Coming from roughly the same Montreal scene that produced bands like the Dears, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Stars, the Besnard Lakes recorded with members of those bands on its Polaris Prize-nominated 2007 album, The Besnard Lakes Are the Dark Horse, at singer/guitarist Jace Lasek's Breakglass Studios. Starting out as a kind of post-rock band, the Besnard Lakes quickly developed into the kind of rock band with a healthy respect for the excellence of its influences, while writing music very much of the moment.
Its latest release, The Besnard Lakes Are the Roaring Night, is a leap forward for the band in terms of realizing an expansive, psychedelic rock sound with thick, heady atmospheres that transport the listener to a world far beyond the mundane.
If you could combine the bombast of Blue Oyster Cult and ELO with the latter's unerring sense of melody and the former's playful menace on a smaller scale and without the props, you'd get something like a Besnard Lakes performance. We spoke with the thoughtful and witty Lasek about the theme of spies, his use of the console that recorded "Kashmir" and his craft as he and the band were in the early stages of their current tour.
Spies have been a recurring motif across your three albums. What is it about spies and their world that you find most resonant and appealing?
I think that the thing with the whole idea of spies that appeals to me the most is the idea that they're sneaking around with information that has the potential to change the political structure of the world or the way people live their lives, but nobody really knows them. I mean, they could be your next door neighbors.
There's something sort of menacing about the idea of these people walking around with their finger on the pulse of the way the world works. But I could be one of them, and you're just talking to me and you would have absolutely no idea. I find that quite fascinating, the idea of this person who is living a double life.
It also makes it easy for me to write lyrics for songs because I don't really have much to say. In essence I live kind of a mundane life. I get up, I work at the studio, I record bands. I'm not going to write about my experience in the studio putting a microphone on a guitar amp. That's ridiculous! I guess maybe it's not but to have this concept I've derived makes it easier for me to write something that has some sort of meaning to it.
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Has anyone yet cracked the Morse code you've made a part of The Besnard Lakes Are the Roaring Night?
I thought about that the other day. If someone has, I haven't heard about it. I was going to email the guy who did the blog with the contest to crack the code and see if anyone had. Not yet, but I'll keep you posted.
For Roaring Night, I saw some interesting instrumentation like an Omnichord, Mellotron and Space Echo. Why did you include those sounds on the record, and do you take them on the road with you?
I'm fucking obsessed with the Omnichord right now. It was actually Murray Lightburn from The Dears plays Omnichord on "The Lonely Moan," and we haven't been able to perform that song live because we don't actually own an Omnichord. It was Murray's Omnichord.
So I've been scouring eBay trying to find a fucking Omnichord, so we can learn the song and play it on this upcoming tour. Since I live in Canada, all the Ominichords on eBay are all, "Do not ship to Canada; United States only."
I actually bid on one before I left town last time, and I almost had it and my internet died. So it's become the bane of me existence to find an Omnichord. They're only like two hundred bucks at the most. They're pretty cheap instruments. But it's so difficult for me to get my hands on one.
The Space Echo has been prevalent on all the records. I sing through them. A lot guitars get Space Echo. A lot of the warbling, long note e-bow stuff goes through the Space Echo. I have one that's kind of broken, so the tape doesn't move smoothly through it, so when you hear the delays back; it's almost like a vibrato.
We use that to create a creepy, eerie, long drone stuff -- it's kind of our secret weapon. But I don't take that one the road, and I have a couple of pedals that kind of fake it. I don't want to wreck it anymore. I have the version Roland makes, and it's actually quite decent. For live it's actually kind of cool. I have two Space Echos here at the studio. I used to take one on the road but they break down so often and I got sick of splicing the tapes.
Do you actually own a Mellotron?
No, it's Mellotron software. There this really cool software that GForce makes called M-Tron Pro. I got so stoked when the made that. There is a Mellotron in the city, and I think it's at another studio down the street. We've been thinking of buying them. There's a company that makes them here in Canada. They make them with see-through fiberglass.
You can see all the tape bins moving inside. It's pretty insane. I think Black Mountain uses one, too. I know Jeremy Schmidt from that band uses this thing called the Memo-Tron. The Germans built it, and it's a big keyboard into which you insert CDs. It's kind of cheating. It's still a $3,000 piece of equipment. I was like, "Fuck, I may as well just use the software!" [laughs]
What does that mixer you got from the sessions for Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" allow you to do as an engineer that your previous piece of gear did not?
When I first got it, I was always a opponent all this stuff that people buy in the studio with these big names on it. Fuck it, you make do with what you got. I'd heard that Sufjan Stevens once made one of his records entirely with an SM-57, and it sounded great. I've always been from that philosophy.
So when we got this console, we had been looking for a larger console. One of the coolest things about it that made things a lot easier for us is that it's got moving faders on it, so you can record your fader moves and you can do full mixes on your console, which is what I've always wanted to do. When we first brought the console in and turned it on and got some things passed through it, I was absolutely astounded at how good everything sounded just going through the console.
It's kind of Voodoo, but it really puts its stamp on the sounds of things, and it really makes it easy to mix tracks together because it has this weird sonic glue to it that allows your mixes to almost come together a lot easier. I've found that I'm always faster when I'm mixing just in ProTools to get the sounds I want out of it. With this thing, you can just play with your mix infinitely. It's really pliable and a lot of fun to play with.
You tend to sing in a vibrant falsetto in the band. Is that something that came naturally to you or is it something you had to work a lot to achieve?
It came naturally, but I remember when I was a kid and listening to records and people would make fun of me for singing like that. There's almost no falsetto on Volume 1, but the more I started writing songs in certain keys, the more my voice just started almost naturally going into that range. So when we started doing Dark Horse, I was like, "You know what? Fuck it. Maybe people will hate but that's where I feel comfortable singing, so that's what I'm going to do."
I think some people liked it. I know some people hated it, but it's like any sort of singing, you take it with a grain of salt and hope it works out. The vocals on the first record are quite varied. Olga and I were self-conscious singers to begin with. Even on Dark Horse, we were really working on our vocals. On Roaring Night, you'd hear Olga's vocals start to shine. She became a great singer on Roaring Night.
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Who does the artwork for your albums and shirts, and if it's not someone in the band, what is it about that artist that you find most interesting? Did you give any guidance on the direction of the artwork?
The person who did the paintings for Dark Horse and Roaring Night is Corri-Lynn Tetz. She's a painter here in Montreal. She's amazing, and when we brought to her the idea for Dark Horse, I had a whole bunch of mock-ups from people, and I kept looking at the artist Turner, who did a lot of depictions of battle scenes in oil, rich textures with lots of browns and blacks. She did it and I walked into her studio as she was finishing it, I said, "That's exactly it. That's perfect."
When we were doing Roaring Night, I showed her a bunch of old paintings of ship battles at night on water and some battles with religious places being destroyed. So I told her that's kind of what we wanted to do. Burying the cannons in water was her idea, and I thought it was absolutely brilliant, because it's almost like the water is squelching the cannons, like stopping the war. The water is portraying the Besnard Lakes, and it's stopping the cannons from destroying the city.