The Dears’ theatre of absurdity

The Montreal indie veterans spill the secret to staying a band for 20 years.

September 28, 2015

In the process of creating what was supposed to be their sixth album, The Dears stumbled into their seventh, as well.

“We can be a demanding band to listen to,” says keyboardist/vocalist Natalia Yanchak. “A two-hour album would have been exhausting. I don’t think people would make it to the end.”

The intensity she alludes to while taking a tongue-in-cheek shot at something she’s invested her life into speaks to the irony in which the band has comfortably packaged themselves. More than just a form of artistic expression, it’s also become a survival mechanism for the band. They’ve been both media darlings and victims, dealing with different levels of success and disappointment as they find themselves on the other side of their first 20 years as a band.

On their new record, Times Infinity Volume One (her twin sister, Volume Two, should be released in the first half of 2016), The Dears offer a meticulously built glossary for their brand of orchestral pop noir. Their sneakily melodic rhythm section (Roberto Arquilla on bass, Jeff Luciani on drums) supports swelling synths and Patrick Krief’s signature soaring guitar solos.

Still their expansive compositions somehow never overpower Murray Lightburn’s commanding vocals, which spend most of the album wrestling with dark, heavy matters. With harsh song titles like “You Can’t Get Born Again” and “Here’s To The Death Of All The Romance” (a callback to a No Cities Left classic), and capped with the album’s beautiful Natalia-sung closer, “Onward And Downward,” where she sings, “in the end, we will die alone,” suggest a running theme of loneliness—but Lightburn says there are deeper intentions.

“It’s not necessarily about loneliness, but perhaps more about the fear of loneliness,” he says. The album’s somewhat grave statements are more about the importance of one’s relationships and what they choose to do with their life rather than plain ol’ wallowing, but The Dears’ reputation might cloud those messages. “People use words like ‘melodrama’ to describe us, but this is very matter-of-fact and relaxed,” he continues. “We hope that people would fill in the blanks. Our stuff is like a brutal mirror. Sometimes people react in really strange ways towards what we do because perhaps it’s too much for them to deal with.” He drops a mission statement in the midst of explaining their lyrics: “The Dears records are meant to make you think about your life.”

By their second album, the aforementioned standing magnum opus No Cities Left (2003), The Dears were part of a Montreal movement that shook the indie world. By 2006’s Gang of Losers, the Dears’ previous successes saw them riding some decent momentum. The album was masterfully produced, filled with sparkling hooks built to rouse stadiums and festival crowds. Yet the record’s second single was a daring choice: Probably the danciest song they’ve ever done, “Whites Only Party” was a not-so-thinly veiled fuck you to a scene that embraced them, but only to a certain extent.

Murray’s Central American background, and how it affected his career, had never been so plainly addressed, and it might have distanced some of their prospective audience. Now, he’s a bit less poetic about it. “A lot of the hatred for the band is because [people think] black people are only arrogant, they’re not confident. That’s always been a problem. Being in a rock band, I’ve had to navigate through that environment the whole time.” That the band chose a time when most eyes were on them to release such a bold song, to a predominately white audience, sums up their career arc—they’re a band always willing to sacrifice themselves for, well, themselves.

Using everything hurled at them, The Dears have spun a cynical narrative that plays to their mystique. They’ve maintained a loyal fanbase through their string of stellar releases while dealing with media misrepresentation, racism, sexism, lineup changes, and more along the way; they’ve avoided becoming jaded and instead thrive on doubt and animosity with unshakeable self-belief and, maybe most importantly, humour. “Our sense of humour is what keeps us going,” Lightburn says. “We have to be able to laugh at the absurdity.”

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