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Molasses

Late Bloomers

20 September 2016, 09:00

Slow Down Molasses are currently in the happiest, most optimistic place they've been in their career. Adam Elmadhi catches up with them to find out why.

Five years ago, in a former Victorian pleasure garden constructed for the purpose of "public enlightenment and entertainment", a young indie-rock band from the prairie city of Saskatoon brought their dynamic performance to the real-ale-drinking, plaid-shirt-wearing clientele of the End of the Road Festival.

The annual weekender has long showcased up-and-coming North American talent, and for a band that was only just starting to make their mark outside their native Canada, to play to such a welcoming and appreciative audience was inevitably going to be a memorable, even formative experience. By all accounts it was a successful performance, with the band selling more records there than their actual hometown album release show, and they even managed to fit in a second, late-night performance, featuring covers of artists as diverse as Neutral Milk Hotel, My Bloody Valentine, Mojave 3 and Julie Doirin.

Half a decade later, and Slow Down Molasses are back at Larmer Tree Gardens, albeit promoted from the intimate Tipi Tent to the glory of the main stage. Since the heady days of 2011, they've released two further albums, modified their line-up, overhauled their sound and suffered all the general stresses and indignities that are the invariable lot of musicians who haven't yet hit the big time. But, as an hour in the company of Tyson McShane, the band’s affably enthusiastic frontman, songwriter and general spokesperson makes abundantly clear, they're currently in the happiest, most optimistic place they've been in their career.

Whilst in the past, the band (perhaps misleadingly) dubbed “the Broken Social Scene of the Prairies” has encompassed everything from a solo project to a sprawling art-pop collective featuring upwards of ten people, the current permutation consists of five members: Tyson on vocal and guitar, bassist Chris Morin, guitarist/keyboardist Aaron Scholz, guitarist Levi Souldore and drummer Jordan Kurtz. They come across as a tight-knit unit; professional and confident on stage, jovial and good-natured off of it, with Tyson providing the charismatic heart of the outfit.

Formerly tagged, as Tyson jokingly complains, “as a country band due to the violins and mandolins and everything, despite our six layers of feedback”, the new, stripped-down incarnation of Slow Down Molasses is as far from Mumfordian whimsy as you could imagine. 100% Sunshine, their somewhat ironically titled new release, is brooding and muscular, recalling the mighty 90’s heyday of alt-rock and shoegaze, with occasional forays into the darker side of synth-pop. Indeed, one might think it a bit too foreboding for an early afternoon slot at the famously genteel festival, but the band deliver a commanding performance, adding some much needed edge to proceedings and undoubtedly garner some new fans in the process.

I ask Tyson whether the band's unusual monicker derives from the Great Molasses Flood of 1919, where Boston was swamped by 2.6 million gallons of viscous black treacle, resulting in the unfortunate, somewhat undignified death of 21 innocent souls. The truth (sadly) turns out to be a little more prosaic. “When the band was just starting out”, Tyson recalls, “I kept a journal whilst I toured, spontaneously jotting down terms and phrases that came to mind.” It just so happened that "Slow Down Molasses" was one of those phrases that he picked randomly from the aether. He admits that, in retrospect, he's not a particularly big fan of the name, but it seemed to capture the spacey/noisey sound he hoped to go for and “frankly, it's a bit too late to change it now.” Plus, as bassist Chris sagely interjects, "at the end of the day, all band names are kind of dumb".

Had Tyson always planned to be a musician, or was it something he fell into by chance? He admits the latter, although he did "take piano lessons from ages 7 to 10". As he hit his teenage years, he'd check out a punk-rock show at the local community hall every so often, but he didn't think to dabble in music himself until he bought a "$60 shitty guitar" at the age of 17, along with "a $60 shitty amp to go with it".

This point of this new endeavour was mostly so he could try to emulate Mogwai, the veteran Scottish post-rockers that Tyson still obviously holds in the utmost reverence - and whose influence on 100% Sunshine is not inconsiderable. Indeed, the new album was even mixed by Mogwai’s long-term producer Tony Doogan, which goes someway to explaining how they’ve managed to make so many layers of fuzzed-out guitar sound both crystal-clear yet brutally visceral.

But there’s a big difference between messing around with a few chords in your bedroom and forming an actual band, and the moment Tyson finally realised the call was the second time he caught Canadian cult heroes The Constantines performing live in Saskatoon. As anyone who has had the pleasure of witnessing the Guelph indie-rockers in full flow can attest, they’re one of those rip-roaring, passion-rousing acts that would make even the most cloth-eared joy-void want to drop everything and embrace a life of tour buses, shitty hotel rooms and perhaps, the occasional adulation of a crowd, and it therefore comes as little surprise that at the end of the show, “two buddies jumped on my back and announced ‘we need to start a band!’”

And so they duly did. Aiming for a "Fugazi vs. Springsteen" vibe (a noble, if risky aim), he jammed with them for two years before “it dawned on me that I could actually play music.” He also began to involve himself in the larger Saskatoon musical scene. A close-knit community featuring two hundred-or-so practitioners - “being a such a small city, there’s lots of cross-pollination between bands” - it may lack the population or cultural status of Toronto and Montreal, those Pitchfork-anointed titans of the mid-Noughties alternative music scene, but it nonetheless punches above its weight talent-wise. Bands didn't often stop in Saskatoon (an experience any Brit living outside London and Manchester can sympathise with), so he came to know his hometown's various sub-cultures: the backpacker hip-hoppers, the country types, the noisemongers, which may account for the diverse influences that have formed part of Slow Down Molasses' identity over the last decade.

"The issue with Canadian bands is that they need to tour abroad more" - Tyson McShane

Tyson reels off a number of Saskatoon bands he reckons can stand with the best of them- Shirley and The Pyramids (an eclectic mix of shoegaze, kosmische and balls-to-the-wall noise rock), Shooting Guns (doomy stoner rock) and The Radiation Flowers (grungey psychedelia). He’s particularly effusive about Troy Grondsdahl, A.K.A “soso”, a hip-hop-influenced artist responsible for “the best album in the last ten years”. The fact that they're little-known outside the borders of Saskatchewan doesn't surprise Tyson, however- "the issue with Canadian bands", he opines, "is that they need to tour abroad more."

After starting off as a solo project, Slow Down Molasses gradually developed into a musical collective of sorts. However, as a band constituting twenty- and thirty-somethings with families and commitments (Tyson himself is a city planner) rather than a bunch of carefree young teens, it was difficult to find people who could devote significant amounts of time to playing music. As a result, members tended to drift in and out as schedules allowed, which wasn’t exactly the ideal scenario for the more ambitious Tyson. Reading interviews from 2011, when Walk Into The Sea was released, one can sense both the pride and frustration in Tyson's responses- pride that they managed to put such an excellent album together against the odds, frustration that the process of doing so was so stressful. It's no surprise then that with a stable line-up of dedicated musicians, the band seem so much more content these days - indeed, 100% Sunshine is the first Slow Down Molasses record made by the same incarnation of the band that toured the previous album.

Tyson and Chris are both ebullient about the experience - "everyone likes hanging out; it's exciting to get together to write songs." For the 2015 release "Burnt Black Cars", a record described by Chris as an “apocalyptic love album” and Tyson as a “fatalistic work” that could well have been Slow Down Molasses’swansong, eight out of ten songs were exclusively written by Tyson. For 100% Sunshine, the process was much more collaborative and easy-going. Some songs were primarily Tyson’s, with arrangements subsequently worked out by the band; other songs were built around improvisation sessions that involved all five of them. Tyson notes that a couple of songs that made it into the album had been gestating for 17 years, “since he first bought that shitty guitar” but it was only now that it felt like the right time to work them into something fully-fledged.

Their excitement about the finished product is palpable. “For this album, we felt more freedom to indulge, to be more anthemic, to add more annoying noise”, says Tyson. “We’ve never done that before. After this, we’re excited to write more. We feel like we could do so much more.” They freely admit that the fact Slow Down Molasses is even a going concern in 2016 is a minor miracle- “we’ve already achieved more than we’d ever imagined- by rights we should have broken up, so everything now is a bonus.” Chris mentions that he himself considered leaving the band on at least three occasions – one time before a gig supporting English shoegazers Swervedriver in Edmonton, it was only an “inspirational” riff guitarist Aaron Scholz spontaneously came up with that brought him back from the edge and made think the band still had a chance. But the more turbulent era of Slow Down Molasses’ history happily seems to have passed, and they appear to be fully encapsulating one of Chris’ wisest maxims: “music isn’t a rational business, so you might as well have fun doing it.”

"We’ve already achieved more than we’d ever imagined- by rights we should have broken up, so everything now is a bonus." - Tyson McShane

One of the things that quickly becomes abundantly clear about Slow Down Molasses is that they seem to be as passionate about the music of others as much as their own, and have a particular affection for the End of the Road Festival. (“I’m an unabashed End of the Road fanboy", admits Tyson.) Rather than attempting to fit in another tour date, especially in a region where most of their potential audience has probably just decamped to the festival anyway, they decide to enjoy the rest of the weekend as regular punters, checking out bands and being stared-down imperiously by peacocks. How have things changed since they last time they played?

“Well, we’re a lot louder now”, Tyson laughs. "We had violins and banjos back then- in fact, 2011 was the last tour I actually played the acoustic guitar". He also mentions that they’ve progressed in terms of mind-set: “we’re at the stage of our career where we either want to play large stages where we can really move about…or in some sketchy, sweaty basement somewhere”. That said, the band have discovered that there are some occupational risks in larger venues- at a show earlier that tour, some overzealous guitar-swinging almost led to someone getting smashed in the face.

Tyson and Chris both attribute part of their current success to playing the festival in 2011- the fact the organisers took a punt on some little-known act from a Canadian backwater led to other bookers to take notice. In 2012, they were invited to play the prestigious Incubate Festival in the Dutch city of Tilburg, revered for its focus on cutting-edge, multi-disciplinary art, which not only gave them the opportunity to show off their own musical chops, but resulted in Tyson jamming with Krautrock luminary Damo Suzuki and members of his beloved Mogwai. This year they’ve been asked back to Incubate as “artists-in-residence”, a fancy sounding title that gives the band license to experiment with their “noisier, more feedback-y inclinations” as well as delivering the typical Slow Down Molasses experience. “We’ve been asked to play four separate sets”, Tyson explains, “and we intend to change things up for each one. Maybe two more straightforward sets, and two sets of god-awful drone”.

As for End of the Road 2016, “I’m so excited about the line-up, and the chance to play this record- our best ever- with my buddies” says Tyson. “We’ve worked our asses off, and unlike in 2011, I genuinely feel like we’ll have the chance to do things like this again in the future”. Indeed, the future is already looking bright for the band- 100% Sunshine is receiving strong reviews, and on top of Incubate, they’ve been invited to played Iceland Airwaves, which as Chris remarks, “is pretty amazing for some guys in the middle of Canada.” Tyson concurs- “when I was 17, I never dreamed anyone would ever even like my music - so to be invited to play festivals in far-flung places like Iceland…I genuinely never thought this could happen!”

100% Sunshine is out now - buy it on iTunes.
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