Post-punks Slates explore Canadian history on new album

It’s fitting that Slates the perennially underrated Edmonton punk outfit are naming their forthcoming album Taiga . Not only does it speak to the band’s prairie-informed worldview — taiga after all refers to the boreal forest that engulfs much of Alberta — but explains singer-guitarist James Stewart “Taiga” is also the title of a song on the album. About a vengeful tiger. Living in the taiga. And yes we’re completely serious.

“When we were thinking about lyrical ideas we were talking about this story” says Stewart. “There were people who were poaching tigers in the taiga [in the Russian far east] and selling their organs on the black market. This one poacher wounded a tiger and the tiger hunted down his house terrorized this guy and killed him. All that was left were his boots.

“We’re all big animal rights guys but the song was written from the perspective of the poacher. There’s a lot of complexity to the situation.”

That guy — Russian poacher Vladimir Markov — was an impoverished hunter one who targeted endangered tigers due to their value on the Chinese black market. And while his story is endlessly fascinating there’s a lot to tease out of it: Far from being a ruthless poacher Markov was a man who hunted as the only means of his survival. It’s a story that writ large illustrates the exploitative relationship between capital and land.

Markov is the type of character that fascinates Stewart — and he’s exactly the type of figure that ends up in Slates’ Replacement-tinged post-hardcore. In fact he says many of his songs revolve around complex stories in Canadian history like famous Meech Lake Accord opposer Elijah Harper Parti Quebecois founder René Lévesque and Madame Le Corbeau the last woman hanged in Canada.

“Sometimes I’ll write songs that I decode later” he adds. “Sometimes it’ll be a song about me sometimes it’ll be about my family sometimes it’ll be about characters who are up to no good. I’m pretty fascinated with Canadian history though and that’s just being cognizant of where I’m from and the people who’ve had an impact on the way we live our lives.

“The appeal with writing about your own history is that the stories are authentic. We have our own history even if the Canadian thing is to deny [that it’s fascinating].”

Slates for their part are gearing up to take their poetic prairie punk far beyond the west — in fact New Damage a subsidiary of Dine Alone is slated to release Taiga this February. And for the album the band members rotated instruments welcomed new bassist Lee Klippenstein and penned a batch of “bleaker noisier” songs which they recorded in Chicago with big-name producer Steve Albini (who recorded Nirvana Slint and Jawkbreaker natch).

When Stewart has to tend to a customer — he’s working at an Edmonton record store when we call him in the throes of a Record Store Day sale — Klippenstein grabs the phone. “You hear that [Albini] is a difficult guy to work with but he’s the most laid-back guy you can imagine” says Klippenstein. “The record that actually sold me on him [as a producer] was Low’s Things We Lost in the Fire . He has this knack for making things sound really wide.”

Which sounds like a perfect fit for Slates; Albini it seems made Slates’ sprawling sound even uh more sprawling. When we catch Stewart and Klippenstein on the phone they’ve only unveiled a single track — “Molina’s Blues” — and it sounds impossibly huge. And yes in case you were wondering it is indeed about since-departed songwriter Jason Molina of the bands Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co.“I’m pretty profoundly affected by his music” says Stewart. “I used to work for [Edmonton alt-weeklies] See and Vue so I got to interview him once. It was one of the best conversations I’d had with anyone. I got his album then went to his show — it was one of the first dates I had with my wife. His music became really important to me and [it soundtracked] many defining moments in my life. He had a haunting sense of melody and for me when I hear his songs they’re perfect.”