October 16, 2014
Most of us can remember a moment when we pressed play on the first track of our favourite band’s new album and were met with almost immediate surprise, gratification, or horror at a sound that had a taken a complete left turn from familiar territory. When this happens the outcome can become a topic of heated debate amongst fans. Regardless of this, the process a band undertakes during the creation of something like this often deeply connected to the resulting sound. An obvious example that comes to mind is The Beatles. Conflict within the band or in the members’ personal lives was often coupled with the release of legendary, influential albums. Others, like Radiohead and Spoon, went through major spats with their record labels only to come out of them on a clear path towards artistic and commercial success. This common narrative that great music and great art in general is coupled with extreme highs and lows behind the scenes in the lives of those creating it, is more often then not true.
Toronto’s Fast Romantics went through their own turmoil en-route to their fantastic 2013 album Afterlife Blues, a sprawling, dramatic collection of songs packed with hooks and rich songwriting, and a marked departure from their self-titled debut. With more than a year to look back on the whole process, lead singer and guitarist Matthew Angus spoke with me about all of the events that contributed to the creation of that album and some of the steps and missteps experienced along the way.
“You either get super confident after big upheavals in your life or you get super down and freaked out,” Angus states early in the interview when referring the time leading up to the release of Afterlife Blues. Angus and his band members certainly had a lot of reason to be freaked out. “We moved cities, gave up on everything, quit our jobs, I broke up with a girlfriend, we lost a couple members, and had a few friends die,” he continues, with a grocery list long enough to create material for at least two more albums.
When all of this began, Fast Romantics were living in Calgary playing shows for packed venues and enthusiastic crowds. They had recorded their well-received, self-titled debut and were one of the most sought after acts in the Calgary music scene.
“Stop Me,” a track from Fast Romantics’ 2009 debut LP.
All the elements were there to make a band content with their success. But it wasn’t quite enough. Not only was the band craving more, but events in their own lives took some dramatic turns, events that got them thinking the time for change had come and that their stint as hometown heroes was coming to an end.
When recollecting the move, Angus points out that the band didn’t leave Calgary for the usual reasons, ones that commonly include some sort of disappointment with the arts scene. “For us, things were going well,” Angus begins, “We had so many good friends and a lot of people coming to our shows, which gives the impression you’re doing well.” To their credit, the band was able to see the bigger picture in terms of their own ambitions. “It’s harder to build audiences in other cities when you live out West because they’re so spread out,” Angus points out. Although they would play to packed shows in Calgary, once they were on the road in places like Vancouver the crowds dwindled and the band was relatively unknown. Fast Romantics felt like they needed a challenge, a change, something to shake them out of playing what Angus describes as a forgettable kind of “party animal music” to something much more memorable, something more people wanted to hear.
Fast Forward to 2013 and Fast Romantics found themselves in Toronto, transitioning from a big fish in the relatively small pond of Calgary to a newly spawned smolt in Canada’s largest cultural body of water. The possibility of getting lost in this new setting would be inevitable for most, and Angus describes the feeling as “Holy shit, we’re starting from scratch.” Not to be outdone by adversity, Fast Romantics did what every good band should do when trying to rise to the top: they booked shows, wrote new music, played to crowds of 20 people, and started the process of proving themselves all over again.
With the release of 2013’s Afterlife Blues, the band was faced with their moment of truth. Was all of this strife worth the effort? Did it provide the necessary spark to propel them in a new direction? Take a listen to their first single from Afterlife Blues, “Funeral Song,” and the question will answer itself. Without losing any energy of their “party animal music” days, Fast Romantics honed that energy into a more focused, crafted sound that defies any particular classification, except for that of repeated listens.
“Funeral Song,” which features an octogenarian cursing, a child smoking, and a homeless chugging a glass of milk on a hot day.
The album has a rawness that bubbles on the surface of each song, tempered only by the Fast Romantics’ pop sensibility. Songs like “Atoms” seem ready to burst at the seams the seems for their entirety, pulsing with energy until their eventual conclusion; while other tracks such as “Old Enough” take their time getting where they need to go.
Fast Romantics performing “Atoms” live for the Verge Music Lab.
Afterlife Blues is hard to pin down to any particular genre, something Angus says he takes as “kind of a compliment.” It is, after all, those sorts of albums that listeners remember. Even so, he is quick to point out that Fast Romantics aren’t creating “anything new and stunning or world shattering but I do think we [have] worked hard to find our own sound.” If not world shattering then it is at the very least distinctive.
When listening to Afterlife Blues, it has the feel of a true album, something that was made to have a beginning, middle, and an end. There’s still much to be said for the pleasure of listening to an album that is meant to be heard all the way through; and not solely for the nostalgia of the 20th century, when that was one of the few ways for a band to release its music. Angus added his own insight on the subject, commenting, “I’m an album guy. I love albums and will always want to make albums.” Looking forward, he also recognizes that “You have to think about how people listen to music now. It’s different…I used to be super militant with albums…[but] you have to think about your audience to some degree. Respect the way they want to listen to music.”
And that is exactly what Fast Romantics have done. While making their primary focus the music, they have also embraced a medium that has been experiencing a Renaissance of sorts: the music video. Services like YouTube have once again made this a relevant way for fans to consume music and likewise for artists to share it. For Fast Romantics, videos like those for “Funeral Song” and “Afterlife Blues” are humorous, well-produced, and entertaining. Their video for “Friends,” on the other hand, really sets them apart.
The exhaustively compiled video for “Friends.”
Angus took it upon himself to personally compile, cut, and organize all of the vintage clips used in the video to synch perfectly with the lyrics to the song, something that he sees as being worth the effort. “I really believe that it’s the best way to get a song across,” Angus says of producing music videos. He continues, saying “It makes sense that it’s an extension of the song in some way. It’s not always literal but it seems like it comes off better when [the band is] involved.”
But we’re now in late 2014 and Fast Romantics are a band in transition, reaching that uneasy point between writing and exhaustively touring a new album and preparing to write the next one. “I think if you sit back on your laurels and think you’ve gotten somewhere finally after all these years, it can feel good for a second but it doesn’t help you in the long run,” Angus comments. He continues that thought by saying, “I don’t want to lose the momentum creatively that we had coming off the last record. We’re just getting started in understanding our sound.” Where they go with that sound will be anyone’s guess, including theirs, but if Afterlife Blues is any indication, it won’t be something small and it won’t be easy.
With all the events leading up to the creation of Afterlife Blues now in perspective and over a year living and touring with their new songs, Fast Romantics are poised to start all over again the second time. “We’re ready to go,” says Angus, “and we’re definitely not going to wait three years like we did last time.”
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