Becky Ninkovic, the lead singer of You Say Party! We Say Die!, laughs ruefully. We're inside the band's cramped rehearsal room in a building that reeks of stale beer and sweat, in one of Vancouver's industrial neighbourhoods where the prostitutes come out before the sun sets. It's the perfect setting for a dance-punk outfit about to be known for making the best out of bad situations. Just two years ago, YSP!WSD! were on the verge of calling it quits. Now, they're a few weeks shy of embarking on a six-week, cross-country tour supporting their third, and finest album, XXXX.
It was 2004 when bass player Stephen O'Shea and keyboardist Krista Loewen started jamming with Ninkovic in her parents' basement in Abbotsford, BC. A year later, they released their first CD, Hit the Floor!, and became a buzz band that whipped audiences into dance floor frenzies, largely thanks to Ninkovic's front-woman antics that often highlighted her dancing more than her singing. Floor! was a collection of propulsive, guitar-mashing, garage punk songs with occasional off-ramps into new wave. Their second release, Lose All Time, showed more diversity and less emphasis on noise, amping up the production values and musicianship with the addition of guitarist Derek Adam and drummer Devon Clifford. It also boasted YSP!'s most popular song to date, "Monster," an '80s-inspired pop number that let Ninkovic's vocals bounce over urgent drums and playful guitar riffs, and sounds most like the diving off point for XXXX.
Both Floor! and Time were decently reviewed, but YSP!'s real draw was the crashing, thrashing, lightning storm live shows ― something neither album could properly convey. But, now there's XXXX, which comes tearing off the speakers, layers of new wave throwback hooks and tones atop strong, sexy vocals and a smattering of big risks that pay off with an album that finally seems to capture the contagious energy and vitality of their stage performances.
"When we got the first mixes back, it actually sounded like a representation of what our live show is," drummer Devon Clifford says. "In writing it, we were all just trying to be really positive about bringing whatever we wanted to the table and at least experimenting with it rather than ridiculing it right away or laughing it off, like 'Oh, what's that garbage you're spitting out?'"
From the beautifully eerie opening track, "There is XXXX (In My Heart)," to the keyboard-driven dance number "Laura Palmer's Prom," XXXX is full of pop gems that tease and toy with sex, love, and kiss-offs.
"Making our albums before was a rushed month-and-a-half long process from writing to recording," Clifford says. "So to be able to spend close to a year writing all these songs is awesome. With Lose All Time, we didn't have a chance to discard any song we recorded, because we needed every song that we had. This one we've been able to pick and choose which songs we liked the most."
Even Clifford admits that the heavy '80s sounds led him to second-guess some songs. "With 'She's Spoken For,' when we first wrote it, I was like 'We can't play this, it's the same chord progression as Pat Benatar's "Love is a Battlefield."' And the others were like, 'I don't think so.' So I went and listened to it and it's totally different. Then I was like, 'Oh, it's like this Pilot song.' But it wasn't. I guess it's just really reminiscent of some classic songs."
"I feel like it's our best foot forward, collectively," bassist Stephen O'Shea says. "It's really well-rounded because it represents all five of our writing styles. I really feel like this is Becky's record. Hit the Floor! really felt like my record, but she really owned this record. The rest of us became more disciplined in our playing and writing to allow her to have more room to grow and really step up. The last two years have been fundamental growing times for her and it feels like the right step in the arc of our progression, and it makes all the rest of our records make sense. I think this record really shows what we were trying to do back then."
On XXXX Ninkovic finally sounds like the woman seen on stage, commanding the audience with every high kick, a heart anchored by having come back from the dark side, a girl who's genuinely capable of having fun.
"I finally feel like a singer, rather than a dancer who loves being in a band," Ninkovic says. The changes in Ninkovic's vocal range on XXXX are symptomatic of the band's evolution, and really speak to surviving the 2007 Berlin barroom brawl that almost broke up the band, the first telltale sign of Ninkovic's impending breakdown.
Two years ago, YSP! were nearing the end of a 16-week European tour when a late-night drunken argument between O'Shea, Adam, and Clifford lead to Ninkovic attacking Clifford.
"Becky came in and was just clawing at me and I grabbed her and shoved her away," Clifford recalls. "Then big German punk rock dudes picked me up and carried me out of the bar. They were very gentle, but at first they weren't going to be, because they thought I was abusing her. The next day we didn't talk at all."
It was a pivotal moment for everyone, one that had been building for a while.
"When you're sleep deprived it's easy to turn to substances, like 'I don't know how I'm going to do this show,'" Ninkovic says. "You're on a 16-week tour, no breaks, and there's always alcohol around and there's always caffeine around ― two huge culprits for my health issues and I didn't know until I'd hit the worst."
"Even before the big almost-break-up, there were moments on that tour where I didn't know if I could keep going," says keyboardist Krista Loewen. "It was spending a month in Europe with my feet wet because I couldn't afford to buy shoes or a better jacket."
"I didn't have much hope," admits guitarist Derek Adam. "I thought the tour was over. It was a really grey day and we were all stuck in the van together."
"I thought for sure it was done then," O'Shea says. "But we miraculously pulled it back together the next day. Our tour manager did a really great job with the two warring camps."
"And we still managed to put on some pretty powerful shows," Ninkovic says. "We were playing our best at that point, and that was part of what kept us in it, too. We were as good as we'd ever been, and that was really painful. We were so broken as people, but this music was keeping us going."
When the group got back to BC, everyone took a much-needed break and headed back to their day jobs. Almost. Ninkovic's doctor wouldn't allow her to go back to work until she got healthy, and the rest of YSP! began to realize the seriousness of the situation. "We actually [turned down] the opportunity to open for Jimmy Eat World and that was painful, but we had to because we knew the band would be over if she didn't get healthy," O'Shea says. "We really had to regroup and build each other up because we couldn't keep tearing each other down."
Ninkovic's recovery process included a year with a vocal coach, who helped her see that that the perpetual fight between her voice and the music was contributing to her illness.
"I discovered that my true voice is in my centre, it's not up here" ― grabs her throat ― "where I'm straining and fighting the music," Ninkovic says. "In the past it was always like ARGHH! and it was so noisy and so loud, and I felt I had to prove my strength by trying really hard. You learn that the more you strain and the more you try the less power you have than when you just learn to breathe, like allow yourself to open up and relax. That's a principle that goes for so many things in life. I discovered that on a physical level with my health and voice, but it spoke volumes about how I was living too, and how I was existing in this band."
Ninkovic's breakdown also found her exploring some dark places. "In the first couple years of being in the band, I had huge issues with myself and that's really what led to being crashed against the bottom of the ocean floor. There's something in you that can't go on being who you are, and if you can't figure it out, you don't have the right people around, or you're not able to see it because you're so thickly in it, you'll just feel like you have to kill yourself because you hate yourself so much, you just can't bear going on the way you are. That desire comes from a place of 'I need to change.' And if you can find the courage to make that change, it's a whole new start again. I feel like I'm 28 and just being born in a way."
Call it YSP!WSD! 2.0 if you will. For the first time, according to O'Shea, the band is on the same page. But, having been a key driving force in YSP!'s tendency towards the more punk side of dance music, O'Shea admits that XXXX tested him.
This was the most challenging record for me, because we didn't have a preconceived notion of what we were trying to make," O'Shea says. "The others records were dance punk. But now, two records later, well, we've played out all these ideas, but I was thinking and trying really hard and saying 'we need to come up with something and write the idea before we write the album,' but the rest of the band were like, 'No, we're going to just try and bring ourselves to the record.'" The results have already paid off. Advance buzz has critics loving this incarnation of YSP!WSD!
Ninkovic can hardly contain her excitement about her, and the band's, new direction. She jokingly sings a few bars of "A Whole New World" from Disney's Aladdin.
I've never been able to listen to our last albums because they felt like unfinished pieces of work," Ninkovic says. "We didn't have enough time or money to make them complete, whereas this one, I just listened to it today on the drive in, I love these songs. It wells up in me. That was one of my hopes with these songs, that they would feel good to perform night after night, and they would be a comfort to me, and perhaps to others as well. It was like I wanted to sing songs that were liberating. When I was just discovering this newfound confidence, I had this guy say, 'Whoa, doesn't look like you need any help with your ego.' And I'm like, 'This is the first time in my life I've had an ego! I'm stoked. Leave me alone. I'm loving this, this is good ego, and I'm holding on for all it's worth.'"