Not what they seem.
Or are they? And is he?
It’s one of the many, many interesting things about Calgary rock gods Napalmpom.
Or are they? Rock gods that is. I mean, listen to their music, catch the band live and their obvious, loving yet fresh homage to the old-school masters of the genre — the Lizzys, the Sweets, the DCs, the MCs, the ’Fingers, and even The Whos — is probably the initial taste that hits your buds.
The twin guitar attack, the relentless chugging of bass and drums, and the groovy, soulful shout-croon — it all adds up to the big rock with the heavy roll.
Or does it?
Chatting with frontman P.J. Lavergne in a corner of 17th Ave. haunt Local 510 the picture gets as hazy and confused as those best daze that birthed the sound that they hark back to before getting that much clearer.
“When we first started applying for grants and stuff like that,” says the gentle, genial and fabulous freak brother, “we had checked the ‘pop’ box and found that we were I think judged by the panels a little more harshly than if we had just left it as ‘rock ’n’ roll.’ ”
But they are. Pop, that is. Along with the aforementioned R squared.
The melodies that they conjure, the tunefulness they exude, it’s as seductive if not more so than the muscles they flex in their music.
That’s more apparent on the quintet’s sophomore outing The Core Competencies of Napalmpom, which they’ll release this Friday night with a show at The Palomino and then again the next night up the road at The Buckingham.
The 11 songs, produced by official sixth member Lorrie Matheson with the skill, understanding and motherliness you’d expect from the bestest doula, is nothing short of a revelation, nothing short of brilliant. Yes, it’s loud and crunchy, but it’s also fun, cheeky, cool, sweet and pop as fuck.
As good as their debut The Unconditional Love Of Napalmpom was, the new collection is that much more refined and sure of its power and direction, and that much more powerful and wonderful as a result.
“I think it’s a good progression from the last one and I’m really proud of the new one absolutely,” admits Lavergne.
Perhaps that’s because the singer, himself, is that much more certain of his place and role amidst the mayhem, and had a stronger hand in guiding the music this time out.
The rest of the band — Craig Evans, Shawn Petsche, Ian Baker and Matthew Bayliff — were halfway done writing the first record when he stepped in and took over from original vocalist Ian Thomas Day, who’d split for the U.K.
Lavergne contributed, of course, to Unconditional’s final outcome, but this time out he was involved in the entire process, playing his role, as every other band member does in the collaborative collective.
“Shawn and Craig are definitely the driving force behind all of the music,” he allows.
“So essentially I get a plate of demos and they say, ‘Here’s all the songs, write some stuff, figure out how the melody goes, do whatever you want to do.’ ”
And he did, tapping into both sides of his upbringing in the suburban wilds of the city — his dad a “jean jacket rocker in his younger days” schooling teen Peej on Zeppelin, Hendrix and the like, and his mother was into the less aggressive side of things, such as Carole King, Elton John and Queen. The one agreement was, naturally, the Beatles.
You can hear all of those things in his contributions to Competencies, with his yowl as classic as rock gets, but with a soft, sensitive, fuzzy underbelly that belies his own burly, biker appearance.
Take, for example, gorgeous album closer, the super excellent Pretty Great Machine, which was written for his partner and talks tenderly about staying in with the one you do and want to hold dear, to find out “just how every freckle tastes.”
“It’s just a love song,” Lavergne says simply, almost sheepishly.
There’s also album highlight, the can’t stop the singalong Stop the Presses, which is a duet with Caitlin Dacey from T.O. act Public Animal — with whom Napalmpom toured and recorded a split 7-inch a couple of years ago — and which the songwriter describes as being about “a guy running into an ex at the bar and instead of panicking and dashing out the back door you get really drunk and deal with it.”
Actually, Lavergne points to that tune in particular as being a pretty fair indication of where “my head is at” and where the band is coming from, what it is at its Core.
“I think that’s the one that has a really big heart,” he says. “I think it’s the type of song you could hear and just know that it’s genuine.”
Which, again, is something Napalmpom are.
Genuine in their love of rock’s past, genuine in their respect for it, genuine in how they interpret and make it their own, and genuine in wanting to say something more in keeping with the times than, perhaps, some of the more testosteronated and lusty loin-callers of yore.
“That, too, is collaborative. If it was something that didn’t fit the vision that the five of us have, I’m sure I’d get called on it pretty quick,” Lavergne says of the strictly enforced no bro zone before continuing.
“Big Star, Tom Petty, The Replacements — it’s all rock ’n’ roll with a heart and a soul and a conscience. I don’t want to in any way compare us to those bands because they’re monuments all in their own rights. But I think that’s what we’re going for.
“And.” He pauses.
“I like that. I like that we don’t just want to come up with a big riff and see if it charts. I want to have a song that speaks to me, that speaks to somebody else, that isn’t just swear words and euphemisms, you know?”
Napalmpom releases their new album The Core Competencies of Napalmpom Friday night at the Palomino. You can listen to the album here.
Mike Bell has been covering the Calgary music scene for the past 25 years with publications such as VOX, Fast Forward, the Calgary Sun and, most recently, the Calgary Herald. He is currently the music writer and content editor for theYYSCENE.ca, and the co-host of the show Saved By the Bell, which airs Wednesdays from 4-6 p.m. on CJSW 90.9 FM. Follow him on at Twitter/@mrbell_23 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He likes beer. Buy him one.