YOUNG GALAXY with DON VAIL , LAST TOWN CHORUS and the FILMS at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Tuesday (January 23). Free. 416-598-4753. Rating: NNNNN
Though Stephen Ramsay's band Young Galaxy, which he co-founded with long-time girlfriend Catherine McCandless, has yet to release a proper album, let alone headline a proper tour, they're already rubbing up against people's skewed expectations.
First off, while Ramsay is best known to most as the towering touring guitarist for soft revolutionaries Stars, he's adamant about the fact that Young Galaxy is not a Stars side project. Nor does Ramsay's current focus on his own project signal the imminent collapse of that band (though you can't be blamed for thinking otherwise, since Stars singers Amy Millan and Torq Campbell have been off plugging their respective solo endeavours).
Nope. He and Stars have amicably parted ways. "Because I'm already writing my own stuff, it just didn't make sense to keep being a hired gun," Ramsay affably explains over the phone from Montreal through a cold-induced feverish haze. "It was the right decision. Since they already have five people equally sharing the musical process, it was too hard to factor another person in.
"The short answer is that I won't be playing with Stars any more. I mean, I'd love to get up onstage with them whenever they're in town, which is not unheard of within the Arts & Crafts family, but I suppose that'd depend on them."" he trails off.
Despite Ramsay's allusion to the Arts & Crafts family and the fact that his group signed to the ever-expanding T.O. label, he insists that Young Galaxy isn't just another satellite act under the A&C umbrella.
Ramsay started working on a lot of the material you'll hear on YG's forthcoming debut LP long before he hooked up with Stars and co., back when he was a self-conscious West Coast closet musician whose performances didn't extend beyond friends' house parties and his own BC bedroom.
"When I was growing up in Nanaimo, small-town BC, I was a huge Smiths fan. I'd sit in my bedroom staring at the rain through my window and identify with these huge emotional pronouncements Morrissey was making. Music was my religion, my conduit to finding meaning in the world.
"I loved that it was such a direct way of putting forward complex emotional states people could identify with," he continues. "Take a song like Bittersweet Symphony, by the Verve. You've got this grand, swaggering epic, but underneath you're hearing the singer totally pouring his heart out and telling you how he's damaged."
Songs like Swing Your Heartache, with its quivering organ, fuzzy boy-girl vocals and shuffling beat, and the opiate-hazed Sun's Coming Up And My Plane's Going Down, do fit comfortably into A&C's established dream-pop aesthetic.
But textured production by the Besnard Lakes' Jace Lasek and Ramsay's own deadpan vocals and a certain hesitant quality in his songwriting nudge Young Galaxy's sound closer to shoegazey bands like Slowdive, Galaxie 500 and Luna than to the Dinosaur Jr./Smiths school favoured by many of their labelmates.
While you get the sense that Ramsay's protective of his tunes, and maybe even wrestling with a case of nerves over finally throwing his own material to the wolves after the relative comfort of fleshing out other artists' work, this is a guy who's used to trial by fire.
After all, he'd never really performed in front of an actual audience before Stars tapped him for an international tour.
"Well, the first show I ever played with Stars was in Thunder Bay, so it wasn't like getting thrown into the throng of bloodthirsty fans," Ramsay laughs. "There were about 25 people in the crowd, and I think half were there for the wing special.
"But a week later, we were opening for Death Cab for Cutie at the Commodore in Vancouver. There were at least 800 people there! I could barely stand up, and I remember (Death Cab singer) Ben Gibbard hugging me when I was practically legless. I think everyone around me wasn't quite sure I could make it, but after two years of solid touring, I think I'm in good shape now."
Audio Interview Clips
Stephen on the themes in his songs
Stephen on why he writes music