"It's funny, just recently in the last few shows we've done in Toronto, there are people that are seeing us for the first time and that's the song they're familiar with," says Paul Murphy. "They are surprised by the rest of the songs-—they don't really expect our band to sound like our band. It's neat to surprise people."
On the line from Montreal on a two-week break between tours-—"I'm at my girl's," he reports-—Murphy is deconstructing "Weighty Ghost," the breakout single from Welcome to the Night Sky. A rolling, almost gentle track, underscored by a droning organ and jangly acoustic guitar, it had modest beginnings, wedged in between the original material and early Wintersleep songs that comprised the singer's occasional solo shows. (He has introduced it as "an Irish pub drinking song.")
Under the full-band treatment, the song became an instant crowd favourite, inciting clap-alongs and shouts of the chorus' hooky refrain: "Oh have you seen my ghost?/Seen my ghost?/Seen my ghost?"
But when Wintersleep entered The Sonic Temple last summer, its members-—Murphy, drummer Loel Campbell, bassist Jud Haynes and guitarist Tim D'Eon-—along with its Scottish producer Tony Doogan, decided to approach the song differently.
"It was kind of more rocked-out," says Campbell, also from Montreal. "We demoed it once before and we knew it wasn't gonna work like that. It sounded horribly cheesy. It's one thing to be watching a band in a live atmosphere where you can get away with it, but when you're committing something to the catalogue of records this band is going to produce, it wasn't going to jive."
Murphy went into the vocal booth to lay down a guide track. It was not a serious take, but Doogan liked it so much he kept it.
"We did that song pretty ground-up," says Murphy. "Guitars, claps, stomping. But after everything was laid down it seemed like a natural take, not very forced, not very thought about, which is a great thing."
"If it was us in the past we'd be convinced we have to do that over," says Campbell. "Tony was there to guide those moments and the magic that can happen."
"Weighty Ghost" is one of many magic moments found on Welcome to the Night Sky, many credited to Doogan, who the band chose to work with because of records he'd produced for Mogwai and Belle & Sebastian.
"We realized our record's going to be all over the map-—really heavy at times, and softer, more Belle & Sebastian-ish at times," says D'Eon, who moved to Montreal last year. "And we figured he'd be the guy to pull it together and make it sound cohesive."
Credit also a recording budget, which meant the band got to spend 21 days straight in the studio. Their previous two albums, Wintersleep (2003)-—produced by James Shaw in Lunenburg-—and the untitled 2005 follow-up-—produced by Laurence Currie in Halifax-—were each recorded over a year.
"We'd go in on the weekends whenever we could and in between try and play shows and make money to pay Laurence or James or whoever and then go back in," says D'Eon. This new approach "definitely helped our focus. It's great to wake up in the morning and be like alright, we get to go into the studio."
This album cycle, though more efficient, came with its own setbacks-—soon after recording wrapped, Jud Haynes announced his departure. ("I'm very proud of the five years I was in Wintersleep," he says from his native St. John's. "I made friends I'll have the rest of my life and wish the guys all the best.") Wintersleep recruited Mike Bigelow, their touring keyboardist-—a slot now filled by Jon Samuel-—from his gig in indie-dance outfit Holy Fuck. Bigelow's first show was a headline set at the eighth Evolve Festival in August.
Though he is a longtime mate of Wintersleep's-—and plays in Contrived with Campbell-—Bigelow was seeing the world with the higher-profile Holy Fuck, popular in both the US and UK.
"I got to the point of wanting to be playing songs and writing and practicing," he says from Murphy's girlfriend's place. "Whereas with Holy Fuck we'd tour all the time and write on the road. This is a more concentrated effort."
Dynamic bassist Bigelow's playing style and frenetic presence have changed the Wintersleep stage show significantly, as has the addition of the honey-voiced Samuel on backing vocals. Though the kinks have long been worked out, Bigelow admits to an initial case of overconfidence.
"There were some songs that I was absolutely positive I had the basslines nailed for," he says, "and then I would go to practice and Loel would be like 'No man, that's not it.' And then he would show me and I'd be like 'Wow.' I thought I had them pegged!"
After trips to Tokyo ("In general they care a lot about what the singer looks like in Japan," says Murphy, who ended up with a few new shirts) and South by Southwest in Austin ("It's almost like a vacation when you go," says Bigelow) the band heads out west to try and pinch a Juno in Saskatoon, then over to the UK for dates with Black Mountain. In the meantime, they're writing songs for the first time in this combination, hoping to trip across some more magic moments.
"It's taken on a way different, a way larger role in everyone's life," says Murphy. "Everyone's given their lives to playing music for this band."