Register Sunday | August 18 | 2019

We're (Not) An American Band

The Stills put on a show

“These guys are from Canada?” A black-shirted, bespectacled fat guy is holding a double-seven and eavesdropping on two young women. He says “Take off, eh?” and “Hoser” to no one. His references run aground, so he holds his drink tighter.

The young women ignore him, shifting their weight, pulling at mini-straws, hoping for some glimpse of cute guys in this place but this place has, like, no cute guys. Seriously, it’s a problem. These women, in dark skirts and fishnets—this is an English look, they tell me later, classy, not whorey—have no idea they’re out of place here at the Rocket Bar. Usually the bar is crammed with testosterone, fat punks and former punks, faded Samhain shirts, chain wallets and Dockers jeans worn with thick ambiguity, but tonight is different. More young women appear, swinging the front door wide and letting in the frigid air. The fat guy continues to hold his drink, wondering why the gender balance has shifted. “Canada,” he says again, only half right, lost in his own little epithet.


Tonight we are far, far away from Montreal, far from the seaboard, far into the hinterlands, through the rustic and rusting Middle West to a bar in the heart of St. Louis. St. Louis is one of those formerly great American cities that swell and push themselves outward from a diseased centre, where the young huddle in darkened urban corners to insulate themselves against the fear that their city is a city of dorks. So the Rocket Bar, a favourite spot for the local secluded, for angry haircuts and bargain beer, sits downtown near a weedy vacant lot and six boarded-up buildings. Two blocks north, there’s crack to be had, and hookers, though it’s unlikely anyone inside the bar will brave a transaction; it is only the atmosphere crack and hookers provide that the Rocket Bar is much interested in. Besides, it’s a Tuesday night in December, and it’s fucking cold. Christmas lights are strung above the crowd. Almost as an afterthought, a square blackboard behind the bar spells out in small blue chalk: TONIGHT—12/6—THE STILLS.

More women arrive, moving through the crowd. The single men start to wonder if this band is good-looking or what. Out of respect for the Stills’ musicianship, it’s important to note that the women probably don’t know if the band is good-looking either, since the artwork for the Stills’ first full-length release, Logic Will Break Your Heart, is all deep shadows and bits of what seem like a child’s drawings, dream sketches placed alongside images of exploding feathers, and four blurred faces that seem to have been photographed on an old Xerox. The women might not even care what the band looks like, even though, in recent press, a few dullard journalists have pointed out the photogenic angle as a possible explanation for the Stills’ sudden exposure. Tonight, the women seem to be leading a vanguard. They are the band’s champions.

“The album is fucking gorgeous,” a statuesque, raven-haired girl named Greer says. “When’s the last time you heard, like, rock, that wasn’t all dressed in rags, you know what I mean? That was beautiful, not cool, so much? That’s what this band is. Fucking beautiful.”

“I heard about these guys in Seattle,” says a guy holding a cigarette. “No radio, no video. It was a friend I trust.”

A woman who might be his girlfriend nods. “Who was the friend?”

The guy doesn’t answer. “I tried keeping them to myself. She’s let everyone burn the disc. My disc.”

His girlfriend looks hurt. “It’s mine too.”


Neither of them recognizes Tim Fletcher, lead singer and guitarist, only two feet away, blending in with the crowd and headed for the bar with a free drink ticket. No one recognizes the very tall man Fletcher is talking to, the man who is responsible for the drink tickets, and for bringing the Stills into the studio, onto record, into the biz, and all the way to St. Louis. This is Gus Van Go. A strikingly bald, wise, and settled veteran, late of Montreal’s Me Mom & Morgentaler (see Mark Lepage’s excellent overview of the Montreal music scene, “Godspeed You! Brash Songsters,” in Maisonneuve No. 6), he took a break from his new band, Smitty's, a few years ago to let four ambitious younger musicians crash at his apartment and come under his care and feeding. Van Go, who has been acquainted with all of the Stills for years, became the band’s big brother, guru, and album producer, not to mention tour manager—fiddling and fine-tuning the sound board in the Rocket Bar, manning the merch table, smiling a genuine smile, shaking hands and thanking people for coming out to see the boys, who have yet to play a note.

On a side street next to the bar, an early-model RV rests from a five-hour drive while, inside, most of the boys—drummer Dave Hamelin, bassist Oliver Crowe, and tour keyboardist Liam O’Neil—sit in their parkas and watch Zoolander.

“That’s the girl from Seinfeld,” Crowe says, pointing. “Remember? The perfect girlfriend?”

Hamelin frowns. “Which one?”

Crowe waits. “That one.”

“Who?”

“That one. Wait, wait—” Crowe leans into the laptop DVD and rewinds. The actress he’s talking about is playing opposite Owen Wilson’s lunkhead model, who makes his eyelids flutter, then does a double take. The band busts out laughing. Crowe rewinds again, then again. While Hamelin and I have a cigarette in the back on the camper’s lone mattress, the other two skip around the disc, replaying the dwarf orgy scene, the exploding gas-station scene. This is the pre-show warm-up.

Hamelin sleepily rubs his face. “We were in this RV for a month, a whole month?” he says. “Then we had five days off. Then in the RV for another month. Then two weeks off. Then now we’ve been in the RV for two weeks, so now we’re really good friends.” This is ritual. Together the guys sleep, read, sleep, stare into a bleak American landscape, figure out the next few months of touring, look forward to the holidays, listen to music: Broken Social Scene, Ryan Adams. Hamelin peers through a window. There is no sound check at the Rocket Bar. They’re on in half an hour.

“Tonight is not going to sound anything close to the quote-unquote quality of the record. This is going to be a really dingy sort of place,” he says, leaning away from me, hands in his parka. He smiles. “I have no idea who’s coming to see us.”


Inside, one of the fishnet girls is explaining how she came to hear the band. A friend from London gave her the Web site info, and she listened to the album for seven hours straight at work. She was shocked when the Stills’ name showed up in the local weekly a few days later. Another woman had one friend in Chicago, one in Toronto, and another in Boulder, Colorado, all of them hip to the first single, “Still In Love Song,” with its go-go beat and eighties sneer, all of them quickly snapping up the album and passing on with a convert’s ardour that this disc with the pained romantic’s title was one of those that come out of nowhere, that are so well done and coherent and melodic that they seem to revert listeners back to middle school, back to orchestrated longing, to poignant anti-social sociability, to surviving the days and nights deep inside headphones, dreaming of love, lust, loss, of the slow and foregone defeat of youth. “See me change . . . see friends change . . . Changes are no good,” the tall woman named Greer sings—track 3—as the lights dim. She hugs a woman beside her. (In time, these two women will be so caught up in the show that they’ll spontaneously make out, and I mean Make. Out. And most of the punk guys will be both turned on and taken aback by the making out, and when I ask the women about this later, they will be noncommittal about their relationship.) New fans have passed along the band’s songs at every chance; this word of mouth carries with it names of cities, distant scenes, each a piece in the argument for coming out on a frigid December night to see whether the Stills are for real.

“They’re from Canada,” another guy says.

A girl wearing a braided hat sips her drink. “That’s kind of cool.”

Eleven o’clock, and the back door is wide open. The band members climb on stage, barely making a noise. Guitarist Greg Paquet sets a drink on the floor and plays one chord, which echoes. Hamelin sits behind his drum set, ready to go. Crowe lights a cigarette and waits. Fletcher brushes his hair out of his eyes. Applause grows from the stage to the entrance, from the girls to the punks and back again.

“Hello, people of St. Louis,” Fletcher says, smiling.


---


They wanted to make it a big-scope sort of record. To write pop songs, but subvert them in an interesting way. To not be concerned with cool. What was cool? To make things straightforward. To not be afraid of some good reverb. To write hard, worked-out melodies. To write songs. To do so with whatever intelligence they had. To honestly capture a feeling of defeatism, heartbreak, disappointment. To avoid posing if at all possible. Each of the Stills came from university having studied film and writing and philosophy (and other unmarketable skills), but also having played in various bands since adolescence. They knew how to write songs, play the songs and record the songs. “Dave and Tim were great, smart songwriters,” Gus Van Go is telling me, holding a Coke on ice. But there seemed to be something more. Potential? “Yeah,” he says, with true admiration. “That’s exactly right.”

I am not a manager, but I understand. And after the show, what I can say about the Stills is that the band members—Fletcher, Hamelin, Crowe, and Paquet, along with O’Neil—somehow made the quote-unquote quality of the record work just fine on stage at the Rocket Bar. And that they were free with their cigarettes. I had “quit” smoking two weeks before, but seeing a rock show without smoking is so foreign to me as to seem almost unhealthy, so I bummed, and heavily, and this made me a very pliant correspondent. Hamelin shared Parliaments, Fletcher Camels, and Crowe offered me something from a candy-blue tin, shrugging. “Canadian,” he said.


They asked what a Maisonneuve writer would be doing in the middle of the United States in a city that wasn’t Chicago, and I came up with the term “Midwestern correspondent,” which felt, oddly, legitimate. We talked music, we talked the industry, I came up with questions about how the album came together, how the tour is going, what’s the deal, what’re the ambitions for the next month, next year, five years. Nothing about this list of music-journalist questions felt remotely authentic, I should mention, nor were they interesting, nor could I muster much enthusiasm for talking about the music business since all I care about is finding an album that I can get addicted to and then getting addicted to it. And when I looked at my notes (I had been drinking), here’s what I jotted down beside each guy’s name, as if this would later prove useful:

 

Fletcher: black jean jacket
Paquet: quiet—vaguely bearded
Hamelin: sleepy—says “mmm” before answering a question
Crowe: great f’ing bassist—Andy Dick, only better looking

Working for Maisonneuve, I can freely admit I hate music journalism. Why? It’s a fraud, an utter fraud. I’ve read sixteen profiles of this band in the last month, in glossy mags and online media services, and all of the profiles were both poorly written and identical. From some kind of nasty, spit-clogged machine. Maybe it’s not repetition that bothers me so much as the suspicion that anyone, a bright child, a bright monkey, a newborn Labrador, can do this, do a “profile,” say anything about the album, get some mushmouthed quotes, and that doing this sort of thing requires no special training (or love of music). Everyone’s an expert. Everyone! You get an opening angle, get a feel for the names of bands this band is obviously aping, mix it with a consumer’s capriciousness, and file the copy.

But I—Midwestern correspondent for Maisonneuve—came out to see the band because I honestly, without much thinking, with no forethought, love what they made, and because it gave me a private thrill unmatched since the days of the Smiths and the Cure to see people who’d never heard these songs hear these songs and, like new friends, warm to them. Like the short guy from Mississippi who’d driven up to see an ex-girlfriend and who jumped and hollered and hit me in the shoulder, going, “I love this! It’s . . . , it’s . . . ,” trying to find the most appropriate compliment, finally saying, “It’s that big two-chord shit!”

To a first-time listener there is something big and anticipatory about the songs from Logic Will Break Your Heart. How each of them builds on a hook, staying busy, keeping the beat in focus, keeping the melody alert, and building on little ideas that, through repetition, become an addictive kind of drone. Fletcher’s voice can be high and feathery, it can belt to the rafters, it can even croon. Hamelin’s drumming pushes in one direction while bass and guitars make for a democratic ensemble; three different melodies can operate at once, or trade lines with the gentlest, most subtle exchanges—and everything’s balanced by this strange, familiar sound. This is the sound and sonic detail of albums from the seventies: warm drumming, warm background, perfect pitch, Clash-clear peals of lead guitar. You cue up a track like “Fevered” with its low-key strumming and ambiguous melody line and feel like Fleetwood Mac should have recorded it for Tusk, or maybe they did and you never knew it.

People in the crowd, just a few, just enough, were singing along with the songs they were beginning to memorize: the first single, and then with “Of Montreal,” one of the best I-miss-you-but-I-can’t-miss-you-too-much-or-I’ll-hate-myself songs ever written, the lyrics about the band’s move to New York City in a sweltering summer heat, rhyming “falling Freon” with “turning me on” and painting the portrait of a band from Canada sweating out their obscurity in a foreign city and wondering what the future will look like exactly.

At one point, Fletcher stopped and spoke into the microphone, saying they’d recently been touring with Ryan Adams. “Do you guys like Ryan Adams?” he wondered.

A smartass said, “Bryan Adams?”

Fletcher shook his head and then started a cover of their tour-mate’s new song, “Wish You Were Here,” then stopped, admitted he didn’t know the words yet, then said their guitarist could sing it, but was too shy.

The smartass asked if they knew “Summer of ’69.”

Fletcher leaned over in a pose of almost unbearable politeness. “Um . . . ” he said, almost taking the request seriously.

“It’s four fucking chords!” the smartass said.

“We don’t know chords that well.”

Then the guy was invited on stage and Fletcher handed over his guitar and this pudgy man in John Hinckley glasses ended up playing two whole verses and a chorus of “Summer of ’69” before the guitar’s owner asked if he might have it back. “Thank you,” Fletcher said. “It’s fine for the opening band to upstage us, but not the audience.” And they launched back into the album.

There’s an art theory, I think, that tries to explain the limitations of the mind, saying how it’s impossible for someone to absorb something entirely new. A new work of art, for instance. The mind just sorts the information into recognizable slots, routing connections, taking what is new and turning it immediately into memory. It’s the reason the punk guys in the bar threw out names like New Order or Interpol or random eighties bands with lasting influence to better explain what it was they were hearing. Or to soften the envy.

“It’s very easy to hate us,” Hamelin said. “We sort of came out of nowhere, we’re from Montreal, we are, for the moment, the band, the songs are good. ‘They’re sort of good-looking, and the record sounds good . . . I don’t know if I should like them.’ These people, I kind of want to stab them but I understand, because maybe I’d feel the same way. It might be better for some people not to like your record.”

Why?

“Because for us there hasn’t been any middle ground: either they hate it or they think it’s great. It sort of justifies ambition. In Montreal, ambition entails a lot of other things in the alternative psyche. It implies you’re bowing down to corporate structures and compromising your art, and that goes to promote anti-ambition. But a lot of that’s a load of shit.”

If you’re gonna do it . . .

“You may as well do it.”

From December through the new year, the band—as Hamelin said—has done it and kept doing it: done late night NBC, sold out New York’s Bowery Ballroom (twice), sold out all their shows on the eastern seaboard as well as in tiny hinterland towns like Lawrence, Kansas, filmed a video for “Lola Stars and Stripes,” which because of its lyrics criticizing American foreign policy will likely not be shown in the US. But all of this is in the future. Tonight is still December 6, in the Rocket Bar, in the cold little city of St. Louis. Tonight is seventy minutes on stage. Tonight is the job. The Stills are like the band in the Grand Funk Railroad song, “coming to your town . . . we’re (garble) party down . . . we’re an American baaayynnnd,” but with a distinctly crisp, Northern edge; they share the work ethic of that band as well as the esprit de corps of genuine fans.

“The future,” Hamelin says, “ is we’re gonna tour as much as we can, play as much as we can, get as big as we can, and make another record. An even better record.”

It’s strange to think of these fans who’ve discovered the band tonight looking forward to an even better record. The first album will transform itself in their minds into a kind of diary entry, keeping tabs on a specific feeling, a mood from last year, a time that’s already flooding with nostalgia. I’m here interviewing a band that twelve months ago I’d never heard of and feeling the moment pass into the future like a date I know will only happen once. I wonder how much I’ve had to smoke.

Right now, though, the record’s played, the bar’s closing, the band’s packed up the RV and hit the road for an all-night drive. They’re gone. Greer got a chance to talk with Tim Fletcher after the show, which was cool, she says. Her eyes are tired-looking. The woman she made out with is standing at her side. Glasses clink, someone knocks a good shot at the pool table. I ask them how they came to hear the band again, making sure I’ve got the right information. I am professional and follow up. I am the Midwestern Correspondent for Maisonneuve Magazine.

But in the spirit of disclosure, here’s what I left out of this thing:

How I tripped getting into the band’s RV, how I confused “Lola” the Stills song with “Lola” the Kinks song for two minutes, how I learned a good deal about the current music business from Gus, the story of last week’s show in Minneapolis where Ryan Adams lashed out at a local reviewer who trashed the Stills’ album, how the exploding-feather imagery of the album cover came to be, how the band feels about journalists, how the band ripped off Air for one dub-sounding track, how poetry makes different demands on the page than it does on a record and that’s why creative writing classes are the worst kind of venue for songwriters, how the band got signed, what they were into as kids.

That’s what I should’ve talked about: what they were into as kids. Every band starts out on equal footing with other fans; I can’t begin to understand what forces a fan with musical ability to play in solitude, find the right bandmates, practice like hell, suffer breakups, stay the course, bank on little except a love of music, get a guru, learn what not to do, record his heart out, grow older and wiser, then release something called Logic Will Break Your Heart. But that’s not music journalism. It’s interesting, though. At the very least, it punches holes in the edifice between band and fan, meets the love of the album on common ground, and produces something corny and beautiful at the same time. Communion, maybe. Listening to the band play the album on stage made me want to just give it away, like the guy’s girlfriend who kept burning the disc, giving copies to friends, passing on the love. Communion isn’t the worst word, because that’s what it feels like—sharing the love. One fan to the next.

At the Rocket Bar, the front door keeps swinging open, and I think I see the RV idling out on the curb, but the band has left. They’ve probably cleared the outer limits of St. Louis by now, or fallen asleep. The air’s much colder; it’s after midnight. The bartender wipes off the chalkboard, turns off the Christmas lights. With the album roaring with too much treble in my ears, here’s what I make a little mental note to try and capture: crack and hookers, crack and hookers. No—the mood. No, even better—the women’s perfume. It’s everywhere. I hope it’ll be on my clothes when I wake up in the morning.

Paul Winner unfurls the Score every second Monday.