Canada’s reign of indie supremacy over this decade began in 2001 with the infectiously fun synth-pop of a little band called The Unicorns. After imploding following the release of their landmark album Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone?, two members of the mythical group founded and released three albums with Islands. Meanwhile, Alden Penner recruited an original member of The Arcade Fire and a supporting cast of three to form Clues, who finally got around to releasing their debut record during May of this year’¦
The Unicorns split up in 2004. Where have you been for the last five years?
Mostly I’ve been working in Montreal and doing stuff locally. And I’ve sort of been working at this band with Brendan [Reed]… We put out a 7’ in 2005 and did a bit of touring in 2006. And I’ve also been doing some film music’¦
You soundtracked The Hamster Cage in 2005. What was that like?
It was my first experience doing a feature length, so I was kinda just going with what I thought film music should sound like.
Your score for that film struck me as being very -French’ sounding, which is a sound shared by some Clues songs (such as ‘Elope’)… is there some sort of French influence on your music?
I don’t have like a huge record collection or anything like that, but what I’ve heard definitely has an impact, including French music from the sixties’¦
YÃ©-YÃ© girls and all that?
Yeah, yeah, yeah’¦ yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah! I remember a friend making me a mix CD of some music from that era, and really enjoying it. And of course’¦ I grew up in Quebec and speak French, so maybe I have more of a disposition towards it because I know what’s been said. The whole aesthetic and dynamic and simplicity of that kind of rock and roll music is very appealing. That period of French music had a lot of different things going on in it’¦ and cinema as well. The confluence of those is definitely appealing to me.
Your lyrics are cryptic, fantastic and image-laden, which means that the Clues album has a definite epicness about it, sort of like a video game adventure. But is there actually any narrative to it?
I think the narrative has been mostly sonic in a way: about how the songs sound next to one another. Lyrically, I think there’s a little bit more disconnect between the songs with regard to one another. A lot of them have parts from other poems and songs that have embedded themselves within these songs at one point or another. And once that happens, it’s kinda hard to get them out.
Speaking of which’¦ an old Unicorns song (-Hanz’) shared the lyric ‘suicide is a shame’ with a Polyphonic Spree song (-It’s The Sun’). Was there a connection there?
It’s an homage. At the time, we were touring and that was one of the songs we were listening to and really liked.
And I think, maybe to complete the cycle, the Islands song -The Arm’ has a similar melody to -Hanz”¦
‘¦and that’s also what’s really neat about this family tree that’s developing. Genetically, it’s inevitable that if a song means something to us, it’ll find its way into everything that we do. If you listen to old blues records, they literally took each other’s songs and put different words on, and it was a very valuable thing. There wasn’t such a rigidity of copyright or intellectual ownership over things, which I find really interesting. I think that’s really the greatest honour’¦ to have something that you do influence someone else and be carried forward in another way.
If YOU were to listen to the Clues record, what kind of images or feelings would it evoke?
I don’t know. I think we set ourselves this goal of not listening to it for a year. For me to listen to it is very different from other people. And I’ve listened to it so much already using a critical ear that listening to it with pleasure is kinda difficult. That’s why I think it’s good to take a fast from it, and then listen to it with virgin ears that will inform me a little more objectively.
You sing a lyric on the album twice (“who here wants to sleep in the dragon’s mouth?”), which causes one to wonder if there’s a reason for the repetition. But does it make you feel awkward if you can’t say what a lyric might specifically mean?
It kind of does make me feel awkward. People are very used to talking about songs and articulating what they mean. I feel very anti-social or awkward not being able to explain things in the same way that other people do. I don’t know why that particular lyric occurs twice. I think that essentially I kinda ran out of material.
You can’t admit that!
I guess I just did! But it’s not a bad thing, because I sing it in two different ways.
I think that the second time you sing it, you seem more impatient and forceful, like you’re still waiting on your answer…
Yeah, and it’s not coming! And the differences in the attitude is like any poetry where you can have different meanings implied by a sentence being repeated, and repeated again any number of times. There’s something about getting beyond emotion with that.
Did you learn any lessons from the demise of the Unicorns that you can implement this time round, so that Clues could make more than one album?
Just not to take myself so seriously, and to be a little more patient with the process of interaction with other people.
I find it a little bit difficult to pin down any definite influences on your work… so what actually inspires you? What’s your favourite band?
For a long time, my favourite band was Fugazi. And I still really admire everything that they’ve done. That was just a band that really opened up possibilities with regards to bands being able to do things differently. What they were able to achieve musically, as well as their politics and stuff, was pretty inspiring at the time. A lot of bands that came out of hardcore were big influences on me. When I was first becoming involved in bands, I wasn’t in a punk band per se, but I was within that scene. I was kinda just the weird person who’d have a kind of funk rock band or something like that. I never felt like an insider to it, but that culture was definitely informing how I went about doing things. Right now, I’m really into this band Micachu and the Shapes.
If you could be in any band ever, who would it be? And how different would they be because of you?
Great question. I suppose that’¦ wow’¦ yeah! What band? I’d kinda like to just be a rhythm guitarist in a wedding band or something like that.
That’s pretty achievable.
Yeah, I feel like something fairly stripped-down and simple in that regard would be – like you said – achievable. Or something more challenging’¦ like Islands maybe’¦ I could play the harmonica in that group. I definitely imagine playing in a band that’s not necessarily rock music, and being challenged by the parameters. I just really like playing music with people and learning from them’¦ not so much trying to bring or impose stuff of my own. I think that happens naturally.
The Unicorns had a song called ‘Let’s Get Known’, whereas Clues now have one with the lyric “so instead, let’s get strong”. Are these songs related?
Yeah. That song -Let’s Get Strong’ is an older one of mine. They both kinda date from the same period. In fact, it was a response, and so that relates to this inevitable continued narrative. It’s not necessarily a disagreement, but a refraining of the question. It’s sort of anachronistic to be presenting it now as if it was significantly relating to that. It was just part of the conversation that we were having at the time. It was a difference between our perspectives.
You seem to be more friendly about discussing The Unicorns than Nick was when he was releasing HIS first post-Unicorns album. Can you say why?
Well I don’t really know’¦ friendliness is over-rated. (laughs) I think inevitably you can get really defensive about something that’s constantly being referred to as some standard that you’ve set for yourself. I understand that. I can definitely relate to that. I don’t know what to say about Nick with regards to that, but I think that there was a point where he was just really trying (and we both were, in a way) to distance ourselves from that, just because it was somewhat of an acrimonious split initially. It just seems like a lot less of a big deal now that I think about it.
You were also recently involved in the making of the Paper Heart soundtrack, where you collaborated with Michael Cera, an outspoken Unicorns fan. How did that come about?
Michael Cera contacted me’¦ I think initially he wanted me to compose the music for this conceptual film that his friend Charlyne [Yi] was directing and writing. She and he were writing songs for it, and they wanted me to contribute in some sort of way. I was kinda failing to grasp what exactly was expected of me, so I was initially distant from the whole thing until it became a little more defined. I didn’t really write anything as much as just helped them with the recording process. I also played some instruments and did some additional recording back in MontrÃ©al after the initial recording in Los Angeles. It was a great thing actually. It was really fun and natural to work with both of them. I actually didn’t really know Michael Cera that well before, so it was a neat friendship to develop.
A rather odd video for ‘You Have My Eyes Now’ showed up online last week. I think it claimed to be official at first, but then became unofficial’¦ what’s up with the video?
Um’¦ I don’t know. (laughs) I’ve only seen it on a very slow internet connection, so it’s all just fragmented or whatever. I kinda got the spirit of it though. I think we’d given verbal consent to the director of that film to make a video, but other than that we’d not been in touch or anything. So I dunno what’s up with it. They kinda took their own initiative with that.
I think the climax of that song could evoke and inspire a lot of things, but after seeing the video, it’s difficult to hear it without holding the image of Tim Heidecker groping and making love to a mannequin’¦
Yeah, and that’s actually been my problem with most music videos. You tend to really imbed a lot of meaning by shooting images with music. And that’s a pretty radical video in terms of imposing a narrative on a song that would not evoke that kind of imagery. And of course people are free to do that sort of thing, but I think that’s why it’s important to say that it’s unofficial. And it’s not that funny, I guess. But it’s interesting the amount of effort and the technical precision of this video’¦
I read that they did twenty different takes’¦
But it’s in slow motion, so it’s probably actually around twenty seconds long altogether. Wait’¦ is it in slow motion? Oh, I think it is’¦
That’s the thing’¦ I had trouble determining if it was my slow internet connection. It COULD be in slow-mo, or it could just be my internet. (laughs)
You’re touring Europe next month. Have you been to Ireland before?
I haven’t actually. I’m really excited about it.
What kind of a view of Ireland do you have?
I really don’t have one.
Aren’t you excited about a pint of Guinness, and all that crap?
Not as much as just seeing the natural beauty of the land. (laughs)