“I think it’s human nature that as soon as someone thinks they understand you or you think you understand yourself, you want to change and become something else,” remarks July Talk frontwoman Leah Fay, talking on the phone while navigating an August night in New York City.
The Toronto five-piece came out swinging in late 2011 with their tremendous self-titled debut record, which has since been treated to a number of expansions, international releases, and aesthetic updates. With each tweak and broadening of the record, the band has reaped incremental successes; they performed live from the 2014 JUNO Awards, and the next year at the 2015 ceremony, they took home the JUNO for Best Alternative Album. July Talk has essentially lived out of a van for the past four years, touring and establishing a rabid fan base, not least of all in their hometown. On the eve of another international tour, and with their follow-up record Touch due out September 9, Fay is ready for July Talk to make a different statement.
“It’s been a long time coming. We released the first album four or five different times in different places,” she explains. “We were given the gift of probably an extra three to four years to write a second album, which I don’t know if we deserved but we definitely appreciated. “I don’t think any of us feel that [Touch] was a record that we could make prior to any time other than right now. While we recorded the first incarnation of the first album, it hadn’t been on tour at all. We didn’t really know who we were as a band or what we were going to be, or that the live show was gonna be this thing that we all kind of ended up living for. So knowing and gathering that information, it influenced the second album in a huge way.”
Touch sees the band ditching the relationship-based narratives that coloured their debut, and angling instead towards an angrier tone of social commentary. A noted shift is found in Fay and fellow singer Peter Dreimanis breaking out of the deranged-Johnny-and-June dichotomy that informed their earlier performances; they started to worry that instead of seeing the intricacies and complications associated with their intense gender performances, audiences were merely buying into that dichotomy and celebrating the perverse hyper-masculine and hyper-feminine roles that July Talk set out to challenge.
“That’s something that we started noticing very early on, and started wanting to break away from,” explains Fay. “[Peter and I] have always been able to play each other’s parts. To me, a successful show is where we kind of feel like we’ve turned into the other person, and all sort of played the spectrum of roles that all humans play regardless of gender. ”
“It’s a sexual show, and I think we’re always working to break open what the idea of sexuality is, and explore something that is less black and white and more grey area… I think there’s nothing more boring than the sexuality that was set by Hollywood and western civilization. Inanimate objects can be sexy if you let them.”
Instead of focusing on the intimate minutiae of falling in and out of love, and all stops along the way, July Talk has opted to curse the technologies and media that are fucking with our ability to do so. With damning indictments of pornography on “Picturing Love,” reality TV and the spectacle of human suffering via media on “Jesus Said So,” and coke-addled hipster sadboys on “Johnny + Mary,” Touch asks us to step back and reassess.
“I think that there’s a been a worldwide shift towards shameless narcissism. In more — I guess I’d call them severe — cases, it’s just people posting a photo of themselves every five minutes. They’re essentially just looking in a mirror,” says Fay. “A selfie is a mirror. In a lot of ways, it’s beautiful, cause it does seem that people are more candid and casual, and more able to talk about the intricacies of their daily life. But where’s the room for that magic of what happens between two strangers exchanging a glance on the street? Where is that when everyone’s staring at their screens and double-tapping selfies of each other?”
Fay admits that she isn’t innocent, either. “It’s gotten to the point where [social media] is a tool that we need to be successful as artists. There’s no getting away from it, it’s just fun to question and be skeptical of.
“It’s not like we’re saying we’re beyond it,” she admits. “Any anger that is sensed within the lyrics on the album or in the feel of the music is because human beings hate the things in each other that they hate the most about themselves, and that they fear the most about themselves.”
The frustration isn’t directed plainly at social media as an entity; it’s frustration at the fact that we need them to function as social, relational human beings in 2016. As a touring band, phones and Facebook are the only means of connection July Talk has with their friends, their family, and their home, and that gap begins to form an identity that’s devoid of normality and comfort.
That’s why the band wants to get back to the way things used to be; Touch is as much an aggressive, pissed off letter to 2016 as it is a heartfelt, saddened “I miss you” to the pre-social media era.
“Living in a van is obviously a very specific and strange way of living,” Fay laments. “It makes you focus on, or at least yearn for, some sort of normalcy, and I think that normalcy that we’re talking about and exploring on this album is human touch. There’s nothing really like it. There’s no technological fix that will ever equate to the power of human connection.”
Sure, you can Facetime your mum from three time zones away or Snapchat your old roommate pictures of your new digs, but we have to be careful not to confuse that with the real thing.
“We have all these forms of technology that are striving to bring us closer together, but while we can talk to each other and see each other from across long distances, to actually have someone put their hand on your shoulder and say, ‘hey, is everything okay?’ when you’re about to have a nervous breakdown, that’s the greatest thing that you only get by being two humans existing side-by-side.”
The band found an ally and co-conspirator in Tanya Tagaq, the acclaimed Inuk Canadian throat singer who took home the esteemed Polaris Prize in 2014 for her album Animism (the followup to which, Retribution, is expected later this year). After meeting Tagaq at the 2015 JUNO Awards Gala, Fay and the band knew that a collaboration was necessary. Tagaq’s vocals can be heard on “Beck + Call,” providing a gripping pulse and heartbeat rooting the band’s crashing rhythm section.
“We’d been dying to see her, cause she’s someone that we’ve looked up to for a really long time, and we met her and kind of instantly fell in love with each other,” Fay explains. “‘Beck + Call’ kind of got deconstructed. The guys were jamming it one day, and kind of tried to break it apart, and one of the things they did was ended up swinging the drums, and from there it just kind of turned into something that felt more energetic and human, and more like the beat of a heart and the pulse through your veins, and nobody does that better than Tanya.
“People leave during her sets cause they’re so visceral and palpable and jarring and offensive, but they’re also the most magical hour you’ll ever spend in your life. She’s telling a story that doesn’t have or require words. You feel it more than anything, and I think that’s the best type of storytelling.”
Naturally, July Talk’s own desire to shake people up and knock a preconceived notion loose made for a good match. Their live show is equally intense and engaging; from sporting old wedding dresses onstage, to Fay and Dreimanis’ not-so-playful scrapping, to fellating microphones, July Talk is not content to disengage; they are here, they are alive and they will make you feel it, too. They will reinvent and challenge and call bullshit and pull every trick up their sleeve to try to make their audience do the same. They are not man and woman. They are not the band you think you know. They’re not your fuckin’ khakis.
“There’s always more than meets the eye,” laughs Leah. “We’re just transformers.”
Touch is set for release on September 9 on Sleepless Records in Canada and Island Records in the US. They’re on 3-month international tour right now; check out the dates below.