A black hoodie fits tight to broad shoulders, a knotted scarf of the same colour shifts from side to side as he talks. John Mullane appears to carry a burden, the weight of many thoughts or worries, both in conversation and on In-Flight Safety's new album, We Are An Empire, My Dear. When presented with this perception---of an overall heavy-heartedness---he says cautiously, "Let's define heavy-hearted." Fearful and world-weary are offered instead. He nods. "The challenges in my life as an artist trying to make my way with my friends," he begins, adjusting his scarf. "It's a very challenging career in terms of making a career of it."
Making music as one's contribution to, or taking a stand in, the world is arguably a risky proposition, especially as part of a band in a global culture that craves the individual persona, character or celebrity. Then there's the state of the world itself. "The Bush administration...the problems it caused. Some seem irreparable to me and really scared me," continues Mullane, offering war and that president's environmental stance, not to mention everyone's "relationship to the land," as examples. But you won't hear direct political references, polemics or rhetoric on We Are An Empire; rather, there's the visceral emotions associated with the joys of being alive, the awareness of the problems and an "urgency to fix things."
Mullane leans forward: "I wrote about these fears in a way to find the purpose within them. It's a record of empowerment and hope," he says. "Music is a way to express deep concerns and joy, too." Empowerment, hope and joy are easily associated with the band, for which Mullane writes lyrics, sings lead and plays guitar. This comes across clearest on the opening track, "I Could Love You More," the last song to be completed---and Mullane's current favourite. But Mullane says, shrugging, "Very few songs use more than just the four of us. We give each instrument a lot of...bandwidth."
"Are you iced in?" asks bassist Brad Goodsell by phone, having poured the morning coffee. It's the day after a night-storm of winter, throwing just about everything down on Halifax. Being immobilized by nature---cooped up---doesn't faze Goodsell, nor any of the members of In-Flight Safety, apparently. The band took three weeks last February to record with producer Laurence Currie in Fox River Schoolhouse No. 9, about 15 or 20 minutes from Parrsboro. "We had time. It was a dream," Goodsell says. With no friends around or the abounding distractions of the city, they woke up in the morning and worked well into night, Goodsell says.
Paradoxically, this sole focus on the work didn't result in an over-engineered, micro-managed sound to the album. There was greater trust placed in instinct than "if you played right on the click. There was a lot of emphasis on feel and flow," he says. Feel-and-flow arises from the low end and, what's more, a melodic pop band's growth is best measured, arguably, when the rhythm section emerges as more than backbeat service providers. "I'm a bit more confident with this one," agrees Goodsell. His smooth, graceful parts make the difference throughout the album, but notably on tunes such as "cloudHead"---a potential sleeper hit---and "Actors." Goodsell grasps the importance of evaluating detail, foundation and structure, or edifice---sound construction. He's developed a busy practice as a carpenter, starting initially in woodworking and then moving into renovations and building. "If I don't know how to do something, I'll learn how to do it." As with the rest of the band, the job is necessary "to stay afloat" financially. But it seems to feed back into his musical creativity. "I usually go with my gut first but still try to make a logical decision."
He goes with the hot chocolate and for the whipped cream. A bit of boyish charm is evident in the choice. As for choice, Ledwell made some key ones in the making of We Are An Empire, My Dear. Take, for example, the piano intro to "Crash/Land," a four-note melody based on a chord structure he credits to Brad Goodsell ("He usually can set up first and starts playing on his own and then Glen will pick up on that..."). After coming up with the melody, which Ledwell demonstrates by tapping out on the table, he says, "I was bored with it, so I separated all the notes and played them in different octaves. So instead of going bing-bing-bing-bing, it goes bing-bong-bong-bing."
Alarming in its simplicity, the decision underscores Mullane's lyrical balance of joy and fear. "They definitely co-exist," Ledwell says of those two emotions. Ledwell reveals that he first heard a similar approach on a TV on the Radio song. While that may be true, it's about context: Ledwell did it on a tune by his band, In-Flight Safety---a decidedly melodic-pop band in a determinedly dissonant era of music---and made it work. There was an "epic outro" on "Crash/Land" that got fully rewritten---"deleted." Now it ends with a return to his reflective but foreboding piano. Contrast that with the "very simple part---three octaves of the same note basically" that's heard on "Big White Elephant," one of the album's heftier rock songs. In the case of that song, Ledwell delivers an almost sinister edge, which meets head-on the lyrics' metaphorical call-to-arms, uniting two people in facing the world. It's an example of how the band stuck to its original mission of making a band album. "We said, 'We're a four-piece, so let's record as a four-piece." (Live, the band will be joined by David Casey on second guitar.)
A text-message arrives on Ledwell's phone: "Let's see what John's saying...." His lift to band practice is arriving shortly. He taps back a response.
In-Flight Safety's drummer faithfully hits the gym for a run and workout with weights several times a week, listening to music closely as he goes through his motions and sets. While he previewed each stage of the band's progress on this latest album while sweating it out, Glen Nicholson has also worked out to the sounds of Fleet Foxes and, most recently, Cut Copy. The legs labour, the mind focuses: it's this dynamic of finding the right physical state to foster the right intellectual or creative space that connects him to the rest of the band. At Fox River, he recalls, "You could be in the bathtub and you could hear stuff going on and then you'd be running down in a towel." And that wouldn't be unusual. Besides the basic bonds of friendship, Nicholson says, "We're really critical about music---we're music nerds. They can deny this, but it's the truth," he says of his bandmates after returning from a quick run and a steam. ("I had bad blood from last night---few too many pints.")
One gets the feeling that, while in Fox River, when the band broke for a mini-stick hockey game, got drunk, lit off fireworks or went for wings in Parrsboro---all of which they did, apparently---Nicholson was one of, if not the, instigators. Yet he's no big lug, driven to drum for sake of volume, or a showman, driven by a desire to show off his finesse. One of his drumming icons is Stephen Morris of Joy Division/New Order fame. "He's really good at stirring things up rhythmically without drawing too much attention," he offers. Similarly, the vision for the visual presentation of We Are An Empire, My Dear, ultimately executed in collaboration with Kate O'Connor of co&co, started with Nicholson. He wanted something akin to a "coat of arms," he says, "iconic images that could translate to wherever we wanted to put them."