Paint Canadian Music Week interview with CKMS 100.3 Sound FM Waterloo

Paint Canadian Music Week - CKMS 100.3 FM -
March 12, 2011, 6:00 p.m. EST

Paul McGeown
: Host
Robb Johannes: Vocals/guitar
Mandy Dunbar: Guitar/vocals

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Paul: We're at the Velvet Underground (in Toronto), and here's Paint. How you guys doing?

Robb: Great, thank you.

Mandy: Really good. Expensive parking though in Toronto.

Paul: Yeah for sure. I paid $20 for 40-minutes of parking, it's ridiculous.

Robb: I just don't own a car in Toronto. It's better that way.

Paul: Probably a solid idea. So is this the only show you guys are playing this week?

Mandy: Yep.

Robb: Yeah. It's a rare week for us to only be playing one show. Normally we're playing a few shows in several different cities but because of the conference and everything, it's pretty much 18-hour days. So you just have to commit to the whole thing. It's really taking time off from everything and focusing on it. But it's a great party and there's lots of people around. Lots of industry folks, lots of your friends in other bands, and networking oportunities. It's great. The parties, man. And the food! You were there with me for that.

Paul: Yes I was!

Robb: You can always tell who the musicians are at the conferences because they're the ones hovering around the food table. And I know this because I was the one telling all the other musicians where the free food was.

Paul: (laughs) Have you been to a lot of the conferences this week? Either of you?

Robb: I went to a couple. Our manager, we're very lucky, she's done a lot of that for us.

Mandy: Everything she's been learning, she's been tweeting.

Robb: We have strange ways of communicating with each other. We're very 21st century. But the Manager's Forum, the indie label thing, sessions about touring.... some of the panels repeat from last year, so eventually we'll probably just have covered them all. But I think the main thing is the artist lounges and the VIP suites. The conferences create a foundation to put the issues out there but the real conversations happen in the corridors and the hotel rooms, and at the bars afterwards. But it's great that they're there to create a space for those dialogues to happen. Especially because the industry is in such a transition right now and no one really knows where it's going.

Paul: And that's the theme being echoed at all the conferences too.

Robb: It's important to be able to talk about these things and figure out what we're doing cos this does affect all of us.

Paul: And have you been out at any of the shows this week?

Mandy: Yeah, we went out last night. We saw J-Mascis rocking an acoustic guitar and a mighty, mighty distortion pedal.

Robb: That was so weird. I was expecting the Dinosaur Jr. J-Mascis, which is probably my own bias but it was fun. We saw that at the Great Hall.

Mandy: We saw the Hippy Mafia here (at Velvet Underground) but other than that it was a duos night: J-Mascis and his distortion pedal; The Standstills; and the Pack A.D.

Paul: How were The Standstills? We inerviewed them but couldn't stay for the show.

Mandy: It was good. The sound mixing could have been better but they put on a great show.

Robb: There was violent kick drum which I'd never heard that the venue before. It was shaking our spines. But they were fantastic and we ran up to the stage after their set to look at their pedalboards to see how they create those wonderful distortions. We're very into tones and creating nice sounds.

Paul: Yeah, I saw yor pedalboard at soundcheck.

Robb: Most of those things are older than me.... but The Standstills were great. I had been meaning to see them for quite a while. That's another thing about Canadian Music Week: you have all these bands that you know about or you talk to online, or you email each other and maybe just didn't get to see them. It's too bad that people don't go out in hordes like this the rest of the year but it makes for a memorable week.

Paul: I've never seen so many beards and Converse All-Stars at the same time.

Robb: Right, cos you're from Waterloo... that's kinda par for the course here. The Toronto uniform. You gotta buy tight jeans just to fit in.

Paul: Mandy, you're from Waterloo, right?

Mandy: I am.

Paul: Have you moved down here to be with the band?

Mandy: I still live in Waterloo. I'm the last hold-out. I like Toronto but I really like living in Waterloo.

Paul: Waterloo's great. Do you go to all the venues down there, like the Starlight and Maxwell's?

Mandy: Yes, I'm a big fan of the Boathouse too. I try to support the local scene cos I know a lot of people are working hard to build it in Waterloo.

Robb: And Waterloo's kind of become like a second home for us by virtue of Mandy being there. I can't think of any other city outside Toronto that we've played as often. We have a great relationship with everyone at Maxwell's and they've been really nice to us. And SoundFM's been great to us too. And the Boathouse. People have really taken to us there. So we try to prioritize shows in that area right after Toronto.

Paul: And you said yesterday that you're recording the new album in Waterloo?

Robb: Most of it. We're gonna be doing the bed tracks at Catherine North in Hamilton, which is where City and Colour, Fiest, and Gord Downie -- and The Coppertone, who we saw the other night, they're fantastic -- all did their last albums there. And our producer, Ian Smith, who's famous in the K-W area from The Miniatures and now Spirits, has created a copycat studio of Catherine North at his house because he works there so often. We'll be doing vocals and overdubs in Kitchener. So I'm gonna move out to Kitchener for a couple weeks in April and shut the rest of the world off. I'll miss my dog. And I'll be crashing on Mandy's couch. No, not even a couch, I'll be in luxury, right?

Mandy: We have a spare bedroom.

Robb: Spare bedroom. When you tour so much, to have the word "bedroom" come in is the luxury.

Paul: You've toured a lot across Ontario and Quebec. Do you write on the road together? Do you have a jam hall where you go and write songs?

Mandy: We have a rehearsal space. So far we've been focused on working on the live show when we're touring, then we take some time off to write so the focus isn't divided. But probably in the future we'll write more on the road. The more you tour, the more you have to write on the road.

Robb: I don't know how bands do it. I don't know how they write songs at soundchecks. I'm just completely not in that headspace, there's so much to focus on when you're touring. I like to tour a lot for a couple months, and then take a few weeks down and work on some new ideas, try and hammer them out, and then work them back into the live show. We're always thinking about songs in terms of how they translate to the stage. The songs on the upcoming record have been stage-tested for a year and a half, and some of them have just come up recently. We want to be absolutely sure a song translates live before we record it. And you never know that until you go on stage and do it. You might realize that bridge you thought was really cool cleared half the room for a smoke break, so it's too long. But the songwriting process is all over the place. Someone will usually come in with some basic idea and we'll build it up from there. And everyone's been really generous with letting me take the lead on writing lyrics. I feel like that's my strongest asset as a songwriter.

Paul: So I haven't actually seen the album cover for Can You Hear Me? but Brandon (Von Dino, CKMS president) was saying it's pretty interesting -- you've got Sue Johanson on there? And The Beatles?

Robb: There's no Beatles.

Paul: What is on the album cover, and, why Sue Johanson?

Mandy: Why not Sue Johanson?

Robb: Exactly. It's based on the title track of the album ("Can You Hear Me?"). I used to do a lot of work out on the west coast in Vancouver with prisoners, particularly around restorative justice and peacemaking, and walked through the process of a lot of them making amends with their victims. The song "Can You Hear Me?" is a two-way conversation between the parent of someone who has had their child murdered and the person who did it. It's based on people that I know, and ultimately it becomes a story of reconciliation. Which is not something in our Western narrative that we like to hear about because we're based on revenge and punishment, and incarceration especially in the States where it's now a business and that's really dangerous. So the concept behind that cover was to take voices throughout history that have always been on the fringes or have been marginalized -- some of whom we accept as very mainstream now, but at the time they were very revolutionary. Like Isadora Duncan, you look at her now and she seems very conservative but she broke so many barriers of the artform of dance. It's like the Speaker's Corner from Hell and it was based on Raphael's "School of Athens" except we removed all the characters off of it and put all these historical figures in there, and they're all hanging out: Aldous Huxley, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Ian Curtis, Sue Johanson, we thre ourselves in there. Satan's there too, Hunter S. Thompson, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, a whole bunch. If you go to our website,, there's a blog about it. After about a year and a half of people asking me who all these people were and identifying a whole bunch of them I finally wrote a blog and listed who they all are and here's why they're there, or at least who they were historically.

Paul: So you started in Vancouver?

Robb: Yeah.

Paul: And how did Mandy come to be in the band?

Mandy: Well, we're the 21st Century rock band story. I think these days unless you meet your band in high school, you meet them on the internet. Robb had come to town probably six months before? When did you come to Toronto?

Robb: Beginning of 2009. And you joined around September.

Mandy: Robb posted online. I needed to stop playing guitar in my basement. So I was trolling, and the ad caught my eye because it was specifically asking for a female guitar player, which is one in a million.

Robb: Cos we has Paula McGlynn in the lineup in Vancouver. We were in a band called Paper Moon together, they're pretty big around the country. And we joined with a drummer named Matt Laforest who was in a band called Astoria, that I was just a really big fan of. I approached him more as a fan than a friend in the beginning, at a party, I said "Hey, I really like what Astoria did, but I noticed you broke up... are you working on anything at the moment?" So he joined the band and we came up with the idea from there but I was the only one with enough loose screws to leave and come to Toronto just to be somewhere where it's easier to tour, where the industry is centralized, and there's a greater community for music. But the online aspect of finding bandmates was absolutely insane. I had one person respond who had been on CNN and MSNBC and had books written about her because she believed that she was the re-incarnation of Marilyn Monroe.

Paul: (laughs)

Robb: ...and she discovered this under hypnosis. And she's listing all of these details of Marilyn Monroe's life as if she was there, and I'm thinking "Of course you know them! How many books have been written about her?!" Maybe if you were the janitor that cleaned up Yankee Stadium in 1937 I'd be more prone to believe that you were re-incarnated. So it was really hard and I had almost given up on the process of finding musicians that way. I was also going out to clubs and meeting people. But Mandy sent some videos of herself playing and I thought her stage presence is exactly what this band needs. We kinda strung her along and made her think that she was auditioning but I had pretty much made up my mind right away she was exactly what this band needed, and it's only grown from there.

Paul: So after the new album is done, you're gonna go out on tour?

Robb: Oh yeah.

Paul: Any big plans? A national tour?

Mandy: There's been some talk of the west coast and the east coast. The finances to make the album and then tour, we all have our fingers crossed that it really pays off.

Robb: The other thing to consider as a Canadian band, and this also was discussed in the conference yesterday while we're talking Canadian Music Week, was that you're gonna spend less money getting Visas and touring through the States than you are driving to Vancouver, on transit costs alone. I'd rather go to New York than through Left Testicle Saskatchewan -- with all due respect to our drummer Andre, who's actually from there.

Mandy: I thought he was from Right Testicle.

Robb: He's actually from Regina, which is fitting since we're talking about that general area. But it's a grind to go across the prairies and you want to stay Canadian, but you have to recognize that the difference between a band breaking out and not is often making it in America.

Paul: Yeah. Yeah.

Robb: And that's something we need to think about. But that's a conversation we all need to work through and figure out what to do. But there will be massive touring. We already tour a lot but when there's a new record to promote we're gonna be all over. I'm excited.

Mandy: I think we're a lot more prepared to really capitalize on this record. Less transition, more "Just go out and do it."

Robb: We already have such a great momentum going, with the 102.1 The Edge thing that we won, and then North by Northeast and all these festivals, and playing 60-some-odd tour dates this year, we have a good forward motion going right now. So the task of releasing a record isn't as daunting as before, when we were starting from scratch in a new city. Now we have a foundation and people who are interested in us, and people who have been very friendly with us in the press as well.

Paul: Yeah, you guys have some great press. There was one review that said you had the mathematical structure of Rush and the noise rock of Sonic Youth. Something very flattering like that.

Robb: The happy medium between heaven and hell -- he was referring to William Blake. And that's cool. I'm glad when things like that actually come across. We do have a very pop sensibility to us. There was a writer from the Waterloo Record, Jason Schneider, I'm paraphrasing, but he said we take calssic rock anthems but we do them with an indie rock sensibility. I think that's one of the best descriptions I've heard of us. There is that anthemic quality of these big choruses that make you sing along but we present ourselves and the music with an indie rock influence, which is rooted in new wave rock like The Smiths and Joy Division, and combining it with a Brit rock wall-of-sound, like Catherine Wheel and Oasis... And a couple of us are really into super poppy music as well, so you put all those together and that's us.

Paul: Best of luck on the new record, and tonight's show.

SONG: "Strangers"