Ryan Lenssen of The Most Serene Republic

<img src="http://www.qromag.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/themostserenerepublicinterview.gif" alt=" " />Finishing up their special ‘preview’ tour for the upcoming <i>…And the Ever Expanding Universe</i>, The Most Serene Republic’s keyboardist/producer Ryan Lenssen sat down with QRO....

  After a rather contentious meeting with Lenssen a year-and-a-half ago (QRO interview), we found Lenssen in a much more accepting mood as he talked about the preview tour of the States, later touring (but no festivals…), making Universe with producer David Newfeld (Broken Social Scene, Los Campesinos!), why the last record, Population (QRO review) was such an ‘angry’ record, their between-record EPs, Canada’s Factor program, videos, names, Japan, confidence, content, content, and much more…

QRO: How have these special preview dates been going?

Ryan Lenssen: I think they’ve been going great.  Everybody’s comin’ out, and we are just sort of getting back into it.

We were off for a long time.  We didn’t do any shows for about eight months or so.  So it was kinda nice, just getting back into the swing of things.  People seem to be really positive.

I gotta say – that’s the biggest thing.  In order to get back into the swing of things, you need some positive reinforcement.  ‘Cause the biggest thing about being a band is confidence.  If you don’t feel confident on stage, then it doesn’t translate, and you’re just trying to recreate something, rather than perform something beautiful, right then and there.  Once you get the confidence back, and get the swing in your step, you’re ready to go.

And I love American crowds.  They’re really supportive.

QRO: Last time I talked to you, you said that you don’t like to play new stuff live before it’s been released.  Yet …And the Ever Expanding Universe isn’t out for a few weeks…

RL: It’s leaked out, anyway…

It’s kind of funny.  I normally don’t like to do it, but, when we were touring [first record] Underwater [Cinematographer], we didn’t really have enough material to really tour that record, so we started touring Phages stuff, and nobody really got it and all that kind of thing.  So it was kind of awkward.  But after the record came out, it became part of our repertoire.

But I also feel as if, with this record, we needed to learn how to play these things live.  I don’t like it when bands come out and play the new stuff, and it’s obviously shaky.  And the confidence goes down.  That’s what I was saying earlier, about the confidence, such a big deal.

It’s necessary.  You have to get in front of people; you have to see if they can get into what you’re playing.  We’re still working out the bugs a bit, but we’re all just really happy on stage, trying to play this stuff.

QRO: Will you be doing a ‘full-fledged’ tour once …And the Ever Expanding Universe is out?

RL: Sure, absolutely.  Starting in September.

Summer touring is kinda rough.  It’s really hot, the kids are not at school – they’re at home, they’re all scattered from the major, main cities.  So it’s hard to get people out – at least it is for us, anyway.  It makes more sense for us to tour in September – in the ‘on-season’, I guess it’s called.  Summer’s the ‘off-season’.

I would have loved to do have done some festival stuff this year, but we just totally missed the whole window.  We were still working on the record, and they didn’t know when we were going to be finished, so they didn’t know whether they should book us or not.  And so, by the time that window closed, we had just finished the record.  So we’re not going to do anything like that.

But, we are going to work on an EP during this summer.  ‘Cause we like doing that: record, EP, record, EP…  Just to get out all the other stuff that maybe the label wouldn’t have been that happy with.

QRO: Before this, you did NXNE in Toronto (QRO Festival Guide) – how does that stack up to other ‘industry fests’, like pseudo-namesake SXSW (QRO recap)?

RL: Oh, not even close.  But it’s quaint, though…

But it’s nice.  And Canada tries really hard.  We just don’t have the population.  We don’t have the population, we don’t have the budget, we don’t have the advertising money.  So we do the absolute best we can.

SXSW is like 1500 bands, and NXNE is only 500 bands or so.  It’s not even close.

And Austin shuts down, pretty much, and Toronto barely notices.

QRO: What do you think of ‘industry fests’ like those, or CMJ (QRO recap)?

RL: Festivals are always really tough.  I don’t think they’re the best way for people to hear their favorite band.

It’s really exciting if you can get the massive one, with 20,000 people, all in one field, one big event, that’s different.  But when you’ve got these little festivals in multiple venues, and all this kind of thing, it’s always really tough, because the time frames are really, really tight.  Most of the time a lot of industry people get in, and not enough actual fans.  You’re using, sometimes, you have to use house gear and stuff like that, so things go wrong.  I’ve never played a festival where my gear didn’t, at some point, didn’t fail, during the show.  So you have to rig something up to try to get it there.

The band’s not really there, in the headspace, either.  Because you’re rushing around, and you don’t really feel like, ‘This is it.  This is the show where I’m gonna connect with the crowd.’  It’s kinda like ‘I’m on display for a second.’

I really like festivals.  I just wish that industry festivals weren’t as important as they are.  Because they are pretty important: it’s all about press, it’s all about getting your name out there.  And if you can do a good show, and people love it, talk about it, then hopefully you sell a few more records.

It’s always been tough.  You do your best.  I think every band will attest to that.  Anyone who’s had to do this industry circuit, it gets rough.  I think everyone would like to do their own tour.

QRO: What was making …And the Ever Expanding Universe like?

RL: It was an absolute trip, I gotta say.

It was our first time working with an external producer, other than myself.  David is a brilliant, brilliant producer that really pushed us in a completely different direction.

It was awesome because we always try, whether we succeed or not, to go in a different direction in every one of our records.  Well, it’s not even a ‘try’ – you grow up.  When we first got signed, we were nineteen years old, and whatever we were into at nineteen, and whatever we were listening to happened to be that.  And then, as time went on, we sort of changed what we were exposed to.

On this record, Dave & I sat down, and I said, “I really want to capture more of a Motown vibe.”  So we put on The Association, The Grass Roots, obviously Diana Ross & The Supremes – that era.  And really tried to capture more of that vibe.

It’s always through the lens of The Most Serene Republic.  Obviously, I don’t think you could put on the record and go, “Oh yeah, that’s that Motown swing!”  It’s just kind of our ‘take’ on that sort of era.

Dave really got in there – as far as I’m concerned, he’s almost a member of the band now.  He helped to write some tunes, really fleshed out some ideas that we had that maybe weren’t complete yet.  So it was a really fantastic experience.

QRO: Why did you decide to go with an external producer?

RL: Because I think that I really like actually creating a different sound every time.  If I was to do it again, I think it would sound different, but maybe not as different.  I really want to keep people on their toes, so that they never know what to expect.

In a lot of cases, I’ve found, over the last five years, is that we get a fan base for one record – that’s it.

  The people that like Underwater pretty much only like that record.  There’s a few tie-in fans that seem to like everything.  But it’s kind of funny – some people just love Underwater, some people just love Population; there’s even hardcore Phages fans – they don’t listen to anything else, just that record!

I’m hoping, maybe, that with this record, we can try to get everybody.  I think there’s elements of some of the learning we did from Population, and Phages, and Underwater are on this record.  We’ll see.  I’m interested to see what people think of it.

We worked really hard on it.  A lot of ourselves got ripped out of us and put in the record.  I know that seems melodramatic, but we went through a lot of hard stuff, and I think it translated a little bit – at least for us.  When I hear the record, I hear moments of severe pain.

QRO: Was it as difficult to make as previous records?

RL: This was a completely different sort of pain.

Adrian [Jewett, vocals] said a little while I ago that he thought it was very much like the stages of preparing to die, or something like that.

At first, you’ve got denial.  Our first record, Underwater, was very much ‘denial’.  We were so young, and experimenting, and we just thought music was fantastic.  At that age, the world is still new, so you can be over-stimulated.  So that’s what that was.

Population was more of an ‘anger’ record.  We were very angry.  We got over-stimulated – we thought the world was Disney, and we find out the world isn’t Disney, it’s more David Lynch…  And then you get angry, and that’s what that last record was.  It was just anger.  We were angry people.

And this is more ‘acceptance’.  We saw what the world is, and it’s a little bit of both.  And so this record’s more ‘acceptance’.  We’re trying to breed that more.  Instead of adding more negativity to the ‘pile of shit’, we’re trying to give something that maybe people would be interested in.  Try to give a little bit of hope.

The Most Serene Republic playing "Why So Looking Back" live @ Mercury Lounge, New York, NY on March 21st, 2008:

QRO: Did you at all think about the ‘layman listener’ when you made this record?  Before, you said you “don’t make music for the layman listener”… (QRO interview)

RL: I will say that that was in the peak of my anger stage.

Because, when we were working on Population, we thought, “Why don’t people try harder?  Why don’t people work harder in their art, in their experiences?  Because the world is there for you to take…”

At that stage in our lives, we didn’t realize that people had lives.  And they didn’t necessarily have the time, or the experience, or the ability to have, either, to appreciate something.  That last record was made specifically out of our own anger that people didn’t care about art.  And we thought we’d push it as far as it would go.

And this record had none of that.  We tried to communicate to anyone who would be willing to listen. 

And that’s ultimately what any of these records are, is us desperately trying to communicate to people who are going through what we’re going through.

  And I think the last record was very specific.  I think it only hit home with a very select few group of people that could appreciate it.

There’s a reason pop songs are massive, like Lady Gaga and stuff like that.  The world, for better or worse, feels like she’s communicating to them, and that they can, together, communicate whatever that emotion is.

Like I said, for better or worse.  It could be a bad thing; it could be a good thing.  At least there’s that level of communication.

With us, we’re more specific with our emotions.  We’re more specific with the things we need to communicate.  And I’m hoping that, this time, we might just slowly be starting to integrate back into a more of a normal, human status.  Just getting out of our own deep emotional traumas and all that kind of thing, and seeing if we can’t help those other people along with us.

And if we can communicate that, then I’ll be really happy.  It really does just come down to communicating and sharing.

At this point, I’ve sort of learned that we work so hard that all the other bands in the world must be working equally as hard.  They just want to communicate what they just want to communicate too, right?  And so, if I don’t like something, it’s maybe not because – there’s no hate involved, it’s just I don’t communicate the same way.  We’re not sharing the same emotions now.  And so, I’m finding myself liking a lot of stuff now that I didn’t like five years ago, just because I’m now on that level.  I now see what they were trying to communicate.

So I’m hoping that, if people feel the need to really rip into us at any given time, that maybe they’ll just understand that we’re just not saying something that they necessarily wanted to hear right now.  Maybe later, or maybe never, but maybe someone out there…

If someone comes up to, and is really into a song, you don’t want to come up to them and shit on them.  “That song sucks!”  Well, I like it, and just because you don’t like it isn’t necessarily going to take my emotion away from this, but you definitely shit on my time.

We only live a very short period.  Find the enjoyment out of life that you can possibly get, because there’s not that much.  And if you get a little oasis of something, hold onto it!

The Most Serene Republic playing "Shopping Cart People" live @ Mercury Lounge, New York, NY on March 21st, 2008:


QRO: With Underwater Cinematographer, people compared you to The Postal Service.  With Population, people compared you to Broken Social Scene (QRO spotlight on).  What random band will be people be comparing Universe to?

RL: I don’t know.  Perhaps someone good.

I look back on that stuff, and I remember being really angry about it at the time, because I thought they were a little bit of a lazy comparison.  Postal Service & Broken Social Scene are incredible bands that deserve to stand on their own.  They don’t need to be compared to a band like us, or vice-versa.

Influences are abound, throughout all art.  No one is completely without influence.  Everyone tries to communicate what it is that they are, their very essence, try to distill that and put it on an abstract medium.  But of course we’re going to have similarities.

But, like I said,

I hope people think that we have elements of really good things in us, rather than negative things.

QRO: But it was produced by Dave Newfeld, and you even started it with an ellipse, like how the last two ‘Broken Social Scene Presents’ records ended (Spirit If… – and Something For All of Us…QRO review), plus Newfeld-produced Los Campesinos!’s Hold On Now, Youngster… (QRO review)…

RL: Did they?  Oh my gosh, I didn’t even notice that!  Crazy…  Obviously, we came up with the album title.

And the reason why did that is that we wanted to be inclusive, not the reverse.  In some cases, when you make a record, you make a statement.  And it can cut people off.  And because I wanted it to sound like us – and other things.  I wanted people to feel like they could be on the journey with us, rather than, ‘We’re telling this story – you sit there and shut up and listen!’  I felt like it would be nicer if we could take everyone along for the ride, if they wanted to get on.

I can’t believe they all have the dot-dot-dot – that’s funny…

QRO: You talked about doing EPs between the LPs – what went behind making Digital Population EP?

RL: DigiPop really came out of: Simon [Lukasewich, bass] was scoring all the stuff for copyright reasons.  And I went, ‘Oh, you know what?  I could just run all that score stuff into Logic, and kind of fool around with it.’

So I did.  I was just having fun.  So I just sat there for a couple of hours, smoked some pot, and just put them together out of fun.  And I thought they sounded neat.

I didn’t want to fill them up with noise, like I did on the last one.  I wanted to keep them sparse so people might have a different take on the music.  So that they could see how intricate it was, or just how much time we put into it, trying to plot out every line and all that kind of thing.

Also, I thought I’d like to try my hand at pure electronic music, and see what that would sound like.  I had a lot of fun with it.

Also, I was listening to a lot of hip-hop at that particular moment, and so I really tried to get it ‘groovy’.  Because Population, as a whole, isn’t a ‘groovy’ record.  It’s what it is, but I thought, maybe, at the core of all these songs, maybe we actually do have some groove!  And if we bring that to the foreground, as opposed to all the melodies and harmonies and stuff, focus on the beat, and the bass, and the simpler melody lines, maybe the people who didn’t like Population would have a new appreciation for it.  Or vice-versa.

And it also, to some degree, prepared the listener for the new record, which has a lot of electronic stuff in it.

The Most Serene Republic playing Population‘s "Compliance" live @ Maxwell’s, Hoboken, NJ on September 22nd, 2007:


QRO: What are you thinking of doing for the next EP?

RL: We have a bunch of things planned for it.  There’s a song on that’s called “Patternicity” – it’s the orchestral number.  We actually did a live band version of that, instead of the symphony stuff, and Adrian has lyrics and vocals and melodies and stuff like that.

So I thought it would be really cool to put out that song again.  We’ll call it “Patternicity II”, in reference to The Police’s “Synchronicity” & “Synchronicity II”.

So we’re gonna work on that, and there’s a bunch of other songs that are more ‘post-Population’.  They were more classically written, closer to what the Population style was, but with more pop in them, more seventies pop.

I just finished a bunch of b-sides for Universe, and they kind of lead in this direction.  I’m interested to finish it, because it kind of sounds mini-prog, like Population was, but maybe a bit more era-oriented.

Once again, another really fun experiment that we might learn something from, and take to the next full-length.  Because I do like that.  I do like having these little EPs to just try things out, and not feel restricted.  Just really do our best to make us happy, and anyone who’s listening happy.

QRO: I was disappointed you didn’t take my idea (QRO interview), of packaging a new EP with Phages & releasing them together as an LP…

RL: We wanted to do that, very much, but it’s gonna be weird.  Because marketing, and budgeting, and all those guys, “Oh, it’s no good, blah-blah-blah-blah…”

I also wanted, by the end of the year, we were planning to finish a rarities and b-sides album, of a lot of stuff that never made it onto the other records.  It’s mostly symphonic stuff, instrumental – some weird, funky, lot of drugs that night kind of thing.  Some fun stuff that I think some people might get a kick out of.  So I’m hoping to have that finished by the end of the year, too.

And I have another project that I’m really excited about releasing, but I don’t want to talk about it, because I want it to be a bit of a surprise.

The Most Serene Republic playing "Phages" live @ Union Hall, Brooklyn, NY on June 28th, 2009:

QRO: Do you still get state support from the Canadian government?

RL: Yep.  There’s a fantastic Factor– It’s called the ‘Factor Grant Program’, and they have been very supportive of what we do.  ‘Cause they have a very strict panel of judges, or whatever you call them, and they go through bands in Canada, and they sort of pick who gets money to do whatever.

And we’re very grateful that they exist, because it would be incredibly difficult for bands in Canada to break any ground anywhere else.  After looking at the budget for marketing and that sort of thing, you really start to understand why some bands are massive, even though their music might not be as good, or bad, or whatever.  It really does belong to your PR/marketing budget people.  The more money you have, the more exposure you get, the more your name gets out there in the ether of everybody’s knowledge.

Our budgets are always very small.  So we really have to rely on our content, and hope that people find it engaging enough that they would share via word-of-mouth, or that sort of thing.

And we get that budget primarily from the government.  They’ve been so incredibly supportive.  I don’t know what we’d do without them – or most Canadian bands, for that matter.  You’d almost have to go in there as a rich kid, which, in some cases, could be counter-productive to making music.  At least something of merit.

Obviously, we are not rich kids.  We very much rely on our government.  We had a bit of a scare there…

QRO: Was there a dust-up over an MP saying, “Why do we have a program that supports a band with the name of Holy Fuck?” (QRO album review)?

RL: Oh, I never heard that, but the Conservative government that got voted in last time, they wanted to get rid of a lot of art funding.

And it was Quebec, actually, that saved our ass.  They are so arts-oriented in Quebec, because they’re, I think, the closest to the European ideals.

QRO: And to maintain their own separate identity as a nation…

RL: Absolutely.  They basically said, ‘Look – we helped get you in.  We will get you out if you don’t support the arts…’

So I’m very grateful to them for letting us… keep our jobs.

The Most Serene Republic playing "Career In Shaping Clay" live @ Mercury Lounge, New York, NY on March 21st, 2008:

QRO: Do you ever think that Canadian musicians such as yourself have a different political outlook than, say, American or British ones, because you have a vested, direct, financial interest in who’s in power, because of the program?

RL: Sure, absolutely.  It would be very difficult for anyone to say anything of consequence about the government.

Fortunately, in Canada, our politics are not… We’re in a place now, in Canada, where the worst you could do is not much.  We’re pretty happy with the way things are going.

And our work, we’re more about the human condition.  I’m sure there are a lot of politically based bands.  We may talk about the grander scale of government, like the last record, for example, in a Huxley manner, or in an Orwellian manner.  But very specifically?  No.

QRO: Do you ever think that, because you guys are more classically trained, that maybe appeals more to the Factor, as opposed to some run-of-the-mill punk band?

RL: Every once in a while, they actually do support that run-of-the-mill punk band, and, in some cases, that money helps them stop being run-of-the-mill.  Because they get direction.

More than ever am I seeing how important that is. 

If you get someone who’s really talented, you can take any band and really help them grow into something that perhaps they never would have been otherwise.  Dave definitely helped that with us.

I’ve never felt like we needed to do classical stuff for the sake of them.  I’d always felt like that’s something that was always inherent in what we should be doing.  I’ve always thought that there was never a bad genre of music, necessarily, just bad recreations.

So I think it’s awesome to pay homage to everybody, in that regard.  If you can, then I think you should.  And we definitely work really hard to honor the romanticists of the late nineteenth century, early twentieth century, because I think that’s such a grand, wonderful time in human achievement.

QRO: In America, what gets support from the government is usually classical music or world music…

RL: It’s always really difficult to choose that anyway, because, in a lot of cases, the line is so obscure between something that is actually artistic and something that is just a mess.  That’s such a smudged line, and it’s very difficult to choose.  Because, at that point, especially when it becomes that blurred, it really does come down to subjectivity.

I saw an incredible thing [when we were at Cake Shop (QRO venue review), BJ Snowdon,] a black woman who’s been on Jimmy Kimmel (QRO Indie on Late Night TV).  It’s just her & a keyboard, and my parents would have hated it; they thought it would have been horrible, but I was really mesmerized by this woman.

There was two shows that night, and she was the headliner of the first show that ended at six o’clock, and then we had a show later.  I was mesmerized.  I think a lot of people like to make fun of her, but I thought it was the most endearing, wonderful performance I’ve heard in a long time.  I don’t know if I’d listen to the CD, necessarily, but the performance itself was mind-blowing.  And maybe those panels and stuff like that, they’re only exposed to the CD, so why would they fund that?  Without knowing the context, it’s impossible to judge.

QRO: Think of Charles Spearin’s Happiness Project (QRO review)…

RL: Absolutely!

QRO: That’s a really weird idea, but incredible…

RL: Oh, I think it’s a brilliant idea!

Last time I was hanging out with [Spearin – QRO interview], I told him, “Buddy, you just gave away your biggest melody secret, of all time!  You just gave it away.  Because, if I’m ever running low on melodies, I know exactly what to do now: just listen to someone talk, and there it is…”

QRO: Where did you find those fan videos on your MySpace page?

RL: He is just some awesome guy that is a fan.  I guess he downloaded the record from a pirate site or something – one of the few positives that come out of that kind of thing – and he thought that he wanted to do this for us.

First of all, I just want to say that I am honored by that guy.  ‘Cause I thought that he did an incredible job

QRO: What’s his name?

RL: I don’t know his actual name.  But his screen name is ‘charatlantic’.

He is just some guy.  He’s from Berlin, and he went to L.A. to do whatever, I don’t know what he’s doing, graduate studies.  And he just thought he would like to do this for us, out of the kindness of our heart.

The one that he did for “The Old Forever New Things” – it gave me shivers when I first saw it.  And, inadvertently, that song has sort of become a single.  It was never supposed to be, but people really liked the video, so that’s going around.

It’s a very crazy, Web 2.0, sharing thing, that goes against a lot of the other things that I’ve said bad about in past interviews.  And I’m happy to eat my words, because sometimes you only see the bads in things, and you really need to have something of the good come out of it so you can see the other side.  And he definitely did that for me, and I am grateful for that knowledge now.

He gave us a music video for free, and we didn’t have to do anything for it.  Because they cost a lot of money…

charatlantic’s video for “The Old Forever New Things”

charatlantic’s video for "The Old Forever New Things":

QRO: Will you be making any videos yourself for Universe?

RL: We usually do at least one – we did two for Underwater, and we did one for Population.  And we were gonna do another two for this record, one for “Heavens To Purgatory” and one for something else, I don’t know what.  So when he just came out and gave us this…

QRO: Did you ever tour Japan?

RL: No, I wish it did.  They’d been promising that for a long time.  When the recession hit, it just deflated any sort of real, monetary ability to go over.

I want so very much to go over there.  I think I have so much to learn from them.  I really wish we had gone over in the Population era, because we were very much focused on that sort of thing: over-stimulation of Population, and people themselves, and how they react to over-stimulus.  It’s pretty over-stimulated – they say it’s a future-culture.

Kevin Drew (of Broken Social Scene) was over there one time, and he said that he was walking down Shibuya, one of their big square districts, with all the lights, and he was listening to Underwater – and he said that it synched up perfectly.  He said, “If you want to really, truly experience that record, you have to listen to it in Japan.”  So I really want to do that.

We’ve met some Japanese fans, and they seem to think that we very much fit in with their culture, even though we don’t know anything about it.  Maybe there’s some kind of parallel, tapped-in unconscious – or maybe it’s just the fact that they’re so much ahead and we have so much ADD that it creates a parallel…

QRO: Is it “Content Was Always My Favorite Color”, or “Content”?  ‘Content’ as in, feeling sated, feeling ‘content’, or ‘Content’ as in ‘Table of Contents’?”

RL: Content, as in ‘the contents of a book’ or ‘contents of a man’s being’.

Once again, I think, a really well worded song title by Adrian.  He has a bizarre ability to combine words that give you exactly what– he conveys an emotion through his ability to combine words that does not, necessarily, make grammatical sense, but, once you put it together and say it a specific way, you know exactly what he’s saying.

He’s very stream-of-consciousness; James Joyce, Virginia Wolff-style of combining words in ways that you…  Even if he wasn’t in a band, I think he’d be a very successful poet.

The Most Serene Republic playing "Content Was Always My Favorite Color" live @ Union Hall, Brooklyn, NY on June 28th, 2009:

QRO: Is there a ‘Sherry’ of “Sherry & The Butterfly Net”?

RL: There is not a ‘Sherry’, no.  Originally, there was supposed to be a brother & sister song on Population, but we ended up taking the brother out, because he wasn’t as developed, so it ended up just being ‘Sherry’.

Adrian likes doing this.  He likes to create fictional characters in which he can throw his ideas at, and not be afraid of reality coming back and contradicting him.  He can create a very specific situation for them, in order to communicate his own ideas, on perhaps very different subjects.

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