Indie

Wares’ ‘Survival’ Is 2020’s Great Indie Sleeper Record

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If you’re the sort of person who once attended rock shows packed inside sweaty clubs on a regular basis, the album Survival by the Canadian band Wares will no doubt give you an intense shot of melancholy. The record opens with a furious 80-second fuzz-punk anthem called “Hands, Skin,” in which singer-songwriter Cassia Hardy recounts an assault over a frantic riff and pulverizing blast beats, instantly evoking the greats of cathartic indie guitar pop. (Think Husker Du, Sonic Youth, and Titus Andronicus). It’s a thrilling moment that demands to be heard live, with dozens of fellow fans bopping up against each other. But sadly (for the time being at least) it won’t.

Fortunately, Survival more than compensates for this lack of visceral, in-person immediacy. Every year, there are albums that I’m surprised haven’t made a greater impact on the larger indie-rock discourse. In 2020, the biggest sleeper LP for me is the latest from Wares, which dropped Survival in April. At that time, the world was understandably distracted by the early, explosive spread of coronavirus. So many of 2020’s music releases have been swallowed up by the news, but Survival ought to stand out, because Hardy has expertly assembled one of the year’s most emotionally overpowering and melodically satisfying rock records, and also written words that explicitly address the need for outsiders and underdogs to band together and defeat corrupt systems.

Dedicated in the liner notes to “decolonial activists, anti-fascist agitators, [and] prairie queers fighting for community and a better life,” Survival could be interpreted as a political record that seems especially fitting for this precise moment. “Fight like a dying species, rejecting parasitic scum / before everyone you love / gets used up,” Hardy sings on the rousing title track, which closes the album. It sounds like a protest song, an irresistible call to arms set to insistent drums, swirling guitars, and surging synths.

For Hardy, however, Survival comes from a personal place. The 27-year-old Edmonton native transitioned into a woman in the early ’10s, and while she resists categorizing Survival strictly as a “transition” album, the album’s narrative arc “about human beings overcoming trauma, overcoming their past and the things that have hurt them” stems in part from her own feelings of alienation as a person who, for many years, didn’t feel as though she belonged. Eventually, Hardy found community in Edmonton’s politically active music scene, which lends to the feeling of hope that concludes this oft-scathing yet catchy and compulsively listenable album.

I recently phoned Hardy to discuss the album, her love of fellow Canadian rockers the New Pornographers, and how “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath was an “early radicalizing force” for her.

You sympathize with outsiders and underdogs in your songs. How did that influence the album thematically?

This album is the most personal thing I’ve put out. And a lot of my story is coming from this place of knowing that I was different in some way. I made the decision to shut myself up. I feel like this is true for a lot of other queer people: I lived the first part of my life as not a true representation of myself. So the real story of this record beyond anything around me transitioning, is about human beings overcoming trauma, overcoming their past and the things that have hurt them to join together and form community bonds, because that’s how the world is changed. It’s direct person to person interaction and love.

I wouldn’t call Survival a concept album exactly, but it does seem like the songs are connected, and the overall record does have a kind of dramatic arc from the first song, “Hands, Skin,” to the climactic title track. Did you conceive of Survival as a complete album, as opposed to just a collection of songs?

Yeah, for sure. I definitely wrote it as a whole album. I love listening to entire records. I’m not much of a playlist or shuffle person. The last album in 2017, I tried to have more of a melodic arc. The lyrics are personal, but they’re not as narratively driven. A few of the tunes on Survival were actually written around the same time that the first album was being recorded. I just knew I wanted to hook them back because something about them felt different to me. I think the oldest tune is from 2014, which would be “Jenny Says.” Just knowing that the little crop of songs I had going in was so personal, it really drove me to follow that lead and try and make sense of a broader narrative.

I wanted to stay outside of a traditional transition narrative. I’ve read so many trans women’s memoirs from the ’70s and onward, and they’re an important resource, but that’s not the kind of sound I wanted to make.

Why?

Because I think it’s been done. And I wanted to make something a little more timely. I think it’s more important than ever that we reject the impulse to stay isolated. Because the people in power benefit a great deal from an isolated and disorganized population. I think the most powerful thing we can do right now is sort through our own trauma and our own hurt, meet with other people with that same energy who have done the work on their end and think about the ways that we can stop that harm.

Ultimately what I love most about Survival is you have these very sensitive and thoughtful lyrics about your personal experience, and it’s also just a really satisfying and melodic rock record.

It’s what I wanted to do. As far as the melody, that pretty much always comes first to me. Often I’ll have a song fully written on guitar. “Survival” was actually like that. I was bashing my head against the wall about the title track for actual months. I didn’t figure out what it was about until this sort of auspicious day when I was uniquely angry about something that the premier of our country said. I actually wrote it a couple of days after that.

You’ve called Survival a hopeful record, and I feel like that sense of uplift comes from the music, which is beautiful and epic and rooted in this grand guitar-rock tradition. Survival has been compared to The Monitor by Titus Andronicus. I’m also reminded of albums like Siamese Dream and Daydream Nation. Are any of those albums influential for you?

I like Sonic Youth. I feel like such a newbie saying that Daydream Nation is my favorite record but it is. I feel like it stands apart as a beautiful album. I love power pop. I suppose my first really proper spate of bands that really spoke to what I wanted to accomplish musically was probably The New Pornographers. I like all the people in that band but especially Neko Case and Dan Bejar, and the way they molded that band around their existing vocal and songwriting styles. I saw them at a formative age, and The Mountain Goats opened, which was like a big, big show for me, just as far as energetic songwriting coupled with narratively driven lyrics.

You were also a teenage metalhead, right?

I was obviously, like, brutally depressed for most of my teenage years, so I was attracted to that kind of music. I guess it was the intricacy of the guitar work that was appealing to me. When I first started going to guitar lessons. that’s the kind of sound that I wanted to make. I wanted to go to college as a guitar player. And it took me a while to process the things that drew me away — the machismo and the competitive aspects of what could be played faster, as opposed to writing the song. But there’s a lot of stuff in that genre I really like. I can point to “War Pigs” as an early radicalizing force, or “Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying?”

Is that why you play a Flying V? It seems very metal.

It’s a really fun shape. I just like how it looks. It’s got a background in metal, but I think Ray Davies had one for a while. Jimi Hendrix, Albert King. I love that kind of mid-century futurist look. I love my V.

Survival is out now on Mint Records. Get it here.

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