A band releases a great record and tours its collective ass off, playing its music to thousands of eventual converts and achieving the status of a band with a bright future. But over the thousands of traveled miles and similar sounding records being produced by sound-alike acts, the group starts to question itself and the music it has created.
In this case, the band is The Stills and the record in question is Logic Will Break Your Heart, one of the best albums released in 2003 and arguably the finest debut by any band from Montreal until The Arcade Fire released its Funeral and set the world alight a year later.
Although they preached “Changes Are No Good” on their first record, The Stills did just that, overhauling their sound and lineup after they returned home from a seemingly endless tour last December. They holed up in a studio for eight months to regroup and record their second album, boldly seeking to move away from the melodic post-punk of “Still In Love Song,” “Love and Death” and “Lola Stars and Stripes” that made them critical darlings and a sought-after live act.
“I guess we thought we were genre-specific last time and I think we’re trying to not be that this time around and not be this post-punk sort of thing that everyone seems to be now,” guitarist/vocalist Dave Hamelin says. “What are we going to add to it really? We’re not going to be The Smiths.”
After the self-imposed hiatus, The Stills are back on the road, previewing a new sound, a new line-up and a new attitude. Guitarist Greg Paquet packed up and headed back to school to finish his bachelor’s degree at Concordia. Hamelin, the drummer and main songwriter on Logic, gave up the sticks to concentrate on guitar and vocal duties alongside guitarist and songwriter Tim Fletcher. And the group—which also includes bassist Oliver Crowe—brought on touring keyboardist Liam O’Neill and former Sea Ray drummer Colin Brooks as permanent members.
“It’s going really great,” an excited Hamelin says from a tour stop in Peterborough. “Colin’s an amazing drummer and Liam is the best musician in our band. I think it’s really helped us as a band get better. On our new record, it’s really apparent how much Liam has really helped us out.”
Over the course of the interview, Hamelin gushes about his move to the front of the stage, adding a dual attack to The Stills show. The shift allows Hamelin to sing his own songs while taking some of the pressure off Fletcher, who had unwittingly become the focal point for the band.
“Now there’s two people carrying the torch, so it’s a lot easier than one,” says Hamelin. “If somebody’s not feeling it one night, you can count on somebody.”
Although to some fans it seemed that The Stills had disappeared, the group was actually hard at work honing its new musical direction, leaving behind the dance undercurrent of the first record in favor for a more straight-ahead rock approach. Hamelin says he has been listening to records by the Band, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, John Zorn and the current downtown New York scene for inspiration.
“We don’t listen to the same things,” Hamelin says. “I wrote those songs between the ages of 18 and 20 and now I’m 24 and things have changed and I’m into different things now that I wasn’t into then.
“Fleetwood Mac changed their lineup quite radically,” he says. “They were like a blues band then they got Stevie Nicks in the band and Lindsey Buckingham and things worked out after that and it was pretty good.”
The Stills have fought to separate themselves from the post-punk genre since their inception in 2002. The change came partly in response to the flood of acts following the trend over the past few years, including Interpol, Bloc Party and the Walkmen.
“We made Logic and at the time we were into that stuff and we were listening to different bands,” bassist Oliver Crowe says. “We put out Logic then all of a sudden 20 records came out that sounded like Logic and then it became a sound. I don’t want to be associated with the bands that go for that dancey pop, post-punk thing.”
Unlike the first record, which was recorded in two months straight, The Stills have pushed back the release of the album from October to February to allow for more recording time and to make sure the songs were exactly the way they wanted.
“Some other bands that we’re friends with toured the fuck out of the first album, then ran into the studio with almost no material, hurried up, then put the record out,” Crowe says. “Then they were back on the road and dying, freaking out and saying, ‘We didn’t have enough time to write the record and we’re still exhausted from touring the first one. We didn’t want to be stuck in a situation like that.”
Half-written by Hamelin and half by Fletcher, the yet-to-be-titled record—the working title is Death Metal Sandwich (seriously)—could either break the band or elevate it to the higher echelon of Canadian music, already inhabited by bands like friends Broken Social Scene, Sam Roberts and the Arcade Fire.
“I think it just came from wanting to do different stuff,” Crowe says about the new record. “It’s basically what we felt like doing more than anything else. Obviously, we’re hoping it’ll do better than the first one. Yeah, the pressure is there, but I think its more there for Dave or Tim as songwriters.”
The jury is still out on whether fans will take to the Stills’s new look and fresh sound, but so far the early word has been upbeat on the group’s mini-tour of Ontario. Atlantic Canadian fans get a chance to judge for themselves when the band hits the east coast for a series of shows with Sloan.
“We were nervous because of the sound being so different and the line-up changes, but the first shows have been really positive,” Crowe says. “We’ve been going out and talking to fans what they think about the new songs and the reaction has been beyond what we expected.”
“We were expecting the fans to be put off, but they’re not,” he says. “They’re really digging it and a lot of them are like, ‘My favourite song was the new one that I didn’t know.’ So that’s been really encouraging.”
The Stills w/Sloan and City Field, September 23 at the McInnes Room, Dalhousie University, $25, 8pm.