Photos courtesy of Jason Pare
On their debut full-length Before You Forget, Toronto noise rock trio Several Futures connects parallel universes that aren’t as distant as they might seem. The group’s promotional material cites science fiction and futurism as contributing influences, but guitarist Matt Nish-Lapidus describes the band’s science fiction as being more grounded in realism and contemporary problems than it is invested in concepts of dystopia and distant futures, explaining, “A lot of it’s about travelling and digging into real and virtual places, about making places and finding meaning in places, also, and just what that experience is like in a modern, urban environment.” Drummer Evan Davies says that experience was essential to defining the record, characterizing the sound as a “conscious tension.” “I think that’s very much informed by city living and the hectic pace that comes along with that,” Davies says. Meanwhile, bassist Jonny Dovercourt points out that the noisy, sprawling density of cities accounts for the length, busyness, and calamity of some of the songs on the album.
While the band hesitates to go a step further and call Before You Forget a “Toronto” album, it does get its time under the spotlight. Dovercourt says he wrote “Cul de Sac”—complete with its sloganeering about how “civic pride is a cul-de-sac” and “people forget your face but not your name”—about a sense of alienation felt in the metropolis. The takeaway is somewhat difficult to accept given the valued role Dovercourt plays in the city’s independent music and art scenes as the artistic director of the popular Wavelength Music Series, which just hosted its fourth well-attended community discussion since 2014 on how Toronto should navigate its new identity as a music city. The bassist does insist it wasn’t written autobiographically, but he still sees the song as a way of reconciling a sense of ambivalence about rapid change he’s observed living in the city. “Toronto’s fantastic and it’s my home, but sometimes I feel like I don’t recognize it, because it’s changed so much,” Dovercourt reflects. “There are so many new people that are coming, there’s all these condos, Trinity Bellwoods [Park] feels like the Coachella festival on the weekend.” “Deep Connection,” meanwhile, references the local online barter group Bunz Trading Zone.
In spite of all this focus on urban identity and civic responsibility, there is something to all this talk of parallel universes. It’s generally the case that the record takes aim at a sense of detachment that’s parcel to rapid modernization and a world congested with information and platforms for conveying it. “You end up with all these really shallow touchpoints that are mimicking relationships and communication, but aren’t really those things,” Nish-Lapidus complains. Collected under an album title that references the attention deficit pervading a culture of multi-tasking and apparent collective synergy, the tracklist is an appropriately fragmented collection built on separate timelines that drop off and pick up songs later. It’s a challenging exploration that does a good job reconciling urban identity and a world where everyone’s lives are hyperconnected while simultaneously self-contained. Noisey got in touch with Several Futures and spoke with the band about its focus on urban living, storytelling, and how they bring the city to life on Before You Forget.
Throughout the album there are all of these references to things like trains and infrastructure… there’s a song called “Cul de Sac,” you know? What can you tell me about that?
Matt Nish-Lapidus: The subject matter is based on a lot of things, but we also try to write about our own experiences more or less. We all live in a city, and I think city life is a part of the kind of general sound and vibe of what we’re doing. The sci-fi stuff goes along with that, in my mind. A lot of science fiction—especially the stuff that we tend to like and talk about, like a lot of cyber punk sci-fi—is very urban. A lot of it’s about travelling and digging into real and virtual places, about making places and finding meaning in places, also, and just what that experience is like in a modern, urban environment is a big part of science fiction and a big part of what we’re interested in.
Jonny Dovercourt: I totally agree with that. Matt kind of took the words right out of my mouth. The city and the future are both kind of the place we live or we’re going to live, and short of some massive collapse from a return to agrarianism, this is the way we live now and this is the way we we’ll be living for the foreseeable future, as urban creatures. “Cul de Sac” in some ways is maybe the least science-fiction-y in that sense, compared to some of the other things—it’s the most based in real experience—but at the same time that song is really inspired by the fetishization of the apocalypse in contemporary pop culture. Everything from The Walking Dead to just the normalization of living with the collapse of civilization—that being interspersed with the sort of banality of day-to-day living in the city.
Matt Nish-Lapidus: Absolutely. And I think even the sound of the record is inspired by the sounds of the city and some of our favourite representations of cities, like Blade Runner and those science fiction dense, urban environments.
Dovercourt: Yeah, and this sense of the sprawl, the endless city. The length of some of these tracks really reflects that sense where you could just be driving through this city that may never end, and that’s sort of what we tried to reflect in the video for “Cul de Sac.”
Evan Davies: Into that point I think there’s a conscious tension that we tried to create when writing these songs and recording the album, and I think that’s very much informed by city living and the hectic pace that comes along with that.
The city sort of becomes its own character over the course of the album. You even personify it in some places.
Nish-Lapidus: It’s interesting that you picked up on that, because the second half of the album—the four-song set is kind of about cities, but it’s also kind of about dreams and this subconscious awareness. And I always felt like that was the standout motif, more than cities, so it’s interesting to hear that that’s the angle that stood out.
How much this could be considered a Toronto record?
Dovercourt: For me, not much, outside of “Cul de Sac.” Like I said, that’s the only one kind of based in a lived experience—and it’s not autobiographical, I wanna make sure that’s clear—it’s almost like I approached that song very intellectually like a parallel reality version of my own life, taking it from the approach of—I actually had this idea—“What if Bruce Springsteen tried to write a song as an everyday, 21st-century downtown Torontonian who couldn’t get into his Chevy and drive away, his only option was to get on a bike and get as far as the Hearn Generating station before turning around?” So that song, the video being a drive from one side of the city to the other, is for me really the only thing that makes it a Toronto… that’s the only very “Toronto” moment. Oh, there is a Bunz Trading Zone reference in one of the other songs, in “Deep Connection.” “Curb alert.”
Nish-Lapidus: I don’t think of it as a Toronto record, but I always liked… some of the bands that we’re influenced by are kind of not afraid to localize their music in a certain place and time, and even though I don’t think we explicitly set out to make this a Toronto record, I think there is a notion of time and place in it, which is funny, because some of the initial reviews talk about how it’s kind of late ’80s, early ’90s sounding and stuff, but there’s something about it that feels current about it in a way that it’s different than a lot of the other current records. We definitely made it here and we used the city as an experiment for how we could write the songs and who to get to record them and how to record them, and we mixed it and recorded it all over the place—some of it was in our houses and some of it was in our practice room, and some of it was at this makeshift studio called Ratspace, and so it kind of is embedded in the city, and in our own experiences, but in an abstract way, not a direct reference way.
Dovercourt: To me it doesn’t sound like a throwback record to that ’80s and ’90s indie rock era, because there’s kind of a density and speed to it that, if you played it next to one of those records, you’d be like, “Oh, these are totally from different eras, and I think what Evan does in terms of the drumming brings in a lot more different influences, especially from dance music and doom metal and things like that, and that actually puts it into a really different space.
Davies: Yeah, but I don’t think the plan was ever to write what you could consider characteristically a Toronto record, maybe by just sheer proxy of us being in these neighbourhoods that it sounds the way it does because of that, and I guess that’s a happy accident in a certain way, but no, at least not for me. It was never something I intended to do.
All of the perspectives on this album are presented in a kind of non-linear, fragmented way with this choose-your-own-adventure thing that’s going on, but there’s also this quadrilogy topping everything off at the end. What was the impetus behind the structure of this album?
Dovercourt: I think it’s just one of those happy accidents that came out of it. As we started putting the songs together, we started noticing that there were these twins. It wasn’t a conscious decision, it was just one of those happy accidents that emerged, and it reminded me of what My Bloody Valentine did on Loveless where they twinned the two sides so song one on side A matches up with song one on side B and so forth. And then we just flipped that around to match the structure of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, which is the nested Russian doll, so it’s like an actual mirror. It’s just one of those neat happy accidents that we went with.
Nish-Lapidus: Yeah, the quadrilogy piece was actually written as a set and then the other ones were all written individually without a specific relationship in mind, and it just kind of worked out that way.
Dovercourt: Yeah, it was written as a set, and it came out of them all being in the same guitar tuning as well.
Nish-Lapidus: Yeah, so they’re tonally related.
Dovercourt: And there’s lyrical themes that kind of pop up throughout those four songs that continue.
Jonny, I was thinking about your role with Wavelength, your journalism, and your position as a contributor/editor for Coach House’s uTOpia books, and I thought it was interesting that a lot of the lyrics you contributed to this album are articulating a sense of alienation in relation to the the city. You mentioned you weren’t writing autobiographically, but what’s happening there?
Dovercourt: I love Toronto. It’s always been my home and it’s been a big part of me, but I guess that song [“Cul de Sac”] was kind of grappling with a sense of not recognizing what the city’s become. It’s changed a lot in the last few years, and sort of dealing with the sense of ambivalence around that—I still think Toronto’s fantastic and it’s my home, but sometimes I feel like I don’t recognize it, because it’s changed so much, there are so many new people that are coming, there’s all these condos, Trinity Bellwoods [Park] feels like the Coachella festival on the weekend… so the song was partly about reconciling that sense of ambivalence about how intense Toronto has become just as a place to live—everything from the overheated housing market to the latest annoying food craze.
That’s interesting. When I was listening to “Cul de Sac” and heard you sing that line about how people “forget your face but not your name,” I couldn’t help but think about the way people often include both of your aliases in the articles they’re writing about you, even when it’s not really essential to the story. How do you relate to that line?
Dovercourt: It’s more inspired by Toronto not feeling like a small town anymore. You used to be able to walk down Queen Street and feel like you knew everybody, like, “Hey, how’s it going?” and now I feel more like a stranger in the town that I’ve lived my whole life. But then I’ll meet someone and they’ll go, “Oh, I’ve heard of you.” And that’s sort of reconciling that dissonance. Feeling anonymous but not being anonymous.
Matt, you write and sing a lot about a sense of disconnection on this album as well, what’s your take on all of this?
Nish-Lapidus: Maybe it’s just the feeling of our era or something, but there’s definitely something at play around being hyperconnected but also totally disconnected. I work in technology and design, and I find that all of these new platforms and ways of communicating are shallow. They’re not real communication, they’re not real relationships. You end up with all these really shallow touchpoints that are mimicking relationships and communication, but aren’t really those things. There’s definitely a lot of that in the stuff that I’m writing about, not as a commentary on social media, but just as a feeling that bleeds into other things and affects the way we live and the way we relate to people. And I’m really intrigued by artificial intelligence and this idea of a super intelligence emerging, which really goes back to our love of sci-fi, too, and exploring those ideas. What does it mean to have dreaming machines and intelligence that’s not connected to a cultural history in the same way and to the kind of human relationships that we have. I think that’s where it’s all coming from.
Davies: Social media… I feel very disconnected from that. Communication in general is something that I think is important, and yet we somehow aren’t able to do it well. I mean, it’s something that’s…”troubling” might not be the word, but it’s to be thought of.
Nish-Lapidus: Thematically it’s disconnection and ambivalence and urban life tied up in notions of science fiction and dreaming—all of those things kind of melt together in most of the songs on this record.
Dovercourt: And this sense that these are kind of the basic themes of life that all eras are gonna have to deal with. If you look closely, there’s a couple of Easter egg quotes of Gang of Four, and it’s just funny how the lyrics for Entertainment!—which is a record that’s, what? 36, 37 years old now—just still seem so contemporary and fresh and probably will be 37 years from now knowing whatever technology platform, communications platform we’re gonna be having to unpack at that point in the mid-21st-century if we haven’t experienced ecological collapse.
The guitar hook from [Sonic Youth’s] “Kool Thing” makes it in there, too, doesn’t it?
Nish-Lapidus: Yeah, on the second one of the quadrilogy there’s definitely a reference to that hook in there for sure. I mean, Sonic Youth is an undeniable influence on our musical tastes and interests, and I think part of the reason why we relate to them so much isn’t just the music, but, like Jonny was saying about the Gang of Four lyrics still being relevant today, I think the best of Sonic Youth stuff is also still relevant today, and they also dealt with notions of what it means to be in a kind of decaying urban environment. Their decay was different than our decay in some ways, but similar kind of thematic interest, I would say.
Tom Beedham is an arts and culture journalist living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.