Over the course of the exchange, he discussed what the band has been doing in the studio for their long-awaited debut full-length, what’s changed since last year’s A Lesson In Crime EP, glockenspiel vs. theremin vs. Optigan, touring too much, moshing, being a Canadian band in the days of the strong Canadian dollar, where to put “Cheer It On” in the set-list, and having the worst luck with vans, and much, much, more…
QRO: You guys just got out of the studio?
Graham Wright: Yes, were just in the studio for three weeks, and we’re out now to do the tour, but we’re not finished – we’re going back in again. When we finish the tour, I think we’re gonna do just another two weeks just at home, doing some more writing and polishing and all that fun stuff, and then, after that, we’re going to go back to the studio for another couple of weeks and wrap up.
QRO: Do you have all the new material written, or are you going to write some new stuff as well?
GW: More or less, everything’s done. We have ten new songs that are pretty much in the bag, and are almost fully recorded, too, but we’re kind of thinking we want to have a couple more, maybe one or two more at least, to stretch things out a bit. So we’re definitely going try to come up with a couple more songs, but if we don’t, then we do have ten songs.
QRO: How has this studio time been different than when you made A Lesson In Crime EP?
GW: ‘How’s it the same?’ would be a better question, and the answer would be, ‘Not at all.’
When we went into A Lesson In Crime, first of all, we had no budget, so we could only afford to record for three days. So beforehand, we tracked it, finished all the songs, knew it inside and out, every chord perfectly, went into the studio and just knocked off seven songs as they were, nothing changed, nothing got added or taken away, and that was what was there.
For this record, because of the label, we could afford to have time in the studio, and also, because we’ve been so busy touring since the EP came out, we hadn’t really had time to write a lot of material. So we went into the studio with a lot of uncertainty. When we went into the studio there was one song that was fully completed, and even it ended up getting changed.
It’s just such a vastly different process, just writing in the studio, coming up with stuff, having the luxury of time to try stuff out, and try to make it work if it doesn’t work. So I think the result is definitely a different-sounding record.
QRO: Will any of the songs from the digitally released Smith EP and/or “Your English Is Good” non-album single be on the new record?
GW: No. Those are old songs, really.
It’s funny, the order we’ve released our material so far has been reversed. When A Lesson In Crime came out, we’d just written all those songs, and we had some older songs, and then some of the older songs came out on the Smith EP and “Your English Is Good”, which is like our oldest song, is the most recent thing we’ve released.
I think it would feel really weird, and I think really wrong, in the middle of all this new material that’s been written by people in different circumstances, and I think the writing reflects that we’ve grown as musicians and as people, to stick some two-year old song in there, I think, would be completely out of place.
QRO: Why did you release the older stuff later?
GW: It was just a matter of, when we went into the EP, we didn’t record them, and then we needed a b-side for our U.K. release, we needed a bonus track for the U.K. album, and we had those songs, and we really liked them. We always did them live, and they got a good response. So we thought, ‘Well, these songs are ready-made,’ so we went in and recorded them, and they came in in different ways, and they just got compiled onto this Smith EP now, because they weren’t properly released in North America, and we wanted people to get their hands on them (legally).
“Your English Is Good”, how it originated was, our U.K. label was saying, ‘There’s nothing going on right now, you put on the EP, you’re not putting out the record for a while, and you’re not really able to come tour here all the time, because it’s so expensive…’ So they wanted something to sort of ‘keep the word moving’, keep our presence there, and so they suggested doing a single, and we happened to have “Your English Is Good”, which is a song that we tried to record two times before, never successfully, but when we played it live, we always got a really good response. It’s definitely the most straightforward ‘pop’ song that we’ve done, and so we thought that it would probably be good to put as a single, and so we went into the studio one more time and we managed to get it right, and then we just released on 7” and on the internet.
QRO: Why did you bring in a glockenspiel for one of your new songs?
GW: With the extra time that we’ve had, to do the record, we used the time to try out more instruments. We are very easily bored by what we’re doing. We never want to do the exact same thing twice, it just doesn’t appeal to us, we get sick of it. And so part of that is bringing in new instruments and different textures, just to try out something that we’ve never done before.
And the glockenspiel is an instrument that we’ve been trying to write with for ages. We bought this dinky little cheap one a year ago, and tried to write songs, and it never worked out. But then, this time, we had a few songs that we thought could have some cool glockenspiel parts on them. So we ordered one, and we got it delivered, and sure enough, we managed to put it on a couple of songs.
It’s a great instrument. Unfortunately, it’s probably going to invite a lot of Arcade Fire comparisons, which I don’t really think are warranted. They certainly weren’t the first band to ever use glockenspiel, but they’re probably the best band to ever use glockenspiel.
It’s a really unique sounding instrument. It has a very haunting texture to it in some cases, and then in other cases, it can just be really poppy and twinkly. We have one song that we’ve recorded that, at the beginning, it’s just glockenspiel and singing, and it has this really weird, haunting quality to it that I really like, and another song, where it plays some catchy little hook riff in the middle, where it just adds to the poppy-ness of the song. So it’s kind of a versatile instrument, in a weird way.
QRO: Are you the one who plays the glockenspiel?
GW: I played it on one song, and I think Dave’s [monks, singer/bassist] played it on another song.
QRO: How do you translate that into when you’re live, just to determine who plays what instruments?
GW: That’s a good question; we haven’t had to really deal with that yet. Like I said before, with A Lesson In Crime, nobody was playing anything except their own instrument on that, so everyone could go to it live very easily.
On this, we’re gonna have to figure out a way to do it, and I expect the way will be that everyone will sort of be doing three things at once. My favorite thing to do is put lots of cool stuff on your record, and then try and play it all live. I always love watching a band where everybody’s running back and forth, their arms crossed over, trying to play two things at once. I think it’s really cool to watch; I think it’s really fun to do, if you can pull it off. So I expect it will be something like that.
And then, sometimes, you just have to lose a part. You sort of have to look at the song and say, ‘Okay, there’s six parts here, we can only play five of them between the four of us, so we’re just gonna have to pick one part that’s not going to be played live.’ Which kind of sucks, but sometimes, you have to do it. And then you just do the song in it’s own sort of ‘live incarnation’.
QRO: What about the new songs you played on the last tour – how did you know who plays what?
GW: All of those versions we played on that tour, pretty much, no longer exist in the way that they were played.
We were going on tour again, and it was a lot of places that we’d toured before, and we didn’t just want to go back and play the exact same songs again. So we got together and knocked out some new songs, but they just ended up being working versions of the songs that we could play live, and that would help us on the road to finishing the songs, but nothing really ended up being a completed version. So stuff changed a lot.
QRO: Do you use any other new, ‘unusual’ instruments, like an accordion?
GW: Dave’s been playing around with the accordion; we haven’t actually recorded it anything on it yet, ‘cause it’s got kind of a weird sound.
Other stuff? We used some working bass pedals, and a grand, big bass, on a couple of songs that sound real cool.
There’s this weird thing called the ‘Optigan’. It’s this old instrument; it was actually a toy when it was released, it was made by Mattel. It just has this really warbly, old, kind of ‘out of tune’ sound; it’s just my favorite thing in the world. I tried to use it on every song; I think I ended up using it on just about two.
That’s something that we won’t be able to use live, because the studio owns it, and they’re also really rare, really fragile. I’m gonna miss having that sound, but I’ll figure something out.
QRO: No theremin?
GW: There’s a theremin in the studio, but that damn thing is impossible to play; I don’t know how anyone can even do it.
We went in, and we saw the theremin there, and we were all like, ‘Yeah, theremin, sweet! Let’s use it.’ And, one-by-one, everyone went up, trying to play the beautiful “Good Vibrations” melody that they were certain they could do, and it was just like, “WHAH-whah-WHAH”. If you’re not playing it right, it’s just the most aggravating sound in the world. We gave up on it pretty quick.
QRO: What drew you to Saddle Creek Records?
GW: They were just really the perfect home for us at this point.
We talked to a lot of labels, we talked to some really big labels, some really small labels, and all of those, on either extreme, there’s pros and cons, but Saddle Creek really took the pros of both sides and mixed them together in to one really perfect situation.
We love all the people there; we love what they’ve released so far. We’re really excited about what we think the potential is for us on Saddle Creek.
QRO: After how well A Lesson In Crime has been received, do you have any fear of a ‘sophomore jinx’ with your upcoming LP?
GW: It’s always in the back of mind. I try not to worry about it too much, just because there’s nothing we can really do about it; I don’t want to get too preoccupied. But it’s always there.
So when we put out his record, we’re really going to live and die by whether or not people like the record. I think people will like the record, we like the record, but at the same time, it’s not just like the EP, it’s a little bit different, and it’s entirely possible that people won’t like us anymore. If that’s what happens, then, we did our best, and we can ride happily off into the sunset, mission accomplished. But I hope that’s not what’s going to happen.
QRO: You just started a new tour last week. Only two months ago, you finished your last tour, and you were at a number of festivals in between. Why such an extensive schedule?
GW: Good question.
First of all, touring is the only way to make money. So obviously, you have to tour to work as a musician.
Beyond that, we continued to have new opportunities as we’ve gone. We put out the EP, we did a tour, then did another tour. But because it really built slowly and organically, it just kept on happening that, ‘Oh, we just played this place, but now, there’s all these new people,’ because the radio station started playing you in Boston or wherever, so better go back there and play for those people. It’s this contiguous thing.
I kind of think that we’ve probably toured a little too much. We haven’t overstayed our welcome; I’m always worried that people are gonna get sick of us, coming back and playing the same songs again. So far, we’re okay.
And on this particular tour, we’re doing a lot of cities that we haven’t done in a while. We did Chicago for Lollapalooza, but the last time we really did a headlining show in Chicago, it was in November, last November. So it’s been a while. L.A. we were at just really recently, and then we’re going back again, which is kind of weird, and I don’t really understand, but…
But we just get itineraries from our manager and our agent, and say, ‘Okay, sounds good.’
QRO: How were all the festivals – and did you have any particular favorite?
GW: Festivals are great! I love playing festivals – I think they’re one of my favorite ways to play.
It’s just such a cool atmosphere, all these music fans coming out together, there’s so many people. Whatever your normal-sized crowd is, you can play to a crowd ten times that size at a festival, which is awesome.
Lollapalooza was a really big deal for me, ‘cause we got to play on the Main Stage; it was the biggest crowd we’ve ever played to. We did a music fest in Toronto, which is obviously great, ‘cause that’s our hometown; it was cool to be able to do that big, outdoor thing in Toronto, where we all live.
All the U.K. festivals were great. They’ve been doing festivals longer over there, I guess, so they’re really good at it; everything runs really smoothly, and it’s just a really pleasurable experience to do all those U.K. and European ones.
But we haven’t really done any festivals which I haven’t enjoyed; they’re all really great.
QRO: At your Maxwell’s (QRO venue review) show in Hoboken, NJ, there was a ‘mosh-pit’. Have you ever had to face that before?
GW: Really, really, rarely.
It’s happened, but it’s weird, it tends to happen in smaller places, for us at least. I’m not sure what that is. Maxwell’s is a pretty small place, and there’s not a lot of cities where we play places that are quite that small, so it doesn’t happen very often.
I never know what to do. Because, when I’m at a concert, I don’t like it when that happens. I just stand and watch the show, and mind my own business. I’m never sure if I should say something, ‘cause you don’t want anybody to get hurt, and you don’t want anyone who doesn’t want to be there, having to be sort of stuck in that. But at the same time, if everyone’s enjoying themselves, you don’t want to ruin everyone’s fun.
From my perspective at Maxwell’s, which is admittedly mostly behind my keyboards, it seemed okay. We’ve done shows before where we have said something, where it just seemed like things were just getting a little bit out of control, and obviously, you don’t want that to happen. To some degree, it’s your responsibility to make sure everybody respects each other.
Basically, you want everyone in the crowd to have a really good time.
I think you can have more fun standing still, against your will, then you can, getting pushed around and beat up against your will.
In a perfect world, I would sort of have people avoid the moshing altogether, but…
QRO: Back in March, you guys played on stage with the Cold War Kids and Delta Spirit, in one giant group, a couple of times. What was all that like?
GW: It was really fun. The way that our music is is very strict. When we play live, we have to adhere to what we’ve written, and obey the songs. The style of music we write, I don’t think there’s really a lot of room for extended jams or improvisation.
And that’s great; that suits us, that’s how we play, and it’s cool. But it was really fun, for a few nights, to let loose, and not know what was going to happen next. To be surrounded by people banging on drums, and have no idea if anyone knew there was a chord change in a minute, or if anyone cared, and sort of letting yourself get swept up in that weird, inspirational, pseudo-‘drum circle’ kind of weird thing on stage.
For me, it was just a really magical experience. I hate to use that word, ‘cause it sounds really lame, but that’s the best word I can use to describe it.
QRO: How much state support have you gotten, as Canadian musicians?
GW: Um… A lot?
The Canadian government is awesome at helping out musicians and stuff. They’ll pay for music videos, they’ll give you– they don’t pay for you to go on tour, but they’ll contribute towards it. Same with recording.
Especially at the beginning of your career, it’s just really essential, to helping bands who want to go out on tour, want to make a record, but can’t take time off their jobs, can’t borrow the money from their parents or whatever to do it. And all of a sudden, you have this opportunity, because there’s someone in there saying, ‘You guys need a leg up, and we’re willing to help with it.’
I think it’s really great. I think it’s important to a country, to have that cultural stability, and to encourage growth in music – and there’s also programs for film, and for art, and whatever, in Canada as well. I think a lot of it’s because Canada’s always sort of struggling to stay afloat, when the whole media’s saturated with American stuff.
They don’t just give it to anyone – you have to apply, and you have to be approved by a board and stuff. I guess they just want to give people that have a chance to get some success, to have a better chance.
And I think the results speak for themselves: if you look in the last five years, suddenly a whole lot of really amazing bands came from Canada. Probably the best band in the world right now, except for Radiohead, is the Arcade Fire. Just came out of Montreal.
We actually just watched them from the stage at the Reading Festival. It’s amazing to see – Watching a band like that just makes we want to give up.
QRO: A lot of Canadian musicians are having visa issues, getting into the States. Have you?
GW: No. We have been really careful, getting our paperwork and stuff. ‘Cause we’ve had friends who’ve been caught trying to sneak through the border and have just been screwed, banned from the States for five years or something.
QRO: You Say Party, We Say Die (QRO album review)…
Yeah, that’s who I’m referring to. That’s not quite a death sentence, but it makes things really damn hard. All of a sudden, you have this huge, giant, territory that you can’t tap anymore. Nobody wants to put any record in the States, ‘cause you can’t support it.
What You Say Party is doing is they have to tour Canada, then they tour Europe, then go back and tour Canada. And they’re making a go of it, and they working really hard, and it’s well deserved. But I can’t imagine suddenly being cut off from that, so we’ve always just been really careful to make sure that we’re properly documented, totally legit – We’re always very plain and nice, when we go through the border.
QRO: How has the strong loony [Canadian dollar] been affecting you in the states?
GW: Well, this is our first tour with the strong loony. I just bought a pair of headphones tonight, because I could. Other than that, we can gloat at all our American friends, which is great.
It used to be, you’d go on an American tour and get paid, and then come back and change the money, and be like, ‘Alright!’ You get bonus whatever, because of the exchange rate, but now it’s sort of the opposite, which is unfortunate.
QRO: How was making the video for “Cheer It On”?
GW: We actually didn’t get a government grant, when we applied for it, for that video. We knew a guy who was willing to do it, for free, just drove to Syracuse, New York, and shot ourselves performing in a field. But then it turned out that [Canadian music video program] Much Music wouldn’t play it, because it didn’t have a Canadian director, wasn’t shot in Canada, to fulfill their CanCon requirement.
And then we did get a Factor grant, for the same song, and we were like, “Um… We don’t want to shoot another video.” ‘Cause shooting videos kind of sucks – it’s not productive. You can’t do it when you’re on tour, so basically you have to take a day or two out of your time off and go mime playing an instrument for twelve hours in a warehouse or something.
So we were like, “We’ll make a video, but we don’t want to have to be in it.” So we sent that out to a few directors, and got their treatments back, and Sean, who did the video, was the one that we liked the most.
To be perfectly honest, when I started shooting for the video, I was like, ‘Eh, okay, whatever.’ I didn’t really expect anything to come out of it. But then we went and he did and he made it and I saw it and I thought it was great.
All of the credit for that video goes to Sean, who directed it. We had nothing to with it, other than being too lazy to do it ourselves.
QRO: Do you feel like, live, you have to start off with “Cheer It On”?
GW: No. I don’t feel like we have to. We were actually just discussing when we were playing a second night in Chicago, and we didn’t want to play the same set we did [the night before].
The problem with “Cheer It On” is that it’s really hard to place anywhere else in the set. It kind of only makes sense if you play it first, or else, you play a song, and then you start yelling about operators, and it makes no sense. Usually what happens with “Cheer It On” is if we don’t do it as the first song, we save it and do it as the encore, if one is warranted.
Because of that, it’s really restrictive in terms of changing up the set-list and sort of playing with.
Once the record’s coming out, and we go on that tour, and people are familiar with more songs, we’ll have a lot more freedom, in terms of switching out the openers and whatever. I’m looking forward to that.
So we have some new songs that would be really cool to start with, but starting with a song that no one knows is a really risky proposition. Especially when you follow it with four more songs that no one knows.
QRO: Back in April, you played on Late Show with David Letterman. What was that like?
GW: It was cool. I mean, TV’s weird. There’s a lot of time spent waiting, and then all of a sudden, someone’s right besides you, and they’re shepherding you upstairs. And then you’re playing the song, and then, before you know it, you’re back down in the dressing room, and you totally don’t even remember you were just on stage. It’s two minutes of music, and it’s just a weird way to do it.
And then it’s followed by hours of nervous anticipation, while you wait to see yourself on TV, ‘cause you have no idea how it went. That night, when we actually got to sit down and watch the show, we were so relieved and happy to see it. I was actually happy with it; I thought it turned out good.
QRO: Are there any songs you really like playing live?
GW: It always changes.
I really like playing “If It Works”, because it’s really simple for me, so I can just jump around and make a fool of myself without having to worry about what notes I’m playing. “Be Good” is always fun. It’s the last song, I love it; it’s one of my favorite songs that we have. I’m able to just knock it out and enjoy myself playing it.
QRO: Are there any that you don’t like playing live, or just don’t play anymore?
GW: There’s no songs that we don’t play anymore, because we don’t have enough songs for that luxury.
The song “Cut Cut Paste” that’s on the Smith EP, I love the song, but for some reason, I just never really liked playing it live. But everyone else really likes it, and the audience seems to enjoy it, so I can suck it up and enjoy myself.
All of my complaints about anything in the set sort of disappear as soon as we get on stage and we’re actually playing in front of a crowd, ‘cause then everything’s fun.
QRO: What cities have you really liked playing at?
GW: Chicago is amazing, the city is really beautiful, and the crowds are awesome. Toronto, obviously, is great for us.
New York City, I used to love, but then I think I built it up too much in my mind, ‘cause I loved it after a few shows and I just assumed every show we played there would be great, but then we did a couple of shows there that weren’t great, and now I don’t know anymore. But the last show we had there was really good, so we’ll see. And New York’s also a great place to hang out in, just because it’s New York and it’s so great.
L.A. is also great to visit, and we usually have pretty good shows there.
QRO: Are you going to any new places on this upcoming western North America tour?
GW: Yeah, we’re going to Las Vegas, where I’ve never been before, which is exciting, but would be more exciting if I was 21, so could actually see something. I’m not really interested in hitting the casinos and gambling my money away, but I would be really interested in going to the casinos and seeing it, but unfortunately, I can’t really experience that.
QRO: You recently opened for Bloc Party at WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden, but now you’re back to headlining. Which do you prefer?
GW: Hard to say. I mean, headlining is awesome, obviously, because everyone’s there to see you – well, most people are there to see you – and just have that sort of feeling of it being your show, and being onstage, playing to crowd that are really there for you, and the crowd’s are generally better.
But opening for bands is nice because, it’s always fun to have a challenge, to try and win over crowds, and when you do win over crowds, they’re way bigger, especially when you’re opening for someone like Bloc Party, who are playing at 5,000-seat venues.
Also, it’s always kinda cool to relax after your set, and have built-in entertainment. When you’re headlining, the whole night is building up to you, and it’s not really ‘stressful’, but you can never really relax, because you have to do a show. When you’re opening for a band, you go, you do a show, then it’s over, then you watch the next band; it’s really relaxing.
Opening can suck if you’re opening for a band that’s not that much bigger than you. It’s nice to open for a band that’s playing huge venues, ‘cause there’s lots of room, but if you’re opening for a band that’s playing smaller venues, you’re really rushing you stuff onto the stage, rushing your stuff off of the stage.
I can never tell what I prefer. I think I like opening for Bloc Party. That seems to be a lot of fun.
QRO: What is your favorite tour story?
GW: My favorite tour story to tell, they’re not exactly ‘fond memories’, but we’ve had the worst luck with vans, ever.
It’s many long stories, but to shorten it up, our old van broke down in Tennessee, so we had to ditch it. And then we rented a van for a couple of days, but then – and this is, I think, the biggest regret of my life – we decided to buy a van in New Jersey, instead of waiting until we got home to Canada.
So we bought our van, and it’s a great van, and we were all really happy about it, until we realized that we couldn’t just drive it merrily back into Canada; we had to import it. And that was just the biggest fiasco…
We got to the border, and we’d thought we’d covered our bases, but then it turned out that we had to send the title to American customs and have them approve it, and we hadn’t done that. So then we had to leave the van at a lot in Niagara Falls, and take a taxi back to Toronto. And we were carrying all out equipment across this huge, long bridge.
So we did that, and Greg and I had to do this horrible drive up, on one of our days off, to go pick up the van. So we got it, brought it back, we sent in the title, everything was good, but then it turned out that you actually had to go to American customs first, by the time we found this out, American customs was closed.
We had to take another taxi back to Toronto, and then Josh [Hook, guitarist] had to go up, and then something else happened. Eventually we finally got everything done, we got the van into Canada, it was great, but then it turned out that we needed to get the van all this stuff to get the van licensed in Ontario, and we couldn’t get the stuff for 72 hours after we ordered it, so we had to rent another van to tour in.