While a recent teaser video for Vancouver pop-rock quartet the Shilohs’ self-titled album was made to promote the platter, there’s more on display in the online clip than just new music.
Featuring shots of the foursome smiling during pool-hall antics at Main Street’s Guys and Dolls, “Sisters of Blue” is a tear-jerking sermon on romantic futility built around chiming guitars and soft-touch drums. Guitarist Mike Komaszczuk and drummer Ben Frey reveal that touring allows for a lot of practice time at the tables. That said, while the former quickly sinks crimson orbs into leather-lined pockets, the clip also shows the outfit’s skinsman performing a stupendous scratch.
“I just don’t care about playing pool too much,” Frey says with a laugh of his showcased flub, but the bearded backbeat of the band is quick to note the camera merely caught an off night. “For the record, it was a snooker game in the video. It’s a bigger table and a different game altogether; that was the first time I had ever played.”
As talk drifts from pool sharks to the new LP over coffees at a refurbished Gastown eatery, the pair explain that other skills refined on the road include shaping the Shilohs songbook. Following the release of last year’s So Wild, the sophomore record’s material was tested in clubs and bars across the country, often evolving before being tracked back at home with producer Dave Carswell.
“ ‘Ordinary People’ used to be slow and long-winded,” Komaszczuk explains of a brisk and dusty, Byrds-esque strummer that underwent a major transformation after underperforming on tour. “I guess when you play a song to people who don’t care about you, you realize the weak points of your songs. I came home from that and rewrote a faster version, and cut half the words out.”
Sharing songwriting duties with guitarist Johnny Payne and bassist Daniel Colussi, the axeman notes that he put a deeper focus on writing lyrics for his own tracks this time around. “Ordinary People” had him seriously contemplating the concept of financial failure (“So you sold the house with the French doors and awning/All because the bailiff was calling”) and family ties.
“You get to a certain point where you realize you really are on your own,” Komaszczuk explains of the theme. “Your parents aren’t going to bail you out anymore. You’ve got to tough it out. This is kind of weird, but you know the recession in ’08? My parents lost pretty much everything.”
He continues, “I don’t know how well off your parents are; my parents never gave me anything. I realized they are worse off than I am. I have more money than they do now. If anything bad happens to me, I don’t have any fallback.”
The heaviness of the album doesn’t only hit at the pocketbook, with both Payne and Colussi offering up their fair share of heartbreak. Stringing together Stones-style blues licks with Real Estate’s modern-day jangle, “Champagne Days” has the latter simultaneously lamenting how a precious pearl slipped through his fingers and praying that better days are on their way. Payne’s “Bless Those Boys”, meanwhile, is a damaged foray into Fab Four balladeering, mixing weeping strings and spacious piano-plunking as the songwriter spits venom over the schemes of “beautiful strangers”. Bitterly, he steeps the final moments of his track in a damning “Girls will trap and abuse you/They’ll love you, confuse you.”
Frey didn’t have a hand in the lyrics, but he notes that a series of life changes that transpired between So Wild and The Shilohs, romantic or not, likely left an imprint on the new songs.
“It was a funny time, definitely. There were transitions in all of our lives over the last year, which makes for great songwriting,” the percussionist allows. “Some darkness probably came out from that, or at least a little more self-reflection.”
In addition to personal truths, the songwriters offer up a varied batch of songs. Komaszczuk’s “Palm Readers” kicks up a dust storm with a canyon-deep arsenal of licks, while Payne’s “Strange Connection” jumps from a low-key bounce into a fired-up psych-pop stomp. Their approach to bringing guests onto recordings also differs, apparently, with Komaszczuk noting Payne’s “Bless Those Boys” featured more guidance on its symphonic string work than what he suggested violinist Adrienne Labelle contribute to breezy album closer “Days of Wine”.
Komaszczuk explains, “Johnny got a quartet and did more of a Brian Wilson thing and directed them. My song, I said, ‘I’m going to give you a lot of money, but I’m not going to tell you what to do. So you better do something cool, or else I won’t pay you.’ ” While Frey begins to crack up from across the table over Komaszczuk’s hard-assed direction style, the guitarist cops to not being that critical with the core of the Shilohs. It’s this free and eclectic artistic environment, after all, that’s let the band get this far in the first place.
“We’re too nice to tell each other what to play,” Komaszczuk says. “There’s no mandate that every song has to sound the same. Some bands, their whole set is very cohesive; they have a sound. I don’t think we’ll ever do that. I’d quit.”
The Shilohs’ self-titled album hits stores on Tuesday (May 13).