There are those who will argue that you never really know a person until you've gotten drunk and/or played poker with him. Survive a liver-destroying Texas hold 'em marathon with a friendship intact, and odds are you're on to something beautiful.
The Cape May discovered this to be true when it was recording Glass Mountain Roads, one of the greatest records you likely never heard in 2006. Singer-guitarist Clinton St. John, bassist Matt Flegel, and drummer Jeff Macleod began working on the disc in their hometown of Calgary, with American indie icon Steve Albini flying in to oversee the sessions. When St. John came down with a severe throat infection in the middle of making the record, schedules had to be reorganized. That eventually led to The Cape May getting on a plane and following the former Big Black frontman to his Chicago studio. It was there that cards and alcohol abuse cemented friendships that altered the career path of the postrock Canuck trio.
“Steve Albini and I have a mutual love of poker, so at day's end we would find ourselves sitting at a table together,” Macleod says, on the line from his day job at a Calgary bookstore. “When we went to Chicago, he convinced us to stay a couple of days after we were finished so I could participate in this annual tournament his friends throw. So we all crashed in his studio, where he was working with his favourite artist, Nina Nastasia, whom we're big fans of as well. After the poker tournament, Steve and I returned to the studio and found Flegel, Clint, and the whole Nina crew blind drunk on mezcal and whiskey. Our friendship with Nina started that night, and we kept in touch.”
A mutual appreciation had begun, with Nastasia being impressed enough by Glass Mountain Roads to invite the members of The Cape May to act as her backing musicians.
“Her regular band was unavailable, so Steve liked us enough that he said, ”˜Maybe Big Red Leaf could pitch in'—that's sort of the way he talks,” Macleod recounts. “A month later we were in New York, practising for her American and European tour, for which The Cape May was the opener.”
That the band ended up making no shortage of converts on those tours won't surprise anyone who's heard Glass Mountain Roads, which positions The Cape May as a more compact counterpart to Montreal's Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Funereal keyboards create oppressive waves of atmosphere in “Spider's Heart Attack”, while dawn's-break trumpet flourishes and math-rock guitar pyrotechnics bring to mind barren prairie fields and stillborn winter days in “Spring Fight to the Land of Fire”. The Cape May's sonic palette doesn't stop at postrock's standard gunship grey. “Mari” kicks off with a sweep of faux-flamenco guitars, gypsy-campfire fiddles drift in and out of “Still Island”, and “Old & Early Numbers” pulses with soft Eastern Bloc accordion.
As with Central City May Rise Again (The Cape May's 2005 debut), Glass Mountain Roads casts St. John not so much as a lyricist but a brilliant if cryptic storyteller who dreams up such lines as “Visions of Roy's dead ex-wife/Swimming in the mantelpiece.” Macleod admits that, while the band's drinking buddies and poker-playing partners appreciate the singer's way with words, Middle America didn't know exactly what to make of the band on its last tour.
“Clint's lyrics tend to be kind of dark, unsettling, and kind of heavy,” Macleod says. “He definitely tells stories, and I don't think a lot of people in America have the attention span for that. It's funny, though—we did really well in Europe. There was an instant connection with our music. I dunno—I guess it's a place where anything that's art just has more value.”
The Cape May plays the Ukrainian Hall on Friday (March 2) and the Railway Club on Sunday (March 4).