"I sort of feel like we're walking up a hill, and then soon we're going to be able to peek over the top of it," says Aaron Mangle, half of Cousins. "And not be there, but we'll at least be able to see what's up there. That's my goal right now---soon we'll get a glimpse. Right now, I think we're still climbing, up a crumbling hill."
Mangle, who sings and plays guitar, and Leigh Dotey, who drums and sings, are just back from the Lawnya Vawnya festival in Newfoundland. Soon they'll go to Europe for three weeks. The day after they return they'll play a slot at the OBEY Convention. Then to Toronto the following week for North by Northeast, then Calgary for Sled Island. This is a light itinerary compared to the two-month North American tours they've pulled the past two years.
Even tonight isn't a night off, technically---Dotey has just come from her day job filling and selling growlers at Bridge Brewing Company, walking down Agricola through the spring fog with Mangle, who is also her best friend and also her roommate. (They are not related, and they are not dating.)
"Our plan wasn't 'We want to play as much as possible.' We wanted to play, and things were happening, and we made it work," says Mangle over Bits & Bites and tea. "We're still sort of making it work. We don't have an overall plan. I think that playing a tonne is what's allowing us opportunities to progress. We haven't done anything super-special, we haven't had a hit. There's nothing about us that's super splash. Our reputation is we play a lot."
More than almost anyone in this town, and it's paid off at a performance level. Mangle's voice, which leans high and nearly pretty, has become an elastic, dynamic instrument of its own, powerful and evocative. Dotey is a steady, precise, game-faced beatkeeper, and she barely played the drums at all when Cousins set out on a huge tour in 2011.
"Not all bands would be like 'Let's put someone in the band who doesn't really know what they're doing, and go on the road,'" says Dotey. "'I'll be the one that knows what they're doing, and the other person will be the one that doesn't know what they're doing. And we'll just go for it.'"
Mangle and Dotey met at Charlie's in 2006, but their friendship became tangible when they worked together as art bikers for 4Cs in the summer of 2009.
"We would bike around with trailers full of art supplies and go into public spaces and engage the public, mostly kids, to make artwork and develop projects," says Dotey. Mangle, a drummer first, was giving his friend drum lessons and planning a North American tour with DUZHE-KNEW. His current bandmate, Pat Ryan, couldn't make the trip. Dotey got a promotion.
"Aaron and I were kind of inseparable at that point, in our friendship," says Dotey. "'Well obviously, I'll come on the trip and help out and drive and stuff. I'll just leave my job, let's do this.'"
Mangle laughs. "Obviously," he says. "And then Leigh just joined the band, because somebody had to do it."
Cousins has appeared in many forms, from Mangle solo on the drums and guitar (at the same time), to a practically indulgent four-person combination, since Mangle released Out on Town in 2009 through to last year's The Palm at the End of the Mind. It's melodic garage rock that excels in evoking specifically Halifax moments---"Red wine on the sidewalk/no problem," "Khyber." It's scrappy and cathartic, intense and exhausting.
Both Cousins are resistant to being slotted into the genre of "two-piece."
"Two-piece people wanna talk to us like we have this club. Like we have this brotherhood, like there's a society for two-piece bands and they should stick together," says Mangle. "I think it's stupid. They play that kind of White Stripes, Black Keys style in that way and it's like a point of pride. Only having two people on stage is hard. It's easier to play with five people. I don't think it matters. It matters who you're playing with."
"And when you get to the root of it," adds Dotey, "the root of how we are a two-person band is because Aaron's other band member couldn't go on tour."
Because of circumstance, because somebody had to do it, Cousins now exists in its most potent, thrilling form---two people with an intense connection, stepping on stage together and sending it out through music.
"I'd hate to just bring someone along because they know what they're doing. That is way more risky," says Mangle. "I know that if Leigh and I are on the road, and even if it gets hard or the shows don't go well or everything explodes, we're gonna be OK. But if it's with someone else I don't get along with, then what do you do? 'Cause everything gets hard."
"The sincerity of what we were doing added to the value," says Dotey. "It added to what people were experiencing when they were watching us."
"I mean, we're a lot tighter now. Sometimes people say 'That was so tight' and I'm like 'No it's not, it's still not tight,'" says Mangle, laughing. "It's not an insult, it feels like a forced compliment, maybe because we know better. Or that's not an issue, it's not a concern, we weren't trying to be tight. I think as much as we're a band on stage, we're a band after and before. And, like, in the kitchen. We're good at being around other people and meeting them and charming them."
Right now, in life and on this night, they're tired. A hundred and twenty shows, thousands of kilometres a year, a few years running is no small feat---those are world tour numbers being racked up by two people working alone. It's a lot of driving, a lot of administrative work, a lot of costs incurred. It's sacrifice at a level most bands won't commit to without a safety net. But it wears.
"We can't tour six months of the year and not get paid and then be tired and grumpy. It's not worth it," says Mangle. "It's not that much fun, you know?"
"Neither of us make enough money outside of this to sustain that kind of band lifestyle," says Dotey. "I don't know what kind of jobs we'd need---'I'm a designer. People pay me to design beautiful things for them, and I earn lots and lots of money, and then when I feel like it I go on tour.' It doesn't work like that."
In past year, Cousins has taken active steps up the hill, toward something larger, better. There's a manager now, and an unnamed label, which will release the new album The Halls of Wickwire this fall. It was recorded last December in Toronto with Graham Walsh of Holy Fuck (METZ). Before that there will be a split 12-inch with Construction and Destruction. In between there will be tours, and after there will be tours, and all along there will be this relationship that means more than almost anything.
"That part seemed to come natural, to have the people show up and see us do this thing that didn't sound perfect or that tight," says Dotey of those early days. "That didn't really matter because, you know, they were smiling."
Cousins w/Tonstartssbandht, High Rise II, Walrus. Friday, June 7, 7:30pm, Bus Stop Theatre, 2203 Gottingen Street, $10
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