I was at the cottage and…

The problem of navigating through Ontario is that invariably some large body of fresh water gets in the way. Adding hours to any journey, driving around lakes and rivers is scenic but frustrating. Mainly the problem is that they haven’t built a direct route from, say, Montreal, Quebec to Wiarton, Ontario. We’ve come up to my aunt’s cottage for a little vacation. The weather is a bit dark and rainly, but there remains great value in being surrounded by quiet pine trees and the great Lake Huron.

As kids we would come up here every summer, and one year (as a tween) I came up with my BFFs Lis and Heather. We had this silly joke about the pile of blankets we needed on our beds to keep us warm. I think we had about eight blankets over the bed and at night they would be so heavy on our bodies that we nicknamed the collective beast “Big Bertha.” We would fight over the covers, invoking the dilemma of Big Bertha: you want her but can’t have her.

My aunt’s cottage has remained unchanged since the 80’s, and judging from the abundance of wood paneling, peach-coloured tile and kitsch furniture, was likely established in the 50’s or 60’s. Even my family’s attempts at updating the decor have purposefully maintained this timelessness. Redecorations have been subtle, to say the least, and the framed 2,000-piece Manet puzzle of a lady wearing a hat figures prominently alongside the tattered National Geographic world map, published 1968.

Our day trips include the quest for the ultimate butter tart, cinnamon bun and homemade preserves. The sugar high is seemingly perpetual, offset only by long walks to watch the sun set or futile attempts to say hello to resident jackrabbits. This weekend we will visit the low-rent lakeside town (that they forgot to close down…most probably because it was never opened in the first place) of Sauble Beach, including the batting cages and wicked french fries at Mar’s chip shop.

…so that’s why there’s been no post in a while. I had hoped to post from my Blackberry, but the signal was too weak and it kept crashing. I think it’s time for an upgrade in mobile phone…Blackberry Bold, anyone?

Entering Nerdshire

A series of recent events caused me to realise that they should create a variation of the term “grupster” that incorporates the word “nerd”. While “negrupster” connotes a black grupster, and “grupsterd” sounds like it belongs in a toilet, I contemplated “grerdrupster” before giving up on trying to pigeonhole my already complex identity any further.

So what events could possibly lead to this assumption? First: a childlike glee that I experienced after learning that the latest title I purchased for my Nintendo DS was really quite enjoyable. And that I was looking forward to playing “Professor Layton and the Curious Village” through to the end.

Next, due to weeks of rainy days and thus a listless, playground-deprived daughter, I decided to try the Centre des sciences de Montreal. I have such fond memories of the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, what with all the buttons and things to touch, ancient Chinese xylophones and that model train that drove through tunnels between two glass display cases. And the running. There were bridges to jump on and technicolour replicas of my shadow to be made. Anyhow, the Centre des sciences is much newer, smaller and a little less in-depth. There’s still a lot going on in there, but nothing recommended for toddlers. They literally told me to not bother buying an admission. So we went to see the river and a pond in the rain, got a giant lollipop and went home. I love science but I guess not that much.

Finally, and most awesomely, was that I posted a comment on an article on Wired.com’s Listening Post blog and the author (Scott Thill) knew who The Dears were. That blew my mind; it was really rad and made my day. I read Wired.com every day, so it was like we were exchanging a knowing nod: yes, nerds and music can co-exist…as they must…

Then, after all this I met up with my misanthropic pal Michael, who completely de-asserted my nerdness. This was after I admitted to him that I hadn’t read a science fiction novel in years. And that I had never read (nor had I seen) “Dune.” He recommended I read “Valis” by Philip K. Dick and call him in the morning. I felt ashamed and unworthy of my admittedly hasty claim to the “grerdrupster” title — even though he was totally right.

I’m a little bit of a nerd at heart, and at least that I can be proud of.

Playing the Record for People

On Tuesday, Murray and I embarked on an Ontarian adventure. We drove down to play the record for some people. This album is precious to us, and we would be totally devastated if our past year’s work was misused or stolen from us. So we never sent out any CDs to anyone, and in fact the only way anyone who didn’t play on the record can hear it is to come to one of our impromptu board room meetings for a listening session. We came to Toronto to play it for friends and also some industry types: at least, the ones who were open to the idea of a listening session. We would gather people together, put the CD on the stereo, then leave the room. After 58 minutes we’d come back, reclaim the CD and that’s it. That’s how we’re rolling: no burns, no iTunes imports, no files somewhere on a server. No ripping, burning, leaking or stealing allowed until we’re ready. Because we know it’s going to happen eventually — we’d just like to be involved when it goes down. Call us crazy, but these songs are the keystone, our main conduit keeping us connected with our fans, and we want to enjoy that communication, not live in fear of it.

So we’ve got a lot of convincing to do: our works’ cut out for us. Murray and I are kind of on a reconnaissance mission: collecting information, seeing who’s into our outsider ways, observing people’s reactions, their favourite tracks and single selections, what they did and didn’t expect. It’s been interesting, and the common thread (for me) is how good it sounds no matter where we play it. It carries itself with a creative consistency across several platforms: headphones, car stereos, amazing stereos, crappy stereos, computer speakers and other small systems. Even after hearing it dozens of times in its finished state, I still hear things I’ve not heard before.

Now we’re simmering, letting all the ideas come to us as sort of a natural reaction to how the music is being perceived. The music industry has forced our hand, compelled us to let go of old world methods and marketing templates for organic ways and the opening of an unconventional, artistic discourse. We want to put something out there for you to hear soon, too. Stay tuned for the news of listening sessions, because we might get crazy and invite you to the next one.

Death To Indie Rock

Being part of a band that has been plunked into the “indie rock” category, I often struggle with the genre and what, exactly, it means. What is indie? I believe it is a dead identity: like how the title “alternative” was borne from grunge in the 90’s, and has since come to define bands like Nickelback. It’s outgrown its meaning: Death Cab is indie, but on a major label. So WTF?

The term “indie” essentially used to mean “not major label” and oftentimes “not on any label.” But now the new “indie” had been commodified and major label bands can be indie rock. And to me “indie” still means angular guitars, you know, like Pavement. Let’s see what the my go-to knower of all things says:

“Indie rock artists place a premium on maintaining complete control of their music and careers, releasing albums on independent record labels (sometimes their own) and relying on touring, word-of-mouth, and airplay on independent or college radio stations for promotion. Some end up moving to major labels, often on favorable terms won by their prior independent success.” – from the Indie Rock wiki.

OK, well that kind of explains it but doesn’t fully satisfy me, because it doesn’t address the indie rock sound or aesthetic. I mean, I don’t even think I could easily define it, but I know it’s out there, and everybody is trying to do it. And then this morning I read this: The Question Mark: Is Feist Still Indie?. This appears in the Canadian broadsheet ‘National Post’ who are notoriously conservative, but are trying hilariously to be ‘with it.’ Anyhow, the article is flimsy at best but addresses the issue: “What is indie?” It seems that we can’t agree: it’s an important label for some people, so important that they won’t listen to it if it’s not indie (even if it’s totally amazing); and yet for others it’s entirely meaningless.

As frustrating/obsolete as retail CD shopping has become, at least we can rely on a shop’s inability to define any sub-genre beyond “POP/ROCK,” which I am just fine with. You really, really cannot please everyone. I mean, is being indie that important to you?

So as The Dears put the finishing touches on our orchestral sci-fi noir-funk opus, we prepare ourselves mentally for the inevitable: being lazily lumped into the indie category. This is me, being curmudgeonly about the whole thing: *grumble*. We always say that making an album is like raising a child: you give it everything you can and then release it into the world, as if sending it off to its first day of school, and you can hope for the best, pray it makes good friends, but really, it’s beyond our control. We’ll see what the fates allow.

iPod Rediscovery

On one of my drives I put the iPod on shuffle, mostly out of an impatience to decide what to listen to. Usually I prefer to listen to whole albums top to bottom – you know, the way they were created – but while driving, scrolling through hundreds of bands with a click wheel is not very practical or safe for anyone involved. So shuffle it was, and I was surprisingly struck by “Snowsuit Sound” by Sloan. BTW if you have never heard of Sloan then you evidently: 1) are not Canadian, and; 2) do not know anyone from Canada. I used to be a major Sloan fan, back in the 90’s when I co-hosted an all CanCon indie rock show on CKUT (I was so green that I asked Matt Murphy how it felt to be Chris Murphy’s brother during a live-to-air interview…later my friend Amanda B. told me: “Um, everyone in Halifax has the last name Murphy,”…I was so embarassed…actually I’m still embarassed). So my iPod Rediscovery is that I am still a major Sloan fan (narrowed to the Twice Removed and One Chord To Another era…you know, Canada’s first insular indie rock heyday).

One time, we got an email from a girl who said she had “rediscovered” The Dears while listening to her iPod on shuffle. We were among the tens of thousands of songs stored among 60 gigs or however much space, and somehow, we had made it, literally, through the shuffle. And so she fell in love.

Is the iPod shuffle completely random? I have heard that it is not, that the iPod uses some kind of algorithm to calculate the songs it will play, using such stats as which songs you have previously listened to, which songs you skipped, etc. Personally, I loathe this idea of an untrue random. While listening to my recently loaded iPod on shuffle, I had to skip The Beatles about a dozen times. Yes, they made a lot of records and for some reason I have everything they’ve recorded on there, but that doesn’t mean I want to listen to them all the time. Why should quantity override quality, or variety? What ding dong programmed that feature into the algorithm? Seriously. I would like to know.

I’m positive it’s been hotly debated, and a simple Googling would probably reveal the answers. But that would be too easy.

Anyhow, Sloan dudes, we’re all grown up and have kids and shit, and even though Murray tackled Chris Murphy into a pile of garbage in Kingston, ON when we were on tour together, we still love you.

Suddenly All Growed Up

Do you remember when it happened to you? Those years when you suddenly stopped being a child? It’s hard to recognise it when it’s actually happening: you only see it when you’ve fully grown and start to feel somehow redeemed as an adult human. My moment – triggered by the responsibility of a ‘zine – would mark the beginning of the end of innocence: no more Fresh Prince of Bel-Air or Street Cents (back when it was hosted by Jonathan Torrens) after school. Then I would retreat to my room to listen to Vauxhaull and I, The White Album or Dark Side of the Moon on headphones. I would draw in ink and markers, urging out my teenage frustrations onto paper.

So what? Do I even know what I’m talking about? That is, am I that “redeemed adult human” I claim to be? Probably not. I mean, I fill empty hours playing video games and visiting perezhilton.com. I contemplated us adults, the grupsters, if you will: in following Wired.com coverage of the SXSW Interactive conference, I’ve realised how pervasive nerdiness is in our generation. We are attached by the hip to our gadgets and laptops, and we are suddenly crippled without WiFi or at least some kind of internet connection. I mean, during the last snowstorm here in Montreal, I considered the risk of a power outage, and that I’d might as well throw my iBook in the garbage should our wireless network go down. What am I going to do…organise my photos or edit a document? Actually, I wouldn’t be able to even do that since I started using Google Docs instead of shelling out for some bogus Microsoft software.

And the kids of today are just getting deeper into it. We joke about how Neptune will mock us when we mention cassette tapes: her music will just get downloaded directly into her brain or something like that. Preteens have mobile phones and have figured out BitTorrent. Neptune is surprisingly quick at learning how our gadgetry works: she can play games on my DS, un-hold and use the iPod, scroll through photos on my BlackBerry, put DVDs into and turn on the PS3, and click my laptop’s trackpad to start playback of funny cat videos on YouTube. And she’s only been here for 30 months.

This blog post doesn’t really have a thesis or point, so I will end my ramblings here. Maybe that’s what adulthood grants: long, rambling, roundabout thoughts in lieu of a youthful stroboscopic bombardment of media.

Heartstabbing Internettery

Now I’m obsessed with DrownedInSound and Pitchfork. I usually try to avoid music media like the plague, for fear of reading something totally frustrating either about The Dears, or stumbling upon glowing words about something that is totally unmusical rubbish. Lately I can enjoy these sites because: 1) I’m resigned to these facts, and 2) Nobody writes about The Dears anymore anyhow so I can browse freely without accidentally getting stabbed in the heart by offhand remarks.

Speaking of which, here is a classic example of hilarious message boarding: Words that put you off listening to a particular artist or song (or 101 ways to legitimise hating something).

Could you imagine if we took what people said on message boards seriously? What if people had to live by their words, and were forced to strictly stand by everything they wrote? Shortsightedness aside, this is kind of a funny discussion about the laziness of journos and critics: you know, that whole pigeonholing thing that I’ve never been fond of. There are a lot of words out there. Very descriptive words that allow for precision in identifying an opinion. But since people don’t read anymore, our vocabularies are miniscule, and describing music as “stunning” is all we have left. Can we just have that and end it?

Oh, also have you seen this? It’s officially NOT cool to be Canadian anymore: Arcade Fire have revealed their American-ness. I knew the Butlers grew up in the States, but no…not Regine! Say it ain’t so! Funny how this kind of information reveals itself. Anyhow, it’s just another example of how confused Americans are, and how they long for identity and for lines to be clearly defined so they can understand things. Of course, Canadians don’t care. We’ll take it. We’ll claim anything and call it our own…especially if it’s successful. That’s the Canadian way: perpetual underdoggery.

Partir, Par Terre

I’ve been spending my free moments filling out these exhaustive forms to collect The Dears’ neighbouring rights royalties. Its a bit of an involved process: I have to list every musician that played on every song we’ve ever recorded. We’ve never done song-by-song album credits, but now I see why some bands do it that way. Gang of Losers was easy; I had to get Murray’s help on No Cities Left because there’s a lot going on there; and for End of a Hollywood Bedtime Story, I just listened to the tracks to see which ones had strings on them.

I don’t often listen to old Dears recordings. Maybe once a year I’ll listen to our old albums or put them on for Neptune to dance to (Jazz Waltz No. 3 in B-flat is still one of my favourites). But I certainly hadn’t listened to Hollywood for a long time. I realised how much that record was ahead of its time: it smashed the mould that cast most of Canadian indie rock. Listening especially to Partir, Par Terre really made me realise how that was some next level shit.

Listen to Partir, Par Terre from End of a Hollywood Bedtime Story.

In 1999, no one in Canada was doing anything like that: strings over a filmic, jazz-rock instrumental waltz. We did a concert with 12 people on stage and that idea was mind-blowing (now it’s standard). 2000 was the time of either the power trio or sugary, goofy pop: usually a gang of white guys writing guitar-driven arrangements. Everyone was still trying to be like Sloan. Nobody wanted to put our record out: we sent it to every established independent label in Canada and the US and nobody would touch us.

So we trudged through the prepubescent Canadian indie rock wilderness, forged a path, and then quickly got swallowed and overtaken by others with loftier ambitions. I guess we have to take responsibilty at least for that: for being the uncompromizing, difficult and adamant artists that we are. Today, however, I am very grateful for the fans that we have attracted: these are intelligent music listeners. The people we have worked with and met along the way have really been amazing. Things change, seasons change, people change, and nothing in Dears-land ever really stays the same, but I’m proud to say that our identity gets stronger with each year that passes.

An introspective rant that turned into a “The Dears in 2008” rally cry: how appropriate.

I Like Paul McCartney. Reluctantly.

I grew up mainly listening to my parent’s collection of gas station promotion tapes, a series called Solid Gold where each tape showcased about a dozen songs from each decade. I’m pretty sure this is a Canadian thing, maybe even just an Ontario thing, but it seems anyone who blogs about these Solid Gold cassettes acquired them from their parents in the 80’s. Anyway, I listened to those and also to the Beatles’ red (1962-1966) and blue (1967-1970) double cassette compilations. Generally I liked the blue one better and they were all I listened to — until I hijacked my sister’s copy of Viva Hate in grade 6.

Over the years I got into other stuff by the Beatles, including a heavy obsession with the White Album, and then a fling in the late 90’s with Band on The Run by Wings. Now listening to the Beatles is a little exhausting: I still appreciate them but I really listened to their stuff A LOT in high school. So anyway, blah blah blah, more years pass, I get into John Lennon, George Harrison, and think I’m a smartypants for recognising Ringo’s voice on Thomas the Tank Engine.

These days, equalled perhaps only by Yoko Ono’s media presence, McCartney hits the headlines pretty often. He puts out an album every couple of years, and is otherwise either being knighted or getting divorced. It seems there’s always a reason to keep talking about him. Recently, Murray and I endured a made-for-TV movie ‘The Linda McCartney Story’ because our friend Moya was in the opening credits so we had to watch it. The movie was pretty brutal, especially the neanderthal-like portrayal of John Lennon, but it was fun seeing Moya as Heather McCartney. So Sir McCartney is always on our minds, most recently quoted: McCartney Brands Label ‘Boring’.

This article is awesome, and so telling of the dinosaur operating strategy of most major labels. They sit back, resting on their laurels, banking on the guaranteed success of established artists, and not evolving with the rest of the world, then wondering why CD sales are going down. And quite fittingly these established artists (Madonna, Radiohead, Morrissey, McCartney, to name a few) are sick of — quite literally — working for the man, and are leaving the majors for new and adventurous music distribution and marketing models. I guess it’s easier for a bigger artist to break out this way, since they don’t need big advances to get started. Now the more evolved labels are getting into the 360 deal, as it’s called. Dipping in to the artist’s touring and merch income, online strategies and not just focusing on retail sales for income. The industry seems divided on whether or not the 360 deal can work: many artists and some labels are skeptical. But its just business doing business, and really don’t we do business with the goal of hopefully seeing a return from an investment?

Anyhow, this is just another reason why I reluctantly like Sir Paul, even though he can be a real cheeseball sometimes.

Joah-Fish and Enegin Studios

Two weeks ago, Murray moved the recording into another studio. Today he finishes working there, and he’s completely exhausted. The other day he was lying on the couch, barely awake, saying: “It’s weird being so tired and so inspired at the same time.” The songs are perpetually shape-shifting, taking new unexpected directions with every element he adds. He was browsing some samples in Logic while near passed out, and was triggering these angelic harp arpeggios, saying: “I think I’m going to lay this down on Half Mast; it’s gonna take the song to a whole new level.” That’s what’s been going on for the past four months of recording this album.

Rob has been coming in laying down some sick bass lines…now that he’s finally back from tour doing sound for Stars. Thursday I was in recording backing vocals, and I had to try not to listen to his new bass track I was accompanying. Like Murray and I were saying its not even a bass line but its own, melodic track. Crazy. Anyhow, one of the parts I was singing was pretty high in my out-of-shape vocal range, and I burned out my throat a bit. I left the studio not sure if I was catching cold or really, really not used to singing. I forget how much touring trains the voice, seasons it, and if you stop it gets, well, flabby. My voice is flabby, but it usually is whenever we’re recording; it sounds different than on tour, more honest and vulnerable instead of confident and blaring. I like it…like everything else, it’s classic.

Anyway, this studio has great vibes. It’s clean and cozy (and has a window, but all you see out of it is the wall of the building next door) and is the newly built, relocated Stock Market Audio (check your NCL and Protest liner notes). They changed the name to I think Mountain Studio or Mountain View or something, but Joseph and Adrian really stepped up their game. Neptune calls them Joah-Fish and Enegin, obviously, by their superhero names. In my headphones, I could hear the sound of the snow-clearing trucks in the talkback mic. It was comforting, reminding me ever so gently of the outside world, of the piles and piles of snow still on the streets, and of how the resignation to snow affects the Montreal mentality.