The Balconies, one of the newest bands to set Toronto on fire with blistering live shows, may formerly have been more comfortable in formal concerts playing classical compositions. Composed of Liam Jaeger and siblings Jacquie and Stephen Neville, The Balconies bring an edgy post-punk feeling to their energetic pop. They’re on the cusp of kicking off their tour in support of their self-titled debut album from late 2009, but took time out between their local shows to tell Ca Va Cool about their backgrounds, discuss differences between Ottawa and Toronto, and point out the importance of animal noises.
Sabrina: You guys are still pretty new, having started up in 2007. I was checking out your influences, which range from punk, post-punk, electronic… lots of different decades and genres. Were you trying to channel some of that when you came out with your first LP?
Jacquie Neville: Not consciously. It just kind of came out with our songwriting and the chemistry together. Our influences come out.
Steve Neville: : And if you look at the influences, there’s such a big variety.
Jacquie: Technically speaking, we’re all classical musicians. That’s our formal training, so I feel like the practice of that comes through as well.
Sabrina: Speaking of your training, you studied music at the University of Ottawa. What’s the mentality in the classical music department when it comes to pop music? Is it accepting or more straight-laced?
Jacquie: In my experience, the classical field is quite strict. But as soon as I went to Ottawa U, I met all these amazing professors who would say, “No, they can come together. You can like mainstream and classical music.” If anything, it makes you a more well-rounded musician.
Liam Jaeger: It’s becoming a lot more common. A lot of the professors also experiment. There’s a professor who is a professional pianist and he also plays keyboards at raves. It’s becoming a necessity because you can’t really survive playing one type of music anymore, you need to move around.
Sabrina: And having the classical background must really open up a lot of doors when it comes to your performance too. Did you come from musical families as well? I know [Jacquie and Steve] are siblings, but what about your parents?
Jacquie: Our dad was a musician when he was in his early teens until his early twenties, but now he’s an engineer. He started a family and everything, and he realized that it wasn’t realistic to continue with the music career, for him anyway. He came from a very intellectual, driven family.
Steve: It’s also funny because our grandparents are really into classical music. Like, connoisseurs. They’re constantly giving us more music in that field. And when we started the band, they weren’t sure what to think of it.
Jacquie: But now they’re into it, because now we have a band van since we’ve moved to Toronto, and they realized that we were serious and going places with this. Everyone in the family has definitely become more supportive of it. And my mom, she likes to give us song ideas. They’re pretty cute, about “changing your attitudes” and “being yourself.” [Everyone laughs] She’s a social worker, which explains that. And she comes to every one of our shows. Right in the front of the crowd dancing, every time. It’s like, “Oh look, there’s the Balconies’ mom!”
Sabrina: It’s nice to have the permanent fan base.
Steve: Liam’s parents come to the shows all the time too.
Liam: Yeah, my dad was a record producer for CBC, he does classical music recordings. He had a CBC Radio 2 show in the late 70s; it was one of the longest running radio shows in CBC history and it just got cut about 2 years ago when they changed all the programming. He’s very into the band. My parents always wanted me to do what made me happy, so the fact that I actually did study at university really satisfied them. I still practice and perform guitar recitals once a year. Not too often, because it’s pretty stressful to learn all that music in addition to the Balconies’ stuff.
Sabrina: It’s good to be able to continue honing guitar skills while keeping up with the band. Did all of you finish school? Did you focus on different things?
Jacquie: Technically speaking, I finished all my requirements. I have to get a grade 6 piano to graduate, which I’m still working toward. But I’m basically a graduate. I studied music education, while Liam studied performance. So our degrees are fairly different. His was focused on technicality and performance with the classical guitar, while I was learning about conducting. I had to take a new instrument every semester, since a grade 8 music teacher needs to have a grasp of all the band instruments. It made me realize which instruments actually interested me and which were just okay, but I wouldn’t necessarily pick it up to play in the band.
Sabrina: So, you’re not planning on featuring the clarinet on your next album?
Jacquie: (Laughs) Yeah, exactly.
Sabrina: Coming from the classical music background, do you think that it changes your approach to the composition of the music?
Steve: It definitely does, but on a subconscious level. We don’t consider what is standard practice, what cadence applies, and so on. But when you are classically trained, you make connections in your mind which you access without realizing.
Jacquie: We don’t try to be pretentious with the songwriting, and think, “Well, let’s try to be really smart about this and do what Brahms did here.”
Liam: We still base everything on wanting to write solid pop songs with catchy hooks but add subtle interesting things, like unusual rhythms, or additional instruments, or vocal harmonies. There’s music that requires the audience to put a lot of effort into understanding the music, like Arnold Schoenberg, Karlheinz Stockhausen or John Cage’s work. It demands about 80% of effort from the audience to “get it”. Then there’s pop music, which is more accessible. It’s catchy to the point where even if you don’t like it, it gets stuck in your head. We’re trying to come somewhere in the middle where an initial listen would make the audience think “pop”, but further listening would reveal the details. There is some face-value poppiness with hooks, but then…
Jacquie: …There’s also depth to it.
Liam: Right. So if the audience takes the time to really chew it up and digest it to get more out of it, we provide more substance. You know, nutrition in our music.
Sabrina: So it’s not just sugary pop with empty calories. Are there any songs in particular that you’re really proud of?
Steve: I have a soft spot for ‘Lulu’. Every time I listen to the record, I feel a very self-satisfied, kind of, “Yeah!” feeling.
Sabrina: It’s an energetic opening track.
Liam: It’s funny because a lot of people when we first distributed the record, people were questioning the order. When we start our live show, it’s a lot more 4-on-the-floor, beat pumping presence. And the record has more of a rock-y half and a dance-y half. As a record, we think it makes sense this way.
Jacquie: We definitely didn’t throw the tracks together. We thought out the flow carefully.
Liam: The other thing is that people don’t necessarily listen to entire records anymore. Everyone wants the catchy songs up front and randomization. We don’t want to move in that direction yet.
Sabrina: You’re defenders of the record.
Liam: Right! We were originally going to release this on vinyl. Which is nice, because you have to listen to side 1, the whole thing, beginning to end. And also, with an album, you need an emotional and atmospheric flow. As far as individual tracks go, I’m proud of ‘Serious Bedtime’. It evolved a lot.
Jacquie: When we first started working on that song, it was completely different. It was lacking something. We played it live so many times, and finally came to the conclusion that the problem wasn’t because it was a new song and we hadn’t practiced it enough. So we took the time to digest the song. Before we recorded the album, we made demos of all the songs. It gave us the perspective when we compared versions and we saw what worked. That’s when we came up with the chorus, and everything else fell into place.
Liam: Also, you might not have noticed, but at the very end of that song, the last 16 measures have a whole circus of animal sounds which we made into a soundscape using stock recordings of zoo noises. It almost doesn’t even come through but it adds to the texture. Some of the loud chirps come through, and the very last chord also syncs with a great elephant trumpet.
Sabrina: Now I’ll have to go back and listen to that. Do you all work on the lyrics together?
Steve: It varies per song. Whoever is singing lead on the song writes the words, most of the time.
Liam: Like, for ‘Rest Up’, in the chorus, I already had the instrumental demo and the melody for the lyrics, but no words. So I said, “Sing something like this!” and hummed away.
Steve: Which goes against the traditional method, I guess, developing the melody to go with the words.
Jacquie: When I write songs, it just comes together. The chords, melody, and lyrics come simultaneously.
Liam: For some reason, I’ve been writing songs since my early teens. Riffs and song structures come to me easily, but lyrics are harder. In my past bands, I only sang other people’s lyrics because of that block. Now, I’m actually singing words that I put together. It’s a bit of a breakthrough for me.
Sabrina: That must mean a bit more, singing something that’s more your own.
Steve: It certainly gives it power. Singing melodies on their own is not the same thing, it gives a better connection to the music when you crafted it.
Jacquie: We just finished a new song called ‘Giant Squid’, where I sing a verse that Steve wrote. It took a while to connect with the song, after I added my two cents to it. It wouldn’t seem as natural if I were always singing lyrics that Steve wrote.
Steve: It’s the opposite of the classical approach to a singer. It’s their job to breath life into these words that were written years ago.
Sabrina: What makes a good show?
Steve: Well, definitely our performance level. Mainly, are people dancing, are people interested?
Jacquie: Not even dancing, sometimes. Just are they… I’ve noticed that people… I don’t want to sound negative…
Sabrina: Hipsters don’t dance?
Jacquie: (Laughs) That might be it. Our audiences in Ottawa go nuts, dancing and sweating as much as we are. It’s chaos. We get really into it. The shows in Toronto are a bit more laid back but the crowds are still attentive. It varies. People may not be going crazy, but if you look in their eyes and see that they’re on the same wavelength with what you’re doing. And to me, that’s just as rewarding as looking into a group of sweaty dancers. Also, lately I’ve been noticing a lot of people singing along. Even if just to the chorus, it makes my heart feel so warm!
Steve: It’s also nice to know that you can sleep in a bed after the show.
Sabrina: This goes back to the Ottawa vs. Toronto thing. I’m not incredibly familiar with the Ottawa music scene, so I read up on the different bands that you played in. I found a lot of reviewers out of Ottawa saying things along the lines of, “The Balconies are breathing new life into a dying Ottawa scene.” Which seemed overly negative to me. I wanted to see what the opinion was coming from a band in that scene.
All: No way!
Jacquie: I definitely disagree, because I know lots of music is thriving there. The thing with the Ottawa scene is that Ottawa itself is a smaller city, the number of show-goers is smaller. I guess from a big city perspective, going to a concert and seeing ten to fifty people might come off as lame. But that’s why we play smaller venues, because those fifty people are having the time of their lives. They’re there to be there. There’s so many good Ottawa bands that work amazingly hard.
Sabrina: Who are you listening to out of Ottawa?
Jacquie: The Love Machine, I’ve been listening to them since I was about 14.
Steve: Sadie Hell, who we’ve played a few shows with.
Jacquie: Also The Hellatrons. They’re not as active as they used to be, but we love them. Oh, and The Acorn, but everyone knows The Acorn. And The Relief Maps. They released an album last year but they didn’t tour with it. The lead vocalist rocks the house.
Liam: Leif Vollebekk is in Montreal now, but he doesn’t really count.
Steve: People move out at some point, or are in a band with people who aren’t from Ottawa. So there might not be many “Ottawa bands”, but there’s still a lot of talented musicians coming out of there.
Liam: There’s a very new band called The Property Line, which are all people that we know.
Jacquie: Hollerado have been doing really well too.
Steve: Don’t forget The White Wires.
Sabrina: Well, now the misinformed can change their minds about music in the nation’s capital. Since you have moved here, do you still consider yourselves an Ottawa band or will you morph into a Toronto band?
Jacquie: For my sake, I would say that we’re an Ottawa band that’s Toronto-based. My roots are in Ottawa and while I love both cities, I have an attachment to my hometown.
Sabrina: You also have the aforementioned group of artists that you work with there.
Jacquie: Exactly, but we’re building ourselves a home here too. I love it here, we’ve made some great friends and are enjoying the venues. The scene is just so much bigger, thriving with really driven performers who burst with creativity and talent. I feed off of that energy and find it really inspiring to be a part of it. I’m really happy that we made the move.
Steve: Here, we can see more small towns in Southern Ontario, touring is a bit easier with Toronto as your base.
Jacquie: It’s more accessible.
Steve: So in the end, I think we’re a Canadian band. We’re looking forward to traveling out to the east coast soon, and eventually west as well. Right now, we’re the Canadian band who hasn’t really seen Canada.
Jacquie: Eventually we just want to be call “The Balconies, and they’re Canadian.”
Sabrina: Sounds like a good goal. Are you looking at any other releases yet? I know that’s an early question, since your album just came out last fall.
Liam: I think the fact that we released The Balconies independently buys us a bit more time, because it takes a lot longer for people to catch on. Because it came out late in 2009, it may be considered more of a 2010 album. Which is great, because we spent so much time working on it.
Jacquie: We are working on new material, but no plans to record or release in the immediate future.
Sabrina: Were there any particular challenges with self-releasing the disc?
Liam: Not really, although Jacquie was sick.
Jacquie: The recording process was drawn out. It was semi-stressful.
Liam: We worked with great people though, like the crew at Audioblood, which helps. If we didn’t have them doing promotion for us, we’re so busy with other things that we would have just released the album quietly and the public would have missed it. With the team to send out to people, it gets the word out. Not having a label makes it difficult for a band to get exposure, so we really try to take the approach where we created our own label and worked with Audioblood to put ourselves out there.
Sabrina: It sounds a bit trickier, but also as if a lot more falls directly under your control.
Liam: Right. With a label, bands can choose to be a lot less involved, whereas we like being in every step of the process and being aware, being a part of all the decisions. In the future, if we can succeed in building a nation-wide fan base, or listeners in the United States, then at that point it makes sense to sign for a future album. The thing is, when you’re building a fan base, you don’t necessarily want to be paying people to build your crowd for you. It’s not organic that way. When labels spend a lot of money promoting a new band and push them so hard to become the next big thing, it rarely works. No one’s going to pay attention to a band they haven’t heard of, even if they see a huge ad in a magazine. It’s better to start small, be active, but not with overkill.
Sabrina: So, building your own hype by effort, so you warrant it.
Jacquie: It’s more sincere that way.
Liam: I also think that the best way for people to find out about new music is through their friends. I listen mostly to material that has been suggested by friends, and I trust their musical taste.
Sabrina: And with the tour, you can spread the knowledge so more people can recommend you.
Liam: Yeah, and when you’re working and traveling and making rounds in the cities to pay your dues. You might play for ten people the first time. It’s necessary, because if you make a good impression, then those ten people will bring friends. At U of O, you would see these big expensive posters for new hip hop records, not even shows. I couldn’t get over it. Nobody buys records anymore! I don’t see the point. If the group was actually coming through frequently, it gets people to notice. When audiences experience it, it means so much more than hearing a track on the radio. People wonder who these bands are that keep playing shows. But if you’re just releasing stuff and hanging signs, it’s no wonder if the CD gets passed over.
Jacquie: It feels like you’ve discovered the band for yourself when you see a show then hear more about the band later.
Sabrina: There’s the sense of satisfaction, when you have to dig a little bit. So, looking at your present situation: you all come from musical families and went through musical academia… are you living the dream right now? Is there something else you would be doing if you weren’t making music right now?
Steve: This is pretty much the dream!
Liam: Everything else that we’re doing right now is supporting the music. We work flexible jobs in the city, which are awesome but not career jobs.
Liam: It pays for our new strings and food and clothes. It’s definitely the place to be doing it. Last year, it was my first year out of school and working full time as a music teacher. It was a great job, but it was really inflexible. Which I actually think is pretty silly; you would think that a music school would want their teachers to be pursuing musical endeavours and setting an example. That might be a job that I go back to when I’m 35.
Jacquie: Now’s the time to be playing shows. We’re young and we have lots of energy, we have to use it.
The Balconies’ tour will be taking them east and west, and they’ll be in Toronto on March 12 with a free in-store show at Criminal Records and on March 13 at The Horseshoe Tavern for Canadian Music Week.
Tags: The Balconies