By Denis O’Hanlon
Wolf Parade came together for a third EP this summer titled Expo 86. We had no choice, last month, but to call it one Badass record and it looks like most music journalism’s ink has followed suit. This month, Wolf Parade drummer Arlen Thompson spoke with us regarding the band’s beginnings, tourings, their, ahem, sophomore slump, and how they got back on track for their latest collection of indie rock ballads.
Origivation: Would you mind taking me from the beginning? How long have you known Spencer and Dan?
Arlen: I knew Dan basically from 15. Probably from the punk rock bands on the island. I think I saw one of his bands play, probably. I don’t think I knew him, but I was 16 and he was probably 17. He played in a bunch of other bands in Victoria so we crossed paths a lot when we were late teens, early twenties kind of thing. Spencer I met from when he started playing in Frog Eyes. He played briefly in this band I was in called Jackie and the Reckless abandons. He played keyboards in it for a really short period of time. I basically knew them half of my life.
OV: So Spencer quit Frog Eyes and moved over to Montreal and Dan quit Atlas Strategic. Spencer was then offered a spot opening for Arcade Fire?
A: No. Originally it was a band from Belgium. I can’t remember their name now, but Arcade Fire was one of the openers. We were like the first of the three, Arcade Fire was second, and the Belgium band headlined.
OV: The band all came together very quickly though, right? They asked Spencer, who then asked Dan to join. They started writing music, and you joined the band on drums. How long did it take you guys to get a full playlist together?
A: Well, it was really short. I think Dan and Spencer had been doing something for a couple of weeks, and then I think it might have been Spencer who called me up saying they needed someone to play drums. I think I did like two rehearsals, one the day before and one the day of the show. So it all came together pretty much in about two days.
OV: So there was no pressure at that point, right? Obviously you guys didn’t know how big you would get, but was it just more for fun?
A: Yeah, yeah. There was no real pressure. I kinda knew these guys from the other bands so it was pretty exciting to get to make some music. It was something like, ‘Huh, let’s do this.’ There wasn’t really any thought to coordinating anything. Even playing with the Arcade Fire, you know? I had seen the Arcade Fire playing a bunch over the years but they weren’t just kind of, you know, really as kind of well known as they are now. So it was still when, I don’t know, I guess you would say the scene was pretty localized and there was no real grand plan for the band. It was just kind of like ‘Let’s have some fun and play the show.’
OV: How would you compare your sound today as to how it initially started off?
A: Uh, it actually is almost no different (laughs). It’s still, you know, just us getting together and kind of banging it out. So we really haven’t changed the way we work. You know, maybe we’ve incorporated some of the studio into the mix so we can demo our materials and demo our songs or whatever, and do that a little more. But still it’s the same thing, you know? We had Hadji join the band in, maybe, six or eight months after we started Dante joined the band in the summer of 2005. So that kind of changes things with all those steps. But, yeah, we’ve basically been doing it the way we’ve always done it which was just kind of getting together and making music. It’s pretty much unchanged from the first day we started.
OV: What’s Hadji’s status with the band? Does he only come on when you guys are doing the albums or does he do full time touring?
A: Well, Hadji isn’t in the band anymore.
OV: Yeah, my research was kind of cryptic on this.
A: He wasn’t on Expo 86′. He was on Mount Zoomer and Apologies. He left the band to pursue, uhm, I think it was grad school. Dante joined the band when we started touring Apologies. He was somebody who was kind of only for touring, a touring member. He was on a couple of songs for Mount Zoomer, like I think he played on two or three songs for Mount Zoomer. Then for Expo 86′ he kind of came into the fold and did a whole record.
OV: So you guys went into record your first EP, and Hadji joined the band, and you recorded your second EP, obviously you guys had been in the music industry for a while. What was it like going in there and getting those EPs out of your system?
A: Those were pretty quick and dirty, so we had kind of a limited budget. No, it was a really limited budget with really limited equipment. It was kind of something more to kind of just document, you know, what we were doing at the time. You know, all of us were either in school, like in university, or working really shitty jobs so no one really had any spare cash for getting into a studio or anything. I just recorded them all, well the first two EPs anyway, in our jam space. It was kind of fun because I had kind of played in bands for a long time and you would make a record or make a demo tape or something and then you kind of have to peddle it or something but all our EPs seemed to do pretty well. You know, we’d make them up and pretty much sell out of them all the time. I knew something was pretty good with that.
OV: So, were you the main producer from the beginning or was it more of a group effort at that point?
A: It was still pretty much a group effort. Yeah, I was doing all the engineering and stuff, even though I listen to them now and they’re pretty horrifying (laughs). Sound quality-wise. But yeah, it was just kind of us doing our thing and for me it was just kind of important to document things, what we were working on, because I kind of knew our band works pretty fast so we were going to have songs we were going to change or we were going to stop playing them. The idea was kind of to get them down. Just get something out there that people could listen to. In Canada the CBC which is like the national broadcaster, has CBC Radio 3 is kind of an area of the CBC which is dedicated to music, bands, stuff like that. They had a website you could upload your music to. By doing that you kind of get your songs played, kind of on the radio, nationally. Doing that, getting our songs on the radio, kind of propelled us a bit.
OV: How would you describe the Montreal music scene at that point. Did you have any idea that it would become this massive, almost like a Mecca for music at that point in time? I mean there were you guys, the Arcade Fire, the Unicorns, Stars…
A: Yeah, I don’t know. I didn’t think it was ever going to be as big as it was. But definitely Montreal, for a Canadian, was real attractive. It was kind of, at that point, really affordable. It had a lot of really great cultural stuff going on. So for me, it was kind of already a Mecca for anyone who wanted to do really creative stuff. I think it was the place you could go to and live cheaply, and therefore you didn’t have to work that much. So there were a lot of really good people doing a lot of really good stuff at the time. I mean, it kind of took me by surprise that it became kind of more internationally recognized. There was definitely, when I arrived there, a lot of really great stuff kind of happening.
OV: Did you feel like any of the different music in the area had any influence on how you guys were making your music, or did you have your own track and you just kept on going that way?
A: I think we kind of had our own track. I think we kind of got a lot of our influences from a lot of stuff we had come away with from living on the west coast. A lot of bands like Daddy’s Hands, Frog Eyes, Destroyer, they were probably a pretty big influence on us. I think that Montreal was kind of…it was kind of anything goes at the time. It didn’t really matter if you were a noise band or whatever. I think it was just that real feeling in it. I think in a lot of ways too, because, especially for the English side of things, there really wasn’t much of an industry or anything. Like the thought of making money off of playing music, it really didn’t seem that viable. Compared to Toronto or Vancouver there was no, for English music anyway, major industry. On the French side…that’s the thing with Montreal, what you would call the music industry in Montreal is really geared to French music. That kind of dominates because it’s all French. And it’s huge! It’s really a large vibrant industry. So being in an English band you kind of flew under the radar in a lot of ways. So I think a lot of bands sort of developed their own thing without having to be pressured to be, sort of, more commercial.
OV: So in September of 2004, you guys traveled to Portland, OR to start recording Apologies to The Queen Mary. How long of a relationship had you guys had with Isaac Brock before he approached you for producing the album?
A: That’s the thing. I didn’t even know Isaac at all. Modest Mouse and him were friends with Dan, so that’s how that all started. For us it was a bit of a crazy trip because we didn’t really know what we were doing at all (laughs). So we just kind of got in a van and drove out there.
OV: You drove all the way to Portland? Jeez.
A: Yeah, we drove all the way from Montreal to Portland and made the record. But yeah, it was kind of through Dan, because Dan, through Atlas Strategic, had played a lot of shows with Isaac and had kind of met the Sub Pop people through Atlas Strategic. For us, it was really new and we didn’t know what was going to happen.
OV: Did you start to feel any pressure at that point, or was it still the same thing, and were you guys still just going with the flow?
A: I think the main pressure was really how we were just going to survive (laughs). We were still kind of doing everything ourselves. Yeah, I knew we were going to get a record done but we didn’t have much money and trying to get food or gas for the van was a real challenge (laughs). But I think I looked upon it as a real learning experience to do this thing because I had never really worked that much in what you would call real studios or that kind of thing. So, yeah, for me it was kind of just ‘go with the flow and see what would happen’ because this is kind of crazy.
OV: After you guys had recorded the album, did you kind of just sit back and say to yourself, “Wow, this is really good” or was it more just, release it to the public and see how it goes?
A: Well, we actually didn’t finish the record in Portland. We finished recording there but we didn’t really have anything completely completed or mixed or anything like that. We actually went on a tour and played parties and all this stuff. And when we got back to Montreal we kind of had to pick up from where we left off in Portland. So it took us a while to figure out what we had and what we needed to do. For me, making records is…it’s a process that’s really hard to see the forest through the trees at a certain point. Like, you get really wrapped up in the details and there is definitely a sense of doubt, or whatever, of whether or not it’s any good. Like, I never really thought when we were making it that it was going to be, really, as acclaimed as it’s been. It was kind of something that, well, I knew it sounded pretty good and people would like them but I didn’t have any idea that people would like them as much as they did.
OV: Was the third EP generally a test for reaction to the album?
A: Yeah, pretty much. The third EP was kind of just to keep some momentum going and we had some extra songs that we knew weren’t going to make the record. So it was kind of a way to get something out there that was kind of a major release because at that point we kind of just had the first two EPs, which didn’t have any distribution at all. It was kind of a way to get something out there that summer and, yeah, build up a little something. Give people a taste.
OV: When the album came out in September, the response was more than positive across the board so what was that like for you guys? Because you went from being this small Montreal band to being this band that was huge on the indie market across the United States, across Canada, even out in Europe.
A: Yeah, it was pretty surprising for me. Just before the record came out we were touring with the Arcade Fire and they had just really blown up. So, it was just really strange playing with a band that you had seen playing really small clubs and all of a sudden playing massive, big rooms, like two thousand, three thousand people. The fact that we had a little excitement going in America was kind of surprising for me because for most Canadian bands that’s really elusive. I know a lot of really great Canadian bands that could just never, what do you call it, I guess break into the States. So it was, kind of, pretty amazing that people like our music (laughs). We kind of began to think, you know, maybe we could actually do this full time. Actually be a band, and have this be not just a hobby but actually a viable thing.
OV: Do you, at this point, looking back at it now, kind of wish that you could go back to playing the smaller clubs or are you happier playing in the bigger venues?
A: Well, actually the kind of fun thing is we play a lot in Europe and there are actually a lot of places where we aren’t well known so we get to play a lot of small places. We still get to mix it up a bit. You know, in America we actually play small theaters and stuff like that. Personally I like the smaller venues. I like that things are a little more intimate. You can, kind of, feel the crowd, a little bit more than the bigger venues.
OV: Dante DeCaro joined the band after leaving Hot Hot Heat. What sort of relationship had you guys had with him before?
A: I just kind of knew him through Victoria, playing in different bands or whatever. He joined in the summer right before this really mini-European tour playing a couple of dates in Scandinavia and one show in Montreal. It was something that just kind of really came about in a weird way. He was hanging out in Montreal for a while. He had kind of left Hot Hot Heat and was hanging out in Montreal for the winter or whatever and at some point, I don’t know why, we decided to have an extra member and it seemed, I don’t know, like it would just work out. I think it was actually James Mercer from the Shins who suggested it (laughs), weirdly enough. He was like “Why doesn’t Dante play in your band?” And we were like “Yeah, why doesn’t Dante play in our band?” That’s when we got him to join and same thing, he rehearsed a couple of days, and went to Europe and played a bunch of shows. And it went on from there.
OV: So at this point you guys were on the road for a while. What is touring like for you? I know that Jaime Thompson of the Islands hated it so much he eventually left the music industry by all reason. For you guys is it a really stressful thing being away so much?
A: My feelings have changed a bit over the time. I have a daughter now. Touring is strange, you know? You have these great moments and not so great moments and then a lot of pretty boring moments. Yeah, it’s not the easiest thing to do in the world but I think we’ve pretty much, as a band, figured out what our limitations are. Like, we don’t do like huge eight-week tours anymore. We keep it pretty small like three weeks at a time, four weeks at a time just to keep ourselves sane. It’s just more with touring you kind of have to get to a point where you decide. I know some people who just love the road and can kind of tour it endlessly. Dan is pretty much someone who can tour forever. He’s on tour right now with the Handsome Furs in Asia. For myself, I think you just kind of have to manage it. How you want to do it, because basically you are living in a car. For some people it is something that they really don’t care for. It is a really weird lifestyle. You’re in different places but you’re kind of doing the same thing every day.
OV: Does it ever get repetitive for you?
A: Yeah it can be quite repetitive. It also can be pretty exhausting. Like if you get sick or something it can be one of the worst things. Like having the flu or something on tour is absolutely vicious.
OV: So when did you decide to do another album? Was there any real process to it or was it just an idea that came up and everybody jumped on it?
A: It wasn’t something that we really jumped on. It was something that we wanted to see if we could do. We had done a bunch of touring for Apologies and we were kind of trying to feel it out to see what kind of record did we really want to make. I think Mount Zoomer actually took a really long time to kind of put together, and also everyone had kind of started up new projects. Sunset Rubdown started up, and the Handsome Furs started up, and Dante started Johnny and the Moon. So there was kind of a lot going on at the time. With Mount Zoomer it kind of took a lot of time to get the material together so the record took longer than it kind of needed to in a lot of ways.
OV: When you guys write your music, is it more of writing it while you’re on the road or is it when you get into the studio you sit down and say, ‘alright we have to write x amount of new songs’?
A: It’s more of the latter. We’ve never been a band that’s done too much on the road. I can think of a couple songs that came on Mount Zoomer that we had written kind of on the road in between tours and then kind of played for a while and then completely re-worked for Zoomer. But Expo 86 was definitely something where we sat down and wrote something in the rehearsal space before going in the studio. So yeah, I think we’re a band that kind of has a problem with focus (laughs). So we need to give ourselves some pretty strong timeframes and stuff like that to get the work done. I think on Mount Zoomer too we recorded in the Arcade Fire studio where we sequestered ourselves for two weeks and just sort of worked on the record. Sometimes the easiest ways to get things done is to kind of just sit down and say, ‘OK, we have to get this done.’ I think generally with being on the road it’s kind of hard to get the time and space you need to work on the new songs.
OV: How was Mount Zoomer different for you guys? You had been around for a while now, and were a pretty popular band. You had said that it took a little while to everything together. Was there any cause for this?
A: Yeah, it really just took a while to get everything together. We just ended up working on it in little pockets here and there when everyone had time. But everyone also had other things going when it started so we recorded at the Arcade Fire studio in spurts in the winter of 2007, even going back to the fall of 2006, actually. And then we recorded between two tours in the summer of 2007 and kind of finished things off in the Fall of 2007. Then we mixed it in the winter of 2008. So we kind of just, little patches we ended up with, kind of, whenever we were in the same town together or could do the recording basically. So it was more of a patchy thing that we had to just slowly chip away at. I wouldn’t recommend that as a way of making a record (laughs). I think a lot of us felt that record wasn’t complete or at least as complete as it could have been.
OV: The album came out to mostly positive reviews but there were some negative ones as well. Do negative reviews influence you guys at all or are you basically just making music to make it, and if any one wants to listen to it than good?
A: I definitely don’t really care. I mean I don’t mind reading the good ones (laughs). I could see some of the negative ones we got, for the most part, some of them are really fair. But for us we are only really interested in making music that we find interesting and we find challenging. So for us we never approach a record saying, ‘We’re going to make a great record this time.’ It’s more just like, ‘Let’s start making songs and see what comes out of it.’ We’re only going to do music that really engages us. I don’t think that we ever do anything that would cater to some unseen record-of-the-year somewhere in the depths of critical hell.
OV: While on tour for Mount Zoomer Dante DeCaro made a joke on stage about quitting the band and by the next day the Internet had lit up with the story. Were you guys even aware of what was going on or how big the story had become?
A: I think it was kind of funny because it was actually someone’s mom who called the next day asking about it, and we had no idea, because we were on tour, that anything became anything. I just think it kind of shows the Internet and the rumor-mill that it can kind of get going. It’s kind of silly in a lot of ways because I think someone just wrote about it on a blog who was at the show and then it just got picked up by whoever and of course then it became like a real story or whatever. At the same time it was kind of funny because that happened and then Hadji left the band in the second half of the tour, which was Europe, and nobody wrote about that (laughs). We actually had four people on stage in Europe and nobody noticed in America.
OV: Doesn’t it make you happy to know that there are people out there paying attention to every one of your moves?
A: Yeah, it was kind of funny but it is one of those things where you kind of get taken aback a bit. You’re kind of like ‘Really?’ It’s kind of an off-hand thing that was a joke and becomes news.
OV: Because at the same time there were general rumblings that the band was breaking up and things to that effect? Do you think that that is just general speculation that comes with being in a band?
A: Yeah, I think it’s because that there are so many projects that have come out of the band that there is always that rumbling of, ‘Oh, we’re about to break up.’ I think this is just a band that’s going to do what it needs to. You know, before this album we took a year off and I think that’s just the way we’re going to be working. This year we’re doing stuff with Wolf Parade and then probably take a big break and then come back again. But yeah, being in a band is not really the easiest thing. You’re kind of stuck like in a marriage with a bunch of other people (laughs).
OV: So with Expo 86 it seems like you guys had a lot more fun when you went in to record. It seems like a much more energetic album.
A: Yeah, I think so. Like I was just saying, we came off the yearlong break and I think everyone was feeling really comfortable with where they were at. Everybody was kind of able to set aside the time to come in and really not repeat what happened with Zoomer. We could focus and just see the record all the way through in one kind of time period. I think for us we just wanted to kind of approach the record as getting together and getting a bunch of songs done and just getting into the studio before the songs could get stale in any way. We were kind of just trying to keep it really fresh and get into a good space where we were happy with how we were playing the songs and how they were arranged. Just kind of document it. And not really get bogged down with production stuff or overdubs, but try to do things as live as possible and as fresh as possible.
OV: Dan Boekner had stated that you guys had written a lot of excess music for Expo 86 and a double album was possible. Any hope of an Animal Collective-style EP of songs too good not to release?
A: Yeah we’re trying to maybe work on something like that. We only have about three songs but they’re long enough that it could probably be like a twenty minute EP. We have one song that has, kind of, yet to be finished so we don’t know when we’re actually going to be able to get together and finish it (laughs). Everyone’s sort of spread all over the place and then we have another tour in September so we’ll have to see how that turns out. We were hoping to get something out maybe by November, but I don’t know if it’s going to happen or not. We’ll see. But we do definitely have a couple extra songs that we would like to see come out in some form.