“I don't think I'll ever really feel like we've made it.”
Paul Murphy laughs just before saying this. The Wintersleep singer recalls the early ’00s, when the band’s biggest crowds were counted in its Halifax hometown, and returns to 2016, when Wintersleep released its sixth studio album, pocketed its first number 1 Canadian single (“Amerika”) and counted plenty of full touring shows, a David Letterman appearance and a Juno in between. But for Murphy, it’s never not about the music.
“I never really had aspirations beyond being able to make records and I've always thought that if we can just turn this idea that I have written on a guitar into something that's recorded and released and something that you’re able to perform live — that, to me, is still the coolest thing.”
Since its 2003 self-titled debut, Wintersleep has steadily brewed larger, breaking out with 2007’s Welcome to the Night Sky (home of “Weighty Ghost”) and coming out of a four-year recording silence — that some feared was a breakup — with 2016’s The Great Detachment.
Most of the new album was written in Montreal and recorded in Halifax’s Sonic Temple, with some vocals added in a cottage near Wolfville, N.S. Despite that, the band’s Gridlock show this weekend is technically its hometown release: Wintersleep hasn’t played the city since the album’s March debut.
While Murphy says he still considers Halifax to be Wintersleep’s hometown, he hasn’t really lived there since 2008. There have been more recent changes: the band is on a new label (Dine Alone) and has new management, which makes it look more like Wintersleep is gently hitting the restart button with an album name that alludes to leaving something behind. But there are four constants on this new LP: Murphy, Loel Campbell (drummer), Tim D’eon (guitarist) and Tony Doogan (producer).
“There's absolutely no way I would ever say no to them,” says Doogan, laughing, over the phone as he sits on a ferry taking him to his Scotland home. The producer, also known for his work with Mogwai and Belle and Sebastian, first teamed up with Wintersleep on its fateful Welcome to the Night Sky release, but this time around — his fourth album with the band — they decided to go for something bigger, more live.
“When we were coming to do ‘Amerika’ I said we have to put every single element of this song into the room,” says Doogan. “So you wouldn't normally do this, you would separate out [the instruments] ... I think it freaked a few people out when we first did it but I mean it sounded so alive, you know?”
“Amerika” was a single take, and when you hit play on that first album track, Campbell’s drums open and there’s no coming down until the song’s over. The cut on the album is one of the first takes they did — “that mix that's on there is one of my rough mixes that they just tarted up a little bit,” says Doogan — and it sets the tone for an album that captures the onstage version of Wintersleep.
“I feel like with a rock band it is better to do it live,” says Murphy. “A good take is a good take and you can hear it and there's probably tons of little shitty things [laughs] … but you kind of take it as it is and there's something about that vibe that kind of suits our band a little bit more. It's less stressful.”
There was one part of the album that did not fit in studio: a guest bassline from Rush’s Geddy Lee.
“He's sort of this theme that we have,” admits Murphy. “Almost every record we'll talk about, ‘Oh what would Geddy Lee do on this part?’ He's like the pinnacle of bass playing. But there's actually a song that didn't really have a good bassline [“Territory”] and we kept on trying to reference different things and there's a certain point when Tony was like, ‘Well why don't we just ask him?’”
So they did. “And he was super excited about it,” says Murphy, adding that Lee sent along three or four takes over a couple of days, giving them the anchor they needed to make “Territory” what it is now. Later on, when Rush was in Montreal for a show, Lee invited Wintersleep backstage and they all drank wine and listened to Rush touring stories.
“It was all a plan to get into the Rush show and get backstage,” jokes Murphy.
Backstage Rush meetings aside, Wintersleep is still three friends making music together.
“They still have the same drive, they still have the same ambition,” says Doogan. “They're still the same three people I first met in the basement of Loel's aunty's house or uncle's house or whatever it was in Halifax, years ago.”
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