By Scott Deckman
Still Life Still is a Canadian band who love America. Or at least singer/songwriter/guitarist Brendan Saarinen, 24, does.
“We just got home. I just woke up. This is my first day to sleep. I haven’t slept in like four days.”
He’s referring to a two-and-a-half-week U.S. tour with England’s Wild Beasts (who Saarinen can’t say enough good things about) where they visited both coasts. Still Life Still were supporting both Wild Beasts and Girls Come Too, their debut record on Arts & Crafts, which was released last August. Girls Come Too, with its dreamy guitar pop, has gotten decent ink and received airplay on college and commercial stations both stateside and north of the border. The video for their song “Kid” is even being played on MTV, not that Saarinen would notice. “I’m not really a fan of television. I think it’s an energy-draining device,” he says.
Hardly their first time on the road, Still Life Still has toured Canada with heavyweight The Hold Steady, and previously toured the Midwest with labelmates The Most Serene Republic. They’ve done a couple separate shows in Chicago and played the 2009 CMJ Music Marathon & Film Festival in New York. But it was a recent month-long residency at New York’s Mercury Lounge where the band really cut their Yankee teeth.
“The people there are so nice. We got treated well, and we got a really good response,” he says. The band lived for a month in a rented loft in the trendy Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. “It was awesome, man. One of my favorite places I’ve been to in the States,” Saarinen enthuses.
When they weren’t gigging at the Mercury Lounge or playing another venue, they were demo-ing songs for an upcoming record, which heretofore has no name and no producer. Hopefully the band will avoid the pitfall of self-producing – a direction Still Life Still is leaning – because that objective “third ear” can only help a young band get better.
After all, getting better and writing great songs are something all bands aspire to, and Still Life Still is no exception. Born in East York, Toronto, Canada, the group has been together, in one form or another, since 1999. Along with Saarinen, also clocking in at 24 are singer/guitarist Eric Young, drummer Aaron Romaniuk and bassist Derek Paulin. Aaron’s brother, keyboardist/percussionist Josh Romaniuk, is the old man in the group at 26. Actually, Saarinen, who originally fancied himself a drummer, was the last to join the group, who started out as a skate punk band. Pots and pans were involved, and a bass was nonexistent. They’ve since come a long way.
Still Life Still plays emotional pop that delves into what it’s like to be human. Saarinen’s own home life was a direct inspiration, as his parents split as he was growing up and his father was into drugs. “It was kinda like a weird sort of atmosphere. They’re really good people, they just have their faults,” he says with a good-natured chuckle.
The aforementioned “Kid” delves into this painful history, and features spare, Spaghetti Western-esque guitar that underscores introspective lyrics of not fitting in. The band is often compared to labelmate Broken Social Scene, whose frontman Kevin Drew was instrumental in signing them to the label (Drew is Arts & Craft’s co-founder). After seeing him around Toronto, the band got Drew to go to one of their gigs, and then played a house party. “We were in a ridiculously small room just packed with people. We rolled like a whole bunch of joints for everyone and just passed them out and it was like a giant hotbox and Kevin was like, ‘This show’s amazing, you guys are awesome!’ It just kinda like took off from there.”
“The music scene in Toronto is amazing and there’s a shitload of really good bands in Toronto,” Saarinen continues. “Growing up in East York, we would play shows downtown when we were younger but they were just crappy shows with bands we didn’t like. Once we started playing Elvis Monday, we were like ‘whoa!’ This is the real music scene in Toronto. We ended up making friends with a lot of really cool bands. That was a huge influence on us.”
Aside from dreamy atmospherics and the occasional synth flourish, what stands out most about the band are the voices of Saarinen and Young (both men handle vocals), who collectively sound a lot like Elliot Smith. When I tell Saarinen this, he’s flattered: “Elliot Smith, man, I love Elliot Smith. I definitely grew up listening to his records.” He also credits Animal Collective as an influence, loves classic Motown and “music with heart and soul.”
As for the just-finished U.S. trek: “This tour with the Wild Beasts was just phenomenal. The crowds were the most receptive, other than the Mercury Lounge, that they’ve ever been.” And Philadelphia gets major rock’n’roll props as well. “What a rowdy bunch in Philadelphia. We played Johnny Brenda’s. It was really nice, they gave us food. We met these really cool hippies and they brought us back to their house. I ended up, somehow, doing yoga at three in the morning. They gave us acid and it was really crazy.”
While his country hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics, the band didn’t make most of it, and had to settle for watching the Games in American hotels and bars. But there was one instance in the middle of the tour that saw them playing a Toronto date, and Canada was playing the United States in that most Canadian of sports, ice hockey. Though the Canucks later bested the Americans for the gold, on this night it was all Stars and Stripes, and it was here where Saarinen’s love of the red, white and blue bled through. “It was pretty funny. I was in a roomful of Canadians and when you guys won I just like jumped up [and yelled] America! And everyone just gave me the death stare. Oh, tough crowd. I love America, what can I say?”