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By Philip Runco

The past is the past, and it’s better left behind.

Or so Catherine McCandless tells us on “Factory Flaws”, the sparkling lead single from Young Galaxy’s recently released Falsework.

She’s speaking of emotional baggage, of accepting someone despite his or her defects – or maybe in part because of them – but in isolation, the sentiment also encapsulates the story of Young Galaxy: For ten years, McCandless and her husband Stephen Ramsay have habitually put the past in their rear view mirror.

But in front of them right now, not yet something to push against or relegate to the shelf of past triumphs, is Falsework. It’s the band’s third album with Swedish producer Dan Lissvik – formerly one half of esteemed Balearic act Studio – and one that shows the full realization of their synth pop’s progression to dancefloor.

Perhaps more intriguing is how Young Galaxy is choosing to present this music live: paired with choreographed dance and music-triggered lights designed by Adam Hummell, a contributor to big budget tour productions for Madonna, Cirque Du Soleil, and Miley Cyrus.

The ambition of the project – the audacity, even – is not lost on Ramsay.

“We’re swinging for the bleachers,” he admits. “I want this show to be anything other than just having our music peter out or not register with people. I’d literally rather have it be ‘Spın̈al Tap’ in its failure so that people can see the level with which we mean it and the level to which we want to push it.”

Ramsay is speaking from Montreal, where he lives with McCandless and their two sons, one of whom is clamoring to get on the phone and answer some questions himself.

“Another time, Giles,” the father tells his one-year-old. “You’ll do interviews twenty years from now.”

Young Galaxy plays Black Cat on Wednesday. Falsework is out now on Paper Bag Records.

Young-Galaxy

Charting the past three records, there seems to be a clear progression. Does Falsework feel like a culmination or just the next chapter?

It’s a little bit of both. Mostly, it feels like a culmination. We’ve looked at it as a trilogy of records. Around the second record, we talked about how it would be nice to maybe do three with Dan [Lissvik], the Swedish guy that we work with. One of the things that has always been a calling card of the band is defying expectations about who we are and what we do. That’s something we enjoy.

At this stage, we’ve run a course of sorts. The first time we worked with Dan, it was very protracted and disjointed in the sense that he was never around. We had never met. We did it all via Skype. We didn’t meet him until after we had done the record. From there, we made the plan to travel to Sweden to work with him, which we did. And then, this time, he came to us. We’ve kind of done all of the scenarios. And now, I don’t know – I think we’ll still work with Dan, but it’s definitely more of a collaborative nature. Initially, it felt like we were employing him to do something on our behalf. As our friendship and comfort level grew, it became more of a collaborative thing. We may end up doing something different altogether with him, like a different project.

Young Galaxy is sort of up in the air in some ways. At the heart of it is Catherine and I, and it always has been. As a married couple we generate something from a particular perspective. It’s always been a little tricky for the other people who have been involved to find a foothold.

In a sense, it’s been amorphous since the beginning. We’ve always had a reputation for being underrated – a band that flies under the radar a bit. As frustrating as that might seem, it also allows us the ability to change the nature of what we are; we don’t feel beholden to any sense of having to hit all of the notes that people expect from us. A lot of bands feel that; there’s a lot of pressure for them to figure out their ambitions before they even figure out their creative core. That’s an insidious thing that’s crept into music, and we try to keep that in perspective. We don’t make a ton of money. We make a living as musicians. We identify as artists. But we’re not in this classic mold of artists who make a lot of money. We live hand-to-mouth in some ways, but we’ve done it for almost ten years, and so we have no pretenses. There’s no glamour in what we do. It’s very workmanlike.

And it’s funny: Since [David] Bowie died, we’ve been in this weird, reflective period. It’s surprising to both Catherine and I how much his death affected us. A lot of the changes we made [in Young Galaxy] came after going through a period of time where we really got into his work and saw how he was able to redefine things without precedent. That seemed like a very exciting thing to do. Catherine and I pride ourselves on not living a conventional existence. It’s what led us to this career path and even where we live. We live on the other side of the continent from where we were raised and away from our families, and it’s sort of in pursuit of something unique. We try to infuse our creativity with that perspective.

I feel like the music industry is a minefield these days. Everyone is scrambling. They don’t really know what they’re doing. Labels are as clueless as bands for how to be successful. Everyone is desperate for success and clamoring over themselves to get noticed. There’s not something that we can change about ourselves to appeal more to people. We have to be ourselves.

Were there particular Bowie records that resonated with you or was it the totality of his career?

We really looked at his Berlin era because it was such a strange period of time creatively for him. There’s a lot of mystery. His creative peak seemed to appear during that period. It’s arguable that his output in the ’70s was as strong as anybody’s ever. This was that period of time when he made Low and Heroes and Lodger, and he kept changing his look. He was dabbling in a lot of strange drugs and a lot of strange subcultural things, like black magic. Those aren’t things that we would necessarily do, but we could see how he could pull from it. He’s kind of the world’s first post-modern pop star. He could pull from all of these disparate places in the cultural milieu, like Buster Keaton and Aleister Crowley, and create this alien-type presence around it.

Our first record was very much a tribute in some ways. We came to making music late, so it was sort of a reflection of our interests musically when we were younger. It had this shoegaze-y rock feel, which was partly because of who we were working with on it – friends of ours from the Besnard Lakes. It sorted of reflected their sound a bit. It was us looking back in some ways.

By the second record, we were starting to think, “Well, there’s all this other stuff in our musical lexicon that we’d like to draw from.” Bowie at that point was such a tremendous draw because you couldn’t predict him from one record to the next. Even looking back in retrospect, it just seems absolutely without precedent – every step he took. So, we started looking at that. And I think there was a little bit of an effort to identify musically there, too. At the same time, I was struggling with the sound of my voice while Catherine was coming into her own. I was starting to sing in a different style and Catherine was singing a lot more lead, so it felt like there was this natural shift  that could occur that would appear unpredictable based on the first record. We started to get off on that idea.

The second record we did ourselves. We had left our label and were trying things out on our own, and to be frank, it was a bit of a disaster. We didn’t enjoy the process of putting out our own music. At the time, we felt a bit cornered into it. Radiohead had just put out In Rainbows and everyone was saying, “It’s the future!” Of course, for a band like us, it really wasn’t. It was just a big drag because nobody was really interested in picking up on the album without us paying a lot of money. We were hovering about failure constantly. We were always waking up and questioning whether we had made the right decisions. In doing so, we were looking for new outlets. And in my teens and twenties, I had spent a lot of time DJing. I listened to all kinds of music. I was definitely involved in the first wave of Napster and file sharing and got exposed to a tremendous amount of music in that time. From there, I felt like we could try anything if we felt like it, especially if no ultimately was listening. [Laughs]

It’s hard to narrow it down to one Bowie album without being overwhelmed by choice, but in one career, he had this incredible hunger to expand and move beyond what he had done last. He shattered the mold every time, and that became really appealing as a direction to emulate. And here we are, days after he’s died, and it kind of feels like the loss of a family member. It’s very strange. We’ve both been in a bit of a daze. But it reminds me to keep that spirit going. It’s easy to get fatigued in music because you have to generate constantly. Bowie was a pure artist. If we have the fortune to call ourselves artists, then we should be using the best part of that – not just the part that seems to be really prevalent these days, which is this careerist attitude of: get your career, get your fame, hang onto it, make your money.

We’re in this for the long haul, and we haven’t made a ton of money, and we’re still at it. We feel like we have to double down with every record.

Did the evolution of your relationship with Dan [Lissvik] correlate with an increased confidence in working with synths? Did you have to overcome any sense of intimidation?

We like the idea of the novice mind, where everything is new and exciting and open. Dan definitely has that, too. Dan is the kind of guy who is self taught. We’re both self-taught musicians and, luckily, we’ve both found the abilities to make a living out of it. It felt like we’d been undergoing the same process. I would argue that Dan is a much more accomplished musician, even though he would laugh if I said that. He would say, “Oh no, I’m not musician.” That’s attitude that a lot people who stumble blindly through music have. You can come through two sides: You can come through the technical side of music, and you become a virtuoso and you learn how to read music, or you come in through the side that’s playing and experimentation.

When we got together, I didn’t feel a real sense of intimidation. If anything, I was just excited because I was a fan of his music. At that point, it felt like a validation of sorts. Even though we had struggled in our career up to that point, we felt like here was a guy that we felt very strongly about and he was into the idea of collaborating. If anyone asked me at the time who I wanted to collaborate with, he was probably the number one guy.

What Dan was really good at doing was keeping that open, playful spirit. I think it really rubbed off on us. Because Catherine and I are in a relationship, we have a tendency to be heavy and ponderous at times. The first record was in some way a very cathartic record for us, but we didn’t want to constantly be battering away at this heavy music. He helped lighten it up and make it feel more visceral and happier and energized.

Dance music was a big part of our formative experiences – going to clubs and raves and being a part of that culture. I understand that euphoric feeling of standing in the crowd and hearing a piece of music that makes you want to dance. That’s arguably a more powerful feeling than the personal feeling that some people have with music where they get blown away by a really heavy tune. We’re after something more inclusive and upbeat and energized. Dan was really good at that and pushed us. It took some time enter that realm with him, but his attitude towards music and choices have rubbed on us in a way that I would never be able to go back to where we once where.

How would you describe your earliest exposure to dance and rave culture?

I grew up on Vancouver Island, and I was a teenager when bands like the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays and that whole Manchester thing were happening. There was a lot of dance music around that time – Chicago house music and Jeff Mills and Kevin Saunderson and Juan Atkins and a guy called Gerald in the UK. There was this crossover occurring between pop music, rock, and dance. Dance music hadn’t really infiltrated the mainstream prior to that; it was really quite underground in Canada. As a fifteen year-old, there was nowhere you could go to hear it. There were no clubs. So, we would hold our own parties. They started in our living rooms, and then it was like, “I’m going to buy a strobe light!” [Laughs] Eventually, people were like, “Maybe we should move this somewhere where we can really move?” Then we started moving to dance halls.

Eventually, I moved to Vancouver, and there was obviously more happening there. There was an actual club scene, but it was still quite underground. It felt truly countercultural. It was pre-Internet still, and so it was still something you had to discover via word-of-mouth. It felt like yours when you discovered it. I lament the loss of being able to seek out something that not everyone knows about. It seems very hard to do now.

The environment was very unusual. Obviously, there were the drugs that came with it, like ecstasy. Those [drugs] were around and something that I would occasionally take part in, but it didn’t become a big part of my existence. But the environment itself – the combination of the drugs, music, and countercultural spirit – was like a sea change for me. It just became a wing of my musical interests, in a way. There was still rock music and pop music, but this was the one kind of music where a lot of people didn’t know the lexicon, and so it felt very alien for a long time. And now it’s EDM. [Laughs] It’s no longer alien at all. Now it’s just a bunch of idiots in the room taking selfies.

Given how cognizant you are of operating within your means, the decision to invest so much in this live show is intriguing. Why is it so important to you?

If I’m being totally honest about it, I’m a  forty-year-old man that makes pop music. I’ve been through a lot in my life, and I’ve ended up in a place where I’m fortunate to have a beautiful family and do what I want to do. But there’s still this pervasive thing around music that’s very much a bunch of rich, old, white dudes telling kids what to do and preying on their excitement and willingness to do anything for nothing.

Every time you make a record, you feel like you’re being pushed into that high school cafeteria scenario where someone whispers in your ear, “There’s the cool kids table. You gotta go over there and make friends with those guys.” And you’re like, “Whoa, man, I don’t know if I want to do that. It’s not something that really appeals to me at this point in my life.”

The crazy thing about music is that there’s this clean slate creatively. You can make whatever you want, right? It’s easier and less costly to make music than ever before. And yet, when it comes to how you package, market, and perform it, there are very conservative expectations. The music industry is a mirror of real life in that the rich in the industry are trying to corner more and more of the entire market and effectively choke out the middle and lower classes.

We’re five records in. We’ve toured all around North America several times. We’ve gone from being not a very good band to a decent band to good band. But by the time we hit album four, it didn’t really matter how good we were; we were just in the circuit.  We were playing the same venues. and there would be more people in them, and we’d be like, “Whoa, we played to 150 people in Chicago! Last time, we played to 80.” And someone would say, “Well, it wasn’t sell out.” And it’d be like, “To me, that’s growth. That’s good.” But they’d be like, “Yeah, but that’s not sexy. I can’t do anything with that.”

I started to think, “The writing is on the wall if they’re just going to keep sending us out on this goat track, where all of these bands go out and stand under the same lights. It won’t even if register for people, even if the room is busy and people are enjoying themselves.”

With two kids on the way, we saw an inevitable petering out of what we do. We know that we can’t pile in the van and tour like a bunch of twenty-year-old’s. We’ve already done that for ten years. We’ve put everything on the line. and we’ve lost our shirts two times over. We’ve spent all of the money that we’ve saved to make the band continue. And each time, it’s been to these incremental returns that seemed to not register at all within the industry. That was starting to piss me off. I felt like, “What do we have to do for people to care? We’re a good band and people know that, but if what we have to do is something crazy, then let’s do something crazy.”

And so we arrived at this idea. We kept running into our friends who are choreographers here [in Montreal], and they kept saying, “We want to do something with you.” We were like, “We’d love to, but we don’t know where to begin.” Luckily, we live in Canada and we have a grant system that supports artists, and we were able to pull together some grant money and create this show.

We’re swinging for the bleachers. I want this show to be anything other than just having our music peter out or not register with people. I’d literally rather have it be “Spın̈al Tap” in its failure, so that people can see the level with which we mean it and the level to which we want to push it. Bands in our position can’t put on great shows. Meanwhile, you have someone like Calvin Harris who can do whatever the fuck he wants because he has so much money. You’re increasingly going to see all of these idiots doing all of the best things, and no one else will be able to do anything except kind of limp through their existence, until they say, “Fuck it, I can’t do this anymore. It’s too costly, and I’m tired, and it’s not paying off anymore.”

So, we’re doing this thing where we’ve got the choreography and the lights. It’s full-on. And it could totally fail. We’re two weeks from the first shows and it’s very touch and go. And that’s OK! I feel good about it. We’re going to show up at the first shows in Washington and New York, and we’re going to fucking plug in, and we’re going to try and do it. It’s either going to blow people’s minds and totally defy expectations for a band like us or it will fail miserably. I’m OK with that. I want to try and defy the lack of expectations.

When we started planning this stuff and we were talking to agents and people around us, quite frankly, there was a lot of indifference. It was crickets. We thought, “Here’s a chance for us to vault ourselves into a new position as a band creatively.” And most people were like, “You just can’t do that. You don’t have the right.” That was essentially the message. Everyone involved was stunned. We were all like, “I can’t believe this.”

We’re a band that’s done fairly well. With our last record, we hit a critical peak of sorts, and I think we made an even better record this time. And yet people just weren’t into the idea of taking risks and doing a little bit of extra work to try to make the show something bigger. So, that became an even bigger impetus for us to dig our heels in and say, “We’re going to do this.” It’s either this or nothing. I’m not going to get into a van and drive halfway across the continent and play in some half empty venue, knowing that the perception in the industry is yep, don’t care. We’re going to do something that makes people notice what we’re doing.

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