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Monday
Oct222007

THE BESNARD LAKES - October 12/07

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I first saw The Besnard Lakes in Hamilton in 2004. Their debut CD, the inconspicuously titled Volume 1, had just been released and as is the fate of many self-financed Canadian indie discs, it was to very little fanfare. The band--whose core was/is the husband-and-wife pairing of Jace Lasek and Olga Goreas--played a lovely, spacious show to about fifteen people, sold a few CDs and were off into the night. Volume 1's hazy mix of Spiritualized and Mercury Rev received some play in my house and then proceeded to fade from my mind.

So when 2007 began and the word on everyone's lips was, "have you heard The Besnard Lakes?", I was kinda surprised. The beautiful but somewhat narcoleptic band that I knew didn't really appear capable of generating such hype; not to mention that they hadn't exactly been playing many shows in the three years since I last saw them. Then I actually heard what was causing all the commotion...

By this point, The Besnard Lakes Are The Dark Horse is a clear contender for Canuck album of the year, and it has already enjoyed the recognition of a Polaris Prize Nomination alongside bona fide stars Arcade Fire and Feist. While their debut concerned itself with extended drones, washes of oscillating Moogs and buried vocals, the writing and performances on Dark Horse--especially the string arrangements and singing--are upfront and confident. Without losing the touchstones of their sound, The Besnard Lakes grew with such hidden rapidity it is downright staggering. So how did it happen?

Owning your own studio (as Lasek and Goreas do, one called Breakglass) certainly must've helped this cocooning process. Finally finding a stable band to compliment the two lovebirds: ditto. But what else turned this Dark Horse into a sure thing? Jace Lasek talks about getting their new lineup together, waxes romantic about the miracles of the analog studio, and reveals his joy in playing music for people the same age as his dad.

Soundscapes: I wanted to pick up figuratively from when I last saw you, which would be you and Olga packing yourself up into a van in 2004 and driving off into the night...

Jace Lasek: Right, you mean yesterday?

SS: Right, right

JL: (laughs)

SS: (laughs) ...but what things changed in the development of the band after you finished touring Volume 1? Obviously, you found new members, but what was the mindset that you found yourselves in leading up to Dark Horse?

JL: Well, I know when we decided to make Dark Horse, we made an actual effort to try and make the record more poppy. And by that, we had to learn how to sing and we had to be confident with turning our vocals up in the mix, 'cause Volume 1 the vocals are very buried.

SS: Yeah.

JL: We knew if we wanted to make a pop record--well, y'know psychedelic pop record, whatever, but--the vocals were very important and they had to be good. So, we did a lot of practicing and realised that, in the end, we're not that bad as singers after all.

SS: Mm-hmm.

JL: For the first record, we were sort of finding our feet with what we were able to do, and how we could do it, if we could do it, because we weren't sure if we were singers at all. And then once Nicky (Lizee) joined, our keyboard player--along with Steve (Raegele), our guitar player. Steve joined first and then Nicky joined a few months after--she's a composer, quite an amazing composer. So when Dark Horse was getting made, she said, "Let me write some things for it. Let me write the strings and horns and see what you think." And they were absolutely, that just put the topper on the record. I always wanted to have those things on the record. That just finally solidified it as a pop record that was... (pauses) Because we wanted to sort of also have it rooted in the 50s and 60s. Y'know, the Phil Spector and the Brian Wilson stuff, but they were using orchestration from time to time as well, so in order to make the whole thing seem complete, maybe that's what was needed to make the record sound coherent even.

SS: Mm-hmm.

JL: I was worried about that when we started making it, that the record would actually be kinda disjointed and not have a direction. 'Cause I was writing songs for, "Oh, let's make an 80s sounding song. Let's make a 60s sounding song." They all end up meeting in the middle somehow and coming out lucky in that way I think.

SS: Getting ready for this compelled me to bring Volume 1 out and listen to it a lot. Certainly a lot of what was most prevalent there was the idea of space...

JL: Mm-hmm.

SS: ...or guess with both records, it's how you work with the open spaces.

JL: Mm-hmm.

SS: (On Dark Horse) there's less of the droning space and Moog washes, that kind of stuff. Did you get the sense with this record you were able to hand over those open spaces to allow other people to pass on some of their ideas?

JL: Yeah, yeah, definitely. And also having different players with abilities that are different than mine. For example, "Lied to Me" with the guitar solos at the end, I'm just not capable of producing a guitar solo like that. That's Steve and Jonathon Cummings (Doughboys, Bionic), who did the other guitar solo. I wanted that, but I couldn't do it so they did it, and they did it beautifully. It's nice to have people with different attitudes and different mindsets go into the recording to help add something that I wouldn't be able to think of. Especially with the strings and the horns. Because a lot of those spaces that she (Nicky) filled were just spaces. I'd been sitting on them for a while going this needs something but I'm out of instrumentation, there isn't really anything else that I can do to fill anything in there.

SS: Well, in the past it might have been, "Ah, I'll put some Moog in there."

JL: Yeah! Or drone. But since I'd already done that I didn't want to repeat myself. I would have probably felt that I'd failed if I just copied what I'd done on the first record. So to have Nicky come in and help out with that was just pretty awesome.

SS: Well, on a lot of the songs you and Olga are the main driving forces, but on a couple tunes, one of you sits the thing out (Goreas is absent on opener "Disaster", while Lasek misses out on the free-for-all of "Devastation"), which is really interesting given that you're the writers as well. How did that come about?

JL: Yeah, well, it just almost happened by default, I would've loved to have played on it but... you're talking about "Devastation".

SS: "Devastation", yeah.

JL: Yeah. Right, Oggy (Olga) had the idea that she wanted to take the Phil Spector-thing full on, so in order to do that, she said, "OK, let's put everybody into the live room."--and we've got really large live room (at Breakglass) so we were able to do this--and she said, "Let's go three bass players, three drummers, three guitar players, and record it live off the floor, straight to two-track (reel-to-reel tape machine)." So, I was like, "OK, that'll be fun." (both laugh) So, we got everybody together in the room and then I sat in the control room and mixed it as it came in. We did nine or ten takes and we took the ninth take, or the eighth take, and just recorded it straight to two-track. So, it was mixed as it was being recorded.

SS: That's even how old jazz records were recorded.

JL: Yeah, totally. And it was nice to have, y'know everyone came into the control room after, and it's this really cool sense of accomplishment. Everybody's working together in the same room. It's actually really efficient. We finished that song, that song was done in four hours. I remember George (Donoso) from The Dears, who was one of the three drummers--he had to leave in, like, he had two hours! He was like, "I've got two hours to do this..."

SS: (laughs)

JL: "...Learn the song, play the song and be done and gone with it." That was no problem!

SS: Yeah.

JL: He had time to kill after, y'know?

SS: Yeah.

JL: So, it was pretty cool experience.

SS: Yeah, it is an interesting thing given how out-of-step it is with how a lot of indie bands work today. In order to do that, you have to have a few things. You have to have the right room for it, but you also need players who communicate with one another and that sense of community.

JL: Yeah.

SS: And the more that home recording moves forward, sometimes these worlds get so insular and it seems so easy to do everything yourself.

JL: Yeah.

SS: Did you feel a little blissfully out-of-step when you were putting that song together?

JL: Yeah, I don't know, I think you can, not always, but sometimes you can hear when a record was made by one person. There's something--I dunno, I might be romanticizing the whole thing--but I sometimes think you can actually hear the organic-ness of people working together in the same room. 'Cause there's mistakes that are happening in there. Little, like "Whoops, I kinda screwed up", but I love that stuff. If you're working alone, you have time to go, "I screwed up there" and then go back and make it perfect. But I like having little errors and discrepancies. I love that stuff.

SS: So, does having you and Olga, your relationship, is that another part of this kind of--I don't know if "lack of ego" is the right term, just because I don't know how you guys work--but I do get the sense that because it's already not really one person's protect as much as it's two, that you guys already have "letting go" as a part of your vocabulary.

JL: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

SS: Is that accurate? Is it easier to say, "Well, I may have written the song but I'm gonna sit this one out...

JL: Yeah.

SS: ...let you guys go for it."

JL: Yeah, I don't know... it's always been for me what's best for the song. I even take that philosophy into recording bands. Just be comfortable, do what's best for the song. Because when it comes down to it, it's all about the song. That's what the people enjoy. The song is the person. If I'm not on it, I don't care.

SS: Would Dark Horse have been possible if you guys didn't own Breakglass?

JL: I don't think so. We took a long time to make it. It actually didn't take that long to track and mix, but because, y'know since the studio is working and we gotta work to make a living, we could only get in on the days off. So we'd have a day here, one or two days here, but we'd have these long stretches of time to actually listen to and figure out what to add and sculpt it. I think that maybe helped the process a bit because we were able to really scrutinize it and spend some time with it. And not, like we never really went back and redid things, because I knew that we didn't have a lot of time to do that, and because I wanted to keep it a little renegade and a little haphazard. Keep some of the mistakes and even have some of the sounds of the microphones and recording of things. Y'know, just like tape hiss, y'know, I wanted to just leave all that in, make it feel like it was almost spontaneous in that sense. And it adds a little excitement to the record.

Plus, a lot of times when I writing, I'll wanna sit alone in the studio for three or four hours just trying something, and erasing it later, y'know? But working in the past with engineers, I want to hear something right away, and so when I'm alone I can whip something up and play a guitar line really quickly and see if it's actually going to work. And if I like it, I'll keep it, and if not, I'll get rid of it. But in a studio, when you're watching someone go a set it up and come back and check the mic and EQ it a little, and it's like, "You know what, I may not even like this guitar bit!" So, we just wasted an hour and a half/two hours of my time (both laugh) setting up this guitar thing that I'm not even gonna use. I'm wasting my own time when I can do it a lot quicker (myself), just test it out and then if I like it, then I can usually hear it.

SS: Do you feel like, as a studio owner, that the recording studio is alive and well? For a while, there was this idea that the more people that knew how to make records at home, that the use for actually going to a recording studio and paying for it would subside a bit.

JL: Yeah.

SS: How does it feel? Have people rediscovered what a recording studio has to offer?

JL: I think people are actually starting to rediscover what we were talking about earlier, y'know, the old days. It's really hard to make a record sound like it did a long time ago, and I think that kids are starting to realize that they can't make that happen in their bedroom on a ProTools rig.

SS: Mm-hmm.

JL: So, we've sort of specialized in bringing back the old things. Y'know, we're building echo chambers, we've got a really large live room. We've got a 16-track, 2-inch Studer machine from 1970, the old Neve console, a bunch of old microphones. I think that when kids come into the studio and they'll record bass, guitar and drums and then maybe they'll take it home--I think that's a really cool way to do it. I recorded at home for a long time just because I didn't want to be in a studio with some guy who didn't understand what I was doing.

SS: Yep.

JL: I was quite content recording on a 4-track cassette.

SS: Yep.

JL: And I actually think it's really cool that people are able to see through what they're hearing in their heads. They're actually able to make a record at home and not spend any money on it. That's absolutely amazing to be able to do that. But I think there's always going to be people who want a big drum sound that they can't get in their house, or we also have a lot of old amps and things to choose from that people may not have access to. Plus it's fun. We try to make people have a good time when they're recording.

SS: Well, I don't think you really understand the advantage of a studio until you check it out.

JL: It's true. See the one thing that I would like to try to have someone, to go back and have somebody wait on me! So, maybe I do wanna say, "Go set up my guitar amp. I'm just gonna sit here and eat potato chips." You know, there is something really cool about having someone help to develop your sound, y'know?

SS: (laughs) Yeah.

JL: So, maybe Tony Visconti (legendary producer of David Bowie, T. Rex and Morrissey among others) or something! (laughs)

SS: Well, you made the kind of record where maybe it would be a possibility next time around!

JL: Yeah, yeah! (laughs) Yeah, c'mon, Tony! (laughs)

SS: Well, speaking of recognition, I wanted to talk a bit about the Polaris Prize. I'm curious about--I mean, obviously it has opened doors.

JL: Right.

SS: But I wanted to get what your impression is of that, and everything else that has happened this year, because (the Polaris) is just one of the things. Right when this year started, I remember hearing everyone talking about your new record, and having seen you play and owning Volume 1, I have to say I was a little surprised by the nature of the...

JL: The hype.

SS: ...yeah, the hype, there's no other word for it. Because I knew you as an instrumental-with-a-little-bit-of-vocal kind of band.

JL: Yeah, yeah (laughs)

SS: And that didn't sort of jive with what everyone was talking about.

JL: Yeah.

SS: Then I heard (Dark Horse) and it made sense, but I wanted to know how you feel about--it's not over yet--but what your impressions are on the year. What matches up and what doesn't?

JL: Yeah, well the whole thing is kind of shocking. When we finished the record, we were like, "Who the hell is gonna put this out?" (both laugh) Right?

SS: Yeah.

JL: We were pretty proud of it, but we still thought it was kind of a strange record. It may not be the strangest thing ever of course, but we couldn't think of anyone, and we're not really up on current labels. We just sent a few (copies) out, we didn't know what the hell was going to happen. The only thing we wanted from it was to put it out on a label, because we did Volume 1 ourselves, and that's a nightmare running a label...

SS: Uh uh.

JL: ...especially when you're pushing your own album because nobody believes you when you say, (adopts dopey tone) "You know this record's really good, you should distribute it, y'know." They're like, "Yeah, sure. It's your own record, of course you would say that." So, the only expectation, the only goal we had for this record was that it would just get released and be available for people to buy. And then, Jagjaguwar got interested and they're amazing people, and then Outside got interested and they're amazing people, and we were like, "this is perfect."

So when our record finally came out, the labels and us, we were just like, "OK, we'll make a few thousand copies and that'll be great!" Y'know, it'll be available. And then the reviews started coming in and after that, it's all gravy at that point. It was pretty shocking. We had absolutely no thoughts that it would be anything. And it's still not a huge record, but it's way, way exceeded our expectations of what we thought it would do.

SS: And does it translate to crowds?

JL: I hope so.

SS: Do you find that people do know what's going on as opposed to just being curious? Because sometimes the first you come around (on tour after the hype) there are lots of people who are curious about, but then...

JL: Yeah, when...

SS: ...when you come back again, you actually see the people who really...

JL: Yeah.

SS: ...had the record in their hearts.

JL: Yeah, the coolest thing about it is, a lot of our fans are a lot older people. I've seen a lot of people coming around in their 40s and sometimes even 50s. Some fans come to us and they look like my father.

SS: Yeah!

JL: And that's really, I'm honoured by that just because, they don't have to go out anymore. They've seen some pretty great bands.

SS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

JL: They're vinyl collectors most likely, y'know? That to me is like, I really feel like we've accomplished something, when we're bringing out, like, those guys are the real audiophiles. They're not going to come out just for any group. So, that's pretty awesome when those guys come out to check out the show.

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