the stills and royal mountain band at the Phoenix (410 Sherbourne), tonight (Thursday, May 11), 8 pm, and Friday (May 12), 9 pm. $15. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
In The Stills' rented motorhome, on the way to a mini-mall guitar store somewhere on the suburban fringe of Austin, Texas, Dave Hamelin says something scandalous.
"Band On The Run is one of the best songs ever written," he remarks, and we're all - me, a photographer, the band's sound man, their tour manager and some guy from Vancouver - a bit shocked. I'm a music writer, after all. I've got my notebook out. I'm writing this down.
It gets stranger. As we're lurching around on freeways and boulevards (whoever is driving isn't sure where the guitar store is), Hamelin, one of the meteoric pop band's two singer/guitarist frontmen, tells a story about driving into Montreal when that Paul McCartney and Wings song was playing on the city's classic rock station. He pulled the car over to listen to it: the vastly different parts, when that first acoustic guitar strum comes in. He plays it in the air. "It's fucking genius."
Then we're talking about how much we like certain classic rock, uh, classics, and about the secret pleasure of hearing an entire Pink Floyd B-side on the radio, and I'm thinking, "God, this could ruin the band if it ever got out."
Oh, but these are strange days in the music world. A band could be living under a bridge in an Ohio suburb one day and playing Coachella the next. Last year's darlings are this year's pariahs, but the pariahs of five years ago are next year's rediscovered gems. Maybe classic rock is back and an acceptable influence. Or maybe this, an hour or so before the band debuts songs from their new record, Without Feathers, at Spin magazine's exclusive day party at South By Southwest, is a calculated effort on Hamelin's part to further obfuscate the Stills' identity.
After all, everybody's always trying to pin them down, to reduce their origin and influences to a couple of bite-sized sentences. And, inadvertently or intentionally, the Stills have consistently resisted being stereotyped, pigeonholed or even just defined.
Here are some of the bands that journalists, critics, message board denizens and the Stills have suggested as influences: Echo and the Bunnymen, Interpol, Fleetwood Mac, the Clash, the Pixies, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Björk, the Specials, the Smiths, Radiohead, Wilco, Broken Social Scene, Joy Division, the Cure, Wolf Parade. Wolf Parade? They've been accused of being from Montreal, New York and both places at once.
Who are the Stills? Does anybody know? Do they even know themselves?
This is what we do know. Most of the musicians in the Stills have known each other for years, and they all grew up in or around Montreal. Some of them are francophones, and all of them occasionally and probably unknowingly switch to French in the middle of conversations.
When they were still pretty much teenagers, some of them were in a scrappy, eager ska band called the Undercovers. They were known then to wear the thrift-shop outfits of tight jeans, blazers and fedoras that are now their shabby trademark, and occasionally to rip through a few drunken, sloppy Clash covers at local shows.
Then they were in the Dropouts, a punk group that more or less split up into the Stills and headbanger revivalists Priestess. On the advice of their managers - two former members of Montreal ska orchestra Me, Mom & Morgentaler, both of whom had moved to New York City - they played a bunch of gigs while couch-surfing in the Big Apple and earned an almost instant following.
"People pay attention to you because of it," Tim Fletcher, the band's other frontman, says of the media's tendency to hype certain cities - and, in the Stills' case, to categorize them as both a New York and Montreal band. "Then it devalues you later. You struggle to get out of it. And it's tiring in the end. It's like, 'Can you just listen to our music and not have it be about a place?' "
In a relatively short period of time, they signed to Vice Records, put out a debut album, the frequently morose but nonetheless hook-laden and best-stuff-about-the-80s-evoking Logic Will Break Your Heart, and then got huge, playing U.S. late-night shows, opening for acts like Echo and the Bunnymen and Interpol and touring for two years straight.
If that sounds fast, it's because it was, and it may account for the uncertain sense of self the Stills were left with when touring wrapped up.
"We didn't really have a chance to grow as a band musically," says keyboard player Liam O'Neil. "There were a lot of things we knew we needed to change."
"Instead of rushing it and rushing out on the road," says Fletcher, "we were like, 'Let's put out an album that we'll be happy touring with and happy living with for the three years after it's come out. '"
As the Stills were planning changes, they were also being changed. The departure of long-time guitarist Greg Paquet allowed Hamelin, who writes roughly half the songs, to move out from behind the drum kit and actually sing them. O'Neil, for ages the band's "touring keyboard guy," was made a permanent member, and Julien Blais took Hamelin's place on drums.
On Without Feathers, the Stills wanted to achieve something "more organic," Fletcher says, and they wanted to do it in Montreal because they wanted to be able to go home after recording.
"The idea behind the whole record was that it's a band just playing," says O'Neil. "Plug your stuff in, get in a room together, roll tape and start playing. That was the aesthetic, sonically, that we went for."
Hamelin once described life on the road to an interviewer as "23 hours of bullshit, one hour of fun," and you can understand this record as an attempt to maximize the fun. It's a record, in fact, that makes more sense once you've seen the band perform.
"We wanted to write something that was open to us screwing around with it live," Fletcher acknowledges. "We felt a rigidity that we needed to break out of. A box we were stuck in."
If Logic was fast-paced but lugubrious, Without Feathers is leisurely but upbeat.
"There's a lot of hopefulness," Fletcher says of their exit from the gloom, "and most of the songs are written in a major key."
Many songs start off at a dreamy pace, with a simple chord progression or a quick B3 organ riff, and then build and build into something towering and poignant. It's epic, timeless rock, and, although direct comparisons to bands like Wilco, U2 or Radiohead wouldn't be accurate, the Stills are certainly chasing after the majestic mood those bands create. Songs like She's Walking Out or the opening track, In The Beginning, as they build into unstable, glorious ruins, come deliciously close to that majesty.
"We said to ourselves, 'If this is our last record, let's go down swinging and having a great time and making the album we want to make,'" Fletcher says. "And if everything fucks up, we fucked up doing exactly what we wanted to do."
It's quite possible that "doing exactly what we wanted to do" has something to do with writing songs that, when played on the radio a few decades from now, will cause people driving home to pull their cars over and just listen.
But the Stills have many more changes ahead of them.
"Yeah, we don't always know who we are," Fletcher says. "Why should a band be in stasis? If you want to remain completely awake and aware of what's going on and sing songs about what's going on, you can never be comfortable."