Queen's University — Since 1873
25th March 2011

Rebuilding with voices

After gaining notoriety as the band who were down but not out, The Darcys came out of this year’s Canadian Music Week heralded as the best live band in Canada

After Jason Couse (foreground) stepped up to front the new incarnation of The Darcys, the band turned on the internal pressure to focus fully on releasing new material. Drummer Wes Maskrell (background) cited the band’s mantra for writing as, “it better be fucking good.”
After Jason Couse (foreground) stepped up to front the new incarnation of The Darcys, the band turned on the internal pressure to focus fully on releasing new material. Drummer Wes Maskrell (background) cited the band’s mantra for writing as, “it better be fucking good.” (Supplied)

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If I’d been chatting with The Darcys’ drummer Wes Marskell at this time last year, he may not have been so generous. By the time our 45-minute phone call concluded I’d been told a secret and promised a Toronto Metropass, a carton of $1 strawberries and a drink ticket.

First, some background. As the story goes, the band and their lead singer severed ties just days before the completion of their sophomore record and a 2010 Canadian Music Week showcase forcing them to either refurbish, or call it quits. Marskell, now-vocalist and guitarist Jason Couse, guitarist and organist Mike le Riche and bassist Dave Hurlow took the bull by the horns to form the current lineup—the quartet seizing an opportunity to turn the page with Couse stepping into the front man’s shoes.

“It felt like there was new breath in our lungs and wind in the sails that wasn’t there before,” Marskell said. “Everyone’s been so generous since then. The shows have grown exponentially and people have been quite kind about the transition and the live show and the sound … it’s been great actually.”

To focus overtly on the The Darcys’ past is counterproductive and an over simplification of their history and potential. It would be doing them a disservice to painstakingly explain the transition process rather than explore the resulting merits of their new projects using their admittedly buzz-worthy back-story as a starting point.

Marskell spoke candidly, filling me in on new facets of the foursome, his determination and refusal to sit and wait is as infectious and far-reaching as the philosophy behind their songs and their nostalgic goal of making the record an event again.

So you guys are making your way here Thursday?

Next Thursday, yeah. We have a show in Kingston, then Ottawa then Montreal.

Have you played Clark Hall before?

No actually we played outside, in Kingston a few times now but I’m sort of excited to play on campus … I’m excited, campus bars are always a little more unruly and fun than playing off-campus

How did you deal with re-allocating roles within the band?

It was scary as fuck for the first month … we have a record where some of the songs are five, six people, you know how the studio works, you put more into than you would in the live show, when you’re trying to work through that and then also cover for somebody that was a focal point in the band it got really intense.

Jason, the singer of our band, he stepped up in such a wonderful way and such an impressive way and I always sort of forgot about that being my roommate and my friend he just sort of, he didn’t complain, he just said I’m going to do this and we’re going to do this and here we are, doing it.

We’ve been also working like crazy writing a new record so we can come out with as much as possible, so that we can, I feel like we still have to prove ourselves a little bit, every now and then … it’s better than feeling good all the time, I think that’s when people settle in and don’t do their best work.

Has the change in band members or restarting been the most challenging part of the project so far?

It’s weird because it’s a lot like restarting, I feel like the record that came before doesn’t really count anymore. I feel like this record on is how, you know, in five years people will see the band. So it kind of felt like starting from scratch but not starting over, we were a new band that just happened to have an old name and some history.

Do you think that history helps?

I think we play a pretty decent live show and I think that comes from being a band for a while, and if we had just formed as four people and written a record and put it out, I don’t think the live show would be where it is today or where we would want it to be and I think that you know, certain elements add to what makes a band good and I think that having that few years of what I think is practice has really allowed us to put our best food forward.

Do you think you went into writing the new stuff with a certain goal in mind?

In the last two weeks we’ve been doing a ton and I think the mindset is it better be fucking good. It better be really really good. There’s no, ‘we’ll toy around with this,’ or ‘maybe we’ll try this.’ There’s a sense of economy in writing it now and making sure there’s no dead points or slow points in the songs. It feels like everything has to be so much better than anything we’ve ever done, man. There’s a lot more internal pressure than external pressure. But it better be fucking good, that’s all, that’s the only thing we ever say to each other now … if it’s not then it’s immediately put in the garbage and we start over.

How have you evolved sonically?

The four-piece that was a big part of what the record that’s about to come out is like. I think there’s a focus on, when we’re on stage and you’re in the audience, we’re not going to give you a chance to talk to your friend or go get a beer or whatever else and I think there’s an element of that loudness and intensity that’s deliberate … where it just sort of overcomes you and you’re forced to pay attention to the show for that 45 minutes or whatever that we’re on stage. I think we’re just trying to progress into some new stuff and see where naturally we can go from there without doing the same thing over.

In terms of writing, do you find things come from that live experience?

A lot of it comes from sitting down and thinking about things. I don’t know if that makes a lot of sense. It’ll be a groove or a bass line or a vocal melody that will spark some inspiration but then a lot of the time if comes back to sitting in front of the recording station at home and just thinking through what you want to do and how you want to do it.

I think a lot of time we try to work in intricate chord changes and shifts in the song and tempo and time changes and that’s not something that’s really easy to flush out when you’re doing sound check or something like that, right? … Also being on stage makes you much better at your instrument so you can do things you wouldn’t be able to do even six months ago.

Do you find you get tighter the more you tour?

Yeah I think that’s the hard part, we played a show in December and then we didn’t have another show until late February. I think when we’re in the jam space, three nights a week, you know playing as much as we can just to stay warm. Whereas when you go on tour for two months and come home to play a show people are like, ‘how’d you get so good?’ But it’s not even; it’s just that you’re so in tune with each other because you’ve spent so much time together doing the same thing day in and day out.

What about your writing process?

There’s a lot of different avenues that spark a song and it’s not specific … I think sometimes we’ll be in the space and there’ll be a little guitar line that somebody’s playing and we might jam it out in the space but the only take-home is that only guitar line and we take it home and stress over it and kind of morph it into something we like. We have a lot of different version of songs that get done before the final one. There could be five or six versions of the same song before we go, ‘ok this is what we want to move forward with.’

Do you have something you work for in each song?

The new record that’s coming out, the self-titled record, I think a lot of things were swirling around when we were writing that record but a lot of that record works towards really specific moments in the song. I think that more than a chorus in a traditional pop song, there’s these sort of payoffs that if you can get through the first little bit that really takes you somewhere, then what happens next is really rewarding. In the same way that a big chorus would be rewarding, it’s just different.

With these songs I think what we were trying to do was see how far away we could bring the listener from the starting point, that by the time they get to the end point if they even know where they came from in the first place. I think that was a really big part of writing that record, to see what we could do and how much ability we had to play with the classic song structure and make it into something a little newer than what we’re used to hearing.

How was it working with Murray Lightburn?

Murray is Murray and I think a lot of people hear stories about Murray and I’m not here to dispel any of them because I don’t know if I even could. But I think that when Murray was there and focused and doing his best work, I think those moments are some of the best on the record and I think he really helped us come through this whole change with the band.

He ended up hooking us up with this guy, Dave Schiffman who ended up mixing the record. He’s a really well known guy in the music industry, you know, he’s worked on Weezer records and Black Rebel Motorcycle [Club] records and Rage Against the Machine, really big stuff. Murray sort of brought us to him and said, ‘we’re going to make this work, we’re going to get this record done and we’re going to get it done right,’ and so he was really great in that respect.

I’ve heard a lot about Dave Schiffman.

Yeah he’s really awesome. It was awesome to have him on board and know that he liked the record and that he’s willing to do it because it sounds amazing and I’m really proud of it. Even those songs that are out now on the 7” have been fully re-done by Dave Schiffman and the size and the scope of them they’re just so much richer and denser I think it will surprise a lot of people.

When can we expect the record to be released?

That’s a good question I wish I knew the answer to. I know everyone in Toronto thinks we’re being really coy about it and that we’re going to release it and just drop it … it’s not an easy game to be in and just because you have a great record with some great names on it doesn’t guarantee you next level status and every record label just begging at your feet to put the record out. We do have some options right now so we’re just trying to figure out what the best thing to do is. We also have a secret second sort of record that’s going to come out … so that’s exciting … people aren’t really ready for it I don’t think … stay tuned.

Do you find you get restless?

I think so. I think even a few years ago the record just became a promotional piece. I don’t think anyone in the near future is just going to drop this monumental record that everyone is going to stop and listen to it for an hour. It’s all about singles and all about people’s inability to focus or to sit down or even have the time to do that. So I think we’ve been trying really hard to work outside of that classic release of record structure and try to do things that’ll keep us current but also that, you know it’s pretty hard for me, but I don’t think it’s the case for all bands, but just to wait and sit around and I think that’s where for us, we can come up with some of our zanier ideas.

Do you dabble in other artistic mediums?

I think we’re trying especially from now on to make the band not just something that’s release a record, tour, release a record, tour. But I think it’s all centred around being in a rock band. We’re not out there doing other mediums and stuff like that but I think that we’re trying to bring certain elements into what we’re doing to see how far we can push it.

Your live show has been heralded as the best in Canada by The Toronto Star, what’s your idea of a perfect gig?

For us, because there’s a lot of gear and a lot of loops and sound onstage, all that really matters is that we get a sound check and have decent monitors. I think, I’d like to think, we could play almost anywhere for anyone, even if it’s three people play as hard as we possibly can but its sometimes really difficult to get out there and not be able to hear yourself play. Sometimes you fall victim to the technology around you, but as long as there’s one person there and a PA system I think it’s an ideal gig.

Do you ever struggle dealing with different sound people at different venues?

We did early on but we’ve taken steps, I mean I think a big thing with harnessing your sound is being in control of it, so instead of giving a lot for the sound guy to do we try to run a lot of it ourselves on stage, run things through our amps instead of sending them direct out so we can sort of have a grip on how we come across. But at the end of the day as long as your amp’s loud and the vocals are coming through, people are going to get the idea.

Do you have any pre-show rituals?

Not really, I mean we do try to huddle up really quickly onstage. I think it’s really hard to play a show if your brain’s up onstage with you. You’ve got to kind of let everything go and play and be there while you’re there, be happy. It’s really exciting and really unique because not a lot of people just get to go up and do what they really like doing all the time. So we just kind of go, ‘alright? Alright?’ and we go up and play.

I mean, Dave, the bassist in our band used to play in this bluegrass band way, way back and sometimes he’ll serenade us with this really goofy bluegrass song and we kind of laugh and forget about everything. Otherwise you really just try to take a second to get into a good space because being onstage isn’t always the easiest thing.

There’s a lot to do up there, it’s not the most fun and carefree thing, you’ve got to be in a good place. And not wasted which is something we learned really quickly. Like, ‘oh I don’t know how to play my instrument when I’m drunk, that’s not good, this is a guitar? Sweet!’ … I think some bands can get away with it and I think some bands do it really, really well and I think that’s part of their show, to be a little bit brash and socially lubricated. But I think when you’re running a ton of loops and Jason’s playing loads of guitar and jumping back and forth, you got to have some of your wits about you or you’re going to crash and burn really quickly. Can’t get too drunk—‘til after.

Your blog is wicked, where did that come from?

Thanks, I run the blog, I’ve been doing it actually forever, since we started. I cleaned a lot out of it when we refurbished the band but I think it’s a huge thing for a band to be, I think we’re not overly interactive, we’re not like … showing people pictures of our dinner. But there’s a lot there.

For me, when I go to band’s website and there’s just a photo and some news about their shows, it’s kind of a let-down in a lot of ways. I mean some bands build mystery and I think we do in some ways like we’re not super overt about everything, but there’s a lot there if you like the band to check out, lots of videos … it’s easier to like a band you know a bunch of stuff about rather than just hearing a few songs.

When you’re onstage, what’s the audience’s role?

I think there’s a lot of preparation that goes on in practice that’s audience oriented. You know, everything we’re doing is, we’re going to do this, this transition, this sound and this noise, this set list with the audience in mind. Obviously if you alienate the people that are there to hear you it’s not going to be all that exciting for them.

But once you’re up there, I think what we’re starting to do well … is you can kind of lose yourself in the moment and in the songs and when you do that you play your best and I think that can get pushed onto the audience and people can see you feeling it and in turn, feel it. I don’t like those bands that go up there and try to get the audience to handclap along and are always sort of looking out there trying to get people.

I think if you get up there and do your best and play really hard it’s more of a spectacle and more interesting than trying to deliberately engage them while they’re there. When I go to a rock show I want my mind to be blown, I don’t want some guy to be like, ‘hey, the lyrics to the next chorus are this, if you sing that’d be really great,’ it’s like ‘maybe you sing it, because you’re the band?’ That’s a big thing for us … I think we try really hard to give as much as we can to the audience, that’s what I’m talking about working, you’re up there and you’re trying to give everything you can to the people who paid to come see you.

What are your plans for the future?

We’ve been writing as much as possible to maybe get another EP out … more ideas that are outside the traditional release schedule. Things that’ll keep people interested that aren’t classic, you know the show and the record are the starting point now they’re not the end all and be all.

I mean I just heard the other day The Flaming Lips are putting out a four-song EP on a USB stick in a to-scale human brain made out of hard candy that’s covered in gummy bears? So you have to eat through the whole thing … Insane, right?

But I think it’s way cooler to get people to engage with what you’re doing as a band on a way bigger level. That Flaming Lips thing is just a great way to make releasing the record an event all over again. People aren’t taking the day off work anymore, like Kid A, when I was 17 I took the whole day off school to listen to that record. Finding time to even get through a whole record these days seems insane.

People seem to be stuck in these 30, maybe 50-second windows and then clicking on to the next thing.

Yeah if you don’t have a chorus like “Friday” then you’re fucked … she has like 30 million YouTube hits … maybe The Darcys are going to have to cover that song to make some money … disown us if we do that, ok?

Just one sentence: ‘ This band is the worst’ … But I think, I hope that we can rotate on the periphery around that, having to put out a hit and then your record can be shit as long as you have this one sort of thing. I like to think you can still do something really strong and good without being as shameful as that song is and I think that when you do that hopefully people will come to it.

Lastly, is The Darcys a reference to Mr. Darcy?

You know what, yes it is. And it’s really funny because dudes don’t get it. Every time a dude interviews me he’s like, ‘I don’t get it, cool name, whatever,’ girls are like, ‘that book is the best book, I love that book.’

The Darcys play Clark Hall Pub next Thursday March 31st at 9 p.m.

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