Published Mar 25, 2008So, tell it to me from the start
Keyboardist Graham Wright: We applied for Pop Montreal in the summer when we were still together in Newmarket. And we didnt really practice before when we got to Montreal, and we just emptied out a dorm room I dont even know how we did this in retrospect, its pretty amazing. Yknow, the dorm rooms at McGill are not any bigger than other dorms, and we just took a bed out of one, put the drums in there and rehearsed for two or three days.
Drummer Greg Alsop: The first time anyone gave us even the slightest bit of attention [at Pop Montreal], we were like, This is it, were gonna make it! So, based on that assumption we dropped out of school.
Vocalist/bassist Dave Monks: It was a sell-out show, but it was also an 80-person room.
Graham: Yeah, Dave had 80 friends at university and that was who came.
So you guys dropped out of school once the band picked up. How did your parents react when you told them?
Greg: Like most parents would. Everyone should have concerns if your kid comes home and says, Hey mom and dad, remember when I said I would have a stable career? Well, now Im gonna travel around in a band. But they came around. They saw that we were willing to work for it. We put in the time, and working day jobs in retail stores from nine to five, and then practicing from five-thirty to nine-thirty, then trying to get more shows. And then Paper Bag contacted us and we thought, Hey, were talking to record labels. We still didnt know what we were talking about, but the parents knew we were at least making an effort out of it and we could always go back to school.
How did you get involved with Paper Bag?
Graham: They were at the Pop Montreal show, and I guess Lexie from Magnet Lane heard us by chance. Josh, myself and our girlfriends were driving up to Montreal Dave was already there and Greg took the train so Josh had the National Post doing Sudoku nerd, Sudoku. So, we were looking through the paper and saw "Who To See At Pop Montreal By The Bands That Are There, and going through we saw our name, and nearly drove off the road. We called our families and said, "Buy ten copies! National Post has never had such circulation. Zing! Take that Conrad Black! Lexie was in Magneta Lane, who were on Paper Bag, so I guess she told them to come check us out. They actually left before we were finished. At the time, our view of record labels was very skewed. We assumed that they would see you once and bring a contract with them and a blank cheque, and say, You guys are great! Now you are stars! So when they left before we were done we thought they hated us obviously, they didnt sign us on the spot. Theres no other way. But then we later found out that thats not how it actually works, and they talked to us more and we came down and played a show in Toronto with Magneta Lane, and eventually they just said, If you guys wanna put out a record, well put it out.
And when did you give up your jobs to become full-fledged rock stars?
Graham: The EP came out in April and I believe we stopped working our jobs in August.
So, you quit your jobs and then began working on the EP [A Lesson in Crime?
Dave: We did the EP in three days, and just borrowed the money from our parents. So we drove up [to Toronto] and drove back [to Newmarket], drove up, drove back.
Greg: Dont say that we borrowed money from our parents because I still owe my dad $600.
Graham: I paid it out of my ING direct savings account. I saved up by working at Chapters and putting the money into a high interest account for university or whatever. And when the band started two months later it was empty. It was like Record! Look at my keyboard now! We put a lot of our own money into it.
What was it like being a band living in Newmarket? I can imagine theres not much to do there
Dave: If youre not in a band or a pothead it really sucks to be in Newmarket
Graham: Unless you really like shopping.
You guys found an audience outside of Canada. When did you decide to set your sights internationally?
Greg: 2007 was when we started doing stuff internationally. We had done a couple short tours in the States, like a couple weeks with Enon and a few shows in New York and Boston a few times in markets close to Toronto. But it wasnt until February or March  that we said, Okay, we have to break out of Canada. So we did a full U.S. tour with Cold War Kids And that had always been our goal. I dunno, I think its kind of a constricting career choice just to limit yourself to Canada. You have to do it right from the beginning as youre emerging otherwise the States wont pay attention to you.
Graham: Its easier now to get noticed as a Canadian band, but right away we said we dont want to be one of those Canadian bands that I mean, there are Canadian bands that make very good livings traveling back and forth across Canada and its important for us to have success in Canada, but its equally as important to have success everywhere.
Dave: In Canada, if youre not the Tragically Hip or Billy Talent, its really hard to make a living as a musician.
Graham: Billy Talent can tour Canada once or twice a year and make their living, whereas right now if we wanted to just tour in Canada wed have to keep going back and forth, back and forth, and it would get boring touring Canada that much, I think. We do have to tour ten months out of the year to make our living, but at least we can do it in a lot of different places and have some change of scenery.
I understand right now that were getting established and its important to never let people forget about you, so you have to tour non-stop and hit every city repeatedly. I hope that three years from now Did you just eat the lemon?
Greg: I was really thirsty! And for a second I forgot exactly what it was, like Its just like an orange, but with a little more bite.
Graham: I hope that two or three years from now, when we make our next record that we can tour like an established band and do a couple of tours a year and then say, Were gonna take six months off now and people wont forget about us. Right now were sort of building the foundation so that its not this grueling later on. Its kinda like in university, were working our asses off, its not always pleasant, and were making sacrifices so that when were 25, 26 or 30, we wont have to do that then.
There is two years between the EP and the album. Thats kind of a long gap, no?
Graham: I think we did too much. People dont seem to have gotten sick of us so we got away with it, but if I had my druthers we would have put out the album a long time ago.
Dave: But we also didnt have any songs!
Graham: Yeah, we had no choice, but it worked out for the best.
Dave: I feel like its essential to have it as a slow build up too, because if we had toured it for six months, like most people tour an EP, it would have been like, Heres our EP, heres our album, and we wouldnt have gotten the mileage out of it.
Graham: Yeah, we actually put ourselves in a great position.
Greg: I think we sort of spread it out. I mean, if you look at what we released in two years time, it was an albums worth of material: a seven-song EP, a three-song EP, [single] Your English is Good thats plenty.
Graham: I take it back. It was another one of our good plans that we did by accident and in retrospect it was like, We played that one well!
Greg: We were still a young band, who were only around for a year when we released the EP. To count on an album? An album is a big statement to make, and you really need to be established when you decide to make that statement. Now that weve been a band for about three years now I feel we can actually go forth with that with confidence that we wont be some flash in the pan.
Guitarist Josh Hook: We needed that two years to wear us down, get used to touring and gain that experience so when the album comes out we can say, Okay, weve done worse things, now we can just do this and enjoy it.
Graham: To break our spirit and build it back up.
Dave: And the shows, with the return from the audience and the press, it just kept going up. Its not like the EPs gone up and down. Its gone up and then kind of plateaued and now the albums coming out.
Graham: It was funny because as things came out in different places because, for example, the labels in Japan wanted another bonus track and by the time we got there [A Lesson In Crime] was like a 12-song album. Wed give them some demo that Dave recorded in McGill with someone banging on a window in the background.
Ive found quite a few demos online; ones where its listed as just Dave or Graham. Did you know all of these are floating around in cyberspace?
Dave: I think weve always been into demoing, even when I was at McGill. Theres always been different versions of "Citizens of Tomorrow, broken down in different ways, and our new record, some of the songs have different demos. Its weird those songs have gotten out there because I thought those were really only on my laptop.
Graham: We put up so much stuff online, like on MySpace, and it never really occurred to us that putting something online would get heard because no one cared at the time, so then we forgot about them as people started to care. We gave out demos early on and now theyre out there.
Tell me about "Your English Is Good. It was kind of a transition for you guys. What made you put it out on your own label?
Graham: For the single it was mostly gonna be a UK thing, because over there they love seven-inches, and we thought wed just put it out through iTunes here since nobody really buys seven-inches here besides collectors. But we thought itd be cool to have seven-inches here, though we didnt want to go through the whole song and dance of finding a label to put out our one limited edition seven-inch.
Dave: We were between labels too, so we didnt want to commit to anything.
Graham: From that came the idea that obviously we signed with an American label. And with most American labels Canada is I dont want to say an afterthought, but Canadas a much smaller market and its not something theyre gonna be focusing on as much. So because were from Canada and I think weve built up a pretty solid base here by touring a lot, and I think weve had our most success here proportionally, we wanted to make sure Canada would be concentrated on and we wanted to get into a situation where we have someone that was working for us specifically for that reason, to give us the best chance here. So, we thought that wed enter into some sort of crazy, us-related Mean Beard-y thing.
I think its like how every actor wants to direct. Every band wants to have their own label, because you always hear or meet bands that arent getting enough attention and you think, I wanna champion these bands.
So, you decided to leave Paper Bag And start Mean Beard, which is distributed by Universal just like Paper Bag.
Dave: We just didnt get along that well with Paper Bag. They had Universal distribution in Canada, so we told them, Okay, were gonna sign to Saddle Creek in Canada as a territory, and then Universal said, Wait, if youre gonna do Mean Beard wed love to still distribute your record. And as much as they are Paper Bags distributor, there are also Universal, which is a completely separate entity.
Graham: We now have a slightly more direct relationship with them. Theres no middle man anymore and its nice to work that way. The closer contact that you have with the people working your record the better off you are to know whats going on.
Were there other reasons to start up your own label?
Dave: Theres a pride in being a Canadian band, like when you explain to others, Yeah, our government helps us make music and music videos. And were not even communists! Its mind-blowing for Americans to hear that. Its such a privilege to be Canadian. Keeping a Canadian team intact is important
Graham: Were all about helping the economy, man, giving people jobs.
But we want to be an international band, and no ones gonna work a country better than someone that is based there. If Memphis Industries tried to push our album in America as an import, theyre not gonna spend much time pushing it there because their based in the UK and the UK is their bread and butter. Its a huge pain in the ass for our manager, but we have an American label, we have a UK label and a Canadian label in those territories.
Dave: We have separate labels in every European country.
Graham: And at the end of the day it really helps that you someone in Germany just pushing the record in Germany. Theyre gonna get a lot more done than someone who has to work the record in 24 countries.
You guys went to Tokyo to play a show. What was that like having the name Tokyo Police Club?
Greg: There was a lot of inquiry over our name. We did a full day of press where it was just interview after interview asked, Why Tokyo? And wed just say, I dont know. It sounded very foreign and exotic and exciting at the time, when youre from Newmarket.
There has been a lot of scrutiny over how short your songs are
Graham: Weve never aimed to write short songs, theyve just always come out that way. Even with this new album, theres a lot more instrumentation, its a lot less minimal and we were expanding in many ways. But one way we werent expanding was with length we just cant write long songs.
Dave: When we want to we will, but we wrote 11 songs in the last two years and ten of them and Your English is Good are on the record. A lot of bands go in and record 18 and cut it down to 13 to make it 35 minutes. For us, we wrote 11 songs and thats all we had. We make sure we like all of our songs, we do that intentionally. Lets just do 11 and do them write.
Tell me about Elephant Shell. What was the writing process like?
Graham: We took two years to write 11 songs, but we probably scrapped another 20.
Dave: We actually had a big epiphany. We had been touring with six new songs but they werent where we wanted them to be. So we thought wed go into the studio to iron the creases, which we did in September, spending three weeks there. It was kinda long and couldnt see it coming to fruition. It was also really different; it wasnt like a rock record The day after we got out of the studio we played two shows with Bloc Party and thought, Oh my god! Were playing them live, and everything rocked so hard. And then we listened to the record again and it was totally not what we wanted to make. So we spent another month touring and said, Okay, what if we scrap everything, go back into the rehearsal space, write for two weeks, record for two weeks and do it right?
Graham: At the time it was a scary decision, like Can we do that? I think we already spent all the money the labels were gonna give us.
Dave: Yeah, and then we called [our manager] Rich and said, Remember that album we recorded? We dont like it anymore. So then in November we came back to Toronto and started writing again. We were focused and productive, and it was all unanimous
Graham: Which was totally missing up to that point for the last two years. We were all pulling in different directions. It just wasnt working. But I dont want it to sound like a crisis, like Tokyo Police Club almost broke up making this record, because we didnt.
Dave: We just almost made a very curveball kind of record. Not that this isnt a curveball, we just made a record that was just bad.
Graham: At the time, we were like, Im glad we made that decision. But when we went back to listen to that first record we recorded before it was like, Whoops! We dodged that bullet. Its just the sound because the songs werent finished we were trying to write them. But in the studio we had no experience with it, so we were writing them by putting more and more tracks on it: more guitar parts, drum overdubs, organ, glockenspiel, keyboard, percussion, backing vocals, clapping, more guitar, harmonies here and there. And then we ended up with songs that had way too many tracks and none of them were good because we just kept throwing more shit at it hoping that the next thing you put on it was gonna be the magic. And we learned thats not the way to write good songs.
Dave: In December we spent 20 days in the studio, which is really short time for making a full-length, but it all totally fell into place. When we originally recorded in Connecticut with Peter [Katis] we didnt have our shit together, it was the wrong timing. So we came back [to Toronto] to record with Jon [Drew] and then went back to mix with Peter, he got it, we got it and it was all cool.
Initially we just thought, A new record, lets get a producer. Peters done records that we really love the first two Interpol albums, the National.
Graham: But we were staying in Connecticut, and as far as things started going badly it just compounded the situation because you couldnt leave and youd be sleeping downstairs, waking up later and later, thinking, I just dont wanna go up there at all. Im gonna stay in my room and watch CSI for the next hour. But when we went back to Toronto, wed wake up and we couldnt wait to get to the studio. Id wake up with my girlfriend, hop on the streetcar and be like, Hell yes! Were going to record. It was so fun we didnt want to leave at night.
Josh: It was worlds of difference and totally us, the way that we worked. When you come back to Toronto you really got that sense and were excited. Whereas in Connecticut, it wasnt Connecticut.
Graham: That was the closest I came to giving up hope, feeling like it was all going down the tubes and if that was the best we got then we were fucked.
Dave: Peter has this amazing studio with a kitchen, and everyone gets their own room.
Graham: In theory it was great. Looking at it beforehand we thought it was gonna be good.
Dave: And the studio in Toronto, we recorded at Chemical [Sound], which is a cool studio but there was nowhere to sit down, the heating was broken. But the record has that charm. So we recorded with Jon, and he knows how to get a performance out of you. Hell work you over
Graham: But in a way where you dont know that hes pushing you. Hes in a band too, so he really gets where youre coming from as a musician, what to do and what not to do to motivate you.
Dave: So we went with Peter, it got very scary, then we came back and recorded with Jon and then we went back and tied it all up with Peter. But I feel like if that hadnt happened and if we had known everything going into it or predicted that was gonna happen, it still wouldnt have come out as well as it did.
Graham: We snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. But sometimes thats how you have to do it. I think were better as a band because of it too. With the EP we had an easy time. We got lucky and wrote seven songs that went quickly and went really well. We were in grade 12 and really enthusiastic about writing songs, it was just fun. So we never really learned how to struggle through and write songs. And then as soon as we started to write new songs after the EP came out, we hit a wall and didnt know what to do. It was like, Have we lost it? Maybe we only had those songs in us. But now we learned how to do it when its hard and the first thing isnt working out, and when you struggle, how to learn from that and get something really good out of it. So I hope [knocks on wood] that the next record will be easier. Were already having an easier time jamming on new stuff. You can just tell the difference now.
What types of inspiration were you drawing from?
At the beginning when we were having trouble trying to write songs there was a lot of trying to analyse it and diagnose what the problems were. Like, Should we try and expand? Should we stick with what we had before? Should we do this or do that? And the conclusion we came to is that we should just write songs. And because we have fairly eclectic taste in music, one day wed write a song and say, This we sound good as the Strokes. Great! or This would sound good as Radiohead. Great! To me it just seems normal that we get together and copy our influences. Its what weve always done since we were in grade nine.
So, basically, youre saying you steal from other bands?
Dave: Theres this one song by Peter Bjorn & John called The Chills and its this killer song, the darkhorse on their record. And while we were writing In A Cave, we said, Oh my god! We should totally just rip that off. So we "did, and now its so different.
Graham: When we toured with the Meligrove Band, we thought, That new song of theirs is awesome. Lets do that! And we did it. At first it was a lot like it, but then without us even noticing, that drum beat that we ripped off changed and before we knew it, it had morphed into a different song. So hopefully no one will notice. We consistently rip off other bands and then fail into a territory that other people like.
Okay Dave, this ones for you. Our friend Ben Buchanan [manager of Toronto band the Coast] told me this great story about you and Woody Allen
Dave: Woody Allen?
Yeah, yknow, the cell phone? In Brazil?
Dave: Oh! You mean Lily Allen!
Wha? He said Woody Allen!
Graham: Woody Allen? Thats way better!
Dave: Lets tell the Woody Allen story instead. So we were doing this stand-up night, and Greg was up there No, I can tell you the Lily Allen story.
Graham: Aww I wish that it was Woody Allen!
Dave: Yeah, so we played in Brazil, an awesome opportunity where they flew us in to do this one show at a big festival. The headliners were Lily Allen and then Devo, and Kasabian and we did our 5:00 set, which was cool playing in Brazil. We were staying at the Hilton [says with a faux smugness], and I left my cell phone in my room and then called the hotel when we got to the airport. They said, Well, well give it to Lily Allens people because theyre leaving too and theyll come meet you. So through broken English I got this explanation, and I said, You could just Fed Ex it to me, and they said, No, no, well send it with Lily, theyll be at the British Airways terminal. Not the Air Canada terminal. I thought, this is so stupid and then waited at the terminal where their flight was leaving and then our flight was gonna leave before theirs.
Greg: You pretty much ran with Steven [Himmelfarb, the bands booking agent] and had 15 minutes to get to their terminal and look for Lily Allen and her people and then get back to our plane. It was this huge international airport and he didnt get the cell phone.
Dave: It got Fed Exed to Steven though.
Graham: Man, I saw Woody Allen coming up in your notes and was waiting for you to say, Woody Allens a really big fan of yours, it would have been so great!
Greg: Yeah, he did a cover of Nature of the Experiment with his jazz quartet.