Canada was something of a no-mans land in music at the beginning of the decade. The break-through acts that would give credibility and attention to the Toronto music scene (Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, Feist etc) had either yet to form or were toiling away, building up their name, but The Stills from Montreal mixed their French-Canadian heritage with a UK-influenced sound, arriving on the New York scene in the midst of its hyped and glorious ascendancy.
There was no question that The Stills had found themselves in the right place at the right time, with a sound and style fully formed and enough songs in their repertoire to elevate them above the rabble. Quickly signing to Vice records, they released the critically received Rememberese EP that spawned the Public Image Limited lifting “Still in Love Song”. It was the perfect song for that moment. A catchy, brooding and bitter song, the self-referencing 80s influences standing strong, and where similar bands like The Strokes were pushing image over art, and Interpol were angling for the esoteric and austere, The Stills were pure electricity, with songs that would explode in a shower of sparks, giving rise to comparisons with The Chameleons, The Pixies and Echo and The Bunnymen.
Their debut album Logic Will Break Your Heart was an astonishing release that exceeded expectation. A dozen songs honed to perfection, songs that teased and toured the depths of human emotion with epic choruses of apocalyptic romantic urgency, The Stills maintained these were desperate times but it wasn’t time to let go. With a follow-up album Without Feathers released in 2005, and their latest album Oceans Will Rise released in August of 2008, Webcuts caught up the band late last year and spoke with vocalist/guitarist Tim Fletcher to indulge in a little history revision.
Webcuts caught The Stills play their very first show at the Buffalo Bar in London in 2003 having oddly picked up on them from the radio relentlessly playing “Still in Love Song”. The show itself was a double-bill with Ireland’s The Thrills, which a member of the band made light of at the time, suggesting all they needed were The Kills and they’d have the complete set. It was an impressive debut on that tiny stage, highlighting unreleased tracks like “Gender Bombs” and “Lola Stars and Stripes” that would feature prominently on their forthcoming album. The songs were in a similar vein to that of “Still in Love Song” — epic guitar-driven tracks with big choruses infused with melodrama. It was only a brief half-hour set, but they had quickly made an impression. Tim is lost in thought for a second as I jog his memory.
“Oh yeah, I remember that show. That place was tiny. At that point when we first played in London it was spring of 2003. We’d been playing around since 2000/2001 in various forms and various recorded forms… on heiroglyphics, parchments… We came back a few months later, and played with TV on The Radio that was really rough, I lost my voice, and my throat was bleeding and I had a throat infection and all kinds of record company people were there for all labels, and it was super important show and I stood up there and lost my voice. Which was kinda cool in the end”.
From an outside perspective, The Stills seemed to come out of nowhere, shifting back and forth Montreal to New York, playing shows and building a name for themselves, making friends with bands like Interpol who adopted the band and took them on tour. Both bands shared a similar aesthetic presentation that distanced themselves from the garage rock reinvention that was happening around town, and it wasn’t long before the band had begun making enough waves to sign with a new label and put out their first single.
“From the very beginning the band started playing as a four piece and within two months we were signed to Vice records and that’s how we rose to prominence initially. They put out the first EP and the first album, within a few months of each other. We were in New York at the time, hanging out with friends and artists and, some of them were mutual friends of ours and the Vice people and it just worked out like that. We were their first domestic signing and they wanted to make a great debut record as their first step”. With a critically received debut album (Logic Will Break Your Heart) under their belts, the band began long tours around North America and Europe, releasing several follow-up singles (“Lola Stars and Stripes”, “Changes Are No Good” and a re-recorded “Still in Love Song”) to great response.
The unexpected departure of guitarist Greg Paquet when the band returned to Canada to work on the second album cast some doubt on the future of the band. In most cases, a departure like this from a band riding a wave of success can be disastrous but the band used it to their advantage. “He was a really smart guy with a lot of different interests and he was eager to pursue a lot of different avenues and do other things with his life. He got a lot out of being in a band and learned a lot from it and wanted to move on. At the same time we happened to be changing and evolving as a band”.
Paquet’s departure would see a dramatic change in the band with Fletcher being removed from the microphone while drummer and songwriter Dave Hamlin took his place on guitar and a new drummer was hired. Keyboardist, Liam O’Neil, who had been touring with the band over the last 12 months became a full-time member. I ask whether Paquet’s departure was a catalyst for the game of musical chairs that would follow.
“A little bit. Liam was already in the band since the beginning, but he became a little more in the forefront, and we got a new drummer and Dave stepped up to the forefront and started singing and playing guitar as well, but he’d always written a lot of songs and played guitar and sang, so it was not a strange or unexpected move. The only reason he played drums in the beginning was because we didn’t have a drummer”.
A misconception at the time that worked against the band when Without Feathers was released was Fletcher’s role as the frontman and that since he sung the songs, he also wrote them. When it came to the writing of the song that featured on the first album, much of the material had been written before the band had started, and the songs which were attributed to the group as a whole, were largely written by Hamelin.
“I wrote three songs on that record personally, and Dave wrote the other nine songs, so that’s how it broke down for that record. I’d write my parts and lyrics and Dave would do the same and that’s how it functioned”. When it came to the release Without Feathers, the songwriting for each song was made clear, and the dominance of Hamelin on vocals was seen as The Stills evolving into an entirely different band that were broadening their sound, which some fans found distracting.
“I can see how it could be could be a confusing record for a Stills fan who expected a band of the same people making the same kind of music,” Fletcher asserts, “but we’re all into varying types of music, like the most simple catchy pop to really avant garde fucked up experimental compositions and our interest exist everywhere in between. The second record is more of a kinda rootsy The Band, Neil Young, Dylan vibe and we needed to get that out.”
When a band goes through such extreme changes it begs the question as to whether toes were stepped on and the decisions agreed on being entirely amicable. Being the one who was forced to step aside on vocal duties for Without Feathers, Fletcher, having no doubt fielded inferences like this in the past, didn’t hesitate in his response. “We’re a family, and The Stills are a refuge to try things out. We’re young in our career and we haven’t shown our different sides yet. I think each step will make itself more clear in time. The more records we put out, the more people will see that we have a lot to try and a lot to get out. So having Dave sing the record was a necessary step that needed to happen”.
At the time of the release, many critics found the album less than impressive, laying fault on the direction the band were moving into and the sweeping changes that preceded. New songs like “In the Beginning” and “Destroyer” were aiming for a more generalised rock and roll sound — with hammond organ fills and acoustic guitar. The band were quoted at the time that they didn’t want to write Logic Part 2, but when they started debuting new material live, it came as a surprise to some people. Fletcher takes the criticism in his stride.
“We’re very reckless in our approach to record making, I guess. It keeps it interesting, and you’re nothing if you don’t feel some kind of precipice. If you don’t feel some kind of potential fall and failure. You should set it up that, not all records need to be that, but we like to have that kind of urgency”.
Changing labels to the all-Canadian Arts & Crafts, Oceans Will Rise was released to great fanfare, with significant attention directed toward its distinctly heavy metal looking sleeve. “The album cover is a skull purchased on eBay by our friend Gordon Hull who is an artist who designed all our three records. He bought it, gold-leafed it and presented it to his girlfriend in an effort to win her back and it worked. We thought that it was a beautiful symbol of love and reforging connections between humans when its necessary and at its most painful. I think that it was a beautiful thing, a beautiful image to present to people”.
When it came to making the album and the ideas that influenced the songs, Fletcher downplayed the creative process but indicated this record was much more a travelogue than any of the others. “Making a record is making a record and it’s always going to be a full-on immersion for us. We put ourselves into a bubble world and spend a good couple of months twiddling knobs and doing stuff, and that’ll always be the same, but the writing for this album was really inspired by travelling and some of it was written in London, some in Istanbul where we spent a lot of time, and some of it in Japan and also Mexico, looking at the ocean and the night sky and being around people, sitting around fires, forging friendships and living relationships in strange places really informed the writing of this record. It’s really about that, about trying to connect with people”.
The songwriting on Oceans Will Rise was a shared experience for the band with neither Hamelin or Fletcher taking a commanding presence. Fletcher explains, “I wrote “Snow in California”, “Snakecharming the Masses”, helped out a lot in the arrangement of “Panic”, with Dave and Liam. I wrote “Eastern Europe”, “Rooibos/Palm Wine Drinkard”, and “Statue of Sirens”. It was really me, David and Liam working on songs I wrote or songs Dave wrote and getting some magic in the stew pot and shaking it up like that in the arrangement part. Sometimes we’d pick up weird instruments and get a vibe going.”
The initial attraction of Oceans Will Rise came from the collusion of vocals by the two songwriters on several songs, which helped to smooth over the missteps of Without Feathers, making Oceans… a natural progression to the sound and feel of Logic Will Break Your Heart . The vamp-ish opener “Don’t Talk Down” is one of the songs that features both Dave and Tim trading verses.
“I think that “Don’t Talk Down’ ‘I’m With You’ and “Hands on Fire” — those three songs are songs where the vocal duties are shared and I think that’s really representative of where The Stills are right now in that we’ve never been stronger, never felt more confident as band and more comfortable with each other. Even though we’re completely neurotic and insane as people. “Don’t Talk Down” is a direct British reference to a band we love called The Specials. There’s a reference to (Specials song) “Nightclub” in the guitar solo part and you might hear me sing something. Also there’s a vibe to it, a kind of skank, so we were kind of going for The Specials meets The Stills. We’re really big into British ska music and Two-Tone. One more of the influences coming though.”
As expected, Oceans Will Rise has its moments of anger and fear (“Panic”) and of love and sober reflection, the intense “Everything I Build” sounding like a successor to Logic’s… “Animals and Insects” standing next to the undeniable hearts of flowers of “I’m With You” and the bouyant “Being Here” that show the band on a career high. Without question, the highlight of the album is the one song that sounds the least like them — the tight-wound pulsing drone of “Snakecharming The Masses”.
Fletcher explains the origin of the song:“That was partly written in Turkey and I think that in Turkey they’re into strange rhythms. Zildjian cymbals come from Turkey, so it’s a percussive world. The way that song was written was as a drone. The beat was added to it, that clapping, whip beat and we really followed our instinct as much on this song as we did the whole record. It’s recorded in a very clean way but the songwriting was instinctual and off the cuff and whatever came first was different song by song, and from that birthed other ideas”.
Whilst the intent behind many of the songs could be read from their titles, the curiously named “Roybos/Palm Wine Drinkard”, Oceans Will Rise’s rockiest moment, required further explanation. “There’s palm wine which you can get. I had a friend who brought this palm wine to us in Istanbul when we were there, and it’s basically the African equivalent of moonshine. We got some and it really tripped us out and that song was written on a lot of Turkish coffee and me, Dave and Liam drank a lot of palm wine, and that song was borne out of that in about 45 minutes and we kept playing it all night”.
Before arriving in London the previous morning and self-proclaimed experts at shaking off the jetlag (Tim’s advice – “stay up till at least midnight when you arrive and then take melatonin pills and sleep as long as you can and then you should be ok”. ) the band had been on tour in the states with the Southern rocking Kings of Leon.
In theory it makes for an unexpected double bill that apparently seemed to work, with Fletcher having nothing but kind words to say. “It was our third tour supporting the Kings of Leon. They’re some of our best friends and we really get along with. Speaking of moonshine, we spent time with their family, drinking and eating well with their family in Oklamhoma, and they’re just really cool to us and we’re going to Australia with them in March. We’ve never been there before, and us going over with the Kings of Leon is the best introduction to a country. It’s a great, amazing opportunity.”
The Stills with the Kings of Leon are touring Australia and New Zealand throughout March. Hopefully they’ll find time for some club dates inbetween. Do they need someone to sell merch? I could do with a holiday…