Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Interview - Constantines

Constantines are the most underrated band in the world. Is there a debate to this? Indeed so, but not in my eyes. Hailing from the Canadian town of Guelph (otherwise known as "The Royal City"), quintet (Bryan Webb; vocals/guitar, Steven Lambke; guitar/vocals; Doug MacGregor; drums, Dallas Wehrle; bass, Will Kidman; keyboards) have been apart of this jerky art-form since 1999, unleashing a democratic rock sensibility, which has resulted in four brilliant albums.

Their self-titled debut was the foundation of edgy no-holds-barred rock music, which saw many pin the band's influences to the likes of The Clash, Fugazi and Bruce Springsteen. 2003's Shine A Light was even more harder-nosed than its predecessor, despite album highlight 'Young Lions' portraying elegant melodies and clever writing techniques from Webb.

2005's Tournament of Hearts witnessed the band shift once again, creating more melodic and ear catching sounds, with Webb once again shining as the key figure, while the guitar harmonics seethed underneath with ferocity. 'Draw Us Lines' still extrudes that seamless abrasive sound that the band made inroads with from the beginning, but the roots were well and truly augmented with this affair (alt-country number 'Soon Enough' the reference point), which leads up to now; the band's pinnacle opus, Kensington Heights.

A splendid mixture of the swirling song-craft from Webb and his right-hand man Lambke (the latter during the brilliant 'Shower of Stones'), while the cinder blocks otherwise known as instrumentation well and truly gouge out of your stereo speakers with conviction. The slower moments are beautiful, too; 'Our Age' defines this to a tee. There's moments where the mixture of spacious beauty and neck-break rhythms coalesce, with the swooping din of 'Trans Canada' quite possibly measuring up to the best work the band has done to date.

Constantines are one hell of a force in the live arena, too. Cracking break downs make you sweat, while the energy this band renders while unleashing their brooding form of art makes your heart skip a beat. This is no biography; just words that an honest-to-goodness rock 'n' roll band truly deserve. Recently, I had the opportunity to ask Webb some questions about the existence of the Constantines. This is what was said:

Lullaby Magazine: Hey Bryan, how's things today?

Bryan Webb: Pretty good, thanks.

LM: You're just about to go on tour throughout America, do you enjoy touring and playing your songs live?

BW: I prefer playing live to recording. We're better live than recorded. We're out on my favorite route now, West in Canada, down the West Coast of the US, and up through the midwest. We're traveling with Ladyhawk, who are one of the best bands on Earth. It helps us to travel with friends like this. It'll be a recreational tour.

LM: I had the pleasure of seeing you guys at the All Tomorrow's Parties weekend curated by Explosions In The Sky. Did you guys have fun?'

BW: It was a very strange trip. We had a decent time playing, though, and enjoyed the landscape out there in Minehead. That resort could be the setting for a zombie movie. It was incredible to see Silver Jews and Animal Collective in such a strange place. Those were the highlights for me.

LM: It's like the ultimate summer camp. I lost count of how many times I saw various artists just walking around checking out bands. It's a festival that just has no egos. Very working class. Would you agree?

BW: I don't know if I could think of any rock festival as working class, though I really appreciate the structure of the ATP festivals. The town of Minehead is very pretty. It was nice to walk out on the beach at low tide. I saw a beached tugboat with the word 'Defiant' painted on its side.

LM: Speaking of working class, I've read many of your reviews and you've been described as a “working class band”. That's quite a compliment particularly with some of the music getting around these days. Do you see it this way?

BW: Not really. We have some songs about work, which came from an obsession with Studs Terkel's book Working. And we get compared to Springsteen and The Clash a fair bit, who are described as working class. But I think those people had more of an active political connection to the working class than we do. We're not political as a band. Our individual ideas vary a little too much to pursue a political band identity.

LM: Back to your performance at ATP. I have to ask, you were cutting clumps of your hair in the early stages of that performance. Do you do that during all your shows?

BW: I just needed a haircut, and in my jet-lagged state it seemed like a funny idea to give myself a haircut on stage. Seemed like a strange opening ceremony for the festival, though I'm sure it didn't translate very well. It would have been more satisfying to watch if I had done a worse job. There wasn't really a punchline to it.

LM: Onto your new album “Kensington Heights”. In my opinion it's the best you've done thus far. How have you been pleased with the reception it's received so far?

BW: Yeah, it's been pretty well received as far as I can tell. I like that the record sounds like a group of people who have been playing music together for a long time. We couldn't have made this album eight years ago. That's the most successful thing about it, I think. It has a good amount of personality.

LM: The album was dedicated to the late Gar Gillies. You used his amplifiers on the album, right?

BW: Not exclusively, but the Garnet amps we used were pretty key to the sound of the record. Gar Gillies passed away while we were making the record, and looking at his life, he was a pretty inspiring man. He had complete control over the products of his labour right up until he died. He was entirely dedicated to his craft. These things are important to me.

LM: There's a good mixture of slower and quicker tempo songs on this effort. Do you think this is the result of the band's maturity that has formed since the early days?

BW: Yeah, one thing that has come from playing together for a while is the willingness to leave open space in some of the songs. Everyone is willing to lay back a bit, and listen to the natural dynamics that come out of a song in the writing process.

LM: There's also various references to hospitals, like on 'Million Star Hotel', 'Brother Run Them Down' and 'Life or Death'. Are these references to experiences you endured prior to the making of the album?

BW: Most of the songs were written as tributes to friends and family. People who are surviving or navigating life in an interesting way. There were a few more hospitals in my life over the last few years than I would have liked. Nobody likes hospitals. But they're very resonant buildings in a person's daily impressions of their city.

LM: On “Tournament of Hearts” many people were surprised of the direction you'd taken, mainly with 'Soon Enough' and its alternative country sensibility. Would you ever consider doing an album that pushed towards an alt-country vibe seeming as though you do it very well?

BW: We just take it one song at a time. Tournament Of Hearts ended up being an album of simpler song structures, maybe because we were touring so much at the time, simpler was more practical. I don't see us consciously making an alt-country album, though.

LM: One thing that's changed since “Tournament of Hearts” is that you're now on Arts & Crafts, how exactly did that come about?

BW: We were essentially free agents after that record, with no management, and no record contract. Though we enjoyed being on Sub Pop, we wanted to bring the business back to Canada. It took us over a year to figure this out, 'cause Sub Pop was very good to us, and we had a lot of good friends there. Arts & Crafts expressed an interest, and they just had good answers to all of our questions. Plus they've obviously been very successful over the last six years, and their offices are about five minutes from our rehearsal space. And it's worked out very well so far.

LM: Constantines have made four albums now and I must say, they're four albums that have great qualities in their own way. These days not many bands can boast of making four solid albums. What have you guys learnt from being in a band for all this time?

BW: Music, at its best, is an expression of pure joy, and the interconnectedness of all people.

LM: Canada is a country that's spawned so many great bands during this era. Many of them are on Arts & Crafts. Surrounded by all this, has it inspired you guys in any way?

BW: Canada is full of great, unique creative communities, partly because there's so much space between populated areas. Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver are great music centers, but so is Guelph, Ontario and Sackville, New Brunswick, and Dawson City, in the Yukon. We're lucky to be able to connect with people in all of these places, and learn from them.

LM: Anything else you'd like to add before we finish?

BW: Ladyhawk rules.

For more information about the Constantines visit the following.


The new album Kensington Heights is out now on Arts & Crafts.

Interview by Simon K

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