Published Jan 30, 2012The Darcys could teach a thing or two about perseverance. Only days after finishing their second full-length album, their singer quit the band for good. Most bands in their position would have either crumbled, but the Toronto-based foursome chose to give it their all in a newly pared-down line-up. That album, which was recorded with Murray Lightburn of the Dears, was remixed and remastered with guitarist Jason Couse now on re-recorded vocals. Expected in the first half of 2010, the band unveiled the self-titled effort this past November via their new label Arts & Crafts. Eager to just get it out there for people to hear, the Darcys chose the infrequent yet crowd-pleasing strategy of giving away the album as a free download (visit their website and see: www.thedarcys.ca). And though the release of a new, long-gestating album, one that nearly didn't even see a release, would be enough for any band to just want to get behind and tour, the Darcys now find themselves in the position of promoting their second album in two months. On January 24, they released their interpretation of Steely Dan's classic, multimillion-selling, 1977 album, Aja. Say what? Exclaim! caught up with drummer Wes Marskell to discuss why an up-and-coming young band would try and do the Dan, the difficult process behind finally getting their second album out, and how they came up with idea of obliterating the CN Tower.
What made you decide to cover the Dan's Aja?
For almost a year, the idea of covering Aja existed solely to redirect conversation. I conceived of the idea as a way to deflect questions about the release of our self-titled album and the loss of our singer. I had no intension of actually delivering the album. In the summer of 2010 there was a turning point: I realized that we had run our mouths so much that if we didn't put this idea into practice it would seem as if we had two failed records. It was only then that I realized how difficult covering Aja was going to be.
It's a meticulously crafted album by an assortment of ridiculously talented musicians. No offense, but did it seem like a daunting task?
The process was very humbling. We approached the record with a great deal of respect and knew churning out literal covers would be an embarrassment to our band. The idea of destroying the sterility and perfection of a Steely Dan record stemmed from that reality that we were unable to imitate the originals in their true form. With our self-titled record in limbo, we were in a very bad place. Aja become an outlet for our professional frustration and a device to take our mind off the implosion of the band. I have always viewed Aja as an art project more so than an album. I wanted to subvert Steely Dan's clinical attention to detail and make breezy pop songs angular and dark. We had no chance against the mastery of the '77 version, so the idea was always to claim Aja for our own.
What would you say was the biggest challenge?
There was a lot of self-imposed pressure put on this record. The band felt like we had to complete something to avoid being total failures. Jason was burdened with the weight of the project and a few weeks in you could already tell how exhausting it was going to be for him. Aja consumed us, and our frustrations would often erupt into vicious arguments about direction and concept. Musically, Aja is untouchable. But we knew that going in. The real problem was not the creative process, but the reality of destroying both of our fathers' favourite record. Aja is important to a lot of people and we realized that nothing we could make would compare to the original. What we really didn't want was the project to be perceived as a tribute, as ironic or funny, and most of all, disrespectful. This is a record we grew up on and a record we love ― we had no idea how to do it justice.
Does it matter that your version is almost five minutes longer? Were you aware of that?
Part of our agenda with Aja was to create an atmosphere that dissociates the listener from the original work. Many of the songs begin and end with ambient, instrumental sections that do very little to reflect the Steely Dan originals. We were hoping that when the chord structures and vocal melodies from the original appear in our interpretation they will be considered relative to our noisescapes, not the '77 version. We wanted to investigate previously unrealized and alternative presentations of these songs. This is not to say that we thought we could create something better than the Dan's. We wanted to illuminate the beauty at the core of this record and re-contextualize the melodies as they might have been conceived 35 years later.
Is Aja your favourite album by the Dan?
I have always had a soft spot for The Royal Scam and recently I have really started to really like Gaucho. That said, Aja is one of my favourite records of all time.
Were there any covers albums you've heard that helped you go through with it? Pussy Galore doing the Stones' Exile? Beck's Record Club? Those string quartet albums?
Our interpretation of Aja was a self-contained idea. I had heard the Flaming Lips take on Dark Side of the Moon but I never felt we were "covering" Aja in the traditional sense. What we really wanted to do was write original songs and find a way to force the Steely Dan melodies to work over top of them. I think we realized that idea on about 60 percent of this record. At one point, we were even throwing around the idea of covering the record from memory.
The Dan aren't exactly seen as the coolest band out there. Where did the interest in them come from?
I grew up on Steely Dan. My father would play me Aja as a child and by the time I was ten I knew every word. To me, Steely Dan are the coolest band. Two slacker kids turned not giving a fuck and hating everyone into a career.
Have you ever seen Pretzel Logic, Toronto's leading Steely Dan cover band, perform?
I am actually going to see Pretzel Logic the night before we leave for our tours with Arkells and Bombay Bicycle Club.
Tell me about the trilogy. What is the third part?
We have written almost 30 songs towards a new record and are hoping to put out ten of them. Recently, the songs seem stronger and more focused, so I wouldn't be surprised if we write 45 before we hit the studio. We have been playing with the idea of writing songs without guitars, Rhodes, or a number of other familiar sounds from our self-titled record. I want to make something that is sparse, bass-heavy and focuses on lead and back-up melodies. Most importantly, we are going to make a record that blows our version of Aja and our self-titled out of the water.
Your original singer Kirby quit the band at possibly the worst time imaginable. What was the band's reaction when he quit?
Shock. Relief. We never really talked about collapsing the band after he left. Everyone wanted to keep moving forward. We were very frustrated with the idea of going back into the studio, but in the end, the changes amounted to a much stronger record. When we heard the final version, we realized the original versions had never been ready to be put out into the world. In the end, Dave Schiffman did a masterful job mixing a record that had already been mixed and mastered twice before him. In his mix we could hear an energy and cohesion that did not exist before. After that, everyone knew the line-up change, the song changes, and everything that had happened in 2011 was for the better.
Are you guys cool with him now? Water under the bridge?
We don't talk.
Metal and hardcore bands often survive a singer change, but rock and pop acts often have a trickier time. How did you find going from Kirby to Jason vocally?
The transition was relatively easy. When we decided to move forward, it was because everyone was encouraging us to. The band grew exponentially in the weeks after our first show with Jason as the lead and the live show felt much stronger. The band had to rally around each other and learn how to make our sound work as a four-piece. Mike [le Riche] runs around the stage from keyboard to keyboard, guitar to sampler while Jason hardly ever has a free moment to just sing. Spirits are up and we are enjoying ourselves on stage in a way we have never before.
What did you learn from working with Murray Lightburn on the album?
We came to Murray with a record that was essentially finished, however, it was sprawling and easily 15 minutes longer than the final released version. Murray had this amazing sense of economy and knew exactly how to edit the songs down to their most effective form. At first I couldn't imagine how the man who "directed" No Cities Left could think our instrumental sections were too long, but I now know that his contributions are what made our record most effective. Looking back, Jason and I had a very strong vision going into the studio and we should have listened to Murray more than we did.
How do you feel about the songs on your debut album, Endless Water?
I find it very difficult to relate to Endless Water and I don't feel that it represents our band in any way. I am sure must people feel similarly about their early work, but I consider the self-titled record to be our first official release.
You chose to give away the album online. What did you learn by doing that? Do you think that is something you'll keep doing from here on in?
In the months leading up to the release of our self-titled album it became clear that a traditional release strategy would not benefit us. We were a new band with a very small fan base releasing what was essentially our first record. We were trying to figure out how to get people to listen to it. A free record had the potential to get to a large number of people very quickly. Essentially, we chose potential fans over money. I believe it was the best thing we could have done and I hope we can move forward with a similar idea in the future. I know Aja will be available for free via Arts & Crafts and our website and we will have to see what ideas we can come up with for the release of our third LP.
"Don't Bleed Me" shows the end of the world occur in the city of Toronto. It is an alarming video, especially for anyone in the GTA. Where did the concept come from?
We had already been speaking with Mike Portoghese about making a rather ambitious video for "Shaking Down the Old Bones" when we decided to move forward with his treatment for "Don't Bleed Me." Mike's idea for an end-of-days scenario was fully realized before he brought it to the band. As the idea progressed we worked together to create an alternative spin on the traditional idea of an alien attack. The video tries to focus on the question of who would be prioritized if the earth were evacuated. We have new video for "Josie" about to be released and I still hope to get the idea for the "Shaking Down The Old Bones" video off the ground.
Whose idea was it to make the CN Tower collapse?
When shooting the video Jason told a story about a recurring nightmare he had as a child in which the CN Tower would collapse. As the conversation progressed it became clear that many people had thought about, or feared the destruction of the CN Tower while growing up in Toronto. It is a very stark image to open a music video with and I think it taps into the psyche of many Torontonians. I know Mike Portoghese had always intended to destroy the tower in one of his videos and the idea made a lot of sense in connection with the premise of ours.
Toronto is known to have its detractors. Have you heard much feedback from other Canadians about the video?
I think, in the post 9/11 era, it would be seen as insensitive to cheer the destruction of the CN Tower or any other major landmark. I could be wrong, but to date I haven't really heard anything that suggests outsiders derive some sort of twisted pleasure from Toronto being destroyed. We thought that the destruction of Toronto was something we could do with pride, to give the city the Hollywood treatment as it has been blown up so many times disguised as a different place. What has been most interesting is the response from Torontonians. The feedback I hear most is, "if Toronto is going down, I am going with it."