Published Jan 23, 2011If you've ever gone to a hairdresser and said "Surprise me," you might have a sense of what it was like making the new Young Galaxy album. Deciding it was time to break out of their comfort zone, the Montreal-based trio of Stephen Ramsay, Catherine McCandless and Stephen Kamp did the unthinkable: they relinquished control and sent off their demos to a producer with the message, "Surprise us."
"I do that in the salon all the time, but with trusted people," says singer/keyboardist McCandless. "There is a certain amount of aesthetic decision-making on our end because we chose the person to put this trust in and that's significant to me." Coming off a well-received debut on Arts & Crafts and a solid self-released sophomore effort that found a spot on the Polaris Music Prize's long list, from an outsider's perspective, Young Galaxy weren't exactly struggling.
Still, when it came time to map out their third album, it was obvious to singer/guitarist Ramsay and his bandmates that they needed to "throw out the conventional approach" and leave the frustrations of the "rock studio experience" behind them.
"We were only on our second record and realized that the way our records were sounding was different from what we imagined for them to sound like," he says. "We knew we wanted to make a very different record, one that sounded more modern. We certainly didn't want to do it in a way we had done it before and looked to buck any sense of expectation."
Young Galaxy's next move was definitely not expected. After finishing the demos for their third album, they handed them over to a guy named Dan Lissvik. He may not be a household name, but Lissvik is one of the most esteemed producers in the business under both his own name and as one half of the Swedish duo Studio. And according to Ramsay, he was the only person they would even consider for such a job.
"I think the driving force behind us wanting to do the record this way was our desire to work with Dan Lissvik," explains Ramsay. "Or specifically my desire. I'm a huge Studio fan. I didn't want to work with anyone else. I don't know if there is a single circumstance like this that I would agree to do this as readily as I did with him. Even if Brian Eno offered to produce our record I would still say, 'Well, I would like to hear what that sounds like first before I agree to do it.' I didn't care. I feel a, dare I say it, spiritual connection to the music he makes. I don't know what it is."
Originally contacting Lissvik to commission a remix, Young Galaxy befriended the producer and ended up offering him the entire album to oversee. "Not that many people knew who [Studio] were and we were one of the first to ask him to do work like this," says Ramsay. "Somehow we became interested in each other through the timing, and of course, me kissing his ass about his own music over and over again. So when it came time to write this record we wrote like a screenwriter would write with a particular actor in mind."
Sending the album to Lissvik in January 2010, McCandless says they figured they'd have their hands on it in February. They didn't actually hear a note of it until some time in October. Needless to say, plenty of nails were bitten to the cuticle. "We were nervous about it," she says. "We thought it would take a month. But what happened was we started having these lengthy conversations with Dan on skype where we could hear the tiniest bit of a song in the background, so there was some dialogue. It was torture in some ways but it was also like 'Let's just throw this up in the air and see how it lands.'"
"He had free rein and he didn't really want us to hear any of it," Ramsay adds. "He was like, 'I'm going to take this away and work on it, and when it's done I will give it to you.' I felt we were in the hands of someone that couldn't fail. Especially at that point, because we had forged a relationship with Dan and everything seemed to be pointing in the right direction of the experiment working out."
Shapeshifting, their first album for Paper Bag Records, begins a new chapter in Young Galaxy's life. Gone are the swelling, guitar-driven, mid-tempo rock songs and in their place, Lissvik's creation: an amorphous recording that flows in slow motion and places emphasis on changing up rhythms, acoustic guitar reverberations and oscillating synthesizers that sound straight out of a John Carpenter flick.
To Ramsay's surprise, this overhaul in sound wasn't as drastic as he'd imagined. "I thought it would be more of a dance record, like a real banger," he says, without an air of disappointment in his voice. "But it's not, it's pretty introspective and slow, which is typical of our output to date. [Before we heard it] I felt that with Dan whatever came next would come out sounding warm, rich and beautiful, because that's just the way his music sounds."
Ramsay says that Lissvik's contributions range from some rearranging to recording brand new parts, though remaining true to the original ideas the band laid down on the demos. But really, Lissvik's involvement gave Young Galaxy a newfound sense of freedom with their music.
"I feel like this record has liberated us from any expectations that people had of the band," says Ramsay. "And if there's anything I hate it's being told what we are. I didn't want to be pigeonholed as a rock band anymore. We're now in a position to re-think things with every record. We are a work in progress. That sounds kind of pretentious, but you know what I mean. We want people to be excited to check in on us and see something that is constantly evolving."