When Said the Whale's Tyler Bancroft wrote the song, "2010," with its Vancouver Olympics undertones, his original feelings were that of pride and enthusiasm for his city.
Following the Stanley Cup riots last June, pride turned to shame.
"It's almost like an anti-Vancouver song," Bancroft said of the way "2010" has morphed, especially in its video treatment featuring footage from the riots, cars ablaze next to the downtown Bay store, with masked individuals roaming the streets. "But it's really not."
Sitting alongside fellow guitarist and co-songwriter Ben Worcester and drummer Spencer Schoening during a recent interview with Postmedia News, Bancroft admitted it isn't all that surprising that Said the Whale's latest effort, Little Mountain (released March 6), contains myriad references to the city where the members of the band spend most of their time.
Little Mountain, since it so obviously refers to the neighbourhood, is a bit of a Vancouver-centric title, but Bancroft admitted the choice of album title deliberately extended beyond the 604 area code.
In fact, Bancroft explained, "Little Mountain" is a common place name in North America, something that gives the album a sense of place and connection on a larger geographical scale.
"Our hope is that there are other 'Little Mountains' in North America where people might be listening to the album," Bancroft said. "A lot of times, our band gets pigeonholed as a band that writes a lot about Vancouver. While that's entirely true, the point of naming the record a name that is a bunch of other places is that there's a storytelling aspect to all the songs that should resonate with people, whether they're in Vancouver or somewhere else."
Little Mountain is rife with place-name references.
There are the Vancouver nods, of course, but also shout-outs to the U.S.A. on the folky "Big Sky, MT," a song dedicated to the memory of Worcester's grandfather set in Montana, and on the power-pop number "Jesse, AR" (Said the Whale's first genuinely band-written song) about a girl from Edmonton who moves to Arkansas.
"The places we're in tend to affect us a lot," Worcester said. "I personally like to write about places, people or things I can connect to. That way, for however many years I'm singing these songs, I can conjure those feelings and what they're about."
The heart of the album is "Big Wave Goodbye," a slow buildup of a song about touring, leaving familiarity and moving on to new things, with part of the song lifted from "Pretty City" (from the Bear Bones EP released in 2010).
"Big Wave Goodbye," which ends on a jammy, horns-heavy note, makes sense in the context of a band whose aspirations are now bigger than ever.
Said the Whale's coronation as New Group of the Year at the 2011 Juno Awards came hot on the heels of a second-place finish in the 2010 Peak Performance Project, which won the indie rock quintet $75,000.
Their first trip to the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, last year was also documented in the one-hour CBC television special, Winning America, which was originally broadcast only in B.C. last fall and will be re-aired nationally on March 24.
Being so busy, with plenty of touring over the past few years, probably explains why the followup to 2009's Islands Disappear took so long to come to life.
"It probably could have come faster, but it might have felt rushed," Bancroft said. "And there certainly wouldn't have been 20 songs recorded. It would have been a lot different."
From the recording sessions with longtime producer and "sixth member" Tom Dobrzanski, four songs ended up on the New Brighton EP, released last fall, and 15 made the cut for Little Mountain. A cover of Tokyo Police Club's "A Lesson in Crime" will be an iTunes-only album bonus.
The variety of the material on the album can seem jarring upon first listen, with Worcester's songs feeling a little more Stan Rogers-inflected ("The Reason," "O Alexandra"), while Bancroft's material retains a poppier James Mercer/Shins-like quality ("We Are 1980," "Loveless," and the "My Sharona"-esque "Heavy Ceiling").
Then there are the more atmosphere-driven transitions like "Lover/Friend" and the loopy, Beatles-esque "Guilty Hypocrites," songs that signal the shift from the lighter to the darker side of the album. Bancroft said that those two sides will literally be applied to the double-vinyl version of the album, with one platter white and the other black.
The second half is the darker side, with material like "Hurricane Ada," an epic number Worcester wrote after the birth of his niece during a period of mourning, and piano lament "Seasons," the first song Schoening has written for Said the Whale, closing the album.
The idea, the three explained, was to make an album that was really a "front to back" experience that included "something for everybody."
"It's so Said the Whale!" Worcester said with a laugh. "Way to make every song different from each other!"
"I think the variety is the only way we can justify such a long album," Schoening said, when it is pointed out that, at 48 minutes, Little Mountain is Said the Whale's lengthiest offering to date.
"I think what's cool about Little Mountain is that it really is an album," Bancroft said. "We've thought about the songs and the order they go in and the split in the middle. But you can also listen to each track individually and it's its own thing, which means the album fits in both categories: You can skip around on your iPod or listen to the whole album and not get bored of too many of the same songs.
"I'm looking forward to hearing somebody tell us that we're too much or too little of something."
To top things off, Said the Whale enlisted Vancouver video production outfit Amazing Factory to create a music video for each of the 15 songs on Little Mountain, which has yielded some pretty spectacular results, especially when it comes to "We Are 1980," where Bancroft is portrayed as being able to manipulate his environment as if using a smartphone, "Loveless," a love story told via a couple of tots acting like adults, and "Heavy Ceiling," with its nighttime fog-and-forest light-show atmosphere.
Much like on Little Mountain, there is no real central theme to the video series.
"It's exactly what we do, which is not have a direction," Worcester said. "We didn't want to make a 'pop' album or a 'rock' album or a 'folk' album. We play honest music, where we just write exactly what we're feeling."
Little Mountain is out now.