When it comes to album rollouts, We Are The City have a flair for the dramatic. On 2011’s High School EP, the Vancouver trio concocted fictional alter-egos and performed secret shows with t-shirts tied over their faces. On 2013’s Violent, their proggy, post-rock-inspired indie pop songs served as the inspiration for an acclaimed Norwegian-language companion film.
This trend continues on Above Club. Prior to the album’s release, the guys shared an around-the-clock stream from inside of their makeshift studio, giving fans who tuned in a glimpse into the record’s creation. The whole thing climaxed rather dramatically when a strange man entered the space after-hours and began speaking in a foreign tongue while causing a mess and playing around on the band’s gear. Fans expressed concern and amusement on social media, and the stream ended soon after. The album was out just a couple of weeks later.
Despite the ambitious album launch, the music on Above Club is fairly modest in scope. There are just eight songs, all of them clocking in at roughly three minutes in length, with relatively simple structures and raw, in-your-face production. It showcases the band’s heart-on-sleeve pop-rock at its sweetest and most tuneful, while simultaneously spiking the soundscape with edgy, industrial-informed production. “Keep on Dancing” is the catchy single, the repetitive mantras (“Whatever God is, it’s here with me now”) splashed with reverb and repeated atop a hypnotically pounding beat alongside starkly plinking keyboard tones. “Heavy as a Brick” deconstructs its rhythms and EDM-worthy synth sweeps amidst reverent pop hooks, while “Sign My Name Like QUEEN” is soaked in woozy, chaotic static. It’s a bold, uncompromising album that confronts listeners with unflinching directness while simultaneously rewarding repeat listens.
But while We Are the City’s sound is growing increasingly less polite these days, the same cannot be said for band members Cayne McKenzie (vocals/keyboards), Andrew Huculiak (drums) and David Menzel (guitar). The trio are soft-spoken and affable when they sit down with Noisey at an apartment in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. We spoke about Above Club’s experimental sound, and about the mysterious dude who entered their recording space during the online stream.
Noisey: You released a video stream of you recording the album. What was with the guy who came into the space and started dicking around with your gear?
Cayne McKenzie: He’s the landlord. The whole story is that we’re above a club in Serbia. Or, in an “undisclosed location,” but he is Serbian, and he was speaking in Serbian during the broadcast. Brian’s filming part two of this documentary, but in part one, it’s us touring around Europe — it’s been released on TELUS Optik. At the end of that documentary, we go and talk to him about renting his room above his club. We started that story quite a long time ago by showing that conversation. So then he comes in. We had no clue that it was going to go that way.
Andy Huculiak: Yeah, that’s a good point. Even when the broadcast was going, the traffic increased. People were scared, entertained and upset. It was three groups of people.
Cayne: They were writing a lot of things like, ‘If this is fake, this is too far.’ Andy: But among those, 95% of the other ones were people being like, ‘That was amazing. Thanks guys for making that stream happen,’ or something like that. We ended the stream right after that.
Cayne: It was a surprising climax to our entire recording experience. For our entire experience in that room, it was an insane climax that we could not have expected. We had expected to continue the stream after that, but once that happened and he threw over a bunch of gear and knocked over some microphones and stuff, we were like, ‘Okay. This is a climax. That’s the end.’
So the story is that Above Club was recorded above a club. Was that title at all supposed to be a sideways jab at dance music?
David Menzel: That’s great, yeah. There’s a few things behind that, but that’s definitely one of them. We liked the mythology because it’s not so pretentious or cocky-sounding — but a part of it, for sure, at least for me, is it’s just above club music, y’know what I mean? It’s one notch higher. It’s definitely not mindless, but we hope that you could kind of get into it in the same way. We also were hoping that “above club” would turn into somewhat of a genre, where hopefully it’s different enough that people haven’t really heard it before. That’s kind of what we were going for.
Andy: We actually tried to have the album and the genre both be Above Club in iTunes. I don’t think it worked though.
Cayne: We didn’t even try that hard. We could have tried harder.
Violent had a very grandiose sound, whereas this album feels a lot more smaller. Why did you go in that direction?
David: There was a lot of conversation about Violent, and how we didn’t want to have that wankiness of putting someone through something because you think it’s amazing. There’s a lot of moments in Violent where it’s like, ‘If someone’s listening to this, we’re going to take them on a long journey.’ Whereas with this one, we felt a bit more like, ‘Let’s just give them something that’s to the point.’ I almost feel like it’s more of a humble record, Above Club. It’s more of us being, ‘Thank you for listening, this is what we do, this is what we love.’ Whereas, Violent, I love it, but it almost feels like we thought it was some work of art of something.
Andy: Yeah, I know what you mean. We’d have these musical interludes for Above Club that we came up with. There was one that was really awesome and was supposed to go on the record, but we had this rule where it’s like, ‘No musical interludes, no long, meandering thoughts. Let’s just cut them short.’ We really constrained ourselves to pop. It doesn’t really work, at the end of the day — when you listen to Above Club, it’s not a pop record.
Cayne: It’s our version of pop.
Your film "Violent" has won a bunch of awards and been in lots of film festivals. Was it a surprise that it got such a strong reaction?
Andy: Yeah, that was not expected at all. It was our first foray into the film world, and We Are the City — we’ve really slugged it out. Other than the PEAK Performance Project [the band won $150,000 in a 2009 battle of the bands contest], we haven’t really been given any handouts. We’re trying to make something, and it feels like everything we get is a result of work that we’ve done.
David: Still payin’ dues.
Andy: Still payin’ dues, like P.O.D.
David: P.O.D. says it best.
Andy: But with the film, we made it with the goal to just finish it. That was the reward, just having the final product. Then we submitted it to festivals and got turned down a ton of times. And then it was like, ‘Okay. Like everything else, we’re just going to have to release this ourselves and hopefully people will watch it.’ And then one festival kind of championed it, and then it took off from there. And that was crazy, ‘cause we, in a sense, had nothing to do with it.
Cayne: That’s kind of what happens to a band too, hey? That’s how a band gets big. One tastemaker’s like, ‘This is what you want.’ And then suddenly everyone wants it.
Alex Hudson is a writer living in Vancouver. Follow him on Twitter.