Brian O’Reilly is showing off what he calls his “apartment.”
Standing in the kitchen of Just Friends collective co-founders Dave Ewenson and Brent Randall, Their Majesties’ frontman points out a sleeping bag rolled up at one end of the kitchen pantry. “That’s my bedroom,” he says. “That’s the computer room, that’s the living room”—an unplugged monitor and a child’s stool shoved together in the opposite corner. “And that,” he says, pointing to a top shelf crowded with clothes, “is my loft.”
It’s worth noting that the singer-guitarist of the Halifax indie pop band is not actually delusional, even if their first LP, Lands Where Tales Are Tall (released by O’Reilly’s kitchen-mates Just Friends this week), suggests a lively sense of fantasy for a group that’s been beset by a ridiculous number of real-world setbacks in the two years since the release of their widely-praised EP, Emergency Band Meeting (including the financial ones that led O’Reilly to make the decision to take up residence in a pantry). In fact, one of the band’s favourite tall tales has to do with an ex-fire truck they bought from the HRM in 2003 before departing on their first tour.
“We got it at the city auction thinking ‘Huge red van, this is dope as fuck’,” says O’Reilly. “Then we took it out on tour and it broke down on the very first day.”
“We had two tours of Canada where we basically slept in a Canadian Tire every night. Our first tour we broke down like, six times in three days,” drummer Niall Skinner says.
“This story keeps getting more elaborate every time we tell it,” notes O’Reilly.
“Yeah,” Skinner says. “We actually broke down 30 times in three days.”
Van trouble was just one in a string of problems that kept Lands Where Tales are Tall on hold for nearly two years. Their work at Electromagnetic Studios with Buck 65 producer Charles Austin was repeatedly interrupted as bassist Panos Giannoulis went in for knee surgery, Skinner was scammed out of $2,000 and Daniel Girard nearly cut off his finger while working in the meat department at Sobeys. Three surgeries later, Girard still isn’t sure if he’ll be able to play piano like he used to.
But sitting around the kitchen table in the room where CKDU indie-rock-cum-vegan-cooking show “Let’s Get Baked” is recorded, it all sounds like material for the whopper they’re still dreaming up together, riffing off each other in increasingly elaborate stories and jokes. Asked if they’ll be taking the moneypit-on-wheels along with them on their upcoming tour, they announce a firm intention to “run it into the ground.”
“If the engine breaks down this time, we’ll probably just knock out the bottom of the van and run it along, Flintstones-style,” Skinner says.
“I wanna be buried in that van,” O’Reilly adds.
“We’ll be like Viking kings, buried in our own ship,” says singer-guitarist-keyboardist Andrew Erskine.
Despite all the problems that plagued its making, what shines through most clearly on Lands Where Tales are Tall is the fun had by a bunch of guys making music together, not the frustrations of trying to make it as a band. Tracks like “Shoestring Divider” and “Fire Island Unchaperoned ” belie the strain of their creation with fist-pumping rhythms, noodling silliness and plenty of pop sweetness in the soaring chords and harmonies.
How did they manage to retain that kind of immediacy through such a dragged-out process?
“Charles was a big help,” O’Reilly says; then, laughing, “So was Jack Daniels.”
“I think it’s just because we’re really really good at what we do,” says Erskine.
That cracks them all up for a few minutes.
Friendship’s one obvious factor in making the band’s run of bad luck almost sound like a good time. All five of Their Majesties have known each other for several years: Skinner, Erskine, O’Reilly and Girard went to high school together, and Girard and Skinner even attended the same daycare as toddlers. In grade 11, Erskine, O’Reilly and Girard began jamming after school, dubbing themselves The Porcelain Gods (they gave up the moniker after a US arena rock band by the same name threatened legal action). They quickly agreed on the rotating front-man structure that continues in the band to this day.
“Since no one was clearly better at playing guitar and singing we all took turns at it,” says O’Reilly.
Soon a drummer and bassist were added to the roster, while the three original members continued to switch off on keyboard, guitar and vocals. The looseness of roles allowed the band to focus on the collective songwriting process that gives rise to the complex, multi-part structure of many of the Lands Where Tales Are Tall tracks.
When original drummer Jeremy Stewart left, the band chose Skinner to replace him, in part because they already knew and liked him.
“It was more important that we have not just a dude who plays drums, but someone who we were friends with,” O’Reilly says.
Soon after Skinner’s addition to the band, the then-Porcelain Gods were given an extra boost by winning a Musicstop contest whose prize was a 20-minute meeting with Joel Plaskett and his manager.
“It was called Your Big Break,” says O’Reilly. “It, uh, wasn’t.”
Still, the band admits that the contest helped them focus at a time when they still weren’t sure what they were doing. The winning demo had been recorded at the last minute before the contest deadline and handed in the next day.
“It was a big deal at the time,” Girard acknowledges. “Especially for Niall, he was really into Thrush Hermit.”
Some of the songs from those days included “Hoverscooter”—a song about flying away on a magic scooter—and “Ninjas,” a pop confection that features the chorus “Ninjas they can do anything, anything they want.”
Lands Where Tales are Tall is a far cry from “Ninjas.” Sure, the band’s roots in ’90s power-pop bands like Weezer and The Smashing Pumpkins are still in evidence on the new album, but Lands Where Tales are Tall is built on the complexities of a multi-songwriter band that brings to the table a wide array of influences but never forgets how to rock. Most tracks contrast a power-chord framework with a mod-style groove and a few finishing touches from classical music.
“Our songs are just a melting pot of the different kinds of music we’re into,” says O’Reilly. “They all have elements from the ’60s British scene and from early ’90s indie rock. Both Andrew and Daniel are classically trained pianists, so that just naturally comes out.”
Once again, it comes down to band members building on each other’s efforts. “Barnburner”—a song about teenagers setting fire to a neighbour’s barn while listening to the poised, coolheaded melodies of Eric Satie—began as O’Reilly’s attempt to make a “Burdocks-like” brain-bent rocker. It acquired its more delicate overtones when Girard added a run of open chords adapted from Satie’s own “Trois Gymnopedies.”
Erskine’s “The Judicial System” was a simple power-chord chord progression until Girard began to improvise a harpsichord part at rehearsals.
“It was mostly a joke at first,” says Erskine. “I mean, it was so baroque. If it was on its own without any power chords underneath, it would be this nice song by Bach or someone.”
The band ultimately decided to stick with the part because it gave the song a complexity absent from the original piece.
“It adds different textures,” says Erskine. “Makes it a little less boneheaded, I guess.”
As the conversation winds down, the guys begin, absently, to pass around a stray roach clip from the “Let’s Get Baked” kitchen. Giannoulis and Erskine attach the clip to their fingertips and wiggle them experimentally. O’Reilly uses it to pin his nose shut, then quickly removes it again.
Girard is talking about restlessness.
“We just want to play so so badly,” he says. “We haven’t played a show since April. That’s a long time when you’re doing the band thing over anything else.”
“And it’s weird when you see the people around you sort of moving on, getting their degrees,” says Erskine. “I mean, none of us are in school anymore. But the people we started with at Dal are almost graduating.”
“I think that’s where the whole theme of fantasy and travel comes from,” says O’Reilly of Lands Where Tales are Tall. “That restlessness and wanting to break out. We can’t actually get out physically, so we kind of go inward.”
Hopefully that won’t be necessary for much longer. The band plans to get out a lot in promoting the new album, touring Canada, the States, “wherever will have us,” says Skinner.
They’ve even taken a few tentative steps toward the next album, hashing out melodies and working on the introduction of a new organ. But that’s all on the back burner now, says O’Reilly, who’s been sleeping tight these nights mostly so he can channel his rent money into the van.
“We’re going to tour the shit out of this album first.”
Their Majesties CD release w/Laura Peek and the Winning Hearts and Brent Randall, September 7 at The North Street Church, 8pm, $6, www.theirmajesties.com