Come 2016, it will have been three years since we last heard from Canadian rockers The Besnard Lakes via the over-the-top Until In Excess, Imperceptible UFO; but the band are back with their fifth studio album A Coliseum Complex Museum, set to drop January 22nd via Jagjaguwar.
The eight track album signals a return to the sound of their 2007 album The Besnard Lakes Are The Dark Horse; punchier tracks yet still full of the dramatic widescreen rock the band are known for, and once again helmed by husband and wife Jace Lasek and Olga Goreas.
Ahead of the album's release we sat down with Lasek who talked us through the making of A Coliseum Complex Museum and why it was time to hit the reset button for The Besnard Lakes. You can also hear a premiere of lead track "The Golden Lion" below.
The record feels like a return to early Besnard Lakes territory; the songs are shorter but no less cinematic, but it feels like a compact eight-song suite closer to Are The Dark Horse than Until In Excess, Imperceptible UFO…
“It does feel like we condensed things a little bit. It’s always been so easy for us to make really long, cinematic songs. You’re right, it does kinda bridge the Dark Horse up to UFO gap. Dark Horse had shorter songs on it for sure and then we sort of got a bit more expanded, then more expanded, and more expanded! This pulls us back in; we were curious to see if it was still possible for us to make something and be happy with it if thing were a little more compact and condensed. It worked and it was super fun doing it as well.”
Was it always the intention to go back to basics this time around?
“When I realised ‘oh shit, it’s time to make a record’ I was actually recording with a friend of mine and we were talking about the process of recording and coming up with ideas for songs. As you get older and you’re not fifteen years old anymore, you don’t have all this excess of time to just sit in a room coming up with stuff. You have to start regimenting yourself and finding time to do these things. My friend said he found time every day – no matter if he had 5,10, 20 minutes – to go and turn on the computer and look at his songs. I’m producing this guy and he’s teaching me how to do things! ‘Make a fucking record!’.”
That sounds like you took a step back from the studio, something which must have been hard for a producer to do…
“I took his words to heart; I’d go into this tiny little room we have in our house, with an amp and a guitar, and just start to come up with ideas. We’d also go up to Besnard Lake – which is an actual place – where we have a little trailer; we started recording in the wintertime and we’d bang out ideas no matter how stupid they were, then we’d take them up to the lake and sit in the trailer while it was raining and run through the ideas there.“
Is that something you’d normally do – or was this you trying out new processes?
“We’d never really done that before; we’d mostly just go into the studio, but obviously there’s a pressure there – you’re in the studio and you’re spending time in what’s basically a studio for hire so you can’t waste time when you’re there. There’s a pressure with that, so we ended that! So, with a song like ‘Necronomicon’ the drums were recorded in my basement, some of the guitar tracks were first takes that we decided to keep just because the spirit was there. Dark Horse has a bit of that but it hasn’t really happened since then…it was cool to get back to that first take where the spirit of the song is right at its pinnacle.”
Had the band lost a bit of that freewheeling spirit somewhere along the way?
“I think I did lose touch with that sort of thing; I think everyone who comes into the studio has done that – they sit in their room, work it out and come in with all of their ideas and I stopped doing that. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the problem was that I worried if I came up with some sort of fantastic idea while I was sitting in front of the computer with nothing to record it, it would get wasted. If I was in the studio then that wouldn’t happen. But I threw caution to the wind and got back to recording guitars with a crappy microphone in a weird-sounding room…or going back to the drums in ‘Necronomicon’, those were recording with one mic on the floor in the basement. So when I brought that to the studio it was like ‘that’s kind of a cool drum sound, let’s keep it, let’s fucking forget about it!’ It was refreshing to feel the sparks.”
Did that approach rub off on the rest of The Besnard Lakes? Everyone sounds like they are having the best time on this record...
“Kevin [Laing], our drummer, said it was probably the funnest session he ever had with us. It was just really laid back; the songs were fleshed out before we came into the studio. Rich [White] had always complained about coming into play a guitar part but not being able to feed off the vocals - this time everything was somewhat realised. It takes the pressure off the guys; they’re not coming into the studio cold, worrying if I have a vision or not. I think you can feel there’s a lift on this album, the density is gone…mentally it feels like we’re having fun again, but still getting into the essence of what we do.”
You mentioned recording at Besnard Lake; did recording or fleshing out ideas up there have an effect on the sound of Coliseum Complex Museum?
“In the past we’d usually go with the rule that we wouldn’t make music up there. It was more a place to be philosophical about what we were going to make, and talk about the music. In order to make music we have to set everything up in the trailer, and when it’s a beautiful day and you’re recording music it kind of feels like you’re wasting the day away. It takes four days to get there, and then we only have three or four weeks a year to spend there. This time, we said let’s use the place in both ways and we had to force ourselves to get into the trailer sometimes to make music…we love that place and it kinda feels like we’re ripping it off if we’re not down at the beach or in the woods! It’s a great place for contemplation: there’s nobody up there, it’s really hard to get to and you could spend a whole day not seeing anybody, just standing on a beach surrounded by trees and water. You feel like you’re the only person on earth and it really allows you to have intense contemplation without any distractions …except for, like, a bird – which is fine! So it helped us focus and put us back on track for what we were going to do with this record.”
There are a few references to nature, whether it’s the cryptozoology of “The Bray Road Beast” or “The Golden Lion” or the more conventional “Nightingale”…did that come as a result of spending more time at the lake?
“It totally just appeared, it wasn’t conscious at all. I remember the album was done and we were talking to someone at the label and he said ‘you have all these songs that have these animals…’ but I’d never thought about it before! I thought it was weird I’d never noticed it, but it totally didn’t happen on purpose”
I did notice that the album is quite referential in places; there’s a line in “The Bray Road Beast” that mentions riding through “the roaring night” and on the last track “Tungsten 4: The Refugee” there’s a mention of horses and birds….are you perpetuating the myth of The Besnard Lakes?
“Yeah! I’m a really big Public Enemy fan and I remember first hearing Fear of a Black Planet and they were sampling themselves, from their other records, on it. I always thought that was so cool; now they have a back catalogue of cool things they can sample! So I always had that in the back of my mind. When I was doing the lyrics for this record it appeared again; we don’t sample and we can’t really sample our own music so I thought ‘what if I start referencing the lyrics from the old records – that might be kind of fun!’ So on ‘The Refugee’ there’s talk of an albatross, and then there’s riding on the roaring night as you said….”
It feels like an extra reward for listening, picking out these moments and following a thread not just from the beginning to the end of this album, but through all of The Besnard Lakes’ albums…
“I listen to records front to back and I always have, so when you get immersed in this and listen to the record front to back and get into it after five or six listens, that’s the sort of one of the subtexts where the listener can say ‘oh wait, that’s actually a reference to the lyrics from this record’. If you know the catalogue well enough it’s a neat subtext for people who know The Besnard Lakes. I always loved that when I listened to records growing up; little pieces which you feel are just for you because you figured them out. This is for you to take, listen one more step and have fun with it.”
Can you tell us a little more about Olga’s interest in the occult and how it finds a place on the album?
“There was this Disinformation Lecture by Grant Morrison years ago and he was talking about this idea of sigils…he was so convincing in his talk, he kept saying ‘it works, it works’ and gave all these examples. So Oggy started doing it just for fun, and after a while making them became part of her morning ritual. Once we started making the album I approached her and asked her about incorporating the sigils; they’re actually quite beautiful things. They speak of love, and empathy and hope, prosperity, charity…just nice things. So we thought what if we just shared that with people..and it also kinda looks like Led Zeppelin’s Zoso, so that’s cool hahaha…”
The sigils form the centrepiece or the main attraction at the Coliseum Complex Museum don’t they?
“In the end, the album and the museum is supposed to be this [Herman Hesse’s] Steppenwolf ‘FOR MADMEN ONLY’ club where you go in and things aren’t as they seem. We’ve always been interested in UFOs, ghosts and the paranormal…magic and the occult, things that are a bit off-kilter and weird. So the sigils and the Coliseum Complex Museum is in keeping with all that; it’s a place where you go and it has all these sigils on the wall – you don’t know what they mean but they’re there. The album’s music is what you’re listening to while you’re staring at the Bray Road Beast who’s handing you a cup of tea or something!”
Although the album is compact and concise, The Besnard Lakes recently became a seventeen-piece band at Pop Montreal….how did that come about?
“We’d been planning on playing with a huge band for nearly two years; UFO was a really hard record to play live. It was a super, super intense studio album and as usual we paid no regard to what went into it and how we were going to recreate it. When we performed it as a four-piece some of the songs were falling flat – they needed a big band. So I started thinking then, just once wouldn’t it be great to have a load of people and hear the songs as they were supposed to be heard…even just for my own vanity so I could say ‘it can be done and it sounds good!’”
I’ve read that Rich [the band's non-touring member] was the mastermind behind pulling the project together…
“Rich is trained musically so he was able to write all the pieces for the string players, he was key to making this whole thing happen so he became the band leader. So slowly it became real and it didn’t have to be a pipedream; Renaud, our sound man, assured me it could be recorded properly and once I got the go-ahead that it was possible, it seemed like such an insane undertaking to get seventeen people together! We spoke to Pop Montreal and they were totally into it, we put out the word and got everyone together. But after two weeks of rehearsals I thought ‘why am I doing this?’”
What was the most difficult aspect of it?
“The hardest thing was getting seventeen people into one room together! We chose the best musicians for the job and people who were really excited about it and when we did the show it awesome. I’m so glad it was done and I’d really have to have my arm twisted to do it again….it was such an intense undertaking and I’m really indebted to everyone for making it happen.”
The Besnard Lakes is now a band with two couples in it; does Kevin feel left out?
“He doesn’t seem to feel left out! Our sound man, Renaud, and Kevin always bunk together so we always say they’re the third couple haha. It’s been really great; Robbie [McArthur, guitar] and Sheenah [Ko, keys] have been an amazing addition, we’re having so much fun on the road together. The thing is, it’s kind of tough being married or being a couple and having one person going off and experiencing the world. I think it’s tough on the person who’s not going out, and I think there’s a resentment that can form there. The fact that they are a couple and they can go out and experience the world together makes the bond stronger. It certainly has for Oggy and I - we haven’t had a day apart in years! We never have to talk or downplay an experience in case we feel bad for the other person…we’re sharing the experiences together and it makes us stronger.”
A Coliseum Complex Museum is out 22nd January on Jagjaguwar. The band plays two dates in Brighton and London in November.