For many rock singers, vocal lessons seem to herald the approach of impending wankerdom. Case in point: Raine Maida takes vocal lessons. Sebastian Bach does too, no doubt while tossing his blonde mane as his reality-TV bride stands astride the piano.
So when someone like Bry Webb admits he'll be starting his first-ever vocal lesson in an hour, it gives one pause. Webb is the voice of the Constantines---and for many of the band's fans, his raw, raspy, beautifully undisciplined roar is the band's most identifiable trait. During an interview from his home in Montreal, however, Webb says he's using them for a utilitarian purpose.
"I've always been afraid of learning to sing properly," he says. "I'm hoping she can teach me how to save my voice when I'm on the road. I've had trouble without exception. I used to lose my voice after five shows and be in pain for the rest of the tour."
After nearly 10 years together, adulthood is approaching the Constantines, and Webb's voice lessons are only part of the transition. After years spent near each other in Guelph and then Toronto, the Constantines split---in a geographic sense---about three years ago. Webb now lives "a nice, quiet life on a nice, quiet street" in Montreal's Plateau with his wife (guitarist Steve Lambke also lives in the city). "Don't get me wrong---I like being on tour, playing live music, having crazy adventures," says Webb. "And then I like coming home and having mellower adventures here."
When tours approach, like this upcoming cross-country jaunt with The Weakerthans, Webb will travel to Toronto with Lambke and rejoin the rest of the band in their Kensington Market practice space to tighten their set. They will then embark on another cross-country tour, heading west as they do nearly every year, leaving in winter and returning home in spring. It's hard to gauge how many times the Constantines have made this trip, whether together or separately. This could be the second time they've travelled cross-country with The Weakerthans, or maybe third. Of course, some things have changed. This time in Halifax, the band won't be playing their usual gig in the Marquee, since it no longer exists. Instead, they'll take the stage in the slightly more incongruous Palace. Webb is diplomatic about it.
"I understand that dance bars need to exist, to survive," he says. "That's where the money is coming from. To me a city is defined by its social culture, and obviously pickup bars are part of that culture, but a big part of that is the music and performance venues, too."
Webb's sympathy perhaps lies in the fact that the Constantines famously cut their teeth playing sweaty, transcendent sets at house parties in Guelph and later in the grimy, cramped space at the now-defunct Ted's Wrecking Yard in Toronto. Nowadays, they've opened for the Tragically Hip and the Foo Fighters in stadiums and hockey arenas. For Webb, it's an alienating contrast.
"I really believe music is a social art," he says. "When a band starts playing in giant stadiums, it starts to separate the band from the audience completely, because they have to be bigger than life. There's a 10- to 20-foot gap between the front row and the stage. There's lights and giant screens everywhere. I don't get as much out of it as when the stage is a foot high and people are vomiting on the monitors."
There's something comforting in knowing that the Constantines have maintained their affinity for small, dirty shows and still value the importance of touring over press kits. Webb says his inner optimist hopes that the spate of venue closures will lead to a DIY resurgence---with touring bands playing more often in art galleries, rental halls and living rooms---as much for his own peace of mind as anyone else's.
"I need it," he says. "I'm a terribly socially awkward person. I need my entire evening scripted out on a stage. I know the songs, and I know what my position is, which is more than I can say for most times when I leave the house."
The Constantines and the Weakerthans. Friday, March 20 at the Palace, 1721 Brunswick, 8pm, $25 adv/$30, 1-888-311-9090, ticketpro.ca.