Music

Band on the Rise: Toronto’s Eight and a Half

Music

Band on the Rise: Toronto’s Eight and a Half

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For anyone who has ever suffered through an agonizing breakup, look no further than the story behind the band Eight and a Half for proof that there’s light at the bottom of the Haagen-Dazs container. Their origin story traces back to the mid-aughts, when indie rockers The Stills were leading the Montreal music explosion, alongside bands like Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade. Then, last year, their ten-year run came to a turbulent end that left their lifelong friendship in tatters. So co-frontman Dave Hamelin did what any guy in his late-twenties might do after a painful parting-of-ways: he skipped town, joining fellow ex-Still Liam O’Neil in Toronto. But instead of wallowing, Hamelin and O’Neil joined drummer Justin Peroff of Broken Social Scene-fame—forming a Canadian supergroup of sorts—to put the finishing touches on songs the trio had been working on since 2009. The result is their upcoming self-titled LP, a collection of melancholic, synth-driven songs that they’ll debut over the next two nights in New York City. Here, lead singer Hamelin and drummer Peroff ruminate on the band’s genesis, recording the album, and that Fellini film everyone’s been asking about.
Are you worried that fans of your previous bands are going to come in with certain built-in expectations?

Justin Peroff: If anything, there might be an expectation on what we sound like, but we don’t sound like either band.
Dave Hamelin: I can’t imagine our fans not liking it. I think the people that liked us before could like this too, but it’s definitely not the same thing. It’s intense in a different way.
J: It has pop elements, it has rock elements, but I can’t sum it up. I don’t know, what are we?
D: It did end up being more electronic than we thought it would. But I wouldn’t call it electronica.
J: It’s basically knowing what you don’t want as opposed to trying to channel something you do want.

How has this new band rejuvenated you?

D: With (The Stills) it felt like it was really difficult to not be ourselves even though we tried so hard not to be ourselves. We were always trying to escape each other because we had been friends for such a long time. What’s so great about Eight and a Half is even though we have preconceived notions of each other, we don’t have thirty years of calling each other names. We don’t have as much baggage.
J: In Social Scene it was the Kevin Drew show. And that was great. He was the master of ceremonies and that was totally fine with all of us.
D: I started in bands as a drummer. Ten years ago I started writing songs, and I felt that maybe at some point in time I should try to sing them. I might have tried to sing my own songs a little too soon, in the past.
J: And I’ve been building beats for a couple years, but Dave responded in a more immediate way to a lot of the drum programming that I did on this.
When were the seeds for Eight and a Half first planted?

J: We met at SXSW, it was a six piece Social Scene with Feist touring with us, and we played the Canadian showcase with The Stills. Dave came up to me and explained that he was a fan of ours. We chatted and chatted and just really hit it off.
D: The Stills had a studio (in Montreal) where we were working on what was going to be our fourth record, and we never ended up using that, so Justin came up for a weekend once in 2009 just to hang out, and we ended up jamming, and we started recording in that studio. Justin had been trying to get me to come visit Toronto because I hadn’t been in a while, and we’d been hanging out for a long time, trading visits. I’d been coming to Toronto so much, that it was Justin’s turn to come to Montreal. I had a new apartment, a guest room, a studio, The Stills were on hiatus, so let’s jam.
J: We stayed in doors the entire weekend and played, and at night we’d go get drunk. It was a celebration of the results to be honest with you.

Had you guys played together before?

J: We never really sat down and jammed. He’d get up and bang a tambourine at a Social Scene show, like 500 other people have.
D: I even got the hook once. I was so drunk and Kevin gave me the hook.

Was there a light bulb moment during that first session?

D: It sounded interesting, and fresh and really fun, and the more we kept going with it, the more we were discovering new things about what the three of us could do together. At some point we realized we have something here, and we should continue to do this. I was feeling pretty distraught, at that time. The Stills were going through a lot of inner turmoil. We were on an internal hiatus where we decided that none of us were going to talk to or see each other. I’m not good at not making music and not working, so this was that thing that occupied that time, and then it became what I was into.

J: There was a chunk of time that fell under the chapter of BSS recording Forgiveness Rock Record, and then I moved to L.A. for a little while, then we toured the record, and when I found myself stepping off the tour bus and calling Dave, and relaying him ideas that I had for certain mixes or sketches that he sent to me, that’s when I realized that this was something that was absolutely happening. I wasn’t searching for something that I felt I needed, because I always felt satisfied creating with BSS, but this naturally manifested itself and became a priority to me and I knew it was going to become more than just us making some noise in Montreal at The Stills’ studio. The chemistry was pretty immediate.

So are you guys just really big Fellini fans ?

D: (Laughs) Yes but that’s not why I named the band what I did. I first started thinking I needed another outlet a long time ago. I loved that movie, and I thought it would be a really strange name for a band.
J: I was immediately jealous of this other outlet that you and Liam had created.
D: The movie is about complete megalomania, and I feel that way sometimes. I relate to Marcello a lot and I’d love to look like him.
J: I’ve never actually seen that film in its entirety.
Dave, as a seasoned drummer, were you ever worried about stepping on Justin’s toes?

D: I’ve never played with a drummer like that. Anything that I write with his drumming automatically won’t sound like anything we’ve done before. One time I went over to him and I was like ‘Hey, do you think I can show you something?’ and he just looked at me and shook his head and went, ‘Are you kidding?’
J: I can be a bit of a dick. I trust myself so much, that I’m a bit of an asshole.
So there were some tense moments during recording?

J: We are both Libras, and as individuals we’re very passionate about what we do. So if there’s a rift, it’s for the right reasons, and we get over it really, really quickly. There’s a mutual respect for what the other person does.
D: A lot of the stuff on the record, its a lot of first and second takes. There’s not a lot of editing ourselves.
J: We’ve never scrapped one song.

How do the songs you wrote for this album differ from the stuff you wrote for The Stills?

D: It’s pretty dark, but there are some lighter moments. I’m a person with a lot of problems, and I’m always in a state of trying to figure myself out, to reconciling myself and the world. It’s really difficult to exist sometimes. I just turned 31, and I wrote a lot of these songs when I was 29 and 30. I try and go through a midlife crisis every couple of months just to keep myself in check. I still need to work on things and change. They’re about a period in my life of intense change, and trying to come to terms with what’s been in my brain since I was a kid. It’s coming from an honest place. It was like I had some cyst that I was etching, digging out for two years. It’s almost out.
J: I double as a therapist.

Eight and a Half plays Mercury Lounge tonight, February 23, and Glasslands tomorrow on the 24th.