Thom D’Arcy answers his cell phone through a sip of coffee. He’s standing outside a convenience store in the town of Hanna. “I don’t really know what province that’s in,” he says, the click of a lighter audible over the line. “Alberta or Saskatchewan.”
Hanna, Alberta, is a town of 3,000 two hours northeast of Calgary, and D’Arcy and his bandmates are there, halfway through a massive cross-Canadian tour with Wintersleep, on a laundry stop. D’Arcy, who fronted Toronto trio The Carnations for most of his adolescence and a good chunk of his adulthood, is known on his own and collectively as The Ladies and Gentlemen.
This fall, he released a self-recorded album under the moniker called Small Sins. It’s a heartbreakingly honest effort, one you would get if you paired the witty, lost-love laments of The Remains of Brian Borcherdt with a Postal Service soundscape, as D’Arcy overdubs himself, inserts choruses made of hand-claps and wrings every last sound out of his synthesizer.
“It’s actually physically impossible,” to reproduce the record onstage, the fast-talking, hard-smoking D’Arcy says. “When you make a record on your own, that’s all you, it’s really hard to find guys who are enthusiastic about it. I’m lucky that I found those guys. At the same time, for their sake and mine, we adapted a lot of the songs, or rearranged them, or generally tried to make it a bit more rocky and fun to watch.”
The Carnations, led by charismatic bassist D’Arcy, were also fun to watch. When they played Hell’s Kitchen during the 2003 Halifax Pop Explosion, they were lit from the bottom as D’Arcy’s tight jeans threatened to bid adieu to his hips. That was the band’s last tour.
“Somewhere along the way I got bored with the kind of music I was playing,” he says. “It was a band I started when I was 15. One day it was like, I don’t know why I’m in this band. I don’t know why I’ve been in this band for the last three or four years. I’m just too scared to leave. And one day I just left and started working on what would’ve been a demo for Carnations songs, making them of better quality and developing my quiet side.”
In January of last year—“I have the exact date from the first tape I put into my DAT machine: January 8, 2004”—he started making what would become Small Sins. He began in that iconic haven of indie-rock music-making, his bedroom. “I sort of needed the bedroom to get used to this new form,” he says. He moved around Toronto, to various studios and practice spaces and his parents’ farm, laying down synth lines and drums and vocals and the rest of it, leaving it for a few weeks and returning to the product of his indulgence.
There were times when he would discover, “‘Oh, I’m a moron. I really got out of control.’ Or, ‘I went really easy.’” He did three or four versions of each of the 10 tracks that comprise Small Sins.
It’s easy to focus on the breathtaking musical topography, but equal attention should be paid to the sensitive, sharp lyrics. That the album began its life in the dead of a Toronto winter is evident throughout, painting scenes of staying in and sleeping, drinking and praying for spring, all the while dealing with a broken, conflicted relationship. “You can stay if you want to,” he sings on “Stay,” “but you can’t sleep in my bed.”
Why he gave a solo project a plural name is of no matter, he insists. “The name is meaningless,” he says. “I don’t think it matters what I call it. I knew I didn’t want to call it Thom D’Arcy. That’s something I should do in my 30s. That’s when you’re more emotional and have a kid. I’m only one guy! Neither lady nor gentleman.”
The “gentleman” portion of the name does apply quite elegantly to the stage show, as D’Arcy and his four bandmates ritually dress in all white. A classy choice—in rock, white is the new black—but the wardrobe doesn’t exactly travel well crammed into a van full of sweaty, smoky musicians.
“We’re rocking the white,” says D’Arcy, “with brown marks and various dirt stains.”
The Ladies and Gentlemen w/Wintersleep and Brian Borcherdt, December 9 and w/wintersleep and snailhouse december 10 at The Attic, 1781 Grafton, 11pm, $10 adv / $12 door, 423-0909.