Dictionary.com defines the word “contrived” as an adjective: 1: showing effects of planning or manipulation; “a novel with a contrived ending” 2: artificially formal; “contrived coyness”; “a stilted letter of acknowledgment”; “when people try to correct their speech they develop a stilted pronunciation.”
This is an apt assessment of the music made by the Halifax band of the same name. For evidence, pick up the group’s second full-length Dead Air Verbatim, to be released on June 11 at Stage Nine. Contrived’s work is brooding, complex and meticulously mapped out, with effectively dense results.
“We wanted to be a certain sound and we wanted a name that was going to reflect the ideals that we were trying to get across—just being a young, paranoid teenager, trying to make music and be a part of anything, you know?” waxes guitarist and vocalist Mike McNeill at a local pizza joint. “That’s a common theme: In the music and the lyrics there’s this feeling of impending doom. As a young man or woman growing up in a city and trying to be part of a scene, there’s always this anxiety factor involved with that.”
It’s safe to say that Contrived won’t be covering anything on American Idol any time soon. The band—McNeill, guitarist/vocalist Jon Samuel, bassist Mike Bigelow, and drummer Loel Campbell—makes some of the darkest alternative rock around. But the group certainly doesn’t want to back itself into a corner. As McNeill points out, he loves the new Kelly Clarkson single, but Contrived isn’t into that style.
“We love pop music and we have never shunned it,” he says. “The new songs that we’ve written lately have a pop sensibility. We would never want to limit ourselves from playing a Beatles song, but it’s not something we are going for.”
At first glance, you might think the members of Contrived are a little different from most of us. Three of them sport haircuts that sprout in every which direction, they don’t shave too often and they wear a lot of grey and black.
One listen to Dead Air Verbatim backs that sentiment with its heavy, staccato rhythm section attack, crunchy tuned-down guitars and the high-pitched voices of singers McNeill and Samuel. The lyrics dabble in desperate imagery. But McNeill insists that the quartet is as normal as anyone else.
“I think we indulge ourselves in the darker halves of people, we’re willing to embrace that and you can hear it in our music,” McNeill says. “But I think we genuinely are nice and friendly and we’re not interested in being pretentious or weird. I think someone could interpret that from the music and maybe just the way we are—scruffy heads, kind of weird looking guys.”
Although this is only Contrived’s second full-length release, the band has been together for four years. McNeill and Campbell, two friends who grew up together in Stellarton, originally formed the group. Before that, both were big fans of the early Dependent Music bands, such as Burnt Black. Coincidentally, McNeill joined a band with Dependent co-founder Brian Borcherdt called the Trephines as a student in Toronto. He moved back to Nova Scotia and started Contrived with Campbell in 2001, later adding Wintersleep cohorts Mike Bigelow on bass and Tim D’Eon to second guitar. Not surprisingly, Contrived now makes its home on the Dependent roster.
The current incarnation of Contrived came together in 2004 after D’Eon left the band. bringing former Slight Return guitarist Samuel into the fold.
Dead Air Verbatim took over a year-and-a-half to record, partly due to Campbell and Bigelow’s duties in other bands (they both play in Wintersleep, the Holy Shroud and the Remains of Brian Borcherdt) and mostly because of intensive writing sessions.
“It’s a long process with them,” Samuel says. “We’ll play, work on parts for a while, then we’ll stop and talk about the parts and what we think we can do to make it tighter. It feels like getting in there and really thinking about what you want to play, not settling on the first thing.”
Recording with producer Andy Magoffin in London, Ontario and James Shaw in Lunenburg, the band ran into technical difficulties when a digital transfer took even more time to fix before Idea of East’s Laurence Currie could mix the album in Halifax.
“It was like it had a hex on it the whole time,” McNeill says. “It was hard for us, like any band, to get the money together to support it, extra hard because other members are in other bands, and then just as far as transferring to a digital medium it took forever.”
But the length of time it took to release Dead Air Verbatim could work in Contrived’s favour as the record is one of the most anticipated local records this year, perhaps only behind Wintersleep’s recent release. The band has set modest goals for itself following the release, planning on a summer tour of eastern Canada and Ontario, maybe doing some recording along the way, dark clothes and friendly minds in tow.
“I know people have been waiting for awhile and we just want people to hear it and I hope they like it,” Samuel says. He pauses. “World domination is always good.”