FFWD REW

The light still shines

In our half-hour conversation with Bry Webb singer of the recently reunited Constantines there are several words the soft-spoken Guelphite repeatedly returns to: Celebrations. Relationships. Connections. And of course reconnections. Webb isn’t being smarmy here — “it may sound like I’m speaking in hyperbole” he adds to certain statements almost as a disclaimer — but instead we sense that he’s genuinely taken aback by the enthusiasm surrounding his gruff shape-shifting post-hardcore project. Awed even.

Not that we’re surprised. From their noise-drenched Fugazi-inspired beginnings in Guelph to their Toronto-repping swan song Kensington Heights the Constantines grew into one of the definitive Canadian bands of the aughts an era when — to put it bluntly — the globe obsessed over Arcade Fire Broken Social Scene and fistfuls of other local-grown acts. The Constantines along with Calgary’s Chad VanGaalen Montreal’s Wolf Parade and later Toronto’s METZ led the second wave of Canadians scooped up by indie behemoth Sub Pop after Eric’s Trip Jale and Zumpano. A pretty big deal? You bet.

Still despite receiving offers to reunite during the band’s four-year hiatus Webb didn’t grasp the magnitude of the Cons until they were long broken up. “I don’t think anyone realized that people cared as deeply about our band as they do” he says. “When I wrote that little response [announcing the Cons reunion in February] the response was beautiful — overwhelming is the word.

“It was a really celebratory thing for us and the response — well it made us feel really wanted. There was an initial giddiness but after that there was this fear and anxiety about being able to pull this off in a way that was true to what we were as a band what people cared about us being” he continues. “But as soon as we started playing together in the basement of Paul’s Boutique in [Toronto’s] Kensington Market where we used to rehearse there was an instant reconnection.

“It was uplifting even beyond the music. It showed what you could reconnect with in life.”

TIME CAN BE OVERCOME

When the Constantines disbanded in 2010 there was much less jubilance around the breakup. The quintet called it quits with a whimper without a final farewell after devoting 11 years two cities and countless kilometres to the band. And to be honest it left us feeling jilted: After four wonderfully distinct albums — their blown-out self-titled LP the recently reissued classic Shine A Light 2005’s cerebral Tournament of Hearts and 2008’s Kensington Heights — the band quietly disbanded.

“It’s time to focus on other things” Webb told CBC Radio 3 at the time. “We’ll just say ‘See you around.’”

It was an unceremonious disbanding but understandable: The band’s members then in their early 30s had different priorities and needed to explore their identities outside of the Constantines. “Every day in your life you’re figuring out who you are whether you’re in a band or not” says guitarist Steve Lambke who reissued Shine A Light on his You’ve Changed imprint. “It was a big transition for all of us because we had spent our 20s basically dedicated to working on the Cons full-time thinking about nothing else but that band.

“It’s good to experience other things in other contexts both musically and personally and to interact and collaborate with other people. But I think I feel like those things apply not just to being in a band. That’s just life.”

Yet while the band dissolved the personalities that defined their aesthetic emerged: Webb became a father and found work in Guelph community radio eventually releasing Provider and Free Will two stripped-down albums focusing on fatherhood work and legacy. Lambke moved to Sackville then back to Toronto dug into his label You’ve Changed and released music as Baby Eagle. Bassist Dallas Wehrle who designed the Cons’ album art focused on visual art with his Deloro project. Will Kidman plays in Julie Doiron’s Toronto-based band the Wrong Guys with Alberta ex-pat Eamon McGrath. Drummer Doug MacGregor meanwhile mans the kits for City and Colour Dallas Green’s post-Alexisonfire croon-core project.

Busy as they were a reunion was never feasible in their four years apart — and even with their current tour it still can be difficult to get the band together. As Webb notes MacGregor’s seemingly always on a plane to the next City and Colour gig. A reunion was falsely rumoured at SappyFest in New Brunswick and members have since collaborated on Baby Eagle songs and Horsey Craze a Neil Young tribute act. Last winter after receiving an offer to play Arts and Crafts’ Field Trip festival the band finally decided it was time.

“I suppose that’s no grand revelation — you often have to get outside of something to get a picture of what it is” Webb wrote in the band’s reunion statement. “We are grateful that people love this band so much. We love it too.”

“In practice the first day was a little rickety” adds Lamke. “But even when we were finding our legs there’s an incredible energy and chemistry between the five of us. It’s the intangible reason why certain bands work. It’s impossible to explain.”

After playing their first reunion show in Guelph — in a warehouse that served as the NDP’s local HQ — and months of practising there are still revelations to be found in the single-chord sprawl of “Draw Us Lines.” Or the towering discordant breakdown of “Young Offenders.” Or the angular guitars of “Working Full Time.” For Lambke it’s an understanding that these songs written years ago are still vital entities. “We just wanted to be friends and play these songs together again” he says. “It’s been really cool to know there’s still life in those songs. And that they’re still totally living breathing things.”

Webb for his part learned that he missed the songs while walking around Guelph listening to his music player on shuffle. When a long-forgotten Cons song came on he was struck with a tinge of sadness. “I didn’t expect it and I just had this thought that I really regretted that my son Asa would never get to see the Constantines” he says.

“That’s been maybe the greatest thing about playing together again. That Field Trip show looking over side stage in the middle of ‘Shine a Light’ when all of us had our hands in the air” he says of the Constantines’ signature stage move. “My son was standing there with my wife with his hands in the air wearing a little Cons shirt. It was a pretty overwhelming moment.”

OH YOUNG LIONS

Over the course of their four albums the Constantines managed to connect to a staggering audience: The punk-inclined have always been backers perhaps thanks to the band’s roots in post-hardcore act Shoulder. They’ve earned respect from the political-minded thanks to Webb’s musings on labour (he’s long maintained that Studs Terkel’s Work was a major influence). And the patriotic have always championed their cause in part due to their strong sense of locations — “on the weird winds of Ontario” as per “Love In Fear” — and perhaps because they employed Randy Bachman’s Garnet amps on Kensington Heights.

Yet surprisingly when it comes to their legacy Webb and Lambke say it doesn’t boil down to albums influence or the rediscovery of youth (nota bene: the band’s cheekily referred to their name as the “Constant Teens” perhaps as a nod to the Peter Pan complex that comes with the life of touring musicians). It comes down to proper nouns: Specifically people. And as much as their reunion is about finding life in four albums’ worth of songs it’s also about rekindling relationships that span the country.

Case in point: Webb when recalling their first show back can’t help but name names. “I remember jamming in the basement of 106 Huron [in Guelph] and working on ‘Nighttime / Anytime’ in the basement running over the opening riff for three hours” says Webb. “And Mike [Deane of one-time Edmonton wyrd-rock act Jazz and contributor to Vue Weekly] moved to Guelph three years ago and ended up buying 106 Huron. I love Mike and Kathy [his partner] I could talk about them for hours. They’re so brilliantly involved in the community.

“We had the perfect first Cons show back in a warehouse that wasn’t meant for music with a rented PA. Mike ended up having a party at 106 and there’s pictures that [journalist] Vish Khanna took in the basement 10-plus years after we lived there. It was really a joy.”

Webb’s anecdote displays what’s unique about the Cons reunion: It’s no cash grab nor is it a way to relive their salad days. “It still does feel like revisiting your younger self” Webb adds “which can be unhealthy but this feels like the right context.” Instead it’s about everything the band continually mentions — celebration relationships reconnection — and more importantly it’s about strengthening the relationships between friends. Or as Webb puts it family.

“Imagine that moment when you decide to first leave home” says Webb. “There’s an initial kind of feeling of needing complete autonomy. For us that went on for four years because there was so much in our own lives and creative work that needed attention. We’ve gone four years without what I think of as our family and the chance to reconnect…. It’s huge.”

Lambke for his part agrees. “We were all missing it and missing each other. These are people I spent 10 or 12 years of my life with and I missed them. I feel like we were all feeling the same.”

Does that mean that the Constantines are back in full force? “That’s another ‘We’ll see’ answer” says Lambke. But Webb isn’t ruling out the possibility of rekindling a creative spark after years of inactivity. Time as the band sings can be overcome.

“We were testing out the connection again but I feel like the energy is still there” he says. “Maybe our time is more in-demand in other places. But the possibility for [new material] is there: We can’t continue to play together and not make something new. That wouldn’t feel right to me. Maybe we’ll write songs to put on the set list without the process of making a record. We’ll see. But I love the idea of being creative with these guys.”

We do too.

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