Last night was one of the finest local bills Toronto is likely to witness in 2008: the joint CD release for the Forest City Lovers and the D'Urbervilles. Both albums are out on the nascent label Out of This Spark, who made an auspicious debut with the Friends in Bellwoods compilation last year; with both of these stellar new releases in the discography, OOTS now has a jump start on carrying the torch for the late great Three Gut Records, another Guelph/Toronto transplant label that focused on quality over quantity.
The D'Urbervilles opened the bill in the intimate Tranzac room, and despite the initial lack of drunken abandon on the audience's part at 9.30PM on a Friday night, they delivered a powerhouse performance--again--that was made for the history books. As my co-interviewer Helen Spitzer pointed out to me, singer John O'Regan couldn't contain his giddy grin of pride for the entire set: the man was clearly ecstatic, and he had every reason to be.
The debut album We Are the Hunters is fiery and ferocious and wastes no time during its 30-minute duration, packing punk rock soul into every groove, the rhythm section boasting innate restraint while O'Regan and Tim Bruton's guitars alternate between intricate disco picking, new wave textures (I swear I actually heard a bit of Bauhaus last night) and AC/DC-size riffs, all served by the melodicism that O'Regan honed in Habitat, the sadly now-defunct duo with Sylvie Smith (who is now in The Magic with Bruton).
Early in their career, the D'Urbervilles garnered endless comparisons to the Constantines--and though there are certainly some similarities, the D'Urbs are better dancers. And Hunters is easily the best rock'n'roll album to come out of Toronto (and area) since the Constantines' 2001 debut, so those geezers better watch their backs (their new album, Kensington Heights, is due in April on Arts and Crafts).
The D'Urbervilles have plenty of dates out east with the Forest City Lovers (bassist Kyle Donnelly plays in both) and then out west on their own: they're all listed here.
This interview was spun into two articles: Helen Spitzer's eloquent Eye Weekly piece here; my local-boys-do-good story for the K-W Record/Guelph Mercury here.
The D’Urbervilles: John O’Regan, Kyle Donnelly, Tim Bruton
Interviewed by Helen Spitzer and Michael Barclay at Bacchus Roti, Queen St. W
March 5, 2008
H: Do you think the long gap between the first EP and this album is a good thing in terms of your evolution as a band, playing together, what you sound like together?
K: When we did the EP we didn’t really have any sound that we thought was our own, like each song had a different thing going for it. The gap helped us a lot to write more cohesive songs.
H: John, your voice has really changed immensely. It’s deepened in tone and it’s more nuanced, your singing. It’s just that much more, in a year.
J: Wow, I’m not gonna be able to get my big head out of the door now. Some of the songs definitely we spent more time on the vocals with. When we recorded the EP we were still practicing in my bedroom in Guelph, with no P.A. So these guys would be hearing the lyrics for the first time when we played the songs live.
T: Or when we recorded them.
J: Like oh, that’s what he’s singing. A lot of the songs we’d been able to play a long time, so that gave me more of a chance to work out phrasing and make everything super exact. And on some of them were really intense, like on “Hot Tips” for example. I remember we spent several days trying to get that little high vocal melody at the beginning.
K: We actually knew what he was saying on that one because he came up to us and said, ‘I’ve got a great idea for song lyrics: cold cash for hot tips, like Crime Stoppers.’
J: They had it on the board outside the OPP station on Wellington Street in Guelph, it said “cold cash for hot tips.”
M: And it just sounded like a naughty rock’n’roll song.
T: The guys in We’re Marching On thought we were saying “hot tits.”
H: Yeah, that’s where we’re going here.
M: I was wondering if you think Habitat affected your singing.
J: I don’t know, I always felt I sang differently in that band. It got me more accustomed to being more isolated, because there was less to hide behind. There’s always something with boys and singing and being self-conscious about it in rock bands. Doing [Habitat] made it more okay. It’s weird that people view vocals differently. It’s fine to be in a room with someone and say, ‘Hey, check out this guitar riff!’ [makes obnoxious rock guitar sound]. But with singing, it’s like…
M: ‘Hey, check out my soul!’
K: ‘Did you hear what I did with that note?’
T: ‘What a sissy!’
H: For me when I listen to this record I get more of the emotional tenor of what you’re singing about. Whereas I felt on the earlier one there was more of the new wave robotic thing, more like LCD Soundsystem—which I know you were listening to at the time.
K: Forest City Lovers came up with a nickname for you, which was Johnny Staccato. [all laugh]
T: That would look good on a bowling jacket.
J: Playing with the same people for a while, you figure out what you like and don’t like and what works. On the older songs, you can almost pinpoint the kind of sound we were going for on each song—the country song, the rock song, the bass song, the slow jam. Those were the titles for a long time, too, because I was lazy about writing lyrics. Tim’s playing improved a lot too, and gave us more of a style instead of just throwing shit at the wall.
H: Tim, I’ve seen big developments in your playing—especially with The Magic.
M: Did anyone lend you any 80s guitar pedals on this record?
T: They did. John Dinsmore lent me a lot of stuff. I was like a kid in a candy store.
M: What I like about it is how much you do with clean sounds, whereas a lot of other bands would just slap on the distortion as a crutch or stick to herky-jerky rhythms.
T: I prefer to think of texture rather than some sort of overdriving factor. It’s not something you hold on to: it’s something you hear for a minute and then your focus shifts back to the drum and bass.
H: Like on that Payola$[-esque] song you do, or like Spoon—who do a similar thing and pull back all the time and let your brain fill in the blanks.
J: I don’t know if it’s risky to namedrop bands, but I listen to Spoon a lot more than other new music. I like seeing how far you can get with the skeleton structure of what there is, and recognizing that you don’t need to add any more.
H: Was that a conscious conversation in the band?
J: It was, throughout both the writing and the recording.
T: It’s really easy in recording to say, ‘We have 128 tracks on this song—let’s use them all.’ For us, it made a lot of sense when we liked how a really simple element sounded, and we wanted to explore the air around that.
K: If someone were to tab out one of our songs, they’d be really boring to play.
J: That’s true of the whole album.
K: Tim’s guitar lines on their own need something else. It’s not just chords; everything is intertwined.
T: There are no campfire songs.
J: That was one of our big goals.
M: You wanted to pour water all over that campfire.
J: If the album gets huge, you won’t walk into the Brass Taps in Guelph in a year’s time and hear some first-year guy at an open mic covering these songs.
M: That to me is what they have in common with old soul music or disco or James Brown, where they aren’t guitar lines or bass lines or chord progressions—it’s about the whole band as a rhythm section. And, uh, well, that’s why I love your band.
T: I’m glad you noticed that!
H: What do you think we do for a living?
M: Lyrically, you step up to the streets all over this record. You assassin down the avenue, you’re scoping the streets, the last line on the album is “Take back the night…”
T: You know that scene in Saturday Night Fever at the very beginning? That’s what I think of, where he’s walking down the street in his new Italian boots, with ‘Stayin’ Alive’ rockin’ on the soundtrack. And he stops at the window and lifts up his boot to the one in the window, and his might even be a little bit shinier. Then he puts on his paint smock and he’s back at work.
M: John, what’s with you and the streets of Oshawa, the streets of Guelph, the streets of Toronto?
J: With any lyrics, you’re telling a story and leave it open enough that people can attach their own meaning to it. A conscious part of the album is that most of these songs were written from when we were 19 to 22, when you’re out on the town late at night. A lot of it is trying to write stuff that is honest to our experiences and play that up a little. You’re out at 1.30 in the morning and you’ve seen your friends play an awesome show and you’re going to Mega Pizza. I know for ‘Belladonna,’ the last song, a lot of that was coming from the disparity of how you could have just been at a house show on Grange St. or just seen The Burning Hell play at Family Thrift Store while drinking beer in the back of Ray’s van and it’s a hilarious time and it’s the best show you’ve ever seen and you’re with 40 friends. You walk literally ten steps down the street, and you’re at the Cowboy Bar and being screamed at by some guy in tight pants and boots calling you queer. Being out and around that all at once, you see all these separate communities clashing.
T: Just standing at the four corners [of Wyndham and Macdonnell], you see all kinds of things happening at the same time.
M: It’s a split-screen movie.
J: You have the hip-hop kids at Van Gogh’s, the cops sitting there waiting, and there’s always two girls on the corner having some kind of life crisis on the curb. Everyone’s been a kid and gone through all that, and that’s the common place we’re coming from.
M: There’s an element of subversion in these lyrics, though, an element of stealth, like you’re getting away with something.
J: That’s definitely part of it. I find Guelph is a more highly politicized place, especially coming from Oshawa.
K: We used to practice in Jonno’s bedroom, and the Guelph Union of Tenants and Supporters, GUTS, ran a soup kitchen underneath.
J: While we’d be practicing they’d be making vegan stews and chocolate cakes to take out to the streets. They fed us many times.
K: They’d set up a soup kitchen outside the Guelph Legal Clinic.
J: Streets are public, but they’re also contentious—and that’s probably a bigger issue here in Toronto than it is there. You see these YouTube videos of people on bicycles having battles with cars.
K: Although during the march for Nicole Freeborn in Guelph there were cops lined up in front of City Hall; it was weird seeing Guelph become a police state for a day.
J: One of the women in GUTS was assaulted at a demonstration, and then there was a protest held a couple of months later that was pretty intense for Guelph. Streets should be a place for free and public expression, but in a lot of ways they aren’t.
M: What I like about these lyrics is that it’s obvious there are political subtexts there, though it’s never completely overt. I know I’ve heard you talk at shows about First Nations rights in Caledonia. Am I reading too much into “The Receiver” to hear that there?
J: Not explicitly, no.
K: We did play a song about that called “White Noise.” But we’ve only played that twice.
J: That’s one of the things I like about lyric writing in general. I love when you have an album you listen to a lot, but then a year later something has happened in your life and you put the album on again and there’s that moment when where all the sudden you understand the song on a whole other level. Of course, you might still be misinterpreting what they’re talking about. I like to leave it open enough that it’s not just: here’s the political song, here’s the love song, here’s the party song.
H: I wanted to go back and get some history. Have all of you known each other since you were seven years old?
J: No, just me and this guy (Tim).
H: Is it the kind of situation where you decided to be in a band together before you played instruments?
T: Before we played instruments well.
J: I was definitely in the open-mic-night, banging-a-bongo-drum Guelph pseudo-hippie phase after first year [university]. I had learned guitar in high school, but not really. It wasn’t until I went away that I started playing more and seeing bands. When I came back to Oshawa that first summer, I really wanted to start a group.
T: I was still in Oshawa. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I still don’t. I went to high school some days. Some days I didn’t. I played a lot of guitar. A lot of things I was working on then became parts of the EP.
H: So moving to Guelph was a conscious decision.
T: University seemed like a good idea at the time, and I definitely wanted to move away just for a new experience. I knew some people who went there already. It had some cool urban stuff that Oshawa didn’t have, and some country stuff too that appealed to me.
K: I had heard of [now-defunct vegetarian restaurant] Café Aquarius when I was still in high school in Whitby. And the Barmitzvah Brothers as well.
H: Could each of you tell me what some of your pivotal Guelph musical experiences were?
K: The first band I saw in Guelph was during frosh week when I went to see The Crappy Roommate, which is where I met Richard Laviolette; we’ve become good friends since. A big one was the Constantines/ Weakerthans show. That’s where I met Colin, our original drummer. Tim introduced me to him there. Another big one was Controller Controller and Raising the Fawn and LAL. I was watching that with these guys before I was in the band with them. Then it was all of Stuart [Duncan]’s shows at Ed Video: Final Fantasy, We’re Marching On and SS Cardiacs was a big one. Then all the shows at Grange St.
T: Kyle just said most of my favourites, like the Final Fantasy/ WAMO/ SS Cardiacs show. That’s where I met Leon Taheny, who’s an amazing drummer. And Jamie from Ohbijou came out of the crowd playing trumpet. I had seen Cuff the Duke in Oshawa before, and that had floored me, but not in the interactive way that this band was really keen on. I remember seeing For the Horseradish as well, and they were very involved with the audience and not just being stationary. As for the D’Urbervilles, I remember getting goosebumps when we played Peter Clark Hall [at the University of Guelph] with K’naan and Controller Controller.
J: We had won a Battle of the Bands against the Salt Lick Kids and Knock Knock Ginger.
K: It’s funny, because the first year we saw Controller Controller in September, the next year we opened for them at the university, and the year after that we were touring with them.
T: That show we played with them, that was the most people I’d ever stood in front of before, other than high school parliament or something. We only brought six EPs to sell, and there was a line-up. We told them that if they gave us their name we’d make some more; there were 90 names.
K: But only three people came the next day while we stood in the rain waiting.
T: We played five songs that night, and that’s when we got the idea that that was the ideal set.
J: Definitely for me it was the Constantines and Of January May, which was at the Trasheteria. I remember being totally floored by both bands. That was early in my first year of Guelph, when paying seven bucks and being so close to the band was totally new for me. I was sill in the high school mode of saving up all your money and going to the Molson Ampitheatre twice a year to see someone like Weezer. Going to this show was, holy crap, the first time I thought that I could do this in some capacity.
M: So that never happened at the Velvet Elvis in Oshawa?
J: I was underage.
K: There was the Dungeon, which was an underage punk club. I went there a lot to see shows, but Guelph and Oshawa had very different music scenes at the time. There were only punk bands in high school and it was always six-band bills.
J: We went to see Cuff the Duke at the Velvet Elvis once and they kicked us out right after the openers. Another big show for me was the Bahai Cassette at the Family Thrift Store [in Guelph]. That totally blew my mind—the idea that you can be in a band and present something that wasn’t necessarily polished. Not that they were bad, but they kind of meant to be and they didn’t care. I realized that being in a band was not only something I could do, but something I could do without being a virtuoso and spending my whole life mastering the guitar fretboard.
H: What was the gap between the D’Urbervilles starting and that first gig in the University Centre Courtyard?
T: Jon had gone hitchhiking across Canada that summer in July. I convinced him to let Colin play drums with us and write songs. Within three weeks we played a couple of shows in Oshawa.
J: I still had an acoustic guitar, a borrowed amp, and no bass player. Our
friends were very nice to come to those.
T: Then by late November Kyle joined us.
J: That was right after the Arcade Fire show at Vinyl; that was huge for us too. That was the first time I saw the Barmitzvah Brothers.
H: I remember the UC Courtyard Show and being so excited and coming up to you and telling you how awesome it was and you [shrugged and] said, ‘Ah! We just formed!’
J: That was our first show with Kyle and our third show ever. And my first with an electric guitar.
T: We’ll call that day one.
H: How did you get that gig?
J: I organized it. It was Buy Nothing Day and I was doing some organizing with Students Against Sweatshops. We had the space that day, so I thought we should get some bands—and I didn’t know many.
T: That was the first time we met Stuart Duncan too; he did sound.
J: When we played that show, I told everyone, ‘Okay guys, Stuart is doing sound and he works at the radio station so we have to be really good. If Stuart thinks we don’t suck, then it will be great.’
K: It took us about a year before Stuart told us he actually liked us.
H: I always felt your band got this point from the sheer mass of people rooting for you. When I’ve spoken to you, I never got the impression that you had any kind of master plan.
T: For the first year and a half our only goal was opening for Cuff the Duke.
J: And impressing Stuart. One of the other goals we’ve always had has been to do a big tour, which we’re about to do. We’ve been really fortunate to meet some really great people, at CFRU and everywhere else.
K: When we played early shows in Toronto at the Speakeasy, Jamie from Ohbijou would come to all those shows and we’d only know maybe two other people in the crowd. He tried to get tons of people out to those shows. He was also putting the Bellwoods compilation together at the time.
H: You’re also part of that period of time when a bunch of Guelph bands and Toronto bands grew up together and formed this community, which includes Bellwoods.
T: We snuck into that somehow.
K: Like the Social Arts Club [the very loose collective started by We're Marching On and associates, which released a compilation in 2005]. I remember when our name first popped up on the list of their bands on the website…
J: Oh, I remember that day!
T: We were so ridiculously excited.
J: Then they stopped calling themselves that almost immediately. The first We’re Marching On show in Guelph was another big moment for me.
H: What do you think people’s problem with the name is?
T: I get called Tim Burton a lot.
J: And the lead singer.
T: Which it can be argued I am. I do lead off the record. But Jon always get O’Reagan.
K: And my name is always pronounced right but there’s usually an extra ‘n’ or ‘l’ or an ‘a’ in there somewhere.
H: But I don’t get the “Doobervilles” thing.
K: If you see it written in lower case, the B jumps up more than the R.
H: But your own publicist sent something out with “D’Ubervilles” in the subject line.
J: Oh, she’s dead!
K: Stuart called us the D’Ubervilles for the longest time. But at NXNE they labeled our gear with tape that said “Gerbervilles.” We’ve also got the “Dumbrellas” and the “Doober Dillies.” That last one was the same gig in PEI that we played with “For City Lovers.”
T: I think there’s about seven mispronunciations I’ve heard. The “D’uborvilles” I thought was kind of classy.
M: What about the “Doukhaborvilles?”
J: Part of this band’s career was a battle once we realized we needed a website. When we got one, we watched it slowly climb the Google charts, slowly passing each Coles notes reference and high school essay on the actual book until we actually beat them all.
K: That’s when we realized we didn’t suck.
J: We were in the Thomas Hardy Historical Society newsletter once.
T: They wrote me an email to tell me we were in there.
K: Thanks for telling me, guys.
H: Do you know that the plot of the book revolves around a misunderstanding about her name?
J: Yeah, Durbeyfield.
H: Who here has actually read the book?
J: Just me.
K: I bought a copy after I joined the band, figuring I should know what we’re about. But after we played Lee’s Palace with We Are Wolves, a friend came up and gave me this really old copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
T: I have no plans to read it.