Sometimes a good calamity is necessary to inspire the best work from an artist. Three years ago Halifax shoe-gazers Kestrels were gear-jacked during a stop in Montreal. This kind of loss would devastate any touring band, but this band in particular travelled with a throng of instruments and pedals that were imperative to their sound. One of the first concerns is always playing the next show, but when you're an up-and-coming independent band, that loss can affect every. But Kestrels survived, and though it took longer than they expected, they were able to follow-up their well-received second album, 2012's A Ghost History.
Album number three, simply titled Kestrels, finds the trio sounding louder, faster and sharper than before. Whereas many nu-gazers sound like they want to pretend that it's still 1991, Kestrels don't try to rewrite history. Their songs sound like shoegaze should in 2016: huge, anthemic choruses and sticky pop melodies surfing tidal waves of pedal-driven noise and crashing rhythms. This album is still unequivocally rooted in shoegaze, but the result leans further towards a fuller and meatier alt-rock mix that was no doubt the result of an assist by famed studio wizard Brad Wood, who's previously worked magic on albums by
, Liz Phair, Sunny Day Real Estate and Placebo. Check out an exclusive stream of the album below as well as a talk with singer/vocalist Chad Peck where we discuss recovering after the robbery, their undying shoegaze influence and why it was important to go with an eponymous album title.
Noisey: Tell me about having your gear stolen. What does that kind of setback do to a band in your position? How did it affect the timeline of the album?
This is a crazy story.
Our van was stolen in Montreal just after SXSW 2013. It was a really weird time; our tour leading up to the theft had been really exciting, and to get the call that the van was stolen was, for lack of a better word, deflating. The immediate aftermath was mostly dealing with the insurance company and filing a police report. Things got weird quickly as the gear started showing up on Montreal Kijiji. I called the police and they said they couldn't help unless I could verify it was my gear by serial number. I paid a friend to go meet the thief and buy back a cheap power conditioner. My friend was able to get his name, phone number, and license plate number, as well as verify the serial number. So, I called the police again and gave them all of the information. They then said that it wasn't enough evidence and suggested that I set up another meeting with the thief, verify the serial number in person, then call the police and ask the thief to wait around so the police could come get to the bottom of it.
That obviously didn't happen.
I watched as all of my gear started disappearing at ridiculously cheap prices. I lost about $6000 in guitars, amps and pedals that week. We had purposely kept the story quiet at the time as we were trying to figure out a way to get the gear back. It was all very dramatic and disheartening. One of the lost pieces that stung the most was a limited edition purple sparkle J Mascis Fender Jazzmaster. In a remarkable turn of events, my friend was browsing a guitar forum and found a guy talking about how he scored this purple Jazzmaster for dirt cheap in Montreal. I sent the guy a message and said, "I think you have my guitar." He gave me his phone number, and we spoke on the phone. He was entirely sympathetic to the situation, and actually gave the guitar back to me for free! It was incredible.
At that point, we had the album written and had recorded a series of demos, so we weren't set back too badly in terms of recording. I did lose some gear that I haven't been able to replace. I suppose there's a philosophical lesson in there about the meaninglessness of material goods, but I haven't quite grasped it just yet.
How hard was it to build up your arsenal of instruments again?
It was tough. Money is tight for pretty much everyone in any band, so it took a very long time. The manager at my local music store was sympathetic and helped me out. There's still one amp that I would love to get back but haven't been able to replace just yet.
Were there any new effects or pedals that you brought in for this album?
One of the cool things about getting the gear stolen at that time was that I felt like I had a blank slate for tones on the new record. We had recorded demos of the songs but they were very basic loud-quiet-loud sketches. I started collecting some older boutique stuff from Lovetone, like the Big Cheese and Meatball pedals. My friend Tim Wheeler from Ash gave me a Maestro Parametric Filter that he used on a lot on the 1977 tours and that sparked my interest in filters. I used the Moog MIDI MuRF on pretty much every song on the record, as well as a Line 6 Filter Pro. The MuRF in particular is a wild piece of gear. Filters are often associated with dance music and it was exciting (if slightly unpredictable) to try and use them on a rock record.
I was really cognisant of shoegaze tropes, so I tried to stay away from reverb and delay unless it was absolutely necessary. Other than that, I got some Devi Ever stuff (formerly owned by Jeff Schroeder from the Smashing Pumpkins), a Pete Cornish NG-2, and some vintage Electro Harmonix stuff from the great Canadian pedal store Axe and You Shall Receive. The wildest pedal I purchased was from Mitsuo Tate in Tokyo. He played in the Cocteau Twins for a while and has solo work as Flat-7. His company September Sound has a fuzz/envelope filter/wah that I used on a few songs and it's the most over the top sound I could ever imagine. Kevin Shields uses one on his "You Made Me Realise" noise board.
What did it mean to have Brad Wood mix the record? He's quite a legend.
Our manager suggested Brad Wood. It seemed like a pipe dream, really; you assume people with his discography probably don't meddle too much with bands that aren't already established. The mixing was initially bumped back a few months while he finished Veruca Salt's comeback record. He was amazing to work with and became one of our biggest fans. He's been in touch quite a few times over the past year telling me how much he still digs our record. I almost don't believe him, you know? It's an honour to be a part of his world and I love his sonic representation of our songs.
Obviously there is a shoegaze influence in Kestrels' music. Since you guys released your first album there's been this huge resurgence of old shoegaze acts giving it another go. Which one reunion means the most to Kestrels?
No question: My Bloody Valentine. I caught their Montreal show in 2013 and it was a remarkable experience. They opened with "Sometimes" which is a song I was obsessed with for a good chunk of my university life. Hearing acoustic guitars at that volume was an eye and ear opening moment. I met the band after the show and Deb was telling me about all the different Tone Benders they have used over the years (which, as I type it, still seems surreal). People don't talk much about the bass in MBV but she's crucial to the live sound. I have no expectation of ever hearing a new My Bloody Valentine song ever again but I'm content with the back catalogue.
Every few years there seems to be a new wave of bands trying to recreate the shoegaze sound. Do you think there is much of a movement going on right now?
We just did three shows with Kindling and I felt a real kinship with them. They are such a good band and such good people. We've done shows with Ringo Deathstarr who also recorded some stuff for us on the new LP. That band is amazing and more people should listen to them. Our label-mates SIANspheric have a new LP coming out in a few months and we're going to do some dates with them. Beliefs are another great shoegaze band and we just played with an excellent Halifax shoegaze band called Soft Spot.
Ultimately, you want to feel something when you listen to records and the shoegaze influence adds a mixture of ambiguity and texture that I find crucial to writing and presenting music. It doesn't offer easy answers and that's a quality I admire. I was thinking about it the other day: I bought [My Bloody Valentine's] Loveless, [Teenage Fanclub's] Bandwagonesque, and [Ash's] 1977 during a three-month period in 1996—Loveless and Bandwagonesque on the same day, actually. Later that year my friend dubbed a copy of Pet Sounds for me. My musical foundation is summed up in those four records, give or take a Dinosaur Jr. LP. Despite their differences, all of those records taught me a lot about songwriting and production. It's great that all of those bands are still recognized for their influence.
Why go with the eponymous album title now? Were there any other names you came up with as a joke or back up?
We had lots of great (dumb) track titles, but very early on we decided this was going to be self-titled. It felt like a reset: it was our first full-length with Devin on bass and our sound solidified. Our previous records had great songs but could be very uneven. The new one feels complete and more exemplary of the band we are. We're very proud of it.
What is the story behind the album cover?
The story is that our friend Dylan Chew is an amazing photographer. There was a lot of internal discussion about the album cover and we finally just agreed to ask Dylan to go shoot a bunch of stuff. We ended up using pretty much everything as part of the album package and single covers. His partner Nora is the subject on the front.
Is there anything else you want listeners to know while they're listening to it?
Our goal was to make a studio album, and I was obsessed with layering in as much stuff as possible. It is definitely worth listening to the record with headphones. Every detail was carefully considered and it shows. It's an enveloping record. I'm so excited to have it out in the world.
* Kestrels play the Mod Club in Toronto on October 1 with Ash.
Cam Lindsay is a writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.