Q&A With Constantines’ Bryan Webb
Bryan Webb, the singer and guitarist for Canada’s Constantines, profiled in Westword’s July 3 edition, is a naturally introspective fellow – but he opens up in his songs, and in the Q&A below.
After reminiscing about the birth of the band (and chatting about the ways in which the players are battling high fuel prices), Webb concedes that he never looked at the band as a career option and actually felt that making music his profession could be creatively harmful. From there, he discusses the group’s move from Sub Pop Records in the U.S. to Arts & Crafts, an acclaimed Canadian imprint; a pre-release leak of the fine disc Kensington Heights and his hope that its early distribution won’t work to everyone’s disadvantage; the album’s elaborate layout, which is meant in part to give fans a reason to purchase a physical disc as opposed to simply downloading a track here or there; the comparison of album sequencing and making a set list; the unusual subject matters he chooses to tackle; the thinking behind the lyrics of the new tune “I Will Not Sing a Hateful Song;” his passion for speaking only when he’s certain what to say, and how that creates challenges in his relationship with his fiancée; and the potential of rivalry between Constantines and labelmates like Broken Social Scene.
Don’t expect a shouting match.
Westword (Michael Roberts): You guys have been together for almost ten years now. Is that right?
Bryan Webb: We’re nine years this month [June]. Next year, we’re going to have a big party to celebrate.
WW: Does it seem like it’s been that long?
BW: Definitely it feels like it’s been that long. We just have an understanding that can only come from playing and traveling in close quarters for nine years together. And it’s just been so full of adventure. Just a lot of good memories from the last nine years. It’d be untrue to say that it seemed to go fast. But it’s gone slowly in a good way (laughs).
WW: When you first got together and started playing in college, did you have serious ambitions about making music a career?
BW: Not at all. I was kind of resistant to that for a long time. I thought that would corrupt the music if we were trying to make a living doing it. But we traveled a lot at the time, and we’d go out with, like, Oneida or Royal City. We met some people amazing people and traveled – and the more we did, the more we enjoyed it and became accustomed to it as a lifestyle. And actually at some point, I was just working a pretty shitty job in a warehouse. It was like a CD and record distribution warehouse, so we’d package up CDs and send them to warehouses all day…
WW: That’s one of those jobs that may not exist for much longer…
BW: Exactly. And I think we had played one show or a couple of shows that did pretty well, and I had a bit of money in the bank. So I just said, “I’m going to try to quit this job and go as long as I can without having a boss.” Basically, that’s what I was hoping to do. And that was maybe four and a half years ago. It’s been going pretty well. As long as we’re traveling and playing a lot, then I can do it.
WW: It’s interesting that you mentioned how important it is for you to keep moving. Just today, we learned about a show that was scheduled to take place at a club in Denver that was cancelled. The artist decided to call off the last part of his tour because of the high price of gasoline. Have you had to make changes in your touring regimen because of expenses like that?
BW: Well, we’re traveling in a biodiesel vehicle at the moment. I’m not sure what the cost or how it’s being run. The guy who’s driving us – we lucked into having a bus on this tour, which is crazy to me. We’re still getting used to it. But we’re traveling with Ladyhawk all in one vehicle, with a sound guy, a tour manager and a driver. So there’s eleven people, and it just made more sense to all travel in one vehicle and not be renting rooms or taking two vans. And it’s a biodiesel bus, and the driver and our tour manager seem to be confident that we’re not going to lose too much per day with the gas prices. Once we’ve booked a tour, it’s pretty hard to turn down a show once we’ve been offered one. I’ve had to do it a few times because my throat gives out or something like that, but it’s a pretty rare thing. We enjoy playing live and traveling a lot. Unless we’re going way, way into the red, we probably won’t cancel any shows for financial reasons.
WW: You mentioned earlier that when first thought about being part of a band, you were afraid that doing it professionally might have a negative impact on the music. How did you strike a balance between needing to make a certain amount of money in order to keep doing what you’re doing and wanting to keep the focus on the creativity and the artistry?
BW: I think the thing that kind of corrupts bands or musicians or artists in that situation is just laziness. If you give in to the fact that you don’t have to get up and go to work in the morning, or you’re only responsible for yourself and the people you’re creative with – if you take too much advantage of that, and you don’t put anything into it creative or in terms of work and time, I’ve found that’s when things start to go sour. But I’ve found that if I’m not doing anything creatively, if not productive and working, I start to feel really restless and depressed. I kind of have a mental check that keeps me working, because I’m not happy unless I’m working – unless I feel like I’ve made something that day or that week. Or that I’m working toward something. That’s just a part of my brain – the feeling that I need to keep working.
WW: Your previous album was released by Sub Pop in the United States, whereas your latest one came out on Arts & Crafts. What spurred that move?
BW: We were kind of free agents in a lot of ways after Tournament of Hearts. We’d fulfilled our contract with Sub Pop. It was a two-record deal. And we were on Three Gut Records in Canada. They were our friends; we had a small collective kind of label. And that disbanded as well, just because people wanted to go on to other things. Tournament of Hearts was the last record on that label. And our management was based around that label as well. The woman who ran the label [Lisa Moran] was our manager, and she was moving on to other things, moving to New York – so we didn’t have a manager. And I feel like there were a few other things, too. So everything was up in the air for us, and we just decided we would play a bunch and avoid making a decision for a while. We did that for about a year. And then a few people close to us started to put the pressure on us to make a decision and move ahead with a new record. And Arts & Crafts came to us and were interested and had the answers to questions that we were asking. They just had good ideas about where music was going technologically and how to push us to more people, or to get us out to more people. And they wanted to send us to places we’d never been before. It was just a lot of stuff we wanted to hear – and obviously, Arts & Crafts has done really well over the past five years and have a caché as a label. I think a lot of people are interested about what’s coming out on Arts & Crafts. So we definitely wanted to get in on that. And they were all really nice people as well. It’s a small label, relatively, and we wouldn’t get lost in the fold, which was important.
WW: You mentioned the changes in the industry, and that connects to the new album leaking on the Internet the very day you announced an upcoming release date a couple of months down the line.
WW: Was that frustrating for you? Or at this point, do you feel, that’s just the way things work today and we’ll just have to live with it?
BW: I’m not too worried about it. I think Arts & Crafts were more bummed than we were. We took it as a sign that at least a few people were interested in what was coming. So that was good to us. I don’t know: I like that people can access music from anywhere and can access stranger music. The most marginalized music is accessible to everyone now, which to me is great. But there are ways of taking advantage of that system, too, and it happens. That’s fine. I would just hope that anybody who downloaded our record for free would just come and see our show or something – that if they like the record, they’d come and support us live. That’d be great. But it’s not a big deal.
WW: The disc that was eventually released comes in very elaborate packing – very cool packaging, too. Do you feel that at this point, bands need to go the extra mile and give people an additional reason to buy a physical product?
BW: Definitely. Dallas [Wehrle] is our bass player, and he designs all the layouts and all of our visuals, and he’s had that in mind since we started. All the layouts have some kind of elaborate assembly. And it’s definitely good to give people an art object – something apart from the music that makes it interesting to own that thing. That’s one of the reasons we made something so elaborate.
WW: Constantines doesn’t strike me as being a singles band; you seem to have an album mentality. Does that tie into the packaging concept as well? That if people purchase the CD, they may actually listen to the whole thing from beginning to end instead of cherry-picking a song here or there?
BW: I don’t know if we’re that savvy about it. I can’t imagine how to make music without thinking of it in terms of records just because of the way we work. We tend to write songs in fragments and have a bunch of things coming together at any given time. And then after a period of two years, we concentrate on getting stuff all together and completing what we have. So we have twelve or thirteen songs come together after a couple of years, and we record them because they’re ready to be recorded. And then someone releases them and that’s how it goes. And I definitely like albums. If I like a particular musician, I’m much more interested in what they do over the length of an album rather than just what their new single is, you know? There is some pop music that I definitely like. I’m not uptight about that. But for people I really care about, I’m interested in the whole thing. It’s a dynamic thing, a record, and there are a lot of nuances in how people work in that format.
WW: In listening to Kensington Heights, I sensed that a lot of care went into the pacing, the flow. You start off in a very grabby fashion with “Hard Feelings,” and then you weave your way through a lot of different tempos and styles. Was the order of the tracks important to you?
BW: Absolutely. Sequencing is a big thing for me, and this time around, the record was meant to have the feel of a live performance. It has the flow of a live performance. And I tend to spend a lot of time writing set lists on tour – try to figure out the dynamics, and how things are going to work with an audience, and how we can best relate to people. So that goes into the sequencing of a record as well, although we have way too much time to obsess over it, so we end up worrying too much and stressing over the sequence for two months.
WW: Do you tend to go through ten or twenty different orders until you finally land on the one that works best?
BW: Yeah, for sure.
WW: Was there a time when “Hard Feelings,” which seems like the perfect opener, was the last song on the album? Or somewhere in the middle?
BW: I think for me, “Hard Feelings” was always first. There was a time when we thought about putting “Brother Run Them Down” first, but we ended up putting that first on the second side. That’s the other thing: I always think of records in terms of LPs. Like, this is going to be the last song on the first side, and this is going to be the first song on the second side. This record is definitely laid out with that in mind, as are all of our records.
WW: Lyrically, you take on topics that don’t often turn up in popular music, and a prime example of that is “Credit River.” There aren’t many rock songs that address bankruptcy and debt. Is that one based at all on personal experience, or the experiences of someone you know?
BW: It’s a bit of a song from my fiancée and I, and a lot of our friends as well – friends around thirty years old who are just trying to figure out where their money is going, and are obsessing so much about money, or worrying about it, or stressing about it. It’s just kind of a casting-off song. It’s meant to be kind of a lark. But just saying, “Don’t worry about it for now.” And also, talking about credit and debt is kind of like “Busted” by Ray Charles. I love that kind of song, too, where it’s just like, “Damn!” Trying to explain the impossibility of a certain situation in an endearing or humorous kind of way.
WW: Another song on the album that struck me as much heavier is “I Will Not Sing a Hateful Song.” The lines that jumped out to me were the lines, “I was also born and raised/To always speak and listen clear/To know the last sound that I make/Could be the last sound that I hear.” Is that an approach you take to songwriting? Do you try to make sure every word is the way you want it before setting it down for posterity?
BW: For sure. I definitely obsess over the little things – over syntax and even the placement of “the” or “a” or “an.” Just because I like phrasing and rhythm. Those are rhetorical techniques, but it’s good to know that you mean what you say. Oftentimes I start writing with a really direct idea and try to be really direct while saying it, and eventually out of self-defense or something, I make it a bit more convoluted or throw some things in there to obscure what I originally meant. I’m not sure why that is. Like I said, it might just be to defend myself against criticism. But in terms of the “Hateful” song, I was just like, sometimes you have to say exactly what you mean and be as direct as possible. That’s a good thing to do – and that’s all I was doing with that song. Giving that intent for where I was.
WW: Do you think that in a general sense people don’t pay as much attention to that kind of thing as they should – not just in songwriting, but in our everyday lives? That we tend to talk before we think and then spend a lot of time arguing about miscommunication we might have been able to avoid otherwise?
BW: Yeah, absolutely. My fiancée and myself get into situations like that all the time. I don’t speak a lot, but when I speak, I wait until I know exactly what I want to say and the exact words I want to use, whereas she’s very passionate and will lay it on the line at any moment. That’s probably the biggest issue in our relationship. But I find that’s sort of been my experience my entire life. Frustrating people by not saying much until I know what I want to say. People are different (laughs). It’s good to be expressive and be open. I’m just a little more protective and a little more shy, maybe.
WW: Do you find that sometimes you have difficulty figuring out exactly what you think about a certain topic until you sit down to write a song about it – and when you’re done, you can sit back and say, “Oh, that’s what I was feeling”?
BW: Absolutely. Writing is how I understand the world. That’s exactly it. When I sit down to write a song, it’s usually because I don’t understand what’s happening, and I know I need to sort something out. That’s it exactly.
WW: And by the time you’re done, the situation may not be entirely sorted out, but you’ve got a better handle on it?
BW: Absolutely – or I’ve illuminated why it is I don’t understand it (laughs).
WW: We talked earlier about Arts & Crafts, and it certainly seems to be one of the smartest labels out there right now – and also very Canada-centric. Is there any home country pride in being part of something like that?
BW: I think so. Also, part of why we wanted to be on Arts & Crafts and why we’re excited about that label is because they’re down the street from where we practice. Sub Pop was on the other side of the continent, and while we had a really great relationship with all those folks, and still do, they’re pretty far away. We don’t get to hang out very often. It makes a big difference to be able to see the people you’re doing business with socially, and to connect with them and be able to be in the same city. That’s been a real good thing about Arts & Crafts. And there’s definitely pride that people have at how well Arts & Crafts is doing internationally. I’d say that’s true.
WW: Is there any healthy competition with any of the other acts on the label? Do you have that extra incentive to make sure the quality of your music matches up with what the other bands on the label are doing?
BW: Not yet (laughs). We’re all pretty friendly, but we’re just starting out. Things may get more competitive as we go. I don’t know that we’re a threat to Broken Social Scene or anything. Maybe if we sell 100,000 records or something, they’ll start to sweat.
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