11th Anniversary Cross-Canada Concert Series
Published Apr 01, 2003Tangiers Rock the Party Coast to Coast
"We're not one of these bands that claims to push music in some supposed futuristic dimension that is ultimately just gimmicky and doesn't sound good. Songs you actually listen to or dance to aren't those weird records you buy because they seem neat at the time," says Tangiers' guitarist/vocalist Josh Reichmann. The Tangiers' debut full-length for Sonic Unyon, Hot New Spirits, eschews gimmicks and imparts a broad range of charged, first-rate rock'n'roll, sure to stir listeners and cause them to cut a mean rug. Reichmann, along with childhood friend, guitarist and vocalist Yuri Didrichsons, formed the band in early 2001, later recruiting long-standing pals James Sayce (bass, vocals), and drummer Marco Moniz. Both Didrichsons and Sayce formerly played with Toronto soul rockers the Deadly Snakes, while Moniz previously kept time for Hamilton's Killer Elite.
Despite the brevity of the group's existence, the band members' lengthy, previous friendships led to a defined ease and a transparent musical direction, all the more remarkable given that Didrichsons, Reichmann, and Sayce share songwriting and vocal duties. "A year ago our styles would have been different. But I think we play so often, we practise so much, we hang out so often that we just have sort of melded into one musical idea. The distinctions do exist, but they're a lot closer to one another than they were, say, a year ago, just from sheer practise and playing and working hard at it," suggests Sayce.
"I think the truth is that we do come from different angles, when writing. It's just that we're writing for a common, agreed-upon feeling," Reichmann adds. "Yuri is a much more acoustic, soft songwriter and his stuff is a lot more personal, and just has such a different energy, and same with my writing, and same with James's writing. I mean, I was really into Dylan and was doing kind of jangly, almost countrified Velvet Underground-type stuff. When we hit the band, something happens where the volume gets turned up and the yelping starts. And a different personality emerges for all of us. Which, I think, means the band has a bit of a sound of its own, separate from all our respective sounds." While individual songwriting traits are apparent, a constant vigour ultimately unites the songs into an integrated, rousing record.
Self-produced and mixed by the band in a scant five days at Toronto's Chemical Sound, Hot New Spirits balances voluminous energy with resounding clarity. "It's all analog and it's all real. We didn't do many takes, some of the songs are the first take. We practised like a bitch before we went in there. We were really ready, and on the other hand, opposed to that, we were also writing up to the last second, adding details. It's not a terribly baroque record. At the same time, it's not so stripped down that it doesn't sound good," says Reichmann. The Tangiers' debut firmly shows their ability to locate a stirring middle ground between pristine pop and fervent rock'n'roll.
Along with avoiding contrivances, the band shuns lengthy, self-indulgent epics, consistently keeping tunes to well under three minutes, preserving a sharp melodic directness. "One of the main things we did going into recording was we really edited our songs and learned what a pop song is. Pop spans into a lot of different scenes and genres, obviously, but I mean pop in the kind of Ramones, Beatles, and Clash way where the song is really respected," suggests Reichmann.
The melodic imperative of the Tangiers' tunes is on fine display throughout Hot New Spirits. "Keep the Living Bodies Warm" surges with harmonious, electric propulsion, casting off sparks like an out-of-control streetcar. "Ca Va Cool" hurtles with soulful tunefulness and a nitrous oxide-injected rhythm, destined to make dance floors shudder. "Here Come the Pieces," offers perfectly jagged pop, cutting through glass with its incisiveness, and "Situation" presents stuttered, strut-inspiring rock'n'roll.
On their debut, the Tangiers' music draws upon a variety of elements, distilling rudiments of numerous influences and fusing them into the band's Molotov cocktail sound. "We always listen to a lot of the Clash; we listen to reggae stuff. I think we wanted a thick bass sound on the record, in terms of warmth, because we listen to a lot of old, roots reggae stuff, to just have that kind of feel. As for rock, the stuff I listen to and actually feel close to is the Clash and the Rolling Stones we are a punk band, but that's just 'cause of our energy, it's not 'cause we're trying to emulate a specific time, it's just what happens when we play rock," says Reichmann.
In addition to absorbing a wide assortment of musical influences, the Tangiers' long history with their hometown has had an impact on their sound. "We're all from Toronto. We all grew up in the same set of neighbourhoods. Toronto does have an effect on you. We identify ourselves as downtown kids, it might even show through the music. It's got an attitude. It's got the hectic feeling of living downtown and knowing it your whole life," states Sayce. Toronto's concentrated pace does faintly gleam in the Tangiers' quick tempos and expressive rock'n'roll, the city's restless energy scintillating in the band's vivid tunefulness.
Frank Black's Wild Years
Perhaps it's spring fever, but you could call April "Frank's Wild Month" of celebrating anniversaries for Mr. Black. So light a candle for the following: April is the 11th anniversary of Exclaim!, an occasion he's helping to celebrate by joining our Western Canadian tour. It's the tenth anniversary of his Hamilton label Sonic Unyon, and he'll be joined on tour by label-mates Tangiers and ex-band-mate David Lovering. It's the tenth anniversary of his band, the Catholics (the Crazy Horse to his Neil Young), who'll join him in exploring places that are foreign to him like Saskatoon. Although he's hit up the major urban Canadian hot spots, (including an endurance-testing five-night stint in Toronto last fall) he has an urge to learn more about his Northern neighbours. "We love coming to Canada. But are you sure they have Halloween there?" he deadpans.
April anniversary #4: April 25, 1992 was the last time he played live with the seminal Pixies (and the last time he spoke to ex-band-mate Kim Deal). That's eleven years, if you're counting which means Mr. Black has been nurturing his solo muse approximately twice as long as everyone's favourite raucous imps played together. But time eases all wounds, even for dead mischievous little elves. For ages Black was testy in response to questions of "Why?" "Reunions?" "Egomaniac?," choosing to emphasise the relevance of his contemporary solo work. Yet certain signposts in the last few years have indicated that Mr. Black is more comfortable with and accepting of his influential place in rock history. "I suppose that you're a little hot, then you break up a band and everyone wants to talk about it, so you just kind of avoid it. Then one day you realise Hey, I wrote all those songs, too, so I'm going to play them.'" Pixies songs have been reintroduced to set lists, ex-Pixies have been invited to join the festivities onstage (Lovering) and on record (Joey Santiago). Also, as of last year, just as many posthumous Pixies releases have appeared as pre-death albums, including the somewhat extraneous B-sides compilation and the previously mythical "Purple Demo" from 1987's Come on Pilgrim sessions. "It was just sort of forgotten about until now," he shrugs.
This April also marks an anniversary with an indirect connection to Black the death of a man who is oft-mentioned as highly influenced by the Pixies. Although Kurt Cobain famously claimed to have ripped off the band's sonic dynamic on "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Black has repeatedly dismissed the similarity as unrealistically trumped-up. Perhaps this has to do with his long-standing dismissal of association with any particular musical scene; although the Pixies were pegged (after the fact) as proto-grunge visionaries, Black's work has never succeeded at aligning itself with a particular genre. "What's gonna stand strong in ten years are records that are good not the fact that they were involved with a so-called movement.' Even something as famous as punk or psychedelia, what stands out? Not the movement it's the bands that were good."
He's equally dismissive of the current so-called "revival" of primal, stripped-down garage music a sound that was one of his early influences. "I like garage music, so I like the idea that it's popular, but I try not to put too much hope into scenes. When you look back, there's never just one category of records that are all good. If you take in the whole movement, what you're going to find is a lot of mediocre records mixed in with the good."
It's a point of view that's to be expected from such a happily staunch individualist, an attribute that leads him to out of the ordinary practices such as releasing two albums at once last year (Devil's Workshop and Black Letter Days), a feat recently tackled by fellow individualists Paul Westerberg and Tom Waits. Yet don't expect him to expound on a theory of double albums. "It's just a coincidence, but as to why I don't really know. I just had two records in my pocket." And with Black's prized possession, a mini portable studio that can be packed up and transported easily, he and the Catholics can assuage the prolific music bug whenever and wherever the urge to churn out two (or more) albums hits them. "I love it. It's cute, old, antique-y equipment. I'd love to take it out of town. Like to Thompson, Manitoba."
The Constantines Have the Whil and Are on Their Way
While indie celebrity is a far cry from red carpets and caviar, it's nice to see some attention paid to bands flying below the major label radar. These bands spend their time on middle ground, not necessarily raking in cash and groupies, instead fed on some critical acclaim and a burgeoning reputation amongst music fans.
In the last four years, from their days on the humble streets of Guelph to their current position as one of the country's greatest rock bands, the Constantines have become a great Canadian success story. Thanks in large part to the work of a forward-thinking label (Three Gut Records, a success story in itself), a constant string of frenetic live shows, a blistering debut record and an equally solid follow-up EP, the band's notoriety has continued to rise, resulting in a freshly-inked international deal with Seattle's Sub Pop Records. (Don't worry, Three Gut is still handling Canadian affairs.)
Musicians the world over would kill to be part of a band with this much potential not to mention one so tremendously talented but few are ever given the opportunity. Last summer though, good timing resulted in Toronto-based musician Whil Kidman being asked to join the momentum-building Constantines as their keyboard player and fifth member.
"We had been looking for a keyboard player for a while, even before Evan [Gordon, keyboardist for a brief stint last year] was in the band," says drummer Doug MacGregor, "When we were between Evan and Whil, it didn't really feel bare, just different. Having Whil in the band rules though. He's pretty much into the same ideas we are. We asked him to come up to a cottage, we wrote a bunch of new songs over three days, practised the old ones over another day, and gave Whil the trial by fire with a Northern Ontario summer tour. He fit like a glove, and we have never looked back."
Kidman (who also fronts Toronto-based two-piece Woolly Leaves) speaks highly of founding members MacGregor, vocalist/guitarist Bry Webb, vocalist/guitarist Steve Lambke and bassist Dallas Wehrle, avoiding any question of semi-stardom to instead praise the people involved. While many could get caught up in the superficial elements of playing in a successful band, all five members of the Cons' seem reluctant to pay it any mind.
"I'm just into making up music with friends," Kidman replies plainly, "None of this would work if there wasn't any love."
Lambke and Wehrle have known Kidman casually for some time but it wasn't until the Cons' played with Wooly Leaves in Cambridge, Ontario back in 2001 that a real friendship was sparked. Kidman has quickly become close with each member of the band, even moving into Lambke's old apartment in Guelph when the Cons' packed up for Toronto (Kidman eventually followed to the big city). It's crucial that everyone gets along so well. Considering the Constantines' extensive plans to support their forthcoming sophomore full-length (tentatively slated for a July 22 release), Kidman and company will have to be ready to spend a whole lot of time with each other in the coming months, exploring the continent in an old beat-up tour van.
"That's pretty much the plan," says MacGregor, "Get in a van, and see how far we can go, and see what crazy adventures we can get into along the way. There is no better way to travel than to play your way to wherever you want to go." Kidman's thoughts on touring seem equally as relaxed: "I just really enjoy waking up in the afternoon and playing shows at night."
With a new record, a new keyboard player and a solid dedication to the road, this summer should prove to be the Constantines' big arrival; we Canadians who've felt the heat from their fire first-hand should be prepared for its spread. And while it may not result in expensive cars and jewellery, at least the Cons' will find the respect they deserve and will have the opportunity to extend their reach past their small town Southern Ontario roots.
Trans Am's Serious Good Times
These days, the lines between rock and electronic music have blurred to a point where it almost seems silly to differentiate between the two. Digital recording techniques aside (a technology that essentially makes any rock band into an electronic act), a whole slew of rockers have embraced the beats and bleeps of their computer-based counterparts, opening the gates for unprecedented musical experimentation. Where a dichotomy between the two may have at one point existed for some, it's no longer taboo to program a sampler alongside a traditional drummer or to use a synthesiser to complement the work of a guitar player.
"I think the blurring of electronic and indie rock is inevitable," says Phil Manley, Trans Am's guitarist, keyboard player and vocalist. "The indie kids have taken a little while to figure out that they can be DJs too. They can do things other than sulk in their bedrooms listening to Cat Power."
For years, Manley and his band-mates (guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Nathan Means and beat keeper Sebastian Thompson) have been on the frontline of the post-rock generation, a genre infamous for its rule-bending experimentation. Since their inception, the band have mixed the force of Washington, DC's hardcore scene and the quirks of the electronic world, releasing seven full-lengths, two EPs and a couple of seven-inches over the course of 13 years. An eternity for most other bands, Manley makes their long marriage sound easy.
"I don't know if we're feeling the effects of constantly playing as much as the effects of constantly drinking," he admits. "We've been doing it for so long that it seems to get easier over time. We have a pretty good groove going on. We know each other like brothers and we know what buttons not to push. That's not to say that we don't fight but at this point, the last thing we need is infighting. We need to save our energy to fight the real enemy."
While Manley doesn't go into the specifics as to who that "real enemy" may be, it's possible he's referring to the critics that have been panning the band of late for not taking themselves seriously enough. Their most recent release, cleverly titled TA, is a cheesy-for-its-sake upbeat party album unlike anything they've ever done before. Stacked with retro beats, sparkling synthesisers and the surprising addition of vocals (the band has been predominately instrumental for their entire career), TA has been getting flack for being too ironic the band has been accused of taking the piss out of music.
Manley strikes back: "We are serious about having a good time. We are in a fucking rock band for Christ's sake! Why does everyone have to be so serious all the time? I think there is some weird sentiment in the indie rock world about uber-sincerity that we find oppressive, if not embarrassing. We take what we do very seriously and we pride ourselves on doing what we do to the best of our abilities, but we're really just three dudes who play in a band and like to have a good time. That might mean having fun with things like album artwork. Look at the cover of Black Sabbath's Paranoid. Do you think Black Sabbath is ironic? I don't."
Manley says that, while they have no solid plans for their next record, it will likely steer clear of many of the experiments they introduced with TA. Looking to work at an outside studio the next time around (to avoid the distractions of their usual sessions at home), he says he wouldn't be surprised if they go back to being an instrumental band. Despite these plans, Manley is still interested in improving his singing voice.
"We noticed that most of the top selling acts had vocals so we figured it was time for a change." His sarcasm is tough to miss. "Our record sales were waning so we thought vocals might bolster our sales. We haven't really noticed much change in sales, but maybe once we get a little better at singing that'll change. Like any instrument, it takes practice. The Vocoder is good, though, because it allows you to sing perfectly in key with no vocal skill at all."
Though some rock fans dismiss electronic music for that very reason (calling it too sterile or perfect sounding), bands like Trans Am are looking to strike a balance. It's unlikely you'll ever hear a Trans Am record that leans too hard to either side; both genres have been equally responsible in shaping their sound. For those stubbornly clinging to either side of the fence, it's time to open your ears.
Ex-Pixie David Lovering Blinds With Science
There was never anything particularly normal about the Pixies when they were still around, and that hasn't changed in their post-Pixie careers either. Drummer David Lovering has already served time in a unique and highly influential band, and these days he once again has a niche to himself. There aren't too many other performers on the rock scene or anywhere else billing themselves as a "scientific phenomenalist."
Lovering's current persona might sound kooky, but consider this: what is music but the human manipulation of physics and mathematics to produce an emotional response? And the word "magical" must certainly be one of the overused adjectives in the music critic's lexicon.
"I didn't get into magic until about three years ago," he says. "The reason I got into science stuff is that a deck of cards is great for a group of people or a small intimate setting, and then to go beyond that you have to be an illusionist like David Copperfield. And that isn't my trip, so I developed a show around my hobbies and things I've loved. Before I was in the Pixies I was an electronic engineer. I love physics and science, and I try to pick the coolest experiments that would work on stage for a live audience. I don't tell the audience I'm a magician. I tell them it's a science show. There is magic in it but I blur the lines and I want people to leave wondering was it or wasn't it?' It's also educational and entertaining."
Lovering mostly performs in front of rock audiences, which he says are the hardest. "Rock shows are my big thing, just because of my Pixies history and because they're people I know," he says. "And when I open for the Breeders or Frank Black, I get a hell of a lot of leeway even if I suck."
And now that Black is revisiting Pixies material in his set, how does Lovering feel watching Pixies nostalgia every night? "The first time I heard them play Pixies songs, a little tear would come to my eye. It was a bit emotional at first, but this is my fourth or fifth tour with Frank Black. I hear it over and over and I'm quite proud of it and I can listen to it without it bothering me. I think Frank also likes having me on the road because if his drummer gets sick, I know a lot of the material. Which has happened: his drummer was sick for a couple of gigs, so I filled in. I know all the Pixies songs by heart, obviously, and I knew most of his songs by that point. I am the understudy!"
Joining the Anniversary Tour
TORONTO, May 8
The book on the bemused bedroom creations of Guelph scenester Jim Guthrie has been on the reclusive tip particularly highlighting his Playstation creations. But with his commitments to country surrealists Royal City temporarily on hold, Guthrie and his increasingly tight band have been rocking Southern Ontario stages with more regularity lately even standing up! A brilliant translation of his latest, Morning Noon Night (on Three Gut) that must be witnessed before the rabbit goes back down the hole. James Keast
HALIFAX, May 17
Don't be fooled by the soft, plaintive falsetto and seemingly shy demeanour Reg Vermue (the Gentleman) has been dropping jaws and kicking asses with his increasingly confident performances. Perhaps it's honing his party-time skills as one of the Hidden Cameras collective, or just the realisation of how powerful the songs on his latest, Make Me Pretty (on Three Gut) really are. James Keast
Four busy boys (almost all of them are in two bands) from small-town Nova Scotia making big, big sounds in the capital city. A quartet whose average age means a U.S. bar tour is still out of the question, Halifax's Contrived (its members hail from the small NS towns of Stellarton and Yarmouth) rocked the town to its knees with the fall 2002 release of its debut, Pursuit of Plots. Call it post-punk, hardcore, scrap rock or the band's own description, recess rock but just don't call it lazy. Full of ricocheting time changes, dramatic quiet-loud-louder moments and a healthy mix of singing and screaming, Contrived is spearheading a whole new Halifax sound. And it's about time. Tara Thorne
The humble, rhyme-spewing Classified, aka Luke Boyd, started rapping and producing in his bedroom in the small town of Enfield, NS, officially throwing down the gauntlet for his stake in the hip-hop world in 1995 when he hooked up with Halifax scene legend JoRun. Since then, he's released more than a dozen CDs, EPs and 12-inches on his own Half-Life Records, including Trial and Error (2002), which has spawned a hit single in "Unexpected," likely helped by its fresh, animated video. Class is also a renowned producer you can find his fingerprints on just about every other hip-hop record coming out of Halifax in the past five years. Tara Thorne
Though the group is composed of four Halifax hip-hop veterans, it took a decade for Universal Soul's debut the aptly titled Time Capsule to drop. The group first crossed paths in 1985 when legendary turntablist JoRun and MC Fiz were members of one of Halifax's first hip-hop collectives, Down by Law, where they met future crew members Tacktishon and Voodoo. They crowned themselves Universal Soul in 1993, and the hype has been building, slowly but surely, ever since, reaching a fever pitch at the 2003 East Coast Music Awards. Tired of the cookie-cutter bling-blingers clogging up airwaves, Universal Soul looks to evoke, provoke, impress and entertain as Voodoo said in a February interview, "There's nothing too diverse or too weird, too wacky or too strange or too un-hip-hop that we won't explore." Tara Thorne
Tyler Messick & the Museum Pieces
Born outside of Philadelphia, Tyler Messick's been a Halifax resident for six years, but only on the city's music scene for a scant six months. In that time he's touched many a listener with his poignant lyrics and emotional delivery, packed full of references to the past. His band, the Museum Pieces (featuring a violin, an organ and a double bass), is named after its leader's infatuation with history, mostly concerning the time around the two world wars. "They're all just basically love songs with historical references," says Messick of the folk-tinged tracks on his debut, Grain Sales of 1840, named as a tribute to his great-great-grandfather, inventor of the grain elevator. Though he's been plunked into the pop, rock and alt-country categories, Messick's sound comes from dedication to the basics of good songwriting. "I'm really into melody and harmony," he says. "And the song structure is very, very important." Tara Thorne