“You don’t bleed onstage only to be trumped by a vibrating piece of plastic in your pocket.”
What’s interesting about that statement is that when Ryan Lenssen said it to me, he spoke with total conviction. “I’d love it if we could play music to a bunch of people who were like-minded,” he continued, “but no matter how many shows we play, how many fans we make, you know, there’s still five or six kids a night texting in the middle of our set. It’s just quick! It’s just a quick show: it’s only an hour out of your life or maybe a little bit more or sometimes a little bit less. Just pay attention, and if you don’t want to pay attention then just go and IM outside or something—I don’t know.”
(Arts & Crafts; US: 2 Oct 2007; UK: 19 Nov 2007)
Lenssen, to certain people, could easily come off as an asshole. He’s intensely passionate about his music and strongly opinionated about everything else. He’s the keyboardist/producer of the Most Serene Republic, a small band from the even-smaller Candian suburb of Milton, Ontario. Along with vocalist/lyricist Adrian Jewett, the Republic was the first band to be signed to Broken Social Scene’s Arts & Crafts label that didn’t have any connection to the Social Scene whatsoever. Their 2005 debut—Underwater Cinematographer—was a sonic collage of indie-rock, pop classicism, and abstract techno beats, careening from genre to genre without much regard for the standard verse-chorus-verse structure. Alternative Press compared them to the Postal Service, the band was soon opening for the Strokes, and somehow they still found time to release
Phages—a surprisingly-strong tour EP—in 2006. Yet none of that could prepare anyone for Population, their towering, endlessly complex sophomore album about the decline of humanity. With so many different movements and musical left-turns peppered throughout, one could almost argue that the band is somehow channeling the powers of ‘80s prog-giants Yes…
“Oh my god, we signed Yes! These guys are becoming Yes!” This is what Broken Social Scene singer Kevin Drew told me when I spoke to him last month about his fellow Canadian musicians. “They don’t know Yes! They don’t even know the band Yes, and I’m fucking getting some early Jettison/Yes vibe here! [...] but then I think what they did was they went and re-recorded everything again and the finished songs and the finished sort of piece of work that they came out with I fuckin’ love. I immediately called [a friend at the label] and said ‘Thank GOD we have this band on our label because they’re the only ones who are actually representing what we started our label for in the beginning.’”
I reiterate this story to Lenssen who jokingly adds that Drew also “came over to my house and smelled up the place” while listening to Population. Lenssen can be funny, but more often than not he’s poignant, well-read, and very defensive about his band’s music. To some interviewers, he could come off as standoff-ish and even a bit egocentric, but when I called him up on the day of Population‘s release, I soon realized that his personality is a lot like his music: both are trying to articulate the human condition and the only way to do it is to try and connect with the people who actually understand what’s going on around them.
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First thing’s first: congratulations with today and the album officially being out.
Thank you. It’s a big day for us.
Huge achievement, as I can imagine.
It hurts a bit. It was touch and go there for a while—we didn’t know how [the album] was gonna be played out. I mean, with Phages [and] the way it was received from the community and everything. It could’ve been … well, it was touch and go there for a while. Even when I think Kevin [Drew] first heard it—when he first first heard it—he didn’t really know what to make of it, and I’m pretty sure that goes for everybody as well. Not too many people were really on board at the beginning of this project. It was one of those things where I got sat down and [told] “Do you wanna work with a producer?” Big names get flashed in front of your eyes: childhood heroes and all that whatnot. Ultimately I had to say “No, no—I’m gonna do it.” I think a lot of people were really nervous at that point, but it seems to have weaseled [its] way into their brain and their hearts, and all of a sudden we were getting support from the people I would hope would want to give us support, so it seems to be working out pretty well.
Well, especially when it comes to producing an album like [Population], I think of Dave Newfeld with the Broken Social Records—how do you keep everything in check? I mean especially with this record: there’s just so much going on.
Well, it took three months to mix. We recorded the record three times—the first two times we… it’s hard to say. The first two times were very painful because [we] were carving them out of nothing, and when you’re carving songs out of pure granite, your tools wear weary. So by the end of the second process, still more work had to be done, so we recorded a third time, and that’s the time we realized that things were really coming together. The ideas were up above our head when we first started. I think that everything was way, way above our heads, and so we worked our asses off in order to get to a level in which we could present the ideas [in] the best [way] they could be presented. That did take about a year… maybe a year and a quarter. It was long and hard and painful. But a majority of the process would definitely have to have been the philosophizing and trying to find [the] concrete ideas that we wanted to really establish on this record. Adrian and I worked very hard together, just conceptualizing—probably for three months—before we even started recording the first thing; and it was just nightly visits to the Millpond and smoking packs of cigarettes and reading and comparing notes and getting angry and crying and just everything there is to have, and then we started to put pen to paper.
Well, for me there’s this large disconnect between [Population] and Underwater Cinematographer. I honestly feel somewhat under-prepared for this interview. I’ve had Population for about two weeks, and I just can’t wrap my head around it because it’s just so epic; it’s a gigantic leap forward from the first album, and it’s so dense at the same time. Like Prince’s Sign O’ the Times, it’s always shifting—it’s never staying in place. So I don’t necessarily think of it as an album of songs, but more like an album filled with these little “albums”, if you will.
Well, I mean our progression through the records was just like a progression through our lives. Underwater Cinematographer was just us getting off of our art degrees and everything and feeling very constrained in those roles and then going and working factory jobs. Adrian was working at the jail, and I was working in candy factory slash concrete factory on the days I wasn’t working at the candy factory…
That’s an interesting factory there.
[Laughs.] Yeah. Anyway, almost lost my hands at the concrete factory and said, “Holy God, what the hell is going on with my life?” So we wrote Underwater Cinematographer and I think it was widely received… I think we as a group are widely received as young, brash, sort of happy, floaty, ADD people… and I think that only some of that is true. We’re definitely ADD—that’s without a doubt—but we are very much a product of our environment, in that sense. And “young”? Well ...
Photo: Victor Tavares
That’s a given.
Yeah, that’s a given. We’re definitely bold, and I understand that, and a lot of people take offense to that because everything needs to be, you know, “earned”. And your place in the “indie rock community”, surprisingly, has to be “earned” even though its banner slogan is “Creation or Bust”. Unfortunately “Creation or Bust” doesn’t actually hold true in the reality of any social circle. And so when we came along and decided screw all of that! and we’re gonna do whatever the fuck we want, and if people like it… that’s gonna be a surprise! [Laughs.] Because we didn’t, like… the first record wasn’t written for anybody: it was written for ourselves—literally, not figuratively. So when Arts & Crafts somehow meandered onto hearing it, it came as a complete shock. It was not being pushed to labels, like, we weren’t going to tour that record, we weren’t going to do anything like that. We just… I had a basement, and I was angry and [Adrian] was angry, and we decided to talk about art at that given moment, and we sort of made [the album] satirical, and I think a lot of people missed that, and then all of a sudden we got signed and the next day I’m talking to people that I had no idea would ever want to know my first name. And, so, that’s what that was. That’s what that time of our lives was. And so when we got pushed into this life—this fantasy world of [a] music community and whatnot—Phages was born, because Phages was the first time that we could actually put all of the tools we learned from Underwater to real use. To try to be commentators and observers of what’s going on around us, and I think Phages is a documentary on us [of] when we were signed and brought into this fantasy world [that] we were on the other side of the fence of for so long. ‘Cos it is a fantasy, you know? There’s that big divide between the people who are the listening public and the “creating” public; and when you’re on that one side of the fence—the listening public—everything is just… well it’s all just a fantasy. Everything looks unbelievable. And then when you’re on [the “creating” side], it’s much, much different, you know? It’s… high school relived. People are nice but nobody’s kind, if you get my meaning.
Very cliquish, and it’s… kind of disgusting. It’s high school taken to the next level. And you will always find someone that is genuinely kind, but like I said: most people are just “nice”. And “nice” pisses me off. “Nice” isn’t honest. “Nice” is polite.
It’s not what you really feel.
It’s not what you really feel! So that’s what Phages is about: it’s about getting thrown into this world super-fast. All of a sudden we’re touring with Broken Social Scene and Stars and Metric and the Strokes and, ya know, just stupid-big. Nineteen… and then all-of-a-sudden 20… and then 21… in those three years [that] I was touring, it just went from “I’m a nobody” to “I’m a nobody that knows really famous people.” It was stupid and quick and it’s hard to get your head around all of the shit that happened to us—and it changed us! It changed us in a way that I can’t even go back and quantify. It’s kind of a scary thing. So when we sat down to do Population, the whole idea—the very concepts of the record—came very easily. It was just sort of difficult to put it in the package we wanted to. It’s been interesting to watch the response from the music critique community because it’s sort of a barometer for us to see who’s actually paying attention and who’s just working a conveyer belt of music; because I understand that people are gonna love our record and gonna hate it and that’s just how it goes—I have no problem with that. But I do have a problem with integrity and people doing their facts and checking their facts and looking into it, because—somehow—these people have become the voices of reason for what is good and what is bad for other people to listen to who just don’t have the time in their lives. So far I’ve seen a few people have been saying that this record’s very happy and “[it’s] the joyous band!” and “oh, those quirky kids!” and all that kind of shit. What’s funny about the whole thing is is that the people who understand the record—the people who look into what Adrian is talking about and the way that I’m trying to present it with the music—it’s sort of like [that] they’re going into a room where everyone’s been told a joke and they just very loudly yell, “I don’t get it! I don’t get it! I don’t get the joke!” [Laughs.] And it’s too bad because they were completely unaware, ‘cos if they had paid just a little more attention to the music—really—it is there. It’s not that under-the-surface. If you just read the lyrics a little bit and you listen to some of the tonalities, you’ll understand that this is not a happy record: this is a very frustrated [and] angry record, delivered in the most appealing sense that I could’ve given it, you know? This record is trying to be… it’s trying to take an idea and cram it down your throat in a way that a beautiful flower would… that’s poisonous. You know what I mean? It draws you close, and as soon as you reveal yourself [and] your underbelly, it stabs you, right? And it lets you know what’s going on because this is an honest record, but the only way to get to the honesty is to lure people in, and that was the real idea behind this record.
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When looking at the lyric sheet for Population, I almost felt like I was looking at a pop-rock take on John Berryman’s Dream Songs: words all cut-up and fractured to the point of nearly being indecipherable, to which Lenssen then tells me how he loves what Adrian’s lyrics are doing: they get you to that emotional place without ever having to spell anything out for you. In discussing this, there’s a distinct change in tone in Lenssen’s voice: it becomes quieter, softer, and yet somehow more direct. He has a genuine sense of sincerity for his bandmates’ work and effort, matched only by his adoration of the album that they created. Talking about the album soon turned into talking about the descending and increasingly-fragile state that humanity is in. Yet from the way that Lenssen describes it, there’s virtually no difference between these topics.
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Photo: Ben Telford
This record starts off hopeful and it starts off with this fantasy-type idea that “Humanity, oh god, you’re fantastic! I’m so happy to be alive!” It’s just like a relationship with a female, male, or other [like] where you first meet that person you’re absolutely enamored with them: everything is fantastic, you know? You couldn’t go wrong. You’re gonna sacrifice your friends and you’re gonna have sex every night and it’s gonna be incredible and there’s nothing wrong with this girl. She’s perfect, you’re perfect, everything’s perfect. And it lasts for about, what? A week? A month?
Then you realize who the other person is.
Right. And then slowly over time you start seeing the problems but you’re OK with it, alright. So she doesn’t like olives, no big deal. So you know you keep going and then you find out. “Oh my god. Oh my god. Everything that I thought was wonderful is now being destroyed.” Our evolution as a human race is causing a dramatic shift in mental understanding and how we can actually move within this 3D/4D space that we’ve created for ourselves, and even though we can move faster then we’ve ever moved, we’re not moving at all. I think, as a species, we’re getting very close to critical mass. And we’re starting to lose ourselves… and that’s where the record ends off. It’s not a happy ending: it’s a very melancholy ending in which… as the whole record progresses, the story unfolds of our relationship with humanity and at the end of it, we leave you almost with a question mark. It’s a way of thinking, “What we had is beautiful but… it can’t go on and… it’s over.” And it’s very harsh and troublesome realization that we had while we were working on this piece: that that could be the only conclusion to this particular piece of art. [Pause.] It was troubling for all of us, I think… and now here it goes off into the population.
And with everything you’re saying right now, I feel like Adrian summed everything up with the last line off of [the song] “Multiplication Desks”, which is “The party of the humans has left us hungover”. To me, if I were to summarize the record in one phrase, that would be it.
I would actually completely agree. I’m… really happy that you even knew that lyric existed, ‘cos that’s a tough one to hear.
Well, that’s why they published the lyrics with it so I can listen along.
[Laughs.] Did they? Good for them. Smart marketing. No, but I would agree. I think that is probably the biggest line of the record. I think “Multiplication Desks” is the most honest. The rest of the songs are all… they all tiptoe, ya know? They all tiptoe all around this sort of thing…
Like “Sherry and Her Butterfly Net” with the analogy of this little girl—completely not part of your experience, but it’s a tale that you tell.
Exactly. And told through analogy and that sort of thing. But “Multiplication Desks” really comes at you and just … it’s the final fight, right? It’s the final fight of the relationship. It’s the one where everything comes to a head and you’re screaming at each other and she’s calling you an asshole and you’re calling her a slut and… that’s just the reality. That’s the honest truth and it’s loud and it hurts and it doesn’t always make sense, which is why I had five chords alternating there in a 6/8 beat, right? It feels very frustrating and that’s what I was trying to get through musically. I mean, I’ve said it before that I understand that this isn’t a very accessible record, but … my job, primarily as the songwriter, was to convey everything that we needed to get across with the music. That’s why all those parts in every single song … it was really … maybe not well thought-out, but it took me a lot of time, you know? Trying to get just the right phrasing and just texture, chord progression, time signature. Nothing’s done for the sake of [just] doing it. I don’t know: it seems like despite all our efforts, we may have covered up our tracks a little too well and people still think that this is a happy record.
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Before long, Ryan and I are discussing the band’s shift from the electronic texture of their first album to the completely organic sound on Population, which itself is filled with string arrangements, horn sections and “Young Folks”-styled whistling (and that’s just within the first song!). He furthers the idea of the record being about the band’s relationship with humanity by telling me that since humanity is so dominated with technology, it only made sense to remove nearly all electronic elements from this LP. It’s an album of complex ideas, to which Lenssen then said:
Nowadays we’re getting in trouble for making complex ideas. We won’t be the next iPod ad, you know? We won’t make that, but hopefully we can get that one dude with a vinyl player and he smokes some pot and he just wants to feel something for the first time in a long time and maybe he’ll put on [our] record and feel something and we’ll share something over long distances.
It’s that human connection that seems to be the only thing that matters to Lenssen: both with his music and his life. He reveals how life-altering his reading of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead was, going as far as to say “if I hadn’t read The Fountainhead, I wouldn’t have been able to do Phages and I sure as hell wouldn’t be able to do Population.” He talks wildly about the videogame BioShock and its philosophical implications, all before ranting about the bombardment of media (Instant Messaging, YouTube, etc.) which has destroyed our ability to sit down and simply concentrate on one particular work of art. When we as a species solve our problems of dampening cultural appreciation, then—he says—we’ll all party (and possibly make a third Most Serene album). While he says this, the tone of his voice lilts upward, as if—with genuine sincerity—the achievement of this human ideal would bring him complete life-fulfilling happiness. I then drop one last question in his lap…
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At this point in your career, what do you think is your biggest regret and, conversely, your proudest accomplishment?
Biggest regret? Has nothing to do with my music. It has everything to do with the way that I’ve influenced people. When you’re bowling, [you] can throw a bowling ball down the alley and sometimes you hit a strike and all those bowling pins go exactly where they need to go, but every once in a while—even though you’re giving it the same energy, the same power, the same everything—every once in awhile, one of those pins is gonna go off in a weird direction and not in the direction that you’d hope. Some of the philosophies that we project and are very loud about… they don’t always affect people in the right way and instead of making their lives better, we made their lives worse. Unfortunately my stubbornness won’t let me give up on those philosophies and ideas until someone comes up with a mound of evidence and proves me wrong and to which I will humbly apologize to the rest of the world and also be entirely thankful for being corrected after 23 years of being incorrect. On the same notion, I would say that that’s also probably the biggest success as well: I think that being able to hit all those other bowling pins just right so that maybe we can open some eyes and maybe have people think some new ideas and that the box isn’t always as small as we need to make it and even though there will always be a box, we can—every once in awhile—remodel it… make it an oval today. It doesn’t always need to be a cube.
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After listening to Population, it’s safe to say that the Most Serene Republic will never again be thought of as a plain, assembly-line box of a band: they’re already too busy thinking outside of it.