And at Christmas, one brother, the older, shall give the younger a Fender Squire bass guitar and unto him he will speak: “Here you go, we have a gig in three weeks.”
That’s how 26-year-old Rhys Bevan-John, bassist in Ceti Alpha, recalls being invited to join the band of his 30-year-old brother—and singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist—Nick. Though he’d played around with a guitar a little, Rhys admits with a laugh, “The concept of holding an instrument with strings in that fashion wasn’t completely alien to me.”
Lessons began right away, downstairs at their mother’s place. “On Christmas Day night, Nick took me to the basement—and he was actually pretty drunk at that time—and he was like, alright, these two strings here…”
That Christmas present last year was the gelling factor in Ceti Alpha’s formation, recalls Nick. “We played the show and then just started recording for the album.” Mike Conrad (synth), Dave Chisolm (additional synths) Kris McCann (guitar) and Andrew Wright (drums) joined the Bevan-John brothers in the studio.
Ceti Alpha’s first album, The Street, is full of songs that sound like they’re drifting across the harbour over dark water at night. They’re quiet but intense, fading but present.
“I wanted it to sound like a basement sort of thing, a home recording,” Nick says. A home recording in a basement in Dartmouth, as opposed to a bigger city, including the one on the other end of the bridges: “I always had this notion of big cities when I was younger, having this glossy…living, where everything’s going to be like Oz or something. Then you realize for yourself, anyways, you realize that it isn’t.”
His songs, such as the opener “Bridges,” “Open Days” or “First I was Happy,” draw a direct line to “Thoughts that you go through your head when you’re walking down the street, which is the title of the album,” he says. “Here, it’s so quiet. I can walk home from the bar or something like that and the streets are empty and all you hear are trains, the harbour. It’s a different soundscape over here that fills you up and then comes back out of you again.
“I took some trips to some bigger cities this year, like Boston, and really just couldn’t wait to come back. The sound of trains there are different. They’re faster, more violent, a sense of urgency or something.”
The tension between stillness and restlessness in a small, confining place have produced pop mastery from the likes of everyone from the Smiths to New Order and Belle & Sebastian—both named influences—to early REM to Dog Day. Nick’s also a big fan of I’m Your Man, Leonard Cohen’s 1988 album, so the stirring synth work makes sense.
Nick Bevan-John also pays attention to the people around him. He distills them into songs. A week before this interview, he found out a fascinating back story of one man.
“I’ve been drinking with this Russian guy for years now down at this bar. He’s a cab driver and I found out the other day that he was a Cold War pilot,” he enthuses. “I knew he was from Russia and he always sent money back to his family but there’s this whole history behind him that I didn’t know
—he was flying these crazy jet fighters during the Cold War.”
Find the brooding jam of “Cold War Pilot,” penned just last week, on the band’s MySpace page.
Rhys relates to the impact of the colourful characters from a Dartmouth youth.
“You’d be at Tim Horton’s on Ochterloney and there’d be Bernie, and the story is he was in the NHL when he was young but he got his head slammed into the boards too many times,” he says. “Who knows if that was true? But he’d shuffle up to your table and he’d be in his slippers and a robe, saying ‘I own Coca-Cola. I make a $100,000 a day. Give me a cigarette, I’ll clean off your table off for you.’
“Seeing people in that state, it’s a very raw, human state.”
Thanks to the band, the brothers Bevan-John, who live on opposite sides of the harbour (Nick in Dartmouth, Rhys in Halifax), see each other more often. Rhys “joked with me one day that he’s been waiting years to be invited down into the basement,” says Nick. “Finally he gets to play with his big brother.”