There is a certain indefinable quality to Slates’ newest LP, Taiga: while its blend of influences, including modern gritty punk a la Constantines and Neil Young’s workingman blues, are evident, there’s something not as easy to define present on the 10-song effort, something more ineffably “Canadian.” As difficult an aesthetic as that is to define, lead singer/guitarist James Stewart believes it’s present and that the Edmonton four-piece is part of something bigger.
“You’re not going to play rock music with guitars and think you’re reinventing the wheel,” he says on the phone from his Edmonton home.
“Obviously we love Neil Young and Constantines, and these people have been big influences on us,” he continues. “They’re such Canadian bands, not just in the way they play music, but in the way they approach the music. I’m not sure what it is, but I feel a sense of ownership when I play those records. And we’ll sing about Canada, it has influenced who we are as people and it’s influenced our music, and we’d like to follow in that tradition. Maybe it doesn’t sound as overt as some, but there’s an element of that in what we do.”
Thankfully for those trying to define the band, what they “do” is much more clear: balls-to-the-wall punk rock that is as relentless as it is engaging. Few would be surprised when they hear the band hails from the Edmonton: they’re rough around the edges and would never claim to be something they’re not. Taiga doesn’t possess the slick hooks and it’s not even all that fun of a listen. But it is hard as fuck, not unlike the conditions that gave birth to the record.
For Stewart, Taiga is very much a representation of Edmonton and he’s not about to shy away from that.
“It’s never-ending nights in the winter,” he says of the city. “You hole up in a room and make music, maybe drink too much alcohol and everyone kind of feels sorry for themselves. It’s a really big small town. It changes year to year and there’s a bit of a small-man complex. Everyone feels isolated and people think no one takes us seriously. But I love it, it’s my home.”
Even bringing the songs to Taiga to Chicago to record didn’t smooth out any of their rust. Hooking up with famed producer Steve Albini allowed the band to maintain total control of the album’s final sound. Albini is a notoriously hands-off producer — this was an element of his reputation that excited Stewart.
“We’re all pretty familiar with his ethos and his work ethic. We didn’t feel neglected. We went in there knowing that we’d be living and dying by what we did in there. We knew it was going to be fast, intense, raw and there would be no coddling.”
Though Stewart admits the band was “…exhausted from the amount of work we’d done beforehand and then blasting the record out in six days,” he’s still happy with the final product. It is an honest snapshot of the band: Canadian, yes. And perhaps, what truly makes the band Canadian is their lack of pretence and their gut-wrenching honesty. It’s not always pretty and, according to Stewart, a record like Taiga doesn’t always have to be.
“Sometimes you see a band play a room and you think, ‘That’s exciting and that’s what a record should be.’ It’s about replicating it to the best of your abilities. There’s a lot of ways to make a record but those are my favourite records. Those are the ones that endure.”
Catch Slates at Barber Ha (Edmonton) on March 1, at the Windsor (Winnipeg) on April 4 and at the Palomino (Calgary) on April 19.
By Joshua Kloke