After one EP and two albums, it hasn’t gotten any easier to describe how Weaves sound. The Toronto quartet stand out on their Canadian, American and European labels (Buzz, Kanine and Memphis Industries, respectively), and even in their own city. They revel in their flexibility, a rare ability to marry weird charm with accessibility that keeps them ahead of their peers and my own capacity for finding the right words.
From the 2013 single “Hulahoop” onward, the band have largely been having fun at rock music’s expense, coloring way outside the lines to ever fit neatly into a single category. Vocalist Jasmyn Burke is the unpredictable force that guides and drives each song; guitarist Morgan Waters’ riffs are big rock caricatures, often miming Burke’s own vocal performances as if the two are a couple of kids constantly teasing each other. What holds it all together is their rhythm section, bassist Zach Bines and drummer Spencer Cole give each song a swinging momentum, containing and complimenting Burke and Waters’ animated fluidity within their own sharp rhythmic sensibilities.
If last year’s Polaris-Prize-nominated self-titled debut album revealed the soft gooey center of Weaves’ sound, then Wide Open, which is due out this Friday (but streaming on NPR First Listen right now), finds the band moving further and further away from that point in every direction. This is a record that celebrates choice and opportunity, and Weaves seize it by pushing their sound to further extremes. Lead single “#53” finds the group more straight-faced than ever, demonstrating restraint to support the song’s unabashed earnestness, while the more recent “Scream” has avant throat singer Tanya Tagaq joining up with them to let their freak flags fly.
How do they balance it all without things falling apart? Speaking to songwriters Burke and Waters, the two reveal the secret behind the band’s dynamic, how they opened themselves up to vulnerability with Wide Open‘s more direct lyrics and emotions, and how Weaves are looking to Michael McDonald for inspiration.
Were the songs from Wide Open written at the same time?
Jasmyn Burke: Yeah pretty much over three or four months once we got back from tour. It was all pretty quick. We were all in a good headspace and ready to get back to work.
Morgan Waters: With new feelings.
Burke: Yes, new feelings. Though I don’t know about that really, I was on the road for a year.
Waters: New versions of old feelings. There was so much new material generated for this new album that we have two other records. We just chose the ones that we felt would be the single piece.
Is that why “#53” is called that?
Waters: It’s not the fifty third demo we did.
Burke: No it was number fifty three on my looping pedal. That was a free spot I had on there. I think I’m up to ninety-nine now, but that one was empty.
Waters: “Coo Coo” at one point was “Coo Coo #44,” but we dropped that. With “#53” it always seemed like the right thing.
Burke: Yeah. It just felt like it didn’t have a name.
The way you’ve described your songwriting process in the past was that Jasmyn would lead and Morgan would help translate it into a song. Is that how it still works?
Waters: Yeah, we’ve got a system. It’s really functional and comfortable for everyone. She works better by herself, and then she sends it to me. It’s kind of a passive-aggressive approach at first, everyone has their own space and then we demo stuff together, and she’s sort of the police saying ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ to different ideas.
Burke: Yeah we police each other. I guess. More like we troll each other. We’re trolls. [laughs]
Waters: And then we take it to the space and with the other guys we half-learn the demo. Sometimes we don’t even learn it. We just go straight to the studio. And sometimes it’s better that people don’t learn it and you can explore it in the studio. There wasn’t too much between the time when she wrote it and when we recorded it. It’s all fairly immediate. We just try to keep it moving, because the more you work on the little details you just start seeing the details and then you start to hate it.
Burke: We don’t want to overthink it too much.
What is it about overthinking things that seems antithetical to Weaves?
Waters: I’ll over think things, I’m comfortable with that.
Burke: I’m not. [laughs]
Waters: I’ll keep it quiet. I’ll think about things a lot but then I don’t really talk about it. She doesn’t talk about what a song means to me. We’re both keeping things from each other.
You also described your process as a kind of balancing act: How you pull each other in different directions, either toward accessibility or to weirdness. It seems like all of that used to be contained within a single song, whereas now it feels like that battle might be happening between the songs themselves. The weirder ones get weirder, the structured ones more structured.
Burke: Yeah we’ve talked about this a bit, but the more you’re straightforward pop, the more you can be dynamic with your strange songs.
Waters: It’s nice to be really poppy and catchy and be wild, it makes both sides more exciting. Maybe, in the beginning, you [Jasmyn] were saying you were the arty one and I was the Mr. Mainstream, but I don’t think we even have those conversations. I think we just do whatever works best for the song.
Burke: We also kind of plowed through it. I can’t even remember demoing these. We didn’t really fight about too much.
Burke: We used to fight more about what the sound would be, but we both know now what we want.
Waters: I think with this batch of songs, too, it’s more direct lyrically and emotionally, so it didn’t feel the need to change it too much. Decisions came easier on this record. Just in terms of overdubs and keeping it direct and make the songs come through, rather than always trying to be clever with the arrangement.
Yeah, songs like “Walkaway” or “#53” are very direct, heart-on-sleeve kinds of songs. Is that something you think about, how to portray a feeling earnestly in a song, when you’re a band that’s known for trying to undermine and have fun with rock music a bit? How can what you’re doing be taken seriously when you’re also actively undermining the songs at the same time?
Waters: That’s the battle.
Burke: That’s the battle. [laughs] You’re still trying to write a song, so whatever we do has to work within the context of a given song.
Waters: There’s still in-jokes in a lot of the songs, we didn’t want to undermine anything though. If the song’s a good song, we didn’t want to undermine it just to be cool.
Burke: It’s fun to make loud, punchy lyrics. With “#53,” I didn’t really even think that would be a song for the band, maybe I was having more fun with being over-the-top.
Waters: There’s a lot where you’re pretty dramatic on this record. “Puddle,” “Wide Open.”
Burke: Brought the ‘drams.’
Waters: Yeah, brought the drama. And then I’d play this big rock cliché on guitar because I like classic rock, but also because it seemed suited to this. It’s nice to take clichés out of their niche and mix them together. It’s always fun to flirt with cheese and not be too cool.
Burke: And make it sound like our music as well.
Yeah, it still sounds like Weaves, just that you’re working within a greater continuum of sounds and styles. Lyrically the previous set of songs seemed personal, and these ones continue that, but they also feel like there’s more at stake. Songs like “Slicked” and “Scream” emphasize the strength in individuality and body positivity. Did you go into making this record wanting to say something?
Burke: It just came out. By way of literally existing, maybe these are thoughts I’ve always had but I didn’t really put them in my lyrics previously. Just meeting people on the road and being affected by their warmth and how they see themselves in you. Then you think ‘OK I need to be stronger, I need to be a better example for these people.’ It’s nice to be honest about how you feel. You’re not always a super confident person and everyone has moments where they feel shitty and bad about themselves.
Waters: I like the vulnerability. Maybe there wasn’t always that vulnerability or it wasn’t as clear on the first record, and I think that’s what it is. That direct nature of the lyrics and emotions, that takes vulnerability, and maybe it takes more confidence to be direct than it does to be weird. You can always hide behind being weird, but if you’re trying to say something and sound nice, then I think there’s a bigger room for failure.
You were saying you recorded like three albums worth of material…
Burke: Seven albums! [laughs]
How do you then cut that down and say ‘these are the songs that are going to be on Wide Open?’
Waters: Well we send it to a bunch of people and ask their opinion. We allow everyone to tell us what to think. No, I think we have a lot of improvised stuff, a lot of super-improvised crazy stuff, some stuff that’s more R&B-ish, we kinda just took the things that felt like complete little songs.
Burke: Yeah and we had an initial lineup of songs, but some friends had told us ‘you don’t have to be weird to be weird, or have to put a song on there that’s going to throw people off.’
Waters: We had a couple ones that were major curveballs, things that we did just so that we could prove we could. And then it’s better for the album as a whole if we left those off.
What’s a major curveball for Weaves?
Waters: Well I mean this album still has its curveballs.
Burke: I guess we had more improvised stuff before.
Waters: Things that clearly aren’t as written. But I mean “Gasoline” is mostly improvised.
“Motherfucker” sounds pretty improvised.
Waters: Yeah [Jasmyn] had that loop and was yelling at us to play a certain riff as we recorded. [laughs]
Burke: Yeah, it came together pretty Weaves-y.
Waters: Her yelling at us being like ‘No! No!’
Burke: ‘I don’t like what you’re playyyyiiinnngg!’
Waters: Spencer and I had this nice dancehall groove going and she was like ‘what the fuck is this?’ So we were in the studio and as we were recording she was talking to us through our headphones. You can hear me kind of learning my guitar part as I went.
Burke: And with “Gasoline” we weren’t planning on recording that but we were in the studio and Morgan pulled out his laptop and asked ‘what about this one?’ So I listened to it a few times before writing some lyrics, and the other guys had never heard it before, so that was all just like improvised madness.
Waters: When you go into the studio with songs that you’ve worked on it’s like ‘oh I hope we got this, I hope we got that’ but when you’re going in with something you hadn’t even talked about until two seconds before you recorded it, it feels like a bit of a victory to get something that wasn’t thought about.
Burke: And our band isn’t super polished. So it fits the mood of who we are. [laughs] We’re never going to be a perfect thing.
Are you purposefully working those parts in? “Two Oceans” on the last record was kind of ramshackle in that same way.
Burke: Yeah I think we like that feel of a human element in our songs. It’s nice to leave those little pieces of…
Waters: Question marks.
Burke: Yeah. You can hear me talking to him a little bit on “Grass,” little parts like that that make it feel more warm and approachable.
Waters: We always try and work in a little element of seeing the process into our music and videos. Seeing the seams of production. Seeing the lights, seeing a camera person or crew person. It reflects our spirit of being in the moment and feeling like you’re watching something happening for the first time. And us also playing like it’s the first time.
Why did you call this record Wide Open? What is it about that song that speaks to the greater message you’re trying to get across?
Burke: It goes back to what we were talking about before about being open, being honest, being direct. With these songs it just felt like we were ‘wide open.’
Waters: And the excitement we have for the future and who knows what we will do next. Also, countries are big and when you drive across them, they’re real open. Real wild open. Apparently Michael McDonald of the Doobie Brothers is releasing a new record called Wide Open too, so.
Waters: There you go.
Burke: Is that a trend now?
Waters: Michael McDonald establishes the trends and we just follow them.
Have you followed something else he’s done? Are there more parallels between Michael McDonald and Weaves that I don’t know about?
Waters: Well, if you look hard enough.
Wide Open is out 10/6 via Kanine Records. Get it here.