Ryan Lenssen of The Most Serene Republic : Q&A, Part II

<img src="http://www.qromag.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/12/themostsereneinterview2.jpg" alt=" " />In the second part of his interview, Ryan Lenssen makes “the most asshole comment I’ve ever said.”...

  In addition to taking on the layman listener, he talks about his classical influences, why The Most Serene Republic employs different time signatures, how hard it was to make Population (QRO review) – and why that’s a good thing, not premiering new stuff on the road, the video for “The Men Who Live Upstairs”, some of the special spots they’ve hit up on this tour (good and bad), and much, much more…

QRO: But do you think, for your more layman listener, who maybe don’t get it on every single level, not that they should say it sounds like this thing or that, but they enjoy it their own way?

RL: This is going to come off as the most asshole comment I’ve ever said, but we don’t make music for the layman listener.  I’m not interested in the layman listener.  I’m interested in listeners who are active listeners, participants.

The whole reason why the whole music industry has gone to shit in the first place is because of the layman listener.  They’re not discerning enough; they don’t care about art at all.  They like their medicine, and they like their entertainment, but they have no fucking clue when it comes to art.

And, in a lot of ways, I think we got in the wrong field.  I went to school, and I’ve been writing incidental music and classical performances, specifically of the high romantic period of the 1920’s.  That’s where I wanted to go, that’s where I wanted to fill out.  Doing music like this, like what we’re doing, in the setting that we’re doing it, to the people that are listening to us, is sort of the wrong venue, because it’s impossible to escape from fashion in this venue.  It’s impossible to escape from the layman listener.  It’s impossible to break new ground without being called on it constantly, in a way that, ‘Oh, you’re being pretentious’ or ‘Oh, you’re being arrogant.’

But what I think people really need to realize is that the best artists of all time broke those rules, didn’t care about being pretentious, didn’t care about arrogance or anything like that.  They just knew that what they were doing was a completely reflection of the communication they wanted to get across to the populace.

And that is the most important thing, when you’re an artist.  Not tight jeans, not studded belts, not how popular your MySpace is, Facebook, or any shit like that.  Being an artist is not social.  It is the most introverted thing you can possibly do that other people just happen to walk in on.

And you know what?  I have no doubt that, if you do put that in your piece, people are going to immediately go, ‘He’s an asshole; he’s a dick.’  But you know what?  Look at Van Gogh, look at Stravinsky, look at Beethoven, look at Mozart, look at Brahms, Shostakovich, Mahler, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Wagner…  I mean, go back and look at the most important names in music that ever existed, and they were all people who were not altruists; they were objectivists.  Because they were so wrapped up in their own form of communication and their own form of self-expression that they could care less about what was going on in art around them.  They could care less.

And that’s what happened when we did our first record.  We were coming out of art degrees at university.  We were suppressed in university; I was getting shit marks because I didn’t want to do the fuckin’ fugue over and over and over again.  I studied Baroque all my goddamn career, and I said, “No!  Enough with this!  I’m gonna try this.”  And there’s no reason I should be penalized for innovation.

Whether or not what we’re doing is ‘the next thing’…  You know, serialism in music happened.  It’s not what I listen to, but I’m glad it happened.  I’m glad that Schoenberg took that step.  He went, ‘You know, I’m gonna try serialism.’  And did this crazy-ass form of music that no one liked, and it was important.  It was important to music.  Same thing happened with jazz.  Those first steps were very important; a lot of people didn’t like it.  Serialism, we don’t listen to today, but it was still important.

I’m trying to validate my point, which is to say that, we get penalized for innovation a lot.  A lot of people think we have a lot of ideas, but we don’t string them together properly.  But we throw structure out of the window on a purpose.  I can’t sit down and write a pop song, I can’t do A-B-B-A.  It’s boring; it’s boring.  I prefer true composed music.  I prefer incidental, cinematic music, music that flows with you, and shares with you; it dances with you.  It’s not always four/four.

The reason why we do five/four and all these different time signatures is to convey certain emotions.  There’s nothing that will get you more anxious than a five/four beat going, or a five/eight beat, for example, going at 140 B.P.M.  That’s fuckin’ fastand it’s stilted.  So it’s gonna get anxious, because the whole idea of 120 B.P.M. is directly connected to the heartbeat.  120 B.P.M. is the most standard thing that you can ever hear.

And that’s not inspiring anymore.  That’s been done for years upon years and years.  But why not attempt to go to the z-axis, which hasn’t been explored yet, especially in modern-day music?  You’ve got a bunch of prog bands doing a bunch of technical shit, but that’s not about conveying emotion; that’s just about wankery.

What we’re trying to do is use modern-day music, pop music, but take it to an orchestral level, where it’s not just the y- and the x-axis, but we’re also adding the time element as well, to affect your emotions.

For example, on the song “Phages”, it’s in thirteen.  It’s supposed to show the example of how awkward we are.  Because Phages was a record about us getting into the music industry for the first time ever, and being completely disoriented, and then trying to find our ground.  And that’s what thirteen is all about; that’s what that whole point is.  It’s awkward, and it displays our sort of ‘misunderstanding’ about what’s going on.  And then finally, we get our step, and that turns into a three.  It’s never going to be a four, because that four would mean that we’re in-step with them.

That’s what that song was trying to get across.  But, of course, that’s never been picked up upon, I don’t think.  I don’t think I’ve ever saw anyone actually say, ‘Oh, that’s what they were trying to say.’  They go, ‘Oh, they sound like Broken Social Scene…’

QRO: What was making Population like?

RL: A hellhole.  It was hell.

Listening to Underwater, it was brutal.  We had that record to live up to, and then we did Phages, and we had that record to live up to.  But it was too late to go back to an Underwater formula because we’d already done Phages; we’d already learned too much. 

We’d already exposed ourselves to the world in a very naked, real way.  But the funny thing is, like I said, no one noticed.

So, we didn’t go in with any ego at all.  Once again, we had an ability to go into this record without having an ego.  A lot of people talk about this record as arrogant or pretentious, but it’s the exact opposite; it’s the lack of ego, completely.  We did what we thought we had to do, period, because we thought no one was listening, yet again.  And that allowed us to be able to zigzag around, go all over the place.

The record was difficult; we had to record it three times.  The first time, it wasn’t there, second time, almost there, third time, finally.  And then it took two months to mix.  It took just over a year and two months to do the whole record, and every note is a drop of sweat, it’s pain.

It’s the most difficult thing we’ve had to do to-date, and I think that’s the only way it can be.  I would hope that you would never interview me, and I would say, ‘Oh, the record was a breeze.’  Because that means we’re not working hard.

This is another thing.  I was asked by another guy, he said, “Do you consider yourself musicians or artists?”  And I just get blown away.  I just don’t understand these questions.  I grew up in a very different world, clearly, because art and music should never have been separated in the first place.  But when you’re being exposed to these kind of questions, I’m lost; I don’t know how to answer this.

Are you serious?  If you’re a musician, you should be an artist.  If you’re not, then you’re a performer; you’re an entertainer.  But those are two different things, you know.  So, when you’re working on a record, it better be difficult.  It better be the hardest thing you’ve ever done, up until then.  Because if it’s not, then what are you doing?  You’re not moving music forward; you’re not moving yourself forward.  You’re just sorta sitting back and playing a record, and what good is that?

I mean, the reason why we had to do the record, record it three times in two different studios, is because we weren’t good enough yet.  The material was far better than we were, as players, and as musicians, so we to work for it; we had to fuckin’ sweat, and cry, and burn ourselves, you know?  It’s serious

And now, doing it every night, it’s just as serious.  You’ve got a bunch of chances in the studio; you don’t have chances on the road.  We’ve had to improvise and rework.  Myself, Tony [Nesbitt-Larking, drums], Simon [Lukasewich, bass]… we had to really rely on our jazz backgrounds, to be able to perform the shit live every night.  Because shit always goes in a weird way, because of all of the time signature shifts and all that stuff, you have to be on your toes on all time with this material.

I would love to have a record that we could just get up and play and rock out.  But we don’t; we don’t make music like that.

And I say ‘love’, but if that were to ever happen, then it would be…

QRO: You’d love the easiness of it; you’d love the side benefit, not the actual thing…

RL: Yeah, because it would be completely contradictory to all my ideals as a musician.

QRO: Did you feel a lot of pressure, after Underwater Cinematographer, because it got a lot of favorable press, both in terms of you, like you were saying, being so different, and just, there’s more people who know who we are, there’s more paying attention?

RL: Yes, there was definitely that pressure there.  But we did it all in Milton [a suburb of Toronto], and there, no one cares who we are.  It only matters when we go to Toronto some times, or…  When we’re on tour, there’s definitely more people who know who we are than when we’re at home.  And it’s great

QRO: Sort of the farther away you get from home…

RL: Yes, exactly, actually: the further we are away from home, the more people recognize us and care.

It’s actually okay when you’re at home; you don’t really think about that.  You just go to the millpond…

QRO: Do you have any new, post-Population material written?

RL: Yeah.

QRO: Do you play any of it live?

RL: No.  I don’t like debuting stuff like that.

QRO: Do you prefer to get it right in the studio?

RL: Hearing our music for the first time can be a jarring experience.  If you’ve never heard of us before, and you go to see a show, sometimes it can wash over you and everything works out great.  Other times, depending on who you are and what background you have, musically, it can be a very jarring experience, and I find that that is not a good way too…

QRO: It’s already jarring.

RL Right.  I would never go to see The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky without listening to his recordings many times.  It just wouldn’t make sense; I wouldn’t have any concept.

I mean, the references go on: Romeo & Juliet, Prokofiev – Stravinsky’s Romeo & Juliet – it just goes on and on.  Or Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet, too…  But you can’t just walk into them and go, ‘I think this is gonna to be fantastic.’  You really do have to prepare yourself for music.  And I think it’s better for us to get it down, in the studio, and allow people to breathe it for a while, and sort of get the ebbs and flows of the piece, before they get into a live setting, where it might be slightly different.

Because, like I said, we do change things up, consistently.  As far as the record’s concerned, at any given moment, there could be thirty, forty channels of instruments going on.  Whereas, in the live setting, we have seven mikes, so we have to really balance what we’re doing, strip down, and in some cases, change parts entirely.  So you have to be familiar, or else it’s not going to make a lot of sense.

QRO: Is it difficult for all seven of you, traveling together?

RL: Well, we travel eight, right now.  And when we have a tour manager, or a sound guy, it can get up to nine.  And we’re traveling in a fifteen-person van, so it can be pretty tight sometimes.  Especially on those long hauls…

QRO: Have you played some stages that were a ‘tight fit’?

RL: Oh, yeah.  Prince Edward Island.  You can imagine; not only a small island, but also a small venue…

QRO: How much state support do you get from the Canadian government?

RL: Actually, pretty decent.  If you’re gonna compete at all with the States, not on an ‘artistic’ level but rather a ‘marketing’ level, you’re gonna need help from the government.  You’re gonna need help, monetarily.

Canada recognizes the fact that there is a lot of legitimate art coming out of that, that they would like to support.  And it’s investment for them; let’s not mince ideas.

QRO: A lot of Canadian musicians are having visa/border issues, getting into the States – Miracle Fortress couldn’t play that CMJ show at the Bowery with you guys, because they were stopped at the border.  Have you guys ever had that problem?

RL: No, we make sure we get our shit together. 

If you don’t have your shit together and get stopped at the border, it’s your own fucking fault.

  It’s not difficult, you just get your shit together and it’s okay.  You prepare for a test, you prepare for a tour.

QRO: At Maxwell’s (QRO venue review) back in September, Adrian Jewett went into the crowd, during an instrumental part, and watched the band for a bit.  Is that a usual thing?

RL: No, it doesn’t always happen.  I think it’s a demonstration of our objectivity, and I think it’s also just dickin’ around.  So choose the most apt answer…

QRO: On October 23rd, you guys played on MTV.  What was that like?

RL: Uh… Sort of like an important show.  It was just a more stressful regular show, I think.  It wasn’t that big of a deal.  I don’t think anything’s going to come from it.

They’ve been nice to us, MTV Canada, but I don’t think they’re going to ‘break’ us.  It’s sort of hard to break an act made out of titanium.

QRO: How did shooting the video for “The Men Who Live Upstairs” go?

RL: Good, it was fun.  It was the first time we really had a say, as far as concept and direction goes.  So it got to be a little bit more interactive with the process, and I think it came off as being more genuine.

QRO: Where did the idea of the nineteenth century, pseudo-gothic look of the video come from?

RL: That came from the story about Stravinsky’s first showing of The Rite of Spring, in which the audience broke out into a riot.

Actually, it started with the first note of the piece, which was the impossible note, which was the high C on the bassoon, in which a man, a French man, stood up and said, “Ce impossiblé!”  That became ‘the impossible note’.  It’s out of the range of the bassoon, but if you’re an incredible player, you can squeeze a C out of the bassoon.

Anyway, ‘impossible note’, another guy said, ‘This is art’, and the other guy said, ‘This is the devil’s work’ – you know, religion – and they got into a big riot.  The story goes that Stravinsky had to leap out of a rear window into a waiting cab.  Now, we didn’t get that, we didn’t have a big enough budget for that.  But that’s what it’s based upon.

Chris Grismer came in with the idea of making it a more visual representation of the differences between those who are more willing and open to accepting of art and those who are less open – and probably, for that matter, less educated – are unwilling to accept art, and are infected with a form of hate.

And that’s what that was supposed to be.  It wasn’t a biological thing, in anyway.  It was a visual representation, manifestation.

QRO: Are there any that you don’t like playing live, just don’t play anymore, or can’t, because of the arrangement?

RL: Now with Phages, and with Population, and with the upcoming material, there are some songs that are not as grand live, and they are best suited for a record experience.  And so there is no real reason, or need, for us to…

But, I mean, if people were to request anything, I think we would be able to play it.  It’s just a matter of how we want to best represent ourselves on stage for any given show.

QRO: What cities or venues have you really liked from this tour?

RL: Well, on this tour, Salt Lake City was great, Chicago was great.  We haven’t–

Nick Greaves (guitar): Except for Pittsburgh…

RL: Wait, what was Pittsburgh again?

NG: The sketchiest area…

Emma Ditchburn (vocals/guitar): The art place… [Garfield Artworks]

RL: That was still a good show, though.

NG: It was still a good show.  Just the area…

RL: But, I don’t know, like I said, in the States, we’ve been pretty lucky; everything’s been pretty good.  The crowd’s have been receptive.  It’s just Red Deer [Alberta] – was it Red Deer?

Sean Woolven (guitar): No, it was Fernie [British Columbia].

RL: Fernie in Canada.  That was rough, that was rough.  But everything else was okay.  Red Deer was a little rough, too.  I mean, the crowd was great, but it was rough.

QRO: Are there any places you haven’t been to yet that you want to go to?

RL: We’re planning on going to Japan in the new year, and that’s probably the last place…

QRO: Is Population out, coming out in Japan?

RL: Yep, it is indeed.

NG: Yeah, probably around the new year, sometime.

QRO: Do you have a favorite tour story?

RL: None that I can say…

The Most Serene Republic playing Compliance live @ Maxwell's, Hoboken, NJ, on September 22nd, 2007:

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