Slow Down Molasses: The Camp Wavelength Interview

Purveyors of: Uniquely Canadian indie-rock with echo-y vocals and a consistently positive vibe.
File next to: Sonic Youth, Amos the Transparent, Highs, Catfish and the Bottlemen
Playing: Camp Wavelength, Saturday August 29 @ Artscape Gibraltar Point
Get your ticket here!

Hailing from Saskatoon, Slow Down Molasses brings their complex vocal harmonies and layered instrumental works to Wavelength after an expansive tour overseas. A collection of troubadours and artists alike, the personnel of the band has changed several times since their first record in 2007, but the upbeat rhythm and optimistic vibe of their music has stayed the same. We talked to Tyson McShane about the evolution of the group and what it’s like to be a Canadian band on an international tour.

With a big group of musicians, your songs have great vocal harmonies and complex instrumental layers. What does your songwriting process look like? Do you write these songs as a group or write them individually and bring them to the rest of the band after?

It has varied a fair bit over the years. I started the group solo, with the idea of being able to play with lots of people and record with lots of people, so initially I wrote fairly simple songs and then asked people to play on them. For the most part, I asked people whose musical taste I trusted and whose natural style I liked, and just told them to do what they do. It was a fairly organic process. Of course, this meant that once it came to record, we’d record a ton of stuff and then would end up using the mixing process to properly arrange the songs. I’d always have a pretty clear idea of what I wanted from the songs, but I’m not a trained musician, nor am I particularly literate in musical terminology, so sometimes it would take having someone record a lot of stuff, then cutting most of it to pull out the parts that I wanted.

Since those early years, it’s evolved into a consistent band format. The personnel still changes depending on who is available for tour or recording, but we’ve basically been operating as a five-piece, and whichever five people are in the room for the writing sessions tend to work pretty collaboratively on the arrangements. There are still songs that I bring in with a defined structure, but the arrangements tend to be informed by the band. And because we’ve toured so much we tend to be fairly intuitive with those arrangements. There are much fewer clumsy conversations with me trying to describe sounds or ideas in the most ridiculously non-musical ways.

Is it hard to find a creative balance when writing and recording an album with a bigger group? Do you ever have to compromise certain aspects of songs to make them work for everyone?

Yes and no. There definitely are times when some compromise is necessary, but often the end result is a better song. At this point I think everyone in the band has a pretty good idea of what we are going for, and everyone seems to have a great appreciation for what each of us can contribute. We all have our own distinct styles and they seem to mesh well. That, and especially going back to earlier recordings with larger line-ups, I’ve been fortunate to have people generally defer to my overall vision and trust that I have a larger plan for how everything will work together. I think everyone now tends to know how and when to try to change my mind on something and when to just trust me on it, which I’m super grateful for.

Who are some of the artists that have influenced the band as a whole — something everyone would be all right listening to on the way to a gig?

There are lots. We all know each other purely from going to the same shows in Saskatoon and seeing each other’s bands play, and we’re all pretty obsessive music fans. It definitely varies, but I don’t think anyone could or would complain about a Sonic Youth, Slowdive or Eric’s Trip record going on. We collectively love and cherish Julie Doiron’s music. You can’t go wrong in our van with any of her records. More importantly, we are all pretty inspired and excited by Saskatoon’s music scene. Bands like the Foggy Notions, Shooting Guns and SoSo get as much play in the van as anyone. Often times we are collectively more excited by some of our Saskatoon friends’ bands than more well-known bands. Saskatoon’s music scene has really exploded these last few years. There are many hidden gems that I’m shocked haven’t received more recognition nationally or internationally.

You guys have done quite a bit of touring in North America and overseas. What kind of response do you get as a Canadian band touring in the U.S. or Europe?

It’s great, especially in the U.K. and Europe. It’s super interesting when I compare it to being a Saskatchewan band touring Canada. As a Saskatchewan band, playing a show in Toronto, it’s easy to be overlooked, as there isn’t necessarily much cache being from Saskatchewan. And just due to the small population and lack of music industry, it’s rare to have a ton of hype your first couple of times in Toronto. There just aren’t many press outlets in Saskatoon that would reach a wider audience to tell people how amazing Saskatoon’s music scene is, whereas arriving in the U.K. or Europe as a Canadian band, there is a huge appreciation of the Canadian music scene and a reputation built up that there are a lot of great bands in Canada. People seem to think it’s worth taking a chance on a Canadian band they may not know much about. Part of that, I think, is a voracious appetite for new music, especially in the U.K., but part of it is definitely that there has been a huge breakthrough of Canadian music the last decade. Everywhere we’ve been internationally, people have told us how much they love bands like Do Make Say Think and Holy Fuck, and I’ve had people bluntly say to me that they came to see us because they have a fetish for Canadian music. I’ve spent many nights after shows talking to locals
about the Canadian bands that I love.

Do you have any funny stories from on the road that you’d like to share with the readers?

Oh, so many… but I’m the hopelessly earnest, serious one in the band that will just ramble on about how excited I am to play on the bill of some band I’ve loved for years. Fortunately, Chris, our bassist, is a grade-A storyteller, and he’s made a habit of releasing ‘zines of his tour diaries for some of our tours. If you want an often hilarious and sometimes maybe a bit too honest account of what it’s like touring as independent band, I highly recommend you have a read through his tales from our first couple U.K. tours and our cross-Canada tour for Walk Into the Sea, all of which can be found here:

What’s been your favourite memory from a live show?

We’ve toured a fair bit, so there are a few. The first U.K. tour was a definite highlight — particularly playing End of the Road festival. It was our first time playing in the U.K., so we had no idea if anyone would know or care who we were, but I remember starting a few of the songs and hearing cheers of recognition, and then I walked off stage to see a line-up 30 people deep waiting to buy merch. It was such a bizarre, wonderful thing to realize that people so far from home — who had no personal relationship to us — knew our music and were so clearly excited to see us.

Chris said to me earlier this year that just prior to playing End of the Road, he was nearly ready to be done playing in bands. He’d been touring Canada in different bands playing the same venues and cities every other year since he was a teenager, to basically the same audience. His love of touring was quickly reinvigorated after getting such a wonderful response outside of North America. Along with getting to see bands we’ve loved for years like Mogwai and the Walkmen play after us, it made all those long drives across northern Ontario worth it.

What would be your biggest piece of advice for young musicians and bands out there looking to gain some traction in the music industry?

Find your niche and chase it. One of most significant things that happened to us was getting invited to play End of the Road, a festival I’d followed for some time, because it really seemed to fit exactly into what I love, both music-wise and the general ethos of it. I’m quite certain that getting that invite got us on a lot of people’s radars who felt the same way as I did about that festival, which really opened up a lot of doors for us. It still surprises me that we got invited to that festival, and have since toured in the U.K. and Europe as much as we have, considering we come from a fairly isolated city in a province that basically has none of the infrastructure — like labels and agents — that helps bands become more widely known. I’m quite certain that, and any other successes we’ve had, can be attributed to us being quite obsessive music fans who focused much of our energy on the niche scenes we loved — as opposed
to thinking we needed to try to reach the widest audience possible.

What are you most looking forward to about playing a camping festival like Camp Wavelength?

Like End of the Road, I’ve followed what Wavelength has done for years, and it really epitomizes a lot of what I love about music. It’s a distinct, exciting scene within Canada’s music that, at least from a distance, seems to attract people who like a lot of what we like and tend to have a more adventurous taste in music. I loved how Brian Borcherdt described it in the interview with Holy Fuck you posted recently:

“It was almost like an entrance fee: you can come play this, but you gotta fuck with something a bit. You gotta have a weird guitar pedal or something. And by the end it’s maybe just people playing indie rock, but everyone took different things from it.”

I love the ethos that that seems to capture, and so to take that from a one-night-a-week thing in bar, where you might spend half the night chatting with your friends you came with, and transport it to a camping festival, where you are putting all those people with that common appreciation in the same place for a few days, is such a lovely thing.

If you guys could open for any band of all time, who would it be?

Obviously, that’s a tough one, so I’m going to have list a few… I’d likely cry if we got to play with Slowdive. Otherwise, Eric’s Trip, Mogwai, or Sonic Youth would be some of the ultimate bands in my mind.

– Interview by Michael Vipond

Slow Down Molasses plays Camp Wavelength Saturday, August 29 at Artscape Gibraltar Point (Toronto Island). Get your single day tickets here! Or better yet, join us for the whole weekend and get a Festival Pass!