Despite numerous lineup changes, Murray Lightburn and Natalia Yanchak have kept the Dears alive
It came in so fast that I barely remember it," says Murray Lightburn, recounting the origins of the title track from his band's newest album, Missiles. "I remember I was downstairs in the studio cleaning up, and suddenly I heard this tune."
As he continues, Lightburn — frontman and auteur of Montreal-based symphonic-pop ensemble the Dears — speaks with the enthusiasm and bizarre detachment of a channeler, one of those '80s charlatans who claimed to let the voices of ancient sages speak through them. "I had this weird mini acoustic guitar that I borrowed. It has this great sound, and I remember picking it up. As the music was coming in, I was hearing it, singing it and playing it at the same time, and I couldn't write the words down fast enough. I was trying to keep up with it coming in."
A tortured, poetic and slightly sardonic frontman with debts to both Morrissey and Morrison, Lightburn is often put under the microscope, characterized as controlling, mercurial and difficult. As a black Canadian man making music that is often lazily categorized as Brit pop, the musician is subject to even greater scrutiny. But when it comes to the music, Lightburn insists that there is a separation between who he is and what he creates.
"It's not entirely of my own creation," insists the veteran songwriter. "I hear stuff in my head, I share it with other people and they do their thing. That's how Dears records happen. Where the Dears' music comes from is entirely separate from me. I just happen to be the guy that's delivering it, along with whoever is in the band."
The intensity of that delivery process might also explain why the outfit has averaged one proper album every two years. The Dears debuted in 2000 with End of a Hollywood Bedtime Story. Almost immediately after completing the recording, half of the band quit, leaving only Lightburn and keyboardist/vocalist Natalia Yanchak. Weeks later, Lightburn recruited four more members and, with a couple of alterations, maintained the lineup through 2004's stunning No Cities Left and 2006's stripped-down breakthrough, Gang of Losers. Through those years, the unwieldy organization developed a reputation for lushly orchestrated recordings, intricately layered arrangements and emotionally earnest performances. Lightburn, however, contends that the complexity of the recordings pales in comparison to what "comes in" to his head.
"I'm no Mozart, so I can't bash this shit out," he says, simultaneously joking and apologizing. "The process can't be forced and it can't be fake. It has to come from 'the place.' I don't know what the place is, what it's called, where it is, what it looks like, but it comes from this place, and I'm just sitting, waiting for the phone to ring. I answer the phone and I'm just there, trying to keep up with it, just trying to emulate the sounds that come in. It comes with trumpets and choirs and gets pretty huge, but at the end of the day, I can only relay so much information before it's a complete meltdown. I do what I can with what I have." Suddenly seeming self-conscious, Lightburn ends his thought with a joke: "If I was given unlimited powers, Dears records would be unlistenably ridiculous. Plus it would take me ten years to put together one record."
Fortunately for fans, it hasn't taken that long. Between Gang of Losers and Missiles, the Dears saw more than their share of drama and painful personnel changes, again leaving only the core duo of Lightburn and Yanchak, now married and the proud parents of a daughter, Neptune. None of this upheaval, however, stopped the flow of music that would become the band's most powerful album yet.
"On this record, with Natalia's permission and blessing, I had to grow my balls back," Lightburn says with his characteristic balance of poetic meter and blunt word choice. "I just wanted to take the Dears back to its primary objective, which is to be an art project first and a business second." Like many bands that achieve a modicum of commercial success, those priorities were temporarily unclear.
"In the Gang of Losers period," he continues, "art slipped so far down the list. I remember that Bono said bands shouldn't split up over money, they should split up over the track listing — and when I read that, I was thinking about the band I was in, and I was like, 'What am I fucking doing? What kind of outfit am I in anymore?' I became almost clinically depressed. I was prescribed pills — I didn't take them — and it had an effect on me and Natalia, to the point where we just had to shut the whole fucking thing down and rebuild it. And it's that sound that's on the record. It's a lot more free and pure and experimental and exciting, even though it's also entirely depressing. It's like a dignified nervous breakdown."
As a case in point, Lightburn cites the opening track of Missiles, "Disclaimer," a song that reads like a bridge from the Dears' past to their future. The composition opens with a two-minute instrumental segment, prominently featuring a saxophone solo by Lightburn's father. The opening lines allude to resurrection, vengeance and despair. Waves of guitars and noise crash on the beach as Lightburn returns again and again to the refrain "I'll get through to you." After nearly seven minutes, the wall of sound gives way to a prayerful organ and a gentle guitar arpeggio, leaving the slate clean for a whole new chapter.
"When I first heard the tune in my head, it woke me up at four in the morning," Lightburn remembers with awe. "I was hearing way too much music. It was like a fucking explosion. It was terrifying, actually. The sun was almost coming up, and I was lying there like, 'What the fuck am I gonna do with this?' I was to the point where my whole body was tense. Finally, I had to get up, go down in the basement and start bashing it out."
There's something vaguely pathological in the way that Lightburn describes his music-making process, but there's also a touch of the spiritual, as if some other consciousness or power were finding its voice, its expression and, most important, its audience through him.
"There's billions of people out there we can choose from who will get something from our music," says Lightburn, perhaps unconsciously emulating the sermonizing delivery of his preacher father. "And it will help nurture their souls when they're ready for it. But we don't expect everyone to be ready for the Dears. Of course, you're always trying to make something that everyone will love. You want your kid to be the most popular kid in school and valedictorian and shit, but I also recognize that there's gonna be people out there that aren't gonna like it, as much as it kills me. When people don't get it, they're afraid of it. The Dears are like a brutal mirror, and people don't want to deal with that shit, but we'll continue to deal with that shit for people if they want."
With this, Lightburn takes a breath, realizing that he might have taken himself — and a simple rock band — too seriously for a moment. "Look, they can be closet fans who cry themselves to sleep with Dears music in their headphones," he chuckles, "and then they can dis us on a blog the next day."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.