In conversation with Wild Rivers

The Toronto-based band's latest EP, Eighty-Eight, is a nostalgic, harmonic blend of genres

In conversation with Wild Rivers

Formed at Queen’s University, Toronto-based band Wild Rivers is on an upward trajectory. The indie four-piece, comprised of Khalid Yassein on guitar and vocals, Devan Glover on vocals, Andrew Oliver on guitar and bass, and Julien Laferriere on drums, recently released their EP Eighty-Eight, a mix of Americana and folk influences.

The record is a perfect soundtrack for when summer starts slipping into fall, one that pivots between tones of longing and nostalgia on tracks like A Week Ago and the beautiful harmonies of Howling, and resignation on the plaintive Call It a Night and kiss-off track I Won’t Be Back.

Wild Rivers are currently opening for Australian band The Paper Kites on the North American leg of the Where You Live tour. The Varsity spoke to Yassein about the production of Eighty-Eight, the band’s time in Nashville, and the upsides and downsides of touring.

The Varsity: You and Devan [Glover], the other vocalist in the band, were formerly a two-piece called Devan & Khalid, but you’ve since added two new members, Ben Labenski on drums and Andrew Oliver on bass and guitar. How has that affected Wild Rivers’ music making process?

Khalid Yassein: We’ve kind of become a whole band as opposed to the duo that we were before. We’re more jamming in a room instead of just doing acoustic stuff, and sounds are coming from different places. So it’s really enriched our creative process. That’s two, three years ago, and we haven’t looked back.

TV: You just put out an EP a few months ago, Eighty-Eight. What were some of the themes that you wanted to incorporate in the writing and production of that album?

KY: Musically, we wanted to do a pretty raw representation of who we are as a band. A lot of the sounds were tracked live in a room, without a lot of additional stuff. So it’s got a live feel, which we really wanted. We spent so much time touring our first album and playing on the road that we feel like we have become a real band. Then, thematically on the album, a lot of the songs explore relationships in some way or another. And a lot of them involve the element of time. “I Won’t Be Back” and “A Week Ago” are songs about getting out of town and having regret, and that became the theme accidentally to the EP, which is why we called it Eighty-Eight. There’s a lyric in the first song, “A Week Ago,” that goes, “If I could get this Chevy up to eighty-eight / I’d take it back in time,” from Back to the Future, obviously. That kind of theme just accidentally came across through all the songs on the record. 

TV: While you were listening back to all the songs that you had put together, was it then that you felt like there was a theme? It hadn’t been obvious to you all along?

KY: Totally, yeah. We have our tendencies when we write, to write about certain stuff — usually mention a car, or a movie reference, or some kind of accidental calling card. It’s cool that it makes the music feel a little more organic and not so contrived, that the songs just naturally have these ideas that we’re talking about based on where we’re at in our lives. So it was cool to notice that and lean into that after the fact.

TV: Would you say that while you were putting the songs together, you were thinking of how they would play live?

KY: I think it was actually a little bit of the opposite. Usually, before we record we do pre-production, which is us in a room rehearsing and talking about the arrangement of a song, and we definitely did that for the EP, but a big part of it too was that we played a bunch of the songs live this year before we recorded it and got the live feedback from the audience and figured out what hit, and what worked, and what felt good live. That more informs the record than us worrying about if we could play the songs on the record live. At its core, it’s just us, because we played the songs, and that’s what made it feel good and real. If we want to do something in the studio, we try not to worry about if we can do it live; we consider it a totally different medium. We find that it’s been good not to tie ourselves down to worrying about that too much.

TV: How do you know when to take feedback from the audience and when to disregard it because it’s something you feel really strongly about?

KY: It’s kind of intangible — when you go to a show and you can feel that moment that everyone’s in it and responding to it emotionally. Everyone in the room, us and the audience, can feel it when that kind of stuff happens. It’s more of an organic thing than someone coming up to us at the merch table and saying, “Ah, you should add a bridge after verse two.” It’s a feeling, and after the show we’ll talk about, “Oh, ‘Call It a Night’ felt really good tonight.” We feel like we were catching a groove and everyone was buying into it. So it’s that kind of thing that informs it on a human level, which is hard, because the magic about it isn’t obvious on paper and it’s rather a vibe, which is something we tried to chase for the EP. 

TV: How would you say that your sound has evolved over the years? Even from being a duo with Devan through to the album in 2016, and now with Eighty-Eight.

KY: In terms of genres, I think we started in the indie-folk world, and that was a product of the songs starting as a voice or two voices and acoustic guitar, and building a song around that. Every song on the first record had an acoustic guitar at the centre of it because that’s the origin. And on the second record, the EP, there were more band songs, more songs that originated from the four of us jamming in the room, and that’s allowed for a different sound — rock, some indie-rock, some country. It’s become a little more of a polished version of our sound, especially production-wise. We just recorded a song a week ago that doesn’t have an acoustic guitar at all and it’s a different feel. We’re all individually into all kinds of music and we’re lucky that the fact that the two voices and acoustic guitar makes it us, but at this point we can explore a little bit to do something cool and different and it still feels honest and like a Wild Rivers song. So it’s cool, we feel like we’re in a place where we can really do whatever we want and we’re always trying to get better at what we’re doing. 

TV: I read in an interview with the Queen’s Journal that you wrote Eighty-Eight between Toronto and Nashville. What do you think those two cities bring to the table, musically speaking, and do you think the EP has influences from both places?

KY: We’re all from the Toronto area, and that’s where the conception of the EP happened. We wrote a bunch of the songs in Toronto but we made them our own in a little studio that happened to be on 888 Dupont Street, a little basement recording studio, so that was another push for the namesake of the record. It started in Toronto and then we went to Nashville, which we’d been spending some time there this year, and wrote two other songs for the EP. We’re all crazy about the city and it’s so rich in talent; every time we go, we feel like we soak up a ton of energy and inspiration and get a lot done. We consciously decided to lean into that influence as a product of being on the road and being in Nashville that year. It was a cool part of where we were at. There’s definitely a little bit of that feel in the design, the album cover. It was an important part of the project practically and it comes out a little bit in the sound too, which is probably more country, Americana than we’ve ever done.

TV: Do you see Toronto as your home base for the foreseeable future?

KY: I think so. Right now we’re talking about spending a month or two here to start working on the next record, but we’re very easily enamoured by new cities. So, who knows, Toronto’s definitely our home base and I don’t ever see us leaving for good, but the great thing about this job is we don’t have a 9 to 5 and we can live and do whatever we want, whatever feels cool, and push ourselves. So, who knows, maybe the next record we do will be an LA concept record or we’ll move to a cabin in Montana. 

TV: Pivoting a little bit toward the tour, is this your first months-long experience on tour or have you done similar lengths in the past?

KY: This is basically on par with our longest tour. We just came back from our longest tour, which was a little over a month long. It was a couple weeks ago, we just came back. So we’ve been on the road a lot this fall. But I think this is the biggest scale tour we have. We’ve upgraded our van, we have a tour manager, we’re playing these amazing theatre venues all over Canada and the US, so it feels like we’re doing it bigger than we’ve done before. 

TV: What’s your favourite and least favourite aspect of touring?

KY: Favourite is eating good food and getting into shenanigans with my friends. My least favourite is probably that it’s tough to sleep and it’s tough to stay healthy. But you live so much and have so many experiences in such a short period of time that you don’t really think about how tired you are — you just kind of enjoy it. We’ve had a lot of fun touring and being on the road this year. I think we’ve set a good balance of being ambitious and serious, and also appreciating that what we’re doing is actually crazy and enjoying every moment. 

Wild Rivers will be opening for The Paper Kites on November 22 at The Opera House.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Drumroll, please, for Our Lady Peace

In conversation with drummer Jason Pierce on the band's new album and tour

Drumroll, please, for Our Lady Peace

In 1991, U of T criminology student Michael Maida, now known as Raine, put out an ad to find musicians for his band. Now, 27 years later, that band, Our Lady Peace, is still touring Canada and releasing new music.

On February 23, Our Lady Peace released its ninth studio album, Somethingness, before heading on a cross Canada tour. Their newest band member, drummer Jason Pierce, spoke with The Varsity about joining the band, his personal career, and what to expect at the band’s two Toronto shows.

The Varsity: How is this album different than others that Our Lady Peace has released in the past?

Jason Pierce: Well, this will be the first record that I have any involvement in playing on and writing, the first record that has been released since I joined the band.

TV: You’ve been on tour with the band and you’ve played songs off of previous albums. Are there any differences between this record and those before?

JP: I feel like there’s a more edgy element on the new record, specifically on tracks like “Head Down” and “Drop Me In The Water.” There is a more edgy, dirty guitar-driven sound on a few tracks, compared to the last few records.

TV: Our Lady Peace is one of the most successful Canadian bands, with their records going 12 times platinum and one-time diamond in Canada while releasing nine albums in over a quarter of a century. What do you think makes this band so successful?

JP: I feel like it has a lot to do with being honest and being true. None of the songs on any of the records, from what I’ve seen, are contrived. Everything is very much there for a reason and there because everybody wanted it to be there. It’s not there just to put a song on a record. What also makes the band, from my perspective, is the fans. The way they appreciate the band… they are the reason that we still get to do this.

TV: You’re working with Raine, and he is technically the only original member left. He went to the University of Toronto. What’s it like working with him?

JP: Incredible, just incredible. He’s got this built-in dynamic. Something incredible to see. I’ve got to learn a lot from watching him.

TV: How does the band carry themselves when writing new music, specifically now that it’s been 24 years since their first released album?

JP: Actually, I believe this record is done a little bit differently. Duncan [Coutts, the band’s bassist] and I get together a few times a week and we write together. So, we’ve been presenting songs for the new record to the rest of the guys. So, it is a pretty equal share of songs that Duncan and I have started and songs that the other guys have started. It’s really a collective on this record.

TV: You technically joined the band in 2014 on tour, and then officially in 2016. Before that, you toured with acts such as Paramore, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Justin Bieber. I was wondering what tour is most memorable to you, outside of Our Lady Peace.

JP: Outside of Our Lady Peace, it would probably be my first tour with Paramore. Just because it was the first time I got to play with a band of that scale and shows of that scale. We were over in Europe doing arenas and stadiums. It was incredible. It really opened my eyes to the fact that that level of touring still exists, especially in this day and age.

TV: You’ve played stadiums, arenas, and now you’re going to be playing in smaller venues. What do you prefer when you’re playing onstage? Is it looking out to see thousands of people, or is it when you have a smaller audience and feel more connected?

JP: It’s kind of a double-edged sword, because [at] the bigger venues, there’s this energy you just cannot get from a smaller venue. But like you said, it’s so much less connected once you get used to that. When you do start going back to the smaller venues again, it’s eye-opening how terrifying it is when you can actually see past the people in the first 10 rows. So, I don’t know which one I actually prefer. It’s a completely different skill set. As a musician, you play to the room, and playing to a smaller room is different than playing to a football stadium.

TV: Other than Raine, Our Lady Peace is a band that has seen their members change over time. Is it hard to join a band that’s already solidified their name, or is it easier knowing that the support is already there?

JP: Yeah, it’s great that the support is already there. I think one of the hardest things to do is to almost live up to people’s expectations of you, just because you’re filling the shoes of people who are already great. It’s just trying to do your own thing and still trying to stay at that level.

TV: You’re going to be playing two shows in Toronto. What’s it like knowing many, if not most, of your fans that are going to be out at the shows on this tour are not old enough to know the first records that were released by Our Lady Peace?

JP: I have never thought about that before. It’s kind of scary.

TV: I’m speaking from experience; I wasn’t born when the first two Our Lady Peace albums were released.

JP: That’s incredible that the band has been around for this long. I love that. And it’s going to be cool because then you get to actually play that old material and it’s new to them. That’s totally a plus.

TV: These fans both new and old, those who have been with the band since 1991 and those who are just picking it up from Somethingness — what can these fans expect on this tour?

JP: Expect a good amount of new material but also paying respect to the catalogue. We’re still playing the hits, but we’re incorporating different new material every night. We have songs that we pop in place of other songs. We’re playing a larger, more diverse collection of songs.

TV: Would you say that going to both shows in Toronto, you would experience two different shows?

JP: 100 per cent, there is no way we’ll play the same set.

TV: Does that exemplify how the band is staying true to itself? It’s not out there to play to the majority, it’s out there doing its own thing.

JP: Totally, totally man. You have to do that stuff that turns yourself on before you can try to present that to the masses.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Our Lady Peace will perform at Massey Hall on March 15 and at Rebel on March 16.

The battle is won

Four bands delivered lively performances at Lee's Palace for battle of the bands

The battle is won

Winterfest’s annual Battle of the Bands has always been a treat for U of T’s musically inclined, and this year was no exception. Four bands brought a myriad of sounds to the table, providing a night of music, dancing, and free drink tickets. In the end, there could only be one winner to take home the $500 cash prize. Here, we’ve supplied a rundown of each band’s set.

Act I: Spaceship Thoughts

The first act to hit the stage was the mysterious and newly formed Spaceship Thoughts, comprised of out-of-this-world members Spoon Johnson (a human), Sky Casket (also a human), and Lump the Potato (also a human; not a potato). Lacking any online presence and playing for an audience only once before — it was to audition for this show — the self-described acoustic rap outfit seemed to have intentionally created a veil of intrigue around themselves.

With little notice, a heavy drumbeat kicked off their performance, commanding the attention of attendees still casually floating around the venue. The group’s frontman, questionably dressed in bling and a tie wrapped around his head, captivated the audience with fast and energetic verses on top of drums and acoustic guitar. Self-referential and clever lyrics caught my ear and made it clear why Winterfest’s audition team was impressed by the eccentric trio.

As the group’s 30-minute set progressed, the energy on stage began to fade. Since the songs were comprised of similar drumbeats, structures, and lyrical content, it became increasingly difficult to tell them apart. Still, clever lyrics and a unique style made for a solid start to the evening. 

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Act II: Northern Riot

Next to perform were the patriotic partiers from Northern Riot. “Rock and roll ain’t dead, it’s just asleep. So you’d better get loud to wake it the fuck up,” urged frontman Thomas Thurley near the beginning of their set. The band has been playing with their current five member lineup for about a year, during which they’ve made themselves comfortable in Toronto’s youthful music scene. 

Their sound is unmistakably ‘70s inspired, with an emphasis on crunchy distortion and beefy vocals. The group’s fast and heavy-hitting rock sound eliminated any concern that they could not live up to Spaceship Thoughts’ energy. Northern Riot occasionally simmered for slower numbers like “Expired,” a track that showcased Thurley’s impressive vocal range. 

Overall Northern Riot provided a solid soundtrack for a night of heavy drinking but offered little else. Groups like Kings of Leon and Mumford and Sons take influence from the past and bring something new to the table, but Northern Riot failed to innovate in any meaningful way. Unfortunately, one particularly awkward instance did not go over well with the U of T crowd, when the rhythm guitarist held his water bottle to his pelvis, and squirted it in a phallic gesture. Classy.

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Act III: The Fallers

Fresh from a 22-date Canadian tour last summer, The Fallers are a group with plenty of experience playing on stages like Lee’s. Heavily inspired by garage rock like The Strokes, the trio delivers a live show that sounds as big, if not bigger, than their studio recordings. 

The Fallers began their set with “Left, Right, and Centre,” an upbeat yet composed alt-rock number that instantly marked their difference in style from the previous acts instantly. Lead singer and guitarist Garret Olson’s vocals were stellar and complimented by tight basslines from Alex Lakusta and the drumming of Mackenzie Read.   

The band flowed in and out of multiple styles, at one point resembling pop and at another point resembling punk. This made for an energetic and solid set, one that had many in the crowd wondering if they had already found the battle’s winner. 

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Act IV: The Implications

By the time the final band took the stage, the occupants of Lee’s Palace were the jumpiest they’d been all night. Perhaps it was the drink tickets catching up with students capitalizing on free booze, or maybe it was the contagious energy of the prior three bands to blame. But most likely it was in anticipation of the final band to take the stage: The Implications. 

Performing at their third U of T Battle of the Bands, this time having rebranded from The Turks to The Implications, their quirky pop-rock style was both familiar and welcomed by the crowd. The four-piece group offered a cohesive show that highlighted their ability to work together through carefully timed drum fills, bass and guitar solos, and sing-along sections. 

The band engaged with the audience on countless occasions: at one point they promised a free copy of their EP to whoever danced the hardest to their next song. Ultimately, it was this level of audience interaction and fun that propelled this set above others they have played in the past.

After roughly a 20-minute wait to make their decision, the judges took to the stage to announce that The Implications had won the 2016 Winterfest Battle of the Bands.

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