beyond prairie pop
by Terry Massey and Lorena Kelly
July 31, 2009
Part I: Technology as an Ally
By Terry Massey for SaskMusic.
When you are one of Saskatchewan's most successful independent bands - having released two albums and toured across Canada several times - what's next? Especially in light of some major changes affecting the music industry since the release of your first album five years ago.
In the lifetime of the Touchtone Gurus many evolutions have come to pass almost overnight. High speed Internet and computers are in most households, large studios are being passed over in favour of home-based setups, and fans anywhere in the world can find you using the Internet.
I sat down with the Gurus in the middle of January, as they were recording bed tracks for their third album, to discuss the evolution of the industry and of their career. The Gurus started pre-production for the album in October 2001, writing, demoing and deciding what direction to take in recording this album. Part of the determined direction was to use producer Bryan Potvin, and to take a home-based recording approach - a contrast from their previous two efforts, their self-titled debut and 1998's Shoegazing, which were recorded in large studios.
Potvin and the Gurus set out to capture "the vibe" that is the Gurus sound. Doing it with a ProTools setup has provided the quality they demand, as well as the freedom of not being on a large studio's schedule. "Technology has really helped us little guys bridge the gap," states drummer Kyle. "You don't have the pressure to get a take in ten minutes," notes bass player Steve. As well, Potvin felt his job as producer was easier, saying, "This allows them to use all the crayons in the box - allowing them to keep what works, as well as try out ideas that might not come forward in the time constraints of a large studio."
Bryan Potvin brings "a lot of creative experience and a different set of eyes," singer Paul was quick to point out when asked about the input Potvin would bring to the third album. From Potvin's work as a member of the Northern Pikes, to his critically acclaimed solo album Heartbreakthrough, Steve notes, "Songwriting is a craft. We are developing our craft, and Bryan contributed his experience as a craftsman to the new recording."
After listening to the raw work captured thus far, it was evident that focus, vibe and craftsmanship are already present in what is on tape. It is also evident that the new technology has benefited this recording.
Beyond that technology, which has provided the tools to create an international calibre album on an independent artist's budget, is the art of being a musician. Allowing the Gurus to create in the comfortable environment of their hometown, and not thousands of miles away on a tight time constraint and with monetary considerations weighing on their mind, keeps negative emotions out of an important recording. "At the end of the day my name is only in fine print on this recording," Potvin says. "This is their album and they have to be happy." With his experience of 'being there before' in his own career, he understands the importance of emotions in setting the vibe of a recording.
There was talk of some pressure due to past success. That pressure may be unwarranted in some respects, as it is evident the Gurus' most intense critic is themselves.
Part II: Love of Music...and a Head for Business
By Lorena Kelly for SaskMusic
I spoke with Angelo and Steve of the Gurus in May, a little further along into the album process and just back from yet another road trip.
For the benefit of those readers who have never seen or heard the band, how would you describe it?
Angelo: Four piece pop/rock band.
Is a Gurus performance all original material or a mix?
A: It's 100% original.
Let's talk about when the band got started, in 1997. How did you find the other people in your group?
A: We were all involved in the industry in one way or another...we played in bands around Saskatoon, we met people in music stores...we all kind of knew each other, and it was just a collective decision to form a band together.
It was five of you at that point. When did you lose one of your members?
A: We became a four piece around the same time as we were approved for FACTOR Funding, for Shoegazing. We had accomplished a few cool things to that point, but we said 'let's start fresh, let's wipe the slate clean and build from here'. I think that was a big turning point; we had to really bond together as four guys and say, 'let's work a little harder at this.'
So you received FACTOR funding at a pretty critical time...
A: Yeah, it kicked us in the pants!
In hindsight, do you think you're probably stronger now as a result - as a four piece?
A: Yes. But we're still good friends with that person. When you're in music there's definitely an emotional bond, like any relationship.
I think most bands can relate to the whole process of losing a member! So, from then on, you went in to do the studio for "Shoegazing". Is the recording process for you a democratic one - for example, when you're picking songs for an album, determining who's doing what harmonies, and so on?
S: I think a lot of things are obvious choices...as far as the recording process goes, we all pretty much know who's going to be doing what part. There's also a little bit of experimentation. And as far as song choosing, it's 100% democratic.
A: Everything gets put on a plate, and some songs are obvious duds!
Do you test out a lot of your songs live? If they don't go over live are they taken out of consideration for the album?
S: Not necessarily. As far as consideration for single, possibly...some songs will get a crowd to react differently than others. There are songs on this new album that are simply just good to listen to, but I don't know if they would get a crowd pumped up at a live show.
A: You do run into people who say "you guys are cool, there's this song you just played...is that on an album, where can I find it?"
So you take into consideration audience feedback, but in the end you go with the songs that you really believe in?
S: I'd have to say that's pretty accurate.
What is the thing that you wish somebody had told you when you said "Hey, I want to be a musician!"
S: That there's a lot more to being in a band than music...
A: Than just standing on stage and playing. I think as you go along you learn things...not to trust everybody at the first meeting, but to be open minded and to listen to what people have to say.
Have you gotten burned from not being wary enough at times?
S: At certain points I don't think we were aware enough of what was involved...but then again, if we weren't faced with problems, we wouldn't have learned. There are just certain things that you have to go through in order to learn.
Let's talk about marketing for a moment. A lot of bands don't even think about a marketing plan when they're preparing to release. Is that something that you planned even when you went in to do your first album?
S: Yes...but we weren't as fully aware...
A: It wasn't nearly as comprehensive.
S: For this particular project our manager has gone over everything with a fine-toothed comb, planning for the next two years...
A: Month by month. It's no different than a personal budget. You have goals within your budget.
When you're working away at the band, out performing, are you thinking in the back of your heads, "we are working at our business?"
S: Let me put it this way...this is what we all do for a living right now. And so, I think at all times we're pretty aware of protecting the interests of the business. First and foremost, we love music, and love making music together.
A: The fact that we can do this, and make a living at it, is totally optimum of how life can be so good if you love what you're doing and can sustain a livelihood. The business thing is vital. If we do poor business, then we can't do this full time...we'd have to press pause and get day jobs, and put what we feel is important on the side.
You've been known for doing a lot of touring. Is there any part of Canada where you haven't been?
S: The Northwest Territories. Newfoundland and PEI. But we'd love to go there very soon!
So you do still enjoy touring, after several years of it?
A: Absolutely. I can't wait to get going. We all like to get up and go.
(Drummer Kyle has been quoted as saying, "As soon as we get to the outskirts of town and we know we're going to get to play, we get pumped up and we all get big smiles on our faces. It's just so much fun.")
So what's your favourite part of Canada to play in?
S: Every part has something that we all like. And every place has something about it that we don't like! Every part has something cool about it...and every city has a different vibe.
Do you find the audiences different from one area of Canada to another?
S: Vancouver, for instance, has a different style altogether. It's a harder-edge town, but we've done great shows at the Commodore...
A: You get people right up to the front of the stage - not necessarily dancing or jumping up and down, but watching...and listening. You can tell by the expression on their face that they've never heard the song before, but they're listening and critiquing...you see a little smile and it's kind of a neat feeling because you know they approve.
What's the main thing you want people to take home from a Gurus show?
S: I would like them to leave with the melody of at least one of our songs in their head...and I would like them to tell all their friends to come and see us next time we're in town!
So you want to make an impression?
S: Yes. I want them to have a good time, I want them to leave feeling happy. And if they've paid a cover charge, that they feel they didn't get ripped off.
A: And that they'd come back and ask, "when are you guys gonna be back here?"
Speaking of fans, do you compile fan lists while you're on the road, or do you handle that through people visiting your website?
S: We do both...we have a guest book on our merch table at shows. On our website we collect statistics, and can get a pretty good indication of interest - how many people want to know when we're playing, where they're from.
A: I answer our website emails, and we have gotten sales that way.
So if you've just been touring in Winnipeg and see a bunch of hits from Manitoba, you know that you've done something right.
You have plans to tour in support of the new album?
S: Definitely - we're working out final details for a coast-to-coast tour.
What's the longest stretch you've been on the road?
S: Two months!
What have you learned by being on the road?
A: Going back to the question of "what do you wish you had known" - practice practice practice and learn everything about the industry...being dreamers saying "we're gonna make a million dollars" doesn't work...you have to work to make a career of it.
S: You need to realize, before you get out of your basement, what you need to accomplish. For example, our roots were playing in a cover band and learning how to perform in front of a crowd. It's not just music - yes, the music's got to be good, but you also have to learn how to work a crowd, and have people accept you. You have to earn their respect - you can't expect people to automatically like you.
Have you seen yourselves improve as individual players because of the amount of touring you've done?
S: You should see the difference between day one of tour, and day 14! Once you're out and you're in a groove, not only from playing the shows but getting your daily routine down, keeping yourself healthy...Every day that you're out on the road, your number one focus is to be ready for when the curtain rises. Forget everything else in the day...your sole priority is to be awesome when you go on stage. That includes not being stupid and doing things that are gonna harm your health. Really, the reason that you're on the road is to blow people away at every show. Touring has taught us that...and the limitations of things we can or can't do in order to perform properly!
Do you have any tips for those just starting to tour?
S: Be smart - have everything in writing and make sure you understand what's involved with every show. And have fun. You'll have fun once you have everything in a row - if you don't have everything solid before you leave, that's when problems start happening.
Planning takes the pressure off and lets you concentrate on the show.
S: Absolutely. Best case scenario is when all the shows are advanced, and everything is great before we get in the van to leave. And once we leave, we can just go out and do our shows and have fun.
Let's talk about administering the band on a day to day basis. Since you have a manager, is there a split of who does what among you as band members?
A: Everybody has tasks that they do. Some people are better at certain tasks, and through trial and error we determine who does what, and then help each other out as needed.
You feel like you're all equally contributing to that end as well?
A: Absolutely...if someone can't do their task we join in to pick up the slack. We all have lives away from the band; sometimes we're at home and have other commitments. But it's even to the point that when we get to a gas station, we get out and everybody's got something to do - one guy pumps, one guy cleans the windows, one guys advances the gig, one guy goes to pay. Makes sure all the munchies and drinks are ready to go!
So it's a finely oiled machine...
A: Yeah, it's kind of freakish! It was funny...we did a tour with the Dalai Lamas, and they said, "You guys are sick - look at you go!" It was something that we'd never noticed.
How's the new album going? You're done the recording end of it?
A: Yes, pretty much done. We'll be approving the final mix soon, and sending it off for mastering.
Was it once again a four-way cowrite?
S: Yes, Brian Potvin (producing) also added a little bit as far as songwriting went.
What is your songwriting process as a group? Is there a certain progression in the development of your original material, or does each song come about uniquely? Take me through the process from the initial idea, to a song you're going to record.
S: I think we're developing tendencies, but it's not the same procedure every time. If we're jamming and we come up with something, first of all if it doesn't grab everyone right away, it's pretty much gone! When we've developed a song to the point that it's finished, we'll rehearse it for a while, and then there's another turning point where we'll take it to playing it live a couple of times. If it makes it beyond that point it's in the repertoire!
A: We do record almost all of our rehearsals as well.
Is there a lot of rewriting and editing that goes on after you've sat down and worked out a song? Do your songs generally stay the same from creation until recording, or do they almost always change as a result of the process?
S: Each song is different...for example one song was complete, then we tried demoing it in a totally different way, but ended up going back to the original style. We just found there was something about it that kept bringing us back. We recorded another song just for fun, but it didn't really grab us - until we re-recorded in a totally different way as suggested by Brian.
Would you say that alone is a good reason to work with an outside producer - he saw something different in one of your songs and was able to take it to a better level?
S: I think it's absolutely essential for any artist to get somebody to produce the album who's outside the band songwriting loop, or at least to have them sit down and go through all the songs with you to provide another insight. You get so far inside a song sometimes that you just need someone to pull you out of it and say, "No, this is what's really wrong with the song!"
How do you see radio fitting into your plans for the upcoming album - and how supportive was radio across Canada for the last album?
S: For Shoegazing, college radio was really supportive. We got substantial play throughout the country and released two singles ("Nicotine" and "Tell Me About Your Day"). I think for an indie band and getting your foot in the door, that was a really important step, because now radio programmers are aware of who we are and what we do.
Would you call the upcoming album "rock-radio friendly"?
A: I think it by far exceeds the production level (we reached) on "Shoegazing". It sounds pretty big, and that's directly attributable to the people we worked with. As a band, we've grown, but we're also mixing with Terry Brown (whose discography includes eleven Rush albums, Moist, the Cutting Crew, Blue Rodeo, Max Webster and many more). This album sounds as good production wise, I feel, as anything you'd get on the major label side of the fence.
Are you mixing with commercial radio in mind, or strictly to capture a certain sound you wanted for the album?
S: I think our one and only goal in choosing Terry was to come up with a world-class-sounding album. We wanted to get somebody who would put us on a level playing field with all the other songs that radio stations are receiving. But I wouldn't say we necessarily geared it to be commercial - the songs are still what we wrote, what we were feeling; it just happened that that's where our sound was going at the time. There are also a lot of short songs on the album; that wasn't geared towards radio, it just happened to be the phase we were going through as writers.
You've always written fairly hooky, memorable songs by nature, and that fits in with being a radio-friendly band. Do you find college radio to be a completely different ballgame than rock radio?
S: It is...for college, you don't pick the single for them...they pick what they feel like playing. You get a pretty good indication from that - doing that before you release to regular radio - what people want to listen to.
So they were almost like trackers in that sense (picking the single).
A: Yes, somewhat, and you got a list of who was playing what.
Did you see direct sales as a result of that airplay?
S: I think so. It definitely got us a bunch of shows, and sales at those shows. Radio is so key to being able to do a successful tour. I would say, even before video, radio is the most important thing.
You are planning a video to accompany the album's first single. Is that something you're looking forward to?
S: I'm not particularly interested in acting...my love lies in music, but unfortunately videos are a necessity, and so we have to work at representing ourselves well in that format.
Looking forward, what are your long term goals for the band?
S: Maintaining a career.
A: Also, putting out a better product...trying to outdo the last project. Taking what we've done and making something that's just a little bit better.
So even as you've preparing to release your third album, you are already thinking ahead to more albums, more touring?
S: Yes, the best thing we could hope for from this album is to get some radio interest, and to be able to go out and put on a successful tour...
S: Where we're playing all originals, and funding everything (from that). So that we're entirely self-sufficient, as a business usually is. We're a business that puts out a product, the product has consumers, the consumers pay for the product and in turn it's part of the whole economic development.
So you don't include "secure a major label deal" in your goals.
S: I wouldn't say we're relying on that. We have a fully developed marketing plan and strategy for this album that we're going to carry out, with or without major label support.
A: If a major label were to step in and offer guidance and stability...
S: But that would depend on whether we could see a sustainable future from a particular deal from a particular company. I think we're at the point now where we can look at something very carefully and not jump the gun or get into something that, in the end, won't turn out to be beneficial for ourselves.
A: I think sometimes bands jump into something before they're really aware of all the details, and end up being $700,000 in debt...not a really good feeling, I would think!
S: We're looking forward to playing at Flatland on Sunday night; we always enjoy playing Regina!
And the audience will be hearing songs from the upcoming album?