Ironically, a mental and physical breakdown helped You Say Party! We Say Die!’s singer get grounded
Becky Ninkovic is understandably reluctant to get into depressing details, but from the sound of it things got about as bad as they get. The darkness officially descended during a 2007 tour that saw You Say Party! We Say Die! drive across Canada, fly to the U.K. for a month, and then spend another four weeks on the European mainland. Looking back, Ninkovic realizes she should never have got in the van.
“I remember being at home before we even left and feeling that sense of a tsunami coming, or a big storm brewing,” says YSP! WSD!’s hopelessly charming singer, interviewed at Liberty Bakery on Main Street. “It was like there was this sense of panic under the surface. If I look where I was at with my mental and physical health, I wasn’t at my strongest.”
The frenetic pace was nothing new for YSP! WSD!. Right from the point it first rocketed onto the radar of discerning Vancouver dance-punks five years ago, the quintet has kept a schedule best described as relentless. The band’s 2005 spazz-wave debut Hit the Floor! was followed by grinding touring that would pay off with appearances at festivals like Glastonbury. Obviously unclear on the importance of downtime, You Say Party! We Say Die! jumped right back in the studio for the follow-up, Lose All Time, and then began red-lining things all over again.
Finally, following a show in Germany on that 2007 tour, it all came crashing down. To put things in less-than-scientific terms, Ninkovic totally lost it, to the point where the final three weeks of the trip became a surreal, postbreakdown blur.
“I can actually remember thinking, ”˜I can’t believe that I’m functioning under this amount of pressure and stress,’ ” she recalls. “The sleep deprivation, the nutritional deprivation—everything.”
And still she managed to tough things out, finishing the tour with her You Say Party! We Say Die! bandmates: bassist Stephen O’Shea, guitarist Derek Adam, keyboardist Krista Loewen, and drummer Devon Clifford. Once she was back home, the singer—under orders from her doctor—began taking steps to put her life back together, reconnecting with family, friends, and, most of all, taking her foot off the accelerator to do the things normal people do: read books, watch movies, and make a concerted effort not to work 24/7.
The healing would continue when You Say Party! We Say Die! accepted an offer to tour China in the spring of ’08, the Zenlike experience laying the foundation for the band’s stellar new disc, XXXX.
But it wasn’t until Ninkovic found herself in Toronto earlier this year that she would truly come to some sort of peace with what she’d been through. Quite intentionally, the band has left the title of its third release open to interpretation, with XXXX standing for whatever fans want it to. For You Say Party! We Say Die!’s frontwoman however, there’s no question what XXXX means.
She remembers sitting down in Toronto to work on a bio for the record and being unable to come up with words that didn’t sound like something from a Hallmark greeting card. Overwhelmed, she asked for a break, at which point the darkness flooded back in.
“So I walked down the street, found a rock, and I’m sitting on it with tears falling down,” Ninkovic says quietly, taking a sip of tea. “And this old lady pulled over in a car. She had a thick accent—I’m Croatian—just like my baba [grandmother]. I was thinking of my baba right when she pulled up, about how she lights a candle for me—she's Catholic—and prays while the candle is burning. That thought was comforting me when this lady pulled up and said, ”˜Are you all right, dear? Are you in trouble or are you just upset?’ I said, ”˜I’m just upset—I’m not in any trouble, thank you.’
“So she said, ”˜Do you believe in the God?’ ” the singer continues. “I said, ”˜Yes, I believe in the God, I believe in love.’ That’s when she said, ”˜You remember, the loving is the everything—the loving is everything.’ And I was like, ”˜That’s it! That’s what I’ve been trying to describe, but didn’t know how.’ ”
XXXX can therefore be explained like this: no matter how bad things might get, love has the power to make everything all right.
If this makes it sound like You Say Party! We Say Die! is suddenly more interested in a mainstage slot at Bonnaroo than a formal invitation to All Tomorrow’s Parties, it shouldn’t. Musically, XXXX is darker than anything the band has attempted in the past. It just so happens that love is a recurring theme on the album’s 10 songs. The kick-off track, “There Is XXXX (Within My Heart)”, sets things up perfectly; mixing gloom-generation keyboards with crystalline guitars and an epic bass hook, the track finds Ninkovic repeating, mantralike, the lines “There is love within my heart/There is love within my heart/There is love, love, love.” And the best thing is that she sounds like she truly means it.
On this sunny late-summer day in Mount Pleasant, the pale-skinned Ninkovic looks gorgeous, rocking a retro coif and a turquoise bustier-jumpsuit that suggests she might have arrived from the set of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. More importantly, she feels good, physically and mentally. Over the course of a freewheeling conversation that covers everything from her obsession with owls to her battles with insomnia to the indescribable beauty of newborn babies, the singer reveals that she’s done with wallowing in the darkness.
“I had to find a different perspective,” she explains. “Like, are things happening to me to make me a victim all of the time? Or do I actually have control and have the choice to turn things into something positive rather than letting it torment me and exhaust me and drain me?”
For all the positivity in the lyrics, XXXX is anything but sugar-sprinkled sunshine and endless rainbows. Originally part of the dance-punk movement that helped make white belts the fashion accessory of choice earlier this decade, You Say Party! We Say Die! suddenly sounds like it belongs on a mix tape studded with postpunk giants like the Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, the Stranglers, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Most impressive is the way that everyone in the band steps up. Check out the drum showcase that the tirelessly inventive Clifford turns in on the jagged-edge shaker “Glory”, or Loewen’s pretty-in-pink-neon synths in the ethereal dream-pop confection that is “Laura Palmer’s Prom”. The nightmarish soundscape “XXXX/Loyalty” finds Adam unleashing a wall of death-menace guitar, and O’Shea drops impressively double-fuzzed bass bombs all over the jittery new waver “Cosmic Wanship Avengers”.
If there’s an MVP on XXXX, though, it’s Ninkovic. When You Say Party! We Say Die! first made the seemingly impossible jump from being hometown heroes in Abbotsford to a legitimate North American buzz band, the singer couldn’t pick up a review without seeing a comparison to Karen O. Working with a vocal coach in the lead-up to recording XXXX, Ninkovic came into her own, her drama-drenched voice soaring and swooping in all the right, often-breathtaking places. Funnily, after making it clear that being compared to others grated on her for a long time, the singer lets it slip that Siouxsie Sioux played a small role in the recording of XXXX. Producer Howard Redekopp had one of the British postpunk icon’s old records displayed on the soundboard during the sessions.
“I guess that visual was there because I said to him at one point that I wanted us to sound timeless,” Ninkovic says. “We listen to a lot of new wave from the late ’70s and early ’80s, but we’re not punk, we’re not rock, we’re not dance, we’re not new wave, even. But I guess the spirit of Siouxsie Sioux, in a way, covers all those things.”
Except, of course, that the godmother of goth never seemed interested in making the world a little less dark of a place. Ninkovic, on the other hand, is clearly on a mission with her bandmates in You Say Party! We Say Die!.
Thinking back to her European breakdown, the singer is able to analyze where things went wrong.
“I’ve always been somebody who appreciates my solitude—I need personal time for reflection, and you don’t get that on tour,” she says. “So your nervous system just gets shot.”
Now, with You Say Party! We Say Die! set to start the road-warrior insanity all over again for XXXX, Ninkovic is undaunted. Part of the reason for that is that she’s learned there’s a price to be paid when you treat touring like a nonstop, well, party.
“The first thing you find when you get to a venue is beer, wine, liquor, and it’s all go, go, go,” Ninkovic says with a laugh. “So now I’ve got coconut water on our rider.”
Working even more in her favour for the future, she’s got the songs on XXXX, seven of which work a little something called XXXX into the lyrics. The way Ninkovic sees things, those songs are flooded with enough beauty and positivity that there’s no chance of the darkness descending again.
“On this record I only wanted to sing songs that were gentle, that I knew would feel good to do night after night,” she says. “I’ve got a message that I wanted to get out to myself and others.”
Such is her conviction that Ninkovic does something to help spread that message immediately after pouring out her soul at Liberty Bakery. After the tape recorder has been shut off, and goodbyes are being said, her body language makes it clear she still has something to add.
“I want to thank you for the interview,” she offers.
And then, after a brief, pause, she continues: “I don’t know why, but I feel like I want to give you a hug.”
So she does. And it feels, unmistakably, like love.