SHiNDiG 2011 Winner

illustration by Mark Hall-Patch
illustration by Dana Kearley

As I’m sitting in the Brickhouse with Sleuth on an early Saturday night, patrons waiting in line give us and the three tables we’ve occupied dirty looks from time to time. Regardless, we and the microphone planted in the centre table are left largely to our own devices. Fish swirl in a tank next to where I meet the band: Julian Bowers (drums, guitar), Oliver McTavish (keyboards), Jesse Easter (bass), and Jasper Lastoria (guitar), who refers to himself as “The Lion In Love.”

Their names, staged or otherwise, are pretty indicative of the wealth of personality that lies bubbling on the surface of the rookie ensemble. The band, a distinctively jangly affair, have been floating in Vancouver’s music scene since 2010, but they speak with an outsider’s perspective. The emotions and energy that keep our conversation going into the night are things that I can sometimes forget live inside of most musicians — a genuine sense of innocence, like new skin being exposed to cold air, is a refreshing thing to feel during our interview.

Sleuth | photo by Victoria Johnson
Sleuth | photo by Victoria Johnson

The group is still reeling from their recent victory in CiTR’s annual battle-of-the-bands, SHiNDiG. Though they took the top spot from Tyranahorse and From Birch To Yew, the indie-popists didn’t enter SHiNDiG to win it. As McTavish explains, “We never expected to make it past the first round. A chance to pick up a fan or two, that’s it.” The friends still sound overwhelmed and I can tell that the memory of their name being called by the judges is framed in their collective consciousness like a still from Rocky III.

Despite the win, the group took some flack post-SHiNDiG from critics who were unimpressed with their performance. “I’m not sure how receptive Vancouver is to our kind of music. I think we’re more inside the indie-pop realm, which I don’t think [is very popular] here,” Lastoria muses. He speaks with a quavering confidence that the rest of his band doesn’t emulate, which isn’t to say that their sudden exposure has swelled their egos.

Easter, who speaks with level-headed sincerity, tries to elaborate on the last SHiNDiG performance: “If you were going to plan a gig with those three bands, you wouldn’t put them in that order [with Sleuth playing last, after Tyranahorse]. If our job was to take what Tyranahorse offered and expand upon it, to be as high-energy, as aggressive, to take their direction and move it further… if that’s what we’d needed to do in order to win, then anybody that believes we failed in that would be justified in thinking we shouldn’t have won. The criteria [for the judges] was a bit different.”

“The whole idea of a battle-of-the-bands is really uncomfortable anyways, because you get hostile towards each other,” Lastoria adds. “I’m more interested in a musical community, where you have shows together and you can be friends with people, but during a competition you get into that spirit and people become jerks.”

Sleuth’s first EP, Brave Knew Nothing, is an interesting outing. Packed with a respectable six songs and filled to the brim with jangle-pop and shoegaze hooks, the instrumentation stands in stark contrast with most of the lyrical content, delivered alternately by Lastoria and Bowers. “Apocalypse, Please Sign The Release Form First” couples a cutesy hummed pre-chorus with dark talk about the end of the world, while “We’re Not Friends Yet” delivers bright, twangy guitar-plucking and a cautionary ode to new acquaintances.

“Brit-pop has a lot of melancholy—sad lyrics alongside bright, unapologetically happy instrumentation. It’s a good juxtaposition,” Easter says of Sleuth’s influences, while Lastoria adds, “It’s one of those specifically British pop tropes. It’s just what I grew up listening to.”

Brave Knew Nothing is a smirk of an album, with The Lion In Love’s beautiful voice dealing equally in cute doo-wop choruses and dour apocalyptic prophecies. The mixed messages are definitely intentional, and tend to leave listeners stuck somewhere between swing-dance and moody contemplation.

While available on their Bandcamp page, the EP also came out on cassette tapes. “It’s admittedly an odd decision because not many people have tape players, but they’re neat little objects.” relates McTavish, and neat little objects they are. Of the 66 copies printed (including a 16-copy reissue), each one is hand-crafted with love and attention to detail. Copies of Brave Knew Nothing come with a hand-coloured sleeve, are individually numbered and worded and (according to their Bandcamp, anyway) include “a drawing of some kind.”

“We want to refer to ourselves as an art collective as much as a band,” McTavish continues. “We wanted to make each cassette tape be individual so listeners would have a more personal connection to the item itself, as a work of art, as well as an EP.”

“And,” Easter pipes in happily, “as long as they come with download codes, there’s no risk of it seeming contrived! In a culture of copying, personalizing the experience is really important. There’s something really nice about creating something so personal.”

Part of Sleuth’s band-battle plunder is 20 hours of recording time, and the group wants to waste no time getting into a local studio. “We’re probably going to do a single. I’ve already contacted Colin Stewart at the Hive,” Lastoria explains, but putting tracks down isn’t the only thing keeping these young pop artists busy in the new year.

A potential shot at the North By Northeast music festival in Toronto, as well as a confirmed spot at the NYC Popfest, are big gigs for a band that have only released one cassette. That said, those tapes have been shipped all around the globe, according to The Lion In Love. “Our initial run of cassettes sold mostly outside of Canada: Japan, Germany, a couple in England. We even sold a tape to Singapore. Longest address line I’ve ever seen!”

Leaving the now-crowded bar to say our farewells, I feel like I’ve glimpsed exactly what the judges liked so much about Sleuth: a strong, charismatic yet oddball group of musicians with a growing idea of what they’re doing and how to go about doing it. As Easter told me in parting, “a band is a cross between a polygamist relationship and a sports-team: it’s goal-oriented but very emotionally volatile. Learning how to run a business, and setting aside your egos, is hard. But we have what it takes to prioritize. Being your own harshest critic is bad for your stress level, but really good for your creative output.” While I don’t think this description suits all bands, it fits Sleuth like a glove.