Speaking volumes about the enthusiasm of the men who make up Mounties, no one in the trio is at a loss for words when it comes to picking out a favourite golden-memory moment to date. If you’re hanging out with band members Steve Bays and Ryan Dahle at an eclectically decorated East Vancouver recording and rehearsal space (think mounted deer heads, framed Ronald Reagan photos, and a 3-D arctic wolf hologram), talk will centre around a pilgrimage to Ontario to hang out with Canadian solo iconoclast—and third Mountie—Hawksley Workman.
“We spent a week at Hawksley’s place, about three hours outside of Toronto,” remembers Dahle, relaxing under a row of guitars that would impress Nigel Tufnel. “Every day was super, super, super hot, so we would jog down to the beach, which was about 25 minutes away. We’d jog down to the water and then jump into the lake. It was incredible—a perfect Canadian experience.”
Kicking back on a nearby sofa, Bays continues: “It was a heat wave—this is when we did the first rehearsals for the band. It was so hot that we literally had to jam in our underwear. I’ve never felt a heat wave like that in my life, but we would force ourselves to jog down the highway in the middle of nowhere, and then come back to this amazing 45-acre plot of land with a separate studio and a tiny little cabin that Ryan would sleep in.”
Perhaps because he is, by the accounts of his new bandmates, the man responsible for Mounties becoming an actual thing, Workman looks fondly upon an earlier bonding experience that took place in considerably less natural surroundings.
Interviewed by cellphone a day after Bays and Dahle, the Ontario-based Workman has just landed in Vancouver. Happy to be in the West Coast rain and out of snow-blanketed Ontario, Workman is out picking up a new custom-made drum kit. It’s the one he’ll be sitting behind for Mounties’ upcoming Canadian tour to support the band’s knockout debut, the just-released Thrash Rock Legacy.
What comes through over the phone is that he’s profoundly thrilled to have discovered a couple of new best friends. Workman notes that the members of Mounties were on each other’s radar for a long time, and not just because they were fans of each other’s work. Chance encounters took place over the years, such as at the Junos in 2009 and a Vancouver taping of Jian Ghomeshi’s CBC talk show Q a couple of years later, with the musicians vowing to work together during each encounter.
Workman’s great Mountie moment, then, goes back to the night all the talking about collaborating stopped and the band was officially born.
“It was decided at Q, but a second time when I was through Vancouver, somehow we were all drinking wine and—with our clothes on—sitting in an empty tub in my hotel room,” he recalls excitedly. “I think it was made official then. It’s absolutely true. I don’t even know why we ended up in the bathroom sitting in the tub, but we did.”
Point out that the idea of three grown men jammed into a tub together doesn’t sound overly comfortable and Workman doesn’t miss a beat.
“The body seems to have a certain jelly-ness with the right amount of wine, so I have a feeling that we were probably perfectly comfortable,” he responds. “Mounties is a real wine band.”
It’s also a really fucking great band, as borne out by the brilliantly chaotic, rule-smashing Thrash Rock Legacy. Released on Jonathan Simkin’s top-drawer indie imprint Light Organ Records, the album announces Mounties as instant heavyweight contenders who, refreshingly, have no interest in being backed into any one stylistic corner. Songs draw on everything from fit-for-a-Queen glam rock to lipsticked new wave to retro techno, with AM easy listening, opium-den jazz, and sun-smeared pop also showing up to the party. And that’s just the start of it.
What might be most surprising about the record is that the three bandmates have created something that sounds nothing like the records they’ve built their careers on.
As anyone who’s ever sandwiched “Bandages” on an iPod playlist between “Addicted” and “Vicious” knows full well, no one in Mounties is a music-industry neophyte. Bays is famous as the frontman for new-new-wave hitmakers Hot Hot Heat. Dahle’s pedigree includes the much-loved guitar-centred projects Age of Electric and Limblifter. And Workman has enjoyed a prolific career that’s seen him release over a dozen famously eclectic EPs and albums.
“It felt like being Jay-Z or something,” Bays reports on Mounties’ initial sessions as a band. “You’ve got your hype men in the room, and they are jumping up and down—it’s all about just being excited.”
Dahle continues: “We walked out of here with 10 rough mixes that first week,” he remembers. “Hawksley went to Sweden to write with this pop band, and he said that every day, he’d sit there listening to our rough mixes. He couldn’t get his mind into this other thing.”
As for Workman, he’s not going to be outdone in the enthusiasm department.
“I can’t tell you what all this has done to put a somewhat permanent spring in my step lately,” Workman gushes. “I was just saying to Ryan and Steve that I wasn’t anticipating, as a middle-aged man, having best friends come into my life so late. It’s kind of amazing. And then the record is, for me, a reminder that if you let go and acknowledge that pure place within, that place still exists. It’s so easy to get jaded in the music business that it’s a peculiarly wonderful thing to feel such a lightness in spirit around anything to do with that business.”
And just as there is no taking things too far on Thrash Rock Legacy, Workman isn’t done there. He loves that the band has finally given Dahle the opportunity to unleash his inner guitar hero, and that Bays bought into the theory that there’s no such thing as too much on the keyboards. But Workman, who started his career behind the kit, might be most grateful that the project let him rediscover his love of drumming.
“I would never in any way want to pooh-pooh or play down what I do in my day job,” Workman says. “But I think that anyone who engages in a life, a creative life, finds it inevitable that that life turns into a marriage. And like with marriage, the inevitability of renegotiating your excitement is part of the deal. In the early days, when I was writing songs, it was a horny, lusty experience. Then you get into the business for long enough and all of a sudden the shine wears off, and you realize just how little music there is in the music business.”
Just getting warmed up, the 39-year-old continues: “With Mounties it’s kind of funny. Because this is in some ways our second time around at it, we’re all enjoying it with a lot more purity of spirit. Whenever something cool happens with the band, my old jaded self—the one that has been set permanently on ‘Well, don’t get too overexcited, don’t get too overexcited’—sort of goes ‘Well, fuck it! This is exciting that this is happening, and it’s exciting that it’s such a great project. So I’m going to get excited.’ I don’t care if it blows up in my face. I don’t care if I get disappointed. The fact is that I have something to be excited about in my creative life at the moment.”
Dahle and Bays agree there was an easy way to get Workman pumped up during the creation of Thrash Rock Legacy, a self-produced record born out of jam sessions where the tape rolled until the wine bottles were empty.
“We can always impress Hawksley when something appeals to his been-there-done-that side,” Bays says. “I think he’s bored of all the typical ways to make a record. So he only gets excited when something sounds like something that a producer would never let you do.”
Such moments are all over the audacious 14-track release. Consider “Made Up My Mind”, which starts with Workman laying down a weirdly skittering drum pattern that seems unapologetically pillaged from ’90s electronica, after which Mounties flood the mix with porno-sonic organ flourishes, distortion-overdosed six-string violence, and what may or may not be a bongo solo. Or the way that “Minimum Effort” combines uncut white funk with brain-melting synth fuckery and acid-king guitar insanity, the whole thing suggesting Rio-era Duran Duran jamming with an enraged HAL 9000 and the reanimated corpse of Jimi Hendrix.
Mounties isn’t averse to turning off the ADHD everything-goes switch, with “The Twig & the Tree” rooted in a postpunk pool of ’80s black-ink mascara, and the atmosphere-drenched “Edible Cannibal” sounding like the soundtrack music to a John Carpenter nightmare. But mostly nothing gets flagged as being too much, whether it’s the canned-echo handclaps and ’70s-AM-radio vocals in “Hall & Oates”, or the endless drum clinic that takes place in the cabaret funk-pop conflux “Pretty Respectable”.
“When the whole Mounties thing started to reveal itself for what it was,” Workman says, “the exciting thing for me was that we didn’t sit around thinking, ‘When we record this for real, we’re of course going to have to cool the drums down. And when we do the real thing, of course we’ll never use such an ignorant keyboard patch.’ There was never a mind to tame any of it. There were moments early on where I thought, ‘Ryan and Steve are just being kind to me by not telling me to play half of what I’m playing.’ Like, in a typical pop song in the 21st century, you might get two or three drum fills, not ‘Everything is a drum fill.’ In that way, I think there’s more a ’60s-rock spirit to Mounties than a nouveau-hipster thing.”
Sometimes the best moments make absolutely no sense, as in the thumping “If This Dance Catches On”, where, three-quarters of the way through, funereal cello swells up out of nowhere, before exiting on the back of a Polyphonic Spree–strength choir.
“It comes down to our audience, and our audience is each other,” Dahle explains. “So me putting a cello on a song some morning before they got here was a bonus, because they’d come in and be like, ‘Oh my God—where did that come from?’ It was almost like playing a game of ‘impress your buddies.’ ”
If Bays, Workman, and Dahle manage to get one thing across above all others during the interview process, it’s that Thrash Rock Legacy was allowed to go wherever it wanted.
“People who were close to us I think probably thought, ‘You put these three guys together, and you’re going to get a straight-up pop band,’ ” says Workman. “And it maybe would have been if we’d sat around a boardroom with acoustic guitars. I mean, I don’t even know if I flew out here knowing that I was going to be the drummer of the band. It was all so not planned—everything ended up happening almost by accident. And I’m glad that we didn’t try to do some moneymaking pop venture, in hindsight.”
Helping keep the vibe loose and the creative channels open for Thrash Rock Legacy, all three Mounties ran their own studios, meaning there was no such thing as wasting time while the clock was running. Or, more importantly, wasting time by getting loaded after hitting Record. The only important rule during recording sessions was that there were to be no rules.
“I think that the reason we are so into that concept, that way of making music, is because we’ve done so many records where everything is so stiff and planned out,” says Dahle. “It’s such an event that you are going into the studio that everyone has to be so prepared and you lose that element of spontaneity.”
So what has Canada’s newly minted supergroup most pumped about Thrash Rock Legacy, which has surprised many by crashing onto radio playlists despite sounding like nothing else on radio? Well, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that getting a consensus isn’t easy.
Bays mentions the fact the record is raw and unfiltered. “What you really want when you hear music, or go to comedy, or see a film, is that you want to feel like you are getting a glimpse of real life,” he offers. “You want to go into someone’s room and secretly watch them when they wake up, watch how they make coffee, see the kind of angry phone calls they make to their manager. You don’t want to hear their talking points on Letterman—we’ve seen that and we’re bored of it. You want glimpses of real life. So if you can somehow let your guard down, even if it takes 35 years of you doing it with your guard up to learn that doesn’t work, then so be it.”
Dahle loves that the record shows what happens when three people who respect each other immensely get together and then celebrate each other’s every idea, with egos never coming into play. Referencing Woody Allen: A Documentary, he says: “The way he talks about working with people is the best. Every producer should watch that thing. It’s how you should not try and make people do things. Instead, hire great people, let them do their thing, and then stay the fuck out of the way.”
And Workman will argue that the brilliance of Mounties is the fact that the group takes a larger-than-life approach to everything it does. That audaciousness provides some light in a time when we’re constantly being told the world—with its peak-oil problems, water shortages, and global warming—is headed to hell in a nuclear-powered handcart.
“We’re living in these peculiar times where our government tells us we are supposed to suit up and get ready for social and economic austerity with no termination in sight,” he argues. “In a way, to be in a sprawling rock band that doesn’t seem to play by any of the rules in itself seems to fly in the face of what we are going through these days. Not that we set out to make some grand political statement, but it’s an unfashionable thing to be so garish and sweeping in all your musical ideas.”
It’s also pretty goddamn exciting.