No one ever accused the guys in We Are the City of lacking ambition. Two years ago, the Kelowna-formed but now Vancouver-based band released an EP, High School, along with a 26-minute short film comprising videos for each of the six songs.
This year, the trio has put out its second full-length album, Violent, an effort that it plans to follow up with a feature-length movie. Filmed in Norway. With dialogue entirely in Norwegian. Yes, really.
“We went to Norway,” confirms drummer Andrew Huculiak, reached on tour in Lethbridge, Alberta. “That was last fall. We filmed a full-length film in the space of a month, which was really crazy. We’d be staying up really late, waking up really early, working with actors who in their takes were speaking Norwegian, a language that we can’t understand.”
The as-yet-untitled film is in the final stages of postproduction and should be finished in a month or two, although even the band itself isn’t sure when or where the public will be able to see it.
Huculiak says the movie is about a young woman living through a catastrophic event, and her relationships with the people in her life. The $64,000 question, of course, is “Why Norway?” The drummer confesses that he and his bandmates—singer-keyboardist Cayne McKenzie and guitarist David Menzel—have “a little bit of an obsession with Scandinavia”. That’s obvious on Violent, or at least it will be to listeners who are equally obsessed and can detect the imprint of Finnish art-rock collective Rubik or Danish prog-pop juggernaut Mew.
We Are the City occasionally wears its relatively obscure influences on its sleeves, but at its best, the group is breathtakingly original. Witness how the skeletal bedroomtronica of “Friends Hurt” lurches into a soundscape of detuned synthesizer drones, or the way the viscerally gritty push-pull guitar riff of “King David” gives way to a barely-there verse centred on McKenzie’s unforced but emotive vocals before the song turns into something grand and soaring, propelled by Huculiak’s metronomically precise drumming.
On the whole, Violent is a remarkable listen: masterfully arranged and impeccably mixed, but with enough unsanded corners to ward off accusations of overproduction. The songs are melodic and listener-friendly without ever really swimming very far in the direction of the mainstream.
That the LP turned out as well as it did must be gratifying to We Are the City; it was a long time in the making. The band started writing it as a follow-up to its 2009 debut, In a Quiet World. Then Menzel left, and We Are the City started playing gigs as High School, with Blake Enemark filling in on six-string duties. With its simpler songs and its members’ identities hidden behind masks fashioned out of white T-shirts, High School can perhaps best be viewed as an attempt to take a breather from the more serious business of being in We Are the City. The group’s secret got out, however, and the band ended up releasing the High School material under its own name, to serious acclaim.
By the time Menzel re-entered the fold, several years had passed, and the trio found itself reassessing the material it had been working on before he left. The consensus was that they didn’t fully reflect how the three men had matured, musically speaking. “We listened to them, and it was like, ‘Well, it’s really crazy that we saved these songs, because they’re just not as good as the ones that we were writing right before we went into the studio for Violent,’ ” Huculiak notes.
We Are the City recorded Violent at Monarch Studios, with Tom Dobrzanski at the console. Before that, however, the band set up shop at the Magic House, a former family residence in White Rock that had a date with a wrecking ball.
“We wrote it there, demoed it all there, and then the house was demolished and I feel like it was a true end to that chapter,” Huculiak says. “And then we went into the studio and had all of these demos and these pieces. We had probably five hours of recorded material, like the songs in different formats—different ways to play it, and all these different attempts at playing the same song. So we went into the studio and tried to sift through all of that and make sense of all of it. It’s very interesting, I think—for me, anyways—that the entire process was split up into a couple of different chapters that were very neatly bookended.”
The care that We Are the City takes with its compositions is also evident in the lyrics (mostly written by McKenzie, but with contributions from the others), which tackle the Big Questions of faith, family, and friendship. And those are subjects on which all three musicians are not always in accord.
“The band for us is a jumping-off point into conversation,” Huculiak reveals. “So the lyrics are very honest, and they’re very raw. So, yeah, there’s definitely a lot of conversation and disagreement—and agreement as well, and encouragement and discouragement within the band based on lyrics, and based on world-views and theological opinions and things like that.”
It may be the product of young men who spend more time pondering Deep Thoughts than Jack Handey, but Violent should not be mistaken for a treatise on how to live a fulfilling life. We Are the City offers more questions than answers, and Huculiak doesn’t apologize for that.
“I think that that’s not necessarily a bad thing, you know,” says the drummer. “At least the questions are being prodded within myself, or within Cayne or someone that listens to the band. I don’t have all the answers, and so I think that if I was to start masquerading as if I did, that would be more destructive than just asking the questions themselves.”