A conversation with Murray Lightburn
Interview by Adam McKibbin
Also published on ARTISTdirect
Of all of the indie-rock buzz bands that have emerged from Montreal in recent years – a pack led prominently by The Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade – The Dears may have endured the most turbulent ride. As a hint of all that’s gone down, their Wikipedia page shows 12 former members and two current members: husband-and-wife team Murray Lightburn (lead vocalist/songwriter) and Natalia Yanchak (keyboardist/backing vocalist). After the last incarnation of The Dears fell apart completely during a tour supporting 2006’s Gang of Losers, Lightburn was left weighing his options. In the end, he hunkered back down and wrote what the adventurous and challenging Missiles. Now he has a newly reconfigured Dears lineup back out on the road, hoping that this trek will go a lot better than its predecessor.
Lightburn called in from his tour bus while battling a late-autumn cold. He talked about the drama of The Dears, both inside the band and inside their songs, as well as the reasons why listeners need to put away their laundry before putting Missiles on the stereo.
Before you started making Missiles, you were writing songs with the idea that they’d wind up on a solo album. How did you move away from that idea and decide that they needed to be on a Dears album?
I think just the way they were sounding – the chord changes – it just wasn’t how I imagined a solo… I also realized that I don’t think I’ll ever do any kind of solo project. As far as my priorities go, my priorities are to the Dears. There’s nothing I can do about it. It’s inescapable.
Songwriting sounds like an almost mystical process for you – you’re not struggling to pull the songs out of you, but they’re arriving to you.
At least that’s how it’s been for a very long time.
Do they arrive fully formed?
To be honest with you, the way things come into my head is pretty cacophonous. I can’t really harness it all. If I was able to, it would be pretty out of control. I just put down as much as I hear in my head and then play it for people and hopefully they’ll hear the harmonics and then they deliver what comes to them from hearing it.
Do you go through droughts? Do the voices go away?
Not really. [Laughs] I’m hearing music in my head all the time.
A lot has been made in the press about how The Dears stripped down to you and Natalia for Missiles. But you’re back out on the road with a full band again. What did you glean from past experiences that will make this time more manageable?
I just think the attitude is right. You know, without naming names, I think some people took a lot of things for granted. It’s a shame because it’s a pretty amazing life we have as artists – to go out and play. It didn’t have to get as grim as it did. There were some really promising things happening, but people pushed the panic button and jumped ship. It was a little rocky, but it wasn’t anything to freak out about, in my opinion. It’s really, really weird. One thing led to another and panic set in. You know how panic is – it basically turned into a situation like someone yelling “Fire!” at a football game. [Laughs] They trampled each other on the way out. Me and Natalia were standing there like “What the hell?”
I was watching the Chronicles documentary on your website and it almost reminded me of the Metallica documentary, especially the parts about communication breaking down.
Yeah, that’s the death of any unit.
You discovered that your bandmates had a side band by stumbling across it on MySpace. Is that a true story or is that apocryphal?
Well, they already had a MySpace up before one of them decided to say something. They had a whole thing going on and they didn’t say anything to us. I thought that was a really weird thing to do. It’s kind of mind-blowing. If you asked them about it, they’d probably deny it, but that’s what happened. Obviously that came from a certain place; they felt the need to do that because of something we did. I’m not saying that I’ve been an angel in the situation. But I’ve always worked to hold myself accountable for my actions. Whatever. It’s “he said, she said” soap opera bullshit. Right now we’re on a bus and we’re playing Chicago tonight, we have a new album out, and it’s over. Boom, done. We’re moving on. And you know what? You know who’s not on the bus and doesn’t have an album out right now? Them.
When you’re pushing into new territory musically, you’re at a different place personally, and you’re playing with an entirely different set of people, does that make any part of the back catalog feel distant?
No, it’s easy to reconnect. All of the songs come from the same place – it’s just the filters that change from album to album. Certain shit happened around a certain time, so that will obviously filter how the song comes out, but the song still remains. The way things line up, it’s the same kind of process for the most part. On our first album, we have that song “Heartless Romantic,” and for a while, for whatever reason, I just didn’t want to do that live. I remember the place where I was when I wrote that song, and it was such a brutal, brutal place emotionally. I couldn’t bring myself to sing it live. But then I got over it and said “What the fuck? It’s not about me, it’s about the song. Who gives a fuck?” I think that’s ultimately the saving grace – I have to remember that it’s not about me, as much as people want to say it’s about me. I do write from a personal perspective, but it’s so personal that I think anyone can internalize it and interpret it in their own way. That’s ultimately how I hope it’s received.
Your father and his sax make a nice appearance on “Disclaimer.”
Yeah, it just kind of made sense. I was hearing this piece with this noise in my head and it sounded kind of like a saxophone, so I called up my old man. I’m into the idea of him playing – I think it’s a healing process, I guess. And also an opportunity to get his rock star rocks off a little bit. [Laughs]
Has he actually come out and played at any shows?
No, no, no, no! He’s in his seventies and he’s a Reverend and everything – it’s not his environment. I’ve never asked him, but I think I’ll draw the line at just having him come in on the record. I wouldn’t want to put too much pressure on him.
There’s an outsider or underdog ethos to The Dears, both in the songs and in the kind of general story about the band. There’s a great posting on your website that announces the new album but also takes a preemptive shot at shitty reviews.
[Laughs] And there haven’t been that many shitty reviews! But it’s not meant to be taken at 100% face value; there’s an enormous amount of humor in it. Also, though, I just want people to give this record a chance on their own terms. It’s not a hipster record. It’s a slow fucking burn, big time. It’s the kind of record that might be off-putting at first, and we warn everybody about it. It’s like doing drugs; if you decide to take mushrooms, you know you’re in for a commitment. We’re asking – and we’re just asking, they can tell us to fuck off – we’re asking people to take it in the manner. It’s a commitment, get into it, don’t do anything else for once.
It’s like watching Apocalypse Now – you don’t watch Apocalypse Now while you’re fucking ironing your shirt, you know what I mean? This is how it’s meant to be consumed, this is the space we were in when we made it; we let ourselves sink into it and we’re asking the listeners to let themselves sink into it and not let anything else distract them, including reviews that are messing with their heads beforehand. If Rolling Stone says this record sucks, it doesn’t mean it’s going to suck for the other people. I’m not saying Rolling Stone, but a lot of these reviewer guys, they fucking have three dozen CDs on their desk a day and they’re rifling through them, skipping song by song, and they write their review, three paragraphs and it’s done – next record. This isn’t that kind of record. It’s a battle, it’s a total battle. And it’s not about being an underdog; it’s more about trying to bring some art back into this thing that’s supposed to be art but has turned into a disposable consumer commercial fucking gross process. Album cycles and promotional this and promotional that. We’re just trying to talk about art again and make it an artful thing. We’re trying to make art and hopefully people consume it as such. This record separates the men from the boys, really, that’s the bottom line.
Do you remember albums that, as a listener, turned you off at first but resonated later?
Oh, when I first heard Radiohead, I thought they sucked. I thought it was bullshit. To a certain extent, I still think the lyrics are barely holding on. But musically they’ve become such a force. They really went for it, and I admire them for it. But I used to think it was rubbish, to be honest with you. There are a few other bands that I used to not be into, but gave them more listens and eventually made a complete 180. That’s why I believe that can happen. I’ve heard from many sources that there’s a certain very influential online publication that apparently once they’ve made a decision on a band, that’s it. Bands are not allowed to evolve; when they like them, they like them – and when they don’t like them, they’ll never like them. That’s really sad, weird… pathetic, actually. I don’t think they then have the right to be an authority. But, alas, what can you do?