This Nova Scotia band opened for Paul McCartney, won a Juno Award (the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy), and performed to a US audience on Late Night with David Letterman. Yet, Wintersleep’s focus has always been on the music, not the prestige. And that focus pays off on their newest record, Hello Hum. Although they’re now five albums deep into their career, the band continues to innovate via sharper songwriting, new producers, and even new instrumentation.
Co-produced by Dave Fridmann (MGMT, The Flaming Lips) and Tony Doogan (Belle & Sebastian, Mogwai), the band recorded the album over a six-week period in Fridmann’s home studio. Says lead singer Paul Murphy:
“We’ve never had that much time in big chunks like that. Our first record was three weeks, I think, of recording time in Halifax, which was really close to where we all lived. So it sort of felt like we were living in the studio, but we would go home to our own beds. Then we did one in Montreal, which was a difficult process. There’s not a lot of studios in Montreal, so we picked one that was about 40 miles out of town, which is a long way every day. So you’re picking people up and driving to this neat studio, but it felt like you were going to your job or something. It didn’t feel organic like Dave’s studio. We were initially going to do three weeks there and three weeks in Halifax, but when we got there, it felt like we were in my backyard or something like that. “
The combination of Fridmann and Doogan proved to be an exciting and re-energizing one for Wintersleep. Fridmann has “a really hands-on approach to mixing. When you listen to the record, that doesn’t sound like anything we’ve ever done before.” Indeed, the hazy distortion of opening track “Hum”, has Fridmann’s definite stamp on it, though Doogan’s influence is also palpable on the album.
“The way Dave mixes is quite interesting and not really normal — kind of an odd way to mix records. But because he’s so secure with the way he mixes things, when we were actually recording songs, he had input on the things that would be good for him while he was mixing, so he took on a co-producer role as well because he was mixing it. He and Tony are really good friends, and they’ve worked together before, and they really feed off each other. When Tony’s just working with us, it’s really great, but Dave just added a new dynamic. It stirred something in Tony as well.”
For Murphy, the band’s accolades aren’t nearly as exciting as the producers with whom the band has worked. “The Juno Award was cool in that it was the first time my parents were like, ‘You’re actually a real band!’ For me, a milestone would be working with Tony for the first time for Welcome to the Night Sky, and then with Dave on this last record. I don’t get excited by a lot of things, but those are the things I get excited about. It’s something tangible and you’re working with this person on things, and was way beyond the realm of possibility when I was 16 or 17. I never thought I would be working with people of that caliber. It’s not something you think about. Then suddenly, Dave’s agreed to make this record, and he’s going to be helping with production stuff, and you’re going to his place, and you’re going to go for dinner with his family. Those are the things that are, for me, pretty amazing.”
Murphy and the band also benefited from the wide variety of instruments — many of them vintage — available at Fridmann’s studio, even employing unlikely touches like kazoo flourishes. “That’s the thing with that studio which is amazing. They have so much gear. They have stuff from the 70s which is vintage gear, and usually when you’re at the studio and you have a vintage synthesizer, it’s broken and three of the keys don’t work, and it makes this weird sound. But it was all pristine-condition stuff. There’s also toy things and weird stuff you can incorporate into your recording that have a certain background role,” Murphy says.
Murphy continues that the diversity of sounds available to the band contributed to the songs’ development from their original form to the more polished, inventive versions heard on Hello Hum. He discusses the way the band wanted to deviate from earlier sounds: “We tried to steer the record away from being too rock-y sounding, too guitar-y. Just having the access to that stuff [the instruments] enabled another thing on the palette board, another color. Having so many things to pull from, if there’s a keyboard sound on one song, it’s not the same keyboard sound on another song.”
There are many striking things about Hello Hum, including even the album artwork, done by Marianne Collins. “We contacted her and asked her to come up with something based on listening to the tracks, something with a lot of movement. She tries to make a lot of movement in the pieces she does. That was something that stuck with me about the pieces she does, and I’d never seen images like that. They almost had this physical quality to them. She listened to the record and came up with tons and tons of awesome ideas, and that’s one she ended up choosing, which is really cool because it’s actually three images [that] are juxtaposed.”
Also intriguing in the artistic vein is the epic video for “In Came the Flood,” which features a high-budget, psychedelic, unsafe-for-epileptics live performance of the song. Asked if the rendition of the song is typical of the band’s live shows, Murphy laughs. “It depends on the budget! Generally not as flashy. Sometimes if we’re doing big festival shows, we’ll get a lighting person to come out. We’re trying for this next record to have projections like that, but our shows do not look like that video. I actually hate lighting like that because when you’re playing a show, you feel like you’re going to go into a seizure or something. It was an idea of trying to make it psychedelic-looking.”
And there is an element of psychedelica on Hello Hum, but there is also mostly good, old-fashioned rock n’ roll crafted by a seasoned band with the wizardry of two esteemed producers.