Jo Passed’s Jo Hirabayashi Confronted His Fears To Become One Of Canada’s Finest Indie Exports

Reece Voyer

In conversation, Jo Hirabayashi is quick to laugh. He has plenty of reasons to be happy: his band, Jo Passed, became label mates with the likes of Father John Misty, Beach House, and Sleater-Kinney when they signed with Sub Pop back in February. Today, Jo Passed released their debut album, Their Prime. Tonight, they’ll kick off a summer tour in Hirabayashi’s hometown of Vancouver. It’s a great time to be Hirabayashi.

That said, it’s possible that his laughter is inspired at least in part by nerves. Change, good or bad, comes with its challenges, and there have been a lot of moves in Hirabayashi’s life over the past few years. The most significant of those was a literal move: his previous band, Vancouver psych-prog group Sprïng, called it quits and played their last show in 2015, one of the reasons for the split being that Hirabayashi wanted to relocate to Montreal, which he says is a common ambition for West coast Canadian musicians.

This brought him closer to the East coast music scene, and closer to where he is today, fresh off the release of a strong and diverse debut album on one of the most respected labels in music. Their Prime reads like a mixtape of the music your musically savvy older brother would have put you onto in the late ’90s. Album opener “Left” is a Pink Floyd-like psychedelic wave before morphing into a grungy My Bloody Valentine climax, for example. Hirabayashi fancies himself a vintage-leaning songwriter, but that doesn’t mean he sounds old. Rather, he sounds confident, confident that good songs are timeless, and confident that good songs are exactly what he has.

I got on the phone with Hirabayashi recently, and among other things, he said that since his album wasn’t actually out (at the time of our call), it didn’t yet feel like anything had really changed. The good news is that Their Prime is a cracking debut and a catalyst of a record, so now is the perfect time to get in on the ground floor of Jo Passed and start laughing along.

It seems like Jo Passed has been a very different experience for you than the other projects that you’ve been involved in. Is that true, and if so, what do you credit that to?

It’s been a really different experience from the start in that a lot of my other projects were projects that started with… I mean, I started this with friends, but it hasn’t had the same kind of band camaraderie, like, yeah, we’re all planning to get there to do this thing and that thing. It’s been more like, um, just me doing that. [laughs]

This has been more like people playing shows and having fun, and then I’m kind of sending a lot of emails. [laughs] I guess that’s the main difference, and then there’s just the understanding that it’s like my songwriting and that kind of thing. It initially was pretty scary.

What has it been like gradually adding people to the band in the way that you have been? Has that had any impact on the way you write songs?

It hasn’t really. A big part of starting this project was that I felt like in a lot of the bands I was in, I had been the principal songwriter, usually working with another songwriter. And I definitely would always write to the band: I’d write thinking what my drummer would like to play and what everyone would feel happy playing. And, when I first started writing for this project, I felt like that was a restriction that was too difficult for me to continue doing.

I also was excited to try and write more for the audience, or have more of a direct relationship to listeners or to people or fans of the project, not necessarily the people in the bands. There is a really nice sense where I can connect more with people listening to the music. Doing something “solo” as far as songwriting, it’s nice to have that relationship with the audience.

Going back some, I suppose this whole thing was spurned by you making a big move from Vancouver to Montreal. What was the impetus for that?

It’s a pretty common move. There have been a few bands from Vancouver, especially younger bands, that will just move out to Montreal, and it makes a lot of sense as a band to do it. I talked about doing it with all my bands. We actually had a plan with my old band Sprïng to do it that summer I actually did it. It was funny because the plan fell apart, but then I ended up doing it anyway.

We were planning to move out and just have cheaper rent, which is a big thing in Montreal, and then tool around the East coast area. The thing is, Vancouver is pretty tucked away, and pretty far away from Toronto, Montreal, New York, and a lot of those major Eastern cities. So it made a lot of sense to me when we had the West coast project that rather than just do a one-off tour all the way out there, we would like maybe try and actually spend more time out there, and do a few smaller tours and get into the scene a little bit more.

Instead, I ended up starting a new project there and that was wild, it was cool. It was kind of cool to pay your dues in a city where no one really knows you. It would have been easier to have started the band in Vancouver, because I think we would have gotten better shows initially. [laughs] It was like humbling and nice, and people were so nice and supportive in Montreal.

It was a really cool experience to go somewhere as an unknown person and just reach out with your EP of music. You don’t even have an old project that people necessarily know about, and you just start booking shows and finding people. I had a bass player from Montreal that played with me and [Jo Passed member Mac Lawrie] while we were out there. That was really cool, to have someone that was so willing to just based on the music, come into a project with unfamiliar people.

So going to Montreal gave you more opportunity in terms of the music and it changed you that way. How, though, did it change you on a more personal level, if at all?

It definitely made me feel a little more independent. The whole point of the trip was just kind of, you know… I hadn’t had that experience moving to another place. I’m Vancouver-born and raised, so I think it’s like a pretty valuable experience for people to go to a new place and see if you can make friends. [laughs] And I’d love to spend some time and move somewhere else for a short period. Now I’ll probably feel like I’m always going to come back to Vancouver. On a personal level, it was just nice to have that bit of self-confidence that I… I guess I’m actually like a social guy. [laughs] I can meet people okay.

Imagine that. [laughs]

Yeah. There’s an idealization of Montreal from Vancouver musicians, from Canadian musicians and stuff. It’s really great because of those factors, just a cheaper cost of living, which means you just have more time to rehearse with your band. Then there are a lot more venues and there’s more of a cultural infrastructure. There’s more of a general culture there for promoting music. It’s known as music city.

Touring as a Montreal band, when we did our first couple tours, it’s just like going down to New York and saying, ‘Oh yeah, we’re from Montreal,’ there was such an obvious idea or like the notion of what it was to be a Montreal band. People like, ‘oh…cool. You’re like, arty.’ [laughs]

Touring as a Vancouver band, there’s way less of a real understanding of what that is. I’ve found, which I also think is cool, I’m actually kind of more into it. Because people can either think of you as a West coast band or they can think of you as a Canadian band, and then secretly you’re kind of like neither of those anyway. [laughs]

That’s wild, I didn’t realize there was that much of a difference between the areas. So musically, from what I’ve been reading, you enjoyed how somebody compared the album to a “f–cked-up Beatles.” In terms of the Beatles themselves, there’s a lot to love, but is there anything specific that you’ve taken from their music that has informed the process of your songwriting?

I think the biggest thing is that I kind of view myself as somewhat of like a songwriting traditionalist, like I do think about melodies and chords, and those kinds of things. There’s a Paul McCartney interview where they asked him how much he thought the music would change — this is like pre them getting all psychedelic — and he said, “Oh, probably the arrangements and things like that would change, and like instrumentation and probably more or less the songwriting will stay the same.”

That’s true to some degree, but I thought that the songwriting changed a lot too. I approach things in a similar way. Certainly on this album, with the exception of a few tracks, at the core of these songs, they’re songs I could sit down and play on a piano or guitar. And then the music goes different directions and changes, but at the core, there’s still that song.

It seems like you definitely are inspired more by the older artists, but what modern acts excite you?

As far as modern people I really like, I’ve said Frank Ocean’s Blonde was really an influence, something I listen to a lot. I’m starting to get more into contemporary hip-hop and R&B. That’s kind of the most psychedelic experimental stuff right now, and definitely the most cutting edge as far as using new studio technology and that kind of thing. Also structurally, it’s just amazing. But that album Blonde specifically is just so impressionistic. It’s kind of amazing how it will go so distorted to at some parts and then be just so beautiful, and so serene, too.

In terms of your own music, you’ve said that it’s about confronting your fears in some sense. Did making this new album give you any piece of mind?

I’ve been trying to authentically represent or talk about my experience in Vancouver as best I could, which is kind of scary to do. With Sprïng, I wrote songs that were kind of myth stories that basically removed myself from the picture, so I got to write these little stories that had nothing to do with me. The nice thing about that is that they’re just objects. They don’t have to tie in to you personally.

Doing this was like me coming around and being like, ‘Okay, I’m actually going to try and be a little more upfront and simple, and make it a presentation of myself.’ So, I don’t know. It’s still kind of terrifying, with the album coming out… even these questions. [laughs] It rides that line to where there’s a danger in becoming a little bit too self-absorbed or whiny. But at the same time, you have to stand by what you’re saying and what you’re putting out, because I feel like in order to stay valid I have to do that.

If you’ve been in the American media over the past couple years, you’ve probably been talking about Donald Trump in some way. So I wonder, as a Canadian, how you approach that and react to that.

My fear is that Trump is like a huge red herring or distraction to a lot of other things going on. I get really sketched out about Trump. My parents were watching this show that was like a narrative about lawyers investigating Trump or whatever. And I’m thinking, he would have had to sign off on his name to use this and his likeness and stuff, and maybe he’s getting money from it. With the way American media works and covering this stuff and the way people can kind of get ramped up, there’s some kind of strategy going on. I feel like, you know, I get suspicious.

I haven’t gone down to the states since the Trump election, but I think that to take something positive from it, I feel like more people are taking less bullshit as a result of the Trump, or like there’s more of a sensitivity to people being misogynistic or whatever. We can have more of a say in our music scenes and try to be more proactive when we realize things can get really bad because of what’s happening at the federal level. So that’s been a positive part of it.

To get less heavy and more positive on the last question here, with the increased level of success and exposure you have, now that your album is being put out on like this label people know and love, do you still feel at least a bit like the teenage DIY artist you were coming up in Vancouver?

I think I do still. I think things are changing. I’m really curious because it’s really tough to tell sometimes. We just did a show out in Toronto for CMW Fest [Canadian Music Week] and that felt like there was a shift in terms of how this band was. We haven’t actually done much yet; we’ve done a few little tours and we’re just going on tour in a week and a half. I feel like once we go on tour and actually start playing shows and get moving around, it’s going to feel a lot more different. It’s really tough to tell with, like, internet stuff, you know? [laughs]

It hasn’t actually happened yet.

Yeah, totally. You can see posts and articles and stuff, and that’s cool, but we’re not doing the tangible things yet like playing shows for people and seeing those responses. Just the album being out, I’m excited for. I’m writing for a second album right now, and I feel like that is where it’s going to feel like a definitive change.

Their Prime is out now via Sub Pop. Get it here.

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