Photo: Brendan George Ko

Distorted Reality and the Art of Magic: An Interview with the Besnard Lakes

"We're not really witches and warlocks," explains Jace Lasek of the Besnard Lakes. He does, however, profess an awareness of what he calls a "secret underworld" beneath the surface of everyday consciousness.
The Besnard Lakes

“We’re not really witches and warlocks,” explains Jace Lasek, singer/guitarist/producer of Montreal’s the Besnard Lakes. He does, however, profess an awareness of what he calls a “secret underworld” beneath the surface of everyday consciousness. No surprise there. Lasek and his band of merrymakers have traversed the cosmic plane since 2003. A Coliseum Complex Museum , the latest stop on their journey, boasts songs as mysterious as the markings on its inner sleeve. But more about those later.

At the axis of the alchemy is Lasek and his wife, bassist/vocalist/co-visionary Olga Gareas. Over five albums, the couple has explored avenues arcane, hallucinatory, and experimental. Twice nominated for the coveted Polaris Prize, the Besnard Lakes are Canada’s answer to psychedelic troupes like Tame Impala and the Flaming Lips. Such categorization doesn’t irk the frontperson. “I love being able to paint with a broad paintbrush and there’s such a wide variety of music people call psychedelic. They say Pink Floyd is psychedelic. Spiritualized could be called psychedelic.”

Lasek remembers “lying on the floor on acid listening to a Steve Reich drone” during his formative years. “Sometimes those drones are all you need,” he reckons. Nowadays, the singer laughs off his experimental phase. He considers himself a “super responsible drug user” and emphasizes the band’s mostly sober creative regimen. “Being able to immerse yourself in the music and get lost in it is the thing I’ve been able to hold onto my entire career.”

The future bandmates met in Vancouver, BC where he was studying photography at Emily Carr University, and she was setting local stages alight. Lasek was blown away when he saw Goreas play. “I made it my mandate to try to meet her.” As the couple’s musical chemistry grew, a future behind the lens felt less important. “I had to make a choice and photography took a back seat.” For their shared life in music, Lasek is grateful. “I think it’s the best thing I could ever have asked for.”

Lured by the experimental sounds of labels like Constellation and Alien8, Lasek and Oreas split the West Coast for the comparative affordability of Montreal, QC. They haven’t looked back. Except of course, for their yearly pilgrimage to Besnard Lake in Saskatchewan. The couple finds inspiration flows freely at their rustic getaway, far from the distractions of urban life.

Lasek and Goreas recharge at the lake, but they’re equally at home in Quebec’s vibrant arts community. Entrenched in the music scene, Lasek co-owns Breakglass Studios, an in-demand recording spot for Arcade Fire and Stars as well as upstart acts. “Montreal still seems to be very creative. There are lots of bands. That big wave that came through here in 2006, 2007 didn’t ruin us,” he jokes.

In the past, the Besnard Lakes kept their love of the great outdoors private. This time, nature made it onto the cover. Friend and advisor Christopher Campbell Gardiner created A Coliseum Complex Museum‘s mind-bending album art. In Gardiner’s manipulated photo, an otherworldly white orb hovers over a serene lake, blasting at the water or perhaps pulling it skywards. Like the best ’70s record covers, the image sets the mood before stylus even approaches vinyl.

Inside awaits the album’s biggest revelation: Goreas’ eleven hand drawn sigils. “Our friend comes to Besnard with us, and we just sit and talk about things,” Lasek explains. There, Goreas learned of artist/occult practitioner Grant Morrison’s lecture on the use of sigils in ceremonial magic. Goreas eventually integrated original designs into her daily spiritual practice. Lasek confirms the power these markings hold for their creator. “They’re really personal. She’s been sitting on them for years but we encouraged her to share them.” Each limited edition version of the album includes one tag with a hand-engraved sigil. Hinting at his Saskatchewan roots, Lasek compares the sigil hunt to “buying packs of hockey cards to find that one you need to complete the set.”

Like fellow Montrealers Elephant Stone, the Besnard Lakes recast psychedelia for our caustic, distracted age. Gender-neutral harmonies tower above nitrous oxide clouds of guitar. Time signatures melt like Dali’s clocks, collecting in pools atop seismic basslines. Lasek confirms that prog is not a dirty word in their home. “Olga and I courted to Yes’ Fragile“. Sure enough, one can detect hints of Jon Anderson and company, alongside less obvious influences.

“I guess the cats out of the bag as far as talking about the Eagles. It was so fun to do that crazy extended dueling guitar solo thing at the end of ‘Tungsten 4: The Refugee’. It’s like ‘Hotel California’. I mean, with Richard and Robbie we have our Don Felder and Joe Walsh, so it was like, why not?”

Lasek and Goreas supply raw material which the band refines collectively. The couple tracked live with drummer Kevin Laing on the new album. “In the past, we have written in the studio. This time, it was rad. We sent Kevin the roughs and then it was Oggy and me in the room with him.” Lasek also praises the inventive contributions of members Sheenah Ko, Robbie MacArthur and Richard White.

When discussing the album’s sonic palette, Lasek expresses admiration for Dave Fridmann, famous for his work with Mercury Rev and MGMT. Inspired by Fridmann’s use of harnessed fuzz, Lasek pushed for the dark texture an overdriven preamp offers. Also central to the sound is the Lakes’ signature lush, multitracked vocals. “I’ve always loved vocal groups,” Lasek explains. “I mean not like the Four Freshman, but the Beach Boys and the Beatles. I always thought it was the density of the music that drew me to those bands, but really it was the vocal harmonies.”

Like their influences, the Lakes’ cryptic lyrics are open to multiple interpretations. “Put those guns away,” they implore on “The Plain Moon”. Surprisingly, the words aren’t political commentary. “That song has been sitting around since Dark Horse,” recalls Lasek, referring to their 2007 release. “Finally, Oggy put a vocal on it. It feels like Kenny Rogers in The Gambler. He’s a refugee on a horse, an 1800s outlaw who’s loved and hated, an underdog. By the end, the people finally turn on him.” Elsewhere, things are equally fanciful. The sunny ’70s pop of “Necronomicon” belies its HP Lovecraft namesake, while creatures unknown populate “The Bray Road Beast” and “Golden Lion”.

By contrast, the unambiguous “Pressures of Our Plans” is a “comment on the life that we lead, teetering on the edge of the plank.” Still, some lyrical mysteries are best left unsolved. The golden lion? Well, Lasek is still trying to figure that one out. “I’m waiting for somebody to tell me, so I can go ‘yeah that’s it.'”

Or maybe he doesn’t want to spoil the magic for us.