Murray Lightburn of The Dears

While at home under lockdown like the rest of us, Murray Lightburn of The Dears talked with QRO....
Murray Lightburn of The Dears : Q&A

Murray Lightburn of The Dears : Q&A

While at home under lockdown like the rest of us, Murray Lightburn of The Dears talked with QRO.  In the long conversation, Lightburn discussed making new album Lovers Rock (QRO review) while touring (and more), losing his father William Lightburn to COVID-19, being a musical parent (along with wife/band member Natalia Yanchak), taking your time when listening to records, slowing down, making a music video during a pandemic, the musical ‘fourth wall,’ parents knowing their kids “like a book” (even if it isn’t a best-seller), and more…



QRO: How are you holding up with everything that is going on?

Murray Lightburn: It’s as challenging as you could imagine.

Mostly just Natalia & I never really have any time for anything.  The kids are home all the time, so it’s always ‘all hands on deck’ kind of thing.  You just don’t want them watching TV all day, the kids.

We take turns with the kids.  I’m usually on duty in the mornings, until around noon, one o’clock.  So, I do the mornings; Natalia does the afternoons.

Which basically, I work sort of half-days, and then if I can squeeze in a few hours after dinner, to continue something that I’m working on, then I’ll do that.  If I’m working on a big project that has a deadline, then we have to renegotiate our plan.  So, it’s mostly just a logistical thing.

On a personal note, [June 22nd] was the first day that they were able to record no new deaths in Quebec, for the first time since March.

It was interesting how little things could be a triggering phrase for me.

The other day was Father’s Day.  My father [William Lightburn] passed away on May 1st.  And so, I haven’t really had any sort of chance to unpack any of it.

So, Father’s Day rolls around, and I kind of was reflecting on a lot of stuff throughout the day, and then I read the news, and it said, “No new deaths.”  My father tested positive for Covid, and he passed within five days.

He was already quite ailing.  He was an ailing old man.  Eighty-five years old, he was suffering from Alzheimer’s for a long time.  And as you know, first it’s a mental beatdown, then a physical beatdown.

He had a ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ kind of thing going on, when that if he got sick, they weren’t going to put him on a ventilator, they weren’t going to try to save him.

In a weird way, it was a blessing in disguise.  Because his quality of life had really gone downhill.  He was in a home, and of course these homes were ground zero for this stuff.

So, when I saw that phrase, “No new deaths today,” again, another thing just went off in my brain.

That’s where I’m at, personally… [laughs]

You just don’t want them watching TV all day, the kids.

When this thing first hit, I predicted that my old man wouldn’t make it through.  Just because, being in a place like that, an extremely vulnerable place.  He has skated through a couple of ailments before, but when I read what the symptoms were and all that stuff, [I thought,] ‘If he gets hit with this, he’s not going to make it.’

[William Lightburn] has played on a couple records.  On my birth certificate, it lists him as a musician.  When I was born, he was still a musician.  I spent the first five years of my life sleeping in a lot of dressing rooms.

I remember telling my mother, just recently, about when I first started playing in clubs, when I walked into my first club, loading into my first club, the smell was so familiar!  It’s something that I guess was ‘tattooed’ from my youngest days.

And my father gave it all up, because there was so much traveling involved.  It was very hard on my mother.

In fact, he almost missed my birth because he was on the road.  But that’s how he made a living.

QRO: What did he play?

ML: He played saxophone.

Years & years later – he never stopped playing – I invited him to play on Gang of Losers.  So, he plays on the closing track [“Find Our Way To Freedom”] of Gang of Losers, and he plays on the opening track [“Disclaimer”] on Missiles.

I wanted him to play on my second solo record [last year’s Hear Me Out], but he was past expiry date at that point.

I wanted him to play with us live at one point – I thought it would be really cool for him to play with us.  But at that point, he needed a lot of babysitting when he was out in public.  Basically, would just go wandering off.  He wouldn’t know where he was, half the time.

I remember when my family was telling me that, when I was inquiring about the possibility of playing, I didn’t know how far along he had been.  And then I saw it for myself, at one point.

Anyway – I didn’t mean to talk about this.  I’m just riffing, reflecting a little bit.  It’s on my mind a lot.

When this thing first hit, I predicted that my old man wouldn’t make it through.

QRO: Oh yeah, totally.  And it would have happened just before the record came out.

ML: He passed about two weeks before the album came out.  We were in the middle of doing all that promo.

In fact, we released “I Know What You’re Thinking and It’s Awful” the day he died.

What’s funny about that – this is not something I was really public about, when we were asked to describe the song…

The story is two-pronged.  I was partly inspired by last year, there was a big story about these two teenage kids who were wanted for second-degree murder [2019 Northern British Columbia murders].  There was a nationwide manhunt.

I had this idea for this song, I was working on this song, and the news was playing in the background the whole time I was working on the song.  I finished the song on the day they found their bodies.

And I kept thinking about their parents, and just that relationship that parents have with a situation like that.  Because I’m a parent, and I think about my children, and hope that they’ll never be in a situation like that.

But also – this is the second part of this story.  I remember when we were kids, my old man would always say, “I know you like a book.”  And when he would say that, when I was a kid, I never thought that was possible, until now, I have two kids, and I know them very well.  Like, predictably well.  And it’s only going to grow that way.  So, it rang true, but not until I had kids of my own.

My dad would always say, “I know you like a book.”  My older brother, Peter, retorted, “Am I best-seller?”  And my dad was so entertained by that.  He laughed his head off!

It was such a prevalent thing growing up.  But whenever you were in trouble, if you got in trouble, he would say, “I know you like a book, and you’re not a best-seller!”  He would take the joke and subvert the joke, into, ‘You’re in fucking trouble!’

That’s how that whole song came together.

And by coincidence, that song got released, the day he died.  By complete coincidence.

The planning of the release of that song was months in the making, but then my father got sick a week before that song came out, and he died the morning the song came out.

So, I thought that was fitting, and kind of poetic, and funny… [laughs]

Whenever you were in trouble, if you got in trouble, [my dad] would say, “I know you like a book, and you’re not a best-seller!”

QRO: You say that your father stopped musician because he had kids.  How to you handle being a parent & a musician – and your wife is a musician, and in the same band?…

ML: We found out that we were gonna have a child during possibly the longest tour we’d ever been on in my life.

We were in Brussels.  And it was the first day that we’d seen the sun in thirty days, because we were in England for thirty days.  We literally had not seen the sun for thirty days.

And the first day that we saw the sun was in Brussels.  And we did a test in the hotel room, after load-in & before soundcheck, and we found out we were going to be parents before the show.  So, it’s been intertwined, the whole way.

Which is a stark difference from the life my dad had a musician.  He was just making a living, because that’s what he knew how to do.  He was living in Quebec, he wasn’t French, but he could skate through by playing music, you know?

It was super demanding, grueling, and hard on the family.  He was a ‘gigger,’ you know?  He wasn’t creating music.  He was an old school musician that was gigging.  It was very hard.

Whereas, for us, it’s different.  We created something that became our living, you know?  And we’re very fortunate to be in that position.  Very fortunate to be in it together, as a family.

Our daughter spent her first six years of her life on the road, virtually.  A lot of it.  She’d been to Australia twice before she was three-years-old!

Our son, who is much younger, he hasn’t done as much touring as our first kid did.  Just because we don’t tour as much as we used to.  It’s just not in us to do that kind of grueling touring.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense.  That could change; who knows?

We’re very fortunate to be in a situation where, a) it’s actually a way that we make our living, b) it’s actually in a very meaningful way, and that we do it together.  We have the ability to stay together.  There’s been times when Natalia & I will go out for an abbreviated tour without the kids, and that’s always super-hard.

And it’s also hard when I go out solo.  I did a lot of solo touring last year, and that was very difficult on Natalia, but it was meaningful, you know?  It was a job.  You can reconcile those things.


Our daughter spent her first six years of her life on the road, virtually. A lot of it. She’d been to Australia twice before she was three-years-old!


QRO: How was making Lovers Rock?

ML: The challenge was that I’d never toured & made an album in the same year.

Because you’d play, one year is touring, one year is creating.  With a little bit of overlap.

When I finished making my solo record, and we were planning the release, I had already started touring in October, before the album came out.  I did some support shows with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah in the U.K.  And then I came home, and buried myself in the studio all winter, until my tour dates started & my album came out.

And then every time I came home, I had not a lot of time to recover from touring.  I had to go back in the studio with The Dears, and continue work on that album.  So, I was just going back-and-forth between the two things: being in tour mode, studio mode, tour mode, studio mode.  Which is, I found out, incredibly difficult.  Very hard on every part of your body and your brain.

All the while maintaining other side gigs as well.  Just leading up to my solo record, I had done a bunch of music on a video game that came, called We Happy Few.  I’d done a bunch of work on that, that cascaded into work on the record, and that cascaded– for three years, I had just not stopped working.

When we finished The Dears album in December of last year, I got sick.  I don’t know if it was some kind of early strain of what this thing is now, on my back for a week.  Maybe exhaustion, maybe a combination, I don’t know – I just collapsed.

I made a decision that I was gonna turn off all the taps, decidedly turned off all the taps for a couple of months, kinda reset my creative brain, reset my body a little bit.  I felt like I hadn’t stopped working for three years straight.

Oh, and before that, Hawksley Workman, I also had produced that record [Median Age Wasteland], which took the wind out of me as well.  So that happened

All that stuff was happening all down. [laughs] Over the course of two, three years, just projects cascading together, all with mountains of work involved, and travel, and touring.

I had all that on my back behind me, while making The Dears record, and just tunneling hard towards the finish.

I was just going back-and-forth between the two things: being in tour mode, studio mode, tour mode, studio mode.

And so, it’s interesting to read reviews, where people feel like we were ‘phoning it in’ or whatever.  Man, that couldn’t be further from the truth.  We worked so hard on this record, every detail.

I think a lot of people just take getting a new record on their desk for granted, and don’t realize the insane amount of work that goes into it.  They’re just hearing music playing, and they think it just came together like that. [snaps] No, dude – it was months, and months, and months of back-breaking work.

The least you could do is give it more than a skip listen, and write for your readers your impression of it.  The least you could do is give it .01% of the amount of time we spent making it, on the record.  Which would be a sufficient amount of time to listen to it, at least two or three times.

I almost feel like, maybe in the future, we should just offer that disclaimer.  “This is an extraordinary detailed work, and if you plan to review it, be prepared to listen to it at least this many times, and spend this many hours.  Otherwise, you’re not qualified to review it.”  It’s that simple.

What’s the point of doing this?  What’s the point of this exercise, if you’re not going to do it properly?  Then don’t review it!

Review less records!  I don’t care if you don’t review it – I really don’t care.  I’d rather you not review it, than to review it in a half-assed way.  It’s bizarre…

Because it’s a band that maybe people have heard of, that you can hang your hat on those clicks, that you’re gonna write this review.  It’s just pathetic, you know?

And we’ve gotten really quite nice positive reviews, and nice reviews in the past, and the present, whatever.

I think, in principle, what I’m saying is, we don’t make records for reviews.  But if that construct exists, they have to engage in the work at least partially equally to the way we approached it.  If we’re gonna have any kind of real relationship.

Otherwise, there’s no point in what they’re doing.  What that person is doing, writing that review, is a complete waste of existence.  Why don’t you go do something else?

On my side, I’m doing it, and we’re doing it, as a band, 100%.  We’re taking the work – not ourselves, the work – quite seriously.  Multiple takes are made, time is spent making sure all the details are covered.  Why would you not approach it from that perspective? [laughs]

When you have to do a book review, you can’t review it without reading the entire book!  It should be the thing with music.

You have to pay attention, or else you’re going to miss it.

I mean, yes, for the average listener, it’s there to be consumed any way you want.  But for a reviewer, there’s no point if you’re not going to pay attention.

I read this one review, where the guy quoted the song, but he didn’t finish the quote!  He pulled half of the lyric, and didn’t finish the lyric.  Which was so interesting to me, because he was complaining the album was “gloomy” because of a certain lyric, but didn’t get to the second half of the lyric, where it turns over the previous part of the statement.  I was just like… oh my god! [laughs]


I think a lot of people just take getting a new record on their desk for granted, and don’t realize the insane amount of work that goes into it.


QRO: Are you bummed that you can’t tour behind Lovers Rock?

ML: No, I’m not at all.

If this was our first album, or second album, I’d feel differently.  But this is our eighth album, and we’ve toured a lot.

We’ve built an audience over twenty, twenty-five years, across the globe, that we feel confident that, when things open up again, we get totally past this – we’ll still be there if they’re still gonna be there.

Whereas, I think a band that is perhaps younger, swinging for the fences, there’s a lot of pressure to build an audience, and keep building an audience – they’re in a much more vulnerable position.  Because they might lose those early fans.  Those early fans might become a little more fair-weather.

A lot of our fans that we’ve had for years, and years, and years, are now turning up to gigs with their teenage children.  That’s why we’re not really that concerned about when we’ll go back on the road.  Just keep kicking the can until it’s happening again.

We’ve built an audience over twenty, twenty-five years, across the globe, that we feel confident that, when things open up again, we get totally past this – we’ll still be there if they’re still gonna be there.

QRO: Have you been writing/making music during all of this?

ML: Well, we have our own studio here.  Just out back here, across the backyard, there’s a small, modest, but fully decked-out, professional studio.

I never really stop working.  I’m currently working on my next solo, just getting under the hood of that, which is another mountain to climb.  I’m taking of this time of not touring, to get it locked down.

It’s actually a blessing in disguise, because we were supposed to be on tour in April.  And so, I was planning on my year where I was gonna tour with The Dears, and work on my solo.

QRO: Sort of an inverse of what you did before.

ML: Yes.

And that’s kind of the work schedule that I’m on.  I pursue a Dears record every eighteen months or so, my record every eighteen months or so, kind of alternate.  While doing other gigs, working on other people’s records, or some sort of work-for-hire that comes across my desk.

I can’t take everything, but I have a hard time saying no.  I love the challenge.  I’m like the definition of a workaholic.  I can’t stop working.  It’s almost compulsive; I’m always tinkering and working on something.

I’ve forced myself to take it a bit slower, in the last six months.  I feel like this whole current situation has been a sign to slow down, a little bit.

For me, personally, I was driving pretty hard for four-or-five years.  Actually, I can’t even remember when I haven’t been working very hard.  Honestly, I’m almost working all the time.

I’m finding myself shaming myself less when I take a bit of time for myself, and just chill out, you know?


The Dears’ video for “I Know What You’re Thinking and It’s Awful”:

QRO: Where did you do the video for “I Know What You’re Thinking and It’s Awful”?

ML: That was at the Hotel2Tango where we did some of the recording of Lovers Rock.

We did a lot of work out of that studio.  It’s partially owned by my friend Howard Bilerman, and the Godspeed [You! Black Emperor] guys have a stake in it as well.

I’ve been going to it for years.  In fact, the Fender Rhodes [keyboard] that my dad gave me, I believe it was 2001, he gave me this Fender Rhodes that he had.  He thought it was an unimpressive keyboard because it wasn’t modern with lights & stuff.  It’s an analog thing.

I was like, ‘Are you kidding, man?  I’ll use the shit of that thing!’  And we use it across all our early records.

And now it’s housed at the Hotel.  I don’t have the space for it.  It’s been there, at the Hotel now, for years & years & years.

We’ve done the majority of our recording has taken place at that.

The Dears’ video for “Instant Nightmare!”:

QRO: How was making the video for “Instant Nightmare!”?

ML: It was a pain in the ass, but kind of fun.

The project was greenlit before the pandemic started, and we were scheduled to shoot just when everything started to go into lockdown.  And so, we pulled the plug on the production.  The project just kind of sat there.

We didn’t know how long the lockdown was gonna be.  We thought it was maybe a couple weeks, so we thought, ‘Let’s revisit it in a couple of weeks.’  And then a couple weeks turned into a couple months, and I was like, ‘Oh shit!’

We did the whole production in lockdown, having the director, and the make-up artist, and one of the animators involved – they were all on the video call.  They instructed us on what to do.  I acted as the camera op, because Natalia was doing most of the singing.  It kind of worked out well, because I actually enjoy being behind the camera, and so it worked out quite well.

But it was also stressful because trying to do anything with two kids around was extremely hard.  But we have a fourteen-year-old, so she had to get her hands dirty, to look after the other one while we worked all day.

We shot the whole thing in our studio, and then we put it on a hard drive, and the director came by & picked it up.  And that was that.  We made a totally contact-less, whole video shoot. [laughs]


We made a totally contact-less, whole video shoot.


QRO: During lockdown, a lot of artists are doing livestreams, or releasing previously recorded material.  Have you thought about doing anything like that?

ML: There’s a certain type of animal that needs to forge on in that way.

Trying to do like an online sort of concert, performance thing, with lower set of production, is not just not something that appeals to us at all.

When you’re on Instagram, for example.  You’re a billion-dollar company.  Even when we were doing our livestreams, leading up to the album release, we did these ‘hang outs’, where we’d listen to each album, day-by-day.  We were counting down to the release of Lovers Rock.

That was fun, but I was cursing the platform every day.  For whatever reasons; it kept changing as we went along.  One day, I was able to save the video; the next day, I was not able to save the video.  I don’t get what they’re doing.  It’s like they’re still, after all this time, they’re still beta testing this thing.  It’s ridiculous.

There’s no way I’m gonna set myself up for some catastrophic technical fail.

I believe that, when you’re engaging with your audience in a performative way, that it’s our job to strip away all the challenges that we face to get to that point.

I’m kind of an old school show business guy, where the audiences need to know: how we got there, what my day was like, any of my problems… They should just arrive, and be allowed to dream, you know?  I think that there should be a fourth wall, in a way, that should not be broken.  Between what we do, and what the audience is there to consume.

And so, I feel, to try to do a show the way we normally play, that fourth wall becomes more fragile and vulnerable.  And then what happens is that, the distraction of that space that we’re providing, in the music, for people to dream, is compromised.

And so, we made a decision to not really do that, even though there’s been an enormous amount of pressure to engage in that way.  I feel it.  It’s not like it’s overt, or the label is like putting that upon us, but we feel the pressure, regardless.  It’s difficult.

QRO: It’s funny that you mention the fourth wall.  I think the first time I saw you guys (QRO photos), you started in the crowd, with a candle…

ML: But again, that’s a very performative way to engage.  It’s not like I was having conversations with the people in the audience; I was singing, performing a song.

We were doing that on that tour, I believe that was Missiles.  That was just something that started happening, and it worked, and so we carried it on.  It was a fun way to start the show.  It brought people in to the show.

Cause you really have a very small window, at the beginning of the show, to get the show on track.  That first couple of minutes of any concert is absolutely crucial to get the audience on board.  And so, we always put a lot of time into, ‘What song are we’re playing first, and what happens in that song, and how it cascades into the next song.’  That is utterly crucial.

If I could impart anything to younger bands: make sure those first two songs, that you’ve chosen well.  That you have sealed the deal, from that point on.  Because it’ll make the show so much better, as you move forward.

We’ve been in situations where the show started kind rough and off, and it’s almost a task decision to get that show back on track.  And so, you fight hard to get the show on track again, and something will happen where it just kind of turns back over.  You flip it back on its wheels, and you’re fucking driving.  It happens, though.

You really have a very small window, at the beginning of the show, to get the show on track.

I remember once, we were playing in Istanbul.  It was the first time we played Istanbul.  It was the jazz festival.

We had a lot of challenges.  This wasn’t really a challenge, but I just remember Natalia being seven-and-a-half months pregnant with our second child at that show.

And we had rented all the gear.  Some of the gear didn’t make it, and so, there’s some challenges there.  We had one crew, but not front of house, or any tech crew.  We used local crew, but what we failed to anticipate was that none of the local crew spoke a word of English.  There wasn’t any common language.  You can skate by on a bit of Spanish, or a bit of French, but there, nothing doing.  Literally using hand gestures to communicate…

We were a little bit ‘swimming in the deep end’ for that show.  It started out super rough, the sound on stage was super rough, no way to communicate that to anybody, no control over it.  We had to really flip that car back on its wheels, man, hardcore.  We managed to, but I just remember very distinctly that show being extremely difficult. [laughs]

That kind of stuff is always a challenge, and can really mess with your head.  When you’re just in those situations, where a lot of the things that you’d normally would have aren’t around.