When Montreal quartet the Stills emerged back in early 2003, they were touted as the newest hipsters on the scene. They were mistaken for then-chic Brooklynites, and the media hype surrounding them often focused more on their sartorial sharpness and winning good looks than on their music.
The band protested these shallow depictions. How were blazers with tattered jeans and beaten-up shoes as fashionable as the tailor-made suits worn by the members of Interpol (a group they were often compared to)?
Perhaps anticipating more of the same, the band, now a quintet, has defied expectations, taking a dramatic left turn with its sophomore album, Without Feathers, due May 9.
Gone is the '80s-inflected romantic noir pop (think Echo & the Bunnymen and the Psychedelic Furs) of their debut, Logic Will Break Your Heart. In its place is a warmer sound with nods to the Beatles and Bob Dylan and shades of classic rock and alt-country.
The first move of their reinvention was ditching their guitar-effects pedals.
"The piano and the B-3 organ, those are our new effects," said former drummer turned singer/guitarist Dave Hamelin. "There's some reverb, but it's not a super-altered album. We didn't want to mess around. We [didn't] need to spoil the songs with tons of sh-- on top."
Named after a Woody Allen book, Without Feathers also became a larger metaphor for change. The Stills looked to the constantly evolving careers of the Beatles, Dylan, the Clash and Radiohead for inspiration and validation, but they still had their fears. "Everybody had trepidation," Hamelin said of their developing sound. "But were we going to put out another album that [follows trends], or were we going to challenge ourselves? We wanted to keep ourselves interested."
It didn't help that the band felt its sound had oversaturated the market. "I thought after the Rapture there'd be no more dancey, punky new-wave bands," he explained. "I thought we [were] late on the train. And then everybody [jumped on that sound]. It's almost embarrassing. So we didn't even want to operate there — we didn't want to be part of that context anymore."
But bucking the trends is risky business for a young, newly established act, and the band is already anticipating a backlash. Even though he wrote many songs on Logic, with his new move to co-frontman next to Tim Fletcher, Hamelin already expects the blame for the musical sea change to fall squarely on his shoulders.
"I would be an easy target — me and [new keyboardist] Liam [O'Neil]. 'They ruined the Stills. Where's "Still in Love"? I wanna dance!' " he laughed.
Changing their sound wasn't just reactionary, though. After a few frustrating months of touring, the band parted ways with guitarist Greg Paquet, and Hamelin decided he no longer wanted to stay behind the kit. The Stills then made touring multi-instrumentalist O'Neil a permanent member of the group and enlisted new drummer Julien Blais (the band is rounded out by bassist Olivier Corbeil). Their newfound proficiencies helped them explore new musical avenues.
Feathers was originally scheduled for fall 2005, but a competitive fourth-quarter market bumped it into 2006. Initially the guys were incredibly annoyed, but the delay became a blessing in disguise, enabling them to keep tweaking, writing and adding the occasional horn or two. It also gave them time to rope in some guest players, including Metric's Emily Hanes (vocals on "It Takes Time"), Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew (backing vocals on "She's Walkin' Out") and Apostle of Hustle guitarist Julian Brown.
The Stills are currently planning a video for the album's first single, "Destroyer" — the song is a thinly veiled carp on those who initially didn't believe in their new direction. "It's about being disenfranchised by the powers that be, but more personally," he said. "It's about a loss of control and being really angry at that loss of control. But then again, [we're] control freaks."
Track list for the Stills' Without Feathers, according to the band's publicist:
- "In the Beginning"
- "The Mountain"
- "She's Walkin' Out"
- "In the End"
- "Oh Shoplifter"
- "Halo the Harpoons"
- "It Takes Time"
- "Baby Blues"
- "The House We Live In"
The Stills tour dates, according to the band's publicist:
- 3/7 - Guelph, ON @ Vinyl
- 3/9 - St. Catharines, ON @ L3 Nightclub
- 3/10 - Peterborough, ON @ Trasheteria
- 3/11 - Collingwood, ON @ Blue Mountain
- 3/17 - Austin, TX @ Stubbs BBQ
- 3/18 - Austin, TX @ La Zona Rosa
- 4/2 - Boston, MA @ TT the Bear
- 4/3 - Philadelphia, PA @ The Church
- 4/4 - New York, NY @ Mercury Lounge
- 4/5 - New York, NY @ Mercury Lounge
- 4/8 - Baltimore. MD @ Sonar
- 4/9 - Cleveland, OH @ Grog Shop
- 4/10 - Detroit, MI @ Saint Andrews Hall
- 4/11 - Columbus, OH @ The Basement
- 4/13 - Chicago, IL @ Double Door
- 4/14 - Minneapolis, MN @ Varsity
- 4/15 - Omaha, NE @ Sokol Auditorium
- 4/17 - Salt Lake City, UT @ Club Sound
- 4/19 - San Diego, CA @ Casbah
- 4/20 - Los Angeles, CA @ Troubadour
- 4/21 - San Francisco, CA @ Popscene
- 4/24 - Portland, OR @ Doug Fir Lounge
- 4/25 - Seattle, WA @ Crocodile
- 4/26 - Vancouver, BC @ Richard's on Richards
- 4/28 - Calgary, AB @ Broken City
- 4/29 - Edmonton, AB @ Power Plant at the University of Alberta
- 4/30 - Saskatoon, SK @ USSU
- 5/1 - Regina, SK @ Distrikt
- 5/2 - Winnipeg, MB @ West End Cultural Center
- 5/9 - Kingston, ON @ Elixir
- 5/11 - Toronto, ON @ Phoenix
- 5/13 - Montreal, QC @ Spectrum
- 5/17 - Hamilton, ON @ Underground
- 5/18 - London, ON @ Call the Office