“It feels like late-period capitalism is sinking its fangs into everyone," says Stephen Ramsay. "The middle class is gutted, and the top artists are in control of what used to be shared.”
YOUNG GALAXY and GRAHAM VAN PELT at the Velvet Underground (508 Queen West), Friday (April 20), 8:30 pm. $15. ticketweb.ca.
Young Galaxy’s sublime sixth album, Down Time, begins with a watery wash of sound, like their pop hooks got caught in a downpour. If it sounds more serious and subtle than you’re used to from the Montreal electronic band, that’s because, for the first time, they’re fully independent, freed from label constraints and expectations.
“We had been moving in a pop direction where things were clear, bright, hooky and energized, and on this record we wanted to do something more abstract,” says Stephen Ramsay, who founded Young Galaxy with Catherine McCandless, his wife. “We wanted it to be visceral, expansive and immersive, and represent a stranger side of things.”
Ramsay and McCandless wrote the album in their studio last summer while listening to avant-garde electronic act Burial and Trump-era nuclear war threats on the news.
“We were writing about this existential upheaval and fear that I think everyone was experiencing,” Ramsay says over the phone while walking around L.A. before a show.
That anxiety is also reflected in their relationship to the music industry, which, Ramsay argues, is a microcosm of the world at large.
“It feels like late-period capitalism is sinking its fangs into everyone. There’s more wealth disparity, and the rich already have control over things. The middle class is gutted, and the top artists are in control of what used to be shared.”
That anxiety spread to the precariousness of Young Galaxy, which recently faced a shakeup. After 2015’s Falsework, their two long-term touring bandmates left to pursue other projects, and the band’s relationship with its label, Paper Bag, fell apart.
Ramsay and McCandless realized that signing with another label could lead them to the same place in another three years, so they decided to rely on themselves and each other (which is the theme of the Down Time song Frontier) and continue on as a duo.
“Honestly, it’s been completely liberating,” Ramsay says. “We can call the shots now. We’re totally redefining what we’re doing, and we’re doing it from the perspective of a band rather than a label. Those two things can be very different.”
In an industry where labels are eager to break new acts, Ramsay says existing bands don’t get much long-term support to keep going, unless they blow up, which is harder than ever to do.
He agrees with Murray Lightburn of the Dears, who told him that an Indiana Jones wall came down on the music industry in about 2005. Canadian indie bands like Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene and Stars slid under to achieve sizeable record sales and acclaim, while everyone else piled up behind it.
He’d know. Young Galaxy were once an upstart buzz band with a lot of hype, and when they released their first album in 2007 on Arts & Crafts, the label expected big things. But Ramsay says the record didn’t achieve anywhere close to the same sales as the band he’d previously played in, Stars. Record sales in general had gone down. People had just stopped buying as many albums.
“The exposure was there, but everything was changing,” Ramsay says, “Since then, multiple doors have closed over and over [in the industry]. Now it’s really tough.”
There are more people making music than ever, he says, making it harder for indie artists to be heard. He points to how the top 20 artists on streaming services like Spotify get the most plays by far.
Ramsay prefers to follow the example of his uncompromising musical heroes, the Velvet Underground, an enduring, influential band that nobody listened to at the time.
“There’s a lot of music out there that sounds like everything else, and there’s a lot of pressure for bands to satisfy Spotify algorithms,” he says. “I wish there was more of a sense of punk rock and not caring about what other people think.”
Thankfully, they’ve stuck around. Ramsay says Young Galaxy owe Toronto fans a good show after their “cursed” 2016 tour. By the time they played the Mod Club that year, McCandless’s vocal capacity had been reduced to about 20 per cent.
“Our van broke down, our children were really young and they got sick, then we got sick,” Ramsay says.
This time around though?
“It’ll be a true representation of who we are.”
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