Darlene Shrugg re-ignite their pure love for rock and roll
With connections going back to junior high, the mighty five-piece is like an east-end Toronto supergroup in reverse
DARLENE SHRUGG album release show with NEW FRIES and MISS WORLD at the Smiling Buddha (961 College), Friday (November 24), 9 pm. $11 advance. ticketfly.com.
Carlyn Bezic had teenage rock dreams, but as she hit her 20s, her enthusiasm for six-stringed virtuosity diminished.
“I got to a point when I was like, ‘Guitars suck, guitar solos suck, fuck guitar, I hate it,’” she says.
Now she’s come around. “Solos are amazing and beautiful and my love for them is pure and real.”
What changed her mind was the advent of the band Darlene Shrugg, a project that stems from that very same pure and real love for rock and roll. In fact, it has its origins in a creative partnership also formed during adolescence, between Maximilian Turnbull (fka Slim Twig) and drummer Simone TB.
“Simone and I have always made rock ’n’ roll music together,” says Turnbull.
Classmates at an east-end Toronto junior high over 15 years ago, Turnbull and TB quickly went from friends to collaborators, most notably as the frenetic guitar/drum combo Tropics.
In high school they cut their teeth in clubs like the Silver Dollar and, like their contemporaries Huckleberry Friends, drew crowds to shows at the Bain Co-op near Riverdale long before events like Feast In The East drew showgoers east of the DVP.
Tropics lasted for 10 years primarily as a live unit, recording just one 7-inch before splitting in 2012. TB says their split was amicable and had more to do with “being in a small room playing to a few people who we’ve played to before” and being unsure of how to move forward.
Turnbull says the answer came to them years later. “Tropics infamously, at least to us, never made an album, so we wanted to reverse that trend of only ever playing live,” he says.
In 2014, the two started a specifically studio-oriented project that quickly snowballed. Initially Turnbull’s wife, Meg Remy (of U.S. Girls), was going to write the lyrics for the duo’s compositions, but soon started singing some songs herself. The group bulked up with the addition of guitarist Bezic and bassist Amanda Crist who make up the duo Ice Cream.
Bezic and Crist also went to high school with Turnbull and had shared rehearsal space with the lot for years – their previous bands Golden Ticket and Huckleberry Friends “lit a fire under Tropics” – so the fit was natural.
“We’ve always been around each other, but now we’re just showing up at the same time on the same day [to play] the same songs,” says TB.
Being a five-piece opened up opportunities for them to play the dense songs they had written in studio as a live band, creating a fuller and mightier guitar sound and multi-part vocal arrangements. Four out of five members sing, and the addition of new voices, each with unique characteristics, excited Remy as an opportunity to “write something that you couldn’t sing yourself but that someone else could.”
Darlene Shrugg’s self-titled album, released by Upset the Rhythm on October 27, features nine tracks of pure rock made ornate by sometimes over-the-top sensibilities – what Crist calls “reckless silliness.” It sounds like nothing the five players have ever done in their respective bands.
The ability to turn rock on its head comes from a place of skill but it’s also strategic. Turnbull says there’s currently little cultural capital in rock music, so “there’s so much freedom to fuck it up and turn it upside down by approaching it in theatrical, naive or amateurish ways. There are no gatekeepers to say ‘You can’t do that.’”
Darlene Shrugg revels in the genre while also refocusing it, challenging tropes while also deploying them.
Song lyrics radiate with simple joys about getting a driver’s licence (the redline rock of Freedom Comes In A Plastic Card) and falling in love with a guitar pedal (the glammed-out Wah Wah) all while channelling the wide-eyed innocence that can only come from the minds of teens (even a decade and a half later).
But the record also hints at the collective wisdom of adulthood. The aforementioned Freedom, for instance, might be built on what Remy calls “the quintessential rock ’n’ roll topic” but juxtaposes the open road with the nagging reminder that freedom only comes with a driver’s licence.
“Rock ’n’ roll relies on the possibility that your freedom could be revoked,” Turnbull explains. “If it was just unconditional, there’d be nothing that your energy was up against. Which is the essence of rock ’n’ roll, is it not?”
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