Listen to this song, a post-punk tinged slice of shit-kicking power pop. It’s the irresistibly effervescent ‘Downtown Is Awesome’, a love letter to a city by Torontonians The Dickens, as taken from their 2007 self-titled LP The Dickens. The band is comprised of John MacDonald on drums, Duncan Blair on guitar, Simon Lewis on bass, recent addition and multi-instrumentalist Patrick Gregory, and singer-songwriter-guitarist Paul Emery.
Even in the light of recent G20 Summit rioting in Toronto, for many who live there there is no reason to think that, despite all of the turbulence, downtown Toronto has lost any of its awesomeness. And what better anthem to that idea than this song written and performed by a bunch of guys who live and work there, and who in fact love the city and all of the good things it offers.
I spoke to the Dickens’ songwriter Paul Emery about the song, the band, the album, and about Toronto too, a place that many Canadians (whether they’ve been there or not) love to hate.
The Delete Bin:You’ve been involved in a number of bands, as well as in a solo career. You’ve described the Dickens as your favourite band to play in. What makes it your favourite?
Paul Emery: The Dickens is my favourite band to play in I suppose because it’s the one I’m in now. This is my fifth band, and each one has had an overlapping member. There’s been a continuity. The Dickens have recently recruited Patrick Gregory on guitar, banjo and whatever else we can convince him to play. He was in Bill Puddle, my last band.
DB: So because of the overlapping members, The Dickens is kind of a culmination of all of the bands you’ve been in.
PE: Absolutely. My best friends from Wallaceburg let me in to all of this when I couldn’t play anything. I sang the shit out of “Happy” by the Rolling Stones at a (pauses) you could call it a party. We had a cover band, then three of us came to Toronto and started the Dandelions. We wanted it so bad, but were so lost. We had something, but we were running away from it. Or I was. All of that and everything in between is a huge influence on now and the Dickens.
DB:When the band started, it began as Paul Emery & the Dickens. Why the change in name?
PE: We changed the name because we became a band. Before, it was joe songwriter and the funny name. Now we’re serious. Now, we’re one.
DB: What was the trigger that led you to see that you were a more serious band than when you first got together?
PE: We ‘re not serious in a business way, but we grew a sound and we realized that we would stay together. Now it’s been eight or nine years.
DB: Since the band emerged from some fairly informal circumstances, and that looseness seems to come through in the music. Is there pressure to preserve that?
PE: We’ve been trying hard to lose the looseness. Like my wife says, I love the Velvet Underground but I don’t ever need to hear them again. I feel that way about ‘loose’.
DB: You personally emerged from the Queen Street club circuit in Toronto, which has seen a number of fertile scenes for decades. What is it about the area that seems to encourage exceptional talent?
PE: There is a great live music scene in Toronto, and there has been forever, way before you and I were born. There have been lots of crap bands, and some of the best. Queen Street has had its share.
DB: What have been some of your favourites, known and unknown?
PE: I really like this kid Neil Young. He’s cool! The Boneheads, one of my favourite country rock bands ever. Teenage Head, The Lawn, Peaches, Feist. I love “Mimi on the Beach” by Jane Siberry, and “Echo Beach” by Martha and the Muffins, and “CN Tower” by Michael Jordana. And the Poles. Now there are so many good bands that I can’t keep track. Check out Tomboyfriend.
DB: “Downtown Is Awesome” sounds like the perfect soundtrack to going out on a Friday night in any city in the world. But, it could be interpreted as a love letter to Toronto, your home base.
PE: I love Toronto. It’s full of exceptional dreamers. I love ‘downtowns’. When I was a kid in Wallaceburg they called it ‘uptown’. Toronto’s downtown is particularly awesome. My whole life I wanted to be heard. What more as a songwriter could I yell out than “downtown is awesome”? I’m glad you like the song. Most everyone who hears that one likes it – I’m a genius (laughs). It’s not the best version on our record, though.
DB: You mean that there are live performances of the song which have surpassed the version on the record. Do you have a strategy in mind when you record in terms of presenting the band as they are on stage?
PE: Most of our best stuff is done in rehearsal. We’re working in practical terms on capturing more of that spontaneity and imagination. We’re definitely not into a “live off the floor is the best” way of thinking. It could be that. But it also could be sound experiments with all kinds of things. Our reharsals are sometimes practices for shows, but mostly they are their own thing.
DB: What’s next for the Dickens?
PE: We’ve got more, and better, songs than ever. So given that, we’re hoping to really solidify the band with our new lineup and make our way to an English pub tour! But we’re not touring musicians. It’d be a holiday. We are a real band . We’re just not in the music business.
DB: I’ve been in clubs/pubs in London and Toronto. I can see the crossover in terms of atmosphere. What inspired the idea for you?
PE: I like the way that the English love pop music. And I’d like to drink pints with them, and my friends, playing music, traveling. Sounds lovely!
DB: In addition to being a musician, you’re a bar owner – The Communist’s Daughter (where I’ve had a pint!). Is this a clubhouse for the band, too?
PE: We used to hang out at the Commy, but now we don’t so much mostly because we rehearse in a different part of town. Location, location, location. It’s way cooler bar than I’ll ever be.
For more information about The Dickens, check out the Dickens MySpace Page.
And if you’re ever in Toronto, stop by the Communist’s Daughter for a pint and a chat!