When the Straight catches up with Taylor Swindells, frontman in local alt pop-rock group the Tourist Company, the singer is a little under the weather. Which is far from good news for a band on the cusp of launching its latest LP, jumping in a tour van for four weeks, and playing 20 high-energy shows across the country.
“I’ve been drinking a little bit of bourbon with ginger every day—that’s my go-to cure for sickness” Swindells says with a laugh. “I guess it’s not working too well, though.”
Beginning life as a three-piece folk outfit, the Tourist Company released its first LP, Brother, Wake Up, after jamming together at a summer camp—but it wasn’t until a year later that the group began to find commercial success. Revamping their sound with a new bass player, the band traded its jaunty acoustic guitars for big soundscapes, rhythmic complexity, and tight harmonies.
Success wasn’t far behind. Tirelessly playing shows across the province, the Tourist Company gained a following that won them the title of Regional Champion in CBC Music’s Searchlight competition—their biggest commercial success until the group placed third in the 2014 PEAK Performance Project, scooping the coveted $50,000 prize.
“We started playing folk because it was a safe thing for us to do,” Swindells remembers. “But soon we found that we wanted to push ourselves to create something that speaks to who we are as musicians.
“I started thinking about what I would listen to growing up, and the tracks that I was really passionate about came from groups like The National—bands that had these massive songs far beyond what we could achieve with a banjo and an acoustic guitar. Realizing that was very freeing. I just thought, ‘Well, okay, let’s just make that kind of record.’”
Shifting their instrumentation to create big canvasses of sound, the band’s new output was forged by an unlikely inspiration: outer space. The Tourist Company took their musical and lyrical cues from documentaries on the history of the Space Race—particularly the Soviet Union’s first manned Vostok 1 flight and America’s Mercury missions—to create two EPs full of sweeping 80’s synth sounds, intricate time signatures, and lyrical imaginings of the extraterrestrial world.
“Since the band really kicked off, I’ve been writing through the lens of what I was obsessed with as a kid,” Swindells says. “I have a theory that the truest representation of ourselves is what we liked before anyone told us what’s cool. The thing that I was super passionate about as a child was space. I was obsessed with it. I watched movies about the lunar landings on a loop.
“When I came back to that, I just kept seeing it as a metaphor for where I am now in my life. A lot of the themes seem to move in parallel—the stepping into the unknown, and not having any certainty of where anything’s going to end up in the music industry.
“On our new album, Apollo, I’ve tried to develop similar themes. For this record in particular I’ve drawn on space ideas in the lyrics, but it’s a parallel universe where I put myself in those events and use them as an allegory to express what is actually happening now to us. Musically, I think stepping into that vast domain made it important for the sound to grow too. We use lots of reverbs.
“Some of our synths seem like they’ve been lifted from actual documentaries on space, which suits the project in a weird way. It doesn’t happen very often that the lyrics and sounds tie in together, so it’s exciting that we’ve managed it on Apollo.”
Splitting the last of their money from the PEAK Performance Project between polishing their new record with first-class mastering and promoting it with a string of Canadian shows, the Tourist Company are now set to embark on their most comprehensive tour to date, bringing Apollo across the country to P.E.I’s Charlottetown.
“This will be the fourth time we’ve been on the road,” Swindells says. “I think we’ve hit a groove with what we expect, and we’ve figured out how we can healthily interact on tour. I’m quite an introvert, so for me being around people for that long is quite tough.
“But everyone’s different. Learning how to work in a way where we all help each other is a process, but we’ve gotten over that hurdle now. We want to help each other succeed in everything, so the vibe is never combative at all.
“In terms of what comes after, though," he continues, "we just don’t know. And that’s okay. I feel that every new layer of our career will become obvious to us when we’re in that moment. This will be our last tour where we can use our winnings from the PEAK, so we’re excited to see what the future holds.”
Apollo is released this Friday (October 21).