Young Galaxy The Metamorphosis
Published Oct 28, 2015"They don't respect the boundaries of our profession," Stephen Ramsay jokes quietly over the phone. It's a Friday evening, and while setting interview times with bands can often be a fickle balancing act between stints on the road and incalculable hours in the studio, the real reason Young Galaxy's central members, Ramsay and wife Catherine McCandless, have requested this unusual time to speak is because of their two young sons, Fergus and Giles.
"We just put down our older boy, but he's listening to the War on Drugs, so he'll be up for another hour or so," Ramsay explains, adding that he and McCandless have even warmed up the fireplace in their new Montreal home for this moment of downtime-slash-work. "You have to structure your life more with kids."
In the past five years, the core members of Young Galaxy have juggled both a domestic life and a creative one. On another night, the couple might go from tucking their kids into bed straight to the stage of a buzzing nightclub to leading an invigorating dance party. "Suddenly I hit the stage and I feel quite extreme," McCandless admits.
Young Galaxy run on these types of dualities. Ramsay and McCandless are parents by day and musicians by night; they're a rock band who have learned to tell stories through synths; and they exist in an industry that thrives on a "glut of music" (says Ramsay) yet, while discussing their successes over the years, he is not afraid to admit they don't necessarily pull in the "sexy numbers" in album or tour sales.
This isn't to say Young Galaxy aren't appealing, but they're not flashy. "We're not really that kind of band," he says. "I think we're an anomaly." Ramsay describes McCandless as "an introvert-turned-frontperson," while Ramsay himself has pushed past his rock star years, now comfortably settling into his early 40s. They are rounded out by two younger members (keyboardist Matt Shapiro and drummer Andrea Silver, who plays live but didn't participate in recording the new record) but even then, Ramsay can only describe the band as a "weird Frankenstein's monster."
In this sense, Ramsay likens them to English new wave band, New Order. "They were one of the most influential bands who really have no cult personality," Ramsay says, with more pride than slight. "There was a dichotomy between what they were on paper and what they were musically."
But don't be fooled: Young Galaxy are very much in their youth after a musical rebirth in recent years and a string of new collaborators. This second chapter of sorts is one of precision and force, polished by an omnipresent sense of glossy, pristine production, and the excitement surrounding their fifth album, Falsework, proves that the band is just beginning to get their feet wet in the world of synth music. With Falsework, Young Galaxy finally have the world's attention and are now emerging from the shadows less like an ambling Mary Shelley creature and more like the poised, world-beating band they've built themselves up to be.
Ramsay is grateful for Young Galaxy's decade-long survival. As a touring member of seminal indie-pop outfit Stars during the band's 2004 breakout release Set Yourself on Fire, he caught the attention of the band's label at the time, Arts & Crafts, and Young Galaxy (then just a duo with McCandless) were quickly signed on the strength of a few demos. Without a full set of songs or even a show under their belt, their debut self-titled album came out in 2007. Place that band next to the Young Galaxy of today, though, and it's tough to spot any sonic similarities — those two versions of the band would probably not share a bill together.
Young Galaxy was an earnest effort steeped in thick layers of shoegaze, echoing guitars and impassioned lyrics delivered solely by Ramsay. "I had this antiquated idea of what I wanted to be musically, because it was an idea I had since I was 15 years old," Ramsay says. (McCandless chimes in: "More like four years old.") "The music we were making early on was a reflection of this old idea, and I realized that, in playing it and going through the process of living inside that music, it wasn't the thing that was exciting me. The process of finding out who we were as a band was a very honest one."
It has taken years for Young Galaxy to metamorphose. Their 2009 sophomore album Invisible Republic introduced minor synth flourishes on an otherwise guitar-dominated rock record, while 2011's Shapeshifting began bending riffs to fit a more rhythmically driven sound that was slowly dissolving into a granular soundscape of synth-rock. It was evident that the band knew how to write a good hook — a nugget of pop transcendence such as Invisible Republic's glimmering "Queen Drum" or Shapeshifting's soaring highlight "We Have Everything" — but the fight for dominance between rock chords and electronic embellishments got in the way of a consistent product.
Ultramarine completed the transformation in 2013; the band were fully submerged in the fluidity of dance music. The ringing clarity of powerful dance-pop singles "Pretty Boy" and "New Summer" was some of their most confident work to date, and Young Galaxy were now led by McCandless on vocals. While she doesn't fully agree with Ramsay's earlier assessment of her as an introvert, McCandless was very reluctant to take over at first. "My confidence has shot up as a vocalist," she says. "I try to challenge myself and I'm trying to do things that are beyond my comfort zone and what I think my skill level is."
The band's strong overall vision on Ultramarine resulted in a Polaris Music Prize shortlist nomination: six years, four albums and a complete 180.
Two things can be attributed to this change: a pile of inherited analogue synths and a brand new unofficial member. By chance, some years ago, Ramsay came into an oversized collection of old synths when a man at the band's old rehearsal space was getting evicted and decided to bestow his collection of instruments onto a curious Ramsay. His haul included some dance music staples, including a Roland Juno-60 and a Roland TB-303. This was, as Ramsay saw it, "a sign from the musical gods to say, 'Go make analogue synth music.'"
This stoked Ramsay's desire to create more movement in his music by smoothing out the jagged edges made by his rigid guitar habits, but these blueprints still needed a skilled conductor to reroute Young Galaxy's sound completely. Enter Swedish musician and producer Dan Lissvik.
In the early 2000s, Dan Lissvik was one half of the electronic band Studio alongside Rasmus Hägg. The band helped usher in a Balearic revival, reconstructing disco and pop-infused dance rhythms through the lens of '80s new wave, creating an effortless, flowing sound, especially on their two most notable releases, Yearbook 1 and Yearbook 2. This proficiency in crafting icy smooth tunes became an asset in remixing other artists' music as well, lending their sounds to fellow Swedes Love Is All and Shout Out Louds, but also Australian pop star Kylie Minogue on the 2007 track, "2 Hearts."
Ramsay and McCandless's working relationship with Lissvik emerged from the chrysalis of a simple remix request. Having been fans of Studio and their slicked-back electronic sound, the couple reached out for a remix of an Invisible Republic track at first. While the band weren't entirely satisfied with the results, Young Galaxy and Lissvik agreed to work together on their next record, Shapeshifting. The terms of that initial partnership was less collaborative and more service, though.
"The first one we did with Dan was literally a remix record," Ramsay says in retrospect, though not that literally. The band wrote all the songs and trusted Lissvik to mould them into shape. "We sent him the files and he just did whatever he felt like to the original ideas." He attributes this simplified way of working to the fact that the band and Lissvik completed Shapeshifting on separate continents, only ever exchanging notes on the album via Skype. "People kept saying to us, 'Are you crazy?' but we really believed that he would do something amazing and we were thrilled with what he did," McCandless adds.
Indeed, the band continued working with Lissvik through Ultramarine and now Falsework; he is even referred to as a "sound member" by Ramsay. With a strong bond formed, Young Galaxy flew to Sweden to record Ultramarine with Lissvik, where members could bring their two-dimensional interactions to an in-your-face reality.
"He dances at you," Ramsay says, of Lissvik's physical way of communicating musical thoughts. This animated energy may come as a surprise; Lissvik is often known for being quiet and reserved. To this day, Lissvik avoids the heavy promotional machinery behind the music industry and has often declined interviews, including for this story, which Ramsay notes is a shame. "He's low-key in some ways, but he's very funky and groovy and he has an incredible sense of rhythm."
The working process on Falsework was another stepping stone. Last November, Ramsay flew to Sweden to begin writing songs with Lissvik, "to see what it would be like to blend our work together," Ramsay says.
"It was really hard for me, actually," he continues. "He was hard on me. He challenged me and took a lot of our ideas and kind of tore them apart. That was a very different experience and I came back feeling exhausted — not in a way that was upsetting to me, but Dan knew he could be more ruthless with me."
With the more rigorous writing session and sharing studio time in both Sweden and at home (Lissvik flew to Montreal because McCandless was pregnant), the band feel that they have brought their partnership full circle, and this harmony is reflected in the final product. "Body" is a visceral, pulsating ode to physicality, "Factory Flaws" is a disco-inspired jewel and "We're No Good" is a beautiful serene breath of balladry. "It's a much more minimal record in terms of tracking," Ramsay notes. "It doesn't have as much layering, it's more direct."
The minimalism is a clear statement of confidence, of just how assured the band are now. There is no need for falsework anymore; to paraphrase McCandless on a sprawling track on the new album: "You're ready / Ready to shine."
Lissvik isn't the only trusted member in the Young Galaxy orbit of collaborators. Falsework is accompanied by a short story written by music critic, Giller Prize winner and long-time friend Sean Michaels, and for their upcoming tour, the band will be teaming up with choreographers Street Parade for an extravagant live show featuring backup dancers.
While the band have accommodated Ramsay and McCandless's growing family over the past five years (Fergus spent many of his first months in a tour van), they are even more conscious of scheduling tours this time around to promote Falsework.
A tour hasn't been solidified just yet, but Ramsay knows that the dates (tentatively set for early 2016) will be "short blasts" instead of long, extensive trips. The future hinges on an increasing number of factors now (kids, touring, album success), but Ramsay and McCandless aren't concerned with any of that. They've learned to zero in on the now and, in turn, hope that sets an example for their children.
"I have stopped thinking about the future since having children, which sounds strange and counterintuitive," McCandless says. "You have to be so present with your kids and we just feel that it's really important to give them the flavour of a life filled with things that we find value in. So right now, we want to make music and we want to be adaptable to whatever tomorrow throws at us in case we can't do it anymore."
Ramsay is the first to point out the "absurdity of being my age and doing what I do," but rather than become complacent, he has decided to embrace risks and challenges such as their ever-evolving sound and the decision to up their live performance with additional dancers. "In general it means that I don't fucking care if it crashes or burns," he says. "I would rather do that than fizzle out. We want to take it to the next level and go out in flames."