Based on the band’s name, you could be forgiven for assuming that We Are the City’s music is inspired by the dizzying whirl of urban life, from the squalor of needle-strewn back alleys to the steel-and-glass monuments to commerce that thrust ever upward into the clouds. However, the trio’s members—singer-keyboardist Cayne McKenzie, guitarist David Menzel, and drummer Andy Huculiak—don’t hail from the big city at all, but from a relatively small one: Kelowna, B.C.
Moreover, the moniker they chose for their group comes not from the modern world but from an ancient text. It was inspired by the King James Version of the Bible, specifically Matthew 5:14, in which Christ entreats his followers to set an example for the rest of humanity: “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.”
Considered as a Christian rock band (or at least a rock band composed of Christians) We Are the City is more Pedro the Lion than Jars of Clay, using its faith as a foundation from which to examine the world around it rather than as an excuse to preach or praise. In fact, you won’t find any explicitly biblical themes on In a Quiet World, the group’s self-released debut.
“The album is about family, and about our journey in and out and all around spirituality,” explains McKenzie, reached at his parents’ home in the Okanagan. Within that context, the songs—to which all three members contribute both musically and lyrically—encompass everything from nostalgia for the innocence of childhood to contemplation of spousal relationships as yet unformed.
“It was accidental, I think, that all the songs kind of lined up like that,” McKenzie notes. “Because of our writing style, we write songs pretty slowly, so we weren’t one of those bands who have, like, 20 songs to choose from for the album. The songs that are on the album, that’s it—that’s all the songs we had. It just happened to work out that all of them had really similar lyrical ideas. I think it turned out for the best that they all did.”
If its themes seem heady for a band whose oldest member just turned 20, In a Quiet World displays just as much maturity in the sonic realm. We Are the City’s music is rooted in pop, and McKenzie’s yearning, melodic singing lends it considerable appeal. On the other hand, the trio’s sound is bolstered by enough tight turnarounds, tempo changes, and sudden dynamic shifts to nudge it into progressive-rock territory, as befits an outfit that lists Radiohead, Muse, and Mew among its influences. Consider “There Are Very, Very Big Lights in the Sky”, a twisty rocker that, with no warning, breaks down into a section of tribal stomps and handclaps accompanied by rally-round-the-fire chanting. Or “Astronomers”, which begins as a more-or-less straightforward piano ballad before blasting off for the stars in a spiralling arc of effects-pedal heroics.
We Are the City recently won top honours in the Peak Performance Project, a province-wide talent search sponsored by 100.5 the Peak FM. Just how did a prog-indebted band whose songs probe questions of faith and family end up winning a massive battle-of-the-bands sponsored by a commercial radio station? McKenzie is quick to admit that he has absolutely no idea.
“To be honest, I think we’re all a little bit confused about that,” he says. “I will thank Music BC and the Peak till the end of time for this. It’s unbelievable. We’re so lucky and super blessed to have gotten it.”
He says he and his bandmates will use the $150,000 prize to refurbish their tour-battered gear and to produce and promote the next We Are the City album. Don’t think for a second that the group is going to start penning three-minute pop-rock numbers in the vein of Coldplay or Keane in order to capitalize on its newfound notoriety, though. “Dare I say it, the newer songs we’re writing now are even more progressive than the ones on the album,” McKenzie says. “So hopefully we don’t spin completely out of control.”
We Are the City plays 560 Seymour’s Independent Music launch party on Saturday (April 10).