The Phog in Windsor is a common stop for any independent band that dares to venture into the southernmost reaches of Ontario.
On one chilly November evening, the place is packed with skinny jeans and leather jackets and the air is filled with the sounds of loud, angular guitars, crunchy bass and syncopated rhythms.
It’s a night of intense math rock and driving punk – save for one group.
Taking the stage after three raucous punk bands is a trio of talented Calgary musicians who play with more of a jazz flair than punk aggression.
The night before, Raleigh had performed an intimate, quiet set in a living room alongside an ambient folk artist. The group’s lushly constructed chamber pop was warmly received by the small audience, but drummer Matt Doherty wasn’t so sure the reaction from The Phog crowd was going to be quite as pleasant.
“I didn’t know how it was going to go,” Doherty recalls. “But we played a little louder and tailored our set to more of those types of songs and, in the end, they were a great audience. They thought we were different, but they were welcoming”
It was that moment Doherty realized just how versatile Raleigh is and stopped worrying about who the band might share the stage with during its recent month-long Canadian tour.
“I think we have enough influences in our music that we can translate it into any bill we’re on,” he says.
Pulling inspiration from folk, experimental music, jazzy pop and indie rock has indeed allowed Raleigh to create a sound that is recognizable and relatable, yet incredibly difficult to pigeonhole.
Audiences being routinely surprised by what they hear means Raleigh is doing something right, according to singer and cellist, Clea Anaïs.
“Our most common comment is, ‘You guys aren’t anything like what I expected,’” she says.
“For example, we played an all-ages show in Brandon, Manitoba at the university and the kids were so stoked. They were saying, ‘We’ve never heard anything like this. I’m going to go home and practice now.’ The excitement level was huge… I think, across the board, people have been really receptive to the sound even if it is a little different. Maybe it reframes what they’re listening to.”
Those familiar with Raleigh’s sparkling 2011 debut album, New Times in Black and White, will find the band has pushed its sound further in terms of both instrumentation and lyric writing on its new release, Sun Grenades & Grenadine Skies.
Guitarist Brock Geiger says the band felt no pressure to live up to anything, despite largely positive reviews of the first record.
“I don’t think any of us need to be worrying about, ‘OK, are they going to pump this song on the radio? Are the kids going to be dancing to this?’” he explains.
“It doesn’t matter at all. I think we’re more interested in making songs that people are able to listen to over and over again and not necessarily sing along to, but take away something different from them each time.”
Recorded at Montreal studio Hotel2Tango last year, Sun Grenades & Grenadine Skies again highlights the stunning vocal interplay between Geiger and Anaïs. Geiger’s heartbreakingly beautiful croon and Anaïs’ honey-dipped, playful soprano also get plenty of solo spotlight time and the poppy, refined melodies are at times belied by seemingly dark lyrics.
“We don’t come from a traditional country/folk storytelling style of songwriting,” says Anaïs.
“Our lyrics are more descriptive and leave a lot of room open for interpretation. I think that’s kind of exciting for the listener. The song can mean something different to a lot of people depending what they’ve taken from the lyrics.”
“The musical concepts are quite a bit more abstract and wandering,” adds Geiger. “I think having lyrics that complement that lends itself to the music. We’re not attached to it being just one recipe.”
It’s become almost a stereotype for a critically acclaimed group with a penchant for sophisticated, orchestral arrangements and mesmerizing melodies to record in (and quite often move to) Quebec’s artistic hub.
“It was nice to leave Calgary and leave your regular distractions behind and really focus,” says Doherty.
“It could have been anywhere outside Calgary, really. But we wanted to work with (sound engineer) Howard Bilerman (Wolf Parade, Arcade Fire) at Hotel2Tango.”
Geiger further explains the band was attracted to the idea of recording directly to tape and doing live takes instead of staring at a computer all day.
“It was an inspiring environment,” he says.
“When you’re working to tape, you’re sitting there reminding yourself you’re making an audio record and not a video game. It really worked for capturing what we wanted to sound like.”
Geiger, Anaïs and Doherty are sitting in their touring van, parked in front of one of Montreal’s best record stores, L’Oblique, halfway through their latest cross-country jaunt.
It’s the fourth time the trio has embarked on a substantial tour of the country since forming in 2010.
Despite blizzards, mechanical failures and a brief run-in with the Ontario Provincial Police, Geiger says the tour has been successful in terms of connecting with more people and seeing the hard slog of previous tours pay off.
“We’ve seen an improvement in attendance, with record sales and quality of venues and bands we’re playing with,” he says.
“It’s definitely gradual. We didn’t release a radio single and are filling 500-person rooms, but I think the people we connect with every time, some of them are coming back to the shows.
“That’s kind of the point of touring. It inspires me to get on top of another record and do this again a few months down the road.”
The three-piece are hoping their insightful and dynamic indie folk will attract new fans when they head to Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and the U.K. this spring.
For Doherty, a road veteran who has toured several times with such bands as This City Defects, HighKicks and The Dudes, a European circuit is another way to raise the band’s profile outside of Calgary’s supportive, yet sometimes stifling music scene.
“I definitely feel like we’re a national band and not just a local band,” says Doherty.
“I think the only thing that separates the two is getting out there and playing the entire nation. That’s what we’re doing and we’re trying to do that internationally.
“I guess in this day and age with the Internet you can be an international band without leaving Calgary. But we’re taking a little more old-fashioned approach and actually going out to try to become a national or international band instead of sitting at home waiting for it to happen.”
Raleigh formed three years ago when Doherty approached Anaïs and Geiger after watching them open for American avant-garde folk duo The Books at Broken City.
He handed them a business card and told them matter-of-factly he was going to be their drummer.
“We met up about a month or two later and started jamming out songs and it worked out really well,” says Doherty.
The 27-year-old rhythmist fit naturally into Anaïs and Geiger’s sonic world, having studied jazz percussion for two years at Mount Royal University’s Conservatory.
He graduated from the jazz performance program in 2009 and has since proven himself to be one of the city’s most technically proficient, versatile and stylistically engaging young drummers.
But it wasn’t always this way and might never have been if it wasn’t for Doherty’s ego taking more of a beating than his drums during a lesson six years ago.
“I was self-taught for the most part and had been playing in bands already and thought I was good enough,” he says.
“Then I took a drum lesson from Garry De Boeck from MRU and he kind of cut me down to size in one lesson. It made me realize I had a lot left to learn.”
While enrolled in the jazz program, Doherty played with as many bands and musicians as he could possibly fit into his schedule.
“I still try to keep that work ethic there and play and practice as much as I can,” Doherty says.
Geiger and Anaïs are no slouches either.
Geiger, 23, taught himself to play guitar when he was 14 years old and within a few years was recording “shitty demos” in his bedroom.
“That turned pretty quickly into thinking I was doing it well enough to release a solo record (Invitation) and tour it across Western Canada in 2009,” says Geiger, whose musical collaboration with Anaïs began when he asked her to play cello on the album.
As for 26-year-old Anaïs, she says she’s now thankful her parents forced her into cello and piano lessons as a child. But her teenage self just wanted to rock out and Anaïs played keyboards in a few bands before picking up the cello again when she was 20.
She’s worked with several local luminaries, including Woodpigeon, Thighs, The Consonant C and Dojo Workhorse, but maintains that Raleigh has been her most satisfying creative outlet.
While all three members play in other groups and have real jobs, Geiger – who also plays bass in Calgary’s fun-loving rock stalwarts, The Dudes – says they’ve never thought of Raleigh as a side project simmering in the background.
“If I had to play in one band, this would be the band,” he says.
“It’s the ultimate writing outlet for me and it’s the most rewarding. Maybe not monetarily, but it’s an expressive project.”
Catch Raleigh at their hometown release show on December 5 at the Ironwood Stage & Grill. Sunshine Grenades & Grenadine Skies was self-released on November 5.
By Lisa Wilton
Photos: Sebastian Buzzalino