Photo by Vanessa Heins
PS I LOVE YOU at the Garrison (1197 Dundas West), Tuesday (May 15). $10.50. RT, SS, TW. See listing.
Good thing PS I Love You never moved to Toronto: they wouldn't be the same band. Their sound is intrinsically linked to the experience of living in a place like Kingston, and not just because of guitarist/singer Paul Saulnier's penchant for referencing local landmarks.
In smaller Canadian cities, there are fewer secretly insecure cool kids who roll their eyes if you add some hair-metal-era shredding to your earnest indie rock. Conversely, you can be as earnest as you want without fear of being laughed at.
And then there's the geography. "I get pretty nervous and paranoid in big cities like Toronto, especially if I'm on my own," drummer Ben Nelson admits. "On tour I don't usually go anywhere by myself, because I get lost really easily. I like that everything in Kingston is pretty much in walking distance."
Sitting in the office of their record label, Paper Bag, both Saulnier and Nelson tend to stare at the wall in front of them when they talk, although you'd never mistake that lack of eye contact for rudeness.
As we speak, they're recovering from their CMW gig the night before (which you can watch below). Saulnier is sick ("I'm struggling to stay conscious," he admits), but you don't get the sense they'd be any more extroverted were they well rested and in perfect health.
You'd think they might be cheerier and more confident. They get tons of love from taste-making publications like Pitchfork, and Spin magazine just listed Saulnier as the 99th-best guitarist of all time. They made a huge impact with their debut, and their sophomore effort, Death Dreams, is bigger, better and already getting the kind of buzz other bands would kill for.
"I like landmarks. That's the really fun part on tour," Nelson says as he contemplates P.S. I Love You's upcoming tour. "Stonehenge, the Eiffel Tower - all these places you never thought you'd see in your life."
There's something charming about Nelson's excitement over touristy sightseeing, but it's not that surprising that the taciturn percussionist gets off on geography and monuments. PS I Love You's critically acclaimed debut album, Meet Me At The Muster Station, was named after a ferry dock in Kingston, and the song Princess Towers off their new disc is another Kingston reference.
"It's a crazy building in Kingston," Saulnier explains.
"It's hideous," Nelson interjects.
"It's a really strange-looking building, probably the tallest in the city," Saulnier continues. "When you're riding the ferry and looking at Kingston, the city looks like an old, pretty place, and then there's this giant monolithic concrete thing. It's weird-looking, but I've always loved it, and it has charm.
"The song isn't supposed to be about ‘Hey, look at this shitty building,'" Saulnier continues. "It's a formula I use with lyrics. I pick a place that's important to where we live, and then assign to it my own personal feelings about who I am. That song is about feeling really out of place and like you don't belong somewhere, but if you weren't where you are it wouldn't be right."
So it's about being at peace with your own awkwardness?
"No, there's no acceptance," Saulnier answers, laughing.
The bearded frontman has a surprisingly high-pitched speaking voice, and while that gives him an air of timidity, his answers convey the sense that he's spent some time working through his ideas on his own.
The new album is named after intense dreams Saulnier had, but it's less about fearing death than about the fear of life itself.
"A lot of the new songs are more about trying to not think about the future," Saulnier explains. "There's something comforting about that, because then it means that all your shitty problems don't matter."
"I'm not sad, especially now, but I think we're both naturally low-key and somewhat apathetic about things," Nelson says in what seems an attempt to dispel the idea that they're a couple of depressed dudes. "We care, and we're not lazy, but... I don't know, it's hard to explain. We don't have issues happening in our life right now that are bringing us down. Maybe it's just normal life?"
"If you're apathetic for long enough, you get really angry," interjects Saulnier. "That's kind of what punk rock is."
That throwaway statement is actually a very concise way of distilling the difference between hippy anger and the far more cynical simmering fury of the post-boomer generations.
The former protested because they cared and believed, while the latter grew up resenting their own lack of faith and hope in idealistic solutions. From that standpoint, the idea of "no future" feels like relief.
"It reminds me of one of my favourite books - the Plague, by Albert Camus," Saulnier says. "There's a small French town, and a medieval plague sets in, so they wall it up and close it off from the world to quarantine it. People deal with it in various ways, but there's this one guy who's super-happy about all of it."
Punk rock isn't the first thing that comes to mind when you hear PS I Love You, despite their love of guitar noise, affection for lo-fi home recording textures, and Saulnier's squeaky yelp of a singing voice. Though they claim that Death Dreams is heavily influenced by 70s punk, their sound is more characterized by their willingness to mix alt-rock references with the classic rock that bands like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. were supposed to be an argument against.
That tension between underground cool and uncool is reflected in Saulnier's new onstage toy, a ridiculous double-necked guitar straight out of a teenager's stadium rock fantasies.
"Audiences laugh when they see it at first. And then after a couple of songs it's not a joke any more. I like that."
That 18-string monster of an instrument is definitely maximalist, but though they've recently drafted a third member (multi-instrumentalist Tim Bruton, borrowed from the D'Urbervilles), their stage show is still quite minimalist, reflecting the group's origins as a one-man-band.
Like the double-necked guitar, Saulnier's unorthodox routine of playing the bass lines with organ pedals (while simultaneously shredding and screaming) can come across like a gimmick at first but is no laughing matter once they get going. Whether they're a duo or a trio, PS I Love You have no problem unleashing a sometimes terrifying wall of sound.
"A lot of my favourite bands play so loud that it becomes more than just an audio experience. You feel it in your body," Saulnier says, attempting to justify his unreasonable stage volume.
"Basically, if I can hear my drums too well, there's something wrong," Nelson continues.
As the conversation moves on to the upcoming season of touring, you glimpse the ambition and excitement the pair seem reluctant to acknowledge. Nelson admits he's eager to play sets full of the new material even though he used to be annoyed when bands he loved would favour their newest album instead of playing the hits.
"I like playing the hits," Saulnier counters. "And I like thinking of songs of ours as hits - it makes me feel good. There were even a few people screaming out the titles of songs last night."
"Yeah, and we didn't play them," Nelson shoots back.
Saulnier smiles for a second.
"I felt like a real rock star."