It was the summer of 2009, and the noted indie rock guitarist in front of me was a little freaked out.
“You got to listen to the lyrics man, they are dark,” said The Most Serene Republic’s axe-man Nick Greaves, standing there in awe of his band’s opening act, Still Life Still, positively destroying the little venue known as Kilby Court out in Salt Lake City, Utah. Of course, he wasn’t kidding: Still Life Still, a quintet of friends who first started playing music together in 1999, were finally getting around to releasing their debut album nearly a decade later. That album, Girls Come Too, was a fascinating, involved listen. While the band very obviously had a unique and thoughtful pop sensibility, the group’s lyrics were cryptic, dark, and at times rather unnerving. On the laid-back space jam “Planets”, singer Brendan Saarinen chants the following line over and over again: “There’s a family of wolves out there / And they bury their young.”
Yet even with the full Broken Social Scene endorsement (their debut album was produced by BSS’ ringleader Kevin Drew) and their song “Neon Blue” was featured in the soundtrack to the box office smash The Vow, the group never fully broke out in the way that some industry peeps thought they would. “Maybe we did think it was going to get a little bigger than it did,” Saarinen tells me, in a very relaxed, casual yet perpetually-positive tone, “but it did teach us a little bit about expectations and that you can try, but the world and people’s minds change fact. It’s very sporadic in this world. It could happen or it could not but we’re gonna keep making music regardless. We just really like doin’ it, man!”
Saarinen comes off as very grounded, a few “dudes” and “yeah, mans” peppered in his speech but his enthusiasm sincere and absolute. At times he’s even giddy talking about Still Life Still’s music, especially their new album Mourning Trance, which feels like the logical expansion of their debut, deepening their resonance while at times feeling a bit more poppy than the last album did, all while retaining their nervy, daring edge. What really gets Saarinen, though, is the four-year gap it took between releases.
“We went through roughly three albums worth of material in those four years,” Saarinen continues. “Three and a half albums. We wrote one full record and at the end of it, we didn’t record it but we demoed it, but we were just like ‘Ahh, might not be the right songs.’ And then we did it again and we kept a couple songs from that, and the third one was like ‘Yeah, we pretty much got this now.’”
Does the greater amount of prep work explain Mourning Trance‘s greater degree of accessibility? “[That] also had to do with the fact that first record we recorded in two weekends live off the floor. This one we got to spend roughly 20 days in the studio and we were putting in really long days. We were putting in like 14-, 15-hour days sometimes. Maybe the songs are a little more poppy, but I think that with the first record, if we had that amount of time—it’s what we are. We love pop music. It’s in our blood, we grew up with it.
“A lot changed in our lives in those four years,” he continues. “It wasn’t like we weren’t writing songs and stuff. It was just [that] we were waiting until we had the right group of songs that fit together properly. We were waiting to find the right studio, and when we found Dreamhouse, the place we recorded it at, we went in to look at it went ‘Yeah, this is the spot.’ It had a wicked view of downtown Toronto. It was really chill. Alex [Bonefant], the guy we recorded with, was awesome. So it was just the right moment. It took a little bit of time, but good things sometimes take some time, I think.”
So with an overabundance of songs that were recorded, is there a certain threshhold that has to bem et for a song to be included on an album? “Everyone in the band has to be really feeling it and being passionate about it. Sometimes it’s a shame if like four of us really like a song and one person isn’t feeling it as much, that song usually gets scrapped. We’re kind of picky that way too.”
Yet of the songs that made its way onto Mourning Trance, there is still no compromising of the band’s aesthetic on the lyrical front. Take a song like “Deer Hologram”, for example, where the group simply chants the phrase “I got knives” over and over again. Between this and their references to tentacles and so much more, one has to wonder about the level of discomfort Saarinen is trying to achieve in his lyrics. “Well I write the songs, right?” he starts. “I go through mood swings and I may not be the most stable human being in the world and maybe that shows on the songs. I try to keep it together but it’s pretty crazy. Crazy life.”
It’s to this that I also point to another song, the title track, where he has one of his most vulnerable lines he’s yet recorded: “I don’t want to see me when I wake up.” Saarinen elaborates: “What I was trying to say in that song is that it’s not just me. It’s everyone, it’s all of us, we’re all together, and even if we don’t all see eye-to-eye on everything, we’re all going through the trance together. I’m just as much a part of it as everyone else. Even if I see a little more than other people might, I don’t know, but it’s tricky.”
This vulnerability shows up in another tune, the closing tracking “Hanging With Our Family”, which he describes as “anything but pop.” In talking about it, he notes how “it’s a super-personal song to me. Its about a bunch of trippy stuff that I let people decipher it the way they want, but yeah, this album is very personal for me and it was about a crazy time in my life. On the old record, [the personal song] would be “Scissors Losing Weight”, where I put my heart on my sleeve.”
Do you worry about people ever misinterpreting your intentions on the lyrical front? “I mean,” he starts, “I know people would look more into it than just what the words are. The reason why it’s written in the sort of mysterious way is that it can be seen as more than just one thing, right? A lot of people like violence, violent movies. I don’t know: I grew up watching ‘em, man! Part of the culture, I guess.”
While the band is about to get ready for a soundcheck, Saarinen reveals that they pretty much have a whole new record already written, and they’re going to start with four or five songs and just take it from there, possibly releasing singles here and there just so that there isn’t another four-year gap between releases. When I ask him about what his biggest regret and proudest accomplishment is with the band, it doesn’t take Saarinen long to come up with an answer:
“The biggest regret would probably be the length that we took between these two records. We were like super picky, and I guess maybe no looking back, we could’ve put out songs at least, maybe not a full record, but we can put more out in the public consciousness than we did. That will never happen again. I definitely learned my lesson on that one! The biggest accomplishment, for me, is that we’ve kept the band together for this long. A lot of bands come and go, but we got real friends and we’ve been through a lot of shit together. The fact that we could get in a van and drive to Vancouver and back and still love each other is pretty dope.”
Now, with any luck, not only will that bond deepen, but more people will be paying attention enough to appreciate it. Despite the band’s name being Still Life Still, their trajectory is anything but.
// Notes from the Road
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