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Ian Blurton is his usual unassuming self, clad in a black Saint Vitus hoodie and donning a ball cap in homage to Tony Gwynn and the San Diego Padres—“the worst team ever”—when he arrives at his studio near Toronto's Polson Pier. He’s back at ProGold Studio after a cram session into the early hours the previous night, which plausibly explains why he’s half an hour late. He’s here at least four days a week, delivering the goods on behalf of acts around the province hustling to get records out.
But today, Public Animal is the priority. It’s day two of an all-hands-on-deck, all-day jam with drummer Ryan Gassi, bassist Eric Larock and keyboardist/vocalist Caitlin Dacey. The band is the latest beast the 30-plus years that Blurton has toiled in Toronto’s rock scene. He’s an unsung hero type without any of the spit-in-your-face hubris that you could expect from someone with his level of experience. He probably gets less credit than he deserves.
Aside from the flagship act that got his career rolling in the early 80s, Change of Heart, he’s produced albums for the likes of Amy Millan and Tricky Woo. He’s even done some time at the drum kit with the Cowboy Junkies. Blurton is, undeniably, a workhorse. Public Animal’s first disc, Habitat Animal, only came out last July, followed by a few shows in the fall along Highway 401, including a couple with Supersuckers. The band already has 12 new songs ready to go.
In February, they’re trying out a bold way to fine-tune them. They’ll begin a residency every Sunday at Toronto’s Dakota Tavern where they’ll live rehearse the new songs—Blurton says if they fuck up, they’ll start over—turn the stage over to guests and then do a regular set to cap the night. Public Animal is off the leash again in March, heading to the East Coast for the first time for three shows with Moncton’s Shevil.
All this for a yet-to-be-named, full-length disc expected out in July. The first child out of the womb, Habitat, is tame compared to the punk-induced aggression of C’Mon and Bionic, a few of Blurton’s previous bands. This time around the music sounds like it’s been given a 70s classic rock comb through. No wonder, considering the split 7-inch the band released with Mokomokai last April that featured a Deep Purple cover.
It’s like Mamma Blurton came into the bedroom and asked him to clean up, a little. “I think we're more like a black metal band than anything, even though we're not black metal at all,” Blurton says in between drags of his cigarette. “The idea of black metal being artistically pure to your vision seems to be more in line with what we're doing than indie rock.”
Gassi, Larock and Dacey all stroll in a half hour later, armed with stuffed olives and paninis. Gassi sits at the drums, parked in front of a Kiss poster, a more becoming choice of what the band represents now than, say, Black Flag. Larock pours some Baileys in his coffee; as a father, it’s a rare chance at rebellion. They’re all affable and chatty, especially Dacey. Blurton paces in and out of the room while the others set up. “You look really funny. You look like a musketeer,” Dacey tells Larock when he puts on his oversized headphones. Gassi offers me earplugs.
After a couple false starts, they cruise through “Sugarbear Bro-down,” the working title of one of the new tracks. “It’s about gay bears in the woods,” says Gassi, not without a tongue-in-cheek smirk. It turns out this is the first time they’ve played the song live in front of someone who’s not in the band. The recurring vibrato is reminiscent of Change of Heart, but there’s something fresh in the air in that congested basement rehearsal space. This ain’t no garage band, and it’s certainly not like the bloated homogeneity smothering the indie music that gets under Blurton’s skin.
Noisey: Your new material sounds more stripped down than stuff you've done in the past. There’s definitely more of a classic rock influence. That's probably intentional?
Ian Blurton: Absolutely. And slower, intentionally. The songs have more space to breathe. I'm getting older. I don't want to play fast punk rock at this age.
Why? Is it hard on the lungs?
It's just the energy level. I think you need to play that kind of music, for me at least, whaling a bit. I just like the idea of being able to actually think about what [I’m] doing.
Have you always been a fan of that 70s era classic rock?
Absolutely, yeah. 100 percent. That's when I grew up. I remember buying School's Out when it came out and Destroyer by Kiss when it came out. That's my roots.
When you were recording Change of Heart albums what kind of sound were you trying to emulate?
We weren't trying to emulate anything. The thing about that band is that it was a democracy. We played everything we wrote. So sometimes there was music that some people didn’t like, but the whole idea of the band was meant to be a natural flow of music, which is also what this band has become about.
The similarities end there. The sound is completely different.
Well, it's different people. It's like chemistry in a band. As soon as you take a great drummer in a band, that band is going to be completely different. That's why bands can't take somebody out and replace [him or her] and continue on like nothing happened. AC/DC is one of the rare exceptions to that rule.
What does it do for you as a musician to work with other musicians that you haven't worked with in the past?
Eric and I are really old friends. So it's really a joy to play with him. Ryan and Caitlin, I didn't really know. When I asked them to jam the first time, it just seems to work. I think there's a personality in the way you play. The way they play and the way they are as human beings is very similar. In this case, it opens all of us up to the infinite possibilities of what the band can do. Our palette is a lot wider, especially because we have a keyboard player.
What was the response to Habitat Animal when you released it last year?
It was really good actually. Lots of word of mouth. In the age of Internet, it's interesting to have people just talking about it, like, not on the Internet.
What's going to be different on the release that you're working on now?
I'd say we sound more like a band now. Like, even the songs that are completely out in left field. We've got some really strange songs on the record but it sounds cohesive. When you listen to everything, it sounds like us.
What does that mean? What's you?
I don't know. It's just got a feel to… it goes back to what I was saying about chemistry. There's just a certain chemistry that happens between us. I mean, a lot of music is so generic now with the way people record, fixing everything. They're not letting their personalities through. I really hear the personalities of the four of us in the music, even though I’m so close to it I could be projecting. But I don't know. A lot of bands sound exactly the same. Like, if you're a rock band these days, a lot of bands have the same kind of production. That's kind of boring.
In a past interview, you said you're not a fan of indie music. Why?
No. Indie music when I was growing up was a lot like the first wave of punk rock. Every single band sounded different. And now punk rock has become a sound, a thing, as opposed to a state of mind. And I think indie rock, the whole "too-cool-for-school indie rock thing" is like… its head has gone up its own ass in a lot of ways. What it originally was doesn't exist anymore.
When I started, indie meant you were independent. And labels would make fun of you for existing thinking you could get something out there. Then there was a whole bunch of bands that all went, "Well, no fuck you. We can actually put out records."
What are you listening to at home? Any surprises?
I really like the new Spiders record. I listen to a lot of heavy and weird stuff. It's very relaxing after rock. We don't listen to a lot of music in the band. We listen to a lot of podcasts and comedy. After playing a rock show, the last thing you want to do is listen to more rock.