Published Apr 24, 2013Young Galaxy received an icy electronic makeover on 2011's Shapeshifting courtesy of Studio's Dan Lissvik, and the group opted to stick with the Swedish producer for the follow-up. Unlike the previous collaboration, which was conducted remotely via Skype, the band recorded Ultramarine with Lissvik in Gothenburg, and the results are once again sonically stunning. Of the melodies, only the wistful "New Summer" and the new age swoon of "Sleepwalk with Me" make a lasting impression. The rest of the songs are largely dark and theatrical, and favour cinematic seriousness over hooks; the fact that the epic-voiced Catherine McCandless has taken over full frontwoman duties (rather than sharing the mic with Stephen Ramsay) adds to the overall sense of drama.
How did working with Dan Lissvik in person compare to doing it remotely?
Catherine McCandless: It was really different. The first record [Shapeshifting] he mixed for us, so we recorded it, and once finished with it, sent it entirely to him and he worked on it alone, and we just had Skype contact. The second time, with Ultramarine, we had sent him demos of the songs at the beginning. We had discussed the direction we wanted to take in terms of atmosphere, in terms of production, that kind of thing — him as well as us. And then we went to Sweden to record it. The biggest difference was the kind of issues that come up, and the decisions that are made during recording. They're sort of fast and furious. Being in the same room — we felt sort of like we were in the same room for three weeks together. It's such an intensive experience, and it feels kind of like summer camp in a way, when you leave home to completely leave your surroundings and your patterns and you go someplace else and completely immerse yourself in something. That's what we were doing, so it had the sort of summer camp feel. All that really means is that it lent the recording a sort of camaraderie. All those fast decisions [we] were getting closer and closer to agreeing with each other and [there was] less confusion about what someone meant. There was a lot of miming of something we were trying to describe. It wasn't always needing to be articulated. It could be danced, or someone could just make a drum pattern sound with their mouth. It was a much more lively and in-the-moment kind of interaction, and a much less solitary one. There was no alone time. We were all together all the time. It was very different but very fun.
How did recording in Sweden shape what you ended up creating?
It was an exciting feeling and it pushed us to do more than was outside of our comfort zone. Not just being outside it, but being more experimental with the sounds we would use, or what kind of atmosphere we would lend the song with a bass tone, or something like that. We would pair things that wouldn't necessarily be thought of as going well together, just to see what kind of effect they would have. We were taking more risks with the material and with the arrangements, and even with some of the songwriting, because we did some last minute stuff there.
Like the barroom-sounding piano on "Through the Gate Backwards.
Exactly. There are a lot of things like that, where they're counterintuitive in a lot of ways, but that we wanted to try out. We wanted to try them out because we had a particular atmosphere or feeling or something intangible that we wanted to get to. With something like that piano line, you look at some of the early '90s English [bands], like Happy Mondays, Stone Roses. You get some of those barroom sounds going in there, and they mesh perfectly with other seemingly very different elements, more electronic elements. We were after that shambolic, chaotic, rambling, really danceable shakers-and-rhythm-based sound. A lot of experimentation worked well for us, I think.
What was Sweden like?
It's actually, oddly, a lot like parts of Canada. It has elements of Toronto, it has elements of Montreal. The lifestyle is quite similar, in that there were a lot of parks in the city — we were in Gothenburg — and it was on the ocean, so it reminds us of Vancouver at times. It's also a big boutique and cafe culture there. A lot of people talking in cafes, working in cafes, collaborating — you can tell they're working on something together. There was a sense of a community. A lot of poster boards and playgrounds and things that drew people together in different places, and that was nice. It also feels like interesting things are happening there, conversation-wise, and I don't mean the conversations we had, but ones I overheard. People are talking about ideas, not just things or people or lifestyle. Politics, philosophy. It's nice.
What was it like meeting Dan Lissvik after corresponding for so long over the internet?
It was great. It was quite emotional, actually. He had become a very good friend of ours online, and we'd never seen his face outside of pictures. He would send us a roll of pictures from his vacation, for example, but he didn't have webcam that whole time, so we were just Skype-ing through voice with a still image of him that would come up. I always felt like I knew him so well but I wouldn't recognize him if he passed me on the street. And so having him in front of us — as I was saying, a lot of our communication through this last album happened in a sort of physical manner. Dan is a big dancer. He'll air guitar or dance a rhythm out for you, and so his physicality is a big part of his personality and it was really nice to have that element in there as well.
There's almost a pen-pal vibe to what you had before.
It's funny that communication has come around to that again. I've often felt that way with some emailing and things. That's definitely the way it felt when we didn't see him. It felt like we got to know him very well just through corresponding without sight.
How did your original demos of these songs compare to what you ended up recording for Ultramarine?
We intentionally made demos that were spare. There's a lot of space in them because we wanted a lot of space in the production, knowing that Dan brings very rhythm-heavy production to the songs. It definitely evolved in that manner. He also has a way of finding the right — sorry, it's hard to articulate — the right sort of antidote to a song, sometimes. Like "Hard to Tell." In its very first incarnation it was Steve playing acoustic guitar. I heard the recording he'd done. It's such a romantic line, to me, that guitar line, and it was just looped. I wrote a very romantic melody and lyric for it. It was this beautiful little fit together. We recorded it as a band as well. There was a stage in between where, before we went to Sweden, the band would orchestrate the song. Every instrument was playing. It sounded still very guitar-heavy — they were electric guitars. All the leads were guitar. So we took it to Dan and we were saying, "Okay, so we've got this sweet thing and we want something more gritty in this. We need to grit it up. We're really after kind of a hip-hop beat." So his response was to pull the guitars out and say, "Well, let's listen to it this way then," and he puts down something that gives it this heavy bass lead in it. We just liked it so much we left the guitar out and orchestrated it differently from that point on. It starts as a conversation with us adding and him taking away and then him adding and us taking away. It evolved through the collaboration into what it is now.
Previously you shared vocal duties with Stephen [Ramsay] but now you're singing all the songs. Why the shift?
I think mostly just because his interests lie more in arrangement than in production. He's happy to sing, but he's somewhat indifferent, and I love it. It makes me feel healthier. It makes me feel really good. I don't play an instrument. I will sometimes add little atmospheric things in a live show, a keyboard line or something simple, but I have no training. It just sort of happened that way, in terms of what we did and in terms of what made us happy. It gave the album a more cohesive sound too.
Did that change the way that the band works in terms of writing and arranging?
Not really, actually. Stephen's always been the largest contributor to the songwriting. He's done the majority of it, and I've shared that with him. This line-up, we put together after the Shapeshifting album was written and recorded. That's when we added Matt Shapiro [guitar/keyboards] and Andrea Silver [drums]. Stephen Kamp has been with us for the long haul as bassist. The five of us, when we started reinterpreting Shapeshifting for a live set, at that point started to shift some arrangements for a live show, and it evolved that way. We enjoyed working together, we could work together easily on that part of the job. With the new material — again, when we had that middle stage between demoing and going to Sweden, where we worked it out as a band and did some preliminary recording — it just happened that way, that the whole band could have a say in how it was going and feeling like it needed more of such-and-such here and less of this here.
Your press materials say that Ultramarine is "the name and colour" of the album. How does that colour represent the record?
We were trying to get away from lyrical content being so much of a determining factor with this album. We wanted to use lyrics that were simply phonetic, or percussive even. Sometimes they don't even make sense, and that's the way we wanted it. We wanted to choose an album title that didn't mean too much, so we thought a colour would be a better representation of the album than a noun, for example, or a phrase or something like that. The colour just seemed suggestive of the port city we were in, some of the moods in the songs, the bittersweet [emotion].
The one that really stands out for me, especially lyrically, is "New Summer." I can't decide if it's about a breakup or about the passing of time and getting older.
Perfect! When we start to write about one thing, it often starts to mean something else at the same time. I think it's more about the passing of time and things decaying and falling apart, but that includes relationships. It needed to have an element of the personal in there.
The lyric that grabs me is "the end of everything forever," because I don't know if it refers to a relationship or something grander.
It's the equivalent of "Blown Minded" [from Shapeshifting] for this album. It's like the asteroid hitting the Earth. It's not literal. It's not like everything's going to melt down or a bomb is going to go off or something like that. It's more like things are changing and coming apart and not always seeming to get better, and yet there's still this sweet element in the song. It's melodic, perhaps, only. I guess the lyric doesn't really capture the sweetness, except maybe the "howling at the moon." It needed to have both parts of the feeling. It wasn't a simple feeling to convey.
You have a young family with Stephen [Ramsay]. How does that work with both parents being in a touring band?
Really well right now, actually. We've by no means cracked the mould and gotten the model totally fixed because our son Fergus is always changing and always has new needs. But what it means is that we're both busy at the same time and free to do things more flexibly at the same time. He gets a lot of our concentrated attention. We've been able to parent together the whole time and that's wonderful. On tour we have a nanny who he knows and loves who will take over when we're on stage or setting up. We've just made it so his routines and comforts and familiarities are in things that we as people provide, rather than our home, so that they come on the road with us. We have the same routines together. We're doing our best. It's really difficult because of course we're very concerned about making sure he's got everything he needs and all the comforts, but we also love that he's getting this experience of needing to be so adaptable, so we're hoping to combine that really secure, loving family structure with a constantly changing, lots-of-different-people, lots-of-things-going-on, lots-of-different-places kind of world for him.
The presence of a child and nanny on tour must keep the hedonism of the rock'n'roll lifestyle in check.
It certainly does. He doesn't generally come to the venues with us. He might for a soundcheck with headphones on — protective earphones — but he's generally not involved in all that. So it can happen, but it doesn't happen around him.
Do you know how it will work in the future when he goes to school?
That's a good question. We don't think that far ahead, but what we do think is that once he's in grade school it will become more complicated to tour as freely as we do now. We'll see. Maybe it's possible to pull him out of school now and again for a few weeks. I'll have to take it as it comes, I don't know where we'll be.
Touching back on the album, "Sleepwalk with Me" has a faintly new age sound. Was that something you were trying to embrace?
What we're trying to embrace — I like the phrase — is being okay with writing a sweet song. In a lot of ways, that song is about Fergus's birth and the early months and the way we felt. It was a really otherworldly, surreal kind of experience, partly because you're so sleepless. There's a lot of true experience and feeling behind the song and the lyrics, so that lends it that sweetness and that sort of Avalon-esque new age feeling, which we love. Yet, at the same time, it was written without any thought lyrically for what we were saying. Steve mumbled a bunch of vowels in a phonetic pattern over the music to suggest what a lyric could sound like, or what sounds would make the most sense here, but it didn't mean anything, he was just mumbling. Then I took the demo from that point and tried to interpret what he was saying without changing anything. I was trying to figure out exactly what I was hearing. So I wrote down these nonsense words and then we tweaked them in a few spots so that it made some sense. And that's where it left us.
It's like Cocteau Twins and how they just sung gibberish all the time.
Yeah! I'd love to do that. I've thought of it, believe me.