It’s hard to pin down precisely what S.M. are all about. Simply put, they make willfully cryptic, poetic pop-punk with a philosophical agenda and a dose of the occult. The two-piece began as principal songwriter Sam McDougall and friend Stephen McGlone’s experiment in their hometown of Sarnia, Ontario. But they’ve since relocated an hour east to London, where McDougall is studying philosophy at Kings University College, the Catholic affiliate of Western. In 2012 and 2013, S.M. released a couple of EPs, and after that they focused their energies on assembling Pheromone Heave, the debut full length they released earlier this month via Toronto label Burning Hammer Records.
But beyond those facts, things get complicated. S.M caught controversy online after they released their 2013 seven-inch I Founded the Wit Cultfeaturing cover art containing a sigil that closely resembled a swastika. Compounded with the fact that S.M. have songs called things like “Ease of Hatred”—a title they also used for their debut EP in 2012 and a banner they’ve rode under for some shows—it’s easy to see how the critics build their case for the group being some sort of neo-Nazis. However, McDougall insists there isn’t “any sketchy affiliation going on” with the band. “It’s just [commanding you to] look into it and think for a second and realize that it’s not what your knee-jerk reflection says it is. Two things that look similar aren’t identical,” McDougall says, going on to explain that if you examine the sigil closely, you can see the band’s initials.
Refusing to apologize, on Pheromone Heave, McDougall responds to that earlier controversy by further aggravating the kind of response it provoked, name dropping Hitler’s wife on “Paraselene” singing, “you can be my Eva Braun.” McDougall writes it off as being provocative for the sake of critical engagement, explaining, “I don’t wanna write music that just pets people—just strokes them. I want it to actually create a thought.” If you’re still skeptical about S.M.’s relative sketchiness, we called up McDougall, who confirmed “Ease of Hatred” is simply about a short story by Albert Camus and that “Paraselene” was just prompted by a card from Magic: The Gathering.
Photo By Justin Yong
Noisey: So you’re from Sarnia, Ontario but you’re based in London now. Where did S.M. begin?
Sam McDougall: It started in Sarnia with my friend Stephen McGlone. We just grew up together and became friends. And we’re the only ones out of our small high school friend circle who played music, so we sort of naturally started playing together.
Are you focusing on any specific thinkers or streams as you study philosophy?
I value aspects of both analytic and continental philosophy, and I try to unite the two in my perspective whenever I can. I’m actually more interested in just general analytical philosophy. But I like the poetic, storytelling aspect of continental stuff. So obviously I’m reading Heidegger, Deleuze, Foucault, and stuff like that. And obviously it’s extremely dense, but it’s all got in common the aspect of writing and the task of writing. So I’m interested in that.
What’s the biggest thing you’ve been able to take away from your studies so far?
Just the inability to not apply the things that I’ve learned to myself on a day-to-day basis. Like the one take home lesson is that I have to change. The whole point of doing stuff like this is changing who you are and what you do. So I think that would probably be it. And also just the form. The responsibility aspect of school—and it’s in the band, too—it’s just relational: you’re relating with other people, you’re responsible for something. Just showing up somewhere at a certain time. I have trouble with that, so practicing is good for me.
Do you find your studies informing the music you write?
For better or worse, definitely. Just the questioning attitude, a reflective attitude. That’s the way that I’ll write songs usually. I won’t sit down and struggle—I might work at it like a typical job, and say “I’m going to sit down and write a song now.” I’ll come up with a riff and then I’ll have to reflect until a good line comes to me, and then I’ll just try to elaborate on that and see where it takes me. But one of the first songs we ever wrote that’s on the record—“Ease of Hatred”—is about Camus’s “The Renegade,” a short story from Exile and the Kingdom.
What can you tell me about the name? Is that sort of just riffing on how you and Stephen have the same initials?
Kind of. When I first started, I had songs written, but I didn’t have any kind of name, and I’d think of names and then I’d kind of backpedal and be like, “no, I don’t want to commit to that.” S.M. is kind of a funny way of avoiding that problem all together. Yeah, it’s our initials, but now that we have [bassist] Cam [Starr] and Shane [Tyrer] in the band, it’s no longer all of our initials. But it’s just sort of a sponge. It’s an easy name and it can soak up whatever aesthetics or musical themes we put into it. It sort of represents the desire not to commit to any kind of specific name.
I’ve also seen S.M. referred to as “S.M. and the Ease of Hatred,” and there’s that song you were talking about on your new album called “Ease of Hatred.” You mentioned that song is about “The Renegade,” but why have you identified the project with that in the past?
The song is really just a poetic summary of Camus’s story. It actually follows it pretty closely. And I was just really pleased with the lyrics and stuck with that. We also called our demo Ease of Hatred and I think it just ties in with a general theme that I see in the band and any music I write, which is that it sounds pleasant and it deals with stuff that is anything but pleasant. You know what I mean? Pleasant sounding music with unpleasant subject matter. That kind of again ties into that earlier theme of provoking change.
I don’t wanna write music that just pets people—just strokes them. I want it to actually create a thought. The reason that I’ve referred to the band as S.M. and the Ease of Hatred sometimes—again, I haven’t always done it, because I’m sort of afraid to commit to things like that—is just because I’ve always loved when band names have been a songwriter identity, and then the band considered separately. Like Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. And you can think of tons of examples of that. I just like the separate consideration. Because playing music and writing music are two very different things. One doesn’t necessitate that you’re very good at the other.
What about “Pheremone Heave”? Why did you decide to identify the album with that song?
That one’s a lot more fresh and it’s gonna be more difficult to answer, but I think it’ll be a good learning experience for me to try to think up an answer for that. That album title has no meaning right now. And again, that ties in with the sponge concept. It sounds cool and I enjoy the aesthetics of how that sounds, how that looks, and it’s puzzling, because I don’t immediately understand what it means. And that’s sort of perfect S.M. There’s a lyric in “Paraselene”—“I clench until my vision blurs / until meaning in life / is reduced / to a sauntering smoke” and then it goes on, but it just has to do with the physical experience of living. Sometimes when you get so worked up about something, the physical and emotional combination is just… it’s hard to explain, but I guess this is an attempt at getting at that. Everyone has this kind of thing; it’s just difficult to communicate about. And I want to be able to be not easily classifiable. Because if you’re not easily classifiable, it takes time to classify you. And that’s what I want. I want to create a response that takes time; not just an immediate, “Oh yeah, that’s an indie rock band. Okay, see ya.” I want something a little more sophisticated than that.
Photo courtesy of band's Facebook
The first thing that came up when I searched “Paraselene” on Google was a Magic card. Would it be a stretch to guess that’s what the song’s about?
No, that’s not a stretch at all. That’s a Magic card. Yep. And it’s actually a physical phenomenon. A natural science, astrology thing. Like a moon dog, when there’s a ring around the moon. But yeah, you got me. It’s from a Magic card. I wanted the song to have an interesting and aesthetically appealing name. I also wanted the name to reflect the content of the song (usually an important move), and whenever I'd see a moon dog I'd really stop and pay attention to it no matter what I was doing. It's just something that demands pause and I wanted to lend that to the song. That I discovered the word from a Magic card is coincidental... But at the end of "Harem" I might have stolen the flavour text from a card [“Life’s Finale”] verbatim with the lyric “the feeble resistance of flesh is over.”
There’s a line in that song—“you can be my Eva Braun.” Care to explain?
Basically it just ties in with the intentional provocative thing. I don’t want to write pleasant music with pleasant subject matter. I want there to be thought and critical experience with it. I guess what you’re actually asking is “Is there any sketchy affiliation going on there?” which is what everyone wonders. And that ties in with me reflecting on and not saying sorry for… when we did an earlier seven-inch—“I Founded the Wit Cult”—we took a logo that really closely resembled a swastika from a band that I like from Scotland—the Rebel, a project of Ben Wallers of the Country Teasers. I saw the logo, and I really liked it, so I stole it and I justified that by saying it actually spells S.M. with the M sideways and they’re just joined together. And then a lot of people were just like, “Woah, what is this? I like this music, but what is this logo?” and of course our friends would immediately understand it and while they’d recognize the provocative nature of it, they’d be like, “Yep, it’s fine, I know those people.” So the Eva Braun is sort of just a lyrical expression of the same thing the logo does. It’s just [commanding you to] look into it and think for a second and realize that it’s not what your knee-jerk reflection says it is. Two things that look similar aren’t identical.
The album seems like a pretty impassioned rejection of comfortable society. Is there room in S.M.’s world for hope?
Definitely. I’m typically super optimistic and idealistic about all of this stuff that I’m talking about. I don’t know if that comes through, but I don’t care much for criticisms that say, “Oh, that’s impractical,” or “Oh, that’s unrealistic,” or “We don’t have time for that,” or “That would take too much energy.” In general, whenever I hear that, I’m just turning the other cheek. I’m just doing exactly what I said that I shouldn’t do and making a snap judgment and saying, “No, don’t tell me that.” The rejection of comfort isn’t meant to suggest people shouldn’t ever be comfortable; it’s to provoke change. Because everyone will agree that change is needed in so many different respects—in music, society, and day-to-day life—and I just want to engender that in myself.
Tom Beedham is an arts and culture journalist living in Toronto. – @Tom_Beedham