Monday, May 19, 2008

Interview: Bry Webb of the Constantines

For nearly a decade, the Constantines have been churning out album after album of compelling, catchy, emotionally resonant music. On the heels of their outstanding new album Kensington Heights, songwriter/vocalist/guitarist Bry Webb discusses with NQL the process if the album's creation, the celebration of normal life, and the best Canadian bands you never heard of.

Nothing Quite Like: Kensington Heights has a live feel to it--the ebb and flow of a concert. The vocals are very "close" and I hear a lot of natural ambience/echo. Was this intentional? What did you do differently in the studio this time around?

Bry Webb: We didn't (do) much differently in regards to recording techniques, we were in the same studio (Hallamusic in Toronto), with the same engineer (Jeff McMurrich) as on Tournament of Hearts. The biggest difference was the amount of time we had on this record. Tournament was recorded relatively quickly, between long tours, and Kensington Heights was made over three or four months, which was a great luxury. I think we've just figured out that the best songs we've got were conceived as live performances, rather than studio bits.

NQL: On Kensington Heights I get a strong sense of forward movement, and of leaving and returning. Is it a stretch to relate these feelings to your sojourn from Three Gut to Sub Pop to Arts & Crafts? Even though you never left Canada, you recorded for a label headquartered in the U.S. Do things feel any different now? What drew you to A&C in the first place?

BW: We've definitely had a lot of change and movement in our lives, together and apart, over the last few years. At this age though, I think everyone gets a bit reflective or self-conscious about changes in life and work. Three Gut Records was a very collaborative, open, creative family, which was wonderful in our formative years as a band. We learned nearly everything we know about being a band from Royal City and Oneida, our early tour mates. Sub Pop was incredible as well, in that we just looked up to everyone there so much. They've been great friends to us. That relationship won't change. And now, Arts & Crafts has taken us on, and we're just beginning to see what they're capable of. Their energy is amazing, and it feels like we've come into another great creative community. And it's good to have the business side of what we do back in Toronto, closer to home.

NQL: What is your songwriting process? Do you come to the studio with everything prepared, or do you work off the cuff on arrangements and so forth? How much room do you give songs to change and grow after they're written?

BW: I think we just try to have songs worked out as interesting live performances before we go into the studio to record. We don't have any real system for writing songs, though. Sometimes they're collaborative ideas and sometimes private ideas, brought to the practice space. We're pretty democratic about most of what we do. I'm certainly not much of a band leader.

NQL: "New King" is flat-out one of the best songs I've heard in a long time, and I cringe asking you to discuss a specific song, but can you talk about "New King"'s origins?

BW: Most of the songs I write are little tributes to specific people in my life, who I think are surviving or defining themselves in great ways. "New King" is a song I wrote to celebrate my friends The Kings having a baby girl a few years ago. They left Toronto about five years ago, and moved to the Yukon Territory, one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Most people I know are living lives worth celebrating, so I've got subjects for songs all over the place.

NQL: Kensington Heights is more subdued than your older material. Do you feel like you're filling the role of elder statesmen or sages telling the young turks how it be? (I'm thinking of "Our Age" and "Time Can Be Overcome" in particular.) What accounts for this maturation? Does age really make all the difference?

BW: I think after nine years as a band, we've become pretty comfortable with the idea of space in songs. We don't all have to be playing at top volume all the time anymore. And as I said earlier, at this age it's pretty natural to get reflective or to think a lot about Time as a major creative force.

NQL: Earlier this year, an unmixed version of Kensington Heights leaked onto the Internet. What's your stance on this phenomenon? Inevitable consequence of the information age or bane of your existence? What did you do when you found out your new album leaked?

BW: As long as people are interested and seeking out new music, I'm pretty content with all that. Of course, it's good to pay people for the work they've done. It wasn't too much of a problem to us, other than the fact that the leaked version wasn't a final master. It felt like a bit of a misrepresentation.

NQL: A couple months back I found a used copy of the original pressing of your debut, and I love the packaging (I had the album digitally before). Years ago, I read that only 1000 copies of the CD were pressed, and the band and the folks at Three Gut created each piece by hand. First, how true is this anecdote? Was this out of necessity, or was it more a matter of commitment to the craft? How involved were/are you at every level of production and manufacturing at Three Gut as opposed to Sub Pop as opposed to A&C?

BW: I think we ended up putting together about 2000 copies of the first CD package with our friends and some of the label folks. Dallas (Wehrle, bass) is exceptional at designing die cuts for these things, and his sculpture work reflects that. The mutated airplane on the new album cover is one of his sculptures.

NQL: Who in the band still works a day job? What are the best and worst jobs you've had (apart from "professional musician")? I worked briefly in a machine shop running a "broach," i.e., a huge, dangerous machine that required me to put my fingers far too close to two giant blades. At the time I was probably 21 and didn't appreciate the hourly peril I was in.

BW: Some of the guys work day jobs between tours. Bars, restaurants, etc. The kind of jobs that afford you as much time off as you need to tour and record. The worst job I had was probably at a wholesale tree and plant nursery, weeding and repotting plants all summer when I was a kid. It was great being outdoors and all, but I was stung by five bees in one day while working there, and the boss was the kind of guy that would say, "Bryan, to ASSUME makes an ASS out of U and ME." The best day job I had was working as the music director for a community radio station in London, Ontario. I was probably only making $4 an hour, but the program director, Michael, and I took it upon ourselves to get the most outlandish free stuff through advertising. We had theme park tickets, paint-ball passes, and helicopter rides rolling in. I was constantly up to my eyeballs in new music. Wonderful.

NQL: Left-leaning young Americans declare their disgust with this country's terrible predicament by saying, "That's it, I'm moving to Canada." What, in your view, would be the advantages of expatriation?

BW: If you do it right, you've got universal healthcare, better social programs, grants for artists and musicians, and more wide open space. Come on up. You can all work as tree-planters for a few years in Northern British Columbia. Then we'll consider you honorary Canadians.

NQL: What did you listen to growing up? Are there any unsung Canadian bands we should be aware of below the 49th parallel? The only exposure to "Canadian" music I had as a kid was Rush, BTO, and The Tragically Hip--the latter only because I was friends with the son of a Canadian diplomat.

BW: Eric's Trip, The Wooden Stars, Hacksaw, Union of Uranus. Those were some Canadian bands I loved growing up. Best kept secret in Canada right now is a band from Ottawa called The Empiricals, who also go by The Hilotrons or Hylotrons I think. Does everyone know the Sadies by now? Hope so.

NQL: Who are your stand-by artists, the ones you can put on at any time and enjoy?

BW: Castlemusic, Reigning Sound, Oneida, The Reveries, The Clean, Oakley Hall, Skip Spence, anything on Drag City.

NQL: If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?

BW: Jim Henson. That guy had the right idea, man. Invent your own weird and beautiful world, and live there.

NQL: What era or movement in pop music is your favorite and why?

BW: Now is good, 'cause it's happening now. Genres disappearing.

NQL: What occupies you other than making music?

BW: Watching my lady dance, fishing with my father, trying to relearn 360 kickflips, bacci in the Park, and kratom.

--Brian Herrmann

Photo courtesy of Jack ( Apologies for thievery.

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