Yukon Blonde changes gears

With the ambitious On Blonde, the band proves that repeating a proven formula isn’t the only way to win.

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      One of the magical things about the modern world is the way that it’s become so easy to put everything into instant perspective. Take the case of Yukon Blonde, which has just released its ambitious third album, On Blonde.

      For a quick comparison of where the Kelowna-spawned band was a couple of years ago and where it is today, singer-guitarist Jeffrey Innes doesn’t have to rely on his own hazy memories. Instead, he only has to fire up his phone and check his Instagram account. When the Georgia Straight reaches the outgoing singer-guitarist, he’s on the go in New York City, as part of a busy publicity swing back East. Even though he’s exhausted, Innes happily reports that his days have been a blur of press and radio interviews. All this is a decided improvement over the way Yukon Blonde marked the release of its last record, 2012’s Tiger Talk.

      “It’s been crazy—we’ve gotten three hours of sleep a night for the last few nights,” he says, speaking from a Big Apple pizza parlour. “The last week, it’s just been go, go, go. After Toronto, this morning we were in Atlantic City, which was pretty amazing. There’s normally no reason to ever go there because it’s not off a main highway, but we did an NPR thing down there. After that, we got to see Atlantic City. It was pretty amazing, seeing all the Monopoly street names—Pennsylvania and Marven Gardens. Now we’re in New York.”

      Thanks to social media, the frontman has no trouble remembering what he was doing when Tiger Talk hit the streets.

      “I was just going through my Instagram yesterday and I found a picture from the day that Tiger Talk came out,” he says with a laugh. “That day I was just laying in bed with my cat. There’s actually a selfie of me and my cat, then it says, ‘Tiger Talk comes out today,’ or something stupid like that. I guess that’s proof we weren’t really doing anything cool the day of the release. So, yeah, things feel a lot busier now than they have been in the past.”

      If you need further proof that Yukon Blonde has indeed become a thing, consider who’s headlining this year’s massive Khatsahlano Street Party on Saturday (July 11). The honour is going to Innes and his bandmates, guitarist Brandon Scott, drummer Graham Jones, keyboardist Rebecca Gray, and bassist James Younger. The Khats announcement is fittingly spotlighted on the band’s Instagram account. Pretty goddamn sweet when you consider that the band, not that long ago, found itself wondering if it was time to unplug the amps and walk away.

      When Yukon Blonde last played the city’s biggest music-related street party, things were a little different. The year was 2011, and the group was just starting to make a name for itself with a strain of folk-rock that suggested Laurel Canyon during the coke-dusted
      golden years.

      “We played Khatsahlano a few years ago—Sun Wizard was the band right before us,” Innes recalls. “I had so much fun. I hung out there all day and did the Zulu thing, sitting up top at Zulu and having beers. Now it’s become Vancouver’s biggest and best street festival.”

      Just as Khats has blown up, so has Yukon Blonde. NPR isn’t the only heavy hitter that’s got behind On Blonde. Spin streamed the record before its release, praising the songs as worthy of a classic John Hughes soundtrack. Paste suggested that the only downside to numbers like “Saturday Night” is the danger of exhausting yourself dancing at home before ever making it to the club.

      What might make Innes happiest about the attention is that Yukon Blonde, more than ever, feels like a band in which everyone is moving in the same direction.

      “We have a common goal that we now all believe in musically, whereas before it was different,” he says. “Like, Graham has never been much of a postpunk fan, so our last record was something that he liked, but it wasn’t really his vibe. This time, we all really got behind the record, and the result is that we all really believe we’ve made our best record so far.”

      The group’s eponymous 2010 debut was heavy on honey-glazed harmonies, earning instant comparisons to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Fleetwood Mac. Evidently determined to be something more than Lotusland’s sun-saturated answer to Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes, Yukon Blonde pulled an impressive U-turn on 2012’s Tiger Talk, a decidedly edgier and more ferocious record that nodded to Television, Buzzcocks, and the Flaming Lips.

      Tiger Talk was great enough that no one would have been disappointed by a carbon-copy sequel. Except, that is, the members of Yukon Blonde, who would eventually choose to play by no one’s rules but their own for On Blonde. There are, as noted, ’80s-obsessed moments that make one think Innes and Co. would look fantastically pretty in pink. With its motorik synth line, “Confused” perfectly captures an era when Molly Ringwald was the world’s favourite teen queen and New Romantic London was the coolest place on Earth. The impossibly suave “Make U Mine” sails the same neon-coloured seas as Duran Duran’s “Rio”.

      On Blonde isn’t, however, aimed exclusively at those who long for a time when boys wore cotton-candy-coloured lipstick and girls dressed in rags from the Lucky Star thrift store. “Hannah” boasts a paisley-perfect intro straight from the Summer of Love, while the dream-swirled “You Broke the Law” is the best thing your parents never heard on ’70s AM radio. Yukon Blonde sets the synths to cancer black on the awesomely ominous gothic chillwaver “Starvation”, and then dresses the Age of Aquarius in black clothes and pointy shoes on the pulsating final track, “Jezebel”.

      Add a ’50s doo-wop undercurrent in the chiming rocker “Como” and you’ve got a record that can’t be tethered to a particular era, which is exactly what the band was shooting for.

      “With Tiger Talk, we were listening to a ton of postpunk stuff, everything from Television to XTC,” Innes says. “I could be completely talking out of my ass here, but when I think about Tiger Talk it kind of sounds a bit like the end of the era that was influencing us—when record executives got behind that stuff and said, ‘Let’s make this the biggest-sounding thing in the world, loud and really compressed and as poppy as it can possibly be.’ ”

      Initially, Yukon Blonde intended to hit the studio right after finishing the touring cycle for Tiger Talk.

      “We were at the end of an Australian tour,” Innes says, “when we kind of realized that, if we recorded as soon as we got home, which was when we had the time booked for, we would be doing the same thing as in the past. That would be rehearse the record, get into the studio, make a record, get out of the studio, and then tour again. We’d basically been on tour since 2009, without much of a break or being at home. During the Tiger Talk process everyone had got girlfriends and relocated across the country, and that made things kind of messy. So we said, ‘Let’s take a time-out.’ ”

      Looking back, there was some serious wondering about whether or not Yukon Blonde had run its course.

      “We thought, ‘Let’s have some personal time and then reconvene,’ ” Innes remembers. “But it was also like if we reconvene. And the downtime took a lot longer than it was supposed to. We were totally burned-out—totally burned-out, even though we were still best friends. Graham and Brandon had moved to Toronto, and our bass player was sort of situated there, as well. I didn’t want to move to Toronto—I love Vancouver, and was like, ‘I’m staying.’ It was one of those things where we realized that, if we stopped the wheels from rolling, it was going to take a lot to get them going again because those guys were in Toronto.”

      Still, everyone stepped back.

      Innes kept busy during his break from Yukon Blonde, releasing a synth-shimmered solo record under the name of High Ends. Eventually, he decided to take a vacation. It was during that vacation that he began working on reassembling Yukon Blonde.

      “Brandon started playing with High Ends because he’d moved back to Vancouver,” Innes relates. “We started talking about the possibility of maybe booking time and getting a [Yukon Blonde] record together. We wanted to meet with Graham, but we didn’t want to do it over a Skype call because we hadn’t hung out in almost a year. Before, we’d hung out every day for eight years.”

      Initially, the three founders of Yukon Blonde—whose bonds go back to their teen years in Kelowna—planned to meet up in either Toronto or Vancouver to discuss their future. Plane tickets would, however, prove cost-prohibitive.

      “Finally, I was like, ‘I’m going to look at flights to Mexico, and see what all-inclusive packages are,’ ” Innes says. “It ended up being cheaper than it would have been to have us fly across the country and stay in a hotel. So the three of us went to Mexico and had our meeting where we talked about the record, and whether or not we still wanted to do Yukon Blonde.

      “It was the best no-pressure scenario,” he continues. “You’re not stuck in a coffee shop, or meeting in a boardroom at the Agency Group—someplace sterile. So we went down, talked about the record, had a couple of arguments on the beach, and then just totally agreed on what we wanted to do.”

      The major breakthrough in Mexico was realizing the album they’d initially written, mostly on tour for Tiger Talk, was basically Tiger Talk <em>Tiger Talk</em>, only with songs that weren’t as good.

      “The first order of business was agreeing that 90 percent of the record that we’d initially planned to make was shit. So Graham moved back to Vancouver and we went back to the drawing board and made a new record.”

      When starting the writing process for On Blonde, Yukon Blonde remembered what’s made it one of Vancouver’s consistently excellent bands: a willingness to rip up the playbook and start fresh every time it makes a new album.

      “None of us wanted to make a record that sounded like any one thing,” Innes reveals. “We were more hoping that the diversity would eventually sound like the thing. There are records that I just adore because they are like that—like Parklife by Blur is so all over the place, but it has a real sound to it. I imagine that when they were making it, they thought it was all over the place. Same with Different Class by Pulp.

      “But both of those records really sound like those bands,” he continues. “And I feel like maybe that’s the way you forge your sound. You have to do what you want, and then hope you’re consistent enough as musicians and writers that who you are eventually shines through, as opposed to forcing a sound.”

      There are, he admits, challenges to playing in a band, even one that’s on a roll with On Blonde.

      “I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to do this for a living,” Innes says, “but on the other hand it’s really, really hard. What I try to keep in mind is those rules to live by on tour by Thor [Harris], who plays with Bill Callahan and Shearwater. They are amazing, and so spot-on that we actually printed them off one time and posted them in the van. One of the rules goes something like ‘Don’t tear your life apart in a janitor’s closet 10 minutes before you go on-stage. You think you’re above having bad days at work?’ ”

      One of the rewards for those bad days is that Innes can trace a line from Instagram pictures with his cat to the Khats headlining gig, and realize how far Yukon Blonde has come.

      “This has been our job since right before Tiger Talk,” he says. “Not that it’s been incredibly lucrative—it’s more that we’re thrifty because this is something that we want to do. Now we’re a little bit more fortunate, where we can actually have apartments and take a bit of time off here and there—but not too much. It’s going to be a shitty day when I have to get a job. But it’s real good right now.”

      Yukon Blonde headlines this year’s Khatsahlano Street Party on Saturday (July 11).