To throw out a catalogue of songs and start over with a different band name and an entirely new sound takes guts, but to do so while signed to one of the most prestigious record labels in Canada takes a hunger pain best satisfied by a bold change of direction. Fortunately for Gold & Youth, the Vancouver-based quartet that did just that, when it comes to playing on the dramatic, they’re total gluttons.
Start with the sounds on their upcoming debut LP, Beyond Wilderness: dark, winding synthscapes skimming seductively close to the borders of Lynchian black comedy, with ’80s-style programmed drums and vast electronic textures. Within glossy moments of breezier synth chords and flirty guitar, a looming mystery pervades. The owls are not what they seem.
Now consider the back-story. Jeff Mitchelmore, Matt Lyall, and Murray Mckenzie first signed to renowned Toronto-based label Arts & Crafts as the Racoons, an indie-rock “jam space band,” as lead vocalist/synths/guitarist Lyall says, packed with Wolf Parade flavoured electronics and a reputation for recklessly fun live shows. With an EP titled Islomania and national touring experience behind them, the Racoons’ burgeoning success surprised nobody more than the members of the band itself.
“It was a pretty conscious decision to start fresh because the Racoons was a band that was just about playing music with friends, and it got slightly more successful than we had ever planned,” says Lyall during a conversation with BeatRoute at a coffee shop in East Van, alongside drummer Mitchelmore and multi-instrumentalist Louise Burns, who joined Gold & Youth last year as a permanent player.
“We were really fortunate to get the opportunity to sit back and say, ‘OK, we can either continue on this path that we’re on, or we can try to do something that we can be proud of 10 years from now,’” adds Mitchelmore.
With support and ongoing dialogue with Arts & Crafts, the guys got to work.
“Technically, we learned how to make our own music,” says Lyall. “We got a lot better at making and recording our own music, which gave us the skills to make music that maybe we hadn’t seen as possible before because none of us were super computer savvy, up until when we decided to force ourselves to learn how to do it.”
They emerged with an ambitious new sound, which caught the attention of music blogs and publications like NME and The Guardian months before their 7-inch (‘Time To Kill/City of Quartz’) hit the streets last fall.
“It was refreshing because we kind of disappeared for a while but I think we were getting bored with what we were doing. Maybe not bored, but we wanted to change,” says Mitchelmore.
“We started learning and almost went back to school. It opened so many doors and got us excited again.”
Their sharpened skill sets prepared them to bring new ideas to full form. Some of these ideas made their way onto Beyond Wilderness, a deliberate and evocative wayward sibling in the Arts & Crafts family, which counts Feist, Broken Social Scene, and Jason Collett amongst others at its dinner table.
Unlike many of their label mates, Gold & Youth doesn’t cater to the rural, outdoorsy manifestation of Canadian identity; the one defined by acoustic strums, gang vocals, and wistful choruses about mountains and prairie pastures.
“There’s nothing wrong with the Canadian identity informing the music scene, but it’s sort of defining it now and I don’t personally relate to that very much,” says Lyall.
“I find it really odd that Canadians in general are fairly passive people and not overly nationalist, maybe with the exception of goofy stuff like hockey, but for the most part with music today, there seems to be a subversive patriotism that’s defined by your love of open spaces and highways.”
“Everyone’s got a road song,” Burns adds.
Any roads lining Beyond Wilderness are dusky Los Angeles boulevards and slick city thoroughfares.
“It’s an urban album,” Lyall says. Layers of electronic effects on tracks like ‘Jewel’ and ‘Come to Admire’ throb with the pulse of neon-lit metropolis at two in the morning, as though wrought from the twenty-third storey balcony on a gaudy high-rise hotel. Given that much of the album was written and recorded remotely, with band members sending demos back and forth to each other from distant locations, this interpretation is not too far off.
“I wrote ‘Jewel’ in Toronto and then sent it to the guys,” says Burns. “For ‘Come to Admire’, Matt sent me a track and I sang some stuff over it. We work on our own, really.”
“Everything we do is very compartmentalized, which is great because it makes it easy for us all to go off and do our own things and still be creative,” Lyall adds.
Indeed, while Gold & Youth remains their focus, the band thrives on having the flexibility to pursue other musical interests. Mckenzie, guitarist for Gold & Youth, is currently working on a shoegaze album. Lyall has an electronic project on the go, and Burns’ sophomore solo record, The Midnight Mass, is due for release in July. She says it sounds like “Berlin-era Bowie.”
“I think a lot of our inspiration comes from traveling so much, because we travel internationally as a band and individually,” Burns says.
“Many of our aspirations are to tour elsewhere and see the world a little bit differently than just down whatever that highway is, down the Crowsnest Pass!”
Mitchelmore agrees. “Our lifestyles are just a little different. We don’t go camping.”
“Yeah, I hate camping! I can say that on record,” laughs Burns. “This record’s about how I hate camping.”
Mitchelmore jokes that their album makes for excellent “bath music.” Given the cinematic elements on tracks like ‘Palm Villa’ and ‘Tan Lines’, it’s not a terrible recommendation. You can slip in and escape.
‘Cut Lip’ also edges on the fantastical, creeping across a spectrum of influences, with chilly electronic effects shifting over gut-dropping drums until just past the halfway mark, when Mckenzie slides in with the electric guitar, subduing the rising suggestion that something wicked was on the way. Like everything absurdly filthy and glamorous in a Bret Easton Ellis novel or David Lynch film, Gold & Youth taunts the limits of reality with heightened drama and darkness.
“Our music makes us seem a lot more dramatic than we actually are,” says Mitchelmore.
“That’s why art is fun though,” says backing vocalist Burns, who also adds bass and synths to the outfit. “You get to play a part. You get to play something that’s a little more interesting than yourself.”
Burns manifests this in her “soft, girly voice,” which she likes to tease out with an exaggerated vulnerability. Gold & Youth is often described as reminiscent of the ’80s; one of Burns’ contributions is with a theatrically intentional nod to that era of Kate Bush-style coos and purrs.
Her voice lifts the melodies and balances well with Lyall’s ceremonial vocal delivery, which has the hard-lined quality of Echo & the Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch and The National’s Matt Berninger. Like Burns, Lyall goes over the top for fantastical effect.
“It’s definitely fiction,” he says. “It should be fun. We wanted to make an interesting landscape.”
Ideas once deemed impossible to articulate because of technical knowledge constraints come across with sonic confidence on Beyond Wilderness. Clearly, taking the time to reassess their goals and improve their musical skills has paid off for Gold & Youth.
“We’ve put in a crazy amount of time over the past couple of years getting this ready,” says Lyall. Produced by Colin Stewart (Dan Mangan, Destroyer) and mixed by Gareth Jones (Depeche Mode, Nick Cave), Beyond Wilderness is “pretty much exactly the record we wanted to make,” says Lyall. It’s a record they can be proud of 10 years from now.
“There are always drawbacks and benefits to taking this long to release a record. We’re definitely prepared now,” Burns says.
“Nothing to lose but your youth, really.”
Gold & Youth play the Red Bull Hometown tour on May 4 at Georgia and Cambie.
By Sarah Bauer
Photo (top): Michelle Ford