To call me a fan of July Talk would be an understatement.
Here is a band that came into my life late last year, and has since enveloped a huge part of my personal music tastes, and I find myself often mimicking their sound and feeling when I put on my stage character with my group Project Mantra.
To call it an infatuation would also be an understatement.
For weeks leading up to their recent performance at the annual Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival, all I could talk about was how one of my favourite bands currently making music was gracing the stage for a free show in my own backyard. And all I could think about for days leading up to the concert was how would I go about approaching them if I had the opportunity? Would they like my July Talk inspired forearm tattoo? Would they live up to my expectations?
Often times, a band on the rise lets it go to their heads. It becomes about money and polished answers to pre-approved questions. It becomes about the next gig, or the next opportunity. Many times, the authentic nature of what makes an artist relevant in the first place gets lost along the way, trampled by publicists, managers, and booking agents. It can be easy for a band on the rise to lose themselves in the abyss of aesthetics. All too often, we find especially with young bands, that early success leads to disappointing follow-ups and a sheer lack of longevity and overall creative impact. While that is often the case and unfortunately true for many artists who drink from the cup of commercial success, it isn’t the story I am going to share with you today.
No, I have a much better story to tell.
When I first arrived at the festival, I was nervous. I struggled with what to wear, and how to comb my hair. I was afraid that I wouldn’t get the opportunity to reach out to the band directly, and never be able to tell them how much their self-titled debut record meant to me. The idea of being able to shoot the shit, and get to know a band I admired, I was almost sure would be out of the question. Let alone a full scale sit down interview followed by beers and photos with some of my favourite friends and family.
…Shows what I know.
I’m not going to type out exact dictation, word for word and breath for breath in some effort to overindulge the details of this interaction. Instead what I am going to do is highlight the moments that stood out to me and add context to the soundbites that helped illustrate what creative process is behind a throwback blues/rock/punk/disco band that is slowly infiltrating rock radio.
So let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
While standing in the audience of a few hundred eager beavers like myself, July Talk’s forefront characters Peter and Leah just happened to be walking by on their way to do a radio interview for a local station. Upon stopping them for a photo, I introduced myself as “the guy on Twitter with the tattoo” and hoped it would click. Immediately Leah gave me a big hug, and Peter asked to take a photo of the tattoo. I guess they had seen my social media posts and actually had a hand in running their own interactive platforms. They had no problem posing for photos with passers-by, and were eager to engage with their fanbase…and here I had been worrying about my hair. How foolish I felt.
After enjoying some incredible talent such as The Balconies, it was time to prepare for the main attraction. And as July Talk took the stage, I found myself excited in a way I had forgotten about. As a general concert-goer who enjoys live music as often as possible, I have become accustomed to talent. I have become accustomed to diverse and elaborate stage shows. What I wasn’t used to seeing on a large stage was a real rock band kicking the shit out of every song as a capacity audience sang along to every word. I’m not here to review their performance. I will leave that to greater and more critical minds than mine. All I know is there were few songs at this concert that I didn’t know every lyric to, and the new ones that I didn’t know I was still impressed by. The ones that I was familiar with, I screamed until my voice almost gave out. Still what stuck with me were the little things. A mention of a baby niece, or small talk stage banter about rainbow makeup as Leah wished us as Canadians a “Happy Pride.” Introductions to songs like Gentleman, where we got to empathize with a songwriter who is articulating how sometimes men are just narcissistic assholes. And as they shouted out “unfuck the world” and stopped their concert to break up a scuffle near the front row demanding that their show be a safe space for individualism, what became clear to me is that these were outspoken, soft activists, who didn’t act like rock stars. I mean sure, there was a lot of Irish whiskey on stage, but I have been guilty of that one myself a time or two hundred.
So the show ends, and I am breathless. I pull myself together, and start the trek to the backstage to sit down with songwriters who were likely buzzing at a frequency as high or higher than my own. I didn’t know what to expect, but what I got made for a memorable night.
Exchanging small talk with Peter, I asked a question that I am sure he has heard a million times before. Was his signature growl at all inspired by legendary Avant Garde folk rocker Tom Waits? I was surprised to hear that no, it was not. His voice began to sound like this as it developed and he embraced it. He admires Tom (another favourite of mine), and knows all the songs and albums, much like he admires Nick Cave, who is similar in his stage persona and macabre song writing style that is equal parts singing and talking. It seemed if anything that Peter pulled more influence from artists like Jack White, and bands that July Talk had shared the stage with personally. He appreciated the songwriting of these legendary voices, but he was less hung up on the vaudeville style of storytelling, instead adopting his own unique stage presence that separates him from the pack. Leah would later joke that she always wanted them to cover Tom Waits, but when the time came to actually sing the words, she wanted to throw a curveball and take over the raspy vocals herself just to make it memorable.
As I sat with them in their trailer, surrounded by friends of both mine and the band, I felt comfortable. My nerves disappeared. I felt at home, and they absolutely encouraged that experience.
As we delved into a variety of topics that included their creative process, we talked about how seldom had they created music where they didn’t have preconceived ideas as to what the music video would look like ahead of time. For them, the visual imagery was undeniably linked to the entire process of creating a full musical experience. Peter has a background in cinematography, and those within their inner circle were directly involved in crafting the landscape of the entire product. Enhanced video budgets, they believe will help them to create better stories and more unique cinematic moments.
When asked about how they are responding to their new found commercial success, one thing that I found humbling was how they try their best not to think about it. They reminded me that in some parts of the country they still don’t draw an overwhelming crowd, and that it helps them create and deliver a passionate show when they stop worrying about what everyone else is thinking. Sure, the success is welcomed and appreciated. It helps them continue. But as their collaborative approach to song writing develops, and as their sounds push and pull them in different directions (I know cheesy, but I couldn’t help myself) their focus is on their music and their performance…not their egos.
When we broached the topic of activism, it really inspired me at just how vast their social pedigree was. From standing in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement to encouraging young people to vote in the last federal election by way of personally calling fans under 21 to congratulate them on making a difference, this is a band that is encouraging individualism while also actively engaging people in awareness raising of other important causes. “It’s not my job to tell people who to vote for. I’m not the one campaigning, but it is important that we help shape the world we want to live in,” chimed Peter.
As we discussed how the rock critics and musical elitists have labelled their sound, it was clear to me that this is not a generic, one size fits all band. And while we knew that already, it was nice to hear that they feel the same way themselves and have no desire to be seen as such. Undeniable disco influences are apparent on their new single, but the angst and punky crunch that many of us were drawn to hasn’t gone away or dulled. Their new album coming out in September promises to be full of variety and versatile collaboration.
Find what makes you weird…
Wow! 1500 plus words and counting, and I haven’t even gotten to the best part. The interview climaxed with a focus on advice to other live bands not unlike my own, that are hoping to reach their level and become the next big thing. On stage in front of thousands of people, Leah referenced her love for local Ottawa venue Zaphod Beeblebrox, which although offers a great stage to play on, pales in comparison to the size and magnitude of the stages that July Talk are headlining today. They haven’t forgotten their humble beginnings though, and they were quick to hand a band like my own Project Mantra some advice.
“Find what makes you weird, and do it better than anyone else.” Peter Dreimanis
They encouraged budding musicians to explore the eccentric elements of your sound and your stage show. Bring your passion to life, and actively search for the unique elements of the story you are telling, the song you are singing, and the instrument you are playing. And refuse to be anything but yourself.
We wrapped up our interaction with a few cold ones and some talk about Gord Downie and the east coast. They promised that the next time we connected that a few drinks, hugs, and handshakes would be in order, and really what more could I ask for?
For anyone that knows me, I found this particular part of our evening together to be especially inspiring. This is a band that leaves everything they have inside of them on the stage each night they play, and they had just told me that what makes me weird is what will make me memorable, and what makes me memorable could make me great.
So stay weird folks. Maybe one day when you’re rock stars, drinks might be on you.
Follow me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LeighBursey
Follow July Talk: https://twitter.com/julytalk