Here’s a clip by post-punk-progressive-pop Torontonian collective Charge of the Light Brigade, led by singer-songwriter Luke Sneyd and producer Marc Koetcher, further enabled by bassist Jason Eagen and Zack Mykula behind the kit. It’s “Young Love”, the lead track off of the band’s current EP We Haven’t Been Properly Introduced, the harbinger for the upcoming full-length The Defiant Ones, to be released later this year.
In this 21st century, with a legacy of pop music of various strains behind him, Luke Sneyd’s songwriting has plenty of wells from which to draw, first starting a guitarist, then as a solo act, and with a band or two besides along the way.
With his latest project, Charge of the Light Brigade, Luke has created a BIG rock band, pulling from punk, progressive rock, Pixies-inspired hard rock, and power pop. The mix is unified with an Anglicized flavour for anthemic 80s British post punk that touches on the Psychedelic Furs, Echo & the Bunnymen, and Icicle Works, just to name a few.
I spoke to Luke about major labels, the role of the producer, and out and out heroism in putting music across in the increasingly competitive field of rock music …
The Delete Bin: “Young Love”, much like all of the tracks off of the “…Introduced” EP is packed with hooks, and yet it’s very dense, with a lot going on in a fairly short span of time, while not sounding cluttered in any way. How do you strike that balance between such an ambitious arrangement and putting across a tune that is definitively, and accessibly pop music?
Luke Sneyd: Dumb luck? 🙂 No, I do all the initial writing for the band. With “Young Love”, I set out to write a song that was a bit of a roller-coaster, twisty and turny and unexpected. I wanted to surprise myself as I went through it. It’s a song about that initial headlong rush of euphoria when you plunge into a full-on head-over-heels relationship, the excitement and uncertainty of it. And it was important that the structure of the song reflect that, so it jumps from a 4/4 new wave rock vibe in the verses to an almost orchestral pre-chorus in 6/8 to a heavier full-on pop-rock chorus.
Even in the chorus, the guitar-riff doesn’t start on the first beat, throwing the listener slightly off balance as the hook comes crashing home. The song uncoils like a wound-up spring, drifting into the half-time lull of the bridge, a frenetic instrumental bit, and even a brief stretch of 7/4. And yet you don’t really notice any of that listening to it. It just flows, which the band is a big part of.
Marc’s production can be very dense, and his keys parts virtuosic, but our ideas feed off each other in a very organic way. Epics in miniature is how I sometimes describe our songs. They’re meant to sweep you up, but they’re very detailed as well. We love songs that evolve sonically as they progress, that have lots of interesting moving parts, but are still fundamentally imbued with a pure pop sensibility. You don’t want to be too ornate. It’s about young love, after all; repeat it four times in the chorus! Usually for us, the biggest challenge is knowing when to stop adding. The EP’s a good crack at what we’re setting out to do, and with the album we’re currently finishing, that idea’s gonna be even more refined.
DB: Among other influences, my ear tells me that British music, particularly from the early to mid 80s, informs this song, and many others on the EP. What is it about British music of this period that translates so well into what you’re doing?
LS: Well for me, bands like The Smiths, The Cure, Depeche Mode, New Order have been a big influence. Their exploration of darkness and light, their experimentation with pop-forms and soundscapes, those all inform what we’re doing. Also the inventiveness of songwriters from that time like Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello, writing excellent pop while delving into uneasy emotional truths. I don’t know that we’re drawing from the same sound exactly, but the underlying sensibility is right at home.
While we’re defining our own sound, we’re also at pains to let the songs speak for themselves. Some contemporary acts create a very homogenous identity for themselves. We’re more interested in going down whatever strange alley a new song might open up.
DB: Charge of the Light Brigade is one of your more recent projects, with a solo career, and other bands behind you. How does the band now fulfill the artistic momentum of what came before?
LS: It’s been an interesting progression. I started out as the guitar-player in this weird glam-electro-rock outfit called Mountain Mama. I wasn’t the driver of that band (far from it), although I did do some of the writing. The best thing I took out of that experience was combining pop sensibilities with an experimental electronic bent. When I moved onto doing my own solo material, it was much more in the vein of classic singer-songwriter. I wanted to get away from synth-rock and disco-shirts and focus on writing and finding my own voice as a singer for the first time.
The two solo releases really let me explore what I could do writing material that was much more genuine. I got to stretch out emotionally and politically, which I couldn’t do before. And I got some great collaborators in Marc and Zack as that went along. When it came time to work on the next round of material, it very much felt like our ideas were meshing as a band, and we were headed in a different direction again. So Charge of the Light Brigade was born. That marriage of classic pop and experimental sensibilities has come full circle, but the music’s got a real emotional core to it this time around. And with Jason onboard playing bass now, the album’s going to be even richer and more diverse.
DB: One of your earlier tracks, the excellent “The Prisoner” gained attention in both the Unisong International Songwriting Contest and (for the video for “The Prisoner”) the Great Canadian Band Challenge, the prize of which was for a deal with Universal Canada. In light of the rise of technology, and with bands now having a bit more control over their own destinies as a result, has the goal of ‘getting signed’ on a major changed in terms of the way bands approach that goal?
LS: “The Prisoner” was a great first foot out the door for me. It was catchy as hell, and had a very cool video from director Paul Thompson. Those contests got me a glint of recognition, but it’s been a lot of hard work after that. You do control your own destiny as an unsigned artist. You’re also out there with countless other unsigned artists, a million needles in a knitting factory. Major labels have their own pitfalls, especially in today’s digital era. Good artists need time to grow, and major labels have forgotten or lost the ability to do that.
At the same time, the wide open playing field and negligible income afforded most indie artists is hardly enviable. You can do whatever you want, but you still have to find your audience. Being entirely DIY, I’m experimenting all the time with ways to get the music in the hands of people, through music discovery, Internet radio, blogs, traditional media, you name it. There’s no one way to get a band out there, which makes for a fascinating and frustrating environment. You just have to take an approach that’s both disciplined and scattershot, striving for casual ubiquity, to allow people to stumble across you. When that happens, it’s pretty exciting.
DB: The theme of heroism is a pretty big one in this song, and in taking chances that have the odds against them. This idea is clearly important to you, even evoked in the Charge of the Light Brigade name. Is this a starting point in your songwriting process, or does it emerge as you write?
LS: One of the things I love about Tennyson’s poem “Charge of the Light Brigade” is its doomed nobility, “theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do or die”. There’s an ambiguity to it that underscores most of the band’s and my own work. Life is full of love and pain, courage and futility. These are the poles that define us. Whether or not we succeed, it’s our conduct, our actions that prove the worth of what we set out to do. The best heroes in literature and film don’t set out to be that way. They act when the moment is thrust upon them, often selflessly. Sometimes they win. But not always. Which is one idea that really stands in opposition to today’s winner-culture. A lot of heroes lose.
The song “Charge!!” on the EP strives to capture that dichotomy and invert it. “Die fast, live long, every day gonna sing my song.” We are going to question why, by defying the norm, by expressing our own individuality. And we’ll probably lose, probably be consumed by the ravenous maw of an endlessly mediated, commodified society, but perhaps that act of defiance is what’s remembered. And on a good day, you get to rock.
DB: Production plays a vitally important role in your music, with Charge of the Light Brigade acknowledging producer Marc Koetcher as not only a producer, but actually an integral part of the life of the band. How did that relationship form, and how has it evolved in the light of the EP and the upcoming The Defiant Ones record?
LS: Marc and I first worked together when he did the soundtrack for a short film I was making with Paul Thompson. Paul was a buddy of mine from film school, and after Mountain Mama broke up, I wrote a short serial-killer-thriller called Where the Wild Things Go that Paul directed. Marc did this fantastic string arrangement for the soundtrack, very evocative of Bernard Hermann. We hit it off, and as the desire to start working on my own music got going, Marc agreed to produce my solo efforts.
His creative contributions to those releases were really integral, and part of the impetus for forming Charge of the Light Brigade was to acknowledge the depth of his involvement. He is a real creative force in the studio. That’s where he focuses his energy, only occasionally joining the band on-stage for live gigs. Our sensibilities and approach dovetail perfectly, and the sound of what we do owes a huge debt to his creativity. He’s forever experimenting in his studio, building his own tape loops and amplifiers (not to mention kite-boards and photography rigs – he’s an interesting guy), fiddling with new ways to capture and treat sounds. He gives the band its unique sonic slant for sure.
DB: Toronto as a vibrantly musical city is in many ways a well-kept secret. But, now with the Scott Pilgrim Vs. The Worldmovie, where Toronto, and Toronto music venues (like Lee’s Palace, where Charge of the Light Brigade are to appear on October 1st…) are named and highlighted, the city has the potential to be more widely recognized as a musical hotbed. How does that impact your band, and others coming up on the local scenes?
LS: I think Toronto’s been out there for a little while as an interesting place for music. Bands like Broken Social Scene and Metric have been very successful and done a lot to raise the stature of what’s happening here currently. I’m not sure how directly that impacts us. Maybe there’s more international curiosity for what’s going on, what interesting bands are bubbling under on the scene. Being in the thick of it, it doesn’t always feel that way.
It’s a good size city and there’s a lot of competition for attention. You do build little communities of bands, though. And when things start to grow, there’s a palpable exhilaration around that, like when Tokyo Police Club was first taking off. It is really cool seeing Toronto honestly up on the screen as itself, whether in Scott Pilgrim or the new indie flick No Heart Feelings, which is awesome. Not a faux New York or some other American stand-in, just its own precocious self. That’s something we can get behind!