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A Mid-Winter Conversation with July Talk

Monday, December 8, 2014

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Written by Jaimee-Lisa Cotter

Toronto based rock band July Talk returned home to Canada from their North American tour on November 16, and celebrated their homecoming at the University of Guelph.

A lot of people are attributing the success of July Talk to their on stage hype and dramatic elements of their performance. I had the chance to sit down with Peter Dreimanis  and Leah Fay, front folk and vocalists of the group to discuss their on stage antics, carving out a unique spot for themselves in rock and roll, the challenges of making a statement, and life as a menagerie of stylistically unique performers.

“There’s a shirt over there that’s from New York, where we just decided after a show for everyone that was on the whole tour to just draw all over it. That’s kind of what it is every night with the shirts. You know, you’re playing really energetic sweaty rock and roll in a white dress shirts and that acts as a blank canvas for every show. And now that you’re looking at it you see the show and it’s a way to explain the show.”

Peter brought out the dress shirt he had previously mentioned from New York, covered in a mix of sharpie marker, what looked like either fake blood or red wine, sweat and possibly even a bit of lipstick here and there.

His philosophy on the white dress shirt bit: “We started realizing that punk rock ethos rock and roll in dress shirts is a really interesting thing to see. Because when they get fucked up people react differently than if it was an old tee shirt that has a band’s name on it or whatever, and I think these white shirts have acted as a cool canvas. By the end, you look at it and you see the points in the set that these things happen.”

This mish mash of sensory overload reflects exactly what Leah cites as their methodology for on stage performance, and what encourages them to constantly push the envelope. According to her, “If you have eyes and you have ears, why try and act cool? Why try and be anything that you’re not? Listen to that little voice inside you that’s saying ‘I’m gonna fuck shit up’ or ‘I’m gonna see how far I can go’.”

For Leah, Peter, Ian, Josh and Danny, seeing exactly how far they can take things really and truly depends on everyone in the band, and even the audience. Everyone in the room is implicated at a July Talk show, and it’s about more than just hearing the music, it focuses on active listening. Although fairly new to the touring scene, they’re already fairly seasoned veterans at setting a scene.

Peter explained the difference between performing and enjoying, and how important it is to play to both those different aspects. “The music—for us—was written a long time ago. And for most bands it was written a long time ago. And so if you want to go out, and you want to replicate that record, then I fucking applaud you, for sure. And we are interested in that and we wanna make our show tight and Ian, Danny and Josh are the guys that allow that to actually happen. For Leah and I, it’s about what our songs are about, but it’s not solely about the music: it’s about letting the night turn to a choose your own adventure novel and just going with it. It’s not really a purist ‘about the music’ band. We’re more interested in creating the most two way street that we can. We want the audience to feel like they’re a part of what we’re doing, and be it we’re playing a song from five years ago that half the audience has heard millions of times, but we want to involve them in a new way every night.”

When I broached the topic of being a leading woman in a mostly male group within a male dominated industry,  I was genuinely surprised at rampant sexism Leah described encountering. Since it was something I had definitely heard speculation about, we talked specifically about the reception (or lack thereof) by a lot of women to bands with female leads in the current music scene:

“If there’s a woman who’s involved with any sort of musical project, that’s the norm that people think ‘she’s obviously not writing the songs. She’s obviously there to make the band successful, she’s obviously there to be the boobs of the band. She’s there to provide sex appeal’. And I think that’s why women have a hard time being like “I’m going to respect and listen to this band with a female lead singer. Because it’s like what if she steals my boyfriend or whatever? It’s some fucking weird ass bullshit that women have engrained in them that it becomes more like 'how do I compare to this person' as opposed to ‘do I like this art or not?’” 

It’s something the guys have noticed too. Peter relayed the all too familiar tale of people judging the album by its cover and operating on the mildly sexist assumption that industry image tries to put forward: “You walk into any venue and people are like ‘oh there’s a girl in your band. Does she like stand on the side and play tambourine?”

It’s shocking that in this day and age people often ask Leah and other strong female members of bands and groups about their roles within a musical collective, operating under assumptions that they’re merely there to ‘help out’. After watching how much presence she has as a frontwoman, it’s difficult to imagine someone having the audacity to suggest that she may not have a role in bringing it just as hard as the boys: Leah shared the all too often heard sexism that lie in common assumptions: “Or they’re like ‘Oh are you selling merch?’, ‘Oh are you with the band’? No, I’m in it.”

This isn’t a phenomenon that is isolated to up and coming Canadian music communities. This is an issue that has plagued the international music scene throughout the history of incredible musicians to carve out the niche before July Talk.

Leah told me that this was something that she'd experienced everywhere, and that it struck her as strange that people were  normalizing the marginilazation of women in music: “We went to the rock and roll hall of fame for example. And while we were there I was just like—I forget the percentages, it’s some atrocious number like 95% of the people that have been inducted into the rock and roll hall of fame are male—and I mentioned it on stage when we were actually playing in Cleveland and someone yelled ‘They had a female exhibit there last spring’ and I’m like cool, but why would you go about separating them? It’s not about women in music it’s about the genre. But because it’s so controlled by men, women are often told ‘you need to look this way’ or ‘you need to sing this way’.”

Speaking of things that get everyone fired up, it’s always nice to hear band favourites as opposed to audience favourites. I asked Leah and Peter what their favourite songs to play were: not the ones that were best received by the crowd, but what they genuinely enjoyed the most when they performed it for an audience. What both of them had to say shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. True to his mention of the longevity of any touring bands music, both Peter and Leah chose songs off of the bands most recent EP, For Your Bloodshot Eyes.

Peter opted for a high energy, fuel burning tune. “I think my favourite song to play would probably be Blood and Honey. It’s a really angry song. I really benefit from anger on stage. It really helps me get amped up. When I’m singing about things I have a lot of angst about, and stuff that kinda bums me out about the world, it helps me to really get the energy up. Sometimes when you sing about things that are really satisfactory or things that are exciting to me it’s a lot harder to draw energy from that. It’s much easier to draw energy from songs that are angry. Blood and Honey brings that anger.”

Leah’s answer was along the same lines, and she opted to go with something that had a heavy emotional charge to it: “My favourite song to play right now is ‘Gentleman’”

That’s when Peter piped in to tell me “It’s about Chad Kroger and Avril Lavigne”

Of course I had to ask: “Wait, is it really?”

But Leah was quick to wipe that theory out with a shake of her head.“Ha ha ha no. It tackles abusive relationships in a strange, sort of round about way instead of tackling it head on. We both play characters of what it is to be in a relationship where someone is submissive and someone is dominant. Not in a cool, consensual BDSM way, but in a shitty dude way where the person that you’re with—and of course it happens in all sorts of relationships but— this one specifically, when we revisited three years later, we were reading about a sex worker who had been taken advantage of by the porn industry, and was talking about being in love with eyes on her and everything that had brought her to that point, about how she had been drugged and raped and all of this kind of weird shit… and it repeats itself so much. It’s so strange that it does, and so that song is tackling that.”

While most bands open with a hype song or a well-known single, July Talk decided to do stick with their reputation of doing things “balls out” as Leah mentioned earlier: “Right now we open with it, and I don’t know if we’ll keep doing that or not, and normally when we do play it we say ‘This is a song about dysfunctional relationships’ or ‘this is about shitty men’ kind of thing, like ‘if you’re in this relationship, get yourself out of it’. But I do like not saying anything about it and just going into it. I feel powerful in it.”

And Leah isn’t the only one that recognizes the power in pulling off something so unexpected. Peter also acknowledges the risk factor in trying to introduce that depth into a crowd of people who may not be expecting it: “It’s the most dangerous way to go about that song. The thing that we’ve always discussed is that usually the thing that you’re most scared of in any decision is the thing you should probably do.”

It’s apparent that this is an attitude shared amongst the band members, because as Peter explained that July Talk was into scaring themselves as motivation, Leah boiled this philosophy down to the mantra of “When in doubt, be brave”.

“When you put a song like ‘Gentleman’ first, you’re allowing every audience member to say ‘Hey, maybe he is that guy’ or ‘Hmm maybe she is that submissive person’  and even though that may be completely the opposite of the truth, it allows what the song is getting at to be much more real, and more intense. If we go up to the mic before the song and we say ‘Oh, this song is about dysfunctional relationships!’ and then I play a part and Leah plays a part, the whole personal crisis leaves the room. The interest leaves the room.”

This isn’t an easy feat for a band that has recently had a taste of touring outside of their locale of the Canadian indie/rock scene. But Peter is taking it as his personal mission and the band’s personal mission to make sure that the interest stays at the forefront of the audience’s mind, and plans to keep using their position to make sure that happens:

“What’s actually important about this band and the opportunity we see, is that we can represent those insanely charicature versions of men and women and the gun shots that go in between. If we’re smart about it and we’re very very fucking clever—we’re not there yet but we’re on our way— then we can represent the most injust parts about gender and issues around feminism that happen between men and women. It isn’t always about men oppressing women, but we have an opportunity to represent this spectrum that exists.”

After all, in acknowledging that they still have a lot of work to do Leah and Peter definitely are convinced that there is always room for improvement.

While they try not to generalize their fans, Peter boils it down to a strategic demographic. “Ideally, because we’re doing it in a very rock and roll radio way, we’re accessing people that don’t fucking go to art galleries. They don’t go to poetry readings. These people aren’t interested in the conversations that happen between Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. People don’t give a shit: the people that come to our shows are fucking people that wanna party and people that want to have a good time. If we’re smart enough to present these issues to them within a rock and roll context then we can actually do some damage. Instead of going and reading a poem to a bunch of people standing there thumbing their beards, we can actually have an effect on the audience that drives to work every day listening to the radio, working their 9-5 job. Entering these conversations into a 9-5 rock and roll context is really important. I think we can do it in a smart way. But it’s not something that’s going to come easy.”

Hard work isn’t something that makes anyone in July Talk nervous though. Peter is confident that all it takes is a little hard work and dedication:

“We didn’t do it on our first record. We’re going to do it. But we’re learning about how to inject intense conversation into rock and roll, and there’s people that have been successful doing it in the past, and I think if we stick to it and all stay on the same page then we can be a voice there. We can be someone that allows people to go to a rock and roll show and fucking want to make babies and want to go home and fuck the shit out of their partner, but at the same time be smart about it and do it in a way that makes them [their partner] happy.”

When the topic of best crowds was approached and the question of their experiences playing outside of Toronto and transcending the Canadian music scene, Leah described how the tables turned and on multiple occasions it had been audiences throwing the curveballs instead of the band being the spectacle of the evening.

“It’s so impossible to say. Just because you never know what’s going to greet you in a room. Even preconceived notions of stuff, like ‘Oh Utah is a very religious place and they have really weak beer so that show’s probably gonna suck’ that stuff never ends up being true. We can never predict what’s going to go on at a show since it’s a completely different mix of pheromone and drunkenness and weather and whatever.”

This concoction may sound like a dangerous one, but a bit of improvisation is July Talk’s specialty. As we were wrapping up the interview, Danny, Josh and Ian entered the make shift green-room after the grueling routine of rocking out and packing up, an all too familiar set of motions considering the band was just returning from a three month tour and expressed their joy at returning home to their stomping grounds in southern Canada.

I asked Danny, who at one point before the July Talk era had been training to be a paramedic, if he was confident in his abilities to save a fan should they pass out from the concoction that Leah had described as causing a different chemical reaction at every show. Good natured and go-with-the-flow as they always are, no one missed a beat—especially not the man with the expertise: “It’s been a while since my training, but I think I might be able to pull it off. Hearts still work the same, right?”

 

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