Dralms dares guitarlessness

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      Don’t believe everything you see on YouTube—even if it was true at the time of posting.

      A web search for info on local quartet Dralms rendered a fair number of hits, but only one concert video, and even more puzzling was that the act performing on-stage sounded much more like a conventional rock band than its studio efforts would indicate. According to Christopher Smith, however, the Biltmore Cabaret gig that generated the live “Divisions of Labour” was an anomaly in more ways than one.

      “That was one of the first Dralms things ever,” the singer reports, checking in with the Straight from his Mount Pleasant stoop, where he’s enjoying a warm evening and a cold beverage. “And I had severe food poisoning when that video was recorded. I couldn’t even come to sound check. They just picked me up and pushed me on-stage, and I did the set and then went home and died. It was brutal.”

      There’s nothing like having one’s lowest moments documented for posterity, although the amiable Smith doesn’t seem bothered enough by his feverish appearance to have it yanked from the ’Tube. Maybe he’s happy to have it available for historical purposes, for shortly after that 2013 show his band took the radical step of banning the electric six-string from its arsenal, leaving the former singer-guitarist free to concentrate on his stagecraft.

      “I don’t even play guitar anymore,” Smith says. “I mean, I do when I’m writing at home; it’s like a tool. But one thing that I’ve sort of been playing around with is embracing the idea of a performance more. That’s something that I was really uncomfortable with for a long time. It just sounds scary and bad, you know, but then I kind of realized that it’s an important piece; it’s something that’s happening with live music whether you think about it or not. It’s a performance: you’re presenting your work in this dramatic way. So I dropped the guitar live for a couple of reasons, and one was to let things go in a different direction—once the guitar is gone, things inevitably have to take on this new sound.”

      Another way to look at it is that without the guitar occupying centre stage, there’s an empty space. Guitarless bands can either play with that space or fill it, and Dralms is doing both.

      The void gives keyboardist Will Kendrick, bassist Peter Carruthers, and drummer Shaunn Watt more room to manoeuvre—but, in the studio at least, Smith and company have added extra texture thanks to guest musician Andy Dixon, of Secret Mommy notoriety. Dixon’s synth washes and programmed beats push Dralms toward electropop terrain, and they also provide an intriguing sonic tension when combined with the rhythm section’s residual rockist tendencies.

      “Some of Andy’s sounds get pulled into our live set, but a lot of it ends up being strictly recorded,” Smith notes. “But it definitely plays a role rhythmically, because he’s adding electronic percussion and stuff like that. Will’s stuff tends to be more drone-y and not so rhythmic.”

      Dralms has another secret sonic weapon in the form of ace producer-engineer John Raham, who’s just finished recording the group’s debut full-length, Shook, at Afterlife Studios. The new disc is set for an October release, but its title track is already available online, and hints at where the band might be going.

      The basics are simple: Watt provides a steady midtempo pulse, Carruthers drives things forward with an elegantly stark bass line, and Kendrick opens the tune with an evocative melodica melody. But there are intriguing synth textures in the background, subtle dub touches appear during a brief instrumental break, and Smith overdubs himself into an eerie chorus towards the end.

      What he’s singing about isn’t entirely obvious, although he seems to be mourning a past relationship. “You’re the best I’ve ever had,” he intones at one point, sounding both wistful and resigned.

      When it’s suggested that he often leans toward the darker side of life, Smith demurs. “I don’t know,” he muses. “I don’t know if I’d say that there’s this boiling liquid that I’m trying to keep at bay, or anything. I’d never go so far as to say that. I definitely want to feel like I’m expressing myself when I’m writing music, but I also don’t want to lock the listener into a specific message.”

      It’s an approach that seems to be working. Following Dralms’ Squamish Valley Music Festival show, the four are off for a European tour, organized in part by their London-based label, Full Time Hobby. When it comes to advice for other local musicians who’d like to crack the overseas market, however, Smith comes up short.

      “It just sort of happened,” he says, sounding surprised. “We’ve done things in Canada, but Europe is where things have moved. People are just responding to what we do over there, and so we’re pursuing that.”

      Dralms plays the Garibaldi Stage at the Squamish Valley Music Festival next Friday (August 7).