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TAS in Session: The Dears

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Canada Day is fast approaching on July 1, and one of Montréal's most notable bands is The Dears, who released their fifth album, Degeneration Street, earlier this year. The Dears play Montréal's Club Soda on Fête du Canada eve, June 30, and the upcoming Hillside Festival in Ontario on July 22.

Degeneration Street heralds a real change for the 16-year-old rock band. Not only do they have a new lineup of old friends, like former Thrush Hermit frontman Rob Benvie, and a funkier, more experimental sound, but this bold collection marks the first time that singer and songwriter Murray Lightburn has co-written with his bandmates. It was initially a daunting idea for Lightburn, but an inspiring one that has altered the band's artistic perspective.

Despite some band personnel drama over the years, The Dears have also retained a sense of self-deprecating humor, recently posting on their own site that they were deemed the third most pretentious band in Montréal (behind Arcade Fire and Jonas but ahead of Céline Dion).

Lightburn, who celebrated his 40th birthday at SXSW, and guitarist (and co-writer) Patrick Krief dropped by The Alternate Side during a recent New York stopover and played an acoustic set of songs drawn from Degeneration Street, like "Thrones" and "Omega Dog."

Kara Manning: The Dears have a new album out, your fifth, called Degeneration Street. It’s also a bit of a restart or rebirth for the band. You and your wife Natalia Yanchak have been the constant heart of The Dears, but what does this new album and lineup signify?

Murray Lightburn: It was one of those situations of putting together a group of specialists to make the end-all, be-all, kick-ass lineup.

Kara: Did you feel that you and Natalia - and the band - had lost where you wanted to be?

Murray: No, but a number of things went down. Around Gang of Losers, it was the beginning of the touring part, not so much the making [of the album] which was fun and enjoyable. Natalia and I had just had [our daughter] Neptune, who is now five years old. There was a bit of a fracture around that time when we started touring Gang of Losers and we philosophically grew apart from some people who were in the band. It was a little bit ugly at the end. People don’t really care to hear about this stuff, but long story short, we kind of … we made Missiles (laughs). When we were making Missiles, we really didn’t know what we were making. It kind of felt when we making the End Of a Hollywood Bedtime Story where you’re just recording, recording, recording and in the end you have a full-length album. At first I was going to play everything by myself and it was maybe going to be a solo album, but that would have been a selfish thing to do.

Kara: Didn’t Natalia also step in and encourage you not to give up on the ship?

Murray: Basically. She was one of the main inspirations for not pulling the plug on The Dears at the time. She reminded me - and it was easy to be reminded - that it wasn’t just about us and how we felt. It was how thousands of people around the world felt. We had a duty to them to continue making Dears albums as long as they’re coming from the right place. We went ahead and made Missiles. I called in Krief to come in [Rob] Benvie came from Toronto. Roberto [Arquila], who played on End of a Hollywood Bedtime Story.

Kara: You’ve known Roberto for about twenty years.

Murray: Yeah. So the only thing that’s different between Missiles and Degeneration Street was that we had a new guy on drums. That was the only ingredient that was missing from Missiles, that fresh perspective on that level. His energy this album is really what makes it feel and sound fresh. Going into making Missiles no one knew what was going on. I then said, “hey we’re going to have to go out and play this live.” No one was quite available to do that so we had to do this touring team to get through it. It was kind of like riding down the highway on a spare tire. Functions, does the job, solid and gets you there. This time we went out and chose the right tire. The right four tires, wheel balance and all that stuff. Locked and loaded for this project.

Kara: There seems to be an awful lot of “letting go” on this record. Even vocally you seem very free.

Murray: I definitely felt liberated working that closely on a songwriting level with Krief and Benvie. Whatever was coming in, it didn’t really matter or how it where it was coming from as long as it had that feel that we all were familiar with in The Dears. You knew instantly. Like “Tiny Man’” is a perfect example of that to me whenever people ask about the experience of [writing with others] - Krief came in during the eleventh hour and just banged it out and it’s amazing. Just the two of us in my basement with my sh**ty drums. Taking turns and banging out the song (Patrick laughs). It was a cool experience because it came together so fast. Krief leaves my house, the song is haunting me, I’ve gotta go make dinner, but the song is there. The only thing that was missing was words and nailing down the vibe and direction. I double-tracked some acoustic guitar and banged out these lyrics that were coming so faset because he had the melody all laid out.

Kara: “Omega Dog,” the song you’re playing first today, came from a similar process?

Murray: That was one of those things that came together very fast, but when I played it as a band it was one of the songs that gave the band its identity now. It’s really very Dears 2011. It’s where we’re hinting at going a lot more in that direction. It’s a bit funky, it’s very soulful. Splashes of electronics. It’s definitely peering into more of that kind of thing.

[video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4-Vj_XRSSUY]

Kara: There’s a real spiritual thrust and impetus that’s guiding this album, but not in the way of biblical parables. And I didn’t realize, until I researched a bit, that you grew up as a reverand’s son. Do you find that you’re always governed by that?

Murray: I think it transcends that in a major way. It’s one of the filters, I think, and one of the metaphors that gets used in the toolbox. As the lyricist in the band, it’s inescapable. I’m not going to avoid it because it’s there. One of the things that The Dears do is lay it out without any sort of apprehension or hesitancy. That’s what it is. It’s very real.

Kara: Do you always tend to write from the first person? Do you ever put yourself in the third person narrative? Or write from a character?

Murray: I never really notice. I just write what I’m told (laughs). I just write what I hear or what comes in. You can’t really mess with that. We don’t really have a lot of intention when we make records. Any intention is quite broad. Press record and when the song’s over, you don’t have to listen to the take. I listen out of enjoyment if it’s a good take, otherwise, it’s just “let’s do that again.” You don’t have to listen to know. You finish a take and you know that feeling you get … you know you either have to do it again or you move on.

Kara: Was there a concept governing this record or not so much?

Murray: I think what happens is that the concept reveals itself. You have a few sketches of where it’s going, but you never really know what an album is about until you get to the end of it at the mastering house and the advance copies are going out. Part of the process on this record was taking it to the streets early on, even before we recorded the album, we rehearsed it as if we were rehearsing for a gig and then we got a gig in Mexico. We went and did that gig, three nights down there, and then came home and went straight into the studio.

Kara: You worked the songs out live first? The first time you've done that?

Murray: Yes, playing an entire album’s worth of material in a sort of running order. The running order has changed since then but we were imagining the set. We knew what we were starting with, the middle, how it was ending.

Kara: And the connection with producer Tony Hoffer who has worked with Belle and Sebastian and Beck. Was that also a new element of the process for you?

Patrick: It helped with the amount of opinions we had in the band.

Murray: Yes, as kind of a referee. Especially when you’re an even number, like six people, you can wind up being split. So it was really easy to defer to Tony on all major decisions, direction wise. He was really great. Everything he said was the smart way to go (laughs). Whenever he said something, it carried an amazing amount of weight. My very first conversation with Tony rocked me to my core. It was just about songwriting in general. It had me pretty freaked out. So freaked out that I was questioning my entire existence as a writer and artist.

Kara: How so?

Murray: It’s really hard to explain, but it was something I hadn’t really ever thought about doing all this time. Essentially he was telling me to keep writing, keep writing. That in a weird way there is a right outcome and a wrong outcome. I’m paraphrasing, but that’s what I understood and it freaked me out because I began thinking about everything I’ve done. Is it wrong? What am I even doing? It was really freaky.

Kara: One of the songs you came back with was “Blood.” A bold title.

Murray: It’s also a really fundamental part of our physical existence. Without it you’re dead.

[video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ymaeNQ0_wo]

Kara: You’re using a tiny, baby Martin [guitar].

Murray: On the Missiles tour, Lisa [Smith], who was playing bass with us at the time, she managed to drop it from a stage that was six feet off the ground and dropped it that far and smashed the edge of it.

Kara: There’s a great big chip!

Murray: It was pretty brutal. I was devastated actually. It’s funny, but the guitar had no vibe because it was brand new when that happened. After the smash, for some reason, it had vibe.

Patrick Krief: It’s like leaving your guitar in the car trunk over the winter for a couple of weeks and it comes out sounding better.

Kara: Now you were telling me a little earlier, Murray, about your daughter and Strawberry Shortcake?

Murray: In a weird way, I’m teaching [Neptune] to emote when singing and have a bit of fun with it. We have this thing where we sing "Strawberry Shortcake." It’s a lot snappier on the show, but I’ve taught her to stretch it out a little and she does the hand gestures, pumping her fist, stretching out her arms and telling the world about Strawberry Shortcake.

Kara: How would you feel if she were to come to you when she was 14 and say she wanted to be a musician?

Murray: It’s weird. You just don’t know what’s going to happen. My old man was playing saxophone and I’m sitting here with a guitar. He never really went for it as far as we’ve gone for it. I don’t know what happened, but part of it was that he became a born again Christian and my mom hated the fact that he was on tour. It’s kind of cool that me and Natalia are together and we can all be together a lot. If [my daughter] decides to get into the family business, what can I say? We just want her to be happy and do what she’s going to do.

Kara: “Thrones,” the third song you’re going to do, has a very different vibe.

Murray: That’s one of those cosmic moments that heppened when we were making this record. Benvie emailed a few MP3s and among them was a demo for this song. It immediately blew my mind. That’s the end of that! 

[video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GVFX5jRCb_I&feature=channel_video_title]

Kara: It seems that for a lot of Canadian bands, like Arcade Fire or Broken Social Scene, there’s a fluctuating lineup. So Patrick, were you surprised when Murray finally asked you to be a member?

Patrick: He first asked me seven years ago! I’ve been like, “yeah, whatever, I just do the next tour.” That dragged on for years and years, but the only surprising thing was to write together. I didn’t expect that. It was amazing, easy, natural and painless. I’d never co-written with anyone before.

Murray: Me neither.

Patrick: There was that little possibility of disaster. But it was the opposite. It was just hearing songs become a million times better than if I’d just developed them alone.

Kara: It seems you’re in a happier place.

Murray: I think resolved is more the word (laughs). Isn’t that what we’re all striving for? A resolution? We just want to to know what the lay of the land is; never mind being happy or sad.