Ever since the Constantines formed in Guelph, Ontario, in 1999, music writers have been piling on the superlatives. The latest in a long line of bands to be tagged with the best-in-Canada label, the group seems to be hitting all the right notes. Their potent sound, which mixes the punk integrity of Fugazi, the mainstream honesty of Bruce Springsteen, the two-guitar assault of the Clash and the ragged soul of the Replacements, suggests that this is a band that will make it big.
"They seem almost too good to be true," wrote Salvatore Ciofli of Pop Matters, while Robert Everett-Green of The Globe and Mail weighed in with this assessment: "The Constantines shine their own light, and it's worth following."
From Basements to the Palace
In 1999, Lambke, Bryan Webb, Doug MacGregor and Dallas Wehrle were undergraduates at the University of Guelph when all four found themselves looking for new bands at the same time. They had known each other through the local punk scene, and legend has it that they played many of their early gigs in the basement of the house in which a couple of the members lived. The last time the Constantines played that basement was the day after they staged a sold-out show at Toronto's Lee's Palace, an event that has become a symbolic rite of passage.
After rehearsing together, the four launched themselves on the local live scene and for the next two years went hard at it, joking that they would play anywhere with a three-pronged outlet. This was a good time to be playing in a rock band, as the music scene was undergoing another of its seismic shifts. Spearheaded by groups such as the White Stripes, the Hives and the Strokes, low-slung garage rock was back in fashion, and it wasn't long before the Constantines' hugely entertaining live shows were grabbing attention. If the band sometimes fell apart on stage, it worked in their favor, creating an anti-professional aura and revealing an organic and endearingly rough approach.
"Rock and roll, to me, is a medium for attaining some kind of freedom, whether it's from some kind of economic problem," Webb told Joshua Ostroff of the Ottawa Citizen. "It's a feeling that you get when you're playing."
Eventually, the Constantines inked a deal with Three Gut Records, a Toronto independent label that released the band's self-titled debut album in 2001. Full of attitude and passion, the album combined blasts of hardcore punk power with a dry wit and was a low-key critical success. Few bands could get away with mixing the lyrics of Marvin Gaye's soul classic "Can I Get a Witness" and Rod Stewart's "Young Turks," but Webb, the band's main lyricist, did just this on "Young Offender."
Every one of the 1,000 albums pressed was hand-packed by the band and included a strike-anywhere match, a comment on both the band's quest and the power of rock and roll.
"The music that I've felt a part of, both as an observer and as a participant, is community-based," Lambke told Kieran Grant of the Toronto Sun. "It's just people playing in houses and basements without thoughts of record deals or anything like that. Anything else at this point feels like a world we're not a part of."
Gained Popularity in Canada
Grant described the material as being like a blast of "new mechanized soul music," and the album went on to win a Juno nomination for best alternative album. It also came close to breaking the record for the longest chart placing in Canadian campus radio history. The band was featured on the covers of both Eye Weekly and Now, Toronto's influential cultural weeklies, and the album placed 10th in one critics' poll sponsored by Exclaim and fourth in another sponsored by Eye Weekly.
Things were definitely starting to heat up for the band, and the scuttlebutt was that the group would sign with respected Chicago label Touch and Go. Like many rumors, this proved to be false—and the band's next release, an EP titled The Modern Sinner/Nervous Man, came out on the Seattle label Suicide Squeeze. Musically, the band was moving in new directions, something that became obvious with the release of its second full-length album, Shine a Light, in the fall of 2003.
Although Shine a Light—the title may be a self-conscious lift from another eclectic album, the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street—was the album the band wanted to make, Webb described the days leading up to its release as something like "taking a kid to Kindergarten."
"I think I'm a bit nervous about releasing this, just because you only get one chance to release something free of an audience, and we actually might have people paying attention this time," he told Ostroff as the group finished working on the disc. "It's exciting, but there was a period where we were scrapping everything we wrote, saying it wasn't good enough. And we had to realize it was better to make something than nothing."
For the Record …
Members include Bryan Webb, vocals and guitar; Steve Lambke, guitar; Doug MacGregor, drums; Dallas Wehrle, bass; Whil Kidman, bass.
Formed in Guelph, Ontario, 1999; signed with Toronto independent label Three Gut Records; released self-titled debut album, 2001; released EP, The Modern Sinner/Nervous Man, 2003; released Shine a Light and signed U.S. deal with Sub Pop, 2003; played at influential music festivals, including Austin's South by Southwest, Toronto's North by Northeast, Halifax Pop Explosion, New Music West and the Montreal Pop Explosion; released Tournament of Hearts on Sub Pop, 2005.
Addresses: Record company—Sub Pop Records, 2013 4th Ave. 3rd Fl., Seattle, WA 98121, website: http://www.subpop.com. Website—The Constantines Official Website: http://www.theconstantines.ca.
In the studio, the band had been working with keyboardist Whil Kidman, who was subsequently asked to join the group full-time, filling the space between the melodic guitars and the driving rhythm section.
"It's nice to have the sound sort of fleshed out a little," Lambke told Dickie. "Will has a different melodic sense than the rest of us. He put a lot of the hooky, melodic parts on the record, so he added a lot."
Using the first album as a jumping-off point, the Constantines experimented further with attempts to mix their AC/DC and Otis Redding influences while retaining a live-on-the-floor feeling. As a result, the sound came close to being a blend of jazz and punk, resulting in what Jonathan Durbin of Maclean's called "a collection of after-dark rock and roll that manages to be melancholy without sacrificing fun. They make you wanna dance, pray and read their liner notes."
A Richer, More Melodic Sound
Like the Clash's London Calling, Shine a Light is wide-ranging, bold and ambitious, yet surprisingly soulful for music made by five white guys from Southwestern Ontario. If the Constantines' first album was a collection of rough-hewn songs filled with frustration and anxiety, this album was sonically richer and more optimistic. The brooding "Nighttime/Anytime (It's Alright)" gave way to the mood piece "Goodbye Baby and Amen," which leads into the anthem "Young Lions" and the brass-flavored sound of "On to You," which features the respected Uptown Horns. The new album's title track, "Shine a Light," was about Webb's father's home-and-garden store. The artist's mother provided some backing vocals in the studio.
The material, however, still included touches of art school rock, especially in the Talking Heads-like, funky geometric sounds of "Tank Commander (Hung Up in a Warehouse Town)" and "Poison." And Webb—described by Stuart Berman of Eye Weekly as one of "the most honest, poetic voices not just in indie rock, but in rock and roll, period"—continued to plough a dark furrow.
Often compared to the Clash's late front man Joe Strummer, Webb also explores and tries to make sense of an increasingly claustrophobic world. Rather than borrowing English punk rock images of decaying buildings and empty streets, however, he uses animals and insects in his social and political commentaries. The stark, jazzy, horn-driven "Insectivoria," which deals with surveillance and computer records, may be the best example of this.
"In the last two years, there's been this major climate of paranoia especially in North America," Webb told Sandra Sperounes of the Edmonton Journal. "So 'Insectivoria' is about the need for privacy, digging yourself underground and learning to eat bugs as a means of survival in order to get away from things."
Signed to Sub Pop
Another change for the band came with the U.S. release of Shine a Light on Sub Pop records, once the epicentre of the Grunge explosion and the label that launched Nirvana. The Seattle-based company has a reputation for attracting bands of a certain pedigree and the Constantines enjoyed the association. In Canada, however, the band opted to remain with Three Gut.
"We didn't want to leave Three Gut," Webb told Sperounes. "They've been really, really good to us, and they're our friends. We're used to working with people we see every day."
The track "Nighttime (Anytime, It's Alright)" was chosen as the first single and received good play on college radio north and south of the border. Gigs at New York's CMJ festival, as well as South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, and North by Northeast in Toronto were hot tickets. The influential music magazine Alternative Press labelled the band one of the 25 foreign acts set to take America in the coming months, and Shine a Light began showing up regularly on critics' best-of lists.
The band, wrote Ben Rayner of the Toronto Star, "wisely accentuates nuance and complexity over pure force, demanding a lot of an investment in time before one can fully grasp the oblique song structures and Bry Webb's vivid call-to-arms lyrics. In other words, it'll sound even better six months from now."
Despite the praise, the band members still hold down day jobs, something that helps keep them grounded. Life on the road, despite the backing of Sub Pop, is no glamour trip, and the group doesn't subscribe to the live-fast, die-young aesthetic that is the hallmark of some of today's punk bands.
To keep themselves balanced, the band members also have outside projects. Kidman, for example, plays in another band, the Wooly Leaves, and Wehrle is a graphic designer who designed the cover of Shine a Light. These other activities mean that none of them has much time to buy into the hoopla surrounding the band.
They also acknowledge that they don't let the glowing reviews go to their heads. "I don't look at them too closely," Lambke told Graham Rockingham of the Hamilton Spectator. "Part of that has more to do with the cult of rock criticism than with the band in particular. There's a lot of people who make their living off writing rock music so they write about it pretty extensively."
Still, he continued, band members do take their music seriously, "so it's nice that someone else does as well." Then he added, "But it's also supposed to be fun."
Tournament of Hearts
When it came time for the Constantines to start working on songs for another full-length record, the band hunkered down, producing some of their most diverse and dynamic material to date. Following a stint opening for the Foo Fighters and Sloan in a five-date Canadian tour that saw them playing in arenas for the first time, the members of the band slowly started quitting their day jobs, and worked with much fervor on crafting the band's new sound. They hooked up with Jeff McMurrich and Oneida's Fat Bobby, recording at Halla Studios in their hometown of Toronto. The result of the sessions was the album Tournament of Hearts, released on Sup Pop in October of 2005. Though the band's often out of control and rollicking live performances were becoming legendary, the songs they were recording were being culled from a gentler place, with more stripped down arrangements and less chaotic tempos. Webb also took a different approach with his lyrics and singing style, writing eco-friendly laments sung in everything from a focused shout to a hushed whisper.
Reviews soon started pouring in for the band, and most of them noted the band's change in direction, with Pitchforkmedia noting "It's not that Tournament of Hearts doesn't rock, but it's more constrained, finding power in withheld but ever-imminent explosions. Opener 'Draw Us Lines' drones over a single guitar chord, name-dropping San Francisco eco-witch Starhawk over pounding drums out of a pagan ritual. 'Hotline Operator'—not to be confused with the Nighttime/Anytime EP's same-named instrumental—builds pressure with whispery choruses before a final, all-too-brief double-time coda and anguished wail. A few of the tracks draw on the sludge-rock side of former tour-mates Oneida, such as the greasy guitar of 'Lizaveta,' which also revisits 'Insectivora' horns. Elsewhere, the looser 'Good Nurse' puts the band's recent stint as Neil Young cover band Horsey Craze to good use. But the most unrestrained track is standout 'Love in Fear,' with its elliptical bass and guitars whining like sirens, as Webb implores, 'Just kiss me on a rooftop … / Under helicopters of desire.'"
After the release of the album, the band did what they do best, and hit the road with the Hold Steady for a full United States tour. Following that, the band headed across the pond for a string of shows across the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe for the second time.
The Constantines, Three Gut Records, 2001.
The Modern Sinner/Nervous Man (EP), Suicide Squeeze, 2002.
Nighttime/Anytime (EP), Sub Pop, 2003.
Shine a Light, Three Gut Records/Sub Pop, 2003.
Tournament of Hearts, Sub Pop, 2005.
Boston Globe, September 5, 2003, p. E14.
Edmonton Journal, December 21, 2003, p. B2.
Eye Weekly, August 14, 2003.
Globe and Mail, August 21, 2003, p. R3.
Hamilton Spectator, November 6, 2003, p. G15.
Maclean's, August 11, 2003, p. 58.
Montreal Gazette, March 30, 2004, p. D5.
Observer, February 22, 2004.
Ottawa Citizen, October 10, 2002, p. F3.
This Magazine, January 1, 2004, p. 45.
Toronto Star, August 14, 2003, p. G11; October 13, 2003, p. E2.
Toronto Sun, June 9, 2001; January 31, 2002; March 30, 2004.
University Wire, September 18, 2003.
The Varsity, October 9, 2003.
"Boss Force Five: The Constantines Clean House," Montreal Mirror, http://www.montrealmirror.com/ARCHIVES/2003/050803/music1.html (May 14, 2006).
"The Constantines," Catapult Magazine, http://www.catapultmagazine.com (May 14, 2006).
The Constantines, MuchMusic.com, http://www.muchmusic.com/music/artists/index.asp?artist=727 (May 17, 2006).
The Constantines, New Music Canada Website, http://www.newmusiccanada.com/genres/artist.cfm (May 14, 2006).
"The Constantines," Sub Pop Records, http://www.subpop.com/bands/constantines/tournament/cons_bio_iframe.html (May 23, 2006).
The Constantines Official Website, http://www.theconstantines.ca (May 12, 2006).
"The Constantines + The Arcade Fire," PopMatters.com, http://www.popmatters.com/music/concerts/c/constantines031016.shtml (May 26, 2006).
"Critically Confounded," See Magazine, http://www.seemagazine.com/issues/2003/0904/mus1.htm (May 14, 2006).
"Nightime/Anytime by Constantines on Sub Pop," Drowned in Sound Website, http://www.drownedinsound.com/articles/8928.html (May 12, 2006).
"Tournament of Hearts," Pitchforkmedia, http://www.pitchforkmedia.com/record-reviews/c/constantines/tournament-of-hearts.shtml (May 23, 2006).
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