When looking for adjectives to describe The Dears there’s only one that really does the band justice — indomitable. Since their inception in Montreal almost fifteen years ago vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Murray Lightburn and keyboardist/backing vocalist Natalia Yanchuk, with assistance from a seemingly ever changing cast of supporting musicians, have carved out an enviable, yet hard won, niche in the Canadian alternative rock-pop landscape. Static’s Chris Berkley recently spoke to Murray about their new bluesy opus Missiles‘ recent Australian release, the game of musical chairs with The Dears’ other musicians, the trials and tribulations of being the group’s de-facto leader and finding inspiration in the unlikeliest of situations.
Hi Murray how are you doing?
I’m doing great thanks.
You’re at home at the moment with your feet up perhaps?
Yeah I’m just doing some renovations in my studio in the basement of my house.
Are you expanding the studio or just tweaking a few things?
A little bit of both. When we started making Gang of Losers we worked in the house but we didn’t have a lot of time to set it up so we did some kind of makeshift work. Pretty sketchy stuff but now that I have a bit more time to do it right I’ve gone a lot deeper than anticipated. One thing led to another and the next thing I know I’m tearing this out or building this or building that… (to someone in the background: “Watch your finger!”).
So you’re knee-deep in drywall at the moment are you Murray?
Actually, quite literally, yes! (laughs)
Well apart from making the studio to make the records in, it’s nice that Missiles has finally got a release in Australia. I mean it has sort of been a slow-burning release schedule for this record: it came out in the states last year and for a while you guys were shopping it around in America after you finished recording it, right?
Yeah, I mean The Dears are once again at a crossroads and we’re just trying to move to the next… checkpoint? (laughs) And I think that basically Missiles was the train that is carrying us over to the next checkpoint.
There’s always a story with each Dears record isn’t there? I mean was the making of Missiles fraught to get over that line?
Actually making Missiles was pretty easy, it wasn’t hard at all. Gang of Losers wasn’t hard to make either. I think the hardest record to make to date was probably No Cities Left. That was an extremely difficult record to create.
But if that’s my gauge then looking back I guess y’know Missiles was hard to make, but I wouldn’t know it because my pain threshold is so high. (laughs)
Well you did shed some members along the way though. Was that something hard to deal with when you’re trying to make a record or did you work out that you didn’t need people to make an album?
You always need people to make an album. You just need the right people, and unfortunately at that time when we were making Missiles The Dears weren’t stocked with the right people, at that time. So there was a bit of changeover before, during and after the making of that album and it really sent myself and Natalia on quite the emotional tailspin, but we forged on and we’re still forging on and I think if we’ve learnt anything it’s just how utterly unstoppable the force of The Dears is.
You’re sounding very diplomatic about it but is it sort of a thing where the people that were in the band…?
…what do you wanna know? Do you want the dirt? What? Ask away.
I’m just kind of interested to know. Were these people not on the same page as you musically or are you a hard taskmaster Murray?
I think the thing is that for a while… it’s tough trying to maintain a democracy and yet have a leader, and for a long time -– in fact the entire history of The Dears -– I’ve reluctantly been leader and have only led when clearly no-one is leading anything (chuckles) . So it’s a difficult position to be in because you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.
Somehow the blame game will always be played in a way where the leader gets the losing hand, and I mean it sucks but what do you do? I mean I didn’t sign up for any of this shit. I just write songs and try to work with people to facilitate those songs and get them out to people to hear them. And ultimately when I get out on stage and see people singing along to every song, then my work here is done. But unfortunately there is so much more involved, and so much in between that creation of songs and that sea of people in front of you singing those words and knowing that song. From the industry side, to the inter-relationships in the band — egos — to recording and the physical part of it, getting in a van… there’s just roadblock after roadblock and you have to put the pedal to the metal and bust through every single one of them.
Due to the nature of The Dears’ music, the records you make are obviously a very cathartic and personal thing. That probably heightens it all as well, right?
Well I mean it’s a band with a philosophy and a direction…
…it’s not like making a Miley Cyrus album I’m guessing?
Well this is what I’m saying. This is a band that’s raised on everything from reading Hermann Hesse to Martin Amis to watching heavy three hour sci-fi movies to…
There’s a heavy indoctrination lesson for anybody who wants to be in The Dears is there? They have to be able to name check a few movies, albums and books?
Ah no, I don’t impose that on anyone, I mean you could be dumb as a post and be in The Dears. As long as you can play and it’s in your soul, it doesn’t matter. That’s the other thing — you kinda have to be dumb as a post to play in The Dears! (laughs)
Well on the other side of things, Murray, you grabbed a children’s choir for the song “Saviour”, so did the kids put up less of a fight, are they less precious than adult musicians to work with?
I have to say it was a pretty unbelievable experience watching about fifteen kids or so from the ages of like four or five to like thirteen, come in to the studio, and within an hour they learnt their parts, sung, recorded and left (chuckles).
None of them threw hissy-fits? None of them demanded their rider?
All that happened in the end was we had to sign some autographs for some of their parents.
And speaking of children, I can hear that you’ve probably landed babysitting duties there today. Parts of Missiles still seem informed by yours and Natalia’s parenting, a song like “Money Babies” seems to allude (to) the fact you guys had those kind of responsibilities on your shoulders these days.
Well you know the thing that was interesting about “Money Babies”, when I started writing that song we were in Europe, on the first European Gang of Losers tour. Sometimes Europe can be strange when it comes to just finding some basic things in the middle of the night, like milk, and I was walking the streets of Holland, I can’t remember what town it was, I think it was Utrecht. I was trying to find an open 7-11 type store to find just a carton of milk for the morning, for the kid, and it was hard, but the whole time I kept hearing this “ooooooooooah” sound in my head and I kept just singing this thing and…
…and it gave you that lyric “I gotta get milk for the baby”. So you got a carton of milk and a song out of it?
Australia has 7-11’s all over the place, you’ll have no trouble next time you come back here. Are there plans to bring the Missiles tour to Australia?
I really hope so, but I mean it’s definitely getting interesting out there in terms of facilitating tours for an indie rock band.
Well, you know maybe we should put some jobbing Australian musicians on notice. You might have shed some more members by the time you come here? We can maybe knock a band together for you Murray…
(laughs) We’ll have The Dears Australia Chapter?
The Australian Dears Show…!
(laughs) Me and Natalia show up and you guys supply the rest (laughs).
We’ll see what we can pull out. It’ll be a dream job for some of those people I’m sure.
(laughs) Well we’ll see about that.
I’ll let you get back to drywalling and doing whatever else you’re doing. I’ll look forward to seeing some snaps of the studio when it’s finished.
Thanks for the talk and hopefully see you down here later in the year.
Awesome, take care.
First broadcast on Static on 30/04/09. Static can be heard on Sydney’s 2SER (107.3 FM) and via the internet (www.2ser.com) every Thursday evening (AEST).
Transcription: Chris Butler