“The idea of enlightenment is an incredibly beautiful thing. To find a precious gift that opens you up to a new world of understanding is something we should all be striving for every day of our lives” – Siobhán Kane talks to Romesh Thavanathan of Hey Rosetta! who play The Sugar Club on Thursday 10th April.
Canadian band Hey Rosetta! have been making music since around 2005, when songwriter Tim Baker went back home to St. John’s, Newfoundland, from Montreal, where he had been studying. In Montreal he was supposed to study piano, but developed tendonitis, and instead took a degree in Sociology and Creative Writing, which set the template for the band’s interesting lyrics, and a sound that has swelled to incorporate a string section, which helps to provide a layer-cake of a sound.
They have released three records so far, Plan Your Escape (2006), Into Your Lungs (2008), and last year’s Seeds (produced by Tony Doogan), which, the title suggests, might be about tentative, budding ideas – but in fact it is a fully blossoming, realised record; direct, but with a lavishness that incorporates everything from a brass section to a mandolin. Siobhán Kane chatted to the band’s cellist Romesh Thavanathan.
Seeds was recorded in 2010 but was sat on for a little because the label wanted to organise some things first – it must have been quite frustrating? Well it wasn’t a fight of any sort but just a logistics thing. We finished the recording the record in March 2010, and then between our touring schedule and Tony Doogan’s busy schedule finding some overlap to go to Glasgow to mix the record was a pain. Once we finished that we moved on to artwork to suit the record. To us it’s worth it to finish an album to be able to reflect on what you’ve created and then work on the images to support the music. So then after all that it was worth waiting until after the Christmas season to release it. So it wasn’t so much a dispute but a timing issue.
There is such a layering in your records, lending itself to a cascading kind of a sound – how does your process work, and has it changed over the course of the records? Seeds was much more of a collaboration than previous releases. Everyone in the band contributed some very memorable performances on this record which definitely adds to its eclectic feel. That’s bound to happen with so many musicians wearing their own influences on their sleeves like that. We also had a fair bit more time in the studio itself which led to a very dense sound [laughs]. Sometimes I think we overdid it during some sections but I guess that’s what happens when a young band gets their first taste of a more open studio schedule. We were really trying to colour every song and every moment. With so many sounds at your disposal it’s just so much fun to sweeten a mix and add ear candy deep in mixes. A lot of special arrangement ideas are buried within and whether they’re received consciously or not they help move these songs and that’s something you’ll always feel.
Tony Doogan is an interesting producer, and has worked with a diverse set of bands and sounds – how did you find working with him, and of all the records he has worked on, which is your favourite? I agree with you totally about Tony and that’s precisely the reason we wanted to work with him. After sifting through countless records and producers he stood out as someone who had the diversity that this record needed. Whether it was the power of Mogwai, the poppier sensibilities of Belle and Sebastian, or the atmosphere of Wintersleep we wanted it all and he delivered. He’s such a wizard for finding drum sounds which was, for me, one of the special parts of these recordings.
I have always been fascinated by Newfoundland, and understand there is a huge Irish influence there. What is St. John’s like?What is the infrastructure like for musicians in Canada? Do you think that Newfoundland is in some ways, out on a limb? In terms of Irish influence seeping into our music? I’m not quite sold on it [laughs]. I can see there being folk influences in our music but nothing really sticks out to me as particularly Irish. There’s definitely some similarities in our cultures though, which places music as such an integral part of social gatherings, and that binding force is something we try to cherish and respect. But yeah, get enough whisky in us and you’ll probably get a taste of our accents [laughs]. A drinking culture definitely made its way over the pond as well.
The St. John’s music scene is something special, and our isolation from the rest of the country is the cause of the beautiful effect. It’s a fairly incestuous affair with most musicians playing in three to four projects each and I suppose this cultivates a support system of sorts. And because of the absurd distance to the next major market most bands don’t tour and there’s a serious lack of exposure for any of these people. This leads to a lot of talented musicians leaving and settling in different cities to make a go of it, but with every musician that leaves there’s always fresh faces on the scene with great music to present. As for what to listen to, I’d suggest Narrows or Surgeon in the instrumental/ prog sort of world, Monsterbator for something heavier, any of Victor Lewis‘ projects, or Secret Connection, Repartee, or The Pathological Lovers for a good rock and a dance.
With Into Your Lungs, as with most of your work, I suppose, there is a bittersweet quality to your music that haunts long after it stops playing – do you think a lot of your work is about trying to recapture happy moments, if not in life, then somehow keeping them perfect in song? If I were allowed, which I am because you or Tim aren’t going to stop me to stealing words from Tim, [laughs]: “if i’m going to find myself on stage screaming words at people, they better be things worth screaming about.” And yeah, I think those moments you’re talking about are precisely those moments worth screaming about. They are the moments that shape you – lift you to better places, or push you into darker places. Whatever makes someone feel alive are the things worth reflecting on.
I like that the Rosetta aspect of your band name pertains to the Rosetta Stone – and what that represents – a touchstone of learning – and I think particularly with the creative arts, there can be that same, philosophical touchstone, because it is all about searching for meaning, ultimately, isn’t it? The idea of enlightenment is an incredibly beautiful thing. To find a precious gift that opens you up to a new world of understanding is something we should all be striving for every day of our lives. And those gifts are there in everyday moments and everyday encounters and relationships. Right now I’m reading Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and he gives you a life’s worth of these circumstances. It’s what a soul needs – some reinforcement that these short fleeting times of our lives do have meaning and purpose.
Hey Rosetta! play The Sugar Club on Thursday April 12th.