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The Stills - Gold Skulls And Drug Mules

Author: Jonno Seidler
Monday, March 2, 2009

Canadian indie rock band The Stills launched onto the scene in 2003 in the wake of brooding contemporaries Interpol with their debut Logic Will Break Your Heart. Five years later and they’ve come of age with their third album, Oceans Will Rise. In Australia on tour with Kings of Leon, 3D’s Jonno Seidler spoke with guitarist Dave Hamelin.

As a two-time touring partner for Kings of Leon, The Stills’ guitarist Dave Hamelin knows the Nashville quartet better than most. “We get fucked up sometimes,” he concedes, “Now that they’ve got this huge stage show and their album has gone global, they [Kings] don’t get so fucked up.” In fact, the reason he believes his Canadian six-piece get on so well with the Texas boys is that “everybody is always up for anything. There’s no flakes on our tour.” For instance, if there’s a challenge to go bobsledding off the roof of a hotel, everybody gets into it. “The dude who doesn’t go bobsledding, is like, a total loser. It’s all like ‘Hey, where was Caleb last night, asleep or something- What a pussy…’”

I remind Hamelin that he’s now en route to a country fraught with danger, especially given the bushfires and shark scares we’re having at the moment.  “Their drummer [Nathan Followill] I could probably see surfing with sharks. Only because he’s got the long hair and tattoos.”

The Stills are 100 per cent ink free, surely at odds with their Southern cohorts. “No we haven’t gotten, like, group tour tattoos or anything. Somehow I don’t see that happening.”

To be fair, The Stills are about as nuts as Montreal men get. They went to New York one summer to “have a good, experience something, and get some…” That has to be clarified – Dave’s post-awkward translation: “Let’s go to New York, get fucked up and see what happens.” – because ‘interesting experiences’ may also pertain to ‘sexual experiences’, though it seems Dave gets more of those at home; “Montreal was Catholic, but somehow it’s been turned around and everyone’s pretty sexually open here.” While in Manhattan, the band recorded their first songs on a four-track, loaned to them by a friend who needed to pay off drug money. “That’s sort of true,” Hamelin laughs. “He was more of a drug mule. But I think he’s sort of cooled it on the muling. Muling doesn’t get you very far in life.”

Soon finding themselves signed to the uber-trendy VICE Recordings label, Dave and the band found themselves acclaimed both nationally and beyond. “I think they [VICE] were hoping we’d be one of those ironic bands, but it never happened.” Keeping (the music) serious, the boys put out their third and most recent record, Oceans Will Rise on Canada’s premier indie label, Arts & Crafts.

“There’s only 12 people working there, but with Broken Social Scene on the label, it’s a pretty huge family we’re part of. I had a game of Euchre the other night with members of Apostle Apostle, Feist, Stars…everyone there was on my label.” This works in times of economic woe, because all the money Dave loses playing cards goes straight back into the A&C coffers.

Dave’s scariest experience with The Stills comes not from KOL, but rather playing with the now-defunct DFA1979; “It was just these two huge guys playing punk rock and we’re like ‘What the fuck are doing here-’” They would become friends, but Dave doesn’t touch base that much with Jesse Keeler’s MSTRKRFT incarnation, preferring to hang with DFA’s more sedate other half, Sebastien Grainger. But on the topic of dance music, it turns out that lots of people actually want to remix The Stills. “Yeah, tons of people. I’m not big on the whole DJ world thing,” says Hamelin, “so I wouldn’t have a fucking clue if they were big or not.” That being said, he can still boast that “Montreal is DJ Central; Tiga’s from here, Kid Koala’s from here, Kid’s like electronic heaven!”

As Dave is quick to stress, although he’s in a sextet, he’s one of the primary songwriters. “That’s right, I’m Mr Official. They didn’t give you one of the flakes, you got the dude,” he boasts. To get the emotive depth necessary in the lyrical and harmonic content, Hamelin takes inspiration from a unique range of sources, none of which include retreating into the woods for three months. “I put on [experimental composer du jour] Philip Glass a lot, a couple of us in the band like him.” Of course, this kind of thing can interfere with Arts & Crafts card games, which usually means there’s jazz playing in the background. “We were supposed to have a jazz brunch on Sunday, but that didn’t work out.” The hidden pitfalls of being in a successful Canadian band, finally revealed to the masses.

“Tim’s the lead singer, he’s the best looking one,” he laughs. “I sort of stand in the half-shadow.” Formerly the drummer of the group and now thrust onto guitar and backing vocals, Dave lived his life in constant creative turmoil, having an identity crisis every time he went on stage. Now, however “I play a floor tom for one song, which gives me my percussive fill.”

Being a man of considerable importance, nay the dude, one would assume that Dave Hamelin is used to commoners treating him with reverential deference, which is why it’s weird that he’s completely freaked out by the Asian moderator from the call-conferencing centre. “She’s pretty formal, right-” he asks nervously. “She called me ‘sir’ like five times, it made me feel like a geriatric.” In the immediate company of Australian interviewers and insistent call women, Dave’s far more comfortable talking about his “eccentric artist buddies,” like the one responsible for the front cover of their latest LP. “Yeah, he bought this skull on eBay and he gold-leafed it himself and gave it to his girlfriend as a Valentine’s Day present.”

It turns out this guy was trying to win his paramour’s heart back, and that decorated human remains just happened to do the trick. “When it came time to think of the album cover, he was like ‘Oh I have this crazy skull at my house!’ At first we weren’t sure, but I think it turned out pretty awesome.”

WHO: The Stills
WHAT: Oceans Will Rise through Arts & Crafts / Shock / Play Sydney Entertainment Centre / Acer Arena
WHEN: Out now / Wednesday 18 March, Thursday 19 / Saturday 21