True to its name, Area 52 hides itself well—in plain sight, as it goes. The average passerby likely never considers the massive space, with all its various compartments, lying just beyond the banal, barely marked entrance off Gottingen Street.
Unless they’re hauling gear—an amp, looped cords with mikes on the end, parts of drum kits, guitars in black cases—people have no sufficient reason to climb the long, broad stairway into this humming, pounding, reverberating rehearsal space.
At the landing at the top of the stairs, the uninitiated stop in amazement: cripes, this place is huge. And unpopulated. Where is everyone? To the right, a large lounge—complete with a bar, tables and couches—is empty. A modern, indie update on the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The only evidence of human activity—another presence—arises from the sound contained and muffled behind countless closed doors.
Word of advice to the innocent: if you’re meeting someone at Area 52, wait for them at the top of the stairs. Don’t go looking for the party you’re supposed to meet, ambling down this corridor or taking that hallway. This place is a maze, a warren, a trap. And, most importantly, don’t open that door—why don’t we heed horror films in this regard? Why must we see behind everything? Because behind those doors there may be a band fresh with sweat and the vigour of practice disassembling the gear and chatting casually. They don’t want to have the door open to reveal a strange face anymore than the interloper wants to look in on the wrong band, only to ask sheepishly, “Um, sorry, do you know where Dog Day practices?”
“Dog…Day? No sorry.”
Another door: “Jesus, sorry man.” It’s a washroom and there’s a guy pissing.
The pissing guy actually works here and he is gracious enough to take the lost visitor over to Dog Day’s space. Four guys inside in t-shirts and tattoos pack up their equipment and confirm Dog Day is booked for the 10pm slot.
Back out in the lobby—standing at the top of the stairs so as not to be missed—one can idly read the posters selling instruments and promoting gigs or the whiteboard with its schedule grid of who’s playing where at what time. The spaces have names such as “far side” so the uninformed, once again, stay that way.
At the bottom of the whiteboard, a message: Update regularly and communicate.
The Area 52 experience and the whiteboard message relate directly to the making and release of albums, particularly in this season so rich in releases—many long-awaited—by various Halifax artists. Dog Day’s Night Group, the band’s first full-length, being chief among them.
On the public, world-outside side of the door bands make albums beyond normal time and space. They go into studios that are almost states of suspension. The world away from that insular world doesn’t really understand what goes on. The band simply and eventually emerges with a record to share.
This is where the whiteboard message—update regularly and communicate—makes sense. Fans want their artists to release records often—to update regularly—and they want those releases to reach and to move them—to communicate.
“We kinda spent a long time just chipping away at it,” says Seth Smith, the tall and thin guitarist/vocalist, who split songwriting on Night Group with drummer KC Spidle. Crystal Thili plays keyboards and Nancy Urich plays bass and sings. (All except Smith, the designated driver, sip beer in the sweat-perfumed space.)
Of course, Smith’s comment indicates a band’s sense of time. Deep down in a project, time’s passage slows in the studio, while it flows and rushes in the world outside. All told, Night Group takes less than a year from the start of recording at Andrew Watt’s Common Ground Studio in central Halifax through two stages of mixing to its release on April 20 at the North Street Church. Plus the fact Dog Day’s Thank You EP only came out in 2005 and there was a cassette split with Husband and Knife in late 2006. The band hardly disappeared from the public imagination.
Dog Day worked hard at recording, so much so, Spidle says, the band left little time for mixing.
“All of a sudden we realized ‘Wait a sec, we have one week to mix this,’” Spidle says, agitation welling up. “Six months recording— dicking around—and just being in la-la-land and we literally had seven days to mix the record. And that’s where we lost the vision and we didn’t hear it anymore.”
Agrees Smith: “We couldn’t hear it anymore.”
Spidle, by far the most animated and forthcoming of the quartet, lost his ability to perceive the record’s intention—to make a classic, enduring melodic pop record that has universal thematic and sonic appeal—and lost his hearing after a few too many days of loudness.
“Yeah, so literally and metaphorically I couldn’t hear anything,” Spidle grumbles.
Still, all are happy with the result. The album achieves its intention of offering something, as Smith says, “Modern. We wanted to avoid making a hip record.”
Take as an indication of the band’s desire to avoid easy compartmentalizing the fact that Dog Day signed to the German label Tomlab (Black Mountain Music in Canada) for Night Group. Tomlab already plays host to violin-wielding Torontonian Final Fantasy, Deerhoof, Les Georges Leningrad, Vancouver’s P:ano and Xiu Xiu, among others—a varied roster to be sure.
“It’s hard to tell why I was really falling in love with this band,” writes Tomlab owner Tom Steinle, who checked out and then signed Dog Day on a recommendation from a recording engineer who worked on a Final Fantasy album. “But I must say that it was the first guitar band in years that I really, really liked.”
The songs on Night Group declare the band’s version of “life and how to live it”—to quote REM from its glorious pre-superstardom days—in these complex times. Taken together, the tunes proclaim the need to live life free of soul-destroying jobs, a shallow and high speed world obsessed with materialistic measures of success, stringent and self-absorbed pop-culture codes. Put simply, life is to be lived at one’s own pace and on one’s own terms—themes of individuality and defiance the band first introduced on Thank You.
“I encourage the end of the world to come soon so you and I can be alone,” Smith sings on “End of the World.” “Oh Dead Life” includes the repeated “I’m in no rush!” Fans of the band will recognize most, if not all of these songs from past live shows. For example, “Vow,” a tune delivered at Sonic Youth-speed, has been around awhile now. Still, nothing beats Smith and Urich singing together: “I will not be a witness/I will not testify/I will not tell a promise/I will not break a lie.”
Musically speaking, Night Group presents 12 songs of modern melodic melancholia at its best. Despite a louder, punchier mix than heard on Thank You, the smart playing and tuneful arrangements remain and continue to support the idea of finding the peace and stillness necessary for a life well lived. In connecting music and theme so closely over a full-length, Dog Day is now in league with the The Shins, several Swedish groups from the Cardigans onward and British pioneers including The Smiths, New Order and Jesus and Mary Chain, not to mention some Canadian classics—such as the 1987 album Treehouse by Grapes of Wrath. With the baroque of a Final Fantasy and the barrage of sounds world-renowned bands—Arcade Fire, for one—try to stuff into a single song, Dog Day offers—and symbolizes—an enticing simplicity to not just the band’s regular listeners but to anyone who makes music part of their daily life. Steinle calls it “big pop appeal” and maybe that’s all that needs to be said about it.
Dog Day’s sound comes together due in large part to Urich’s solid and deft bass-playing, which is present right from the opener and first single, “Lydia,” and Thili’s imaginative keyboard work.
Thili’s “going from punk to pop and she’s caught on,” offers producer/engineer and Common Ground studio co-owner and Heavy Blinker Andrew Watt, finishing up lunch at a quiet cafe around the corner from the studio. “A lot of the parts that she’s doing are strategically written to bring out the melodies.” (Thili and Spidle also play in hardcore band The Hold.)
Besides Urich’s addition of dreamy vocal accompaniment to Smith’s deeper, sleepy tones, Watt praises her approach to the bass, based on her experience playing guitar in Burdocks with Smith. “A lot of the bass on the final mixes are more kind of upper end, biting and distorted,” Watt notes.
Of the band, he says, “It’s short concise pop music. They just work amazingly together.”
He still smiles in amazement about how Dog Day “put their songs together. Nothing was swept under the carpet.” Even five minutes from the start of recording, says Watt, a verse could be reworked by Smith or Spidle and still fit with—even improve—the song.
The album was recorded and originally mixed with Watt in his studio for a Tomlab release. Label head Steinle came over from Germany to visit the band in studio. But the final mix wasn’t right.
Thus last November Smith hopped on a plane and spent a couple weeks in an isolated German village, living off cheese, bread and beer and surrounded by farm animals, to remix Night Group.
Smith and the rest of the band were nervous at first. “After the first track came back I just knew that it was going to work,” Spidle recalls. “I usually like being a big part of the production of any album I do, but in this case, going crazy and stuff…”
Smith called, sent pictures and the newly realized tracks frequently. “It was fun to get them and to hear all the craziness, the echoes and the space,” says Urich.
“The gain,” adds Spidle. “Just pumped up, you know? Just the way it should be and a way I didn’t know how to achieve.”
All agree, including Watt, that the only measurable difference was the gain, the loudness. Smith’s voice retains the plaintive, sombre quality but it’s more prominent in the mix.
“I think it’s a dream scenario,” Watt concludes. “The two couples get along, they’re friends.”
Thili and Spidle are married and Smith and Urich live together with their dog Woofy. The outsider may presume the intensity and immersion of making a record would strain the couples. Not so, says Thili. “We forgot we were couples during the recording. We were living . We’d go there after work so we didn’t talk about it at home because we were sleeping.”
The quartet learned to communicate musically through making Thank You. “We’d all been friends for years but we started playing together by working on that album and learning those songs,” Thili explains.
“Thank You wasn’t a band album,”says Spidle. “It materialized in a bedroom with a bunch of people that didn’t play together very much. Night Group is us, we’re a band. We have a total focus now. Collectively we know what we want to do.”
Putting perhaps the finest point on it, says Spidle, the album “sounds like our life.”
In the warrens and dens of Area 52 alone, the musical lives and labours are myriad. For the rest of us who lead other and different lives, the thought of musicians, like their counterparts in writing and art, hidden away and toiling enlivens and animates this city. And makes us happy to wait for them to update regularly and to communicate.
Dog Day CD release w/The Stolen Minks (all-ages), April 20 at the North Street Church, 5657 North. 8pm, $5, www.dogdaymusic.com
Sean Flinn is a freelance writer and aspiring author living in Halifax.