Vancouver’s first taste of Sebastien Grainger & the Mountains came when the former Death From Above 1979 frontman road-tested his rebound outfit at the Virgin Fest in 2007. Although he played to a small handful of people on a side stage, Grainger appeared to be a lot happier than he did two years prior at DFA 79’s surly final appearance in this city—even while his former partner, bassist Jesse F. Keeler, was simultaneously winning the popularity contest with his iffy electro-house MSTRKRFT project a stone’s throw away at the throbbing Bacardi B-Live tent.
But Grainger is finally closing the gap on his former colleague. In contrast to Keeler’s dafter punk, his band’s self-titled debut is a rock record filtered through new wave, ’80s-soundtrack music, dark pop, and possibly even that ropey old relic of the ’70s, the rock opera. There’s a suspiciously (and enjoyably) theatrical flavour to the melodramatic chord changes that close “Love Is Not a Contest”, which goes double for the hopped-up outro of the otherwise slow-burning “(Are There) Ways to Come Home?”
Is Grainger a closet Andrew Lloyd Webber fan?
“I’ve never been in the closet about it,” Grainger tells the Straight from a Winnipeg tour stop. “Jesus Christ Superstar is one of my favourite records. And I grew up listening to Cats. When I was a small child, I used to put on a Halloween costume and pretend that I was a cat, conducting Cats.”
Grainger congratulates the Straight on an “outstanding observation”, but isn’t necessarily ready to call the influence deliberate. “It’s within my frame of reference,” he says. “But everything I’ve ever heard has undoubtedly entered the way I operate.” That being the case, he’s evidently internalized a lot of power pop, glam, maybe a little Bloc Party, some Killers, and no small amount of Pixies, all of which loom behind standout tracks like “Who Do We Care For?” and “American Names”, where the hooks are abundant and the presentation big and crunchy. Grainger—playing most of the instruments himself—gradually developed the sound over the album’s long gestation.
“This record was produced over the course of about a year, and the whole time I was whittling down the way I was working,” he says. “It was a refinement of how to make a record for me. I kind of have an economical approach to musicianship and you have to make sure that the ego is squashed a little bit and you’re actually submitting to the song. Sometimes there’ll be a really nice take that has a lot of flavour but it might be distracting from the song.”
Grainger promises there are no such restrictions when he and his three bandmates hit the stage, however. “There’s a reason why I wanted these guys in my band,” he says. “It makes it super-exciting for me, knowing that they’re playing their guts out. Sometimes I feel like I can be a spectator with my own band, ’cause there’s an actual band. Before, there was no band. I was just staring at another guy.”
Sebastien Grainger & the Mountains play the Vogue Theatre Sunday through Tuesday (December 21 to 23).