On August 13, a Twitter user going by the handle @grypewater had a burning question: “How is Said the Whale still a band?”
Dean Watson probably didn’t think his snarky tweet would get a serious response from the artist in question, but then he doesn’t know Tyler Bancroft, who decided to take the Edmonton graphic designer’s question at face value.
“Hard work,” the singer-guitarist wrote, using Said the Whale’s official Twitter account. “Perseverance in the face of an industry that does not favor ‘experienced’ bands. Some incredible supporters who keep coming to our shows and buying our albums after all these years. Literally ZERO luck—but all of the above counteracts that somehow.”
When Bancroft meets up with the Straight for an interview at the Storm Crow Alehouse on West Broadway, he explains why he decided Watson’s cynical query warranted a thoughtful answer. “I think he asked the question flippantly and just put it on his socal-media shitpost, but I took it as an opportunity to answer in earnest, because I do think that it’s a valid question,” he says. “And I’m proud of the fact that we’re still a band. I think it is an accomplishment to not have broken up after 12 years. So, good for us! We deserve the kudos.”
Bancroft admits that there was a time when Said the Whale came very close to not being a band any longer. By the beginning of 2017, two long-time members—drummer Spencer Schoening and bassist Nathan Shaw—had departed, leaving the core trio of Bancroft, singer-guitarist Ben Worcester, and keyboardist Jaycelyn Brown. Lesser bands might have packed it in at that point, but the remaining members of Said the Whale opted to make a new record instead. They recruited We Are the City’s Cayne McKenzie to help them flesh out their songs with synthesizer tones and electronic textures. If the resulting album—titled As Long as Your Eyes Are Wide—didn’t sound much like the ones that had preceded it, that was entirely by design.
“That experimental record happened—and could only have happened—with the personnel that helped it happen,” Bancroft notes. “Also, we were feeling a bit reckless, like ‘Yesterday we thought maybe we won’t be a band, so fuck it, let’s make a weird record that nobody will expect—but we still think the songs, at their core, are very intensely personal.’ And they are. They’re dark and sad, and all of us had been going through some shit—the band possibly breaking up kind of being the least of our worries, things were so weird in our personal lives.”
The titles of many of the songs the group was making during this time (prime examples being “Step Into the Darkness” and “Nothing Makes Me Happy”) confirm that last point. As they usually do, however, the black clouds hanging over the trio’s members evaporated. And, as justifiably proud as Said the Whale is of As Long as Your Eyes Are Wide, Bancroft admits that the aesthetic of that project was heavily reliant on McKenzie’s input. When it came time to make its follow-up—this year’s Cascadia—a change of tactics was in order: “ ‘Let’s sit down with guitars and make the music that we know we’re capable of making and that we’ve been making for a long time,’ ” he recalls saying. “ ‘These are our comfortable instruments. Let’s just do that, and not worry about always having to call somebody to make a sound for us.’ This record is a return to the comfort of making music in our bedrooms, and in my studio. A lot of it was recorded in my studio, which is an old converted bike shed behind the apartment that I rent. Some of it was recorded up at Ben’s cabin, and that was very relaxed and comfortable. Some of it was done in Toronto with some friends of ours producing—Alex Bonenfant and Jay Merrow produced more than half the record.”
Also along for the ride in various capacities were Mounties members Parker Bossley and Steve Bays. Bossley played bass on about half of the tracks on Cascadia, and Bays mixed and/or produced several of them. Both men also contributed to the writing of the single “Record Shop”. A strutting return to the guitar-based indie pop that Said the Whale arguably does best, the song is a celebration of music’s power to patch up a broken heart.
If Cascadia has a lyrical through-line, though, it’s one that has surfaced time and time again in the group’s songs. The record’s opening track, “Wake Up”, is rife with vivid descriptions of the beauty of the North Shore mountains and the sweeping vistas of Howe Sound; its closing cut, “Gambier Island Green”, imparts idyllic images of towering cedars and ocean spray. The West Coast, and Vancouver in particular, has long been a sort of muse for Said the Whale.
Now, the band is doing its best to pay some of that inspiration forward by fostering the next crop of local talent. Toward that end, the act spent part of this spring performing at assemblies around the Lower Mainland, raising money for the host schools’ music programs. It also held a contest to find an opening act for its concert next week in Stanley Park. (The winner, Jaden Bricker, is a 17-year-old wunderkind who has released a staggering nine albums of deeply quirky but impeccably crafted pop in the past two years.)
Still in his mid-30s, the boyish Bancroft is a tad too young to wear the title of elder statesman, but he says he and his bandmates see mentoring up-and-coming talent as an opportunity to make a positive impact on the cultural life of the place they love. “As we get older and more mature—and I’ve got children of my own now—it’s something that makes you reflect back on your career and wonder what you’ve done to contribute to the space around you, and what you’re doing to lay a foundation for the young people in this city,” he says. “I think about that a lot, having a kid. It’s kind of a cliché: a band gets older and starts doing things for their community, whereas when they’re younger they’re just, like, shitheads that are not paying attention—and that’s fine. That’s great, that’s totally normal. We’re very much following that cliché, in that we’re getting older and we want to be investing more into our community.”
Said the Whale might be setting the stage for the next generation, but don’t think for a second that the group will be stepping down from that stage itself, at least not in the foreseeable future. Having weathered a dozen years in the indie-rock trenches, Bancroft and company have no intention of quitting now—with zero apologies to the likes of Dean Watson.
“Now I feel confident that we could be a band forever in some capacity,” Bancroft says. “The three of us—me, Ben, and Jayce—have been through enough as people that I don’t think we’ll ever break up, as scary as that might be for some people.”
Said the Whale plays Malkin Bowl next Friday (September 6).