It was a chilly Friday night, November 2004. The Halifax Pop Explosion was in full swing at The Seahorse, and The Illuminati headed the bill in the then-scrappy, pre-renovation basement bar. The unpretentious, hirsute power trio with a heavy handle and dueling vocalists came on and pulverized the audience with its unique blend of Black Sabbath riffology and tasty, melodic southern boogie, playing a set of short, sharp songs at balls-out speed.
Flash-forward to May 2006, the long awaited return of the Toronto three-piece—Les Godfrey and Nick Sewell, guitar and bass respectively and both on vocals, and Jim Gering on drums—toting a new self-produced EP, The Illuminati and their Cheap Powers. If anything, there is more speed and brevity in the tunes on this release: six songs plus a hidden track, “Revenant,” clocking in at just over 16 minutes.
“We seem to have a riff expiry. There’s really been a migration towards more succinct songs—we’re starting to distill our writing,” says Sewell on a crackly cell from Toronto. “A lot of these songs were really battle-tested on the stage before they were recorded. The snappier stuff is more fun to play—we’d rather go up there and blow through 20 songs.”
“We always start with a motive and a motif,” says Godfrey, on the line from Kingston, Ontario. He and Sewell collaborate on lyrics, but he says he doesn’t tread a particular thematic line. “We’re going to take this part and mutilate it a bit—it’s how the lyrics come about. Thinking about what words sound good over certain musical parts.”
Cheap Powers came from the band putting together home demos of new tracks, but liking what they came up with enough to just to mix and master it. “When we got to the mixing stage, we were like, ‘Actually, this is a pretty kickass record,’” says Sewell. “We might lose something on the production end because we weren’t at a nice high-end studio, but the comfort, the performance level, the part you can’t fake, it’s all there.”
The history of The Illuminati is one that paralleled but never crossed into the alt-rock scene of the ’90s, or the more recent guitar-fueled garage revival. Sewell and Godfrey were soldiers in Tchort for the better part of a decade. Tchort was a thundering Russian-themed five-member metal act, with faded telephone pole posters for regular gigs at the legendary Toronto club The El Mocambo overlapping all over town for years. Tchort never went big beyond the Big Smoke, despite the fury of its live show, and finally a change was made in the band.
“The last Tchort show was August 28, 2002,” says Sewell. “And the first Illuminati show was September 4th. We just decided none of us were happy in Tchort and we had dates booked. I decided to keep the booking, a bunch of shows with Danko Jones. I’m like, ‘Fuck, I’m not throwing those away.’”
The touring plan for The Illuminati has been to go out for a few weeks at a time, choosing their battles.
“We try to be fairly strategic,” says Sewell. “The traditional model is for the band to haul ass back and forth, but because we don’t have über-funding behind us, sometimes we do some targeted stuff.”
They’ve recently made short but telling incursions to the US, touring with Nashville Pussy and Swedish rock act The Hellacop-ters. A stop at the Austin music conference South by Southwest in March solidified their deal with US label Century Media, home to acts such as Shadows Fall and Lacuna Coil. They will release the previous, Ian Blurton-produced Illuminati album On Borrowed Time down south later in the summer.
“We don’t have any delusions of grandeur about what might happen,” says Sewell of the US deal. “As the record comes out, I’m sure we’ll be expected to put in a lot of time down there, but in a good way.”
The summer will find the band in LA for the record launch and playing Edgefest in Ontario, about all of which Sewell is philosophical. “I think we’re really just concerned with having fun. As long as we get to play and a few people come out to see us….”
The Illuminati w/Die Manniquen and Montgomery Moth, May 27 at Hell’s Kitchen, 10pm, $5