How Toronto’s DIANA survived being a buzz band

Three years ago, their debut single earned them so much hype that DIANA, the studio creation, had to become DIANA, the live band. Now they're doing things on their own terms

DIANA and MOZART’S SISTER at the Great Hall (1087 Queen West), Thursday (December 8), doors 8 pm. $12.50.,,

To meet with the three members of DIANA, I drive an hour to Guelph, where they’ve chosen to live-debut the songs from their new album, Familiar Touch, released on Culvert Music. 

It might seem like a long way to go to see a local group, but the album marks a new chapter in their career, and the show is the first opportunity to hear them play as a septet with the talented musicians they’ve recruited to bring the material to life. Even though Familiar Touch is their second release, it’s really their first as a band.

I find Kieran Adams, Carmen Elle and Joseph Shabason at Guelph’s eBar, wrapping up their sound check. They’re joined onstage by Thom Gill on guitars/keys, Bram Gielen on bass/bass synth and Gary Beals and Ivy Mairi on vocals, an impressive band of seasoned Toronto-based players.

“We’ve realized that this band is a seven-piece, so we’re going to play like one,” says Shabason, triggering his bandmates’ laughter.

Familiar Touch wasn’t recorded live, but core members Adams, Elle and Shabason played the songs live as a group during the writing process, which immediately affected the material and the way they wanted to perform it. 

That’s a different approach from the making of their first record, Perpetual Surrender. In 2013, after the sudden success of first single Born Again, the trio was forced to scramble to turn what had only been intended as a studio project into a fully functioning touring band. Back then they didn’t have a name, and it was uncertain if Elle, who also performs in Army Girls, would continue with the group. 

“Last time we definitely got thrown, ‘You have to play live,’ so the quickest thing we could do was what we had to do,” Adams explains. They added bassist Paul Mathew (Sarah Harmer/Hidden Cameras) and learned to play their own layered studio creations with just four people and by using a lot of samples and technology. 

“That [process] relied a lot less on any sort of intuition and live feeling,” Adams recalls.

Familiar Touch, then, is a direct response to having had to make so many decisions about their art and future based on buzz, and whether their live band was “tourable” enough. It’s a thoughtful, contemplative record that they made on their own terms, every song deliberate and carefully arranged, while also bursting with ideas, guest players and, most of all, hooks. It’s not an exercise in excess, but rather the first time DIANA have been allowed to be themselves. 

Hence the addition of so many new live members.

“There’s nothing frivolous about us,” Elle explains. “Every person is crucial.”

That becomes abundantly clear during the show when Beals belts out “Let it go, start again, forget I ever felt this pain” in Slipping Away, a highlight of both the record and the set. You can see on the band’s faces that they’re having fun while sounding fantastic.

Slipping Away exemplifies Familiar Touch’s bold themes about love and commitment, and DIANA’s choice to go for broke rather than play it safe in their new songs and live set-up. 

“If you’re in love and in a relationship that’s growing and becoming something that will last, you’re getting your heart broken all the time,” Adams says about the song. “To accept and allow yourself to feel that, and to allow yourself to love this person who is really special, and to endure the harder moments with optimism, I think that is something that might feel familiar in that it’s happening over and over again.”

“There are words that inform the subject of the song,” Elle notes, “but then the harmonic content, the tempo, the sounds we choose have a currency all their own.”

That harmonic content routinely earns the group comparisons to 80s sophisti-pop bands like Talk Talk, Sade and the Blue Nile. Though the mere mention of 80s groups makes Elle shudder, it’s not a comparison they’re are shying away from –  they break into the Blue Nile’s A Walk Across The Rooftops during the set.

Adams finds the 80s comparison apt, but not because DIANA are trying to rehash old ideas. 

“I think we’re enamoured of a certain kind of music-making. We try to make music that is pop but also effortful and compelling, and not just trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator.”

“It’s about making the best record we can,” Elle adds, “and indulging every whim.” | @therewasnosound

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