There are obvious concerns that arise over a record-release party. Will anyone attend? Is the vintage Karl Lagerfeld suit jacket overkill as far as stage attire goes? What if the sound guy is too stoned to get the levels right? When it comes to SSRIs, though, there are more serious trepidations swirling about.
With the soirée for the ostentatiously titled debut album Effeminate Godzilla-Sized Wind Chimes just around the corner, the band’s cofounders, multi-instrumentalists Joseph Hirabayashi and Elliot Langford, are doing their best to ignore the fact that this is usually when misfortune strikes. Shortly after the last time the Vancouver post-everything extremists cut a record, 2008’s Teems EP, a tragic accident took the life of their drummer, Tommy Milburn. And prior to that, when the guys were in the midst of celebrating their second-place result in the 2007 edition of CiTR’s Shindig battle-of-the-bands competition, original SSRIs stickman Jon Holisko announced that he was off to pursue other projects. Whenever things have appeared to be going along swimmingly, a little thing Hirabayashi refers to as “the curse” stops the group in its tracks.
“We’ve been around for almost four years, and I feel like out of that four years, we’ve been active for one,” Hirabayashi says between bites of a Very Berry vegan muffin, scored from the JJ Bean on Main Street. “We keep having bad things happen, and having band hiatuses or ending up having to go back to the drawing board.”
Along with his bandmates—Langford, bassist Aaron McKinney, and drummer Tony Dallas—the animated 23-year-old is kicking back on a shopping-mall bench across the street from the beardo-studded coffee shop, which is located in Vancouver-hipster central. To an outsider, SSRIs would seem to be engaged in the kind of conversation that can send serotonin levels hurtling to dangerously low levels, especially when you take inventory of the unseasonably gloomy weather on this particular June morning. But the mood within the mall doesn’t come even close to flat-lining.
Despite being dealt some truly awful hands, Hirabayashi and Langford—who first met back in high school, when Hirabayashi would cut class and visit his girlfriend in Langford’s drama course—aren’t looking to fold just yet.
It’s this tenacity that drives Effeminate Godzilla-Sized Wind Chimes, an album that stands as a powerful testament to the importance of carrying on when life delivers cruel blows. The band gathered before the Georgia Straight today is a much different crew than the one that came together back in 2006, but the lineup change with the arrival of McKinney and Dallas has only strengthened SSRIs’ resolve.
“I never wanted to be a super high-turnover band,” says Langford, nervously tapping the ground with his festive plaid-green Converses, clearly still trying to warm up to the idea of being interviewed (as are McKinney and Dallas, who seem content throughout the interview to let the other two do the talking). “In my mind, I look up to bands that have been the same four guys since high school—it just didn’t work out that way.”
“We’ve had to be open to things,” concurs Hirabayashi, who admits to learning this trait from his parents, the artistic directors of famed local company Kokoro Dance.
Had SSRIs lined the walls of its rehearsal space with press shots of posthardcore stalwarts like Fugazi and At the Drive-In, and pledged dogmatic allegiance to the teachings of Maximum RocknRoll before each practice, the band might not have been so willing to move beyond its original vision. Without any musical blueprint or steadfast rules to adhere to, though, Hirabayashi and Langford have been nothing if not flexible. While they started out as a trio, with two guitarists and a drummer, they’ve incorporated a bass player and expanded not just the number of people in the tour van but also SSRIs’ sound.
“It’s pretty different now,” Langford says. “With a three-piece band, you basically have drums and then you have someone doing something bass line-y and foundational, and then you kind of have one thing extra on top. Now, with a four-piece, we’ve always got bass and drums, so we’ve got two extra things on top.”
Those extra things help make one hell of an impression on Effeminate Godzilla-Sized Wind Chimes. Built on a raging mess of spastic guitar chords, the album fuses jagged-glass pop with cockeyed jazz, all the while chasing the intensity of Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto circa Red Medicine. Between the synthetic squeals heard on “A Certain Set Configuration” and the tornado of futuristic frequencies that is “Empathy for a Psychopath (Furry Stuffed Animal)”, there’s enough going on to induce sonic vertigo.
“This album ended up being pretty aggressive, with really short songs,” says Hirabayashi, outfitted in perhaps the most nonhostile shirt imaginable: a salmon-pink, button-up polo number.
SSRIs has never been a band you reach for when you want to power up the aromatherapy diffuser and unwind from a hellish day at the office. Still, the notion that listeners have to chug back a bottle of Gatorade just to keep up with the stamina-testing attack is relatively new. On Teems, the meandering “Domino Domino” offered at least some salvation from the jittery exuberance that drove the rest of the disc. There is little downtime on the clamorous long-player, though; only brief smatterings of the subdued indie-rock pleasantries heard in the past have survived.
The gang suggests that bringing Dallas into the fold is likely the reason. The 21-year-old, whose reputation as a hell-raiser behind the kit earned him a gig with local synth-pop darlings Fan Death on their recent European jaunt with Vampire Weekend, admits to having a Keith Moon–type penchant for speed. Despite his bandmates’ awareness of this, it took them some time to get a handle on the timekeeper’s blistering pace.
“When Tony walked in [to the audition], we’re like, ”˜What do you want to play?’ And he’s like, ”˜Ah, ”˜Time Ate the Garden’, which is, like, our hardest song,” recalls Langford. “He nailed it perfectly.”
“But at, like, twice the speed,” Hirabayashi pipes in, laughing.
“He’d found this podcast of us on Thunderbird Radio Hell [on CiTR] and learned all of our songs, but somehow the podcast was sped up,” Langford continues. “When we listened to the recording last year while on tour, we were like, ”˜We can’t play these songs this fast. That’s crazy!’ ”
Both Hirabayashi and Langford admit they’re looking forward to exploring Effeminate Godzilla-Sized Wind Chimes’ songs live in the coming months, and not just because the material on Teems has been at the core of their set list the past few years. Today, there’s unimaginable grief mixed into the corkscrew rhythms and skittish melodies of those older songs. Each number is sealed with a special memory of Milburn: an epic bike ride, a hilarious karaoke session, or a late-night tree-climbing adventure. There are days when they still can’t believe they’ve lost the drummer, who died after falling through the skylight of a Main Street restaurant.
“I’m glad to have new songs to play because they’re tied into the present,” says Langford, lightly fingering a small tattoo on his upper arm that reads “Tommy” before motioning to the identical design splashed across Hirabayashi’s arm in pale blue ink. “I like the old songs, but it’s pretty bittersweet. It’s not like we’re a sad band—most of our songs are pretty fun and high-energy—but to be playing them and have these memories tied into my dead friend”¦ It’s difficult.
“It’s kind of like you’re in a cover band of yourself,” he adds quietly.
When it does come time to showcase their latest batch of Cardiacs-style pronk on-stage, Langford might feel a tad out of his element. As of late, the Vancouver native has been performing for face-painted toddlers while backing local children’s entertainer Will Stroet. It seems like pretty scary territory for a guy who grew up listening to the Blood Brothers and Primus, but the 24-year-old insists that the kiddie circuit isn’t actually all that different from the gigs he plays with SSRIs, give or take a few music-nerd and indie-fashionista types.
“It’s like a mini-punk show, really,” he says with a laugh, visibly relieved to be moving on to more jovial topics. “They don’t even realize how punk they’re being, jumping up and down all crazy and weird-like.
“I’ve been thinking about stealing their sweet moves,” he continues. “I always like it when people are down to bring out their crazy, spaz-out party moves.”
Armed with an appreciation of preschool-approved slam dancing, the quartet is primed to dip into its updated songbook and launch into the next chapter of SSRIs. And while there’s plenty on the horizon for the latest incarnation of the genre-bending punks, the lessons learned from past hardships appear to be steering the ship. One need only examine the subject matter of Effeminate Godzilla-Sized Wind Chimes to be sure of this.
“Survivalism is a big theme for us on the album,” says Hirabayashi. “Like having all these environmental forces controlling the things you do and who you are.”
“There’s a lot of conflict between man-versus-man or man-versus-environment played out,” adds Langford. “We thought of calling the album Vs. at one point, but it sounded too blatant.
“Also,” he notes with a smirk, “Vs. is a Pearl Jam album.”
Despite the fact that Eddie Vedder and his cohorts got to it first, this would have made a fitting title for the full-length debut of a group that has done nothing but battle since coming onto the scene nearly four years ago. That the guys opted for the borderline-ridiculous Effeminate Godzilla-Sized Wind Chimes speaks loads about Hirabayashi and Langford’s ability to focus on the bright side of life, and suggests there will be more records added to SSRIs’ catalogue in the future. And that likely means one thing: this isn’t the last album you’ll see with a dedication to Tommy Milburn.
SSRIs play a record-release party for Effeminate Godzilla-Sized Wind Chimes at the Biltmore Cabaret next Friday (June 18).