"You're Your Own Combustible Fire": A Conversation with the Most Serene Republic
Swiping movies scores from Jon Brion? Smoking up with Michael Bublé? Crafting album titles out of Lewis Carroll-inspired word games? Vocalist Adrian Jewett talks to PopMatters about his band's Juno nomination, it's never-ending stream of EPs, and finally getting a Jewish drummer.
Adrian Jewett, lead vocalist/lyricist (and occasional trombonist) of The Most Serene Republic, isn't your typical rock star.
He's a pasty, red-haired Canadian with an affinity for absurd, sprawling lyrical assaults and winding, off-kilter vocal melodies. His band's unique blend of ever-shifting progressive rock, jazz, and indie-pop makes for dense yet extremely rewarding listening, yet they remain a hidden treasure, often obscured by the gigantic accomplishments and praise lavished at their heroes and label-mates Broken Social Scene. Yet this hasn't stopped the group from releasing three widely-acclaimed full-length albums, opening for huge acts like the Strokes, and getting sweet gigs like remixing a Stars track on that group's 2007 disc Do You Trust Your Friends?.
Jewett himself is charming, sarcastic, hilarious, and frequently difficult to interpret (much like his band's music). During our exhaustive interview, we engaged in a whirlwind of ridiculous banter and deep ruminations as we discussed his band's new EP, Fantasick Impossibliss, the evolution of the TMSR's ever-shifting line-up, and the surprising habits of Michael Bublé ...
First off, just wanted to congratulate you on the Juno nomination [for Video of the Year for the clip of "Heavens to Purgatory"].
Was that pretty cool? I know you were pretty close to Michael Bublé, which is kind of weird. How was that?
[Laughs.] Ohh, that guy. He's great; he's great. Apparently, he's a big ... marijuana smoker.
I mean, can't you tell? Michael Bublé -- he's the only one, probably in the world, that smokes pot and gels his hair -- like, styles his hair. I haven't met any other person who styles their hair who are big pot fans.
I don't think I've ever met one, either. That's pretty exciting.
You guys just announced the title of your new EP, which is Fantasick Impossibliss.
Yeah, it's a mixture of -- oh, what is that called -- it's a nonsense word; Louis Carroll invented the word ...
Yeah, Jabberwocky. Something like that. I forget the freaking term. Anyway, he concocted this brilliant, crazy idea of just taking words and cutting them directly in half, and then putting them together to make a Frankenstein word. So we took "fantasy sick" and "impossible bliss" and just put the two together. It's a lot of fun -- fun with words, eh? Fun with syllables.
Are you a more of a vinyl or CD man?
Oh, I'm a compact disc man, compact discs. Love those compact discs!
I mean, who doesn't?
It's a shame, though; I've heard that with the newest compact discs, the plastic in them will deteriorate in like ten years time. It's like a ten year lifespan before they start to get eaten apart.
That's a shame.
Yeah, how awful is that?
But digital will last forever. At least ... until your hard drive fails.
There's nothing like having a physical copy, ya know?
Definitely. Back to the title: Fantasick Impossibliss -- when you hear the title, with that Louis Carroll kind of vibe you described, it serves as a pretty good description of the band's music. It has that youthful, creative, even slightly difficult feel that matches the music. Even if you haven't heard the band's music, hearing that title gives a good impression of what it might sound like. Do you agree, and where did the title come from?
Oh, of course, of course! It's definitely not a title as easily accessible as something like "Ready to Play" or something like that ... although, that's probably a "cock rock" album, right? "READY TO PLAY!" So with the album title, we're not trying to be "exclusive" or anything. It's just how we like to get things done. A lot of times, people want one word or something that's easy to say. And even though simplicity is the way of life, we've always never been simple and have always been ... Superdy-Duper! ... and always more complex than we have to be.
Superdy-duper? I like that.
SUPERDY-DUPER! Yeah, I'm cutting back on "fuckin." But yeah, we definitely build up a chaos for ourselves, and I guess we naturally fight it and clear it away, but then the chaos comes again.
Speaking of new music, a couple weeks ago, you guys released "Photocall" as a free download, which, by the way, is excellent.
Oh, thank you!
And the track makes great use of the sample of Jon Brion's "Phone Call" from the score of the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which, for me, has always been my favorite piece of film music. When I heard the track, I was really excited to see that someone else shared my appreciation.
Oh, yeah, once you hear it, you're just like, "Oh, man, I want to take that!"
My thoughts, exactly. I wanted to steal it in any way possible.
[Laughs.] It's song envy, ya know? You hear an awesome track, and you're like, "God, I want that track!"
It just has such a weird quality where you can't really tell what instrument is really being played. It sounds like a classical guitar if it were warped and had been left sitting in an attic for forty years.
Yeah, it definitely has that ballroom orchestra thing! It's really the tone of it. I always say, "Tone, tone, tone!" Tone is everything. That and the melody. It's absolutely good -- absolutely really good.
Why did you decide not to put "Photocall" on the EP -- was it simply due to legal issues?
It's just one of those fun, little free things on the internet. And just the legalities of it -- unless Jon Brion calls us personally, which would be great.
So you haven't had any direct with Jon Brion about the sample?
Never, no -- I've only Google Image-d him. That's as close as I've gotten to his face.
Well, "Photocall" is a great track. Did it also just not fit on the EP from a stylistic standpoint?
Ummm ... I think the EP in itself is a whole thing, and "Photocall" was a frolic. Fantasick is good -- it's still dark, but "Photocall" is very bright as far as colors go and everything. So, yeah, it's kinda weird; it doesn't really mash up at all. We just did it because A) we just always wanted to take the track and soul-suck it, and B) just for something we could do and just release and have fun doing it, and hopefully have other people listen to it and have fun.
So you guys just announced a U.S. Tour that kicked off on May 5th in Pontiac, Michigan, which also lines up with the release of the new EP. Are there any particular venues you're looking forward to playing, and also, do you feel prepared to handle the Fantasick material in a live setting?
We're still practicing up on that -- so far, so good. And yeah, as far as venues go, we're looking forward to ones we haven't been to, actually.
From following you guys on Facebook and Twitter a little bit, I've heard the new EP compared to [the band's dense 2006 EP] Phages a lot. What do you make of this?
Well, it's just a confidence chain. You can hear it progressively with each album -- there's definitely more confidence in each one ... because you're more confident in what you do, and what your role is, and who you're playing with. You're tighter with everybody, and you're more sure of the chemistry of everybody in the group.
So ... musically, lyrically, vocally, are you back into a little more of the "progressive" territory? On the last album, not that it wasn't adventurous per-se, but it was a little more accessible, maybe not as bizarre --
We were kinda going for that, for the whole "pop" thing.
Right. So would you say you're back into the more expansive mode of Phages and Population, cramming a lot more ideas and sounds into each track?
Yeah, because we produced it ourselves, so it's definitely going back to the way things were.
Oh, so the new EP is self-produced?
Yeah, except Dave [Newfeld, who produced last year's ...And the Ever Expanding Universe' actually produced one track. But yeah, we wanted to see what would happen if we let someone else in, as well -- use their ears and their mind and see what they have to bring to the table. It was very interesting.
Awesome. Switching gears a little bit, I will preface this by saying that if this next question is a bit too personal, feel free to dodge it, but what were the circumstances of Emma's departure from the band?
That had to do with the road and a change of ... it went by so quick, all the fast changes that we've been through. When you have that many guys on the road and one girl, eventually, it's just not fair. It's just not fair for her anymore. And it's also a situation where she dreamed of bigger things, dreamed of bigger things for herself. I miss her a lot -- we all miss her a lot. She's in Ancaster, going to school for Biology.
Is she working on anything musically? Is she involved with any other bands or solo work, or is she just sticking to her studies?
She was always talking about pursuing something in the Biology field. I know she's got a mic and a Mac to record on, so I'm hoping she'll keep that up, so when we see each other again, she can show me what she's been working on.
So this doesn't come down to personal issues then?
There's no set path in this whole thing. We turn in the road sharp. You're your own combustible fire. You've just gotta go off into some clear space and blow up. You can only take on the mirage of a group -- and it is a mirage -- except that we're all individually inclined to try to jump into each other's brains. And there's only so much that chemistry between certain brains can handle. And especially life on the road; that really stirs your brain up.
Branching off from that, your line-up is a lot different now. Obviously, having a vocalist leave, that will change your sound whether you intend to or not, so how do you plan on handling the old material live without a female vocal presence? Will you do new arrangements of the old material, or will you just work around it?
Well, besides myself, we have three other singers in the band. It's going to be very different, very challenging, and definitely not at all the song of before. She played a very vital role in these songs, with the vocal parts and everything.
I'm curious how these songs will sound in their new forms. Will it be Sean [one of the band's guitarists] handling the majority of the vocals? Will it be a mixture?
Yeah, Sean and Ryan are doing a great job handling the falsetto parts, that kind of thing.
Speaking of personnel changes, you've had a vocalist leave, but you've also had Adam [Balsam] come into the band on drums. How has he been fitting into the band? I'm assuming he appears on the new EP -- how has he fit into the band's sound?
He is ... umm ... we've never had a Jewish member in the band. And besides that, it's his personality ... because we were looking for a drummer who could also be our friend; we weren't looking for just a drummer.
And you were looking for a Jewish drummer specifically.
Yeah, we wanted a Jewish drummer. No, he's a great, great guy, and there have been no tiffs at all. He is a talented percussionist and is a character in his own right, and that character just ventilates respect. I fully respect the man, and I hope to know him for the rest of my life.
In previous interviews, you guys have mentioned the plan of releasing an EP after each full-length album. What is the intention behind this, and is it still the game plan going forward?
We're hoping ... but it's a lot of work! But we're hoping to keep it up, definitely.
Is this a way to sort of "clean the slate" before each full-length album? Why just an EP?
Yeah, it's really that landscape blueprint for the next album, but it also keeps up our mentalities for the thing and the momentum for doing it -- it just keeps you afloat.
Back to the Phages comparison, both album covers have very striking artwork, with a sort of watercolor feel -- even the font, the white border. Is this intentional?
Yeah, it's just to keep a general character for the EPs, so they can be differentiated from the LPs. It's also a character trademark thing, too.
Who is the artist responsible for the Fantasick cover?
Her name is Anne, and she lives in Milton here. She is an illustrator. I came up with the concept, and I had already done my little pre-sketching, and then she took it and did her own thing with it. She took it and did it in such a crazy, magnificent way, and that's the end product.
"Leipzig" has always been one of my favorite Most Serene Republic tracks, and it seems to be a fan favorite. Have you encountered a lot of requests for it on the road?
A couple of times, but we always managed to not play it. "Stay Ups" is always the one people wanted to hear. But as far as "Leipzig" goes, it's been requested, but we just haven't practiced it. Maybe we should, eh?
Yes, you should.
Definitely then. Wow, I didn't know people really had any interest in "Leipzig."
It's such a beautiful song. I've always been curious why it didn't make the Population album. Was it due to space reasons -- the album is already pretty long -- or did it just not fit thematically or musically?
Yeah, it definitely had the role of a B-side. We had to just pick and choose, pick and choose.
Being the lyricist of the band, are you a "paper and pen" kinda guy, or do you prefer to type them up?
Oh, definitely paper and pen.
There's something more organic about it.
Exactly, David Foster Wallace style. The whole typewriter phenomenon, too -- to have that chop through your thoughts -- it's really loud. I'm surprised a lot of writers have written that way. [Adrian performs a loud imitation of typewriter noise]
It sounds like a battlefield.
Yeah, maybe that's why they like it.
Could be. When I hear your voice on an album, I get the impression you write your lyrics first, before your vocal melodies. Is this true?
Yes, it is now, but before, it was always melodies first, then lyrics.
Really? When did this switch occur?
I'd say it started to transform halfway through And the Ever Expanding Universe.
The lyrics are so dense, so interesting, even removed from the music. On paper, they work almost as poems.
Yeah, lyrics are poems. I forget where I heard it on a show once. Anyway, music with lyrics, it's always a literary medium. With the instrumental music that we've had, it's just "create your own story". But with singing in a band and with the lyrics, there's definitely full control in the power of the band in the person singing those words because it's a lot. You know, for me, I'll listen to an album first as a music run, then with my favorite albums, I listen for the lyrics next, and then with the third listen, I put it all together.
That's exactly the way I listen to albums, especially with your music. In terms of the production and the mixing of the vocals, I listen first strictly for music, then the second time through, I start to notice the lyrics more -- I'll listen with the lyrics sheet. Then the third and fourth listen, I put it all together.
Right, I think with any album you enjoy, to really get a lock on it, it would take four or five listens.
This is particularly true for me with your music. Every time I listen to an album like Phages, I always come away with a new interpretation because your lyrics aren't straightforward. They aren't clear in meaning; you're not spoon-feeding meaning to the listener.
Oh, thank you.
The last thing I have is also a lyrical question. I know I've talked a lot about Phages today, but there is a lyric on that EP that always strikes me every time I hear it. The imagery of it just fascinates me -- "We fuck like tides while Father City smokes up Mother Countryside, leaves her giggling leaves." Care to provide some insight?
Yeah! [Pause.] Sorry, I'm usually more upbeat. I haven't had any coffee today. To be blunt, Phages, the whole album, is about the speed and velocity of things. There's something missing. I guess that's how it's always been with life: the fact that there is a problem, that there is and always will be a problem. [...] I would say that it's rare to meet someone who's mad to live anymore -- or mad to do anything, someone who's so intoxicatingly drunk on life itself. And there's tons of marijuana and alcohol to get you into the flow of everything, but the foolish thing is that we don't need it at all! There's a better time to be had without it at all. Because it's nature, and it's exactly what we were as kids. It's like a pure, 100% nature. And it gets diluted, gets diluted in the process. Basically, we get thrown into this "adult" thing, which is bullshit. We're more in touch with our "kid-dom". We're all walking kids; I've always thought that, anyway, as my personal opinion. Nowadays, everybody's just into getting together and drinking or smoking pot and that kind of thing. So, yeah, you're "giggling" your life away, but you're never really present when you do that stuff; there's no "you" coming out. I guess it's the traffic of our daily lives pushing away nature. But then, I guess, there's the hypocrisy of "Phones are nature! If it comes from the Earth, it's nature!" I guess I'm speaking more on an organic, human-to-human level.
I was at a party yesterday, or just hanging out with a bunch of people. And they had phones, like iPhones, and for not even one minute could a person be left unentertained. So eventually, there were these clusters of people all gathered around a phone -- it was just crazy! It's a very surreal, futuristic world out there. I'm just an old-fashioned person, so I look at it from an early 20th century kind of thing, like, "Oh, Goodness!"
I feel the same way. I feel like an old man when I see the iPhones and the iPads. These things control people's lives. Instead of it being an accessory, it starts dominating your life. You have your music on this thing; you have everyone you know in there --
Oh, yeah. The thing that's bad about distraction is that it is what it is, and that is a distraction. Eventually, you've been distracted so long, you can't even connect anymore, and the way you connect with people on an intimate level isn't there anymore. It's typing, or it's texting or whatever.