Allison Higgins, one-third of the band Old and Weird, has trailed off, unsure about whether or not to call her group's latest release its first full-length. "It's a full-length, which is our...well, we wouldn't call Judy Cool a full length..." she continues, her eyes scanning the space for affirmation from her bandmates, Danika Vandersteen and Hannah Guinan. From across the room, Vandersteen chimes in. "Didn't we call Life's Tough Not Really a full-length? With everything we release we're like 'our full-length!' and then it's actually eight minutes a side."
They all laugh before Guinan circles back to her bandmate's original question: "This feels like our real first full-length," she confirms. "We put more time and energy into it, and we had more control over it too."
That full-length is What I Saw, a 10-track cassette of angular harmonies, acerbic lyrics and shape-shifting structures that stands as the band's most exciting release yet. In a way, the new album sounds just like that conversation reads: Higgins, Vandersteen and Guinan finish each others' sentences, look to each other for assurance and build songs collaboratively—all things that require a shared vision and a certain degree of mutual trust. It's their most idiosyncratic, distinctly them release yet, and—perhaps because of this—their best: a forward-thinking slice of guitar-pop that is surely unparalleled in this city, if not the entire country.
"Pop is a helpful descriptor when describing our band to family or anyone to give a sense of our band's structure"—bass, drums, guitar— "[or] song structure"—verse, chorus, verse, chorus, says Vandersteen. "I guess anti-pop might better describe the way the songs actually sound—non-traditional harmonies between vocals or guitar; a third of the songs have no bass; using a [guitar] slide to sound like a whale."
After Old and Weird's three current members met while studying at NSCAD, they began releasing music in 2011 as a four-piece: Higgins and Vandersteen played guitar, Guinan played bass and former Coast contributor Sandi Rankaduwa played drums. Last year, however, the group made the decision to downsize to a trio.
"We started playing as a three-piece last summer," says Guinan. "We wanted to tour; we were playing Sled Island and Sandi was really busy with her comedy. She was in Chicago, working at Second City, so she was just really busy with this other aspect of her life."
Less than two months before they were scheduled to tour across the country, Old and Weird found themselves without a drummer. Still, they were determined to play—so after a few "emergency" drum lessons and a shuffle of instrumental responsibilities, the band hit the road with a renewed focus and a new live dynamic. Drumming duties are now shared—live appearances see all three members contributing vocals and switching between guitar, bass and the drum kit.
"It's not necessarily permanent, like I wouldn't be opposed to it changing again," says Vandersteen about their rotations from instrument to instrument. "But we definitely felt more settled in it on this past tour than on the first tour...I feel like we're all a bit more confident with drumming." Guinan says, laughing. "It's also so fully intentional," she says. "We could have asked someone to drum with us, we could have made that decision. And we still can, everything is open! But this is fully our decision, it's just how it works."
Not only is that rotating a fascinating subversion of traditional, stone-set lineups—"People like to choose what you should always be on," says Guinan. "It's been motivating to kind of be mixing it up like that," says Higgins—it stands as further proof of Old and Weird's commitment to doing things on their own terms.
"I think after three years of working on Old and Weird we are maybe maturing in this," says Higgins. "[We're] feeling more DIY with our recordings but getting the recordings professionally mastered and the tapes made by a company that will do it efficiently." Guinan continues: "The benefit is having complete creative control over what we put out, as the band has become increasingly representative of ourselves as a collective."
What I Saw was entirely self-recorded and mixed in Vandersteen's living room over a period of about five months this past winter—a first for the band—before being sent to Mike Wright (of Each Other and Plastic Factory Records) for mastering.
"This is definitely the most satisfied we've been with a record," says Higgins, noting the freedom that they felt recording in their own space on their own time.
"We had more control over how things sounded," Guinan adds.
Though they considered shopping the album around to record labels, the band ultimately decided to release it themselves.
"With this tape, I felt like 'This is the one we're going to send out and hopefully have a label help us with,'" says Vandersteen. "But I also feel like we can just do that again. It's good to have that feeling that this isn't the only thing that you can think of, you know that you're going to make something else."
Guinan agrees. "Let's just make something and put it out there," she says. "I think that the most satisfying thing is when you're making something new."
It's been a busy year for the group—in addition to recording and mixing What I Saw, they embarked on a month-long tour in June that included stops at Ottawa Explosion and NXNE; in May, they put together a group art show (also called Old and Weird) at Lost & Found as a part of the inaugural Art in Fest, which ran concurrently with the OBEY Convention. Fresh off of a trip to Newfoundland to play the Shed Island festival, the band is currently leading Rebel Girl Halifax Rock Camp, a two-week rock camp for female-identifying, trans* or gender-nonconforming youth that they co-organize every summer. September will see Guinan taking over as the artistic director of the Khyber Centre for the Arts, as well as a band trip to Pop Montreal.
On Thursday, August 21, Old and Weird will celebrate the release of What I Saw at Menz Bar with Nap Eyes, Bad P.I. and Wayne World.
All along the way, Higgins, Vandersteen and Guinan will be making new art and new songs, inspired both by the community that surrounds them as well as things they think are lacking—both in their own work and the local music scene at large.
"When I go to shows, I feel inspired by what people are doing," says Higgins. "It makes me feel like being more productive."
"It also makes you reflect on what you do and decide what you want to be doing," says Vandersteen. "Some things make me want to fight or challenge the way that we go about things, based on what we're seeing people do and also the opposite of what we're seeing people do."
"It's inspiring seeing other people being active—like seeing a band at show or [putting out] a new album," Higgins says. "Getting stuff done inspires an itch to work on stuff. [It's] also inspiring to see people around us, in Halifax or at festivals like Sappy or Pop Montreal, being immersed and confident in the music they make."
"I still feel like we have a lot of learning for everything," says Vandersteen. "But it also feels OK."
What I Saw track by track
“Awake My Face Alive”
A strong way to start—group vocals and good feels.
Keep your eyes peeled for a music video for this playful single, shot by Paul Doucette (with help from Mike Doucette and Nicole Holland) in that strange library room at Menz Bar.
The atypical harmonies throughout lend the few moments of true consonance here even greater punch.
“As A Joke”
This song contains some of the band’s best lyrics yet: anecdotal, funny, almost Dan Bejar-esque—a compliment of the highest order.
“Am I Dumb”
“I can’t keep my mouth from/ and I can’t keep my mouth from/and I can’t keep my mouth from moving” is maybe kind of meta and definitely kind of catchy.
“Just Came to Dance”
Yearning, somehow pretty. A slow-burner for all of you slow- dancers.
What starts out as a straightforward song gets weirder (and better) as it goes along.
“She Seems Stressed”
Perhaps the nicest chorus here: two airy melodies woven together, grounded by bass and drums.
“This Lack Anyway”
Ninety-six seconds of goodness: singing, drumming, lyrics. Perfect song.
That aforementioned guitar slide whale noise is only one of many surprises hidden in What I Saw’s closer. We won’t spill anymore, promise.
Old and Weird What I Saw release w/Nap Eyes, Bad P.I., Wayne World
Menz & Mollyz Bar, 2182 Gottingen Street
Thursday, August 21, 10pm