Published Aug 16, 2016When Leah Fay is performing, "One of the most grounding things you can do" she says, "is walk out into the crowd and feel someone's hand on your hand or head on your head."
"Sometimes it's hard to get her back onstage," quips her bandmate, singer-guitarist Peter Dreimanis.
"I just love it out there."
Fay and Dreimanis clearly enjoy the symbiotic relationship between their band, Toronto-based quintet July Talk, and their ever-growing legion of fans.
That very tangible connection has lately been filling the emotional void caused by the absence of contact with friends and family. Since dropping their self-titled debut, the quintet have been perpetual road warriors, winning over fans through their wild and unpredictable live shows in bars, halls, theatres and even stadiums. The chasm between the loneliness of the road and the intimacy of fan adoration were the creative touchstones for their sophomore album, Touch.
Musically, Dreimanis' and Fay's call-and-response vocals are the band's focal point — his rough howl juxtaposed with her relatively more delicate coo. Drummer Danny Miles and bassist Josh Warburton establish a disco-blues groove, leaving space for Ian Docherty and Dreimanis to pepper in their guitars.
On stage is where they've made their name and reputation, and depending on your perspective, a July Talk show can resemble an intra-band fight, a lover's quarrel, or simply an entertaining act. The two singers have developed a unique and often explosive dynamic over the years; Dreimanis remains the intense, yet focused rock on whom Fay inflicts low-grade violence with a coy smile. Acts of aggression include slapping, hair pulling, and even duct-taping Dreimanis's eyes shut. Their interactions have become the central myth that defines the group.
Far from a scripted shtick though, Fay's actions are aimed at subverting audience expectations, including the stereotypical gendered roles foisted on both men and women in bands. "You're this sweet sex kitten, baby angel, candy pop and you're this gruff beast, and monstrous, swallowed an ashtray blah, blah, blah. It's impossible to give to voices those descriptors without placing some perceived characteristic that I am this and he is that. If I'm screaming in someone's face, it's me showing that I have some power, that I'm not just there to sing backup."
For two people in a band, it's a surprisingly intimate performance, but July Talk — who are nothing if not image conscious — leave off-stage speculation about their relationship to gossip hounds. Fay leaves it at: "For personal reasons, it's not a topic we discuss with media."
After grinding it out for three long years, July Talk got an informal welcome home last summer at the inaugural WayHome Music and Arts Festival — in front of approximately 10,000 people. The massive platform put Fay in a particularly exuberant mood, scaling scaffolding and staging an all-male wet T-shirt contest. Participants won a kiss from Dreimanis.
"Everything felt like it got turned upside down," Dreimanis says. "Walking on the stage, it felt like 'Oh my God. We're home and everything's changed.'"
By the time of their WayHome set, their debut was almost three years old, and had been released three times, initially by White Girl (now Sleepless) Records, followed by a string of sweaty club dates. Universal noticed, and offered the band a distribution deal; Canadian radio play and video rotation followed. Finally, the album dropped a third time in the U.S.
With each release, the band expanded their reach — and expanded the album with bonus tracks, cannibalizing new material. Each time they started from scratch, building their fan base from the ground up, one gig at a time. "It was a weird way to do it, but I don't think I'd change it," says Dreimanis. "It gave us a long introduction."
Peter Dreimanis met Leah Fay in 2010, shortly before leaving on a gruelling winter European tour. A trained contemporary dancer, she was part of a folky performance art duo called Mother of Brides. He was playing guitar with Toronto band the Mohawk Lodge, backing frontman Ryder Havdale (and including drummer Danny Miles). The band fell apart in an airport the following January. "We were putting way too much up our nose," Dreimanis says. "Through the most awful experience, in the back of my mind I knew I get to go home and write songs with this girl."
Back home, he and Fay hooked up with Eamon McGrath, his childhood friend from Edmonton and a successful solo artist in his own right. The trio quickly recruited Miles and bass player Josh Warburton. "I think my line to everyone was, 'Do you want to take over the world?'" Dreimanis says.
McGrath was forced to bow out about eight months in due to his own hectic touring schedule. Ian Docherty, who plays in Toronto cover band Dwayne Gretzky with other high-profile Canadian musicians, was brought in, cementing the line-up.
"We didn't take the band very seriously at the beginning," admits Dreimanis. At the time, his priorities were focused on Vulture Culture, the film production company he and Warburton co-founded after graduating from film school. The two made music videos for artists like Arkells and Born Ruffians. But they grew frustrated by low budgets and lack of creative control.
"As we actually made the [first July Talk] record, we realized that if this worked out, we could make videos the way we wanted," says Dreimanis.
"When we realized we could make all this content for our group," adds Warburton, "it made it fun again."
The background in image-making is immediately evident in everything July Talk do — Dreimanis calls it "just as important as the music." In addition to the band-defining on-stage interaction, they've also adopted a cohesive black and white visual aesthetic in photos and videos. Even sartorially, Dreimanis is easily identified by his ubiquitous short-sleeved white button-up shirt.
"We wanted to feel like our content couldn't be for anyone else," says Dreimanis. The video concept for Touch's opening track, "Picturing Love," came together while the band were still writing the song.
They were onto something. July Talk eventually sold gold and won a Juno, while songs like "The Garden" and "Guns + Ammunition" became staples on both rock radio and MUCH, where their stark, monochromatic clips stood out amongst the bright, showy gloss that make up the bulk of the channel's video blocks.
McGrath recently opened a Toronto office of Berlin booking agency Flix. He says that when trying to explain the merits of touring, the impact of FM radio and what hard work as a band really means to young bands, "I inevitably cite July Talk."
Touch builds on the sonic and lyrical foundation of their debut, an album Dreimanis describes as "a handshake. A great way to meet our band." Touch, on the other hand, showcases the personality they've solidified over three long years on the road. The grooves prioritize movement, while the lyrics dive into the dark recesses of what human connection means in the 21st century. "This record," says Dreimanis, "was our opportunity to showcase what happens on stage."
"We've been living out of a suitcase," says Warburton, summing up the band's career to date. "To keep up with what's going on in everyone's life when you're gone, you end up experiencing it through a small screen. It's really dehumanizing, but it's better than nothing."
The staggered rollout of their debut kept band members away from home for the better part of three years; Touch is almost certain to push the band to further heights — and to keep them on the road, making physical contact impossible.
It's easy to see why human connection and its increasing unattainability became the record's theme. Case in point: at the July Talk team's insistence, rather than speaking on the phone, I meet Dreimanis, Fay and Warburton in person at a west end Toronto bar, even though they're set to fly across the country the next morning to play a music festival in Victoria.
Fay mentions an article the band read about cuddle cafes in Tokyo, businesses that offer platonic sleeping arrangements to lonely, isolated customers. "It's a quantifiable human urge and something that is now obtainable in the same way that groceries are," she says. "It's a thing that we actually need to make us feel human and alive."
July Talk now find their tactile fix onstage. Whether catalyzed by playing with the crowd or triggered by pre-show interactions with one another, it's that need — to touch, to feel — that drives July Talk performances. "We're throwing around so much emotion," says Dreimanis. "We're trying to bring the songs to life and get the audience to care, even though it's a Tuesday night."
Their dynamic used to mirror the "he said, she said" lyrical perspective of July Talk's earliest material. The first two verses of "Guns + Ammunition" for example, contrast the duelling perspectives, each coming to different conclusions that nevertheless mirror one another: "When I think about you, my whole world falls in," growls Dreimanis; "When I think about you, my whole world falls through," sings Fay.
For Touch though, the duo spent months editing each other's lyrics to produce a more singular vision. "Lola + Joseph" chronicles the same fateful meeting, with each singer finishing the other's sentences, while "Picturing Love" offers complementary perspectives on how amorous interactions are altered by internet pornography. "We pointed towards the listener a bit, together," says Dreimanis. "Most of the record, we're on the same team, angry at the world."
The dark lyrical turn is contrasted by the album's more dance-friendly rhythms. "We have to play these songs for years, so they have to be fun," say Warburton. "With this idea of touch and human connection, that seemed like an obvious sonic direction."
It's working — Touch's first single, "Push + Pull," has been receiving heavy play on Canadian radio this summer, becoming their first number one hit; they were asked to perform the track at this summer's MMVAs. Conversely, they already have gigs lined up across Canada, the U.S. and Europe through the end of the year, ensuring it will be many months of experiencing life back home in Toronto through screens.
As difficult as that will be, it will almost certainly result in another string of explosive live shows for fans. "The whole point of rock'n'roll is to leave it all on there," says Dreimanis. "If you're going on and you're feeling really awful or fragile, that's going to come out. Sometimes in a healthy way, sometimes in a way that you regret the next morning.
"But it's usually entertaining."