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The Constantines Come Home

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Sunday, 27 January 2008

The nature of nationalism when it comes to the arts has always been rather funny. Each nationality is under the misguided impression that they’ve got the market cornered on something and have attempted, with varying degrees of success to lay claim to one art form or another as their own. Think about it—at this point in history and because it has fallen from constant public appreciation, if one says something as simple as "painting" most people will immediately flash upon the images of famous Renaissance period paintings that they’ve seen in museums or magazines. Conversely, if someone happens to mention "opera," images and strains of three tenors come to mind. Such is the nature of fame and visibility. The same is true of rock n’ roll. For a very long time, rock n’ roll has been regarded as the musical province of the United States (okay, a couple of people from the United Kingdom heard what was going on there and made their own variations on it right?); that’s where most of the bands that everyone reads about in magazines and tabloids are from and the others are all pale imitations. Only recently has the record-buying public in the US discovered that their neighbour to the north has a few groups and artists making rock and pop, and so of course it must have only just happened—how could they have missed something like that? Most notably in the last couple of years, the American public has been made aware of the stable of artists that call Toronto’s own Arts & Crafts Records home, and that attention is justified—a string of remarkable records have flowed forth from the label and turned it from private indie pleasure to mainstream dream. Bands including Most Serene Republic, Young Galaxy, The Dears, The Hidden Cameras and Broken Social Scene as well as the projects undertaken by that band’s individual members have all enjoyed success on both sides of the border and, as a result, more bands have flocked to the label with dreams of being signed.

One of the most recent signings to Arts & Crafts is Guelph, Canada's The Constantines and, right on cue, everyone Stateside is suddenly fascinated and interested. But the irony is that until recently The Constantines were signed to an American indie label (Sub Pop) and had enjoyed respectable success south of the border. Formed in 1999, The Constantines were the pleasure of those in the know, and with each successive album honed their craft to a brilliant abstract edge that made them a revered institution. But laughably, it took coming home for a larger audience to take notice. With the Arts & Crafts debut album now in the can and awaiting release [it will hit in April 2008 –ed], singer/guitarist Bryan Webb sat down to chat about the changes the band has made as well as the increasingly bright future ahead of them.

Bryan Webb: Hello?

Ground Control: Hey Bryan, it’s Bill Adams calling.

BW: How’s it going?

GC: Not too bad. This is actually getting kind of funny—we’ve spoken twice in the last month. So how’re things going on your end?

BW: Good. I’m in Toronto right now. I live in Montreal these days, but I was down recording a cover with Feist. We finished it up in one day, but we had a good time doing it.

GC: Sounds like a thrill.

BW: Yeah, it was sweet.

GC: What’d you cover?

BW: "Islands In The Stream."

GC: Oh really? The Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton duet?

BW: That’s the one. [chuckling]

GC: [laughing] That should be interesting.

BW: Yeah—it’s going to be great. We’re hoping it’ll get us on the prom episode of Degrassi or something.

GC: That would most definitely be cool. I haven’t watched that show in years, but I’d tune in for that.

BW: [laughing]

GC: So how’re things going? I thought The Constantines were on tour right now.

BW: Nope, we’re actually taking it pretty easy through this winter. We’ve finished the record now—we just finished the mastering this week—and it doesn’t come out until April 11th—I think that’s the date—so we just decided to have a quiet winter at home before the record comes out and we start touring. We’re going to do South By Southwest and some New York shows just to lead up to it and then we’ll hit the road for a while.

GC: That’s cool. Now, I think you told me last time we spoke, but what’s the name of this new album?

BW: I probably had a couple of different ideas in mind, but I think we’re going to call it Kensington Heights.

GC: Cool—nice Toronto reference.

BW: Yeah—all the songs were written in a basement in Kensington where we practice so it just sort of seemed right. I like the idea of regionalism and giving a little bit of place in what we do.

GC: How long were you in recording it?

BW: We did little blocks of two weeks throughout the Fall so it was a good, gradual process and it was nice to take our sweet time with it. I was far more relaxed during this recording than I have ever been, which was a nice change.

GC: Were all the tracks written when you walked into the studio?

BW: We had all but one pretty much worked out beforehand and then one song called "Trans-Canada" was pretty much restructured and reconfigured when we realized that it wasn’t working the way it was. We don’t usually do much writing in the studio because we’re pretty used to not having that much time or money you know? We try to be practical and come from the school of "just practice and get the songs as close to how we want them when they’re totally finished and record them as they are."

GC: I know what you’re saying. It’s funny because usually before I do an interview I end up going through some older records to try and get a feel for them. Not that I’m any stranger to The Constantines’ music, but I started listening to the Suicide Squeeze EP and Tournament Of Hearts

BW: Oh really? You’ve got that EP? Wow.

GC: …and it was the first time that I noticed there is a pretty significant difference between the two. That EP is more seething and tense while Tournament Of Hearts is a much more muscular record.

BW: We were working out [chuckling] a lot prior to that. We bulked up quite a bit.

GC: Pumping iron?

BW: Yeah, yeah. We just got better at recording ourselves too; I mean, that was the first time that Jeff had recorded us and he knew a lot more about sound than we do. We also recorded in a big warehouse as well, so that really helped to get those big sounds. I feel like those are the most melodic and simple songs we’ve ever done, but I heard that EP for the first time in years a little while ago and couldn’t believe how many parts some of the songs had. Maybe we felt like we had something to prove.

GC: Okay so with Tournament Of Hearts it was almost a conscious effort to go big?

BW: Yeah, I think we were just figuring out how to write/sing melodically and write vocal melodies and chords rather than writing riff after riff. I think the new album goes back in the other direction a bit though and we’ve started writing riffs again [laughing]

GC: Was there a conscious effort to tear away from Tournament Of Hearts?

BW: Not really, we never have that much foresight about how the record’s going to work. I kind of like the randomness and ambiguity to come out when you just write a bunch of songs, put them together and see what theme or themes come out. I think you tend to learn more in that kind of random process than if we were to consciously attempt to write a concept record about Kensington Market. This isn’t that, but we did write a record about five people that play in a band and have been playing together for eight or nine years and work in Kensington Market and are part or the community there just because that’s who we are and we wrote twelve or thirteen songs from that perspective. It just, I think, comes out more real and honest than if we were to construct a narrative throughout an entire record. We usually just write one song at a time and try to make sure we’re happy with each one before we move on to the next and then put them all together at the end of two years when we want to make another record.

GC: Are you happy with the results and the way everything turned out?

BW: Yeah—I think so. I think it says a lot about who we are now and who we’ve become as a band. I think you can tell that it’s a record made by a band that has been together for a long time and that in itself makes me pretty happy and pretty proud. I like being part of something that has had as long a life-and The Constantines have—and I think we play together differently than a band that just started as well; we’ve definitely got a family going.

GC: You were talking about so many levels and parts on some of the other records, is this almost a live-off-the-floor album?

BW: We did the bed tracks live off the floor and had a lot of the songs structured that way, but then we basically went back and replaced some of those sounds with better sounds. I think it sounds a lot like a band playing live off the floor though, we just wanted to make sure we got the exact sounds we wanted so we’d go back and replace a guitar part here and there. The process wasn’t all that unique from any other rock n’ roll record though I don’t think. It was pretty simple and straightforward; the way The Constantines have always worked because that’s all we know how to do.

GC: So what else can you tell me about the record? As I say, unfortunately I haven’t had the opportunity to hear it yet.

BW: Yeah, we literally just got it back from mastering so we haven’t even had the chance to play it for our families yet. Sorry, I think I interrupted you.

GC: No, I have this nasty habit of talking in half sentences. It comes from doing interviews a lot.

BW: Right.

GC: Okay, so let’s try it this way: if you had to sum up the forthcoming album in a single sentence—because let’s be honest, a single word would probably be really hard—could you do it?

BW: I can try….

GC: I mean, if you can’t, you can’t and I can understand why it might be a little too soon to ask something like that given you just got the masters back.

BW: I’m just trying to formulate the right, precise sentence. You know how they say that a thousand monkeys typing for a thousand years eventually produce a work of great literature like Crime And Punishment? I feel like five Canadian dudes playing together for eight years in a particular place and travelling to particular places would produce this exact album. This is the only album that we could have made at this point in our lives.

GC: I know what you’re saying, Not so much a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters, but five guys that have experienced the things you have and shared that experience have chronicled said experience. Is that about right? You can tell me if I’m way off.

BW: Right. I think that the clearest way that I can phrase it is that we say what we mean.

GC: I gotcha. Okay, so is there anything else about the record that I’m very obviously forgetting to ask about?

BW: I don’t know—we talked about being on Arts & Crafts last time we spoke and that’s a big thing, but it is our first one for this label and we’re excited about that. They’re working hard and pushing us to do the same. I think it’ll be a good year; we’re just getting to know them and that’s fun and when we left Sub Pop it was on very good terms and we’ll miss them too.

GC: I know when last we spoke, you were saying that your contract with Sub Pop was up so you were looking for something anyway and you were interested to bring it home right?

BW: Exactly—that’s where we were at. We wanted to do something a little closer to home and make some changes at the same time. Change is good at this stage of our relationship with one another; we’re trying to spice things up in the marriage. We’re really looking forward to the future.

GC: Have tour plans already been set in stone?

BW: Not exactly, but I think the idea is though that we’re going to do a tour from Toronto west, then the East Coast of the States and finally the West Coast of the States but it’ll be spaced out into the Fall and then do Europe in the Fall as well. Arts & Crafts are hoping to send us to Japan and Australia too and we’re pretty excited about that.

GC: You’ve never been there before?

BW: No, never and I’ve wanted to see Japan all my life. I’d also like to learn how to surf so I’m hoping that I’ll be able to take some lessons while we’re down in Australia after we’re done our tour there.

GC: That’s cool. So it’s still very much part of the learning curve.

BW: Yeah, each time we write a new song or make a new record, it’s a matter of figuring out something new. Writing songs—for me—it’s how I come to understand the world; it’s how I put things into terms that make sense to me.

For more information, visit www.constantines.ca or myspace.com/constantines

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