The band has had more drummers than Spinal Tap, but Santa Fe Stalker suggests it was all worth it
Keeping a musical partnership together for more than a few rehearsals is enough of a challenge; imagine doing it for 10 years. That’s how long Dawntreader has been active, and singer-guitarist Matthew Thomas and bassist Colin Bales admit it hasn’t always been a smooth ride. In 2002, the band seemed to be well-positioned for major buzz, having just completed its first full-length CD, Thoughts of an Exile. That collection of self-consciously experimental melodic-rock tunes got national airplay and earned accolades from various quarters (including this very column), but that particular incarnation of Dawntreader fizzled out just as it was picking up steam. This was largely due to the fact that siblings Benjamin Eadie (guitar) and Jordan Eadie (drums) realized that the big-city rock ’n’ roll life wasn’t what they wanted. They packed up their gear and decamped back home to Revelstoke to start families.
The group didn’t break up, but it went through a series of personnel changes, with Thomas and Bales as the constants. Fastforward to the present and things are fairly stable in the Dawntreader camp. Guitarist Ryan Worsley (also of Maplewood Lane) seems unlikely to go anywhere; he recorded the band’s new album, Santa Fe Stalker, at his studio. There have been stirrings in the drum department, though. After playing on the new disc, Joel Willoughby (Worsley’s Maplewood Lane bandmate) vacated his post, to be replaced for a few months by Paper Moon’s Chris Hiebert, who recently moved back to Winnipeg. Still with me? Matt Laforest is Dawntreader’s new drummer and will remain so, barring any Spinal Tap–like mishaps.
With so many personnel-related delays, the band has learned not to rush things. In fact, Thomas says it took two years to make Santa Fe Stalker. “We all have day jobs, and we all can only do it when we can,” he says, interviewed with Bales at Mount Pleasant’s Our Town Cafe. “We’re also, to a fault, extreme perfectionists, and the song revisions were numerous. I honestly could have probably spent another year doing it, unless someone just kind of wrangled it away from our hands. There was a point where we just had to say, ”˜Okay, enough is enough. The song is good; let it go.’ Which is always hard.”
“In the very beginning,” Bales notes, “we took as much time as we needed to get everything in front of us done, but in the last couple of weeks we were scrambling so much to get everything done by deadline that we just squeaked by, just to make sure that we were content with it and had it done. We had two years to do it, and yet we were still just squeaking by.”
The band’s perfectionism has paid off. Santa Fe Stalker is a mature-sounding effort that finds a delicate balance between Dawntreader’s exploratory nature and its pop instincts. The disc, as the title suggests, is a psychological portrait of an obsessive would-be lover. The shifting tempos and time signatures ratchet up the tension but never feel forced, and the desert-sunset slide guitar of “Clickheads” somehow makes perfect sense next to the dirge-disco beat of “(Don’t Lose Your) Nerve” and the country-noir twang of “Boxer”.
“We barely knew what our instruments were when we recorded the first album, to be honest,” Bales says of the band’s growing confidence. “I didn’t even know what brand of bass I was playing back then. Honestly, I cannot overstate how uneducated we were back then.”
“I get comments from people saying, ”˜Your music’s really complicated,’ ” Thomas reveals. “I’m like, ”˜I really hope that’s not what you’re taking away from it,’ because the idea of the time signatures is not to be complicated for the sake of throwing in those time signatures. It’s to create a sense of unease, and to create a bit of a sense, without you knowing it, that something’s a little bit off-kilter.”
With Santa Fe Stalker officially out this week, Dawntreader’s next goal is to finally do what it couldn’t do the last time it made a record: tour. The band is planning to play shows across Western Canada and down the West Coast of the United States in the fall. Of course, it would be nice to have CDs in stores first, but Dawntreader doesn’t have a distributor yet. Thomas and Bales admit that, despite a decade of making music together, the business side of things is still new to them. Mind you, the spirit that has bound their musical partnership for so long should serve them well. After all, a little determination can go a long way.
“We’ve been doing this for quite a few years now, obviously, and we haven’t really done so much outside of Vancouver,” Bales admits. “It’s only fair that we give ourselves a fair shake at it, that we make a go of it and see where we get. If not, it kind of feels like we could have done something but we never gave ourselves a fair shot.”
Dawntreader plays a CD–release show at the Railway Club on Friday (May 9).