Nine months ago, i see rowboats held an emergency meeting. They had recently played their first show and were still without a name. Their second show was coming up and they didn't want to be listed as "and TBA" again.
The band hunkered down in fiddler Luke Fisher's house, determined to find a name. Fisher was renovating his home at the time, so they wrote dozens of names on a wide slab of pine that was lying around. It took a few hours, an admittedly salty brie-pasta dinner and a significant amount of wine, but through a process of elimination, they ended up as i see rowboats.
"It was tough," says multi-instrumentalist and resident artist Lisa Lipton. "The most democratic thing to do was for us to present it to the table and use the process of elimination and hope—hope—that we came up with something we can live with."
The house renovations are now finished and the slab of pine is safely tucked behind Fisher's fridge. Since settling on a name, i see rowboats has followed success with success. But the process of choosing a name, which so many other bands have gone through through before their rise on Halifax's music scene, is a reminder of how difficult it can be to steer five individuals (playing a unique blend of chamber music meets indie rock), in one direction.
"It's a challenge, but it's a challenge that I'm totally OK with fighting through," says frontman Will Robinson. "It's just hard to get everyone on the same page sometimes, but that's what ultimately makes it more interesting. Now I'm just trying to trick myself into believing that, but I do believe it's true."
As individuals, i see rowboats are like an outspread hand. Lipton, Robinson and Solomon Vromons, who plays bass and cello, bring a quiet demeanor to the band. Meanwhile, Fisher on fiddle and Darcy Fraser on drums boisterously compete to see who can play the hardest. It's when the band come together, like a fist, that their signature sonic tension arises, to deliver one hell of a punch.
Robinson brought the band together last fall, piece by piece. It wasn't long before a string section was accompanying the heartbreaking songs he was writing in his bedroom. Fisher was happy to be playing something other than the tired old fiddle music he grew up with in Newfoundland. Both Vromons and Lipton set playing strings as a condition for joining the band. "I lived on the South Shore, so classical music was really the only music that was available," says Vromons, who lends the band his ear for classical structures. "I really looked up to people who could play strings."
After months of practice, the results were grandiose songs about love and loss—and "all the usual cliches," admits Robinson. "There's something really special about having this collective project with four of my really close friends," he says. "I was really doubting it until we played our first show. Then, our first show came and we clicked. Someone said we were like levitating off the stage. And ever since that first show I have wanted to make this work."
And so far, it has—and in a surprisingly short time. They only played live 12 times before sharing the stage with The Besnard Lakes at the Marquee in this year's Pop Explosion. Even before they played that show, they were accepted into Canadian Music Week '08.
The band's EP, Hide and Seek Behind the Throne, which came out August 10, was number one on CKDU's charts and has made it on to other campus radio charts across Canada. It even reached number 22 on the !earshot national campus and community radio report's top 50.
"I've been doing this with my hand," says Lipton, tilting her hand up in a steep angle, "going "OK, this is going to stop very soon and then are we going to be able to sustain something?' It's a huge fear of mine."
Afraid or not, experimentation is the band's cornerstone. Forced into working with four other people, each musician has had to subdue their own biases and put everything through what Robinson calls "the i see rowboats filter."
"I feel kind of like an asshole trying to be like, "There should be a drum solo here,'" says Robinson. "But more and more I'm starting to realize everyone has a more acute sense of how something should go and I just have to open up and respect that."
Since finishing the EP, they've been working on becoming more sensitive to each other's instruments. When they first started, it was a competition about who could play the loudest and with the most intensity. To help develop sensitivity, they've been practising quietly in Vromons' living room, something Fraser can't wait to be done with so he can pound the drums again.
"It's a gift and a burden having so many instruments," says Vromons.
And even after almost a year of playing together, when asked if they can find a way to describe their music, there's still a resounding, "Nope."
"My immediate reaction is "Let's do it. Let's make something great,'" says Lipton. "The simplest way I can say it is, "What can't we do?' If you're asking yourself that question you're willing to do anything and then, with that, comes indescribability."
One example of that ethic is featured in a new song, "Skybuilder." The band traded in their instruments for drumsticks to form a massive rhythm section, with only a keyboard for melody.
Still, the band relishes and encourages attempts to describe their sound. It's a good mirror for what they're doing. Robinson says some of the comparisons people make to describe their music can be quite funny.
"Someone said "Sonic Youth meets string quartet meets whiney guy from Simple Minds.' And I was like, "That's me! I'm the whiney guy.'"
Having a relationship with the crowd was one of the reasons Robinson brought the band together. It was meant to be a step away from his last band, The Audients, which featured whopping solos—not particularly conducive to sharing the loneliness that was motivating him to write.
"I wanted to be in more of a pop-rock band," he says. "There wasn't a connection with the crowd when we played. It was more of an intellectual thing than an emotional thing, and I think, with i see rowboats, there's some kind of exchange with the audience."
If you've ever been to one of their live shows, you'll know exactly what Robinson is talking about. "When I'm playing drums I'm constantly staring at the crowd and watching their reactions," says Fraser. "People don't take their eyes off of us when we play."
This week the band is testing their sound on virgin ears for the Atlantic Canadian end of Rebekah Higgs's CD-release tour. It's their first time on the road and the band says it's a big test for them: As critics and fans attempt to attach a label to i see rowboats, the band is fighting to find itself.
"That we're great doesn't make sense. Maybe it's because I always hear the mistakes," says Robinson. "I think we're great in the sense that everyone in the band is a really lovely person. But in terms of musicians, we've got so much work to do it's crazy."
Rather than dreams of fame and fortune, right now, the band's biggest dream is having time to spend with each other. With debt from producing the EP still lingering, and everyone's personal careers in full swing, it's been hard for the band to find time together over the past few months.
"I think we're in limbo right now, trying to balance jobs and things," says Vromans. "If this is going to go any further we're going to have to figure out where to cut time somewhere."
Both Fraser and Fisher work in the film industry. It's taken up the bulk of their time recently. They wrapped up a shoot the day before heading out on tour. "It kind of drives me crazy, because I'd rather be playing than working and I work so much and play so little. It's really frustrating," says Fraser. "Our biggest problem is distractions. Whether it's work or whatever. It would be fucking fantastic to get away from all that and be able to just concentrate solely on music and nothing else."
The band's planning on taking a week later this month to hunker down together and start working on new songs. And although they've applied for grants for an album, it's unlikely to happen for a while. You'll have to wait until then to see if i see rowboats can come together and prove they have what it takes to be great.
"I just see so much potential in everyone," says Robinson. "I just want them to quit their jobs and focus on the band and I feel like really good things can happen."
i see rowboats w/The Spades, opening for Rebekah Higgs, Saturday, November 16 at the Marquee, 2037 Gottingen, 10pm, $6.
Mike Landry is The Coast’s listings editor. He lives vicariously through the ultra-cool musicians he interviews.