INTERVIEW: The Besnard Lakes
, April 5th, 2013 07:39
Julian Marszalek catches up with the Montreal space rockers following the recent release of their new album Until In Excess, Imperceptible UFO - plus watch the brand new video for album track 'People Of The Sticks'
Photograph courtesy of Richmond Lam
Jace Lasek, guitarist, vocalist and producer of Canadian space cadets The Besnard Lakes, is allowing his chuckle to grow into a full-blown belly laugh. The source of his merriment? The notion that Britain is suffering from an extended winter and that a few millimetres of snow can bring the capital to a standstill.
“Oh, Jesus!” he laughs. “We've been getting about four, five, six or seven inches of snow every two weeks here! It's crazy! The UK sounds like Vancouver. They don't really get snow and I think they have just the one snow removal machine so when it hits it's complete mayhem over there! Total chaos! It rains a lot there but it very rarely snows.”
Chaos isn't a charge that can be laid at the feet of The Besnard Lakes. If anything, this is a band that's about control; about mastering its immediate environment and creating huge swathes of sound that simultaneously soothe and frighten, comfort and terrorise. They are a band unafraid of creating widescreen panoramas and the kind of noise that aurally articulates the vastness of the universe and the insignificance of the self.
But it seems all that has changed with their new album, the bafflingly titled Until In Excess, Imperceptible UFO. Though still retaining the lush and rich textures that characterise their music, The Besnard Lakes are this time attempting to rein in the glorious excesses of its predecessor, 2010's The Besnard Lakes Are The Roaring Night, to create a warmer and more inviting environment than anything they've created before.
A noble artistic pursuit, to be sure; how many other bands challenge themselves by attempting something new while still managing to sound like themselves? But, as the Quietus finds out, it's been a process not without its obstacles. This is a band that works in reverse to the modus operandi exercised by most bands. Not for them months of songwriting and rehearsal ahead of recording - The Besnard Lakes enter the studio with nothing, see what comes out and then figures out how to play it live (speaking of which - scroll down for tour dates). It's an approach that would flummox a great number of bands, and in this respect The Besnard Lakes are no different. But what really sets them apart is the triumph they achieve in the face of artistic adversity…
'People Of The Sticks' video
As much as anything, The Besnard Lakes are known for their intriguing album titles. What the hell does Until In Excess, Imperceptible UFO mean?
Jace Lasek: [laughs] We played in Paris at the end of the …Roaring Night touring cycle and there was a review of one of our shows that was written in French. Our then-label manager found it on the internet and sent it to us but he'd Google-translated it when he sent it – and this is probably my favourite thing about Google Translate – and it said something along the lines of "The Besnard Lakes create this atmosphere of whatever" and then it said, "until in excess, imperceptible UFO". I was like, that's amazing! I have no idea what that means but it kinda describes us perfectly!
So I wrote it down and kept it in the back of my mind and when we decided to do the album we realised that we were going to drop the "…are the…" system of titling that we'd been doing for some time. And that frees us up a little bit so the records can have a little bit more room to move around and when this title popped back in my head, I was like, "We're so totally going to use that!"
It was kind of a big move for us to do that, but the more that I started to think about it, I thought that if I was a fan and I saw another The Besnard Lakes Are… title then I'd be rolling my eyes and going: "oh right, here we go again with all that bullshit!" There's something that I like about the sameness of certain bands. You know, I like that AC/DC have just stuck to what they're good at; I love that. But I guess with us there's this thing about us that I like, but with the albums I see them as pieces of canvas, and I want to be able to have that canvas any size and not be restricted to certain things.
The new album is easily your most atmospheric release to date. Did you want to move away from the harder rock sound of before?
JL: Whenever we go into the studio, we never have any preconceived notions of what's going to come out of the other end. Whatever we get we're stuck with! People have been saying that it has a lightness to it that the other records don't really have. Some people are calling it 'sun-bleached' which is interesting. But it wasn't intentional at all. If anything, it was Olga's idea to see if we could do something like the anti-crescendo.
You say you go into the studio with no preconceived notions of how the album is going to sound. How does that manifest itself in practical and songwriting terms?
JL: I've been writing music since I was about 15 and I've got tapes and tapes of ideas and I'm still pulling ideas from stuff that I wrote in high school. If I'm stuck for ideas then I'll sometimes go back to that stuff and get it to rev me up a bit and modernising them in a way. There's pretty much a giant folder of this stuff that I can go back to and grab whenever I'm stuck.
A lot of times, too, if I know that we're going back into the studio I'll try and sit down at home and play guitar for a few hours and a lot of stuff comes from guitar riffs that I'm just playing around with at home and then I'll transpose them to keyboards or whatever we need to create the proper kind of atmosphere. The songs will then come from the soundscapes that we've created. Eighty per cent of the time, the lyrics come right at the very end when we've built the whole song structure and instrumental version of the song, with just place holders of where the vocals are going to be. Then as we go along, sometimes the arrangement of the song changes. Sometimes the vocals get done very, very quickly, but generally they come right at the very end.
By using this method of songwriting, is there a danger of painting yourselves into a corner? For example, could it be the case that you could have ended up with an instrumental album?
JL: Yeah. And it happened here. We wanted to have this record done in two years and not three. Going into the studio the way we do without any ideas and we don't really rehearse for the sessions, we just let the studio do its own thing. And a couple of times we walked in with nothing and after two days we still had hardly any new stuff done! About three or four months before we mixed the album, we had recorded about 10 pieces of music but we threw away about four or five of them so we had only half an album. The rest of the stuff wasn't going to work. It was shit!
So we started over and there were a couple of moments where we really nailed things and then things started to happen. But this was the first occasion where things got really quite stressful. We had this self-imposed deadline and that came and went and we were like: "are we ever going to be able to make a record again?" The pressure to put this self-imposed deadline on us wasn't a good idea in the end.
Panic did set in. There were times when we'd left the studio and we hadn't done anything and you feel like you're washed up. It's a stressful method of doing things and if we had a little more time to do rehearsals and stuff like most bands do, then this would've come together a lot easier! This time around, we made things quite stressful for us.
For most bands, a studio is a means to an end, but would it be fair to say that The Besnard Lakes view it as much as an instrument as the guitars, keyboards and drums that they use?
JL: Yeah, absolutely. Even when I was a kid working on a four-track, everything I put into it was treated. I love the idea of being able to take a sound and making something that is different from what it's supposed to be and putting a new twist on it. Obviously I have the luxury of my own studio and I also think it goes the other way too; because I have a studio I should be able to present myself the luxury of using it. I love being able to come up with interesting new textures and that's kind of like a personal mandate – if I've got all this stuff I might as well use it!
You've recorded and produced any number of bands at your studio. Does any of the work that you do with them filter through to The Besnard Lakes?
JL: Oh, totally! That creeps in all the time and I even tell the bands that when we've developed something cool together that I'm probably going to steal this for my record! They usually don't mind because I won't use their melodies or music but sometimes when we're building up textures and coming up with a really cool sound by using a chain of machines then I'm like, I'm totally gonna use this! It's great that way because I'm always toying around with different things in the studio and it's a daily thing for me. I really get lucky being able to play around with this stuff and push it to its extremes.
Are The Besnard Lakes still based around a nucleus of you and Olga [Goreas], or have you become a band in the accepted sense of the concept?
JL: The core is now Olga and I and Richard [White] and Kevin [Laing]. What will usually happen is that Olga and I will go in the studio and get the basic ideas and the structure down so we're not wasting anybody's time. Then Rich and Kevin will come in and Kevin plays all the drums on the records now and all the percussion and he's singing too; we did a Fleetwood Mac cover and he sings on that and he's actually a better singer than I am. Rich does all the string arrangements and all the really great guitar work. Rich actually saved the track 'And Her Eyes Were Painted Gold', with that crazy, swirling guitar line that's in that. I was going to throw that song away and he came in and I said, “let's see if we can do something before I throw this down the shitter” and he was amazing. Now that we're expanding by having two other guys come in and have their perspective, it took the stress out of making this record.
It makes everyone a lot happier, too. Now, everybody feels that they've invested in the same thing. The four of us feel quite proud and strong about this record because we all worked on it. Kevin and Richard saw more of the creative process than they had before and that really helped bring the band together.
How easy or difficult is it to translate something that's been constructed in a studio into something that can be played live?
JL: This is the fun part of it. I keep telling people that at this point we become a covers band of our own music! For this record, especially, there are more things here that we don't actually play live. This time we sat around the speakers listening to the mixes and just writing down the necessary parts and working out who's going to play them. Kevin's now got an extra floor tom and he's also got a sampler and a keyboard and shakers, and he's now the busiest guy in the band!
And Rich has all these amazing pedals so he can re-create a lot of the keyboard sounds on guitar and that saves us a lot of finagling because he's figured out a lot of the stuff already. So we've all got our own stations and we figure out what we're all capable of doing.
The cool thing is that once we're on the road, the songs start evolving more and we can start adding more textures once we get deeper into the tour.
What's it like working with your spouse?
JL: For us, it's pretty easy! The best thing for the music is the brutal honesty that we have for each other. She will edit my self-indulgent ideas where I want a song to run on for 20 minutes. Also, we help each other with melody lines because it's harder to write alone sometimes and you don't have someone to bounce ideas off of. Whereas with your spouse, you can be brutally honest but you're not going to take offence to it because you know that they're thinking about the songs.
Sometimes we take our work home with us but usually we resolve issues in the studio. We've been pretty lucky over the years being able to figure things out. We're pretty good at not taking offence to things. It's a creative process and we're just making music; there are much more important things going on in the world.
The Besnard Lakes have twice been nominated for the Polaris Music Prize. Is this something that's in your mind when you enter the studio?
JL: Oh, no. Never. No. I mean, when we went into the studio to do …Roaring Night, we knew that this was going to be the first record we'd be making where we knew people would be listening to it and for the first week of making it that really freaked us out. Olga had to sit me down and say, 'look, forget about all that. We don't make records that way. We're here to make ourselves happy and make records that we feel are really strong.' We've held on to that [ethos] so we're not concerned with making hit records or being on the radio or being nominated for the Polaris Prize. We're concerned with making a really strong record that we're proud of. I know it's a cliché but it's true. But that's why we take so long over records. We could've put one out last year but it would've been shit.
You've written a number of film scores. How does that process differ from making an album?
JL: You really have to exercise restraint. In The Besnards, we really like making textures and building things up into giant walls of sound but with film you can't do that. You have to be really subtle. Sometimes a scene will require only one instrument and that restraint is a pretty cool thing because we're not used to doing that. We also have to make sure that we don't take a scene over; we're there to enhance a scene. It's a pretty cool exercise for us.
Does living in Montreal have any bearing on your music?
JL: I don't know. It's possible. Montreal is a really laid-back city and maybe that's why we're comfortable picking our time to make our records. Time sometimes seem to move in slow motion here. It's a great place to live and there's lots of great leisure and social activities here and people aren't running around moving and shaking and trying to sell you snake oil all the time.
Although Montreal is a big city, it feels like a really small community. Everybody's really friendly and tight-knit and they love to come down to the studio and help us out. We have access to all these great musicians and everybody seems to be really interested in helping everybody out and that's the cool part of the scene and maybe kinda rare.
Is your music informed by a sense of spirituality – and I don't mean that in any religious sense but as in taking in the whole, wide wonder of the world?
JL: I think that Besnards records, as abstract as they are, are always generally social commentary on how dissatisfied we are with what's happening in the world. There's also a sense of hopelessness because we don't know what to do. We were talking in the car last night about humans being able to go off into the universe and colonising other planets and we were like, we don't want the human race colonising other planets if it's going to be like the way we're currently living then I don't want to be represented that way. I'd rather just blow us all up and start over again!
So the records, in a really abstract way, talk about the idea that there are other ways of doing things but there's also a sense of, "wow, what would it have to take to make us wake up and do things differently?" It's not easy and it's a tough thing to do but also really naïve to think that we can just turn over a new page and have this really amazing new world order. It's a tough thing to do but it's a common thread that runs through our records that we're desperately trying to see if there's a better way of doing things. Not that the way we live now is bad but with the common mentality that we miss things sometimes. There's hope in our music and there's also the idea that there's more hope in this record than there is in the other ones. In the other records there seems to be a heaviness and a hopelessness but this record feels kinda different. We didn't do that intentionally but it does feel here as if there's light at the end of the tunnel and a sense of hope.
The Besnard Lakes play the following dates in late spring:
Tue 14 - Mejeriet, Lund, Sweden
Wed 15 - Debaser, Stockholm, Sweden
Thu 16 - Pustervik, Gothenburg, Sweden
Fri 17 - Stengade, Copenhagen, Denmark
Sun 19 - Vera, Groningen, The Netherlands
Tue 21 - Paradiso, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Wed 22 - Fleece N Firkin, Bristol
Thu 23 - Ruby Lounge, Manchester
Fri 24 - Stereo, Glasgow
Sat 25 - Brudenell Social Club, Leeds
Sun 26 - Hare And Hounds, Birmingham
Mon 27 - Komedia, Brighton
Tue 28 - The Garage, London
Wed 29 - La Fleche d'Or, Paris, France
Thu 30 - La Fourmi, Limoges, France
Fri 31 - Stereolux, Nantes, France
Sat 1 - La Poste a Galene, Marseille, France
Sun 2 - Le Dynamo, Toulouse, France
Tue 4 - Le Sonic, Lyon, France
Wed 5 - La Laiterie, Strasbourg, France
Fri 7 - Rote Fabrik, Zurich, Switzerland
Sat 8 - Blue Shell, Köln, Germany
Sun 9 - Monarch, Berlin, Germany
Mon 10 - Atom Cafe, Munich, Germany