It wasn’t all that long ago that Canada was the veritable laughingstock of the music industry, with such smirk-inducing exports as Bryan Adams and Celine Dion.
But beginning in the late 1990s, the Great White North’s music scene began to redeem itself and now boasts some of the biggest names in indie rock and pop, including Arcade Fire, Feist and The New Pornographers.
Also riding that wave is Constantines, an Ontario-based quintet whose fourth album, “Kensington Heights,” hit shelves April 29. Singer Bryan Webb offered his thoughts on the Canadian Invasion of late during an interview before the band’s show at New York’s Mercury Lounge last month.
“It’s kind of a noticeable thing when a Canadian band gets some recognition outside of Canada,” Webb mused, pointing out that the same recognition doesn’t come for U.S. bands who find success in other countries. “We’re kind of supported and encouraged, especially â€˜cause we’ve had some success in the States. It’s kind of a novel thing. But at the same time, there’s been a good run of that in Canada in the last 10 years.”
The title “Kensington Heights” is a joking reference to the band’s less-than-glamorous rehearsal space in the Kensington Market section of Toronto where much of the album was written. (“We tried to give it a little bit of panache,” Webb said with a smirk.)
Webb and the other four Constantines (guitarist/vocalist Steve Lambke, keyboardist/guitarist Will Kidman, bassist Dallas Wehrle and drummer Doug MacGregor) first crossed paths as regulars of southwestern Ontario’s punk rock scene.
“We just started as five people … playing just really loud music,” Webb explained. “That was just a scene that we were all invested in, and as we’ve gotten older, we just kind of wanted to be kind of a good rock and roll band.”
The anthemic undertones that anchor “Kensington Heights” reflect the cohesiveness the band members have fostered over the course of nine years of playing together, according to Webb.
“You develop certain ways of communicating with each other that you don’t have with other people,” he said. “When we started, it was sort of like everyone playing all at once, as loud as possible. We’re a lot more comfortable with each other now.”
The tagline often bestowed upon Constantines’ sound is “Bruce Springsteen meets Fugazi” – a description that’s bolstered throughout “Kensington Heights” by the distorted guitars and Webb’s earnest vocal delivery on songs like “Our Age” and “Brother Run Them Down,” both of which sound like vintage Boss.
“I think (the comparison’s) fair,” Webb conceded. “The thing that gets me is when people call us a blue-collar band. I just don’t know how that applies to music, you know?”
Despite Webb’s protestations, Constantines’ appeal to the working man is understandable – evidenced as much by songs like “Credit River” (opening line: “So you’ve decided to declare bankruptcy”) as by the fact that the members set up and tuned their own instruments before taking the stage at the sold-out Mercury Lounge gig.
A number of the songs on “Kensington Heights,” including the exceptional “Trans Canada,” which chugs along with a muted bassline and mumbled vocals before swelling into a crescendo are dedicated to individuals in the liner notes. “Tributes,” Webb calls them, to loved ones who are “surviving in interesting ways.”
Webb, who recently moved to Montreal from Toronto, describes the overall theme of the record as “place, especially the idea of transience being its own place” – a fitting motif for a band that’s been touring for almost a decade. That idea is best embodied, according to Webb, in “Time Can Be Overcome,” a jukebox-in-a-dive-bar type track that the singer cites as his favorite on the record.
“In that song, that idea’s applying to time and being in a particular place and time, being at a particular age,” he explained. “All of us are in our 30s, so that’s about the time that maybe nostalgia really starts creeping in … You start to look for other ideas of home or place. If you’re moving that much … you start to think about things in a different light.”
Earlier this year, home proved to be hazardous for Lambke, also a recent transplant to Montreal, who broke his hand while carrying groceries up the stairs, shortly before the band was supposed to embark on a mini-tour to showcase the new material.
“Pretty much every house in Montreal has a staircase outside that leads up to the second floor,” Webb explained. “Which is beautiful and really picturesque but it’s really dangerous, obviously, in the winter so he just slipped on the stairs. Luckily, it was only his hand, I guess. It sucked, of course, but it could have been worse.”
Although the mishap forced the band to cancel shows in New York and Toronto, they fulfilled their obligation at Austin’s SXSW festival last month, with Lambke still donning a cast. (“He’s a trooper,” Webb said.)
No strangers to the festival circuit, Constantines have shared the stage at Canadian indie showcases with bigger names like Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene. But according to Webb, there’s a sense of camaraderie, not competition, among their compatriots.
“Canada is such a big physical space with few centers where you can play … (so) you tend to get to know, if you’re a touring band in Canada, all the other touring bands in Canada,” he explained. “(It’s) just a bunch of people trying to make distinctive, interesting music. We’ve been lucky to be part of really supportive scenes.”