It’s been a busy few years for Hey Rosetta!, Newfoundland’s premier indie music export. They’ve become a fixture on the Polaris Prize shortlist and toured their ambitious Can-rock virtually non-stop, though judging by their multiple sellout crowds at the cavernous Phoenix in Toronto this week, the country is still in the mood to hear more. In that spirit, I joined frontman Tim Baker and cellist/guitarist/utility outfielder Romesh Thavanathan on one of the band’s rare days off for a traditional Toronto burrito lunch. Read on if you’ve ever wondered about the hidden gems of the St. John’s music scene, or how to start a rock band without owning an electric guitar, or what kind of burrito a true Newfoundlander enjoys.
Josh: First things first. What kind of burritos did you get, and why?
Romesh Thavanathan: I got the large halibut, because I’m a baller.
Tim Baker: I got the small halibut, because I’m not a baller, or at least less of a baller.
Josh: With a couple days off in Toronto before your next show, what are you getting up to?
Both: Recovery. [Laughs]
Tim: It’s been a long run and a long time since we’ve had any days off. I think the last time we had a few was a month and a half ago, when we got to Australia.
Josh: How was Australia?
Tim: It was great just being there. The vibe is so amazing. Really laid back, really sunny. We got to drive through the countryside, got to play a lot of smaller towns that we never knew existed, towns with names like Toowoomba and Coolangatta and Ballarat.
Josh: I’ll have to Google those to see about how to spell them.
Romesh: They’re a lot of fun to say.
Josh: Your third album Seeds just came out earlier this year. What’s different about it, compared to your older stuff – what’s changed, and what direction are you headed?
Tim: I think the biggest difference between this record and the last is the two years we’ve spent on the road—two years of listening to music and fully living in the role of being in a band. It’s really focused us more on the craft of writing and recording.
When we recorded the last album, Into Your Lungs, our attitude was very much about the songs, rather than about crafting a sound. And [Into Your Lungs producer] Hawksley Workman recognized that. We didn’t have a lot of time in the studio for that album, so everything was recorded using the same setup for every song: same drum miking, same kit, same guitars. Hawk is just amazing at creating a really good feeling and a really good vibe, and capturing that in sound.
But this time, we wanted to get deeper into the sound of things—making the songs more distinct, making a soundscape. We looked at tone more closely. And that was made possible by those couple years of listening to music, playing shows, realizing how much work there is left to do and how much room there is in our small aspect of music. Tony [Doogan, producer for Belle & Sebastian and Mogwai] was amazing in that regard because he’s an absolute mad scientist with sound. He has this strategy where we’ll do an entire song from beginning to end before moving on to the next one, taking a full day or two totally devoted to one song, which helps a lot with creating distinctiveness on each track. I think it gives the record a lot more depth and a lot more scope.
[The halibut burritos arrive.]
Josh: Speaking of fish, tell us a little about St. John’s—
Romesh: Did you say “speaking of fish”?
Tim: That’s fair, actually.
Romesh: Now that’s a segue.
Josh: I think that’s the highlight of my journalistic career right there.
Romesh: St. John’s is a great place. It’s got a wonderful arts and music scene, one that doesn’t get exported as much as it should. And that’s just a fact of life being on an island that’s not very close to the rest of the country. It costs so much to get off of it that a lot of talented people just can’t afford to start touring. On the bright side, when we’re home we get to listen to a lot of fantastic music.
Josh: I’ve heard you guys describe the scene and culture there as being very collaborative, more so than in the rest of Canada.
Tim: It is, by the nature of the setting there, the isolation and the small numbers. You know, I never feel really qualified to say much about the scene in St. John’s, because I feel like I was never really a part of it. Never went to see any shows, really, until the band started. It’s only since then that I’ve realized that there is a showgoing culture in St. John’s. Well, it’s actually only since the band started that I realized showgoing culture was a real thing anywhere in the world, you know? And realized that going to see music live is, like, really awesome?
Tim: And a fun thing to do on the weekend? Who knew? But yeah, St. John’s, it’s always been an amazing place for us to be. Supportive, loyal, really amazing people.
Josh: Are there bands you’ve made a connection with back home who deserve to be world famous and aren’t yet? Want to give them a shout out?
Romesh: Pathological Lovers definitely deserve the nod in that category.
Tim: Yes. They’re just such an amazing band. Jody Richardson is the lead singer, songwriter, he’s an amazing performer and just not really interested in touring. They’re a little older in that band. Whenever we’re home they play almost every week, and it’s so sweet that they do. I never get tired of seeing them. One of my favourite bands in the world to see live.
Romish: Chad VanGaalen too. That’s another one for the list.
Josh: You’ve gotten comparisons to the Tragically Hip and Gord Downie for being a rock band that put a lot of emphasis on the lyrics. Who are your influences where lyrics are concerned?
Tim: It’s really nice to even be mentioned in the same sentence as Gord Downie. He’s got this incredible talent. He’s much freer than I am, I think, in how he writes his songs—he’s got a much freer connection between words and music that is ultimately way cooler than what I do. My songs are written almost like essays. You’re writing and a line may come to you—or something may come to you on the street and you’ll write it down—and I always want the whole song to be about that little nugget of meaning, where everything sort of reflects back onto it. It ends up being cohesive, so you can say with confidence that song X is about Y. On the other hand, Gord has this great ability where the lines don’t have to go together. Somehow, combining those disconnected lyrical images or ideas with the music just pushes them both higher, and makes it really powerful. I’ve seen him live a lot, and he’s definitely affected me. Although so does everything you listen to.
[‘These Boots Are Made For Walking’ by Nancy Sinatra plays on the radio.]
Tim: Even that.
Josh: What’s on the CD player in the van right now?
Tim: Spoon, Transference. The new Wilco record is also getting a lot of love.
Romesh: A whole lot of love, you might say.
Josh: I wasn’t going to go there. So you guys do sometimes have a fair number of swears in your songs, maybe a bit more than the average rock band. What’s the process for dealing with those?
Tim: Well, maybe if we were a band that radio really loved from day one it would be different, but I don’t think about that too much. Much to our management and label’s chagrin and disappointment. [Laughs] But we do think about it. On ‘Yer Spring’ we did a radio edit with the line “looking around in the dark” instead of “fucking around”, which I think could just as easily have been the line anyway. I don’t really consciously put them in. It’s just the way you naturally speak.
Romesh: Our moms would be ashamed.
Tim: Well, I think they hopefully understand that it’s just real, you know. That it’s emphatic, and often it’s part of a character.
Josh: You’ve created an name for yourselves as “that rock band with a string section”—the strings are a huge part of your identity. Have they been part of your music from the beginning?
Tim: In the beginning I had all these songs written, like you mentioned—stuff I’d done on my own. I’d been listening to the soundtrack to Waking Life by the Tosca Tango Orchestra, and I just fell in love with those strings on it. I really love the way that the strings deepen the poetics of music. Strings are such passionate instruments. So, originally, the plan was going to be cello and piano and a minimal bit of percussion, and then eventually…
Romesh: The boys found electric guitars.
Tim: [Laughs] Yeah, basically! I didn’t even own an electric guitar when we started.
Romesh: You didn’t? That’s awesome.
Tim: No, but I found one. And then we started remembering what it was like being in bands in high school and just rocking out. And yeah, that sort of took over. It has a way of doing that in rock music, I guess.
Josh: Romesh, has your role as a string player changed over the lifespan of the band?
Romesh: Definitely. At first Tim and our bassist Josh [Ward] were writing all the arrangements. Now we’re starting to get more involved, taking more active roles.
Josh: Do you find you face challenges other bands don’t have to deal with because of the strings?
Romesh: Live. Live can be kind of a nightmare, trying to figure out how to make it work. A cello has such a big resonant body—it soaks up frequencies, particularly bass frequencies, and that’ll feed back on you. And you’re playing a fretless instrument, so if you can’t hear yourself you’re going to sound really bad. It can be a tough environment.
Tim: But I think now that we’re five years in, we’re finally figuring it out. Or at least we’re starting to get close.
Tags: Hey Rosetta!