The Most Serene Republic serve as a reminder to embrace eccentricity wherever you may find it. The Milton, Ontario septet wash out jubilant layers of symphonic pop to capture the delicate grief in growing up. With their third full length release …And the Ever Expanding Universe, released on Arts&Crafts early last year, the band reveals the strange serenity of an archaic soundscape.
Their visit to the Canadian East Coast late last year started with a sound check occasionally punctuated by the communal donair passed around onstage and the inspired vocal ballads chanted while warping levels. In a starlit back alley dominated by a foggy Atlantic panorama, I spoke with keyboardist Ryan Lenssen and indulged in a romanticized intimacy shared amidst the splatter of raindrops and sting of Halifax cold. The conversation held a note of disheartened idealism found in the group’s records as we spoke about the pain of passivity, the finicky superiority of compact cassettes, and plans for the next album.
Jan: What band have you enjoyed touring with most?
Ryan Lenssen: Five years ago we really enjoyed playing with Wintersleep a lot. That was before they became massive. They still remain friends of ours. Loel Campbell is one of my favourite people, I love Wintersleep! Touring Canada, no matter where you go, you’re going to get good people that don’t want to step on any toes – it’s because we’re all passive.
Jan: That could be it.
Ryan: No it is. There’s a lot of anger, there’s a lot of hate that people have, but we keep it to ourselves because we don’t know how to deal with it in Canada, because we didn’t grow up with an American sentimentality.
Jan: It’s interesting how each of your albums has had an emotion tied to it. You describe Population as anger, how much of that is based on your sentimentality?
Ryan: All of it.
Jan: Do you come up with the theme before the album starts or does the story piece together through the writing process and it dawns at the end?
Ryan: We go in writing from the emotions that are spewing out at the time we are in, and all the lyrics are written in the same perspective. Then we look back, reread what we were doing and realize what was on our minds at the time. We had a lot to prove and get off our chest with Phages, a lot of misconceptions that needed to be exposed to ourselves. The same thing happened with Underwater Cinematographer and our last album. It’s all been a process, we were so angry during Population perhaps we had so many self-righteous ideals that we had to go through during that time to get to where we are now. When I look back on it, I love the music but I may not agree with it anymore. With this recent album we could stay angry or we could try to move out of it. If we were to stay angry we all would have been dead by now.
Jan: So how much of it do you see as a healing process?
Ryan: The process itself is healing, but it’s never permanent. The EP that we’re about to put out, it’s not anger anymore nor is it acceptance. We’re just lost now, we don’t even know what we need to come to terms with. Maybe that’s the idea, that we need to come to terms with acceptance of just living and the exposure of our own faults through our learning process. But I don’t know – it’s not done yet, that’s how I feel right now. We’re just dealing with our own problems and insecurities. Maybe this EP is asking for forgiveness?
Jan: Where is all the anger coming from? What upsets you?
Ryan: Ourselves more than anything. Population wasn’t about ourselves, it was about feeling like we were trapped by our surroundings and our environment, like we didn’t have a choice and everything was being pushed on us. We felt as though we needed some kind of serious traumatizing thing to happen to us to feel the pain of the artist to make epic music, to do all this sort of shit. In a way we asked for our own pain. I mean we lived in Canada, it’s a G8 country – we’re all sedated. There’s no strife, there’s no anything. It’s like ‘Stephen Harper wants to cut the arts, that sucks – but who cares?’ It’s not as if we’re shipping all the homeless to a refugee center and grounding them up or having genocide, or any of that kind of shit. We were pissed that we had nothing to be true men about.
Jan: Because you just take it in stride?
Ryan: Yeah, it just doesn’t matter, who cares about Canadian politics when American politics are the ones that matter and they are the ones dealing with all this kind of crap. The list goes on to how little is going on in this country, and how all the rebellions have already occurred. In a way I think our population was complaining that there was nothing to complain about.
Jan: So does that fact upset you about being Canadian?
Ryan: No, that’s not really the point. We went on and found that life brings pain no matter what is going on, whether you’re in the middle of World War II, you’re trying to bring down the Berlin Wall or if nothing is going on. Life will bring you pain no matter what, your decisions in life will bring you pain, the way you deal with others will bring you pain. Through these couple of years we’ve gone through so much more of it that we were pissed at ourselves for being so ignorant for asking for it in the first place. And so now we got tons of it, we don’t even know what to do with it anymore. Does that make for better records? I sure as hell hope so. Will it? I have no idea. I guarantee you that there’s a million people out there going through a million hard times, and they’re not making amazing records. They’re trying, but it’s not working. Just because we romanticize the greats that made massive records and sold millions, none of that really matters when it comes down to just living a life. Yeah, you can make art for everybody, but at the end of the day they’re just going to listen to it at a party one time. Or maybe they’ll have a really cool experience with it, but it’s not worth your own life.
Jan: Then what really feels like safety with the notion that life brings you pain so passively – where do you get away?
Ryan: At this particular stage in my life, I don’t think I have that.
Jan: Do you think you’ve lost it, or didn’t have it to begin with?
Ryan: I think I threw it away for the sake of youthful arrogance and stupidity. I’m talking about just me now, not everybody. A lot of what’s happening to me I’ve asked for, and that hurts a lot, more than anything, knowing that you brought it on yourself.
Jan: So what makes you happy?
Ryan: Work does make me happy, making music, playing shows – as long as they are good ones. Knowing that I’ve been able to leave more good in people than bad makes me happy. The reverse of that breaks my heart.
Jan: What makes for a good show?
Ryan: When there is a connection, when there stops being a divide between the band and the audience, when the people there get as sweaty as we do, when they’re not afraid to let themselves go. There are places around the world where it seems to be the culture there to disconnect – or maybe we’re just playing super bad, I don’t know. There seems to be a pattern in certain places, I won’t say where, when people don’t want to connect – it’s almost a culture of fear on their own part of becoming at all impressed with what you’re doing. Or not even impressed, but even present enough to be sharing an experience with everyone else that’s there. You have to break that level of individuality where everyone walks in with their own agenda to a show. You know, am I there to get the girl, am I there with a girl and don’t want the guys to look at her, am I there because this is my favourite band and want everyone else to see me? Then there are just the genuine people that are there for their own sake who just want to be there. What really needs to happen is a breaking down of all that psychological bullshit, and forming just for an hour or so, a unified presence where everyone shares the emotional output. We only play well when the crowd is playing well. Depending on how interactive we can make the experience – I mean I’m an atheist – but it’s as close to spirituality as I get. There’s some level of connected unconscious.
Jan: Have you ever felt that when you were at a show?
Ryan: Absolutely, it’s the reason why I got into music. It was a Radiohead show about seven years ago in Barrie, they were touring Kid A at the time. I was pretty young, and that was the show that got me into music. There was about ten thousand or so people there for the hour and a half they played, at the time I didn’t feel like a sixteen-year-old, I didn’t have anything to prove, had no self-esteem issues, and we were all sharing in this amazing experience. And that’s something I want to share with other people, because there are people that go through our more peculiar emotions and we really need to connect with those people or else we feel alone.
Jan: So how does the Most Serene Republic work as a group, is everyone there as friend to lean on?
Ryan: Most of the time yes, but we’re a lot of people and we’re in a cramped space and there are days when we want to rip each other’s heads off. It’s not often, but it does happen. As we are a family, we’ve gone through so much shit together, just like any family, and the real trick at this point is to make sure the good outweighs the bad. It’s something we’ve grown better at.
Jan: If you weren’t doing music, is there anything else you see yourself doing?
Ryan: Not at this point, but life takes a bunch of different paths. I mean I was supposed to be a psychologist when I was in school, but I picked up music instead. I think music is just as much psychological as full-on psychology is. In that way I don’t feel I strayed that much from what was expected from me. I would still be in music, it’s one of those things you become addicted to – it’s really hard to kick. Like heroin. [Laughs]
Jan: The EP that is coming out, do you have a planned release date or title?
Ryan: I’m hoping early 2010, we have a few ideas for a title but I don’t want to ruin it.
Jan: What about a theme like the past albums, or is that something you’ll find out after the fact?
Ryan: No, this one actually has a well thought out direction.
Jan: When speaking to Kevin Drew about …And The Ever Expanding Universe and creating a record with a broader scope, larger than just an album for Torontonians did you feel your perspectives changed as you were writing?
Ryan: You know what, I don’t think we ever tried to make a record for Toronto. We weren’t trying to make a record for anybody at all. I’ve always really enjoyed working, playing, and listening to what we’ve accomplished. In a lot of ways I feel we make our records for ourselves. Literally, as we want something to listen to from us. We love other bands, getting a new record is fantastic, but one of my favourite things to do is to make a record for us, by us. I get excited to listen to our own stuff. I think all bands have that, at least they should. If you don’t like listening to your records then why is anyone else going to?
Jan: On that note has there been anything you’ve been listening to lately or supporting?
Ryan: I’ve been going way back, I’ve been trying to listen to stuff that I missed on my way here. I grew up on classical music and jazz, so I don’t know much about the last sixty years of music – I’m way more familiar with what happened before that. So I’ve been playing catch-up. The other day I went through the Boards of Canada catalogue, the Grizzly Bear discography, I’ve always been a massive Radiohead fan. The new Phoenix record is great.
Jan: Are you still attached to vinyl, CDs or do you get most of your music digitally now?
Ryan: I love CDs and I love vinyl. I miss cassette a lot because it was such a finicky medium but it was awesome.
Jan: So if you could bring one thing back, you’d bring back cassette?
Ryan: Yeah, because I thought they sounded awesome. Tape sounds amazing, though vinyl has its charm and sounds great most of the time. But if there was something I would want to crank it would be cassette. Digital sucks because you just don’t have the fidelity, whenever you’re hearing ambient stuff you’re never hearing what actually is there. The way I get music now more than anything is when I go anywhere I ask people to tell me what their favourite records are, I ask bands that I’m on tour with what are the records that made their life and then I work off that list.
Jan: Is there a place where you particularly enjoy the music scene?
Ryan: I don’t really follow geography and music like that. I know that Canada has had a massive boom in the past while. I think that might be slowing down right now.
Jan: Why do you think the Canadian music industry is slowing down now?
Ryan: Because if you’re a young kid and you just moved to the city for the first time and you have Indian food and you’re blown away and suddenly want to have Indian food all the time – but you can’t, you have to discover sushi. You have to try new things. The States were kicking ass for so long, then the United Kingdom came along, the States brought it back and Canada had their time. Now there’s a bit of a Scandinavian influence coming along.
Jan: So what are you doing when you’re not involved with music or on tour, do you spend much time with friends or family?
Ryan: There’s a small handful of people outside of the band that I would consider family but realistically the band are my friends. I would be pretty distraught without them. Sean [Woolven] is a big video game player, Adrian [Jewett] has recently been trying to conquer all the Mario’s. I haven’t had much of chance, but most of them really enjoy gaming. For me personally, I don’t have any leisure time. It’s not a matter of not having it as much as it is not knowing what to do with it, so I choose not to have it – I just keep working.
Jan: Do you ever feel worn out?
Ryan: I always feel spent. Leisure time makes you think about things that you would rather not think about.
Jan: How has your interaction with fans been, any marriage proposals yet?
Ryan: [Laughs] No. Well, yeah I guess actually. It happened to me once, but you don’t take it seriously. Last night a really awesome guy came up and said that our record helped him avert some really painful times in his life. That was really nice, it was one of those reaffirming moments. Whether they mean it or not, if they come up and tell you your record stopped them from hurting themselves or at least diverted their attention for long enough – it’s nice to hear and it’s enough to make you want to keep going. We try to keep a checklist of that stuff to remind you. There’s a lovely family in New York City that comes to our shows, and they have a daughter now that’s growing up on our music and knows the words. Having a positive impact on the lives of others is amazing. So whenever you make the mistake of not being a positive influence it hurts that much more.
Jan: Is there a band that you would like to tour or work with?
Ryan: Yeah, I would love to tour or work with Radiohead or the Flaming Lips. We’ve been so lucky, Broken Social Scene would have been one of those bands but we already did. Stars and the Strokes were a dream come true. There’s a ton of people I would love to work with, at this point I wouldn’t turn down much of anything.
Jan: Who has the best dance moves in The Most Serene Republic?
Ryan: Adrian, of course. When we first started I remember people telling him to calm down. I’m glad he didn’t. I used to be able to stand up but then I got carpal tunnel in my right wrist so I have to sit down now. I’m still a young guy, but it’s been five years. You start to feel old – everyone older than me thinks I’m being ridiculous. [Laughs]
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