July Talk’s sweet-and-sour style has gone full-on umami
Music | by Emmet Matheson
“When we started, I remember telling my mom that it would be nice to see different parts of Ontario,” says July Talk singer Leah Fay. “That’s how far I thought we might tour. We just didn’t know if anyone would give a fuck.”
Fay is on the phone from Cork, Ireland in mid-November. Two nights earlier, July Talk played London’s Wembley Stadium, the dynastic football venue associated with some of rock and roll’s biggest moments.
July Talk’s success hasn’t been overnight or accidental. The band formed in 2012 after singer/guitarist Peter Dreimanis heard Fay singing in a Toronto bar. The counter-play between gruff Dreimanis and soft-smooth Fay immediately made the band stand out. Their reputation was bolstered by high-energy live shows.
July Talk released their self-titled debut album on Sleepless Records in 2012, and have pretty much been on the road ever since. The album was re-released with extra tracks by Universal the following year and won a Juno for Alternative Album of the Year in 2015, the same year it was released in the U.S.
Along the way, it’s come out across Europe in different permutations.
The gradual, cumulative success had a cost, says Dreimanis. The band was champing at the bit to put out a follow-up, but the various record labels all wanted to work that first one a bit more.
“In the end it worked out, because we could take our time with the new record,” he says. “But we were impatient at first.”
Touch, released in September, is a big step forward for the band. Where the first album had a kind of blues-rock feel and relied on the sweet and sour dynamics of Fay and Dreimanis’ voices, Touch reaches out in different directions — from disco to barroom hymns — and often subverts the expectations of the band’s conceits.
“We just had to keep touring every time we re-released that first album; we had to go see Germany, all over Europe,” says Dreimanis. “We were finally ready to release it in March, in the spring, but our U.S. label wanted us to wait until the fall to give it a full 18 months since we released the first record down there.”
While they were waiting, they had a chance to work on what Dreimanis calls “content”, most significantly shooting three videos for the new album. The videos — “Push + Pull”, “Beck + Call” and “Picturing Love” — are all in the band’s signature black and white, echoing the contrast between the two singers’ voices.
“Beck + Call” highlights one of the ways the band has evolved, its pulse supplied by Tanya Tagaq, the Polaris-winning Inuk throat singer.
“We really tried not to put boundaries on what we can do,” says Dreimanis. “Having that extra time allowed everyone in the band to create openly and draw from all the different things we were listening to, from Spoon to Beyoncé to Portishead.”
One of the most drastic changes is heard on “Picturing Love” and “So Sorry”. Earlier July Talk songs hewed fairly close to the female/male vocal duet pop tradition that runs through everything from the existential confections of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra to the blunt Europop of Aqua’s “Barbie Girl.”
“We tried a lot of different things before we found a new way for Leah to sound,” Dreimanis says. “We had her do her vocals in this really yell-y and bratty style and then do them over again about five or seven times. And then we ran it through this old Beltone amp and you’ve got her voice massively doubled and then doubled again, but it’s not the same take, it’s layers. She’s kind of harmonizing with herself but singing the same notes.”
The result subverts not just our expectations of July Talk, but the whole male-female pop dynamic. There’s role-reversal but also just more nuance and sophistication than the sweet-and-sour convention, which sometimes feels a bit tired and gimmicky. It’s a criticism July Talk is well aware of.
“We really wanted to say ‘fuck you’ to people who thought there was only one thing that July Talk could sound like,” says Dreimanis. “We just wanted to expand the range of characters that we play, the personalities that come out vocally.”
The band is looking forward to coming back to Canada to play the new material on a tour that includes a run through Western Canada in December, which is not always the best time to be on the road in the Prairies. But highway veterans like July Talk aren’t easily deterred.
“Oh yeah, we’ve had times where we’re freezing our asses off somewhere between Winnipeg and Edmonton,” laughs Fay. “But it’s really encouraging that a lot of those shows are already sold out. I have a feeling they’re going to be really good.”
Dreimanis, who grew up in Edmonton, remembers how much it means to Prairie people to have bands show up in the dark days of December when rockers of faint heart might tour sunnier climes. Loud rock shows offer relief and release from the harsh climate.
“For me, it was shows by The Constantines and Black Dice in Edmonton winters,” he says. “People have so much appreciation for bands that come through then.”
Dreimanis tells me that the band has been touring the UK with a band called Catfish And The Bottlemen.
“Who just happen to be blowing up right now over here,” he notes, pointing out the Wembley Stadium gig as proof.
Hours later, as I’m going through my notes, the band name stands out. Catfish and the Bottlemen? Did I have that right? Not Bottlefish and the Catmen? Not Cuttlefish and the Boatmen? Was this right?
Was July Talk pulling my leg? It would not be without precedent.
In 1992, Megan Jasper, a receptionist at Seattle’s Sub Pop Records took a phone call from a reporter at the New York Times who wanted to know if the nascent Grunge Scene had its own slang. Oh yeah, why not? Jasper rattled off a list of ridiculous vernacular like “Swinging on the flippity-flop” for “hanging out” or “lamestain” for an uncool person.
I couldn’t bring myself to Google “Catfish And The Bottlemen” for fear of discovering my very own “Harsh Realm”, Jasper’s term for a bummer. I’m just going to take it on good faith that July Talk thinks I’m cool and not some “Lamestain” “Tom Tom Club” who’s always “Bound and Hagged.”