Adds Saulnier, "There are two Denny's in Kingston. It's unheard of in Ontario."
A split single with D'Urbervilles guitarist/singer John O'Regan's glam-pop side-project Diamond Rings garnered the band some delayed praise from Pitchfork for their song "Facelove," which helped open doors. Everything seemed to be going their way leading up to the October 2010 release of their debut, Meet Me At The Muster Station. Then on the eve of their first North American tour with another power rock duo, Vancouver's Japandroids, Saulnier was robbed of his beloved guitars.
Explains Nelson: "We had played a show here in Toronto and my girlfriend and I had driven the van back to John O'Regan's place where we were staying. Paul stayed behind, but asked me to bring his guitars inside. We took them out of the van and I placed them on the sidewalk, but we had other stuff to bring up. Not till I woke up the next morning did I realize that I left them outside all night. One of them was pretty special to Paul. He got it from a shop but it used to be Sarah Harmer's guitar. He'd had it since he was a teenager. That was the worst day of my life, honestly. Calling Paul and telling him I had lost his guitars. I'm pretty sure I'm still not forgiven."
Thanks to a plea by Saulnier on Facebook (titled "my fucking guitars were stolen") and a postering campaign by O'Regan and friends Colin and Adam Medley, the guitars were ultimately returned.
But when asked if he has forgiven Nelson, Saulnier ho-hums before answering, "Yes and no. The band's still together. That's the important thing."
Meet Me At The Muster Station was nominated for the Polaris Music Prize long list and ECHO Songwriting Prize, and also received rave reviews from sites like Pitchfork and Drowned In Sound, allowing them to tour the world. While the album was an electrifying first statement, it sounds almost half the size of the massive rock'n'roll surge that powers Death Dreams.
"I should probably mention that for Muster Station I wanted a shitty sound," Saulnier admits. "I would always say, 'This sounds too good. Make it sound like a four-track in some shitty room.' It's funny, to take something that sounds so good and then degrade it to sound rawer. It might have been overkill on Muster Station. I like the way it sounded, like it was recorded in a small gymnasium, which is kind of charming. And now we're in a big gymnasium."
Fellow Kingston native Matt Rogalsky, who also helmed Muster Station, produced Death Dreams, using his portable studio in the band's rehearsal space. The decision to work with him again was primarily about comfort.
"He lives in Kingston and he already knew how to record us," says Nelson. "And he knows how to take raw recordings and turn them into bronze. We had talked about recording at the Bathhouse, the Tragically Hip studio just outside of Kingston."
"I know an engineer there," adds Saulnier. "That would be awesome, but it's not necessary. I'm not excited about going to a proper studio. Matt is really easy to work with because he just sets up his own studio anywhere that we play and can get a great sound. So we just recorded at our own pace, whenever we could, in the loft we rehearse in. I think that is a more fun way to make a record."
Death Dreams is a pivotal second album, a rare accomplishment in an age when most artists struggle to be relevant after their debut. Whereas Muster was written entirely by Saulnier, this one was a band effort, and Rogalsky's full, spacious production undermined any suggestions to make it sound "shitty." The '90s alt-rock comparisons will undoubtedly end, and talk of PS I Love You as sonic warriors will begin.
"Naturally I just think we knew how to write songs," says Nelson of their development. "I wanted to be more involved in adding percussion, song structure and vocals. It's our second record and that's the scary thing, but I was more involved this time so I wanted to make it as perfect as I could. For the first record, some of the songs were from Paul's EP, so I was only really playing beats that were originally done with a drum machine. I think we just wanted to make a second record sound like a second record."
"Whatever that means," adds Saulnier. "We wanted to make it sound like The Bends."
"No, [Muster] was our Blue Album and this was our Pinkerton," confirms Nelson.
"That's a better analogy," Saulnier agrees.