Sound: Screeching guitars and hurried beats harmonize to the sound of hope. If you like: Portugal. The Man, Ubiquitous Synergy Seeker, The Blue Stones Why you should listen: July Talk are asking life’s biggest questions and speaking dark truths, but above all, they made a party record that is best enjoyed while head-banging and forgetting about those hardships they speak of. Best track: After This
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Toronto’s July Talk are choosing to believe in hope. When they released their third LP, Pray For It, in 2020, it felt like they had done all their despairing before they knew that the worst was yet to come. So when the pandemic hit, they asked themselves, “What would we be doing if we weren’t stuck at home? Is what we’re doing worthwhile?”
Lead singers Leah Fay and Peter Dreimanis wonder these questions aloud on the new July Talk songs, in which voices intertwine over gritty guitars and determined rhythms. Remember Never Before (Fri., Jan. 20) is a shout into the abyss to see how far their light can reach.
Fay and Dreimanis chat with me in a corner of The Skyline Restaurant in Parkdale, the neighbourhood that July Talk have called home for the last decade, though the history of the band perhaps begins as far back as the 1950s. Fay’s grandparents were both new immigrants when they met outside the Parkdale branch of the Toronto Public Library. They bought a house together in the ’50s, and it became a hub for artists. It’s where Fay and Dreimanis reside now, and it’s thanks to this bizarre house of art that July Talk are able to exist in such an expensive city.
The two have taken the baton and kept the house spirits happy by welcoming other artists, filling it with murals and music, and even opening their home as a crash pad for touring bands. Outside of the music they create in July Talk, they’ve started Danuta, a production company/art collective for all the art that has been born from that Parkdale home, including videos for fellow musicians Tanya Tagaq, Jasmyn and Born Ruffians.
Fay’s grandparents are central to July Talk, not only for providing the band’s headquarters but also as a guiding light. They’ve been an inspiration for Fay and Dreimanis to hustle in the Canadian arts scene to make work that matters, just as Fay’s grandparents once did.
“Humans have a tendency towards hope, and that’s the only reason we exist,” Fay says. Even in the face of despair, people want to build something good, whether it’s a family, a home or art. “It’s like radically choosing hope.”
And that’s what the new July Talk album is about: choosing hope. Remember Never Before is as dark as you would expect a July Talk album would be, but it also insists that we must persist. The single I Am Water was the first track recorded for the era, and it became the thesis for the album, both musically and lyrically, assessing their own insignificance and significance simultaneously. “Does it really mean you don’t really matter? / Or does it mean you feel you don’t really matter? / What would you rather? / We don’t decide,” Fay and Dreimanis sing on the final verse of the closing track.
“Hope can sound like chaos, like a wily guitar feeding back through an amp,” Dreimanis says. “There’s times when I listen to The Jesus and Mary Chain and REM and there’s these little glimpses of when I believe in something much larger than myself through that music. I was pretty determined somehow to prove that somewhere in the library of July Talk — this weird experiment that five friends decided to create 10 years ago — contained that ounce of thesis of truth.”
There’s a line from the song When You Stop that repeats: “When you stop you’ll find out what yer running from.” The band was faced with this question over the pandemic when they were forced to hit pause, so they wondered, “Did I make my mark? Did I move correctly before the world ended?”
Dreimanis explains that the line appeared intuitively. When they got to the studio to work with producer Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene, he encouraged July Talk to start with a completely blank page. They weren’t allowed to come to the studio with any ideas — just show up, start playing a chord and follow whatever came to mind. It was like catching lightning, and they didn’t question the lyrics when they came to them.
One particular song, Raw, took exactly as long to write as the song plays out. “I felt like I had to put skin in the game and put my hand up and say this is what I went through in dealing with demons and things that had plagued me for a long time,” Dreimanis says. “Some fans of the band might have seen me experience it on stage, and I’m definitely still facing them.”
On the other hand, Repeat was recorded three different times in three different sessions. It was considered for the last album, but ultimately they didn’t feel that they were done sculpting it. Here now, it feels like a perfect fit for their era of hope. “Sure is nice to do something good for once / Sure is good to do something nice,” Fay sings on it.
“For me, this record was about letting the record show that we could provide that ounce of hope to somebody, and we could provide something to believe in,” Dreimanis says. “A July Talk record is pretty dark lyrically — it feels like the context around our music is such that even when you’re singing dark truths, the fact that you’re singing them means that there’s a harsh hope to that.”
Fay and Dreimanis understand how dark things are. It’s hard not to feel doomed when you can’t help but notice what’s around us: a volatile political landscape, the bleakness of climate change and the general anguish of living. These aren’t things that can be resolved in a three-minute song, though July Talk still want to do what they can. They know that they’re not able to solve all the world’s problems in words, but it helps to just show up and show people that we’re all going through this together.
“There’s a rising, baseless hate that’s gaining speed and power, and the only antidote to that is baseless love,” comments Fay. “It doesn’t mean the same thing as baseless optimism, but baseless love is the goal — love for the sake of how powerful it is.”
The band is known to explore the dichotomies of the human condition: love and hate, Push + Pull, man vs. woman, black and white. The black and white imagery especially has been integral to the band’s image since its inception, until now. These rules fell away naturally as July Talk gained more confidence in themselves. Their songs aren’t about two forces vying for control represented by their opposing voices but rather two sides of a conversation.
One of these conversations happen on Certain Father over the song of a death march, where they enlist Spencer Krug of Wolf Parade to play the omniscient voice that asks us to question the things we have always been so certain of.
“The conversation isn’t always combative; it’s more important that it’s an equal conversation and it’s not constantly yelling at each other. It’s just talking,” says Fay. “That’s the basis of the band and what this project always has been.”
July Talk have come a long way in 10 years. This is their first record that they’ve recorded mostly by themselves. While they still collaborate with other musicians, they’re mostly self-sufficient — guitarist Ian Docherty is their main producer and the band members all share writing credits together. They’ve added drummer Dani Nash to the lineup, and their live show just keeps getting better. July Talk commit to being their honest selves on stage, fighting to always give their best show.
Perhaps they don’t have all the answers, but it won’t stop them from questioning the powers that be — and rallying global audiences while doing it. One thing’s for sure: the conversations that July Talk are having are not as simple as seeing things in black and white.