You can get a good idea of what Dears’ frontman Murray Lightburn is all about just by listening to him describe the evolution of the song “Ticket to Immortality.”
The second track on The Dears’ ambitious 2006 disc, Gang of Losers, started out as Lightburn’s attempt to come to grips with the fact that the Montreal indie-rock sextet could be a flash in the pan. “You meet people telling you you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread, but I take it in stride,” he says. “This is trying to analyze that.
“Originally, I was fascinated by the fact that when we left on tour (in 2003) the airport was called Dorval and when we came back it had been changed (on Jan. 1, 2004) to Trudeau International Airport. I was thinking of that kind of immortality.”
Though he is serious-minded as he speaks over the phone from his Montreal home, Lightburn cannot help but inject some levity.
Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Canadian prime minister for most of the time between 1968 to 1984, “was our version of JFK, except he wasn’t assassinated,” explains Lightburn. “Maybe he was more like President Clinton, but without the spoofed dress.”
Returning to “Immortality’s” origins, he mentions the birth of his daughter, Neptune (Dears’ keyboardist-singer Natalia Yanchack is the mom).
“I was high as a kite when she was born (on Sept. 30, 2005),” he says. “It was an opportunity to have the same kind of immortalization, an opportunity to bestow something on the planet, in terms of how I can raise the child and mold her a little bit. Maybe one day she’ll have an airport named after her.
“So I was showing pictures of my daughter at the bar, and a guy came up to me and said, `Now you have two tickets to immortality, your music and the child.’ I went home and looked at the lyrics and made some changes. ...
“The Dears will never be as big as U2, but we’re perfectly happy being a lowly servant to the planet.”
The Dears began in 1995, but only since 2004 has the band’s lineup solidified. The first real taste of fame came with 2003’s highly orchestrated second album, No Cities Left. Although the disc initially met with mixed reviews in Canada, it became a hit after the British press flipped over Lightburn’s vivid, big-picture songwriting and soulful, dramatic singing (some writers dubbed him “the black Morrissey,” and comparisons to Blur’s Damon Albarn also were plentiful).
Lightburn says he and his male band mates—bassist Martin Pelland, drummer George Donoso III and guitarist Patrick Krief—“come from similar working-class families. My parents are Belizian immigrants, George’s are Chilean immigrants. The girls”—Yanchack and keyboardist Valerie Jodoin-Keaton—“are more on the middle-class side.
“Except for Valerie, all of us have been involved in music all our lives. None of us is formally trained. For me, it began with my father, William, who is a sax player (he performs on `Losers’ closing track, `Find Our Way to Freedom’). He’s a preacher and has a church with my mom.”
As for the band’s musical influences, “it’s been everything from Pink Floyd to Guns N’ Roses to the Smiths and Jackson 5 and French chansonniers,” says Lightburn. “Patrick was obsessed with Jimi Hendrix.”
Compared to No Cities Left, says Lightburn, Gang of Losers is “very stripped down on every possible level.”
The sunny-sounding “There Goes My Outfit” drives home the point. “It’s about not being attached to things of the flesh,” says Lightburn, “even if your house burns down and all your (stuff) goes with it.”
He was inspired to write the song while visiting friends at their country home. “I was wearing a flowing `Sheltering Sky’ white shirt and off-white pants, playing Pictionary and drinking tequila sunrises when someone spilled an entire tequila sunrise on the outfit I had been bragging about all day—in jest, of course,” recalls Lightburn. “So I was able to turn that into a song about putting a lot of work into something that doesn’t stand—a sand castle getting kicked over, a house of cards getting blown over—and not letting it get you down.”
Lightburn is far less forthcoming about the events behind the impossibly catchy, Morrissey-like “Whites Only Party.” “It’s too personal for me to tell you,” he says. “Racism is so rampant and I have to face it every day, all the time, even if I don’t leave the house, because there’s the Internet. I try to have a sense of humor about it. ...
“Some white folks are uncomfortable with that title because there’s no hyphen,” he says mischievously. “It sounds like all whites want to do is party. There’s an idea for a video right there! Whites dancing and blacks struggling.”