"We were there for hours. No cell phone. No nothing."
Aaron Wolff is remembering the time when his band, The End, blew two tires on their tour van and ended up rolling to a halt somewhere along Highway 10—the endless southern stretch of highway trailing from Santa Monica, California, to Jacksonville, Florida.
Based on his recollections, it sounds like a desolately evil place, where the hills would most definitely have eyes.
But the lead singer of the Mississauga-based math-rock quintet remains cavalier about it all. "The first time that happens, you're really scared," he says. "Now we just pick up, get a new tire, get going."
One imagines it would take a lot to surprise The End. For a band that's essentially been on the road since its creation eight years ago, an unplanned desert sojourn is only one in a series of trials. There have been snowstorms in Wyoming, harassment at the US-Winnipeg border, tire jacks breaking in Thunder Bay and cancelled gigs aplenty.
"After awhile, your skin gets tougher," Wolff says. "Things go wrong. Shit hits the fan."
The End may have been deeply rooted in the shit more often than not, but the band is beginning to come into its own. Its third album, Elementary, is winning the group critical praise and new fans on both sides of the border. They just logged an appearance on MTV Canada that most likely scared the hell out of every eyeliner-wearing tween in the room. And, of course, there's more touring, with the band embarking on a schedule that will see them all over Canada, the US and Eastern Europe in the next 10 months.
But for all the tough-guy road warrior stories, this Elementary album might have been the band's riskiest venture yet. It represents a significant evolution in The End's sound, from a barrage of time changes into a heavier, more progressive structure. The band's once-coiled guitar lines now unfurl with Tool-style syncopation, and on a number of the new tracks, Wolff trades in his throat-shredding screams for a surprisingly melodious tenor.
Wolff says the shift in sound was spurred by a question of longevity—and a need for group cohesion.
"If a band wants to last eight, 10, 20 years, everyone has to feel like they're at home and feel like they have their input," he says. "The record is different because we made that shift. The record is far more passionate, more emotional, more involved, because we've never been this close as a unit before."
As a result, songwriting duties—previously the job of guitarist Steve Watson—became collaborative. Meanwhile, Wolff and the band's second guitarist, Andrew Hercules, worked on lyrics, and Wolff began stretching his voice to the outer limits.
"I try to bring out as much emotion as the part calls for," he says, evoking, perhaps unintentionally, the commitment of a well-disciplined theatre student. It's unsurprising, then, that he used to protect his pipes like an actor. "I used to try not to drink, or have coffee," he says. "But then I found myself getting really stressed out about it, so I said screw it."
This mentality spreads to the live show, where, unlike other acts intent on merely fucking up the stage, or standing stock still, guitars hanging numbly from the waistline, The End is all about theatrics.
"When we do a show, it's inspired by film, musicals, Broadway," he says. "Anyone who puts something on a bit more than just going up and playing."
Wolff says the entire band is great admirers of a well-orchestrated stage show in the style of Marilyn Manson, Sigur Ros or—bizarrely enough—Madonna.
He admits that if the band had the budget, they'd execute an orgy of pyrotechnics and staging so intense it would blow the Material Girl right out of her bewildering flesh-coloured leotards. "Honestly, oh my God. It would be the most insane stage show you've ever seen," he says, laughing. "We do what we can with what we've got."
The End w/Threat Signal, A Sight for Sewn Eyes, The Blessing and Searching for This, June 22 at the Pavilion, 5816 Cogswell, 7pm, $8 and w/Threat Signal and The Letter Unfolds, June 22 at The Attic, 1741 Grafton, 11pm.