How many wonderful bands have languished unknown outside of Quebec simply because their lyrics were in French? Karkwa doesn’t have to answer that question anymore—not since last year, when the Montreal prog-rock quintet won Canada’s coveted Polaris Prize for its fourth and most recent album, Les Chemins de verre (or Paths of Glass).
“That really was our big break,” admits frontman Louis-Jean Cormier, calling from his hometown. “Things changed right away. We met people and started going many places we had never been before.”
France was one place they already knew, and Paris was a fine venue in which to record Les Chemins, at the famous La Frette Studio, set in a palatial 19th-century building. The experience was transformative. (Feist’s The Reminder happened there, too.)
“We were so excited to work in this mythic old manor,” says the singer-guitarist, in moderately accented English. “Every monster of French singing, from Françoise Hardy to Serge Gainsbourg, has recorded there. There are a lot of ghosts in that place. In 21 days, during three tours of Europe—whenever we had a break—we recorded about 20 songs. We own a lot of toys, and there are a lot more vintage amps and mikes at La Frette. We used every room: the bathrooms, the kitchen. We even dropped a mike from the third floor down the stairs.”
The variety of moods and colours in Karkwa’s darkly melodic repertoire recalls Radiohead at its most accessible. Representative of the band’s dramatic approach is the CD’s opening song, “Le Pyromane”, which begins with creepy crackles and descending minor chords before soaring electric guitars and Beatles-esque harmonies swoop in.
“Our keyboard player, Frank [François Lafontaine], is a great composer. He was always running this chord progression at sound check, and finally we got to develop that into a song. For us, the lyrics come after, sometimes far after. There was a guy who burned a little church near Ottawa—a bad love story, but that inspired us.”
Karkwa itself started burning roughly a dozen years ago, and the lineup has remained constant—doubly impressive since its members were thrown together for a music contest at the college where they met. They needed a group name, fast, and came up with the phonetic version of carquois, French for an archer’s quiver.
“We just closed our eyes, opened a dictionary, and pointed. It didn’t mean anything to us.” Well, apparently, they began as the band that couldn’t shoot straight.
“We were so bad on our instruments,” Cormier admits with a laugh. “We were playing mostly jazz, and when we tried to play reggae, the beat was all wrong. But we listened to a lot of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Philip Glass, and many others. When you absorb a lot of different music, it’s easier to separate your own stuff from your influences. But basically, I think we still approach it like jazz.”
And that’s a language that transcends all boundaries.
Karkwa plays the Biltmore Cabaret on Tuesday (September 20).
By Ken Eisner, September 15, 2011 Straight.com Vancouver's Online Sources