“Me and him actually wanted to start the band in Scotland at one point,” drummer and principal Stills songwriter Dave Hamelin tells me about himself and singer/guitarist Tim Fletcher. “A couple of years ago we said, Let’s move to Scotland and start a band! But we didn’t do it ‘cos it was too much money.”
The reason for this being that, not only are they big Belle & Sebastian fans, but “there’s a great Scottish scene we’re all into,” Tim says. “It seemed like something was happening there and it seemed semi-exotic. Well, no, not exotic… just different, and not north American. It just seemed interesting.”
From Montreal in Canada, The Stills soon ended up doing a lot of gigging in New York, where they befriended likeminded gloomy rockers Interpol, toured with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and spent a solid two months recording their debut album. Since the transatlantic release of ‘Logic Will Break Your Heart’ four months ago on Vice Records, The Stills have been picking up pace. Gearing up for its UK release on 679 Recordings on Feb 23rd, the band were set to embark on a brief UK which was supposed to start with a Ryan Adams support slot at Brixton Academy. Due to Adams’ drunken tomfoolery, the gig was cancelled.
DiS is sat with Tim and Dave in their hotel on the day of the cancelled gig. A random American woman wanders in, and much like in ‘Beavis And Butthead Do America’ when they realise their telly has been nicked, she looks at a guitar in its open case on the floor, looks at Dave and Tim, looks at the guitar again, then Dave and Tim again. Then she asks Dave the inevitable… “Are you a musician?”
“Yeah!” he enthusiastically replies.
Random American Woman asks if the guitar is “a D28?”
“Er, I have no idea,” he says, “It’s rented. It’s a nice one, that I know!”
“Rented?” I equire, to Tim’s amusement, “You mean can’t even afford your own guitars?”
Not NICE ones, obviously.
The ‘legend’ goes that The Stills bought a 4-track recorder off a broke mate. It was on this that they crafted their songs, bouncing ideas back and forth. I ponder aloud what the transition from 4-track to full-blown studio must’ve been like for them.
Dave answers: “It’s like when you get your learner’s permit when you get to drive with somebody else who knows how to drive. The 4-track was liking being in the car with somebody supervising you in your driving class. Then when we got into the studio we were behind the wheel of one…”
Tim: “An 18-wheeler.”
D: “Yes, or one of those English buggies…”
T: “You’re on the wrong side of the street all of a sudden in a mini buggy.”
“Was that an exciting experience for you?” I enquire.
D: “Yeah, very exciting! Have you SEEN the buggies?!”
(pausing for thought) You haven’t actually driven one of those buggies, have you?
D + T: “No.”
T: “I wouldn’t dare.”
Most of ‘Logic Will Break Your Heart’ is, quite frankly, overblown. The perfect example is the single ‘Lola Stars And Stripes’ - almost Mercury Rev-like, with the biggest shimmering guitars and disgusted lyrics. For whatever reason I ask them, as part of this transition from recording on 4-track, if there was any temptation to go OTT in the studio and overdub as much as possible. I soon realise how stupid this question is.
“We DID go overboard,” scoffs Dave, stating the obvious, “we TOTALLY went overboard. That’s what you do, though. That’s the nature of your job – you go overboard then underboard, then overboard. It never ends.”
T: “We’d been working with the producer for this record for several years, so we all thought together how were gonna flesh out these songs. I don’t think we necessarily went THAT overboard. ‘Killer Bees’ (not on the album) is SO overboard. There’s about 40 guitar tracks on that. For the record we can’t really do that so much.”
Dave explains further: “We were trying to find our sound – more sound! Everything! Fucking… something had to happen in every bar that was different, there HAD to be something going on.”
T: “Sometimes we’d throw in the kitchen sink.”
How long ago did you plan to do that? Was that always the idea?
D: “I really don’t think we went mad enough. I can’t wait for the second record where we can just be COMPLETELY self-indulgent and do whatever we want. So we’ll record, like, whale sounds, moans and, er, yeah.”
It says in your biog that you “almost lost” your minds when you recorded this album.
D: “I wouldn’t say that. There were definite sleepless nights and high levels of excitement.”
T: “What band’s biog DOESN’T say that though? Doesn’t every band lose their minds? (In an appalling Dick Van Dyke style English accent) They lost their minds, it was brilliant!”
It also says in this biog here that when you get older and you’re forced to get a job, you get to know how the ‘system’ works. It’s a deafest album. Why’s that? What happened in your life to make you write those sort of songs?
D: “I said that, so, I think I’m a cop out politically as my, er, duty as, er…”
“A good citizen of the world?” offers Tim.
D: “Yes. It’s hit the wayside.”
T: “I TOTALLY feel that.”
D: “So it’s for me to be a complete narcissist and indulge in talking about it, like I am right now.”
T: “Also, growing up in Montreal and everyone’s got ideals and dreams and everyone thinks they’ll achieve them - they’re hopeful - then a few years later when you enter your twenties, you realise… or people either, I’m not sure which, cave in and see reality, or they just stop trying, or still live with these delusions.”
D: “We’re speaking politically, we’re not speaking like ‘Oh we were in Montreal and it was either the steel factory or pick up a guitar’. This is a city – we’re talking anywhere in the world – everybody’s copping out all over the world. Basically, we’re the new baby boomers and we’re giving up cos we’re their kids. They were all summer of ’69, love-ins and protests and sit-downs and walk-ins and walk-downs, and now they just walk into work. So that’s us. George Bush! (Reaches hands up) Sign me up!”
So how do you plan on rectifying this situation then?
D: “I don’t!”
You’re just going to document it?
T: “Exactly. We’re cop outs!”
D: “Just complain, and that’s about it.”
Is that how you wanna spend your life?
D: “No, but that’s the middle class thing to do.”
So if this is the defeatist album then what’s the next one gonna be?
D: “The defeated album.”
How are you gonna approach that one?
D: “We just won’t even make it. It’ll just be a blank CD (sniggers).”
I know this album ain’t even properly released in the UK yet but do you have plans for album number two?
(He indicates that what they've just said is true. I smell bullshit.)
D: “Actually, I think this is actually the end of the line, really. We’re gonna call it quits. It’s actually over. We’re just here for the press for this record.”
We talk about the inevitable comparisons they seem to get in every review to the Bunnymen, The Smiths, The Cure and so on. Unlike most bands, Tim reckons the comparisons The Stills get are “dead on”, especially The Cure, although Dave says they were never really fans of Echo & The Bunnymen until Ian McCulloch became fans of theirs and invited them on tour. It’s then they got to know their songs.
Dave says they also like “Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, Pavement, Sonic Youth, The Pixies, Radiohead, The Clash, The Specials, Madness, The English Beat, The Selector,” before I say “that’s enough!” and move on to different influences more close to home. By that, I mean the cities they’ve spent the most time in.
“A lot of the songs were written in Montreal before we went to New York at all,” says Tim, when I ask which of the two cities has had the most influence on the record.
Dave says “the ones I wrote, two are about New York, or me in New York.”
T: “I wrote one song when I was in New York but thematically it’s nothing to do with that.”
When did you start to get music industry interest when the band started out?
D (deadpan): “When the band started out.”
Yeah, but when?
D: “It started at the start. We were, like, ‘let’s start a band!’ And there was an A&R frenzy.”
T: “It actually WAS kinda like that. Before we even got together and learned how to play the songs on the 4-track, there were people interested.”
How did that happen?
D: “Our manager sent dinky demos to everybody he knew. And that’s it, that’s how.”
Is it true the DJ Zane Lowe flew you over a while ago cos he wanted you to do an Xfm session and wanted to sign you himself?
T: “I didn’t know that!”
D: “We flew over and we thought he would be British but he turned out to be Australian (er, wrong), so we were surprised. Actually no, the guy who recorded our record – he’s friends with his nephew, and his ex-fiancé is friends with Zane Lowe.”
T: “So there’s THAT connection, hehehe.”
D: “His ex-fiance is from Australia.”
T: “New Zealand.”
D: “Oh yes, New Zealand, and they were all crocodile huntin’ down there together.”
Noticing Dave is increasingly slumping into his chair and still has the let-lagged look about him, I decide to leave them be. But if they’re not going straight to bed, what are they planning to do this evening now their gig’s been cancelled?
“Are you going out on the piss?” I enquire, innocently.
D: “Yeah, it’ll help us sleep, get over our jet lag.”
T: “Most of the going out on the piss happens right here in the Columbia. The Columbia’s big on the piss.”
It sounds like you’ve stayed here before.
D: “Oh yeah. During Leeds and Reading it’s kind of a mad house.”
Who else have you met here?
T: “The guy from Dead Or Alive (Dave starts to sing ‘You Spin Me Round’). He bought about four rounds of drinks for everybody in the room, and kebabs for everyone. You could just see his bank account going down and down and down, and him sweating profusely…”