The Dears’ 3932-Day Overnight Success Story
I suppose everyone, now, has a Dears story.
Back in the early 1990s, Wren, as they were then known, were a 4-piece band of angry young men in sharp suits with a mesmerizingly heroic lead singer and a good line in If The Smiths Had Stayed Together tunesmithery (most of which today you can get on the …Nor The Dahlias contractual-obligation cd from Grenadine.)
I saw them play at an early Marlowe gig, in a venue that later evolved into the nightclub Cathedrale on the Main at Roy. I later found out a classmate of mine at Concordia was producing their demo.
Full disclosure: I auditioned to be the bass player in Marlowe a million years ago. Guitarist-producer Joey and I jammed with a gangly, 17-year-old drummer named George, who at the time was living at home in Ville St-Laurent, who grew up to be George Donoso, drummer for The Dears. Such is the small village of Montreal indie rock.
Wren imploded. The legend says that at one point, there were fisticuffs on stage between members. Head Wren, Murray Lightburn, did a re-think. Britpop was only just happening and it was a natural next step, a parallel evolution. A flurry of new songs were written. I’m not sure at this point whether he had convened The Dears 1.0, but legend has it that he flew to London to hunt down Graham Coxon at the Good Mixer in Camden and press a stack of demos into his hands. (Did he actually end up meeting him?)
Dears 1.0 was Murray, Natalia Yanchak (who just prior to that was doing an indie-music show on McGill campus station CKUT), George on drums, Martin Pelland on bass, Brigitte Mayes on cello, Jonathan Cohen on guitar. They put out their first CD, End of a Hollywood Bedtime Story. They played everywhere, leaving a trail of gobsmacked audiences in their wake and garner a legion of instant fans; from 20 people at their first gig to sellout, turn-them-away-at-the-door throngs of 700 in Toronto.
Dears 2.0. Jonathan Cohen replaced by Rob Benvie of Thrush Hermit / Tigre Benvie. New songs: darker, tighter, moving away from the templates set by Lightburn’s heroes. The Orchestral Pop Noir Romantique EP comes out. Videos are made, and even get on the air. I remember an amazing gig at Cabaret where they played with the Cosmopolitan City Orchestra, comprising several horn players (including Lorraine of ska stalwarts the Kingpins), cellists, violists, violinists, flautists, the works. I remember thinking ‘what a f***ing hero’ Lightburn was that night, in a good way.
Dears 3.0. Brigitte Mayes leaves, replaced by Valerie Jodoin-Keaton on flute and keyboards. The sound evolves further, delving deeper into their core influences, away from Britpop tropes. Over the summer of 2003 the ‘Protest’ EP comes out: the first limited-edition batch comes in handmade metal sleeves, riveted together in Natalia’s dad’s workshop. They play Pop Montreal and go on the road.
Benvie bows out and is temporarily replaced by Joseph Donovan from Marlowe.
I get a strange phone call at 3am, unintelligible. I star-69 the number and get Joey. He’s in Vancouver with the Dears on tour, and they just played a show. His cellphone accidentally autodialed me. I tell him to say hi to everyone and go back to sleep, chuckling.
The band goes into recording mode again, recording ‘hundreds’ of takes in Vancouver and Toronto for what will eventually become No Cities Left, but eventually rejecting the mixes done with engineer Brendan MacGuire, to remix and rerecord it all with local studio whiz Howard Bilerman.
No Cities Left is literally widescreen art-rock (Lightburn takes credit as director, as well as writer and producer), with a bigger palette, tighter songs, seemingly a synthesis of all their influences where the Dears kill their idols, mostly shake off the Smiths/Blur comparisons and come into their own. Single ‘Lost in the Plot’ stays on people’s CD players for weeks on end in a way that a record hasn’t since How Soon Is Now.
The Dears get a domestic deal with MapleMusic, a Universal subsidiary, which also sees a re-release of their earlier work. A more permanent replacement for Benvie is found in guitarist Patrick Krief. They tour like crazy again, going to the top of Canadian indie charts. Flush with cash for promotion, they hire uber-hipster street-marketing team AddVice, an offshoot of Vice Magazine, the expatriate Montreal ‘zine now based in New York.
They play SXSW in March 2004. They turn the heads of all who see them and are widely acclaimed as the breakout stars of the festival. They get not one but two distribution deals out of it, signing with New York-based spinArt in the States and Bella Union in the UK.
The press clippings start rolling in. They are named one of Rolling Stone’s 10 Bands To Watch. They tour the UK and Europe, play live on the mighty Steve Lamacq show (spiritual heir to the recently departed John Peel), get rave reviews in Q, Uncut, the Guardian, Stuff Magazine, the Times, dozens of UK campus papers and hundreds of indie websites…
Then Morrissey calls.
Likes their stuff. REALLY likes it. Asks them to open for him on his new tour. Which is where they are right now, having just played in Toronto and then in California as part of a KROQ concert package.
Next step…world domination.
November 18, 2004 9:11 PM