Music

How Toronto Punks Dilly Dally Survived Near-Breakups And Beautiful Mayhem To Ascend To ‘Heaven’

Vanessa Heins

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A breathy miasma. A blood-curdling scream. A stampede of snare drums. An avalanche of guitars. And out of the din, a clarion call: “I feel free, and I want you to find me.” This is how Toronto punk rock band Dilly Dally’s, savage, heart-stopping new album Heaven begins. It’s incredible to think now how close it came to never happening at all.

Dilly Dally were always confident that they’d be rock stars. From the time they were teenagers growing up together outside of Toronto in Newmarket, Ontario, the question between singer Katie Monks and guitarist Liz Ball wasn’t really “if,” but “when.” Bright lights, roaring crowds — it was their destiny.

“I have never really, for better or for worse, had anything in my life other than this band, as far as a career goal,” Monks told me over the phone, when I called her to discuss the process behind the group’s stunning second album. “When me and Liz started playing together, it was like ‘let’s drop out of school and do this!’ And we didn’t even have any songs… I think a lot of people thought we were crazy, you know, for being so confident.”

Their aspirations and their confidence might have appeared misplaced to those who didn’t know them, but Monks and Ball were deadly serious. Eventually, they bought guitars, read tabs and learned how to play, moved into the big city of Toronto, and spent years writing songs in anonymity and performing regular gigs in literal garages. In 2015, the band released their debut album Sore through Buzz Records to widespread critical acclaim. Songs like “Desire,” and “Purple Rage,” which were fueled by Monks’ razor-ragged vocals and a cacophony of discordant guitar melodies and non-solos, touched a nerve within the indie rock world.

“With Dilly Dally… once they started rolling out singles, it was very obvious, very quickly that it was something that a lot of people were really going to connect with,” Buzz Records founder Denholm Whale said. Whale was the promoter of a venue called The Garage that incubated Dilly Dally’s early career. He recognized their talent from nearly the beginning and signed them to his Canadian-based label shortly after he got it rolling. The band is signed to Partisan Records in the States. “Everybody grinds it, but getting that real, natural connection over a very large group of people is something you have to work for most of the time. They got it very quickly just off the music.”

Shortly after Sore dropped, the band — which includes Jimmy Tony on bass and Benjamin Reinhartz on drums — hopped in the van and brought their signature brand of searing rock to the masses. They started out opening for fellow Ontario natives, the critically-adored Sub Pop signed-outfit Metz. “It was like a dream come true because Metz are the gods of the punk scene in Toronto,” Monks noted.

The Metz dates only lasted a short while because of visa issues, which prevented Dilly Dally from joining them across the border, but it all worked out in the end. The band was growing a cult following on the back of immense critical praise for Sore, and eventually, they graduated from opener status to full-blown headliners. But what began as a fun adventure, playing sweat-drenched gigs around the world, slowly morphed into something else, something more insidious. Because as great as they were on the stage, and they certainly were, the grind of touring — with all of its accompanying anxiety, monotony, and irritation — caught up with them. By the end of it, everyone within the group thought that maybe Dilly Dally had run its course.

“It wasn’t just one pivotal moment, it was just like so many things,” Ball said. “I don’t need to go into a description of exactly what I was doing when I was feeling those things, because I don’t think it would add to the story, but when you’re on the road, and you suffer from mental illnesses, and your environment isn’t helping that at all, that kind of just equates to bad stuff.”

They had reached a crossroads that many young bands encounter when you start to lose sight of the reason you picked up an instrument in the first place; when the anxiety of just waking up and facing another hundred miles of highway outweighs the joy and exhilaration of being onstage. “I think we were all just so disconnected from ourselves and from reality and it had just come to a point where everything was boiling over so much that our relationships were completely dysfunctional with one another,” Monks explained. Something had to change.

This was the moment where it all could have ended. When Dilly Dally truly could have called it a day on the back of that one fantastic debut album and gone on to different things. When they could have become a cult act that punk rock connoisseurs held up and wistfully wondered, “What if?” Fortunately, they decided to keep going.

“There were multiple times where I was just like, ‘F*ck this, I can’t do this anymore, I’m out,’” Ball remembered. “But there is just a part of me that wanted to give it one more shot. I felt like I’ve invested so much of my time, and my life that I needed to give it at least one more album.” It remained to be seen whether everyone else felt the same way.

They say that time heals all wounds, and in the case of Dilly Dally, that’s exactly what happened. Everyone retreated to their different corners, but the urge to pick up their instruments and create new music once again proved too hard to ignore. “As soon as we took time alone just being with ourselves and processed the last two years of beautiful mayhem [we] went, ‘Okay well, maybe you don’t want to do the whole band again, but you want to show up to a practice and see how it feels?’” Monks recalled. “’We won’t play any old songs, we’ll just make some noise, and sit on the floor and see what happens.’”

In the meantime, while the band was on hiatus, Monks had continued to piece together bits and pieces of new music by herself, blissfully free from any expectations. She moved into a house with a collection of different artists, locked herself in her bedroom, smoked weed and wrote and wrote and wrote. “I just dug very deep inside my soul to find some wisdom to share with everyone,” she remembered.

“Katie Monks makes relevant art because she is a relevant person,” Partisan Records founder Tim Putnam said. “The new record represents a further evolution of Katie’s songwriting. Moreover, it showcases the band’s increasing ability to translate Katie’s feelings into emotive songs you don’t simply listen to, but feel. The feeling on this record is as immediately clear as it was on Sore, but the new album feels more mature in that regard.”

Armed with a Flying V guitar she picked up after her Fender Mustang broke — “I got the guitar almost as like a fuck you to the whole Toronto scene to just be like, ‘There’s no rules guys. Just because I have a white flying V guitar, doesn’t mean I make shitty, macho, hair metal music’” — Monks assembled hundreds of hours of different melodies, chord progressions, and riffs that piled up on her computer’s hard drive. That guitar and her state of mind, fresh off the road definitely fueled the kind of music she wrote for Heaven.

“I was listening to a lot of doom metal because it was so mysterious to me because they use different tunings, like lower tunings and stuff, which I’d never done before,” she said. “Obviously [in my writing] there’s a lot of depression going on. There is this dichotomy between the doom metal aesthetic of even the cover art, but also the sounds of the songs. But then there’s this uplifting vibe to the actual content of what you’re singing about.”

One of the rawest songs on the album, “Marijuana,” is a prime example. Monks calls it her favorite during our conversation, and it’s easy to understand why. The song came together in just about 20 minutes, but its lacerating power chords and eviscerating themes of heartbreak leave a poignant mark.

“I’ve fallen in and out of love, Jesus, I can’t even count how many times, and certainly in the last two years it’s been maybe eight or nine or ten times,” she said. “This is one of the usual heartbreaks I suppose. I was smoking weed, and it was a really hot day, and I just played the chords and the song came pretty fast.”

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For Monks, the plan initially was to go it alone, write her songs, and let the chips fall where they may. “At first I was kind of like, ‘Well, fuck you guys. I’m gonna write this record by myself,” she said, referring to her bandmates. “Then I was like, ‘Oh. I can’t write it by myself.’ I need Liz to come over and listen to these things with me and tell me what she likes, and we’ll smoke weed and organize my voice notes and whatever.”

And therein lies the heart and the power of Dilly Dally. So many bands in 2018 are more or less vehicles for a single auteur driving a singular vision across an album’s worth of material. And that totally works for those acts, of course, but it’s to Monks’ and Ball’s and Tony’s and Reinhartz’ credit that they recognized the sum of their talent is so much more than the individual parts.

“I remember we were just walking one night, and I was just like, ‘Are you working on new music or whatever?’” Ball remembered asking Monks. “I kind of just brought it up casually, and she was like, ‘Well, do you wanna do something?’ I feel like she was always kind of working on stuff, but it was like up to me to kind of be like, ‘Hey, I’m down.'” And thus, the real work of making the record began.

By nearly every conceivable measure, Heaven is an improvement over Dilly Dally’s already stellar debut. The songs are deep, lacerating, introspective, and begging to be blasted at hazardous volumes. The single “Sober Motel” in particular, which touches on the issue of addiction as it relates to the band’s bassist Jimmy Tony, sounds like an early SST-era Soundgarden deep cut, with Monks delivering octave-smashing screams that will curdle your blood. “I Feel Free” is another heavy, bluster-filled standout, alternating loud-quiet-loud parts with precision. Then there’s the penultimate track “Bad Bio,” which opens with this in a hazy, lackadaisical melody before building into a heavy metal Pink Floyd-esque crescendo of doom and gloom.

So many bands fumble on their second records because of the pressure put on them by outside forces to deliver something into a marketplace hungry for more. By placing their own mental health needs above this drive for more, more, more, Dilly Dally managed to avoid this particular trap. They also took their time throughout the writing and recording process, decamping to Los Angeles for two months to work on the record with producer Rob Schnapf, who had previously created genre-defining albums with the likes of Elliott Smith, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Kurt Vile. Schnapf had also previously mixed Sore and worked with Monks’ brother’s band, Tokyo Police Club.

“When the band was really in disarray, and really spread too thin, and we were in a really bad, dark place as individuals and confused about how to move forward, I called Rob just for advice,” Monks said. “He immediately had such poignant insight and really helped me understand how to walk forward from that time. ‘How does this work again?’ You know, I forget. And that dialogue started, and then it just felt natural to kind of then call him a few months later, and go ‘Yeah, I want you to do it.’”

Anyone who’s ever worked in a creative space surely knows how important it can be to have a second set of eyes and ears to let you know if you’re either onto something, or maybe want to think about a different path. For Katie, and Dilly Dally, that person was Schnapf, who recognized from the jump that they really had something on their hands. He was more than willing to ride with them and help guide Heaven to completion when asked.

“I remember her sending me songs, but I wasn’t really privy to her process, so I didn’t know what she was thinking, but it was definitely like, ‘Yeah, you’re on it. Now, get your band involved,’” Schnapf recalled of his early phone calls with Monks. As for what distinguishes her as a songwriter? “She has vision,” he added. “She’s got something in her head, and if it’s not clear, at least there’s a feeling. Some people have no idea. They just write the song and whatever happens, happens.”

Sore was an album that came together very quickly and with Heaven, the band was eager to take their time and really flesh these nine songs out. They essentially moved to LA for two months and spent 12 to 14 hours a day holed up in Schnapf’s recording studio, fine-tuning every solo, every drum beat, every bassline, and every banshee wail. There may have been time for hikes through the hills on the weekends, but the band relished the ability to lose themselves in the act of musical creation. “I just love being in studios,” Monks said. “It’s totally a dream.”

Even with Monks claiming the role of chief songwriter, the process of actually laying down the tracks was pretty democratic. Everyone was down to explore different sonic avenues it seemed, even if it led nowhere in particular. “It wasn’t so much about having discussions as it was reacting to sounds,” Schnapf said about the sessions. “Let’s try this. Nope. Let’s try this. Nope. Let’s try this. Nope. It was about getting rid of any preconceptions and just trying stuff.”

The hard work, the hundreds of hours in the studio, the time apart, the emotional scars all led to a record that’s one of the finest and most honest rock releases in 2018. The band is obviously stoked for people to get to hear it, but they sound even more thrilled about a future together, even if at one time that prospect seemed uncertain.

“I think we’re all very excited ’cause we have all these new tools that we can use for when shitty things happen on the road,” Ball said. “We’re just trying to be honest and true to ourselves. I think that’s really cool. And I think it’s very special. And I’m just really happy that fans can see the honesty behind it all.”

In the end, Monks hopes that Heaven can be a place for people to turn to navigate their way through their own difficult times.

“How you help people heal is you acknowledge the darkness and you acknowledge the pain,” she said. “The album is completely designed to help people through a depression and hopefully make the world a better place. Maybe? A little bit. Jesus. I mean I don’t know about making the world a better place, but, I hope it helps people.”

Heaven is indeed an album marked with darkness and pain, gloom and doom, but it also overflows with empathy. You won’t find the answer to all your problems as you steep in these nine, beautiful, ugly, twisted, melodic songs, but you’ll at the very least you’ll find a place to escape them for just a little while. It’s a simple solace, but a powerful one.

Dilly Dally’s new album Heaven will be released 9/14 via Partisan Records. Pre-order it here.

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