NXNE at various venues from Thursday to Sunday (June 19 to 22). NXNE Music, NXNE Comedy, NXNE Art run to June 22, NXNE Interactive to June 21. NXNE Film June 22. For ticket and wristband info, see nxne.com/tickets.
1. St. Vincent
at Yonge-Dundas Square, Friday (June 20), 9:10 pm. Free. nxne.com.
"In this day and age it's hard to be in the moment in general, and if there's any place where you should be able to be in the moment, it's at live music," says Annie Clark, the singer/songwriter/guitar hero who goes by St. Vincent.
In this very moment, she's in a shack at a citadel just outside Berlin. Clark, who's warm, polite and thoughtful over an excellent cellphone connection, is in Europe opening for the National. She's momentarily taken out of our moment while wistfully watching lead singer Matt Berninger talking to her best friend.
The mention of her upcoming NXNE show, however, snaps her back to the task at hand.
"Is this the one I'm playing with Swans? Where we're back-to-back? Fuck, yeah. I'm really excited about this one," she says.
"They're probably my favourite band to see live, period," Clark adds about the super-loud New York City experimental rockers. Maybe she's biased, having recorded backup vocals on their last record. She'd happily join them onstage if they asked her.
But Friday night at Yonge-Dundas Square is definitely St. Vincent's show. She's been on a hot streak since releasing her exceptional fourth solo album in February, and headlining NXNE is her latest win.
"I wrote a lot of it, like, a mile from that South By show," says Dallas-raised, NYC-based Clark, referring to her inspired and theatrical - not to mention rammed - performance at Stubb's BBQ during SXSW in March.
"I come from that Nick Cave school of songwriting where you put on a suit and tie and go to work every day for 10 hours," she says. "Austin's really cozy and I have friends there, so it was the right amount of... I can go drink tequila with my friends at night, but I can also have enough peace and quiet to get the job done. New York I love, but it's hard to maintain your focus when the whole world is happening outside your door."
The Texas retreat was fruitful. Masterfully helmed by her long-time producer, John Congleton, the record is St. Vincent's most self-assured. Bold and bright, it pops with complex, funky arrangements, bass that would make it a sweet house-party soundtrack, and catchy, cool-as-hell melodies.
It's her first eponymous album, for good reason.
"In Miles Davis's autobiography, he talks about how the hardest thing for a musician to do is just sound like yourself," she explains.
"I can hear one note of Swans and know it's Swans. I can hear literally one note of Miles and know it's Miles. In a macro sense, I felt like I created a world on this record - point of view or whatever you want to call it - that was unmistakably my own."
Clark has also embraced a makeover of sorts, trading her natural brunette locks for a silvery lavender bob that matches the record's slick edge and futuristic vibe.
For a highly respected musician who's flown under the mainstream radar since her 2007 debut, Marry Me, it's a star-making evolution. She landed the season finale of this season's Saturday Night Live, after all.
But it's the mainstream that's creeping toward Clark, not the other way around. Her songwriting is still far more interesting than anything on commercial radio.
On St. Vincent, Clark's frank storytelling ranges from the tenderly personal (I Prefer Your Love, about her mom), to anecdotal (Rattlesnake, about a mind-fucking trip in the desert) to acute social commentary.
"I want all of your mind," she chirps on Digital Witness, a song about our current obsession with documenting our every move via social media, and the ramifications that might have.
"We're kind of swimming in self-aggrandizing minutiae. And I'm right there in it. It's not a condemnation of the time and place, but I'm wondering what the end game is," she says.
"The government is spying on us. We knew it was going on, but we haven't been explicitly told, so we're pretending like it's not happening. But it's happening. Privacy will [someday] be a commodity only the truly elite will have. But no one even has to spy on us cuz we're volunteering everything about our lives."
Except that, despite Clark's Twitter being very much like any other star or regular mortal's, she's successfully maintained her privacy. Even onstage.
During her SXSW show, for example, Clark was completely in character: a marionette coming alive when the music did, shutting down when the lights dimmed, almost robotic in her masterful guitar-shredding.
"That's a new little layer added on this tour. Once you embrace the artifice of performance for all that it is - which is a very bizarre social contract - it's totally liberating. You can just do and be anything you want. As long as it makes a good show."
Which it definitely does.
"Something else takes over. All of the essential ingredients are me, but they get alchemized with an audience and with the energy of a show and with the music and something else I really don't know how to explain. You're yourself, but a superhero version of yourself."
2. Mac DeMarco
at the Opera House (735 Queen East), Friday (June 20), 11 pm. NXNE wristband or $20; and at Yonge-Dundas Square, Saturday (June 21), 7:30 pm. Free. nxne.com.
Mac DeMarco finds it hilarious that NXNE is putting him on the "big boy stage" at Yonge-Dundas Square this year for one of his two shows.
"It's pretty cute," he says with a giant laugh over the phone from his Brooklyn apartment. "They hit up my manager and said, ‘Please, no nudity.' We'll see."
Whether DeMarco believes it or not, his presence on the big stage is warranted. The indie masses are loving his recent album, Salad Days (Captured Tracks), another slice of the Canadian musician's laid-back blend of breezy-pop-meets-dad-rock.
While he may scoff at the idea of having hit the big leagues, he's also felt the heat of his rapidly rising star, "especially when you've been turned into this, like, internet meme." Making the sophomore record, he admits, was stressful.
"Every time you sit down to write, you think, ‘Oh man, I've got to write a song better than that last one.' You can drive yourself nuts, especially when people think one thing is cool and you don't want to let them down."
Equally stressful was DeMarco's transition from goofball slacker rocker - known for sticking things up his butt onstage - to full-time musician who sets sometimes existential lyrics to super-chill, warped and sophisticated guitar pop.
"For a while I was freaking out. Very, very anxious all the time. Lately I feel reinvigorated and happy to be doing what we're doing. Blessed and privileged. No more complaints coming from this guy. At least not unless something really terrible happens."
It's an attitude he's taking to the stage, big or small. His current show incorporates synthesizers for the first time and is all about "positivity, because, you know, it's easy to get a little bit evil."
To keep himself in check, he no longer drinks before playing. "It helps me be ready to vibe with the kids," he says. "That's what my life is now, and I'm fucking into it."
at Yonge-Dundas Square, Saturday (June 21), 9 pm. Free. nxne.com.
Spoon are taking Def Leppard-level amounts of time making their new album. Their eighth full-length, They Want My Soul, is set to come out on August 4 on Loma Vista/Universal rather than on the band's long-time label, Merge.
The back-room dealings could have something to do with the delay, though songwriter/singer/guitarist Britt Daniel is also a perfectionist, evident on the seven albums the Austin-formed band already has behind them.
They marry Wire-esque post-punk minimalism and super-refined arrangements with vocal hooks delivered with rock 'n' roll grit and falsetto yearning. Spoon songs are tough and poppy, stripped to their basic rhythmic and melodic essentials.
Critics love 'em. We rounded up a handful of them to rank the band's discography.
Stephen Carlick, Exclaim! and Melody Lau, MuchMusic
1. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (2007)
2. Kill The Moonlight (2002)
3. Girls Can Tell (2001)
4. Transference (2010)
5. Gimme Fiction (2005)
6. A Series Of Sneaks (1998)
"The top three change with the day for me," Carlick says, "and Gimme Fiction is great but inconsistent." Adds Lau, "I was gonna argue for Gimme Fiction, but then I remembered I only loved chunks of it. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is my fave."
Cam Lindsay, NOISEY, Exclaim!
1. Kill The Moonlight
2. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
3. Girls Can Tell
4. A Series Of Sneaks
5. Gimme Fiction
7. Telephono (1996)
Noah Love, National Post
1. Kill The Moonlight
2. Girls Can Tell
3. A Series Of Sneaks
4. Gimme Fiction
5. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
"GGGGG, to me, feels like a record that plays to aspects of Spoon's sound: light, poppy rock," says Love. "I've just never felt like there's a lot of depth to it."
Ryan McNutt, The Coast
1. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
2. Kill The Moonlight
3. Girls Can Tell
4. Gimme Fiction
6. A Series Of Sneaks
"On certain days, I'd place Kill The Moonlight at the top," McNutt says.
1. Kill The Moonlight
2. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
3. Gimme Fiction
4. Girls Can Tell
6. A Series Of Sneaks
4. Michael Rault
at Handlebar (159 Augusta), Thursday (June 19), midnight. NXNE wristband or $10; St. James Gazebo (King and Church), Saturday (June 21), 4 pm. Free; and Smiling Buddha (961 College), Saturday (June 21), 9 pm. NXNE wristband or $15. nxne.com.
Things are coming to fruition for Toronto-via-Edmonton rocker Michael Rault. His new album, Living Daylight (Pirates Blend, June 24), already has critics buzzing and is sure to expand the songwriter's fan base.
Recorded in Edmonton with Rault's cousin, Renny Wilson, the seven songs shift away from the charismatically lo-fi rattle of Rault's earlier Bo Diddley-inspired doo-wop garage tunes toward a more sophisticated, psychedelic direction. The grooves are deeper and funkier and the sound fuller.
But the tunes are still three minutes apiece, and the lyrics remain focused on love. Rault's Nuggetsish grab bag conjures greats like the Beatles and the Kinks without focusing on any one moment in music history - just Rault's version of now.
5. Future Islands
at VICE Island (Toronto Island), Thursday (June 19), 8:30 pm. NXNE wristband or $30; and Tattoo (567 Queen West), Saturday (June 21), midnight. NXNE wristband or $20. nxne.com.
"I am nerding out hard on the World Cup," says Samuel T. Herring on the phone from his bedroom in Baltimore.
"I'm really bummed because I have band practice in a second and I want to watch this game. It's Germany and Portugal, and that's kind of a World Cup final."
You can forgive the frontman of synth-pop band Future Islands for wanting to take it easy - and, of course, for having World Cup fever. Fresh off three solid months of touring, he's enjoying some precious home time before NXNE, summer festival season in Europe, a stint in Australia and then months more of domestic and international gigs.
"We've been doing this a very long time, and we're used to the grind of it. But there's a whole other side of things that we haven't really dealt with before because we're getting more attention," says Herring, who is affable, down-to-earth and chatty.
"So there's more press and more people and a little bit more pressure on the shows."
Herring, keyboardist Gerrit Welmers, bassist/guitarist William Cashion and touring drummer Michael Lowry owe their boost in prosperity partly to a well-timed TV gig.
On March 3 they made their network debut, performing their now signature tune, Seasons (Waiting On You), on David Letterman, which happened to be a week before SXSW, which happened to be a few weeks before their fourth album, Singles (4AD), dropped on March 25.
Something about Herring's dancing - toe-tapping, chest-pounding and low-to-the-ground, emphatic hip-swaying - combined with his vocals, which go from sweetly enunciated to ragingly hardcore, plus his window-on-the-soul gaze, touched a pop culture nerve.
The video went viral, and suddenly a touring band of the past seven years was a sought-after commodity.
"We've been living off our art for five years through hard work and through amazing people supporting our hard work, so to me, this is just another step up," Herring says.
"Toronto might have been on the docket before, but there were a lot of festivals in Europe that flat-out turned us down, and later they came back. You kind of want to be like, ‘Oh, fuck you! You had your chance,' he says, laughing.
"But on the other hand, that's all part of building relationships. All you want to do is reach people with the music and continue to make music.
"A ton of people are coming out because they saw that one performance, and that's the hope, that anything you do - a song or a video clip - is a hook. Hopefully it's not a meme, because there's no music on those things."
There have been plenty of memes; But Future Islands wouldn't be riding this wave if it weren't for their outstanding fourth album.
Their third record, On The Water, came after nearly four years on the road. "It was a much slower affair, in reaction to the fact that we'd been moving so fast. We weren't writing songs with a lot of movement, we were writing these slow dirges," Herring explains.
"So after having this deep, cathartic record, I wanted to write an album of jams. That was my thing."
It was also the first time the band had written so much material.
"In the past we've only written, like, five or six songs, then gone to the studio and fleshed out an album. But with this one our intention was to write as many songs as we could and pick the best ones, and to create a pop album."
Aside from its big-chorus, new-wave anthems, impassioned ballads and the general feeling that any one song could be the song to fill an empty dance floor, Singles is earnestly sung and lyrically direct. Herring describes the latter as "boiling down sentiments."
"Instead of wrapping this bullshit in roses, why don't you just say what the hell you want?" he says.
"If you write the most honest things that are completely about your life, then someone's going to connect with it. That's the big thing I've realized through writing about my own personal life. When you're really hurting, you feel like no one can understand it. But when you share that feeling you realize, ‘Oh, a lot of people feel this way.' That's the highest compliment, when somebody says, ‘Your music speaks to me,' or ‘This is a part of my life, too.'
"You know, it's good therapy for me, but also for those people."
at Saving Gigi (859 Bloor West), Saturday (June 21), 1 pm. Free.
Letting a band sleep on your couch can lead to a record deal. Just ask Josh Salter of Halifax four-piece Monomyth. When Mint Records' Jay Arner and his band, visiting from Vancouver, needed a place to crash during last October's Halifax Pop Explosion, Salter offered up his sofa.
"The Mint Record folks were in town for a showcase [with Arner] and saw us play over the weekend," says Salter. "They sent us an email a few days later, and everything sort of worked itself out."
Despite the West Coast relationship, the members of Monomyth continue the East Coast tradition of playing in several bands at once: Nap Eyes, Moon, Psychic Fair. And their harmony-heavy psych pop has something in common with Halifax's Sloan and Montreal-based Halifax expats Special Noise.
But they're also putting their own stamp on the scene.
"We make constrained music but not in the Eno/Cage sense," says Salter. "It's constrained by our poverty. I think it can be triangulated with the Byrds, the Velvet Underground and My Bloody Valentine."
Mint will release Saturnalia Regalia! on July 22.
4 more bands for the first-timer
The reigning king of Halifax indie rock touches down at the 'Shoe for a showcase with his new label, Pheromone. It doesn't get more affable, anthemic or maple syrupy than this, folks.
Saturday (June 21) at the Horseshoe.
Evoking 90s college rock linchpins like Dinosaur Jr. and Liz Phair, the Philly four-piece get by on shared girl-boy vocals, Big Muff distortion and fuzz-pop sensibilities.
Friday (June 20) at the Horseshoe and Saturday (June 21) at Smiling Buddha.
Old-fashioned country by a local songwriter. To experience the full power of Rose's pipes, you oughta see her live.
Thursday (June 19) at the Horseshoe and Saturday (June 21) at the Cameron House.
Tall and charming, the New York/Toronto-based folk rocker channels Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, spins a good yarn and riffs a good riff. Oh, and she's a drummer, too.
Thursday (June 19) at the Dakota.