Holed up in the subterranean digs of the Boiler Room in Williamsburg, their basement studio, The Stills’ vocalist/guitarist Tim Fletcher and drummer Dave Hamelin need to take a breather. Often staying late into the wee hours of the morning, they’ve been recording non-stop their first LP, Logic Will Break Your Heart, set to drop in October on Vice Records, the nascent label affiliated with the cult magazine.
The day outside is scorching with summer heat; the Brooklyn bohos wander around in sandals and consume gyros and iced tea, gazing at the thrift shops and ecological protest signs posted around Bedford Ave.; Tim grouses at the rancid stench of fish-packing residue and says it’s much worse at their apartment next to the river, where they’re staying temporarily.
Out of the sun and back into the somberness of the Sweet Water Tavern, populated by a mere 3 or 4 barflies glued to some sports game on TV, both band members downplay the buzz about the Stills over a round of Brooklyn Lagers
“I’d say that as much as we have to live up to expectations of being that ‘buzz’ band,” Dave is saying, “we also have to live down the idea of…well, not so much of that 15 minutes of fame, but of being that media-hyped band that nobody cares about 2 months later.”
“We need to make a good record and not play into the hands of the media that elevates us to such status,” adds Tim, swigging from his beer. “You look around and you see how other bands get treated after being blown up, then learn from the mistake of others. Plus we got hyped up without enough content to back it up.”
True, the Stills have only released a four-song EP, Rememberese, and, amidst the mushrooming indie rock scene in New York, they are gradually reaching the limelight before even recording a full-length. Perhaps it is because they’ve toured NYC extensively as well as other parts of the U.S. already and have appeared in shows with groups like the Rapture, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol. Or, possibly, it could be their link to Vice, who – while attempting to nurture a cultural empire in the States and abroad – have exposed UK hip hop act The Streets, aka Mike Skinner, which turned out to only be media-hype itself since the record was a flop.
Otherwise, it could just be their music, of course. Originally from Montreal, Canada, Tim and Dave (who insist they will not move to NYC and plan on living in their hometown) got hold of a four-track machine from a strung-out friend who desperately needed money (to pay off drug debts, rumors say). They sent out the cash and received the recorder as collateral. Both members dabbled with it and exchanged some tunes before adjoining bassist Oliver Crowe and guitarist Greg Paquet to form the Stills and create a post-punk sound garnished with lovelorn melodies, aching lyrics and guitars that reverberate sadness and an existential nausea.
Citing groups like the Beatles, the Pixies, the Specials and Tom Waits as influences, they claim that they aren’t trying to emulate these bands and want to distinguish themselves as mush as possible, although, from what they give on their EP, they display a similar melancholia in their music to gloomy ’80s rockers the Cure.
“I really don’t think I have any of Robert Smith’s vocal elements in my own,” says Tim, in reference to a comparison with the Cure’s frontman. “But there is a Cure-esque element at times – an overall atmospheric thing, a melancholy and darkness, but that’s only in certain parts of the music.”
“I’m going to shoot myself in the foot here,” adds Dave, attempting to describe their sound, “but you can say it’s rock with reverb.” Nonetheless, given their after-dusk vibe and sentient emotionality, the Stills have defined a sound that most people want to hear: songs that elicit nostalgia, that provide a cathartic outlet for the lonely, a sensible howl for the lost souls, if you will. I can’t say much more though since I haven’t heard enough. Dave and Tim ardently refuse to reveal the rest of the tunes on the forthcoming full-length (in jest, Dave mentions, “Yeah, it’s about the struggle on the street, you know, drug dealers, pimps, hoes, living in L.A.”), but Rememberese, at least, primarily deals with relationships: “Still in Love Song” and “Killer Bees” allude to its intricacies and “Talk to Me” is about the effort to reconnect with a friend.
Tim and Dave both stress how they are contemplative people, finding it ifficult not to get depressed, and this openness can be heard in their music. Most importantly, listeners are groping for that honesty within the music industry’s muddy landslide of commodified groups. So it’s also not a surprise that they didn’t sign to a major label. After playing several shows across the U.S. and participating in industry dinners, they say that they’ve been approached by other record deals, yet were instead drawn to Vice’s Montreal origins, even though they don’t relate at all to the company’s irreverent image. Moreover, they also don’t agree with being dubbed “multilingual art school socialists” by The Village Voice.
Amused by this expression, Dave responds: “It’s probably some American [who wrote it] and thinks we’re, like, Che Guevara since we’re from Canada, or like we’re a bunch of Karl Marx types because we’re not American, but they can talk about whatever they want.”
“Yeah, it’s basically a very big generalization of certain facets of living in Montreal,” adds Tim, “and putting it into four simple-to-say hyphenated words.”
In any case, following the release of their buzzing LP, maybe the Stills do have some expectations to live up to, whatever they may be – some fans may expect them to remain in the noble outskirts of the anti-limelight, while others may anxiously await their next video on MTV and see them causing “raucous” with faux-rebel Fred Durst at some major movie premiere. Montreal, they say, is one of the pop punk capitals of the world, a place where the Vans Warped Tour sells the most tickets and where there is a fanaticism for boy bands and groups like Good Charlotte, so there isn’t much of a scene for alternatives. Thus the Stills had to come to New York to record their album and establish themselves.
“The things you find charming about the city,” explains Tim about his impression there so far, “inevitably become the things you find horrible, they sort of turn you off. I mean it’s a beautiful city, so much going on, lots of art and music and different kinds of people, but all this combined with smog, summer heat and the stink of garbage can overwhelm you. It’s like a Third World city sometimes, it smells like a fucking toilet and people live in squalor.”
“Not on the Upper West Side,” Dave throws in, laughing. “People think we live here, but we don’t. We meet cool people here, but it’s always sort of, like, business. So when we come back from a 6-week tour, we don’t want to be schloozing with people or be scenesters. We wanna go home, hang out with friends and do our regular things.”
There’s a certain callowness still etched in the band members because, while most of them have been playing since their early teens, they’ve just signed their first record deal and are idealists, scolding fame, groupies and MTV. It’s too early in the process, but they are already experimenting with an “under-the-radar” video for “Still in Love Song,” so it’s safe to speculate: are the Stills the next pinups and sunglass-sporting rock stars daubed all over the media, like the Strokes are now?
“I really don’t know what we’re gonna be like,” Dave reasons, “but I really hope we don’t become that, we want to be the antithesis of that.”
The lagers are done and we get outside again. The rotten odors of the city fumes greet us and Tim lights a cigarette, then says, tongue-in-cheek:
“Yeah, you know, a bit of success and we start being assholes, wearing sunglasses, flaunting cocaine…” He chuckles, then adds, wisely, “No, I mean all our ideals are gonna be crushed soon and we’re waiting. We haven’t been beaten down yet.”
Omar Sommereyns can be reached at SOASIS@aol.com