German playwright Bertolt Brecht invented the word verfremdungseffekt to describe the feeling of coming into contact with something strange and unknown. Even though the word wasn’t uttered during our interview with Thus Owls’ Simon Angell, it was obvious that’s what he was trying to convey about the desire he shares with his musician wife Erika to break through the “invisible barrier” between the audience and their band. Brecht called the process“breaking the fourth wall.” This idea – simple, yet difficult to execute – turned out to be the fuse that kick-started the creation of their current, fourth album, The Mountain That We Live Upon.
“We’d been working on this for 18 months,” says Angell, referring to the conceptual concert Thus Owls gave last month at Montréal’s Centre PHI. “It’s kinda weird that we worked on the show before working on the album,” he says, before adding, “one feeds the other, as they say.”
People usually write new songs before recording them, and then taking them to the stage. But here, with no other songs than the ones from their three previous recordings (the last one, Black Matter, came out in late 2015), while thinking about their live show, an album manifested itself.
“Generally, for a concert, the band plays on an elevated stage, with the audience in front of them,” says Angell. “We wanted to break that. We wanted people to come into our world, just as we’re in theirs. A level playing field, if you will.” Centre PHI was the perfect place for that. A lab. The band in the middle of the venue, with the audience all around them. “We couldn’t ask for a better venue,” says Angell. “We were six musicians: the core of the band, Erika, myself and drummer Samuel Joly, plus three additional guitarists dispersed in the audience. In another room was an installation with a typewriter and mic hooked up to delay effects, as well as Karl Lemieux, who was in charge of projections during the show. And a contemporary dancer. It was quite the multi-disciplinary performance!”
It was awesome, says Angell. Even the sound was optimal, despite the technical challenges of having guitarists and their amps in various spots of the venue. “It was the best sound I’ve ever experienced in my career as a musician – it even changed depending on where you stood in the room,” he says. But what would Brecht, a well-known aficionado of tortured indie rock, have thought about it? He probably would’ve said, it’s nice, but what’s the point? Breaking a wall is fine, but what do you have to say?
“Good question,” the musician admits. “It all comes back to the concept of the album, which was mostly developed by Erika, since she’s the lyricist. So, Erika and I are a couple, and we were considering the project of having kids and starting a family. It took us years before deciding we were going for it. That’s the concept of the album. The time it took for us to make that decision. The album’s lyrics talk about our concerns, especially from her perspective, a feminist point of view. How it changes everything in the life of a couple, how it impacts work, creativity. It’s an album about our rapport to the concept of family.”
The doubts that underscored their conversations can clearly be heard on The Mountain That We Live Upon. As is the habit for Thus Owls, greys win over light, and Erika’s voice pierces through foggy guitars and drums. Even the brightest melodic spells are clouded over by Angell’s guitar playing.
“That’s us, basically,” says the musician. “It’s the expression of our personalities, even though we’re not gloomy people. Life isn’t black or white, there are grey moments; we’re all humans in the same way. We’re only trying to express that musically. Sweet and chill moments, with weirder times… That’s life!”
As he explains, even their writing method is strange. Each on their own. They rarely work together on a song. “We’re both quite solitary persons,” he says. They each come up with song ideas, then share them with the other, and a game of creative ping-pong ensues. It’s in the studio, with the full band, that any given idea gets embodied.
“We’re not the type of band who’ll spend a year in the studio to fine-tune the result,” says Angell. “We recorded this album in four days, because we love the live vie of things. All the songs were recorded with three takes or less. We love this… I don’t want to say ‘jazz,’ but we do chase the energy of the moment. I believe this energy vanishes after three takes. If you don’t have it, the energy isn’t there, so we throw everything out and get back to it some other time.” Everything was recorded live at the Hotel2Tango studios; the sound is raw, “the drums ‘bled’ into the piano.”
As for the concert that’s the genesis of this project, Erika and Simon Angell want to perform it again in that multi-disciplinary format. In the meantime, the couple will have a few great opportunities to perform the songs from The Mountain That We Live Upon: on Nov. 30 at Bar Le Ritz PDB where they’ll open for Marissa Nadler (and again on Dec. 1 at Toronto’s Baby G), on Jan. 18, 2019, at Théâtre Outremont, back in Montréal, guesting for CHANCES, and on the 24th at Sala Rossa during the young and new festival Lux Magna, also in Montréal.