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First Play: Young Galaxy, Down Time

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Melody Lau

Each album cycle has looked different for Young Galaxy. Whether it’s new members, a shift in sound or even a new record label, the Montreal act’s decade-plus career has always existed in a state of flux, for better or worse.

At times, this has made it difficult to nail down the band’s identity — is it a shoegaze rock band or synth-pop outfit? An offshoot project of Stars led by former touring member Stephen Ramsay or a group fronted by Ramsay’s musical and real-life partner, Catherine McCandless? — but its constant transformations are markers of some of its biggest and most successful risks over the years. Now, with its sixth album, Down Time, Young Galaxy is making its boldest move yet: going independent.

When Ramsay and McCandless, who act as a duo now after the departure of members Andrea Silver and Matt Shapiro, began making their latest album, they didn’t know they’d be doing it alone. But as a result of shrinking resources and some growing frustrations, Young Galaxy left its label, Paper Bag Records, and began operating on its own.

“There was this feeling of withdrawing, in some sense,” McCandless explains. But Ramsay was firm on the band’s musical mission the entire time: “We just want to make, I think ultimately the best way of putting it would be, forward-thinking art ... but that’s a tough sell.”

Ramsay is adamant that their art doesn’t participate in the “playing field” that is the current pop-driven mainstream. He says the band has tried over the years to play to that “consumer-based” world and some of the mounting resentment that led to their independency was a result of that.

He offers this analogy: “Imagine there’s a party and everyone’s desperate to be noticed. All these people are going around and they’re poking each other on the shoulder like, ‘Hey! Hey! I wanna tell you something, do you wanna hear something cool?’ It’s kind of what bands or acts are trained to do. But I think we’re starting to feel like, ‘Okay, we’re going to go in the f--king corner and sit here. If a couple of weird goth types come over and they’re like, ‘Oh, who’s this quiet person in the corner?’ then great! We’ll take it!”

Ramsay is very fond of analogies but his lengthy responses can veer too cynical at times. That’s when McCandless steps in to center the conversation back to its main point: “If we take Steve’s metaphor, whatever we’re doing at the party, in the corner, is for us. We’re trying to build our own little self-reliant world.”

With the exception of a few production contributions, including some work by previous collaborator Swedish producer Dan Lissvik, Down Time is Young Galaxy at its most contained and minimal. With just some synths and a computer, Ramsay and McCandless have crafted a sonic universe that doesn’t sound any smaller than their other records. In fact, songs feel expansive, limitless at times, and fiercely determined.

As the songs took shape, McCandless says a message of “bloody-minded, we’re-doing-this” autonomy became a throughline. It seems crystal clear in the final product, with her serene delivery of the line, “It’s OK that we don’t know what is/ it’s OK that we’re alone in this,” on “Seeing Eye Dog,” or “We’ll make more here with less” on the shimmering single “Catch Your Breath.”

Down Time ventures even deeper into the world of electronic music, a gradual but sharp turn that first took form on their 2013 Polaris Music Prize shortlisted breakout, Ultramarine. For Ramsay, the attention is paid less to catchy pop melodies and more to atmosphere, something that unfurls over time. (Most songs here average around five minutes long with the pulsating standout track “River” clocking in at seven-and-a-half minutes and “Frontier” at nine.) This is the direction Ramsay wants to continue in, adding, “[Down Time] feels very submerged, and I just want to dive deeper into whatever that thing is.”

With such a pared-down operation, Ramsay and McCandless have gone all in on something they feel incredibly passionate about, with many released statements showing their conviction over the past few months. One would naturally assume some fear came with this move, but McCandless remains calm and stoic.

“I can compartmentalize the understanding of this as an economic venture from this as an artistic venture quite naturally for some strange reason,” she says. “I know that’s really, really hard for some people making any kind of art, and I feel like I should be worried but I’m not.

“I should be worried because I have a family to support, because there are issues of how well we are received, but I really feel like there’s a magic in not paying attention to that at all when you’re making it and when you’re putting it out there. That’s where my confidence in it comes from.”

On Down Time’s closing number, “Elusive Dream,” there’s mention of “our legacies, our big breaks/ the ripple in time that’s left in our wake.” When asked what she hopes Young Galaxy’s legacy will be when all is said and done, McCandless's response circles back to Ramsay’s party metaphor once again.

“For so long, we’ve written to the outsider, the person on the fringe somewhere,” she says. “I want that kid in the corner, those types of people, to not feel horrible for being outsiders. They can go places where other people can’t because they’re outsiders. This is the mother in me, but I want them to feel more loved.”

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