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Romantic Anti-Romanticists

Apr 01, 2006 Tangiers Bookmark and Share

“What do they sound like?”

It’s usually the first question that comes to mind when you hear about a new band. For most people, a response might include a few popular bands as reference points, or a mash-up of musical genres the artist employs, but pose the question to the artists themselves, and you might as well be asking them for their social security number. Suddenly it gets a little too personal. “You know, that’s about the hardest question you can ask somebody,” says James Sayce, bassist/vocalist, and co-founder of Toronto-based Tangiers. It’s hard to imagine Sayce irritated in any situation, and to be honest, he’s not really, but for someone so down-to-earth and enthusiastic—not to mention rather funny—this is about as irritated as he most likely gets.

“We’ll be on tour and some old guy at a truck stop will go, ‘You’re in a band! What do you guys sound like?’” He does his best to get across the on-the-spot-ness of the question, and for a moment you begin to sympathize with him. Perhaps it is an unfair question. How do you distill something so close to you into a few measly lines of description, but then Sayce concedes, “It’s a good question, because people need to know what we sound like.”

Sayce’s answer usually depends on the situation. For the old guy at the truck stop he might offer the stock answer of “The Clash,” or “You know The Rolling Stones at all?” while more elaborate definitions are reserved for encounters with younger folks in bars. “If it’s some kid, like a girl or something, I guess you’d say that we sound kind of like…um…semi-brainy poppy punk rock that’s sort of introspective in some way, but by the time I got to that part of the sentence, she would have lost her attention completely.”

You can imagine the countless variations Sayce must have fumbled through over the course of the band’s three-year career in describing the sound offered by he and his mates (guitarist/vocalist and co-founder Josh Reichmann, keyboard player Shelton Deverell, and drummer Jon McCann): semi-punky brainy rock pop, semi-rocking brainy pop punk, etc. “Every time we’ve been asked that question we’ve been unable to answer it. It’s just basically, they’re pop songs, but some kind of art student snuck into the studio in the middle of the night and mixed everything around a bit, and then in the morning it’s like, ‘Oh, that kind of sounds better, let’s go with that.’”

Sayce isn’t far off with such loose definitions. Last October, Tangiers released their third proper LP, The Family Myth, a smart and subtly humorous collection of jagged, tense pop, featuring twelve rolling, hook-laden, off-kilter melodies, jangly guitars that alternately rip and sparkle, and a rhythm section that is no-apologies bombast—if Sayce’s art student was mixing anything, he was pushing the drums and bass way up in the mix, provoking a dub-like atmosphere.

The story of Tangiers begins in downtown Toronto, where Sayce grew up, the son of two librarians. He met Reichmann as a teen, playing in numerous bands together—“basically goofy kind of fun bands ‘til we were in our 20s, and then I guess it was just natural,” he says. “I mean, we have a pretty close-knit group of friends, we all sort of play in bands together. Although, our drummer Jon, he’s not from Toronto, he’s from Kingston, which is a college town about three hours from Toronto.” McCann also comes by way of Guided By Voices, the band he drummed for during a two-year stint following the departure of Jim MacPherson. McCann coincidentally replaced Tangiers’s original drummer after the group’s debut, Hot New Spirits in 2003. He was joined by Deverell in time for the follow-up, Never Bring You Pleasure, released in 2004.

With both records receiving notable acclaim from the likes of Pitchfork Media and All Music Guide, Tangiers seemed poised for greater exposure, but for two primary reasons it never materialized. “We didn’t tour very much,” Sayce remembers, laughing. “Canada is a terrible place to tour.”

He stops to dwell on this. “It’s awful. A few weeks ago, we did this tour—we did all the college towns in Ontario, which are all really good, and we went up to Montréal —that was great. Ottawa’s really good. But then you’ve got to drive to a place called Sudbury and then to another place called Thunder Bay, and these cities are tiny—they’re like nickel mining towns, and the drives are between 8 and 14 hours, basically. And to get from Thunder Bay to Winnipeg is another 10 hours. And Winnipeg is like, you know, the first sign of civilization—you know, when you’re coming from Toronto or Montréal. So, it’s rough, but by the time you get to Vancouver it’s totally worth it because Vancouver is an amazing place to play shows. And Calgary and Edmonton are the two other cities, and they’re pretty good as well.” Sayce seems to be warming up to the notion of another Canadian jaunt as the memory of the band’s first tour comes back to him. “It’s good to just sort of pile into a van with your friends, drive across a really beautiful-looking country, and sort of see how the other half of Canadian people live.”

And the other reason? “Our Canadian label who put out our first two records, really wanted us to tour a lot. And, uh, I just finished college last May, so I couldn’t really get into the van and tour that much. I mean, we did Canada once in 2003, at the end of 2003, on our first record because we got to open for Frank Black.”

It hasn’t helped matters that the band’s native press seems at odds with the American outfits who liken Tangiers to bands like XTC, Richard Hell & The Voidoids, or even The Zombies, having inaccurately pegged them for a northern version of a certain trendy art-rock band from New York City. “Canadian publications have a totally different take on what we sound like. Canadian publications think we sound like The Strokes,” says a bemused Sayce. “I don’t think it sounds like that at all. Like, how could you come up with The Strokes?!”

So with minimal touring and little fanfare, Tangiers have stayed pretty much under the radar to this point, churning out their manic pop records, old-school style: one a year. There are benefits to such situations, beyond just having creative control: unlike said New York City band, Sayce and co. haven’t had to confront the notion of re-inventing themselves after every single record merely to the behest of an ever-fickle public, nor have they fallen under intense media scrutiny. In other words, it’s afforded them a natural state of progression.

Their recent signing to Frenchkiss Records should alter that situation slightly. They got the call from the small label in late 2004 and were invited down to New York to record with Chris Zane, who thus far has guided efforts by both Calla and Ambulance Ltd. For the first time the band found themselves in the plush confines of a high-end recording studio—“like a really pro-ish downtown Manhattan studio, that somehow Frenchkiss hooked up on a really good deal,” explains Sayce. No doubt, the signing to an American label will improve things in the recognition department, yet the artistic direction of the band seems firmly in the hands of its members. Zane added his touch to the recordings, but proved hardly overbearing, and ideas for future recordings reek of self-motivation, not label influence. “I think it’s probably about time to write something that’s a bit slower,” admits Sayce. “I think we’re gonna go pick up some acoustic guitars and write some quiet stuff first and see if we can focus on melodies before we just basically get to a studio and spazz out. It’s hard for us. Being in a studio is exciting. We generally start flipping out after about 20 minutes, and then make records like what we’ve made.”

Touring, though is definitely on the minds of those in the band, as they try to get “the ball rolling in the U.S.” The new-ness of it all is not lost on Sayce. “It’s weird,” he explains, “because, you know, we’re from Canada and we haven’t had an American label before. We haven’t had an American booking agent. We haven’t had American anything basically. Like, all we did was go to New York and play a few shows, and we got lucky ‘cause some of the Frenchkiss guys were out and they were like, ‘Oh, let’s put out your record.’”

An official website is even in the works. Initial attempts according to Sayce were deemed “whack,” and fell by the wayside. “It just didn’t really work out, so then we left the tour dates up. French Kiss [was] like, ‘Where’s your website?’ And I was kind of like, ‘Oh, we’re working on it, we’re working on it.’ I mean, it’s still pretty indie rock. You know, like nobody has a lot of money to be throwing around. I guess if there was money for a website it would probably go to something else first rather than a website, you know?”

Fortunately, the band’s number one priority is writing great songs, though art direction might be considered a close second. Reichmann, a gifted artist in his own right—he designed friends’s hip hop record covers in high school—has to this point been in charge of sleeve design, infusing at times a cut-and-paste method with a post-modern touch, rendering some rather striking images in the process. The Family Myth cover features a side profile of an illustrated skull underneath what appears to be the bottom portion of a chandelier. Inside, is a photo of Sayce and Reichmann on a sofa, the former clutching an axe, the latter on the telephone. Sayce reasons the emphasis in this department: “It’d be such an easy cop-out to be like, ‘Oh, that looks acceptable—let’s let the music speak for itself,’ but, if you have the chance to do something totally cool—if somebody is going to print thousands of copies of this thing, you should make it look as good as you can.”

As the principle songwriters, Sayce and Reichmann have proven a potent pair—their songs at once spontaneous and tuneful. Though their work overall would qualify as a collaboration, as it stands now, whoever writes the music to a particular song, also handles the lyrics. “Whoever’s original idea the song was will write the lyrics because that person usually has an idea of where they want the song to go,” elaborates Sayce. Yet there are exceptions: “If Josh comes up with a guitar part that just takes the song further along the path that I want it to go on I’m gonna say, ‘Josh, it’s awesome. Keep that, it’s wicked.’” Compliments such as this are freely flowing when the situation calls for it, but on the other hand, Sayce admits to being apprehensive about critiquing Reichmann too closely. “Every time you step on someone’s toes, you stifle them creatively.” Still, he admits to being “somewhat competitive” with his friend.

Up until the new album, the relationship had yielded some intriguing looks at classic subjects (i.e. girls). “It’s difficult to escape writing about women, you know?,” says Sayce. “It’s unfortunate, but if you’re a dude in his twenties you kind of have to focus on that. But for some reason Josh and I tend to focus on a darker side of relationships, and how things can go wrong in relationships, and some people might not pick up on it but there’s a self-deprecating humor that sort of floats around. We’re trying to be really dark, [but] we’re also trying to be a little bit funny, you know?” You could cite “I Don’t Love You,” from Never Bring You Pleasure as a prime example. Sample lyrics: “Hey now, you never loved me anyhow/What you loved was that abstract idea that you had someone/I don’t need these kisses for Christmas/What I want is a knife, a fork, a bottle cork, ‘cause it’s over now.” Dark, yet funny.

But at the end of the day, Sayce was still feeling self-conscious about the whole thing—too many “yeah-yeah-yeah-love-you pop songs,” which might begin to explain the more dynamic range of subject matter on The Family Myth. Oddly enough, it was out of running away from the love songs and attempting a more literate approach, that Sayce stumbled upon something else. “I started writing these lyrics, and then I started feeling like I was in The Decemberists or something, you know, like I was speaking too literary, so I started making it self-referential and sort of making fun of lit-rock in a weird way.”

This sort of approach could be emblematic of the overall intent behind The Family Myth, which Sayce calls “a very Toronto record.” As Sayce explains it, Toronto is entirely made up of immigrants. “Because Canada has a really lax sort of immigration policy, and Toronto being the biggest city, everybody you know’s parents is from somewhere else. Like, my parents are from England. Josh’s parents are from the U.S. It’s kind of like America, but it’s a more recent sort of exodus to Toronto. And, also in Canada, there’s not really much of a Canadian identity really. So, people tend to hang onto their cultures a little stronger. So, basically, something that runs through the record is that young people in Toronto have this sort of identity crisis going on. And because of that, you have all of these different manifestations of that. I mean, you have these Anglophiles sort of running through the streets of Toronto dressed up like 1960s mods, and they go to these mod nights and dance to The Rolling Stones, and all this English music, and speak in English accents, and it’s kind of weird.” Sayce likens it all to a form of romanticism, which many of the songs tend to mock. “There are all these people that have been creating these sort of myths—people are creating new cultural identities for themselves, because there is no Canadian identity, necessarily. So, sometimes you’ll meet people, and they’ll have sort of made up this entire really strange history for themselves. They’ll be sort of overcompensating for not having this Canadian culture, so it’s about this sort of big mish-mash of Canadian cultural identities—young people trying to work through them trying to find out who they are.”

With Sayce sounding like such an anti-romantic, you would think The Family Myth to be as such. “Oh, but it’s also totally romantic at the same time,” he points out. “Because we’re Canadian, we can’t escape it. That’s why we had to make fun of ourselves. It’s the weirdest mix. But, at the same time, without romance we wouldn’t have anything to sing about.”



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May 9th 2010

Great Interview.. thanks

May 9th 2010

The story of Tangiers begins in downtown Toronto, where Sayce grew up, the son of two librarians. Great Interview.. thanks

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what, the album is in spanish. what does this mean? the music, harmonies and intonations or really the lyrics?

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