By Jason Stacey
You’d think a celebrated veteran Canadian band like The Trews — with countless radio hits, ecstatic fans from Dublin to Des Moines plus multiple EPs, a pair of live albums and a retrospective — would regard studio album number six as a cinch. After all, it’s their career equivalent to Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti or REM’s Green, the Beatles’ Rubber Soul and The Tragically Hip’s Phantom Power; the apex of decades-long musical ingenuity arriving at a juncture where there is nothing, truly not one thing, left to prove.
Yet you’d be dead wrong. In what can only be described as a rage against stasis, The Trews approached Civilianaires, their electrifying and wildly original follow-up to 2014’s The Trews, the way a contractor tackles a kitchen reno: tearing things down to the studs, then building out piece by new piece.
We sat down with lead guitarist, John-Angus MacDonald to discuss the new album, their current tour and what it was like to work with legendary Producer, Bob Rock.
q: Civilianaires is your 6th studio album and some have called it your best to date. Can you talk a bout the new album and about the process?
a: It was a long process getting to this record. Our last full-length studio release was in 2014, so this is the longest gap we’ve ever taken between albums. And that’s because we had a lot of shake ups, both personally and professionally. In the time between our last two records, I had two kids, we lost a founding member of the band (Sean Dalton left in late 2014) and we split ways with our manager of 15 years. A lot of things changed, so it took us a while to find our footing again. I don’t want to describe it as false starts, because everything we did went towards the record in the end, but we started to make the record several times with the thinking that we were going to do it one way and didn’t end up seeing it through. The good news is that every time we entered the studio we produced some tracks that eventually made it on to the record. We entered the studio in early 2017 with Max Kerman of Arkells. I had been showing him some of our demos and unfinished songs and he was giving me some feedback on them and that eventually led to a collaboration in the studio on three songs (“Vintage Love,” “Is It Too Late” and “Jericho”) all of which made the record, but in a different way because we ended up “reproducing” them with Derek Hoffman. We also entered the studio in the summer of that year with legendary producer Bob Rock and we did another four songs (“Leave It Alone,” “Civilianaires,” “Amen” and “Way Too High”). Those sessions didn’t get completed because Bob had a bit of a health scare so we had to cancel the next session and before we could reschedule it we met Derek Hoffman. Once we started working with Derek everything started to click. We quickly wrote 4 or 5 songs that really excited everyone, we sort of had an “aha” moment in that we found the sound we wanted for the whole album. It was distinctly Trews, yet a new thing. It felt fresh and reinvigorating so we went with it and took all of the sessions that we had done up to that point and gave them to Derek to tie the album together.
q: Is what you’re looking for an evolution of your sound and song writing and are you wanting to bring something new to the table with each album?
a: We always are. I know it’s a cliché that you have your whole life to write your first album, but it’s true. Some of the songs that ended up on our first record (2003’s House of Ill Fame) were songs that we had been working on for two or three years. As a young band you never think in terms of making a record and that it will be on the radio or anything like that, you’re mostly developing material for your live set. In our case, the first album came out and was a runaway success, having a number 1 single on it and being certified gold, which caught all of us by surprise. Eventually, you have to go back in the studio and follow that up but you have to do like 200 shows in between. The next record, Den of Thieves, was done really quickly. We didn’t have much time to plot what we wanted to do we just went in and did it quickly and it worked. But then what starts happening is you start to react to your previous record. In the case of our third album “No Time for Later”, we really wanted to make something different than our first two records, which were essentially live off the floor with a few overdubs and fixes. For No Time For Later we hired Gus Van Go and Werner F from Brooklyn, who were more cutting edge when it came to how they approach making records, so we did this really polished and precise album with them. In response to that, we made Hope and Ruin next at the Bathouse Studio, which is the most rustic and organic album we’ve ever made. So you find yourself reacting to whatever you just did. In the case of Civilianaires, because we had this four-year window between releases, we actually sat back and thought about what we wanted to do next. We got to reflect on the material we were working on and we wrote a TON of songs, but the whole thing still felt a little scattered. You don’t really have a fully articulated vision of what you want until you hear it. By the time we met Derek, the whole record was done in the span of a few weeks because we knew we hit on something special and we finished it up quickly at that point.
q: What was it like to work with Bob Rock?
a: It was really cool, I wish we got to do more. He’s one of those great wizards His suggestions are somewhat vague but also very deep in a weird way. I think he still respects the magic in the process. He’s been making records for so many years and some of them have changed the landscape of recorded music. When you’ve had that kind of success, you either start to phone it in, which he doesn’t, or you learn to respect the magic and respect the intangibles in the process. He knew we could play, so he just wanted to try to get to the “lightning in a bottle moment”. It was a really fun weekend of work that we did with him, and I hope we can do more at some point in the future.
q: When you establish a relationship with a producer, do they come in with their own ideas or do they allow you guys to start with your ideas and take-off from there?
a: I produce records for other artists now so I see both sides. It’s the band’s job to write the songs. If the band has any kind of vision or original sound, they should be bringing that part. Certainly, there could be co-writing, but that has to be done before you get into the studio in my opinion. Some producers are great co-writers. We wrote some great songs with Derek, for instance. I think the producer is there to help manifest the song in the most effective way possible. In the case of producing young bands, for example, I produced the first couple of releases for the Glorious Sons, who are well known now – when I met them, they were very young and had never worked with a producer before. So they needed help with their arrangements. They had great songs but they needed to be tighter and more concise and we had to work on everyone’s instrumental parts so they sounded good as a unit. That kind of advice and input can be really revelatory and doesn’t tend to happen when you’re writing and producing your own stuff. It’s really hard to be objective and subjective at the same time. Even in my case, even though I know how to produce records, I still like bringing in producers because I’m as likely to fall into that trap of being too precious with my own ideas as much as any other artist is. That’s why we like to have another opinion in the room. It takes a lot of trust because you have to respect the producer enough to listen to their suggestions and give it a try.
q: You’ve collaborated with some amazing artists over the years, including Serena Ryder, who co-wrote the title track for your new album. What do you look for in another artist that will hopefully bring out the best in your band?
a: Again, it’s that trust thing, as long as you respect each other and everyone is going for the same thing, it can be great fun to co-write. We’ve co-written with our producers over the years and with other people as well. There’s also the “blind date” style of co-writing where we’ve gone to Nashville and just had publishers set us up with 4 different writers a day, where you just go from session to session and you just write a bunch of songs for different purposes and that can be a little awkward. We’re not the kind of band that can separate ourselves from the process, we feel like writing is a really personal thing. Unless you’re on the same wave length as the person you’re writing with, it’s going to be a failed experiment. So we don’t really look for anything except chemistry and people that we hit it off with.
q: What can the fans expect from a live show on this tour?
a: We’ve been doing a lot of the new album and it’s been going over great. The new material has a dynamic quality to is different for us. We’ve done some dynamic things that we haven’t done on our previous records, which has given the set a good pace. There’s a lot of flow to it and I think that’s because of the new material. We’re also playing old favorites, so anyone who comes and wants to hear some of the older stuff, we’re still doing all that. We’re pretty happy with how it’s going.
q: The Trews have been named Canadian Ambassadors for Record Store Day 2019, which celebrates independent record stores. What does that mean to you guys?
a: I think it’s important. This is about supporting the little guy and the physical manifestations of music, like music that you can still touch. That’s very likely to go away entirely if not for these little guys, because the main chains are already gone, like HMV. It’s up to these shop owners to figure out how to make it work and keep it open for the passion of collectors and the people that still like to go out and discover music. These shops are great hubs for music communities and music discovery, so we support them and we’re happy to represent Record Store Day. We also have a vinyl reissue of our second album, Den of Thieves, coming out on Record Store Day. We re-released the first album, House of Ill Fame, on vinyl last year for RSD and it was a big success cause we had never released it on vinyl before. We hope for the same result this year and to drive people out to the stores.
q: Was vinyl a big part of your love of music growing up?
a: I was born in 1980, so by the time I was collecting my own music it was on cassette, but my parents had a massive vinyl collection, most of which I own now. Mostly I remember the artwork for albums like Sgt Pepper by The Beatles. I have vivid memories of listening to the music and exploring every nook and cranny of the sleeve. It made a big impression. So ya, I have very fond memories of listening to vinyl growing up. And it makes me proud to press our own vinyl records. It’s one thing to get a file from the mixer in your email and give it a listen but it’s quite another walk into a room at your record label or whatever and see a stack of your own records sitting there. It makes you feel like you really brought something tangible into the world.
q: You guys have opened up for some legendary rock i cons like The Stones, Springsteen, the list goes on. Is there anyone left on your bucket list that you want to perform with?
a: Of course. When it comes to artists that we love and respect, there’s a long list. I’d love to play with AC/DC and I think of Bob Dylan and Neil Young as two of the greatest that ever walked the earth and I’d love to cross paths with them. I have such respect and admiration for artists like that. And I’m also grateful for the experiences we’ve had so far and who we’ve been lucky enough to play with. It’s a dream come true to go on tour with Robert Plant or share the stage with Bruce Springsteen, Aerosmith, Kiss, The Rolling Stones and all these great groups. It really is a rock n roll fantasy, you never expect in a million years that you’re going to be doing this stuff. They are memories we will always cherish.
q: What does it mean to you when you’re mentioned in the same breath as other great Canadian artists?
a: It makes me happy. One of the things about Canada is that we have a really healthy rock scene. Just look at the nominees for Rock Album of the Year at this year’s Juno awards. It’s a really strong list and there probably could have been 10 more on there. Canada puts out a lot of good rock n roll. And the people support it live. We were just touring out west in the dead of winter and we were crossing paths with Arkells, Monster Truck, Mother Mother, all these great bands and everyone’s shows are selling out, the fans are going out to all of them. It’s a really healthy live scene.