When Cayne McKenzie discusses a song, he does not speak the lyrics—he sings them. It makes for an engaging coffee conversation. McKenzie, along with bandmates David Menzel and Andrew Huculiak, comprises Vancouver’s We Are The City, a band formed just over a decade and four records ago. Recently returned from what McKenzie calls “a prodigious road trip” of nearly six months, the band is taking it a bit easy, and working out new ideas for music on the heels of their 2015 EP Above Club.
“Writing, for us, is always different for each song,” says McKenzie. For their 2013 album Violent, that entailed, among other things, “holding a dance party in a barn where we were hanging out together. We improvised on the spot, with the skeleton of each song—the basic arrangements—already written. For Violent, we were making a film at the same time, so that did affect the songs. We had a sense of how each song was to fit into a soundtrack, as well as being part of a record.” The songs had to have a certain “ambient value”, he says. Violent the film, which the band created in collaboration with Amazing Factory, was shot on location in Norway; it toured the festival circuit, including Vancouver, San Sebastian, Los Cabos, and even Cannes.
For their latest album, Above Club, We Are The City continued to “give the audience credit”, says McKenzie. “We think our audience really wants us to push the boundaries a little, and they are fully capable of exploring with us.” Above Club is something a bit denser than their previous work, with layered orchestration and complex arrangements. “With this record, the chord structures, the progressions—it all had to be very precise,” McKenzie explains. “So when we perform these songs live, we really have to stay close to the recorded song.”
McKenzie is articulate, thoughtful, about what the band is doing. “I honestly don’t read all that much, but I read a book recently, Letters to a Young Poet,” he says. “It reinforced something for me: you have to come up with your own sense of meaning in the world, not rely on anyone else to do that for you. This lead me into the thought that how you are singing a song is not actually as important as why you are singing it.”
There is no single musical antecedent of We Are The City, a band that catapulted into the local indie music spotlight after winning the Peak radio station’s Performance Project competition (and with it, $150,000). The music tends to be unpredictable, in a very good way, and reflective of the three band members’ individual influences from growing up in Kelowna. McKenzie smiles at the thought. “You could use the line, ‘Elton John meets Linkin Park,’” he says. “That’s about right. A song like ‘20 Ft. Up’ is a good example. In fact, it might become known as the last real ballad We Are The City ever did!” It begins with vocal and piano, and moves through two full verses before some heavier, percussive orchestration enters the fray, giving the song a magisterial quality while never really reverting back to its melodic opening. McKenzie sings some of the lyrics over his latte, and comments, “It is a spiritual song, really, not in a conventional religious way, but more philosophically. But I think many of our songs are that way: not just randomly looking for meaning, but establishing your own.” While we can be content with the existing pieces of recorded work, it is exciting to anticipate what will come next, all the while knowing it won’t likely be anything we anticipated.
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