Constantines stand out from most of their peers in the Pitchfork-approved, “major indie” world of rock music. They shun irony in favour of sincerity. In interviews, they’re earnest and polite instead of flippant and aloof. And unlike too many of their contemporaries, they never come off as elitist.
They are also Canadian. Canadianness is not unusual or uncommon in and of itself, since so many Canadian bands currently enjoy success and acclaim south of the border and elsewhere. But few bands seem as Canadian as the Cons. They have invoked Canadian geography and landmarks in their lyrics, recorded (with Canadian supergroup the Unintended) a split album of Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot covers, and—in case you needed solid proof—named their third album Tournament of Hearts after Discorder’s favourite curling tournament.
Speaking in the Commodore’s green room before their May 1 show, singer/guitarist Bryan Webb admitted that their home and native land “definitely” has an influence their music, a straight-ahead, muscular brand of rock that blends the urgency and ethos of punk with classic rock sensibilities, folk influences and howled heart-on-sleeve lyrics. Webb explained, “For me, it’s just where we grew up. It’s in how we play and how we act and how we are in public, because that’s where we grew up … I’m inspired by the physical part of this country, and I love travelling across Canada, and when we’re in the States or in Europe, I compare everything to travelling through Canada. It’s a pretty nice country to drive through and the variety of landscape is pretty inspiring.”
Webb is hesitant, however, to describe this inspiration as patriotic. “No, not patriotic, really. I don’t rank Canada above other countries in any way, politically or anything. Patriotism is such a loaded idea.” Instead of patriotism or nationalism, Webb prefers to look at this inspiration as regionalism.
“I like regionality in art and music and literature. It gives a good perspective for the writing … It’s just regionalism and sensitivity to one’s surroundings … I think we would have been as sensitive to it if we were from Mexico or something.” Pause for a moment to imagine a Mexican version (¡Los Constantinos!) belting out Mariachi-inspired rock. Awesome.
Fittingly, then, Constantines were in Vancouver for two nights in early May as part of a massive cross-Canada tour with their good friends, Winnipeg’s the Weakerthans. The “Rolling Tundra Revue” took the two bands through more than 20 different Canadian cities, including several smaller stops not often included on rock tours—Nanaimo, Kelowna, Sackville, Regina, Whitehorse (two shows!) and Guelph, the college town in Southern Ontario where the Constantines first came together in 1999—with Webb and Steve Lambke both on vocals and guitar, Dallas Wehrle on bass and Doug MacGregor on drums. After a few years and an album as a four-piece, they brought keyboardist Will Kidman into the fold, and this has been the lineup ever since.
Over March, April and May, the tour has given them some great opportunities to enjoy “some really incredible experiences” in different parts of their beloved country. Webb told stories of campfires and canoeing in Cowichan Bay, seeing Neil Young play in Edmonton and flying in a Cessna 172 Skyhawk over the foothills of the Rockies near Calgary. The single-engine, four-seat Skyhawk is the very same aircraft that appears on the cover and liner notes of the Constantines’ excellent 2008 album, Kensington Heights, their fourth album so far and their first for their new label, Arts & Crafts.
Webb explains that the move from Seattle-based Sub Pop to Toronto’s Arts & Crafts was motivated by a desire to bring the business back to Canada, and have a sense of proximity and community with their label. “We had a great relationship with everyone at Sub Pop and we were really inspired by everyone there, and obviously by the history of bands there,” Webb said. “But the Arts & Crafts office is like a five minute walk from our rehearsal space in Toronto, and just being able to go out for a beer with the people that are handling your business is so much better than feeling like they’re far away.”
To commemorate the tour, the Constantines released a seven-song EP, intended as a companion piece to Kensington Heights. The EP, titled Too Slow for Love, includes stripped-down versions of a few Kensington Heights tracks, a couple of songs from earlier albums, plus a breathtakingly beautiful version of Jon Langford & the Sadies’ “Strange Birds.”
As it turns out, the recording of Too Slow for Love came about through a connection with another beloved Canadian rock band—perhaps the most iconic and most Canadian of all rock bands.
“We were offered a chance to record at the Tragically Hip’s studio, the Bathouse, near Kingston in Bath, Ontario. It was a beautiful house, like an old, Loyalist-era house. They offered us the space to record for a weekend, and we thought it would be fun to just go, and record everything pretty much live off the floor. We had all the amps in different rooms of the house, and we had this little web of cords going into each room connecting everybody. It was a really nice experience, really mellow and easy. I hope that the next record, we can structure the songs so they’re meant to be recorded that way.”
“We had toured a bit with [the Hip], and they were great people, really kind and generous,” Webb went on to explain. “Gord [Downie] actually came in when we were mixing [Kensington Heights], curious to hear the new record and we started to talk to him about whether their studio was available at all in the next year, and they were really into letting us use it.”
Webb said it was a great way for five buddies to spend a weekend. “You can tell they’ve built it to be kind of a clubhouse, just a really nice place to be for a long time. It was great to just hang out, play pool at night, go for a walk on the shore of Lake Ontario.”
Webb doesn’t mention it, but along with a control room, vocal booth, premium analog and digital recording equipment, the Bathouse also boasts a hockey pond on the property. How Canadian.
Still, as much as the Constantines’ music is informed and inspired by Canadian regionalism, its appeal is universal. There is good reason for the media’s repeated references to the Clash, Fugazi, the Replacements and Bruce Springsteen as stylistic touchstones for the Cons. The music and lyrics of Constantines speak to the same universal emotions and urges as do the best songs by these classic acts, combining the youthful exuberance of the Clash, Fugazi’s pounding rhythm section and punishing dual-guitar attack, the ramshackle charm of the Replacements and the common-man sensibilities of the Boss.
Such comparisons aren’t meant to trivialize or belittle Constantines’ music, but to celebrate it. Like their musical forebears, this is the kind of music that kids (of any age) identify with and want to shout along to the choruses of. Over four albums and myriad tours, Constantines have built upon their punk rock roots, adding incisive, literate lyrics and melodic songcraft, while expanding the scope of punk. In addition to the anger, disenfranchisement and bitterness that are typically the province of punk rockers, Constantines have made room for hope, consolation and love.
And these five Southern Ontario boys made sure to keep room for campfires, canoeing and songs about Canada, too.