In the build-up to the release of Flickering Flashlight, Adam & The Amethysts shine at Pop Montreal
Adam Waito is probably the first Thunder Bay musician to greet Montreal from the cover of a weekly paper. He did not expect this to happen. Waito’s first glimpse of Montreal was the day that he moved here, eight years ago. None of his teenage bands ever had aspirations beyond Northwestern Ontario. And now, although Adam & The Amethysts will be playing their fourth Pop Montreal in a row, their names are still not at the top of the marquee.
This is how Adam & The Amethysts did it: They made possibly the best folk-rock album of 2011. It’s called Flickering Flashlight. It will be released by Kelp Records on October 4. It is scruffy, psychedelic, honest, catchy as hell, Montreal’s highest-fi lo-fi record since, maybe, Miracle Fortress’s Five Roses. It recalls the Beach Boys, Os Mutantes, The Incredible String Band, Paul McCartney’s Ram, plus Real Estate, Woods and Chad VanGaalen. More importantly, Flickering Flashlight feels born of this city. These are songs of big moves, shitty jobs, bike rides and nostalgia, recorded at home, 100 metres from a Bixi stand.
"You can take the boy out of Northern Ontario but you can’t take Northern Ontario out of the boy," Waito says, grinning. "I think a lot of people can relate to that, even if they’ve stayed in the same city. You negotiate who you are in relation to who you were as a youth." Waito was nine years old when he first picked up a guitar, strumming the riff for Green Day’s When I Come Around. The model was never Jimi Hendrix or even Billie Joe Armstrong – it was Waito’s cousin, his sister’s cool friends. "The local Thunder Bay ‘older-kid music scene’ was definitely my biggest influence," he remembers. In Thunder Bay, art had to be self-sufficient. "It isn’t the kind of city where you have a lot of concert promoters or people putting on events, especially for underage kids. We felt like subversive freedom fighters, putting on shows at the youth centre. But if we hadn’t, we wouldn’t have had any shows to go to, let alone to play."
That autonomy has carried into Adam & The Amethysts’ recordings. Like their debut, 2008′s Amethyst Amulet, Flickering Flashlight was made at home, in Waito’s Outremont apartment. "Listening to the record is kind of like sitting in my house and listening to my house, with music playing over it," he says. Deep in the mix, beneath the shambling ballads and the zinging pop, there’s the triplex’s creaking floorboards, the garbage truck idling on Champagneur. "If I’m at home, listening with headphones on, there’s always a point where I feel like someone’s actually closing a door in another room."
Waito makes his music with multi-instrumentalists Rebecca Lessard and Scott Johnson Gailey; they offer ragged harmonies and a little mischief – cello, solos, handclaps. "I like sounds that seem like they exist in a room," Waito says. "A beer bottle that’s mic’ed and whacked, or a wooden floor that’s smacked with your hand." It’s a very different aesthetic than that of Waito’s first Montreal band, Telefauna, a synth-pop group that dissolved in 2008. Instead of a drum machine and rhymes about Foucault, the Amethysts have tambourine and a spooky reimagining of Auld Lang Syne. "Spring reverb evokes my childhood, even though my childhood was devoid of spring reverb," he admits. "The first cassette I ever bought was by 2 Unlimited."
Adam & The Amethysts are also informed by a neglected corner of music history: Canadian psych. "Somewhere along the line, I realized that in every era there are a million bands that never broke through," Waito says. "People quit to get real jobs and stuff – they’ve been doing that since rock’n'roll was a thing." He started investigating acts like Thunder Bay’s Jarvis Street Revue, or Pointe-Claire’s own The Rabble, groups from the late 60s and early 70s that released amazing LPs but never signed major record deals. "These guys weren’t the Rolling Stones or The Velvet Underground. They weren’t The Zombies. They were guys with day jobs. They were just people playing music because they love it."
It’s a spirit that imbued the scene in Thunder Bay. "There’s no such thing as ‘hype’ there," Waito says. "The rest of the world isn’t listening to Thunder Bay like they are to Montreal. There are bands with ambitions to play outside of their immediate community, but mostly people are just playing shows for their friends, getting drunk, having a good time." Montreal isn’t always so lucky. "Here, there are times when the feeling of community and the love of music is drowned-out by the scrambling."
At this year’s Pop Montreal, don’t scramble. Adam & The Amethysts play twice, including an "almost-dream-gig" at the Tour Prisme loft. Waito curated the night himself: Sea Oleena, Caroline Keating, Weather Station, at least one secret guest. There are no Grammy winners on giant screens; there’s no need to drop in and flit out. "It’s just musicians and singers playing really interesting music," Waito promises. Sometimes the best things are already close by.
Adam & The Amethysts
Pop Montreal at O Patro Vys (Megaphono showcase)
At La Tour Prisme (550 Beaumont, #516)