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The Dears

Allusions of Grandeur

Nov 01, 2008 The Dears
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“Like all Dears records, there’s a grand theme,” says Murray Lightburn, referring to the feeling of being under threat, the underlying idea behind his band’s fourth album, Missiles. It’s a universal enough concept, in step with the record’s mid-paced marvels of melody, harmony, rhythm, and riffage, located at one of the more soulful intersections of pop and rock. Missiles may not seem a particularly fitting title for such romantically inclined music (“paced to love-making,” says the band’s blog), but melodrama remains at the core of The Dears’ oeuvre. And militaristic imagery isn’t new for the band. However, despite their past political commentary, broadcast most loudly (via megaphone) on 2004’s Protest EP, Lightburn insists that this record’s title is not an allusion to the “war on terror” or any other current conflict, apart from his own.

It’s no secret that the Montréal band’s lineup has undergone a dramatic rupture. Only frontman Lightburn and his wife, keyboardist/singer Natalia Yanchak, remained by the time the album was completed last spring. The new lineup features musicians poached from other Montréal bands: Pony Up’s Lisa Smith and Laura Wills on keyboards, bass, and vocals; solo artist Jason Kent on guitar and vocals; Kill the Lights’ Yann Geoffroy on drums and keys; and Land of Talk’s Christopher McCarron on guitar. “We’re starting to sound like a band now,” Lightburn reports, “and it’s just a matter of time before we start to sound like a good band.”

Anyone who saw The Dears live between 2003 and 2006 knows that the old lineup wasn’t just a good band, but a great band. Clearly, musicianship was not the reason for its disintegration. Bassist Martin Pelland and keyboardist Valerie Jodoin-Keaton made their exits before work on Missiles began and formed a band called For Those About to Love, We Salute You. Drummer George Donoso III and guitarist Patrick Krief flew the coop after the recording of Missiles wrapped, at which point Donoso joined Pelland and Jodoin-Keaton’s band. Krief, the newest member of the old Dears line-up, left on entirely amicable terms to pursue his own band, Black Diamond Bay (also featuring Donoso), and may even return to the fold someday. But ties with the other three were severed more messily.

“Some people have the conception that it’s my fault, that I’m difficult to work with, and that the only way I can keep people in my band is by marrying them,” says Lightburn, stressing that it was less a clash of personalities that tore the band apart than a clash of values. “We’re not U2; we’re not being showered with gold, so it’s tough, and this industry is making it even harder. But money only helps to create the art. As a unit, we were losing sight of our primary function, which is to make the truest art that we can. I started this band over 10 years ago with a four-track in a one-room apartment, where I was six months behind in rent, and my philosophy of making art and doing this thing called The Dears has not changed.”

The philosophy may have remained the same, but musically, the band has grown into one of Canada’s most majestic rock outfits and best-kept secrets. Though they’ve been embraced by critics and “patrons” (a term Lightburn prefers to “fans”) throughout North America, the U.K., and Europe, the band has played bridesmaid to such breakout fellow countrymen as Arcade Fire and Feist, who strike a similar balance between rock, pop, and adult-alternative.

“The nature of the kind of music we write and the kind of music we play probably would’ve gone over better in the ’70s,” suggests Lightburn. “For whatever reason, I feel that we’re allowed to do whatever we want because we don’t really care about trends or fashion. We’re loved by some people who might have a Bloc Party record in their collection alongside a Streisand record. It’s a weird place to be, but it’s also a neat place to be. That’s the story of The Dears.”

In the past, The Smiths was an easy point of comparison. Even the band’s last album, Gang of Losers, contained echoes of Morrissey on “Whites Only Party,” a swinging little song about racism. But there are no traces of Britpop on Missiles. Perhaps the epic scope of its opener, “Disclaimer,” is reminiscent of a band like Spiritualized, with hints of mid- to late-’70s Bowie peeking out in a guitar riff here or keyboard texture there, while the finale, “Saviour,” is more Badalamenti than Blur, with a children’s choir on top. But it’s more difficult than ever to peg the band stylistically, or detect any clear derivation, perhaps due to the mystery of Lightburn’s creative process.

“It’s not like I sit there thinking ‘Oh, that John Lennon song sounds cool, maybe I’ll write something like that,’ which is probably 95 to 99 percent of the music out there—it’s just rehashing something. The Dears rehash, there’s no question, but it’s really indirect. It’s not about chord progressions, it’s about a vibe that’s inexplicable.”

“What happens is,” he elaborates, “it’ll be the middle of the night, maybe 4 in the morning, and I’m woken up with a blast of music and I have to go downstairs and work it out immediately, otherwise it might get lost. It just comes into me.”

Lightburn doesn’t deny that what he’s describing could be interpreted as a claim to divine inspiration. He views this project as a force that exists beyond mere personnel, insisting that even he and Yanchak are replaceable.

“We’re just the only constant because we still believe in it, and we’re still willing to sacrifice everything to continue. People come in, they believe in it for a while, they stop believing, and then they leave. It’s like a church; you can be a Christian for a while and then you decide, ‘Fuck this bunk, I’m outta here.’ It’s the same thing with The Dears.

“I could easily quit and go get a job tomorrow, but I don’t think that’s what my place in the world is. The thing is, I can’t take credit for all the shit that The Dears has produced. In the past, maybe I did because I was not bright enough to figure out that it’s not about me. The Dears is like an entity. It’s a quest for God. Whatever happens within the band, I just try to make it work.”


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