You’d never know it from his on-stage swagger—he looks as comfortable in the spotlight as the natural-born rock star his voice and six-string chops suggest he is—but Ryan Guldemond considers himself an introvert. His apparent bravado masks a long-standing lack of confidence, one that the Mother Mother frontman admits he once tried to obliterate with drugs and booze.
“The people that I look up to and idolize are ones who come in like a juggernaut, and I wasn’t ever able to achieve that by myself, so when I introduced substances, there was this access point to become what I idolized,” Guldemond says when the Straight reaches him by phone at a coffee shop in Ottawa. “And then that persisted for quite a long time, until the jig’s up. And now I realize that there is power in a wider spectrum of personality traits. I’m starting to discover the strength in shyness and introspection, whereas before I admonished it completely.”
Guldemond’s newly found appreciation for his essential nature, and his ability to balance it with the demands of being the face of a successful rock band, didn’t come easily. It required him to take an unflinching look at his life and assess what was making him happy and what was holding him back. His conclusion? The drugs and alcohol had to go.
“I was and had been a very debaucherous person for a long time, which was not working for me, so I decided to make a shift towards cleaner living,” he says. “Not just cleaner, but truer living, which is where the hard part of the transition lies. Because gettin’ healthier, that’s fun. That feels good. But then having to wrassle the truisms that bubble up as a byproduct is a more daunting task.”
One of the hard truths that sobriety dragged into the cold light of day was the impact that Guldemond’s lifestyle had been having on his relationship with his sister Molly, with whom he founded Mother Mother on Quadra Island in 2005. Guldemond notes that their sibling bond was “disintegrating”, which was as damaging to their musical project as it was to them personally.
“She was my greatest critic,” he notes. “Those wily ways really affected her, and it affected us, so it affected the band.”
Guldemond details his descent into dissolution on “Baby Boy”, a standout track from the Vancouver-based act’s new album, No Culture. “Baby Boy” is one of the most honest songs he has ever written, and perhaps the most emotionally wrenching entry in the Mother Mother catalogue to date. “There’s a red light up ahead,” he sings. “I drive my car into it/I’m a little kid with a big death wish/I bite the lips, the lips that kiss.”
His sister then counters his embrace of self-destruction with a heartbreaking word of caution: “Baby boy/Baby brother/We’re losing you to the gutter.”
Guldemond wrote the lyrics, but he says they are an accurate reflection of his sibling’s concerns. “I took the words right out of her mouth, and put them back in,” he says with a trace of wry amusement. “And now she has to sing it every night.”
With that decadent daze now in the rear-view mirror, Guldemond says things between him and his sister have never been better. “We’re really good right now,” he notes. “She’s waiting for me at the other end of this Starbucks, and we just got back from the YMCA. That was something that wouldn’t have happened before—us in our respective corners of the gym, striving towards betterment. So, yeah, we have a whole new lease on our relationship, and the band has a new lease on its vitality.”
In fact, the band—which also includes drummer Ali Siadat, keyboardist-vocalist Jasmin Parkin, and new bassist Mike Young—virtually crackles with life on No Culture, which opens with the riff-driven stomper “Free” and closes with the mostly acoustic fist-in-the-air sing-along “Family”. In between, the quintet makes stops for the alt-R&B-tinted “Mouth of the Devil”, the dreamily yearning power ballad “Letter”, and the insanely infectious modern rocker “The Drugs”.
That last number finds Guldemond addressing an unspecified “you” whose love is both “better than the drugs I used to love” and “deadly like a gun”. The singer seems to be suggesting that the things with which we replace our vices can sometimes deliver dangers of their own.
“It’s painted as a romance, but it’s not specific in my mind,” Guldemond says when he’s asked who or what the “you” in question might be. “It could be anything. It could be love on a more universal and interconnected scale. It could be a lover. Ultimately, I think one needs to find liberation in the self, and that’s how I spin that song when I need to relate to it. Even a romance could be its own form of addiction and dependence.”
Lest you think that the once-debauched rock star is now spreading the gospel of total abstinence, know that Guldemond is no monk. It’s just that these days, he sees the value of moderation and self-control. “I did my year, and then I began reintegrating on a more cautious, and almost sacramental, level,” he says of his relationship with alcohol and drugs. “Before, I was just overusing and indulging and skewing reality with surreality.
“But now, moving forward, should I choose to augment my experience with a guiding external force, I would like to do so with some honour of the substance, whatever it may be, and reflection, and learn something from these experiences. But right now I’m clean. I want this tour to be clear-headed.”
If No Culture exemplifies what a clear-headed Guldemond can achieve, then it seems he’s found the right balance.
Mother Mother plays the Commodore Ballroom for five nights starting on March 25.