Music

Never Destroy Us: An Interview with Natalia Yanchak of the Dears

Jane Jansen Seymour

The only female member of the Dears takes a moment pre-tour to discuss the history of the band, its new material, and motherhood.


The Dears

Degeneration Street

Label: Dangerbird
US Release Date: 2011-02-15
UK Release Date: 2011-03-14
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Natalia Yanchak is not just some woman in a band. She joined the Dears back in their beginning stages as the keyboard player, but also as an organizer and visionary. Her vocals add a sweetness to the strong, warm baritone of frontman Murray Lightburn along with a raison d’être for the romantic yearnings that are a hallmark of so many of their songs. They are now married with a young daughter, and the band is as strong as ever. The new release, Degeneration Street, was performed start to finish in a few live gigs last fall, and the group onstage looked like it was having a blast. Before heading out on tour again, Yanchak chatted over the phone from her home in Montreal to update PopMatters.

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When exactly did you join the band and tell me about those early days with the Dears?

I joined the band officially in 1997 or 1998. I had met Murray [Lightburn] at a bar -- I was DJing at a local haunt in Montreal, the infamous Biftek, which [is] overrun by students now although it was back then also. That’s what they call a steak in French, biftek, but it’s not a restaurant so I don’t know why it’s called that. Murray had come in and he sat at the bar and for some reason he just poured his heart out to me. It wasn’t like it was love at first sight, I was kind of like “Oh, poor guy”. We had some mutual friends who introduced me to the Dears and to Murray so I went to see them play a show at this hole-in-wall kind of place called the Barfly. They were looking for a keyboard player but after I saw them I was totally skeptical. I was like, “It’s going to be terrible." But it was amazing -- I thought it was great.

So then I joined the band, and I was the more pragmatic one to Murray’s creative force. I was the one who said, “So... we have to put out a record. We have to have band photos. We have to play shows. We have to do this." I also had a radio show at the local college [McGill University], co-hosting this all-Canadian rock show. I was listening to a lot of music, writing record reviews for Vice and other local stuff. I was very immersed in that other side of the music industry that a musician might not think is very important, especially when they’re just getting it together. So I sort of brought that angle to the band.

Was keyboard always your instrument?

That was definitely the instrument I felt most comfortable playing. I’d been playing organ in some other bands around town. When I was much younger I took Suzuki violin lessons -- I learned how to play the recorder and then I took piano lessons as I got older. In my teen years I picked up the acoustic guitar and did some of my own DIY 4-track recordings. I had this friend that lent me this Arp AXXE synth, my first analog synth I ever used. It’s such a pure analog synth, really the basic building block of what an analog synth is, so it was fun for me as a teen to mess around with that.

Going back to the band, the group almost called it quits after your third CD. How did things come back together?

We had recorded our first CD, End of a Hollywood Story, which came out in Canada in 2000 and then we recorded No Cities Left, which came out in Canada 2003. It didn’t come out in the rest of world until later. There were a couple years of us just focusing on Canada. So it was a really long time between those two albums. There was a lot of touring and people getting to an age where maybe being in a rock band isn’t what they want to do for the rest of their life, which is totally fine. You can’t make anyone do what they don’t want to do. Murray and I were faced with the question of “What are we going to do? What should we do?” Definitely the question was asked, “Should the band be over?”

For me, it was really a realization of how I’d been playing this role in the Dears since 1997 so it predates all these people who have come and gone. That’s always been the tradition of the Dears. It’s always been about capturing the essence of the Dears, not about the individual ego of each person. For me it was a soul-searching period while we were making Missiles [from 2008], about who I am and who I am in the Dears and what the Dears is and what it means. I kind of realized, it’s not about me and it’s not about the people that are leaving the band but it’s about this amorphous entity that is the Dears. It’s also about connecting with people in so many different ways -- emotionally, spiritually, or however the music connects with people. That was more important than any of the personal bullshit that might be going down. That realization, which is going to come off as sounding so extremely pretentious but whatever, is how the Dears are bigger than me so therefore the Dears must continue. It must carry on.

You’re embarking on another tour in support of the new release Degeneration Street. When you played NYC last fall, I saw you playing it straight through from start to finish along with some hits for an encore. Is that the plan for this tour?

No, the dates this spring are more conventional sets, although we are getting quite nostalgic about some the songs being left off of the set. Because we couldn’t play all the songs and be able to play the all the hits, you know?

Well, not every band can recreate an album live straight through like that -- it’s very impressive. How did the idea to do this come about?

I think it came about when we started making the album. Even though we had all played together during our careers, the six of us who are in the band now hadn’t played on stage together. And that energy is something that is very crucial for us. We decided before we went into the studio that we’re all going to start at the same point where we’re all learning the songs from nothing, kind of equalize everything. It’s not like, “Well we’ve been playing 'Lost in the Plot' for over ten years so all you new guys, you’re going to have to learn 'Lost in the Plot' and it’s going to be amazing, right?” So we started from an equal point, where we’re all going to work on these songs together.

When we were at a certain level of completion, we went to Mexico City and played these songs. That was the first time we had all played together on stage, playing this album from start to finish for three nights. As soon as we got back from Mexico City, we loaded straight from the airport into the studio. So we brought that live energy, not only as the band but also the energy from the audience into the studio with us. I think that experience was really important to us as a band to be a band. And then we continued to do the other residencies in Brooklyn, Toronto, and Montreal to really solidify our vibe, for lack of a better word.

Has becoming a mother changed your playing at all or your approach to music?

I don’t think it’s changed my playing at all but it definitely changed me on a spiritual level and I’m not a religious person. I don’t adhere to anything. But having a kid is profoundly spiritual. It’s so primal that it’s life affirming. I’ve had the most life-affirming moments in my entire life. It’s also a supremely positive act, you know? And I think if anything that gave me the motivation and courage to carry on. It put things into perspective, especially when the band was falling apart. I was a new mother so there was a lot about life that was changing in an insane way. It’s just not all about you -- it’s about someone else now. And that put a lot of bullshit into perspective. I think if anything that carries on today. I know that what I have to do on stage and what I have to do when I’m performing is not about thoughts. It’s about channeling something: this musical energy, this musical connection that’s on stage. And that hasn’t changed. But what has changed from being a mother is the will to carry on and the drive to be a better human.

It does seem to make sense to have a woman up on stage for all the romance in the songs, for example in “Lost In the Plot” the lyrics are “Don’t mess with our love / Our love is so much stronger." There are so many deeply romantic songs in the Dears catalogue but do you have a favorite one?

The thing about that is my favorite song always changes. For a while it was “Never Destroy Us”, then for a while it was “There’s No Such Thing as Love”. There have also been songs that have been released but have never really seen the light of day. There’s some songs that Murray wrote before I joined the band on cassette tape that are amazing. So my favorite song of the moment is “Degeneration Street”. Because I’m kind of living it -- living the album but also the spirit of the album, which is all I’m focused on.

What about the songwriting process of the band -- does Murray come with something that’s already sketched out?

Well, this album came together as a total collaboration for the first time in the Dears’ life. It was basically a lot of home demos done on laptops being sent back and forth between Murray, Patrick Krief, and Rob Benvie, who are the main songwriters of the album. It was just ideas back and forth until it was solid. Then the rehearsing thing and working on it -- this is the first time that these rough sketches came from three different places rather than just from Murray. I came in with the arrangements and in the aesthetics. A song will get to a certain point, then I’ll give it my listen and I’ll have lots to say. It’s mostly about arrangement, “We should use this instrument to do this line” or production stuff like that.

And where did you record Degeneration Street?

It was recorded last May through the beginning of June at a studio in Montreal called Mixart, which is an awesome studio--kind of the unsung hero of Montreal. It’s got amazing gear and the guys that run it are super cool. We recorded it with an engineer from L.A. named Dave Schiffman, who’s awesome. He engineered it and we were working over Skype with Tony Hoffer. Tony came in as a sonic referee since we had the three songwriters and all the ideas from everyone else in the band bringing stuff in. Tony was the impartial moderator to all the insane ideas we had.

So you’re going out on tour to SXSW then over to the UK and Europe, is there any place in particular you’re looking forward to playing or seeing?

It’s weird because we haven’t done a European tour since 2007, which is crazy. But every now and then I just miss London. I don’t why, maybe because we’ve spent so much time there I just miss it. It’s bizarre because I’m not a fan of English food although you can find good there. But I think that’s the place I’m most nostalgic for. But we’ve definitely noticed how much fun we’re having on stage and it’s been a long time for us that it’s been that way. So it’s a new beginning for us.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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