Published Sep 21, 2009As the Toronto, ON four-piece corkscrew into their long, dark 20s, Spiral Beach find themselves six years into a career that has them exploring new territories with heaping amounts of poise and vision. The Only Really Thing, the band's third LP, comes across wildly audacious and multi-layered thanks to the band's self-possessed love of all things Bollywood. As their carnies-gone-wild rhythms helped shape the Spiral Beach sound on preceding albums, melodies now take full control and drive the energy, thanks to vocalists Maddy Wilde and Airick Woodhead's clever phrasing and impassioned delivery. Album highlights "Scour & Devour," "Raising the Snake" and "Vagueries" play off completely different formations, displaying just how much flexibility and maturity Spiral Beach have injected into their songwriting. "After Midnight" and album showpiece "Cemetery" stray from their blueprint of layered chaos and dense production, which is once again handled by former Hidden Cameras member Mike Olsen, standing out for their fluidity courtesy of Wilde's absolutely tough and angelic delivery. Short on guest appearances, handclaps, chants and ironic song content, The Only Really Thing remains a piece of work that bucks most trends in Canadian indie rock, making it one of the most Canadian albums of the year.
How long have you and your brother Airick been recording music?
We started writing songs together when we were 12 and 13.
How different was the recording process this time around?
It was completely different. Ball [Spiral Beach's 2007 LP] was basically recorded 100-percent live-off-the-floor; the only thing we overdubbed were the vocals. This time, we wanted to do the exact opposite and it was something Mike also wanted to try with us because obviously we have a lot of creative ideas in the studio and we wanted to branch out. We had some time too; we put aside a couple of months during the winter where we weren't going to tour, we were just going to sit down and make a real album. We wanted to do something that was multilayered and take from a Bollywood influence, like a collage-style of recording with things coming in and out of the mix. You don't even know what they are and they're all on top of each other in this fun mish-mash of styles. I think the Bollywood thing really meshed with the style we do anyway. Somewhere there's this weird link between this cross-cultural thing they were doing, mostly the '60s and' 70s style things they were doing. But we tried to take as much from those guys as we could for inspiration.
I noticed that the vocals and the melodies drive the album. Is this also an influence you took from Bollywood?
Well, some of the songs were written over a long period of time, some by the time Ball was released but also for example, the first song on the album ["Battery"], we haven't even played live yet. Obviously there's a pretty wide variety of styles that we're touching on but as far as the vocal sound, there's an analogue tape echo sound that's just all over the record, not just the vocals. That was one of the themes we were going for: creating energy through the melody, as well as sound effects. A blend of Maddy and Airick's voice has always been unique and that has always been there, especially on this album.
The band have toured almost non-stop since your self-released debut; do you write the majority of your material on the road?
We have; it's never really the best way to do it. We usually start every song off by writing it on acoustic guitar or sometimes piano. But usually it's me and Airick with an acoustic guitar trying to hash out the basic structure and then we start filling out things little by little. But it usually comes together over a fairly long period of time. A couple of the songs on this album, like "Cemetery," "Vagueries" and "Domino," actually came together really fast, which was unusual for us. We started singing them on acoustic guitar on the street in Kensington Market or Bathurst and Bloor on the street corner, playing for people and seeing what their reaction was. You can tell if you have a strong song if you can just play it for five people and they enjoy it.
I also noticed that the album is much moodier and textured.
We've never really been just a party band. Obviously we wanted to make the live show the most fun situation you could possibly imagine but for the album, we generally listen to every kind of music with every kind of mood you can imagine; we wanted to make an album that you could actually sit down and listen to. There are fun, upbeat parts and there are mellow parts and I think it really flows well together. Like I said, the songs were written over a long period of time but you could definitely tell the evolution of the band right on the album. If you listen to Ball, it sounds like a great live band but there's definitely an evolution where you can take these new songs and sit down with a guitar and play them for people. It's something that we've really learned how to do.
Now that the band members are in their early 20s, the age of most starting bands' members, do you feel that you are still looked at as teenagers?
Yeah, I think that's great! Rock music has always been about young people playing for young people. The more a band are identified with youth, like the way our band have been, I think it is great! The shows we can most identify with are the shows where some kid is throwing a crazy party in a loft somewhere. We just got back from New York a couple of weeks ago with DD/MM/YY and they're kind of like of the same idea ― the best show is the show where there's absolute total freedom. Rather than play to 25 people with their arms folded, standing around we want to play for people who seriously want to be there. People would ask us if we had problems getting into our shows but we've actually never had a problem, even in the states.
The band have always sounded more mature than most young bands. Was there some sort of influence from your father [folk bassist David Woodhead]?
We found out about pop music very organically; I literally didn't listen to music except for maybe the Beatles and film soundtracks until almost up to the time we formed the band. As soon as we discovered that playing music was something fun to do, Airick and I started writing songs together. From then on it was one discovery after the next. When I saw the documentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke, it was the first time I ever heard of Sonic Youth and the first time I had ever seen Nirvana on TV. I was like, "Wow, this is something that I can connect to." It's not even of my generation but it's something I can sink my teeth into. I'm still discovering things, like the band Beat Happening. Calvin Johnston was playing a show on Bloor Street and I thought to myself, "This is something totally timeless; it sounds like an indie band from two years ago."
You've been playing a lot of shows in New York. How has the reception been?
Everything is happening down there so fast. We know if we play down there every six months that nothing is going to happen. So we're trying to go down there every month. There's such a warm community of bands; it reminds me of Toronto but so much more massive. The idea of community is something so important to us.
Are you feeling that community in New York yet?
It's starting to build up; it's bizarre how it started. We were coming back from South by Southwest last winter and we were travelling by train and we met this guy who was coming from L.A. and he said, "I'm moving to New York, into this big loft space with six other people. If you're ever in New York just come by and we can set a show." A year later, I sent him an email saying, "We're coming to New York, let's do it." And that was something that has helped bring up a lot of opportunities; it's something that doesn't happen that much in Toronto.
The Toronto indie rock scene is very incestuous, in that there seems to be a lot of collaboration between musicians. I've noticed that your band have stayed clear of this, for the most part.
We try to have a guest or two to give the albums something out of the ordinary. [Producer] Mike Olsen plays cello on the album but one of the things that has been unique about the band is that it's always been the same four people. Not that we are averse to collaborating with people but I like the idea that you can get to know each member of the band.
How did Mike Olsen end up working with you for your last two records?
He played with the Hidden Cameras up until recently and we actually went on tour with them one year. After a show in Ottawa, he said to me, "You know, if guys ever need to record something, I'd love to help out." We ended up doing a song for an ad, just for fun. We wrote this song to sound like a girl group version of the Ramones and we thought, "Hey, this is fun!" And a month later we asked him to work on the Ball album. The new album, I feel like it's his baby. Airick and I mixed Ball ourselves but this album, it was a long process and Mike gave us three months of his life. He's like the best to work with. This time, we wanted to make an album that sounded like we always wanted the band to sound, like our original idea of the band. And now it's out there. (Sparks)