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The Dears

Beautiful Losers

Jul 01, 2006 The Dears Photography by Christophe Collette Bookmark and Share

“My glamorous lifestyle is catching up with me,” says Dears songwriter and vocalist Murray Lightburn from what he describes as a “fucking lame hotel” in Sydney, Australia. Though he’s a talkative and engaging man, two weeks of European promotional interviews for his band’s third full-length release, Gang of Losers, have left him with little excitement for explaining either his songwriting approaches, his thoughts on the Canadian scene, or the rationale behind stripping his band’s orchestral pop sound down to its bare elements. “My attitude towards it all now is like, I know there are some people who would say I’m an ungrateful bastard when I make these jokes or bitch about being-no, I shouldn’t say that,” he says, stopping himself. “I’m sure that people say that rock stars are ungrateful and all that,” he continues, lowering his voice in such a way that implies that “rock stars” were the words he didn’t say, “but I don’t know. First of all, I don’t claim to be a rock star per se, but it’s not like when I first made this thing, The Dears, with friends and stuff, and we made our first album and all that shit. It wasn’t exactly what I signed up for-to do some really lame stuff sometimes. That said, I could be ‘the no guy,’ the guy that says no to everything.”

The Dears are no longer a secret in their native Montréal, their two elaborately layered and meticulously crafted previous full-lengths having made them critical darlings in their native Canada. However, the band has made only modest breakthroughs south of the border, where many of their Canadian neighbors have found an eager following of American hipsters and industry tastemakers. In an industry often run by the script that will move the greatest number of albums, The Dears are a band which, for whatever reason, simply doesn’t fit the script. First, they’re a Canadian band to which most music critics have carelessly affixed the term “Britpop.” Second, they’re led by Lightburn, a brilliant but often press-shy and misunderstood songwriter, a man whose color confuses those who don’t like to think that a black man could sing like Morrissey. And third, they’ve simply been unlucky, having only been able to take down their “Help Wanted” sign two years ago, when the current lineup of the band solidified. If Americans like a simple plot, this one’s a bit too convoluted to follow.

“It has been tough asserting ourselves there,” says multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Natalia Yanchak from her hotel room, her head throbbing from jet lag as she discusses the American record-buying public. “A lot of the way that we’ve always worked in the past-we like to build a team and work with people who are kind of on the same page as us, who believe in the project, and who want to be an extension of our identity. I think we’ve never found those people [in America]; those partners, those people that we could communicate with and who really believed in that. It’s a tough market to be Canadian and try to wriggle your way into. I mean, look at us, we’re like the Benetton ad of bands. We’ve got a black guy, two girls, you’ve got some French people…” she trails off with a laugh. “We’re not four white guys playing angular chords.”

What The Dears are is a band that have undergone so many changes that in 2006 they hardly resemble the band that recorded the 2003 breakthrough No Cities Left. Lightburn and Yanchak married and had a daughter named Neptune. Guitarist John Cohen is long gone, having been replaced by Patrick Krief before the band’s 2004 U.S tour. Even their signature string-laden, ornately arranged indie rock has been highly overhauled, revealing a tougher, louder, more focused rock unit. Today, The Dears are a real band, and Gang of Losers is their statement of solidarity

Heartless Romantic

Murray Lightburn is in a bad mood. Having hardly slept since he flew into Australia the previous night, he admits as much. “I’m in a place right now where I don’t have time for any bullshit, which is why my patience is a bit short,” he laughs, admitting that the hotel’s lack of an elevator was a particularly egregious offense for a musician with a lot of gear. “That said, I’m not claiming to be Bono,” he says, apparently feeling as if he is protesting too much. “I do care about the planet. That’s why I do what I do, but it’s weird. It’s a weird place, this place called rock and roll.”

Appropriately enough, Gang of Losers is the most easily classifiable “rock and roll” album in The Dears’ catalog. Recorded by the band in Lightburn and Yanchak’s house, there are few of the ornate sonic signposts of their last two full-length releases. Where No Cities Left called on an assemblage of upwards of 500 individual instrument tracks, the songs on Gang of Losers are single takes, sonically lean, and thematically focused, an album from a band that seems confident enough to make an unadorned and musically direct statement.

“My dream was to do it live, live, live, because one of the biggest inspirations to me in the approach to making it was some of the radio sessions that we did while we were on tour,” Lightburn explains, every word out of his mouth heavy with conviction. “I think that nervousness and immediacy is the same thing that happens when you play live, and you show up in your hometown and there’s 1,200 people there, and the anticipation is high and your folks are there-all that jazz. I think to bring that nervous energy and uncomfortableness-we were trying to bring that onto the record.”

Undeniably, Gang of Losers pulses with the energy of a band playing together in the studio, and for the first time in the group’s history, The Dears have reached a place where the band’s collaborative dynamic can emerge. Weeks of five-hour sessions with drummer George Donoso III and bassist Martin Pelland in Donoso’s parents’ basement added structure to Lightburn’s embryonic compositions, and a tougher, more immediate set of songs began taking shape. For a visionary like Lightburn, who was once credited as having “written and directed” one of his band’s albums, giving up creative control could be a problem.

“We’re always trying to collaborate, but I get bossy at times,” Lightburn admits. “I really want to listen to what everybody has to say, and I really want everyone to contribute, and I really want to incorporate all of our ideas. This album is definitely more of a collaborative thing, I would say. I don’t know what the other guys are going to say. They probably have some nasty things to say, but whatever,” he laughs.

“If he didn’t have such a strong vision, then he would doubt himself and we would doubt him,” counters the soft-spoken Valérie Jodoin-Keaton (vocals/keyboards). “The good thing about Murray is that he is anything but bullshit. He is allergic to that, which is why I respect his vision very much. I never feel like it’s anything fake. Sometimes I feel like Murray has lived a thousand lives. You can feel it. I don’t know if you can call it sensitivity, but he seems to understand a lot about life.”

More than ever, Lightburn is willing to share his life-and his creative process-with his bandmates. “It’s definitely hard, because it took him six years to trust us enough to be able to do that,” Donoso explains. “I actually thought he was pretty loose about the whole thing. I expected him to be way more aggressive. I’ve worked with a lot of people in the past, and he’s great to work with on songwriting. He’d just had a baby, and I guess he felt comfortable just letting loose. I mean, he has definitely chilled out as a person, and I think that has affected him a lot as an artist.”

The creative decision most directly influenced by the arrival of Lightburn and Yanchak’s new baby was to record their third album entirely in the couple’s home. “I just couldn’t deal with the idea of being away from the kid for that long,” says Lightburn. “Having her in the house definitely changed the vibe of the recording and changed my vibe. I was way less stressed out. But the other reason was that I knew that there was no way that this album could sound like it does with all of those variables in place. We rented a bunch of gear and set it up our way, and the room sounded like no other room, and you put all of those elements together and…” Lightburn grows strangely quiet before erupting, “Oh, that’s it! That’s the final fucking piece of the puzzle! There’s literally a cockroach crawling on the bedside table. That’s it! We’re out of this fucking hotel. This interview’s over,” he mutters. “I’m kidding. Well, that’s that on that question.”

With the baby upstairs while the band recorded downstairs, the result was an album composed of single takes that captured the spontaneity, energy, and sometimes the mistakes of a band in a specific moment in time. The no-frills immediacy in the arrangements and playing is mirrored in Lightburn’s newfound candor as a songwriter. “I was not really wanting to fuss around with too much poetry,” he admits. “Sometimes I find that there’s more poetry in the way that people speak normally than if you try to sound poetic, like you’re Jim Morrison or some shit. So, I think I just found myself saying what I want to say in the way that I would say it normally.”

As a writer, Lightburn has never stretched himself more, creating a thematically dense song cycle that runs from his reflections on fatherhood on “Ticket to Immortality” to his rumination on the having been saved from poverty on “Ballad of Humankindness,” and his commentary on racism in “Whites Only Party.” Though indie-rock fans might consider themselves to be more socially progressive than most music fans, the idea of a black man fronting an indie-rock band has provided uninvited static in the band’s communication with their audience. “There are a lot of cool white people that don’t really give a shit about any of this,” Lightburn explains. “And then there’s the white people that pretend that they don’t give a shit, and want to be cool, and the deep down the reason they like Bloc Party is because they have that element of ‘Oh, the singer’s black! That’s so cool! That makes me not racist! I’m OK!’-which I find really fucking hilarious. And The Dears sometimes fall into that category. Then there’s the other people who in every dis of The Dears, the subtext is ‘I don’t like the fact that the singer’s black because I feel threatened.’ And I’m dead serious about all of this, which is why a song like ‘Whites Only Party’ exists on the album. It’s addressing all of those things at once. That’s how I feel about it. I’m not paranoid. It’s so true. It’s so fucking true. Nobody will ever admit it. No one will come out and say it. There are some people who don’t have issues with it, but there are a lot of people-especially in America-who don’t want to hear about it. They just don’t.”

Like any songwriter, Lightburn has to deal with the prospect of misconceptions and misinterpretations, and Gang of Losers is a text ripe for misreading, from title to track listing. “The title seems telling, but in my opinion, I’m not calling The Dears losers,” he says of the album’s provocative title. “I mean, I jokingly refer to us as a gang of losers, but I jokingly refer to a lot of people as a gang of losers. Sometimes it’s more endearing, and sometimes it’s meant as a dis. You can look at in a lot of different ways. It has a million meanings to the point that it is meaningless. It’s about something, but I’m not sure anymore what it is. People think that ‘Whites Only Party’ is about racism, but it’s about a lot more than that. It’s about so many fucking things that I can’t even begin to tell you. It manifests itself in the things that I relate to, which is racism because I am black, and I’ve traveled the world and I’ve experienced racism in all different kinds of shades. That’s the way that I’m going to relate. But at the same time, if you’re a woman you can relate to it, and if you’re gay you can relate to it. If you’re any of those B-sides in life, you can relate to that song, I hope. I think, again, the whole meaning of the album…” Lightburn stops, sounding frustrated. “Some people say it’s depressing, some people say it’s uplifting. So, it all depends how you’re taking it in and what’s going on inside yourself, which is the whole point of the album to me. What’s going on with you? It’s the whole point of what we’re singing about. It’s not about what’s going on with us. It’s not about what’s going on with Murray. Who cares what’s going on with Murray? I know what’s going on with Murray. I’m staying in a fucking crap hotel room with my daughter and my wife and her sister, and I want to get the fuck out of here. What’s going on with you? I have no idea, but hopefully this album will help you figure it out. It’s asking a lot of questions.”

Though there is no clear consensus on what Gang of Losers represents thematically, on the surface it seems to be a song cycle devoted to finding strength in being marginalized, with Lightburn continuing to walk the line between hopeless idealist and bitter realist. “I think it’s less dark than the last one, because No Cities Left is a little gloomier, I guess,” Jodoin-Keaton muses. “With this one, you get a little bit of everything. There are songs about fear. There are hopeful emotions. It’s a stronger album, because there is an element of fear. There’s an element of darkness, hope, fighting for life. It goes way deeper through all of these emotions.”

Exploring such existential profundities seems to come naturally to Lightburn, but the man with a seemingly effortless way with melody admittedly struggled through parts of the writing of Gang of Losers, with an unexpected writing prompt providing inspiration. “Only a couple of songs came out when I was losing my way as a writer, and Neptune showed up and kind of put a fresh perspective on things,” he says, his voice softening as he turns contemplative. “It was kind of fate that she showed up, because I was trying to figure some shit out, and her coming into our lives was another way of looking at things. That’s how a song like ‘Ticket to Immortality’ found its place. I almost didn’t finish writing it because I was losing my way on it. And then when she showed up, it just turned. Songs like that and ‘Find Our Way to Freedom’ just turned, but it’s not in that Céline Dion kind of way. It’s that death makes you think and life makes you think. Obviously, it was a profound experience for me, but I have enough to deal with. I’m not going to bring that into The Dears’ realm too much.”

Pinned Together, Falling Apart

Lightburn is a complex and sometimes contradictory man. He speaks with a bluntness that is at both refreshing and unsettling, as he says every word with such conviction that it’s difficult to know when he’s being serious and when he’s engaging in good-natured hyperbole. He’s as supremely confident as he is self-effacing, an artist with an undeniably clear vision of his work and an unsparingly self-critical eye. Though he speaks in rather flowery language about how “The Dears are founded on love,” Lightburn has the reputation for being a bit intimidating.

“He’s one of those people who is incredibly good at making a terrible first impression, so he’s got a lot of shit in the past, with people meeting him and hating him,” Donoso admits. “But he’s a fucking sweetheart once you get to know him. Maybe in the past, he got off on playing with people. Some people will approach you and take you way too seriously, if they’re fans or whoever, and he fucking hates that. That drives him fucking mad.”

Of course, there was a time not so long ago that The Dears didn’t have to worry about adoring fans, as they’ve been a band that has walked the line between extinction and success with nearly every turn. Originally begun as a songwriting project for Lightburn, The Dears didn’t take on a collaborative identity until Yanchak joined the band before the recording of 2000’s End of a Hollywood Bedtime Story. “Making Hollywood, it was just me and Murray and some other guys that played on the album and then left the band. It wasn’t like a real thing,” Yanchak says, her daughter babbling in the background. “It was like, ‘Oh, let’s make a band, fuck around, whatever, who cares.’ And No Cities was overburdened by that, like, ‘We don’t know who’s in the band. We don’t know who’s going to stay. Will anyone stay? Is there going to be a Dears? Is there going to be a label?’ It was strange.”

Despite this instability, End of a Hollywood Bedtime Story went on to become a critical favorite in Canada, leading to The Dears’ rising profile as a band on the verge. Donoso and Pelland joined to solidify the rhythm section, and the band took out across Canada, trying to make good on their building momentum without killing each other in the process. “The Dears went through Canada a few times, and some days it was like, ‘Ok, that was my turn at snapping,’” says Pelland. “The day after, there would be another one, and at a certain point we had to stop because it was getting too easy to do it. You didn’t even have to justify yourself, because it was like, ‘Well, don’t say anything if I snap today, because you did yesterday, and I didn’t say anything.’...I think [The Dears are] a very special unit. It’s a big vessel, and we’re all on board. It’s Star Trek, my friend.”

Turning reflective, Pelland readies a favorite story. “We were booked at a dance music club for people age 40 and over,” he says. “Those guys were wearing bow ties with the wide shirt, and they introduced us before going on stage at like 8:15, with the room being empty. ‘Now ladies and gentleman, for the first time, The Dears!’ And there was no clapping, nothing.” He laughs, saying they were eventually asked to stop playing altogether. “We didn’t know whether it was funny or simply pathetic….Those stories are great. They’re part of working hard to achieve something. Sometimes I think it must be boring for the bands that got together and had a deal after three weeks. They never had to play a shitty club, never had to carry their amp up a flight of stairs. It’s hard to believe, but it does happen. I’m proud of this bunch of people who went through all of this for the sake of trying to spread the music to as many people as possible.”

More members would join and leave The Dears, with the band finding keepers in vocalist, keyboardist, flautist, band photographer, Pelland’s girlfriend Jodoin-Keaton, and guitarist Krief. “There was definitely some kind of bad vibe,” Krief says of the period during which he joined the band. “The Dears were only signed in Canada at the time, and I don’t think anybody knew what was going to happen, because the album had only been out for a year. When I first joined, Murray was just like, ‘Fuck it. Let’s just start the next album now,’ and then the next thing you know, No Cities Left starts selling, and we toured the U.S. and the album was picked up all over the world.”

Despite their momentum and a record deal with American indie label SpinArt, The Dears still found the American market less inviting than did many of their Canadian peers. In spite of rumors that SpinArt didn’t support the band as enthusiastically as it could have (in America, The Dears are now signed to Toronto-based label Arts & Crafts), Yanchak appears to harbor no ill will toward their previous employers. “There’s SpinArt, and there’s America,” she says. “When we were trying to get No Cities Left into the States, I thought it was just an indie label thing, and not to sound xenophobic, but I think it’s an America thing. I think we…freak Americans out. Not in a bad way, but in a way that it’s a knee-jerk reaction, like, ‘I don’t know what this is. I can’t really get my head around it, so let’s just move along to the next thing.’”

Back home things were markedly better. The group played to sold-out houses and had charting singles on Canadian radio. Still, Lightburn had trouble proving himself to his biggest critics-his parents. His father is a former jazz musician who abandoned music when he felt the call of the ministry, and who made it known that he didn’t approve of his son’s choice of vocation. Though The Dears had only achieved modest success in the United States, the strides made by No Cities Left were such that even Lightburn’s parents had to acknowledge the band’s progress.

“It was weird,” says Lightburn, “because when we did finally get home [from the tour], we had this one big show in Montréal; my parents were there for the first time. They had never seen us play, and we finally convinced them to come out and see a show. The whole time when I was onstage-and you always think, I don’t care what my parents think about what I do-the whole time, I was onstage I was so stiff. It was like walking a tightrope the whole time, any slip, I felt like my dad was watching that slip up. It was the weirdest fucking thing. That will never leave.”

As the birth of a child will often soothe old grievances, Lightburn even took the courageous step of asking his father to dust off his saxophone and play on Gang of Losers’ finale “Find Our Way to Freedom.” “It was a different time, and my dad was doing something entirely different. There are only a few similarities. It’s totally different, and I think he recognizes that now, because I think he can see my world a little bit. I don’t think he was expecting that situation when I asked him to come in. Now I think he understands what my world is like a little bit, so that makes things a little easier.”

We Can Have It

With an Australian radio station waiting for him to arrive to do a solo live-in-studio performance, Lightburn finally puts down the guitar he has been tuning during the entire interview. He sounds tired, like someone who would rather spend the afternoon with his wife and daughter than promote an album that won’t be out for a few more months. He seems to realize that this is his job now.

“In the story of The Dears, the saddest part of it is the loss of innocence, and consequently some of the romance,” Lightburn sighs. “Some of the Baudelaire, cherry-drinking, Gitane-smoking side of The Dears is gone forever. A part of us is dead forever. But, hey, everybody grows up, right? You can’t be a baby forever, and I just remember the earlier days. When we made our first record, End of a Hollywood Bedtime Story, it was just so much more like that. We never toured. Then you go through this whole machine, and everybody thinks it’s so great. You’re becoming more famous, you’re on T.V. People think that everything is so great, and it is on some levels, because you can end up having 150,000 people singing your song live. But with that comes a small army of people involved with the whole machine, and the romance is just gone. It’s like the difference between losing your virginity in a special memory kind of thing, and being in a porno where there’s boom operators and gaffers, like, ‘Can you do that again, Johnny?’ It’s all gone, there’s nothing left, and the battle is trying to get some of it back. And that’s why we choose to make our records in unconventional settings and try to get back to that raw innocence and that whole us against the world kind of thing.”

Whether or not Gang of Losers becomes their U.S. breakthrough, Lightburn seems as suspicious of success as he is fearful of failure.

“What is success?,” he asks. “Is it having millions of dollars in the bank? I feel pretty goddamn successful right now, because even though I’m in this cockroach-infested hotel, right behind me is my really awesome eight-month-old daughter who is discovering things every second of her existence. And I’m here to witness it, and it’s pretty amazing. I don’t know if that defines success or not, but I hope to be a successful parent. Shit like that is far more valuable than this crap that we’ve been talking about for the past hour. No offense to you, though.”

A sinister pause allows Lightburn to flash his oft-misunderstood sense of humor. “You had some okay questions, but this interview could have been over 50 minutes ago.”


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Mark Ewans
March 1st 2010

You’re really thankful for this post, I’ve been really enjoying checking up your posts from time to time. Looking forward to see your future posts !!
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January 10th 2011

First, the Dears are a band—no! a gang—of mendacious politicians. We must get this over with, put this to rest, the fact that a gelatinous veil of latent political, liberal intentions seems to hang over every freshly greased joint on this contraption. Take a gander at the track names; sufficiently amorphous but instinctually melodramatic. Then notice singer/lead buck Murray Lightburn’s incessant allusions to those left out, to “losers,” to “pariahs,” to people that don’t live up to their blatant racial stereotypes. “Rolex Submariner