It’s about six o’clock on a Monday evening and Maxime Desharnais, vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter for Sonic Avenues, has been racing around like a madman since nine in the morning. The band is in the midst of a tour that has been taking them up, down and around North America and, at the moment, they’ve made a quick pit stop at home in Montreal. Right now, Desharnais is folding towels and packing his bags before he sets off to complete the 22-city jaunt with the rest of the band.
“Honestly, people don’t realize — oh man, there are so many little things [to remember],” he laughs, speaking to me over the phone. “Like, pack the merch, roll the t-shirts, I gotta go make some transfers to Visa, and this and that. I’ve been running non-stop.”
Desharnais pauses to plug his phone into its charger while recounting the breakdown of their van the day prior, which saw the four-piece stranded on the side of a highway between Halifax and Moncton. “The typical band story,” he chuckles, detailing how a flat tire made their gear-packed rental skid out and how, with no garages open on a Sunday, the band had to drive with a donut on until they got to New Brunswick, where they finally got to trade in their vehicle.
Now safely chauffeured, Sonic Avenues continue touring in support of their new album, Disconnector. The band’s fourth, Disconnector was released this month to positive praise, particularly in regards the noticeable shift in their sound.
Indeed, Sonic Avenues’ sound has grown naturally with each record, from the more traditional punk arrangements on 2009’s self-titled debut to the variety on 2014’s Mistakes. What makes Disconnector stand out, though, is how unpredictable it is; tempos change mid-song; explosions of noise blow through in unexpected moments, while pop sensibilities bring gorgeous, dark melodies that evoke the new waviness of bands like A Flock of Seagulls and Devo. But while Disconnector marks a bold step forward for the band, their diverse sound isn’t necessarily something new — Sonic Avenues have always worked with an eclectic palette.
Growing up in Sorel, a city in southwestern Quebec just outside of Montreal, Desharnais came of age listening to pop punk bands like Green Day and Screeching Weasel. His shares his taste with guitarist Sébastien Godin and bassist Chance Hutchison, while drummer Jean-Christophe Niquet is drawn more towards blues and classic rock. A lover of music in general, Desharnais has also always been a fan of The Beatles and more experimental alternative groups, like Depeche Mode.
“It’s kind of like a fusion, essentially, of genres,” Desharnais says of the band’s musical influences. “That’s why I kind of don’t like — not that I don’t like it — but when people just categorize us as, ‘oh, they’re a power pop band,’ I feel like that’s such a one-size-fits-all kind of term. I mean, there’s so many other genres that come into play to create the music that bands like ours play, you know what I mean?”
Though an organic evolution and the more obvious nod to their influences is partly why Sonic Avenues called this album Disconnector, it’s mostly named for how it represents the way they’ve veered away from their usual creative path. The new approach was a conscious one, based on Desharnais’ desire to push forward in a different way.
“We had a bit of a rough patch,“ Desharnais admits. “It was nothing personal — we were doing really good, the chemistry was still high — but I didn’t know if I wanted to keep going with Sonic Avenues or work on a different project that, you know, [had] a bit of a tangent in the songwriting. I wanted to explore new creative areas and then, [Sébastien Godin] told me, ‘man, let’s do a different record or not do one at all.’ And I’m like, ‘you know what? I am so on the same page.’ And I imagined that the boys didn’t want to go that far with the change, but they were all welcoming to the idea.”
To go beyond a linear way of thinking, the band played with their formula. Whenever they caught themselves venturing into familiar territory, they would purposely move in a different direction. On “Dancing In The Sun,” for example, when it came time to composing the chorus, normally Desharnais would make that part loud, with four layers of harmonies and ear-splitting guitar. Instead, he decided to do the opposite — stripping it down to a primal drum beat and only one line of vocals. “I wanted to expose myself to moments of creative discomfort, like, just step out of that comfort zone a little bit,” he says. “And I tried to separate myself from all the paths that I naturally wanted to follow and I tried to take a bit of a deeper look at other possible solutions because, you know, when you write a song, you get to a point where this song could go there, there, and there or there. And sometimes there are easy routes and sometimes there are routes where you have no idea where it’s gonna take you. And this is why, on this album, there’s a lot of dynamic contrasts within the same song.”
Disconnector sees Desharnais experimenting as a lyricist, as well. Taking cues from prolific musician, composer, and artist Brian Eno, he used words for their phonetic qualities and built songs like “Tunnel Vision” by taking a subject and then working around it with the ear-pleasing locutions that relate to the topic — in this case, a person suffering a sensory overload before losing control. Other songs, like “Future,” take an image that Desharnais had in his head and bring it to life. For that track in particular, which refers to making choices in life, he’d envisioned someone driving a dark convertible at night. The driver then takes a wrong turn — a bad decision — and his future, like the glass of the windshield, is now shattered.
One of the most conceptually significant moments of the album comes with “Forgetting The Sound Of My Mind,” which subtly references Franz Kafka. “I had this vision of someone going through emotional oppression and so much that he turns into a bug, and that was a bit of a wink at Kafka’s [The] Metamorphosis where someone is going through a really hard time, that he’s feeling neglected by everyone around him,” Desharnais explains, citing the 1915 novella where a man wakes up transformed into an insect. “And I don’t directly talk about this, but there are lines that say, ‘no matter how long, let the mystic fly,’ as if it’s a bug, then ‘you’ll end up on the wall and you’ll smash it away.’”
“This is definitely one of my favourites because I think it really represents the direction that we wanted to take,” he continues.
The inspired outlook of Disconnector is not to say that Sonic Avenues will never return to writing straight-forward punk songs again — they’re fun, easy to write, and, in fact, Desharnais has just written a pair of them. But as a songwriter, he finds himself craving more. “I feel like my threshold of satisfaction is definitely higher and it keeps changing,” Desharnais says, adding that he loves the feeling of uninhibited creativity and wants to begin experimenting with different textures, like the marimba and cello. “I feel like I’m a bit all over the place — but I like that.”
For Desharnais, artistically, it’s important to move away from the confines of the comfort zone and not be frightened of where that can lead; to not impose any rules and to allow oneself to completely let go, to see where that goes. It’s a challenge, of course, but it’s one where the reward is greatly worth reaping. And, with Disconnector, their most ambitious record yet, Sonic Avenues are a band up to the challenge.