Elizabeth Powell, the bewitching singer, guitarist, and frontwoman of Montreal’s Land of Talk sat down for an extensive interview with QRO.In part one here, she discusses some of the best cities they’ve played, the surprising worst place, their upcoming European tour with The Decembrists, their recording plans, their recording past, their line-up changes, singing in French, and what song she wants a gay boy band to cover…
QRO: How’s your tour been going?
Elizabeth Powell: Awesome!
EP: I was thinking about it the other day – awesome, awesome, awesome, awesome, each band… It’s like summer camp for adults. I don’t mean to downplay the hard work that goes into it, but–
QRO: Hey, summer camp’s hard work too…
EP: But summer camp’s hard work too. The whole idea of traveling, the whole troubadour, like ‘traveling circus’ – it’s like we’re a traveling circus.
QRO: Are there any cities or places you’ve particularly liked playing?
EP: Yeah – Austin. Love Austin; maybe that’s for personal, romantic reasons. Love Austin. When we played in Birmingham, Alabama, we found a bottle of moonshine in the back parking lot. I didn’t drink any – I got to smell it – but our bass player and the drummer from The Rosebuds took a swig. They were like, “It’s like the softest fire in your throat. You can never imagine.” It’s probably like three thousand proof, or whatever. That was just a wicked, wicked show…
I don’t know, they’re all… It’s hard. And it’s funny, some people think playing Cleveland is really, really hard, ‘cause there’s not a big turnout, we don’t have a big draw. Maybe fourteen people come to the shows. The first show we played Cleveland with Menomena was sold out, so we got lucky. The second show we played with The Rosebuds, maybe there were thirty people, but by the end of the night, I had like six people around me. We were all hanging out outside, drinking. And those are friends that I’m sure will be at the next show, with their friends. Cleveland’s more of a slow build town, but it’s worth it.
QRO: I don’t know if you can answer this, but are there any places you particularly didn’t like?
EP: I don’t know… I don’t like answering those, because there’s always some good person on that scene that will take offense.
QRO: No one has ever answered that…
EP: Actually, you know what? Mon-tre-fucking-al is like not really happening for us, ironically enough. I guess we just haven’t played there enough – the last show we played there, there were like nine people.
In terms of a ‘Montreal band’, we’re not good – like, there’s so many better bands in Montreal; there’s so much more interesting to go watch than Land of Talk.
QRO: You’ve toured with [Montreal’s] The Stills (QRO spotlight on), didn’t you? How is the Montreal scene now, is it all too blown up now, or too much exposure?
EP: No, it’s just unfortunately it’s still turning out some of the best music I’ve ever heard, so that just makes it for a really competitive market, if we’re gonna talk in business terms.
It’s pretty insular; it’s pretty incestuous. You’ve got everybody’s side project, you’ve got everybody who’s recorded that album, is doing stuff on this…
QRO: This Monday, you’re going to play a Central Park Summerstage (QRO venue review) benefit concert with The Decembrists, before heading out to tour with them in Europe. How did you get in touch with them and get on their tour?
EP: I noticed that Colin Meloy of The Decembrists talked about us a couple of times in interviews, he said he was listening to ‘The Land of Talk EP’. And I thought that was super-cool, so I got in contact with our guy from our US label, Thaddeus, and he made contact with a friend of Colin’s. I sent that guy a message, just saying, “Hey, if you’re talking to Colin in the next few days, will you just tell him, ‘Thank you’, for doing that?” Because that’s more powerful for a band, than any kind of PR that we probably can buy. Like, that’s just the best, shout-outs to a band, if another amazing musician does it.
So I just said, ‘Tell him “thank you”, and whatever – it really means a lot to us.’ And three days later, at SXSW, our booker Lisa said, “I just got a call from The Decembrists’ people, they want you to play Summerstage.” So that was already awesome, and then we got asked to do this tour, so I don’t know…
I’d like to think that it’s ‘the music’ brought us together; there’s always other business things, factors and whisperings that happen, but I’m just gonna believe that it was just ‘the music’… The pull of ‘the music’…
QRO: Will this be your first continental European tour?
EP: Yes, it will be. We just signed on with One Little Indian in the U.K. and the rest of the world, and so the EP with three bonus tracks is gonna be released in mid-October in the rest of the world.
QRO: You were just on tour with Besnard Lakes in the U.K. Was that your first European tour, at all?
EP: Yeah, twelve days in Great Britain, and one show in Glasgow, Scotland.
QRO: Are there any places in Europe you’re really looking forward to going to?
EP: Always love playing London, but that’s U.K.
Madrid, Paris, what?!? What else is part of Europe? Poland is part of Europe now – Warsaw?
QRO: Are there any places that you’re going to that you’ve never actually been before, period?
EP: I don’t even actually know where we’re going; I just found out about the tour awhile ago, so I’m not really sure where we’re playing, but I bet you it’s going to be really fun.
I’ve never been anywhere but like Ireland, and little bits of England, and… that’s it. So I’m sure we’ll be hitting everywhere I’ve never been.
QRO: Are you playing any other festivals or outdoor shows like this?
EP: Yes, we’re doing Summerstage with The Decembrists on Monday, and we’re doing a cool, little festival in Ontario called ‘Clydesville’ in Clydesville, Ontario. We’re doing that on the 28th, and then that’s it, no more.
QRO: Have you done any other outdoor shows before this?
EP: Yep – Hillside Festival in Guelph, one of the best festivals in the world. We did like a Canada Day thing in Trafalgar Square in London, for July 1st, or June 29th, or whatever.
QRO: How do you feel about playing, outdoors vs. indoors?
EP: Oh, we played an outdoor show two nights ago too, in Quebec City, I love it, and I was thinking about that when we were playing.
QRO: Do you prefer outdoors or indoors?
EP: Prefer outdoors. Yeah, for sure.
QRO: You’ve actually got August off. Are you looking forward to spending some time at home?
EP: It’s actually not ‘off’ – It’s actually, we’re going back in for pre-prod, for the next six songs.
We recorded with Bucky – the old drummer – in February. We recorded eleven songs. Since then, Bucky has quit the band, and we signed with One Little Indian, and they needed three extra tracks, so we took three tracks from what we had recorded for the follow-up LP. We gave them three tracks, we’re gonna scrap two tracks, and we’re gonna go back into the studio with Eric, the new drummer, and re-record two tracks, and record five new songs.
QRO: You’re playing a few Canadian dates in September, and then hitting New York’s Bowery Ballroom (QRO event listing). Why those special shows before The Decembrists?
EP: Well, we just started working with a new booker. We just weren’t playing a lot in Canada, so it wasn’t really a market we hit properly, and it was a little bit disorganized.
Since a month ago, we’ve had this new booker, who has just been booking us the greatest, small, indie… targeting the audience’s we’d want to have as loyal fans. So this is almost more of an introduction to his way of booking.
It’s five days, they’re good gigs with Cloud Cult, it’s gonna be amazing.
Though you know what, I just read it in a Montreal paper that they’re advertising it as, “Land of Talk, with ‘Cold Cut’.” So everybody thinks we’re going to be playing with ‘Cold Cut’, who I think is like a DJ on Digatoons or something, had a compilation in like 1998. I mean, I’d love to play with Cold Cut, but we’re not, we’re playing with Cloud Cult.
QRO: Do you prefer being a headliner at a club, or an opener on a big tour, like you’re going to be with The Decembrists?
EP: Love both. Love the safety of being an opener, ‘cause it’s kind of ‘not your problem’ if it’s a bad turnout; you’re just along for the ride. And you get to play earlier and stuff. Less hassle, less responsibility…
But, at the same time, I think that slowly, we can start headlining smaller things, and just gradually get into it… I’m a slow mover, so I like everything to go gradual. It would be really nice, just ‘cause you get more money, you get more people. I think at the end, yeah, the goal is to headline our own tour. I wouldn’t want to be a ‘professional support band’ or whatever.
QRO: What was it like, making your first recording, Applause Cheer Boo Hiss (QRO review)?
EP: It was pretty swift. We just went in there – we didn’t have a lot of money; we had a thousand bucks, so we got three days at Breakglass Studio. I think we only had seven songs, so it was not like, “Ooh, let’s try to make it fourteen…” We only had seven. Bucky and Tim, who was the former bass player, they knew the songs really well; we’d been playing them live forever, so we just went in…
Most of them are just one to three takes, got it all done, got the drums and the bass sounded on the first day, second day, just tracks, third day, finished everything up. Maybe went in, a couple weeks later, and did vocal over-dubs. But it was pretty painless, ‘cause it was all songs that we already had been playing them so much, that it almost didn’t make sense, not to record them.
The second time recording, the second time around, it’s weird, when you’re promoting this album that you’re already ready to record a year ago. You record it, and then you’re just playing those songs for another year – or two. So go into and record new songs – Where do those new songs happen? When do you have time to get away from the EP, or whatever your previous work was, to delve into something new? I was kind of worried about it, but there managed to be little pockets of inspiration, and then, since being on The Rosebuds tour, something happened, some explosion happened, and I’ve been like a writing machine. Some internal, wicked, hippie, dippie, flaky bullshit happened, and I’m better because of it, I think.
QRO: So when do you think the full-length will be out and done?
EP: May 2008. Just because we’re just gonna be releasing [Applause Cheer Boo Hiss] for the rest of the world in October. So I think maybe in October in the states, we’ll do like a digital release of those three songs, just like on iTunes, so go, ‘here’s the bonus tracks from the U.K. release.’ I think that seven months after, I think that’s is okay.
QRO: Will that be released to the whole world in May?
EP: Yes, luckily. I think the goal is to all get synched up, so there’s no imports.
QRO: Do you play any of the new, post-Applause material live?
EP: We can’t help it – It’s so much fun…
QRO: For the new LP, are you going to move any of the Applause tracks to it?
EP: I don’t know – I never thought of it. People have mentioned it. I don’t know, maybe? Maybe cover a Land of Talk song, “Land of Talk covers Land of Talk…”
QRO: Call it ‘Talk of Land’ or something.
EP: ‘Talk of Land’, yeah…
QRO: But you all play different instruments…
EP: Yeah, yeah! Oh, we were already joking about that, like I play drums, Chris plays guitar, Eric will play bass. That’d be awesome.
QRO: Are there any songs that you particularly like playing live?
EP: I love playing “Magnetic Hill”; I love playing this new song, “Give Me Back My Heart Attack”… You know what, I love playing all of them. For some reason, “Seafoam” and I have been having a little trouble, these past few months, but it’s like a relationship: it just comes back. I don’t know why sometimes – I used to hate “Magnetic Hill”, and now it’s my favorite song. Love playing “It’s O.K.” – that’s a new song.
QRO: While you’re from Guelph, Ontario, your band is out of Montreal. Are any of the rest of you guys French-Canadian Québécois?
EP: Eric is, the drummer – full Québécois, big-time.
QRO: Does the government require you to sing half your songs in French?
EP: No, but the show we did two days ago in Quebec two days ago, I did the whole set, with like all the banter, was in French. It was really funny.
And, I think, if we got on tour with my favorite Quebec band, Karkwa, I would actually spend time writing French material, to tour Quebec. I think that’s like one of the coolest things that you could do, to make the effort… I don’t know; it seems like I would want that.
QRO: Do you think it would tie you more into Montreal?
EP: You know what? Maybe. Some of my favorite Montreal bands are Québécois, and they have a really tight community, and they really treat each other well. Whereas the Anglophone bands are a little more disparate?
There’s Arcade Fire (QRO live review), there’s Wolf Parade (QRO live review), there’s Malajube, which are all French; they’re all Québécois. And The Dears, there’s Young Galaxy (QRO live review), there’s Sunset Rubdown (QRO live review), Miracle Fortress (QRO photos), it’s ridiculous, The Stills – they all speak French.
QRO: Would you do any French stuff in France?
EP: Yes, yes. Some of the new songs have a come French in them. “Trouble” has a little chorus in French, and the other song, “Give Me Back My Heart Attack” has a verse.
QRO: It seems like everyone else in the band has changed…
EP: I know.
QRO: Like with Bucky…
EP: Exactly – not a road warrior. A little bit miffed about that.
QRO: Where did you find Eric?
EP: He’s a road warrior!
There was three or four guys that I contacted. One of them was this young dude from Toronto. He got up on stage once when I played a solo show, because I was like, “Anyone want to drum? It kind of echoes and is empty up here.” He just ran on stage. His name’s Isaac. He’s wicked.
He was on the list – I still have the list that I wrote down. Then there was this guy Yun, and then this other guy who’s named Ben. Anyway, more people were sort of championing Eric, and saying, ‘You should call Eric, he loves the band since the EP came out, and he knows all the songs.’ So I just called him, we rehearsed once, I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re in, obviously.’ He loves the songs; he plays them like he loves them.
QRO: You also said you went through a string of bassists before Chris. How did you decide on him? Were they also ‘not road warriors’?
EP: No, we weren’t even touring at that point. That’s funny – No, those bass players just didn’t make it.
In the beginning, before it was Land of Talk, it was a band called ‘L.E.K.’. It was just me and a back-up band, when I was like 21, and that was this guy Frazier Nash, who was one of the best bass players in the world – I don’t think he plays bass anymore; he was awesome. And then there was this guy, Blake, who was awesome – he wrote a lot of the bass lines for Applause Cheer Boo Hiss. He is an amazing musician, like genius. But he has own shit to do – he works at McGill in physics. He has other shit to do; he doesn’t want to be in a rock band.
Then after Blake, it was Sage Reynolds – he was a jazz guy; that was only for like a month. And then Tim Kramer, who was a friend from Guelph; just didn’t work out, like, I don’t know, attitude? The chemistry was off. But he recorded, and we were just playing a lot. But Tim had like a really serious full-time job in the brewery. Chris came back from his hotel gigs overseas – he was like in a hotel for nine months, playing with a Top-40 band – I think they were called ‘Deep Velvet’ or something. Chris and Bucky were really good friends from Moncton [New Brunswick], so that just was perfect.
That’s how kind of it all happened for a year.