Given that its lineup boasts past and present members of Hot Hot Heat, Fake Shark, Youngblood, and Mounties, it would be hard to imagine a more quintessentially “Vancouver” band than Gay Nineties. The quartet’s first full-length album, Decadent Days, however, had its genesis in Music City, USA.
“I was ready to try something a little different,” Gay Nineties frontman Parker Bossley tells the Straight in a phone call from Los Angeles. “I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go to write for the record, and then Nashville kind of came up, and I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to give this a shot.’ I went down to Nashville a couple of times and did a ton of writing.
“I really feel like being in America influenced the record in some ways. Just being in a completely different country, a different vibe. I was hanging out in the Confederate cemeteries a lot and writing lyrics, and it was dope.”
Bossley didn’t travel south of the Mason-Dixon Line just to wander through Civil War graveyards with a notebook and a guitar; he spent time working with some heavyweight Nashville tunesmiths, including Better Than Ezra’s Kevin Griffin, the Raconteurs’ Brendan Benson, and Angelo Petraglia, best known for his work with Kings of Leon.
Bossley returned to Vancouver with dozens of songs to present to bandmates Malcolm Holt (drums), Daniel Knowlton (bass), and Bruce Ledingham (keyboards).
“The great thing about the songs Parker was bringing back was that we had a chance to flesh them out as a band and put the Gay Nineties tone on them,” Knowlton says, interviewed from a Vancouver-area movie set on a conference call with Bossley.
“He would come back with pretty fleshed-out ideas for songs, and then we would put our own spin on them,” concurs Holt, in a Facebook call from Seville, Spain, where he’s on vacation with Ledingham. “But, really, it was a pretty bizarre experience that was like nothing else we had done before as a band. It was interesting for us, as the three other band members who did not go down to Nashville. We’re one degree separated from working with these people.”
The sheer volume of material Bossley came back to Vancouver with meant Gay Nineties had a lot to choose from, which was a new experience.
“Whereas in the past we’d have eight songs and we’d go record eight songs, this was like we had 40 songs and we recorded eight songs,” Holt says. “It kind of made our role as the band members more of like a filter, of determining which of these songs felt right and felt like us. But there’s something inherently weird about that, because they weren’t us, if that makes sense. It’s not as though we wrote the songs as a band.”
When asked if he would be keen on repeating the process of song creation and selection that led to Decadent Days, Ledingham gives a diplomatic answer: “I think we’re all leaning towards switching it up a little bit and trying a new technique out,” say the keyboardist. “Cowriting’s cool, and I think we’ll probably explore that again, but maybe not rely so heavily on it. It seemed like the time Parker was away, he very well could have been with us, writing songs in our jam space. So maybe we’ll reprioritize the approach next time.”
If that makes it sound like Holt and Ledingham had some misgivings about the way Decadent Days came together, the two make it clear that they are very proud of the final product—and justifiably so. Produced by Hot Hot Heat/Mounties man Steve Bays at Monarch Studios—the East Van headquarters of the Zolas’ Tom Dobrzanski, who worked as an engineer on the recording sessions—the LP is an all-thriller, no-filler affair.
It kicks off with “Big Love”, a surging power-pop anthem buoyed by an instant-earworm synthesizer hook, carries on with the glitter-bombed stomper “Decadent Days”, and dives into the pastel-suited ’80s with “Good News”, a shot of le-freak-c’est-chic funk that sounds a little like Duran Duran as produced by Nile Rodgers.
By the time the record ends with the dreamily lush but triumphant-sounding “Whole World”, you could be forgiven for thinking that Decadent Days is the work of a seasoned hit-making machine and not a scrappy indie-rock act with only two EPs under its belt.
Bossley has long known how to craft a lethal hook; check out “Hold Your Fire” and “Letterman”—a pair of standouts from 2015’s Liberal Guilt EP—for ample proof of that. Decadent Days, however, is next-level shit, the sound of a band making an unabashed bid for a more commercial sound.
It could have turned out very differently, however, according to Holt. “Even though we’ve worked with Steve lots in the past and we’ve got so many similar references, I think just on a production level, for whatever reason on this record, we didn’t immediately see eye to eye. It ended up being a little bit more of a challenge than I think any of us had anticipated.
“When he heard the songs in the jam space, he had an idea that there should be a minimalist approach to the recording, that the songs were strong enough that they could be kind of simple—bass, drums, and guitar, and maybe one keyboard, and then a vocal and a harmony—and then leave it simple, and kind of more ‘band in the room’.”
Bays doesn’t deny that initial disconnect, noting that his first instinct was to counter the more pop-oriented songwriting with a raw-power rock ’n’ roll sound. “I was trying to find balance in the aesthetic initially,” he says, “so I would run every instrument through amps that were distorted, and I would mike the room and stuff. All the vocals, even, were going through guitar amps that were miked in the room.
“But in the end they were like, ‘No, we don’t want to disguise it with dirtiness. We just want to be as straightforward as possible.’ So I just followed that vision, and I supported it the best I could.”
Bays does, after all, know a thing or two about taking an indie band into the mainstream. Emerging from Victoria at the turn of the century, Hot Hot Heat found chart success in the U.K. and U.S., gradually evolving from a purveyor of noisy dance-punk into a potent alt-pop act.
“I definitely sensed right away that they were focusing on trying to connect with people,” he says of Gay Nineties, “which is a delicate thing at first for bands. I remember with Hot Hot Heat, we went through a distinct transition where our goal was to be as alienating as possible, then we got really into the Beatles, and the Beatles’ goal was to connect to as large an audience as possible, but do it in a unique way that hadn’t been done before.
“I think what happens is, bands hit that point where they’re not embarrassed to admit that they want to reach a larger audience,” Bays continues. “And I think, as music fans, especially if you consider yourself a fan of the more obscure or more underground, it [commercial] seems like such a scary word to use. So many bands go through a stage where they almost have to declare that out loud to feel that they’re allowed to stop worrying as much.
“Because when you stop worrying, you do tap into a whole new realm of possibilities. And sometimes those are good things, and sometimes they’re bad things, and sometimes you don’t know until years later and you reflect on that. I definitely noticed in my own experience with my own music, there were definitely times when making that public declaration of trying to appeal to a larger audience led to amazing things—and then there were songs that I would love to scratch from the records.”
The fact that Decadent Days is a wholly convincing crowd-pleaser while still reinforcing Gay Nineties’ identity as an indie-rock quartet with a taste for left-of-centre sounds is testament to the effort the band’s members put in to ensure that the record would be very much their own, outside collaborators notwithstanding.
“It was definitely, from the get-go, the intention to write a pop record, with the idea of achieving bigger, more commercial success,” Holt acknowledges, “but I think for Bruce and I specifically, we kind of were the voice fighting for, I don’t know, maybe more artful, less commercial ideas. Those eight songs that are there? There were probably, like, 20 songs that made it down to the final cut, and then we had to decide from there. And there were definitely some poppier songs that we were vehemently opposed to.
“Then there were some songs that were more indie, more experimental or artful, that we fought very hard for, that didn’t make the cut. So, yeah, the collection of songs that did make it is kind of straddling that mid ground that we discovered as a band, between trying to be poppy but not too poppy, and trying to be artful but not too experimental. It was definitely a push-and-pull, though, and there were songs on both sides of the spectrum that didn’t make it.”
On those that did make it, the sheen of brilliant pop craftsmanship is often just a top coat, beneath which beats a heart bursting with millennial angst. Take the title track, in which the notion of decadence refers not only to luxurious self-indulgence, but to a state of cultural decline in which thoughtless consumption can’t be reconciled with a moral vacuum.
“We’re in the Decadent Days/Decadent Days,” Bossley sings. “Buy a piece of happiness and throw it away/We’re in the Decadent Days/Decadent Days/A price for everything and everything in its place.”
Despite its upbeat title and dance-floor-friendly cocaine-disco groove, “Good News” isn’t all sunshine and lollipops either: “Bad news all the time/Bad news when you’re feeling fine/Seems like everything keeps going south,” Bossley sings.
The record was written well before the Toxic Cheeto took over the Oval Office, but the world in general and the United States in particular were truly, deeply fucked long before Donald Trump rose to power. The bad vibes south of the 49th parallel clearly made an imprint on Bossley’s songwriting.
“If you look at ‘Decadent Days’ and ‘Good News’, there’s almost like this paranoia throughout the record,” the frontman notes. “Not so much on ‘Big Love’, but on a lot of the other songs there’s this kind of anxiety in the lyrics, and also in the music too, in a lot of Bruce’s textures. It’s quite moody.
“I’ve just been feeling fucking weird about the world, and it’s hard not to write about it. Everything is fucked up. We live in a strange, dangerous time. The world is changing so quick you can’t even grab onto it. It’s crazy, and I think that anxiety and paranoia definitely is on the record, but it’s not a bummer vibe, I don’t think.”
What constitutes a “bummer vibe” is in the eye of the beholder—or the ear of the listener, in this case—but Bossley certainly does have a way of treating dark topics with a light touch. As with keeping one’s indie integrity intact while striving for bigger and better things, it’s all a question of maintaining a delicate balance—which is a skill Gay Nineties seems to have in spades.
Gay Nineties releases Decadent Days next Friday (February 10) and plays as part of the #StraightUnplugged series on February 17.