When your favourite band reunites, is it about you, or them?

We look at the case of legendary Montreal band Fly Pan Am who played their first show together after 14 years.

November 7, 2018

The idea of “getting the band back together” is so evocative in popular culture that it has passed into quasi-idiom status, referring to any reunion of friends that once shared a special solidarity (not unlike a band). It perfectly illustrates how we use musical topes to romanticize our own lives. When old friends look back on their halcyon days, they remember themselves as essentially rock stars. They even made a Broadway musical about it last year.

Romanticizing band reunions, however, obscures what should be made obvious by the need for a reunion at all: it’s difficult to keep a band together in the first place. There are egos involved, and clashing habits that cause tension in closed quarters. It’s a job, and it takes work. Yet, it would be absurd to tell fans to dial back the sentimentality when a cherished band returns. But the question remains: how do we express our feelings about a long-awaited reunion without drowning the humans behind the music in overexpectation?

Seminal Montreal post-rock abstractionists, Fly Pan Am, didn’t necessarily have to navigate that tension head on when they quietly announced their first performance in 14 years. On a Facebook page they’d made a few months prior. That’s largely because they don’t pay attention to what people say about them.

“The nostalgia is perfectly understandable,” guitarist Roger Tellier-Craig tells me over the phone a few days after the October 20th performance at the Dazibao art gallery in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood. “[But] the folks that are still interested in Fly Pan Am know we’ve never been a nostalgic band, our sound would change one record to the next. We always had this tabula rasa aspect.”

In the end, the show did feel more like a gathering of friends than the kind of grandiose spectacle a reunion show can be.

After forming over two decades ago, Fly Pan Am left an indelible mark on the overall aesthetic of the label they helped put on the map, the mythical Constellation Records. The members were all part of an experimental music scene that began, in the late 1990s, to coalesce around Constellation’s Mile End performance space turned recording studio, the Hotel2Tango. The musicians orbiting Constellation during the late 90s would encapsulate a era-specific approach to post-rock. They infused the genre with elements of European avant-garde, free-jazz, international folk traditions, and musique concrete (a form of experimental music hat heavily features found sound manipulation). The label gave rise to universally acclaimed bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor who would drape it all in gloomy strings and horns, capturing the imagination underground music fans worldwide in the process. At the time, Constellation was one of Canada’s few internationally relevant independent labels. 

So, expectations were high for the show. Constellation described them as legendary. The local alternative paper called it a “momentous occasion.” People from various parts of the world were declaring their intention to fly in for the show. The fact of the reunion alone was enough to garner such a response, but the band themselves were still finding their feet with each other.

“When you haven’t played with folks in 14 years, it’s really something”, said Tellier-Craig. “You have to start by adjusting your frequencies to each other, can we still vibe off of making music together? Everything just takes so much time.” That is one of the reasons why we are drawn to reunions like this. We’re rooting for the band to find that vibe again, to rekindle a creative partnership that had once been so fruitful for them. The fans, of course, hope to reap from that fruitfulness new music that is as special to them as the band’s original releases.

Fly Pan Am stopped playing together before any of the members had even reached their thirties. Now, in their forties, the members have become comfortable with the openness and compromise required to be in a band. “After a decade of making music by myself, I was kind of tired of orchestrating everything,” said Tellier-Craig. “It’s not an answer [but] there’s no pressure anymore, I can let go with the band and I can let go more on my own.”

Having spent the last 18 months slowly writing new material, the band only began seriously preparing that material for performance a month prior to the show. After a couple rehearsals they quickly realized they had a lot of work ahead of them. “We were shitting our pants,” said Tellier-Craig. “This, for us, was just a modest first show; we were expecting it to be a bit rough and raw.” There were, of course, technical problems. But this wasn’t intended to be Guns n Roses at Coachella. They had trouble finding the right levels, and Tellier-Craig struggled to make his vocals heard over the racket. It didn’t matter, the band sounded as vital as the had on their old records. Bassist, J.S. Truchy swung his head with a demonic energy. The drums, booming and taut, drove the band through a hectic swirl of ringing guitars, samples and electronics.

And, true to their ethos, the band did not dwell in nostalgia, playing only the new material they’ve been working on. It was indeed raw, but that had been the intention. “This was a rock show,” said Tellier-Craig, explaining that the final recorded product will have a lot more post-production and studio processing. While resisting sentimentality, when pushed Tellier-Craig speaks warmly about the special relationship between the members of Fly Pan Am.

“A big part of what Fly Pan Am is, is friendship, and it’s a big part of why we got back together […] let’s see if we can still connect, and maybe we can push the sound further than where we left it at the time.” In the end, the show did feel more like a gathering of friends than the kind of grandiose spectacle a reunion show can be. They chose to hold it in a gallery space run by a friend, rather than a regular rock club. A good third of the audience were probably actual friends of the band. There were recently signed Constellation artist such as Joni Void in attendance. Ultimately it was an appropriate setting for the reunion of a band that upholds a community-oriented D.I.Y. ethos. It showed that the return of a legendary band doesn’t have to come with a lot of pomp and ceremony. It’s okay for it to just be the quiet coming together of old friends.

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