In the first part of this two-part interview, Lenssen discusses touring the States vs. touring their native Canada, the problem with playing in New York or L.A., playing outdoors vs. indoors, the mishandling of their Phages EP, why you shouldn’t compare them to label-mates Broken Social Scene, and much, much more…
QRO: How has this U.S. tour been going?
Ryan Lenssen: Great, actually, really good.
We had toured previously with Metric, and we were able to see what their ability to draw was like, and all that sort of thing, a couple years ago. They’re on to bigger and better things by now, but it’s kind of nice for us, ‘cause we’re getting roughly the same amount of crowd that they had been getting previous, when we were opening for them, so it’s kinda nice. It makes you feel like something’s going on; we’re not just stagnating.
QRO: Is this your first full-scale U.S. tour, headlining, going coast-to-coast?
RL: You know it is, yeah, I suppose it is.
QRO: Right before this tour, you toured Canada coast-to-coast (in the opposite direction). How have the two legs compared?
RL: I actually prefer the American touring.
QRO: It’s warmer?
RL: Well, it’s warmer, but also, I find the crowds… We’ve done so much Canadian touring and European touring, but especially Canadian touring, you’d think that we might have…
QRO: Including western Canada?
RL: Yeah, yeah. Oh, jeez, I think we must have toured Canada from coast to coast maybe six, seven times. I just kept going, and going, and going, when the first record came out, it just never ended, the tour. So then we took a break, and I think that’s probably what hurt us.
That, and Phages and the new record sound drastically different than the first one, so a lot of people thought it was a new band, I guess. But it’s good; the people who do come out, there’s always a handful of them that are really attentive, they know what we are trying to say with our music. It seems like on the American tour, there were definitely a lot more; Chicago was a bright spot, Salt Lake City was a bright spot.
But we haven’t had any bad shows here; we’ve had some bad shows in Canada. We played a couple of bad places, nobody showed out – well, I mean, relatively no one – and it kind of hurts. ‘Do your best!’, but it’s not always good enough.
The food’s a little rough, health-wise, but…
QRO: Is this your biggest tour, headlining?
RL: Probably our longest. This is just over two months of headlining.
QRO: You guys have been touring pretty much since CMJ in the middle of October…
RL: Yeah. A little earlier than that, but yeah.
But other than the festivals, this is probably our longest headlining this year. Let’s see… two years ago we did a month of headlining, but this is probably our longest headlining so far.
QRO: Are you guys exhausted?
QRO: How has New York been this time, vs. CMJ and/or when you were here in September?
RL: New York is tough for us. I have no doubt, in my mind, that there are people here who appreciate our music, what we do, but I find that the crowds here are stuck in time. It’s just… people who don’t want to participate.
I mean, last night, we played in Brooklyn, and they wanted to participate, and we had a great time, and it makes it a lot better for us. But I find that, usually, in L.A. and in New York City, Manhattan, people don’t… want to have a good time. They don’t want to have a good time with us, and I wish they would.
I think it’s probably because, you’re in New York, you’re in New York and you’re in L.A., and you see pretty much everyone and their dog, and it takes a lot to impress you, and I understand that.
Plus, you’ve got a stigma attached with being in these cities; you’re not in… Cleveland. Cleveland goes nut. They love it; they love it. When you show up and you play The Grog Shop, if you play a good show, we interact with them, they love you, and they show you that it’s okay, what you’re doing.
I wish [New York] would. And you know what, I think maybe if we were more punk rock, maybe it would be more energetic. But I find that, what we’ve been lumped into, which is indie rock, they don’t… want to wrinkle their clothes, unless it’s been pre-wrinkled…
And it’s too bad, because I really don’t like being lumped into this category. I would rather play to forty-year-olds every night than that shit. Because we’re not, at all, hipster people, in any way, shape, or form. We wear black shirts on stage, because we’re trying to separate fashion from music, just like church & state. They should be the same thing; they should be separate.
But in music, there’s a fashion that followed it, every step of the way, and we don’t want any of that. Mostly because we’re small-town folk, and we’ve never been ‘cool’, or fashionable in any way. We just sorta showed up one day, and they said, ‘Hey, wanna be in a band? Do you wanna make music? Wanna be professional? Wanna go tour as musicians?’ ‘Let’s do it!’
But then we didn’t realize that there’d be this stigma that was going to be attached to it, especially in what we thought was ‘indie rock’. ‘Indie rock’ was supposed to be, whatever… You could show up with, I don’t know, horrible jeans, you could show up with crappy t-shirts your mom got you on her trip to Alaska, and it’s cool. But it’s not cool…
QRO: Unless you’re doing it ironically…
RL: Yeah, right, but we don’t do irony that well, anyway.
It doesn’t help us get along in the scene; it doesn’t help us with ‘hip’ media. But we do what we can.
QRO: You also played some festivals (Pop Montreal, Osheaga, Virgin). Do you prefer playing outdoors or indoors?
RL: Outdoors, if it’s right.
Indoor shows are always better, as far as, it’s a funnel that concentrates energy, and when people are inside, they’re rubbing off each other, it’s just like molecules getting excited, you know what I mean? Rub up against each other, and boom! They explode.
Whereas festivals outside, unless you’ve got ten thousand people to make their own walls, I don’t really like it. It also has to be a certain time of day. We played some good festivals in Toronto, where it was sunset, the mood was strong, and there was ten thousand people. And that’s perfect. You hear a roar from the crowd that really makes you want to play a good show.
But that usually doesn’t happen. Every once in a while, every once in a while…
QRO: Do you have any tour plans after this tour, for like U.K. or Europe?
RL: Yeah, I think we’re doing a European tour, and I know we’re definitely doing another batch of North American tours in the new year.
But that’s not after we step back into the studio.
QRO: You guys stepping back into the studio, is that the next thing?
RL: Soon as we get home, and as soon as the holidays are over, and we all get over touring and are hospitable to each other again, I think we’re getting back in the studio again.
I want to do an EP, but we’ll see what happens. But we’re kind of afraid about EP’s now, because of the way Phages was handled.
QRO: What happened with Phages?
RL: I guess what happened was, we recorded it in a week. We went up to a cabin in northern Canada. We did it, we were proud of it, and we really wanted to show it to the world. And Underwater Cinematographer had just come out. I guess, marketing-wise, or something – I don’t know what was going on – but it didn’t get properly released. They pressed it for us, and they said, ‘Okay, now you’re going to do it as a tour-only EP, but that’s it, that’s the extent of it.’
But slowly, after time, after the ball got rolling on it, and the more the label heard it, they really said, ‘Oh, well, you know what, this is the next progression for your band’, so they finally allowed it to be on iTunes or whatever. But still, though, it’s relatively unknown. I very rarely get asked much about Phages, even though it’s my favorite record, before Population (QRO review). Underwater and Phages were two different beasts, and I very rarely get asked about Phages. It upsets me because, as far as sales go, it hasn’t sold even remotely close to Underwater, and I would have really liked it to be recognized or released, but anyway, it didn’t.
So, we’re kind of wary about EPs.
So you can be way more experimental, and we’re experimental in nature, and so, when we release albums, we sorta have to go a little bit with our experimental nature, go balls to the wall to see what we learn. And then take what we learned and use it on the next LP, kind of thing.
So, we’ll see how it goes. I would really like to, like I said, finish another EP, and put it out again, and actually have it put out, instead of just ‘stumble’ out, ‘stumble down the stairs…’
QRO: What about re-releasing Phages, or like putting the two together? Record the EP, and then put it out with Phages…
RL: Oh, I would love to do that! That’s a great idea! That would be a great idea, actually. I never even thought of that…
QRO: Released together, then it would be a full album.
RL: That’s right. That would be a very good idea, actually. Man…
QRO: You do that, and you have to give us credit for that…
RL: I will!
QRO: You were saying that Underwater Cinematographer and Population are really different. Do you think Phages is the ‘should have been’ link, the ‘missing link’? Had it been more popular, it wouldn’t have been as jarring a shift?
RL: Yes. It was our Rosetta Stone.
Like I said, these EP’s are very important to us, because they teach us lessons that we do. When you’re skipping, and you take that one ‘ghost skip’? You take what you learn, and you go, ‘Okay, this helps with the flow…’
Before we did Underwater Cinematographer, we did two EP’s under another band name. They just were basically for us. But we learned a lot from them, and we applied a lot of it into Underwater; it’s very clear. And then when we did Phages, we applied a lot of what we did into Population. It definitely would have been a lot easier for the listening public – if there was a listening public…
We’re not about moving around blindly. We like to take advance progressions and steps, slowly, and meticulously. But if you just listen to Underwater and you just listen to Population, I can see… I mean, it’s a drastic shift. And it’s not really going to make sense. And I think that’s what’s happened in a lot of cases, a lot of people went, ‘What the?…’
QRO: Reviews of Underwater, people were saying, ‘they’re the next Postal Service…’
RL: I think it’s another funny thing, because, I know that people have to make comparisons, especially in the media. It actually does us a huge favor, because last record, for Underwater, they said we sounded like Postal Service, and Stars, and Broken Social Scene, and Death Cab For Cutie. And those are all very popular bands. And while I don’t agree with any of them, I think that they probably helped our sales.
And I think with this record, the one we just finished, Population, people have been really focusing on the Broken Social Scene-thing. Very interesting to hear, because the people who are actually listening to the music aspect, they can clearly tell that it has nothing to do with, at all…
And that was in the early stages of the thing, when it would have most sounded like Broken Social Scene. They’ve been so incredibly supportive of this record…
But the differences are black and white.
QRO: You don’t think, the way, large collective-style band, same label, male-female dual vocals…
RL: You know what, you’re absolutely right. Aesthetically, in a very shallow sense: we’re both Canadian, we both have large ensembles, we come from Toronto, and we’re on the same label, I completely agree. On those levels, you might as well say we are Broken Social Scene.
QRO: But just that a band that has the same instruments, the same set-up as another band, are more likely to sound similar? As opposed to, you’re not going to sound like a hip-hop band or something. But also the thing with the male-female vocals…
RL: Well, does Nirvana sound like…
QRO: But you also have more complicated instrumentation than, like, Nirvana. There are more of those four-piece bands than there are of six- or seven-.
RL: Which is what confuses me. Because I don’t understand why a new, emerging, collective idea is being grouped together like sounding like one individual band. Rather than people commenting on, ‘Oh, you’re just a three-piece? Well, you sound just like a three-piece…’
QRO: Maybe having fewer members is more common, so people are more used to looking at differentiations between that, whereas larger…
RL: Well, Broken Social Scene works on a collective attitude where they think that, the more members on stage sort of thing, whereas we’re completely contrary.
QRO: No, yeah, Broken Social Scene has a metropole, with people added on; you’re not looking the same people at every single Broken Social Scene show playing on stage, whereas you guys, it’s the same seven people.
RL: There’s that, plus the fact that, the reason why we do have seven members is that we’re trying to recreate an orchestra as close as we possibly can.
It’s just so drastically different. I’m having a hard time dealing with the constant comparison. Everyone’s trying to tell me that two plus two equals five.
And I mean, when we’re both on the same label, and we’re best friends, and we’re laughing about the whole thing, because the world doesn’t seem to understand… It’s great when we’re in our clubhouse of Arts & Crafts, laughing at the whole thing, but it’s sort of frustrating, when we go out into the world, and we’re getting really, really lazy comparisons.
Population alone, we’ve had people say it sounds like Oasis?!? We’ve had people say it sounds like Radiohead?!? We’ve had people say it sounds like Death Cab, Broken Social Scene, Mars Volta?!?… And the list goes fuckin’ on. We add to it, ‘cause it’s hilarious. Every time we hear it, it’s hilarious. And I don’t know what all those bands would sound like in a blender. A lot of them contradict each other.
Probably the most recent, most popular one that I get is Yes, and in some cases, Wings. And you know what? To me, those make more sense than any modern-day equivalent.
I mean, look at Los Campesinos!, they’re on our label too. They’ve got seven members, they’ve got three females, and whatever. But you don’t have people saying that we sound like Los Campesinos!, or have people saying Los Campesinos! sound like Broken Social Scene.
QRO: Maybe it’s more people thinking of the collective ethos, thinking about them as people, as opposed to the instruments…
RL: But this is what troubles me, a lot. People are making these comparisons, but they’re not at all looking at the music; it’s all completely aesthetic and shallow comparisons. There are things that we’ve done that Broken Social Scene would never even attempt. And they have a sense of groove and pop mentality that we will never even try to go into.
We have different time signatures and keys, which they have never done. Global trade-offs and harmonies, intervals that they’ve never even thought of. That doesn’t make us better musicians, or them worse musicians; them better musicians, us worse musicians. It’s just that we work drastically different.
And they’re the ones that signed us, so…
QRO: Do you ever think, you talk about musical differences, to a layman’s ear, as opposed to a musician’s, maybe some of those differences don’t come out?
Also, trying to describe music, using words to describe, unless you’re actually singing the song, it’s a little hard.
RL: It’s not music critics that I care so much about. It’s the listener that bothers me the most.
Because, if you can back up anything you say, like, fully back it up, with full understanding and knowledge of music and all that sort of thing, I will have to concede. I will have to concede my point and say, ‘You know what, you’re absolutely right. We definitely sound like whatever…’
But there has been no intellectual discourse, at all. Just ‘what we say on a message board’ kind of thing. Which I don’t even get to, but it seems like the other media has actually picked up on that, and has started to just blindly accept that diatribe.
I feel bad for the people who want to hear Broken Social Scene when they come to our shows, let’s put it that way. ‘Cause we’re not going to play like, we’re not going to do anything like what they do. I would love people to come out with an open mind, to see what we’re about.
If you want to see Broken Social Scene, by all means, go see Broken Social Scene. That’s the band to see, if you want to see Broken Social Scene.
Like I said, it’s been fantastic, ‘cause Kevin & I talk a lot about his over the phone.
QRO: Do you think the story’s sort of gotten a life of it’s own? It’s not your fault if they’re thinking a certain thing, but you still feel a little of the reaction?
‘Cause, like I said, Kevin, basically our family, and there are a select few out there who I know that listen to it on that level.
Just saying that we sound like Broken Social Scene is hilarious. Like, we have that inside joke. But I just don’t understand this two plus two equals five mentality.
The Most Serene Republic playing “Career In Shaping Clay” live @ Maxwell's, Hoboken, NJ, on September 22nd, 2007: