Q&A: The Dears' Frontman Murray Lightburn on Louis C.K., Fatherhood, Moonshine
He just turned 40, but the Dears' frontman Murray Lightburn isn't planning on hanging up the microphone any time soon. In fact, after a U.S. label change (from Arts & Crafts to Dangerbird Records) and some line-up tinkering that saw bassist Roberto Arquilla and guitar players Patrick Krief and Rob Benvie leave the band at various times only to return in 2008, Lightburn says that the Montreal orchestral pop rock band, whose 2003 release No Cities Left earned it the title of "probably the best new band in the world" from NME, feels like it's been born again. After the release of this past February's Degeneration Street, the band's fifth studio album, the Dears took off on a whirlwind tour of the West Coast before wrapping up at South by Southwest in Austin with six shows in three days.
The Voice checked in with Lightburn before the Dears head back out to the Atlantic coast, including tonight's stop at Music Hall of Williamsburg. The husband, father, and preacher's son schooled us on cheese-making, Louis C.K., and the art of aging gracefully.
You guys have been at this for awhile. Does touring get easier or just more aggravating?
It's definitely not aggravating. You just have to be in shape. You can't be a couch potato and go on a six-week tour. It's also more of a mental than a physical strain: by the time you get to the fourth week, you're basically on suicide watch [laughs].
When a tour is over, do you just go home and crash?
I can't believe that at this stage of my career, I still go through that kind of post-tour stress disorder, where I'm just super anxious and antsy. I get home and my body is exhausted, but my brain is still going at a hundred miles an hour. It's a weird adjustment.
Do you have any sort of ritual that helps you adjust?
This time, I came home and did some research on homemade cheese and was dicking around, making some bread and cheese. Spending an entire day cooking snapped me out of it. It's kind of relaxing and a bit of a hobby for me.
What's in your cheese repertoire?
I'm just figuring that stuff out. Basically, I'm researching various things that I can make at home. The next thing I'm considering is homemade vodka. I guess you could call it moonshine.
Is that legal in Canada?
Hmm. I think so. We're tolerant of a great many things in Canada.
Indeed. Turning to the album, the recording process was more collaborative this time around.
It was very liberating for me personally. I still busted my ass as I always do on every Dears album, but what made things easier was the communication that we developed as a band. I've known all these guys--with the exception of Jeff Luciani, our drummer--for quite a number of years and have worked with them extensively. It was a lot easier to develop the trust that wasn't always necessarily there with the band in the past. So everyone was at "10" all the time working on this, and it kind of came out as an explosion of brains on record.
With all of the turnover that you guys have had, it must be nice to have a stable lineup.
It's funny because when you look at it, the same people who made No Cities Left (2003) also made Gang of Losers (2006) and the same people who made Missiles (2008) made Degeneration Street. The line-up didn't change for about six-seven years, so we haven't had that much turnover. It only looks that way [laughs] because we had a complete disintegration after Gang of Losers. Since then, we've been building towards this band and this record now.
Are you happy with the way the album turned out?
In a sense, Degeneration Street is a new beginning. A lot of my friends have told me that it has a kind of first-album feel. I can see that because it has that energy of a band that's been in the garage making demos for years and feels as if they have something to prove. Subconsciously as a band, I think we all wanted to make that kind of record. From the outside, it just looks like a fifth album for the band, but we feel like we've hit a reset button. With Missiles, it was kind of like we were dating at that point. So when we got together for this album it was more of a commitment.
Missiles started as a solo album. Are you surprised that the Dears made it to a fifth album?
Natalia [Yanchak, the band's keyboardist and Lightburn's wife] was really the driving force behind continuing the Dears, and in a way sparked my personal revelation about what the Dears' role in the whole scene is--that is, that the Dears are not meant to go away. They're meant to make records forever. There was so much anxiety between Gang of Losers and Missiles, but when I decided I'm gonna make music forever, it was like, "That's it. Fuck ya'll" [laughs].
You're music is loaded with spiritual undertones. Is that a conscious decision or does it just come naturally?
I'd say the band is split between being quasi-spiritual agnostic and completely atheist. My parents are born again Christians and I grew up in a Pentecostal church where my father is a reverend. That filter is always there in the lyrical side of things, but for me, there also remains a tremendous amount of doubt and skepticism. The Dears ask a lot of those gigantic existential-ish questions. That big idea of God and what happens when we die is always gonna be there. In everyday life you'll have an experience that makes you say, "There is no God, we have no soul." And then there are other times where you'll be like, "Maybe there's something to this."
Another thing that comes up a lot in your songs is this sense of being lost. There's this idea that you're just a regular guy being beaten down by all of the shit in the world. Some people would probably wonder how you can feel that way as a successful musician who gets to travel the world playing music.
Last night, I was watching Louis C.K. on the Internet. He's probably my favorite comedian right now. His audience is growing and he's becoming more well-known, but his comedy is still on the edge. I find that we have a lot in common with him in a weird way. He is successful--more successful than us--but he talks about stuff that is really, brutally honest and a lot of people are digging that. He says some pretty painful stuff and we're laughing our asses off about it. The Dears is a similar thing, in that the stuff that we sing about is the stuff that's going on within a lot of us deep down and it's quite brutal to deal with and ugly to look at. I think that a lot of people don't realize that there is a certain amount of humor to everything that we do. When we came out with "Whites Only Party" [We didn't come to steal your women/Well, at least that wasn't the plan"] it was meant as that type of a joke. There's a tremendous amount of extremely dry humor to it. If you don't get that, well then we weren't that successful [laughs].
Songs like "Whites Only Party" or "Yesteryear" cover these deep feelings, but with this really upbeat music behind them.
That's also part of the humor. Putting, like, a smiley face on a dark situation is kind of funny; to me, anyway. We're generally out to have a good time.
It's pretty obvious at your shows.
These days we are at least. There was a time years and years ago-- around the Gang of Losers time--when we would go on stage and barely anyone was speaking to each other. We had things happening internally, and it became this battle about what the Dears is as a band. It's always been an art project. When you start thinking about "How are we going to change this into a commercial machine?" and that starts to dictate what's coming out, that's really not cool.
When I started the first album, I didn't even know I was making an album. I was just making recordings. Natalia was the one who said, "We should release this." I had no idea how to do that, so she walked me through the whole concept.From then on, the goal was just to make it a sustainable project. It was never to be marching into arenas for multiple nights or being the Rolling Stones or U2 or something. I always get the feeling that when people write about the band critically, they have this idea that we are trying to "make it."
Do you ever feel pressure to "make it?"
The only pressure I feel is in wanting to reach as many people as possible. But my reasons for that are far different from the goals of driving a gold Bentley or living in a mansion. I think maybe I'd do some renovations around my house if we became ridiculously rich, but we don't need a whole lot to get by. I can personally remember sometimes not having milk in the fridge, so I can appreciate both just getting by as well as being able to have a nice bottle of wine with dinner sometimes.
The real pressure is trying to bring up my kid.
How is it being a dad and being in a band?
Me and Natalia have to balance a lot of logistics: Are we bringing her? How long are we going out for? How much school is she missing? Other than that, it hasn't really changed what we're singing about. Personally, having a kid has definitely changed me, but I also just turned 40, so my world view is refining itself a little bit. Part of that is definitely having a child and watching her grow up in this shithole and just hoping for the fucking best. It's terrifying. But I can imagine in the dark ages people were thinking the same thing [laughs].
Natalia just showed me a picture posted on our Facebook page of me crowdsurfing the day after my 40th birthday. I don't do that a lot, but the fact is that I'm not willing to let go of rock-and-roll any time soon. But, I also don't want to be one of those aging rockers. That's the worst: a crusty, aging rocker. I try to stay young in body, mind and soul.
The Dears headline the Music Hall of Williamsburg tonight, Tuesday, March 29. Tickets are still onsale here.
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