Talk about a dream gig. David Cotton’s mind must have been utterly blown when his band, Seven Nines and Tens, landed the opening slot for the Vancouver visit of reunited ’90s alt-rock heroes Hum.
How stoked is he? “Pretty stoked, pretty stoked,” Cotton says when the Straight catches up with him at a West Broadway café, where he’s sitting for an interview alongside SNAT guitarist Ross Albrecht and drummer Drew Christie. (The only one missing is bassist Jodee Sawan.) “Yeah, that’s a bucket-list one.”
Cotton, you see, named his project after a line in Hum’s biggest hit, the 1995 single “Stars”, which includes the lines “I found her out back sitting naked looking up and looking dead/A crumpled yellow piece of paper, with seven nines and tens.” Fans have spent 20 years trying to figure out what those digits represent, with theories ranging from the obvious (an attempt to tally up the number of stars visible in the night sky) to the unlikely (a phone number).
As for Cotton, he has no idea, and an email to Matt Talbot, the man who wrote those words, didn’t yield any answers. “I actually asked the vocalist from Hum many years ago, like eight years ago, what that lyric meant, and he never replied to me,” Cotton notes.
The fact that the line is inscrutable is no doubt a large part of its appeal; whatever it means, it makes for a good band name. Cotton is clearly not averse to taking inspiration from the work of others, but he always gives credit where it’s due. Consider the single “I Come From Downtown”, the first new music we’ve heard from Seven Nines and Tens in nearly three years. Astute listeners will recognize the title as a line from the Tragically Hip’s “Grace, Too”, while the lyrics paraphrase the title of the Sloan album One Chord to Another.
Cotton acknowledges that he chose these particular references as his own personal tribute to the music he grew up with. “Because I heard those records when I was a kid, and I listen to them now as an adult, it resonates in a different way, but it still seems really awesome,” he says of the touchstones of mid-’90s CanCon. “I’m definitely always listening to it and looking at the artwork and sort of just being nostalgic but also appreciating it in the present tense, to be sure.”
Sonically, you’d never mistake “I Come From Downtown” for a Hip B-side. After an intro of chiming guitars, the track explodes into a heavier-than-heaven groove that balances a daydream shimmer with a mammoth rhythm section. It’s a killer sound, and it couldn’t be more different from much of SNAT’s past work.
Through multiple lineup changes, the band has evolved significantly since releasing its first full-length album, Habitat 67, in 2011. That record could be described as math rock welded to scorched-earth metal riffs and jazzy fretless-bass runs.
“We started off really proggy,” Cotton says. “We got really post-metally for a while, and now it’s like psych-shoegaze post-metal, post-hardcore, and a little bit of classic rock; a little bit of Pink Floyd in there.”
That’s a lot of subgenres, but Cotton admits that he tends to leave off one of his previous go-to descriptors.
“I don’t say ‘black metal’ anymore, because people are hatin’ on the black metal,” he says. “I don’t want to be part of that backlash.”
The one element that really sets “I Come From Downtown” apart from Seven Nines and Tens’ back catalogue is Cotton’s singing. Until now, SNAT was a strictly instrumental outfit.
“I’ve been singing longer than I’ve been playing guitar, so after a while it just made sense,” the frontman says of adding his voice to the band’s sound. “I always felt like there was just one more element that we had never really covered—and that we still don’t really cover, because I don’t sing live very much, just on record. I was telling our producer Steve [Hanker] last night when I heard the mix that it’s cool to hear this band with vocals—like, to really hear it, with harmonies and stuff. I’m definitely into it. The music isn’t as complex now, too, so there’s more space to sing.”
When he was working out exactly how to approach incorporating vocals into the world of Seven Nines and Tens, Cotton turned to some unexpected sources of inspiration.
“Rock was just very…I can’t think of a word other than tepid,” he asserts. “I couldn’t think of anything that inspired me at all. And then I went to hip-hop, and there was all this bravado. It’s just really confident, interesting, all these different themes. And I was dialled right back in after that.”
Make no mistake: “I Come From Downtown”—which precedes a new full-length to be released before the end of the year—is no rap-rock number. In fact, Cotton’s reverb-washed singing is more Slowdive than Rage Against the Machine. His tuneful approach to vocals combined with his taste for blitzkrieg-strength guitar riffs should win his band a few new fans—especially among those who’ll know where it got its name.
Seven Nines and Tens opens for Hum at the Rickshaw Theatre on Monday (September 21).