It’s hard to believe that the Meligrove Band has been around since the late ’90s. The band’s wiry power pop, after all, has certain timelessness to it, which is partially why they’re woven into plenty of Toronto’s past-and-present institutions: They’ve been slotted on Wavelength bills, are certified Friends in Bellwoods, and in their earliest days, came up via the all-ages scene around Ductape Fanzine. If there’s a single band that’s emblematic of the last decade of Toronto power pop, it’s likely the Meligrove Band.
Of course, we don’t mean to wax poetic about Planets Conspire. Because the band—Jason Nunes, drummer Darcy Rego, guitarist Brian O’Reilly and bassist Michael Small—is also prepping another collection of razor-sharp pop tracks, The Bones of Things, which is slated to drop via We Are Busy Bodies. It’s been four years between releases, and after being marooned in Florida on their last tour due to a busted tour van, they weren’t even positive the band would continue.
“But we’d just email each other with demos, being like, ‘Check out this track I wrote,'” says Small. “For a while, Darcy didn’t even have a guitar [at his home], but he had a mandolin. He just started playing power chords on it, and recording demos on it. We ended up begging him to play mandolin instead of guitars.”
“We like to make recordings and play music together, and records just start forming out of that. They’re our accidental babies, so to speak,” he says with a laugh. “OK, that’s the worst thing I’ve said in hours.”
The mandolin became part of the LP’s sonic signature, defining tracks like “Disappointed Mothers,” “Sunrise Old” and the “Bones of Things.” Yet their choice to build songs around Rego’s new instrument, Small says, is characteristic of the haphazard approach the Meligrove Band takes to songwriting. “It’s pretty goofy,” he adds, saying the band’s always been a collection of left-field ideas. “Even a lot of the stuff on [their now beloved 2006 LP] Planets Conspire sounded like a terrible idea. Like, a whistling solo followed by a rap beat followed by a bass solo? I remember Jose [Contreras, producer] just laughing when he heard it.”
But the mandolin isn’t the only thing that’s changed on the LP. For the first time ever, says Small, the band actually took their time in the studio—while the band often used live takes in previous recording sessions, a FACTOR grant allowed them to actually take time to polish The Bones of Things.
“We just wanted a new adventure, so we tried to separate everything [in the studio],” says Small. “FACTOR always says no, but this time, to the surprise of our life, they sent us a bit of money. It helped us relax a bit—I had two and half days to play the bass on it. We [had more time] to break the songs into parts.”
Even if The Bones of Things is a new adventure—it veers into spastic post-punk (as on “Morning Owls”) or sugary garage (as on “Don’t Wanna Say Goodbye” or the excellent “Tortaruga”)—to our ears, it still feels like a perfect Torontonian power-pop record. It could, after all, slot in comfortably alongside By Divine Right. Or the Bicycles. So, while we were on the topic, we asked Small to compile a list of his favourite—and underrated—Hogtown records.
Grasshopper – Stereovision (Happy Kid, 1994)
“An absolutely punishing, ultra-distorted, feedback-everywhere grunge rock opus that, in my grownup life, I can barely handle — but I listened to this every day in my mid-teens (and as a high school radio DJ, subjected my classmates to during lunch period). The first song, “Supervillain,” still gets stuck in my head for days if I accidentally think of it—and I’ve borrowed the epic string-bend fuzz-sustain that opens “Glasseater” many times, in recordings and onstage.
Radioblaster – Sugar-Shock (Squirtgun, 1995)
“Not counting Nirvana, this is the first band I got really, really into—and they were local. I’ve played a Gibson Thunderbird through a Russian Big Muff for nearly the entire time I’ve been playing bass. Know why? Radioblaster is why. The bass sounds on this record did something to teenage-me, and I still don’t totally know what. I still get goosebumps from it. I don’t feel totally right about my sound until it reminds me of something from this record. Sugar-Shock was out of print and nowhere online for many years, until it turned up on Bandcamp this past summer.”
Pecola – Dat Hoang (Teenage USA, 1996)
“I discovered Pecola via the True Independence II double-CD compilation [put out by Dumb Drum Records]. They had the best song on it by far. They were intense in a way I’d never heard before. Anyway, they were playing a show with my girlfriend’s sister’s band, Picastro, downstairs at the El Mo, when we were 18. We got in underage by arriving earlier than the doorman, and braced ourselves… Pecola were so loud that they broke my girlfriend’s hearing aides—she was deaf. I wanted more but I think they broke up not long after that (it would’ve been 1997 or ’98). Anyway, a member of Pecola went on to start Catl, let’s see Catl destroy anybody’s hearing aides. No way.”
The Flashing Lights – Where the Change Is (Outside, 1999)
“Our band formed in high school, thanks to a mutual love for the Super Friendz (and Thrush Hermit, and, uh, Treble Charger). One of the first things we ever did together was work out a cover version of “Rescue Us From Boredom.” We were pretty mad when they broke up, but it was a relief to learn that Matt Murphy had moved to Toronto and started a new band… with two drummers?
“That rumour didn’t materialize on the album, but oh man, what an album! Darcy and I went to the release party at the Horseshoe—I still have the setlist, folded up in the jewel-case, with Matt’s hobbit-boot print right in the middle. Anyway, we and our friends just couldn’t get enough of this, and after playing a festival together in Cambridge, it led to us hiring their drummer Steve Pitkin to produce our second album, Let it Grow.
This album was important in its time because in the late ’90s, Toronto was overrun by super-serious bands who were either way too noisy or way too technical—or way too quiet, proclaiming—I shit you not—”quiet is the new loud.” The Flashing Lights were so incredibly fun that they were absolutely undeniable. Also, killer guitar riffs. Unstoppable melodies. Years later, I was fortunate to get to play in a band, briefly, with Matt—City Field—and he might still be my favourite guitarist to play with.”
Danko Jones – I’m Alive and On Fire (1996-1999) (Danko Jones, 2001)
“Remember when I said the Toronto of the late ’90s was no fun? Aside from the Flashing Lights, the other best time in town was Danko Jones. I know that’s not a ‘cool’ thing to say, but… fuck you. Danko Jones, back then, was the best live band I’d ever seen. There was no trace of him in the venue until the rest of the band had already started playing, and he’d practically leap from the stage door and just start manhandling his guitar.
“Barely any song had more than two chords, with totally primitive beats and fuzzed-out basslines. It was total entertainment at a time when math rock was a thing half the city thought was cool, instead of homework. Gross bro-dudes were still years away from discovering and misinterpreting Danko Jones, and his (their?) audiences were stacked with the people who went on to start things like Wavelength and, uh, the Meligrove Band. Can you think of another band who’ve toured with both Blonde Redhead and Nickelback?”
SS Cardiacs – Fear the Love (Blocks Recording Club, 2005)
“I feel like this is a criminally forgotten Toronto record, and it’s one of my favourites ever. This, and By Divine Right’s Sweet Confusion, were the two records Jose Contreras finished producing before starting the Meligroves’ Planets Conspire, and I’ve mentally linked the three since they were made.
“SS Cardiacs’ first live shows since this came out had Jose and I playing drums and bass, and later on, Owen Pallett joined the band on keys, with Leon Taheny replacing Jose. But that says nothing of the songs: the melodies, lyrics, performances, and production were pretty undeniable. Jessie [Stein, now of the Luyas] was a killer guitarist even then. Jay and Darcy from the Meligroves provide some good chants in one song too. Still my favourite thing Blocks has ever released.”
The Bicycles – The Good The Bad and The Cuddly (Fuzzy Logic, 2006)
“I met Drew and Matt at Dan Bryk’s going-away party in 2001. I knew right away that I needed to hear their band. We played our first show together in a cramped Cameron House for CMW 2002, and before long, we were sharing a guitarist/trumpeter in Andrew Scott. There’s no band more closely-tied to the Meligroves than the Bicycles; we played many shows together, rehearsed in each other’s spaces, and we play and sing all over each other’s records.”
“The Good The Bad and The Cuddly is the ultimate classic Bicycles record, and represents the years we played the most shows together (including some weird ones, like in the lobby of an ornate old cinema in Lindsay, Ontario). Every time I hear “Homework” I’m taken back to the Horseshoe on a Tuesday in 2001, and Matt Beckett doing a little dance every time he played that killer riff. Hey, did you know I get mistaken for Matt all the time, even now? I’ve had so many strangers tell me they love the Bicycles, out of the blue.”
The Vermicious Knid – Smalltown Devotion, Hometown Compulsion (Ford Plant, 2005)
The Vermicious Knid, admittedly, weren’t from Toronto. But while we’re talking about underrated Ontario records, Small had to add their name. We obviously approve—the band was also commemorated in our roundup of classic Canadian emo. “They broke up immediately after releasing their best record. I hate it when bands do that. The Vermicious Knid’s singer, Tim Ford, headed up the Ford Plant, which existed in the heart of deserted, abandoned downtown Brantford, and was kinda our band’s second home until it closed in 2010.
“I don’t wanna speak for the Knid but this record sounds like an anguished lament for the destruction-through-neglect that happened to Brantford’s stunning 19th-century downtown—a huge chunk of which was torn down shortly before the Ford Plant closed in 2010. Our old bandmate Andrew Scott contributes trumpet and trombone to the heartstring-torching orchestral bits that bookend the record. I don’t think this is available online anywhere, and I wish it was, because I’d post ‘Century Soldiers’ on my Facebook wall every morning.”