“There’s still miracles happening all the time”

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Photo by Richmond Lam

Orchestral indie rockers the Dears have had a tumultuous history. Drastic line-up changes and near-break-ups have mired much of their existence. But the Dears who stand today, 20 years after forming in Montréal, may be the group at their most united yet. On September 25th, founding members Murray Lightburn and Natalia Yanchak, along with Patrick Krief, Jeff Luciani, and Roberta Arquilla, will return with the band’s sixth LP, Times Infinity Volume One. This week, the Dears will play their first set of Western Canadian shows in seven years including a highly anticipated stop at the Fox Cabaret on September 19th.

For many people, a 20th anniversary is a cause to celebrate. Lightburn keeps the milestone in mind, but he tries not to get too sentimental about it. “I try not to do a lot of [looking back] because there’s lots of things that I don’t want to think about – the bad times. We’ve had so many.”

Lightburn certainly never loses sight of the good times, though, and when he does reminisce about the Dears’ nascent victories, it’s easy to imagine his face glowing with joy. “When we put out our first album,… if we sold a hundred records, I would have been really, really happy and over the moon and felt like I didn’t waste my time.… Playing the shows, and seeing all these people show up, and people being excited about the band at that time – it was overwhelming.”

Some of Lightburn’s fondest memories include selling out Manchester on the band’s first trip to England (a city where so many legendary groups he admires, including the Smiths and New Order, emerged) and playing to fans who know all the lyrics in places like Mexico and as far as Istanbul. Experiences like those are still “overwhelmingly exciting,… The ups eclipse the downs. Always. And we’ve had plenty of downs, but we’ve had so many amazing ups over the last 20 years that I can’t not be grateful for the life that I’ve had and the band, and I’m ready for more.”

Although some of history’s most iconic musicians have endured because they’ve constantly adapted to contemporary styles, Lightburn attributes the Dears’ longevity to having stayed true to themselves. “Looking back on the last 20 years of the Dears, we feel pretty good about… not really being a trendy sounding band…. We’ve always been an orchestral rock band that plays a lot of synthesizers, and we’re still the same band. We still use the same instruments to make the noises that we make. We’ve been trying to delicately ride through the trends while not being trendy.”

Commemorating such a large anniversary with a new album seems like an obvious marketing move, but according to Lightburn, the release of Times Infinity is more coincidental than strategic. “You can control only so much, and the timing of [the album] actually hitting the streets on the same year of our 20th anniversary is just good timing.” The band acknowledges the occasion, but they refuse to make a big deal about it. “I think that’s kind of just the nature of the band…. It is just rock ‘n’ roll at the end of the day. It’s not like we cured cancer or something…. Nobody wants a parade. What kind of jackass wants a parade?” he asks, laughing heartily.

In the four years between Degeneration Street and Times Infinity (the longest gap between Dears records yet), Yanchak, Lightburn’s wife, gave birth to the couple’s second child. “[Natalia and I] did take a significant amount of parental leave when the boy was born. That kind of was good and bad. Going away for as long as we did created this sort of ‘Are they still a band?’ kind of thing. It’s kind of ridiculous to think that because it’s not like we ever said otherwise, but people just kind of make these assumptions.”

But the advent of social media, especially as a music business tool, makes truly getting away difficult. “It’s not like you ever get a break. You never get time to yourself, ever…. You have to be constantly engaged with tweetin’ and retweetin’ and favouriting just to ‘stay relevant.'” Fortunately, Lightburn admits with a breath of relief, having so much tenure means the Dears don’t have to rely as heavily on social media as many newer bands do.

The Dears have certainly stuck to what works on Times Infinity Volume One. Enriching synthesizers swell and swirl in the background – the starch that bonds dramatic strings with climactic guitars. Undying urgency and desperation tinge everything a romantic noir. The Dears continue to refine their arrangements, honing sprawl without sacrificing too much grandeur.

But what sets Times Infinity apart from the rest of the band’s albums is its brighter glimmer of hope. “[The album]’s a little more focused on the idea that you’ve found someone that you can be with, and you want to maintain that for as long as possible,” Lightburn explains.

He boldly communicates togetherness as both sentiment and necessity. “You are the only one that I can trust,” he sings on “Here’s to the Death of All Romance” before finishing on a sweet note: “And all the things I do / I do for us.” “I Used to Pray for the Heavens to Fall” continues the affection: “Now I never want this to end / See, there’s nothing that compares to / When I’m holed up in here with you.” On “Someday All This Will Be Yours”, he declares: “I’m always on your side / You’ve got to know that you’re not alone / On your own / All alone.”

If elsewhere on the album Lightburn still appears to be singing as an underdog – an outsider who feels lost – it is because there can be no hope without turmoil. “There’s a great deal of anxiety around [no longer feeling lost]… You don’t really want to lose what you’ve found going forward because you have this trauma behind you.” Ultimately, Lightburn says, Times Infinity is about “finding that sweet spot in one’s life.”

So what keeps Lightburn and the band going after all these years? Surprises and miracles. “I think if they stopped happening for five years in a row, maybe we’d think about hanging up the gloves, but there’s still miracles happening all the time in our lives from doing this,…” He adds: “There’s nothing like that moment when you finish a piece, and you play it back by yourself on headphones or alone in the studio, and that feeling of a freshly finished piece of work… The closest – the closest – is watching my kids being born…. You can’t really compare them, but that’s the closest feeling I can get.”

During the Dears’ most tumultuous period, around the time of Missiles in 2008, the band purged themselves of essentially all personnel. (Lightburn and Yanchak spared only themselves and the band’s Canadian label.) Following the shake-up, Lightburn told Magnet Magazine that everything felt “good” and “right.” When Vancouver Weekly asks him if he still feels that way now, six years later, he responds: “I’d have to say yes. The primary objective of the band remains the same: we just chase the music in our dreams. As cheesy as that sounds, or as corny as that sounds, that’s what we’ve always done, so as long as we’re just doing that – and chasing Twitter followers is second to that – then we’re fine.”

The Dears play the Fox Cabaret on September 19th. Tickets are on sale at Red Cat Records and online. Times Infinity Volume One is available on September 25th via Pheromone Recordings and Dangerbird Records.

Leslie Ken Chu

Leslie Ken Chu