The Constantines

Rock's Guiding Light

BY Neil HavertyPublished Aug 1, 2003

There are five members in the band, but on any given night, put the Constantines on a stage and they can be hundreds strong. A Constantines performance unites an entire room with one of the best live experiences you can find in rock music these days. The room gets hot, faces get sweaty and arms and legs don't stop flailing until well after the music has stopped. This is not your average live show — this is a party.

These heart-stopping displays are how the Constantines have earned their burgeoning reputation over the past four years. In the basements that marked their earliest forays; in the smallest clubs that nurtured their development; or in the largest theatre their rise to prominence has brought them to, the effects remain the same. Intense rhythm section stabs, lashing two-pronged guitar attacks, flourishing keyboard swells and gruff vocal preaching act as the soundtrack to the frantic movement and harmonious excitement that surges through the room. With a focus on getting everyone in the building involved, the band climbs on amplifiers, rushes around the stage and never hesitate to invite hordes of people on stage to become part of the experience. That's when the tambourines and shakers get passed around, turning an already action-packed event into a full-fledged extravaganza. For once, the audience doesn't have to believe the hype — they are a part of it.

"It's cool to have little experiences with people you don't know," says guitarist and singer Steve Lambke, "That's our goal. I don't mean that in any sort of cheesy ‘break down the fourth wall' kind of way, but the best shows are the ones where you feel like you're losing your mind and you can sense other people are feeling the same way. It's a pretty expansive experience. We do the tambourine thing and people get involved, but the shows that are really something else are the ones that are like that before the extra instruments come out. I love when people clap and sing along and play the tambourines, but that's the explicit example and I think it can happen without that. It can be pretty mind-blowing."

But over the past few months, the band has spent very little time on the stage, instead focusing on the next step in their career — writing and recording their brilliant sophomore full-length Shine A Light, and negotiating a new relationship with Seattle institution Sub Pop Records. With the momentum they've already built, paired with this newfound potential for international attention, this will certainly be the year of the Cons.

The Constantines formed from the ashes of two Southern Ontario bands — London's Shoulder (featuring Cons vocalist/guitarist Bry Webb and drummer Doug MacGregor) and Guelph's Captain Co-Pilot (featuring Lambke and bassist Dallas Wehrle) — and the quartet began writing songs together in the spring of 1999. With the two camps stationed in different cities, it was a taxing initial phase. Originally forced to commute to London for practice, Wehrle and Lambke were relieved when Webb decided to make the move to Guelph. Though MacGregor still commutes to this day due to his enrolment in at the University of Waterloo, the group found it much less difficult to get the ball rolling after Webb's arrival.

In Guelph, Webb settled into 106 Huron Street, where Lambke lived, a small house that has become a landmark for Guelph's small independent rock community. Their basement was transformed into a fully functioning rehearsal space and occasional show room. While its reputation and impact far exceeds the number of shows that actually took place there — no more than 15, according to Lambke —Huron basement parties, some modest in size, others packed to the brim, were a key element in the band's nurturing process.

Their first few forays into Toronto were well received, but it was Guelph — and two industrious Guelph expatriates starting a fledgling record label — that embraced them first. "We got an email from Tyler [Clark Burke, who co-runs Three Gut Records with Lisa Moran] offering up some help and advice and we sent her back some questions," says Bry Webb. "She emailed us back and basically said ‘You know, we'd love if you'd consider working with us.' We went to their house before one of our shows in Toronto and most of the Three Gut family was there. They made a big spaghetti dinner and it just felt like home from the moment we walked in the door. We hadn't really met them before but the initial meeting was so unique it just worked. We'd met with a few different labels before that but it was a totally different experience meeting with Three Gut. The decision was made at that point."

Three Gut Records is run by Guelph natives, and four of its prominent artists — the Cons, Royal City, Jim Guthrie and Gentleman Reg — got their start there, but the geographical links amongst them have been overblown by zealous and excited media eager for a story. Instead, the Three Gut/Cons merger was born simply out of good timing and mutual respect.

"We're all kind of quiet dudes and they had never really met with a band that they didn't know before, so it was a pretty funny meeting. We discussed business a little bit but it was discussed in a non-business-like manner. It was really exciting and awkward for all of us." The Constantines had found a new community.

It's hard to tell whether it was Three Gut that led the Constantines to success or visa versa, but the company was quickly lauded for their fresh take on the mechanics of running an independent label. With Burke's unique sense of visual style (she designs album artwork for Three Gut and other bands) and Moran's knack for innovative business ideas, Three Gut set the bar high for anyone interested in starting a label of their own. Though the company has remained a two-person organization (with a little help from various friends), the label has become one of the biggest buzzes in Canadian independent music history.

"Three Gut was and is a major part of people paying attention to us," says Webb, "They have a really original sense for promotion and cultivating an interesting community and that's helped us out incredibly. I think 100 percent of why we caught on in the first place could be attributed to Three Gut."

Their live shows are the engine of their reputation, but the Constantines self-titled debut album, which Three Gut released in fall 2001, furthered their reach across the country. Unofficially dubbed 13 Songs as an homage to Fugazi, one of the group's primary influences, the recording grabbed the attention of almost every media outlet in the country, earning them a Juno nomination and solidifying their place among Canada's best bands. Mixing hooky choruses with balls-out rock and roll, bluesy romps and punk rock sensibilities, the record worked as a decent indication of what the band was all about and finally gave fans an adequate home-version of their live show.

Soon after the success of their debut, they released the Modern Sinner Nervous Man EP on Seattle label Suicide Squeeze (home to releases by Modest Mouse, Elliot Smith, Black Heart Procession and more). A three-song trip into the Cons' more rootsy rock leanings, the EP marked a change within their ranks — the addition of Guelph native Evan Gordon on keyboards.

Gordon left the band almost as quickly as he joined — shortly after the EP was released — to pursue his own songwriting endeavours and with his departure, the band couldn't help but think something was missing. Whil Kidman, the man behind Woolly Leaves, another Guelph-turned-Toronto project, was asked to join the band, once again swelling their ranks to five.

"We played a little bit as a four piece again and it was still fun, but we definitely missed the sound of the organ and having a fifth person to play with," Webb says. "It wasn't necessarily even that we needed another organ player; we just wanted another person involved. Whil moved into 106 Huron Street when we moved to Toronto and we were all fans of Woolly Leaves. He's predominately a guitarist but he bought a Vox organ about a month before we asked him to join the band, so it was just perfect timing. He came up to Steve's parents' cottage and we wrote a bunch of songs and went out on tour right afterwards. Instantly he was one of us."

It was a trial by fire for the new keyboardist. Because the group was so inspired to write new songs, they neglected to teach him their old ones before leaving for tour, forcing Kidman to make up most of his parts up on stage. Handling the challenge with ease, Kidman has since become an integral part of the band, both on and off the stage.

When it came time to record their sophomore effort, Shine A Light, many of the songs they wrote that first weekend with Whil made the cut. A much broader, mature record than their first, Shine A Light presents many new and adventurous facets to complement the Constantines' brand of hook-laden, thinking man's punk rock. Not only is it the best thing the band has ever produced, but it's one of the best records released this year. Where both their debut and EP provided proof of their ability, this record launches them into a class all their own. While their main influences (Bruce Springsteen, Fugazi, Talking Heads etc) remain, this time the Cons have found a way to work a whole lot more into the mix.

"It's about learning to trust one another," Webb says. "We had more time in the studio, so we had a little room to play around with things in that environment. We're all into so many different kinds of music. Living in the community that we do, we're exposed to so much. I think that if you want to keep doing creative things you have to let yourself try different avenues. I can't imagine playing the same style for years and years. I'm not even comfortable being in the same place for long periods of time."

"There's another guy in the band, which means it's inevitable that things change a little bit," Lambke adds. "But I think everyone's less obvious influences are coming out more. Everyone's getting older and more interested in trying different things. Four years ago we were still relatively young. There are more things being brought to the table these days."

Three Gut Records provides a comfortable home base for the band, but they'd come to realise their potential to reach further. Not surprisingly, it was one of the Cons' celebrated live performances that first caught the attention of Sub Pop's Shaun Rodgers. Though he didn't attend their show, the label's head A&R guy was in Toronto for 2002's Canadian Music Week festivities and couldn't help but notice the fuss being made about them. Not long after, Rodgers and a few other Sub Pop staff members attended their performance at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas, and the courting process began. While it's been rumoured that the group were flirting with major labels (the most outlandish of which alleged that the band turned down a seven-figure deal with Warner Brothers), the Cons saw the advantages of signing with a mid-level independent like Sub Pop.

"One of the major reasons was they were really into the idea of us staying with Three Gut in Canada and they realised how important that was to us," Webb says. "We wouldn't have gone with a label that wouldn't have let us stay with Three Gut. We had a few lines thrown our way from a few bigger labels and it just didn't seem to gel with what we were doing. Coming from a community like the Three Gut Records family, you tend to be cynical of anything where you might get lost."

"Those were mostly just rumours," Lambke confirms. "We would hear the odd thing about major label interest but I don't feel like I was ever really courted. I don't think we wanted to be on a label like that but a couple free dinners would have been nice. I mean, you can go out on dates without wanting to get married."

Daunted when discussing their music in dollar signs and shipping quotas, the Cons are relieved to be done negotiations and are ready to get back to the fun parts of being in a band. "It took us about two months to hammer out the Sub Pop deal and that was probably the worst period in our entire career," Webb says. "It was really fucked up trying to think of something you love in business terms. The problem was that we were focusing so much on trying not to get misrepresented or fucked over that we weren't thinking about the creative part of the band, which is what keeps us going. It just got kind of intense."

All that stress has proven worthwhile. The Cons are excited by the opportunity to play anywhere they can, leaving in the fall for a month-long trip through the U.S. with fellow canucks the Weakerthans. Although the band is fully committed to living out the rock'n'roll lifestyle for the time being, neither Lambke nor Webb will prophesise what kind of attention will be paid in the coming months.

"I don't take it for granted, but I don't think it's productive to think about that stuff," says Lambke. "It's very much appreciated when someone likes something enough to write about it or to pay money for it, but you have to just play your songs and hope that other stuff falls into place. I hope people like the new record. I hope people like the new songs. I hope people will like the songs we haven't written yet. But I don't want to assume that people will."

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