DEARLY BELOVED: ON THE SUBJECT OF A HAPPY ACCIDENT CALLED HAWK VS. PIGEON
Hawk vs. Pigeon, Dearly Beloved’s smashing new record, wasn’t actually meant to be a record.
It wasn’t meant to be anything. It was just meant to be. Indeed, it existed as a very large, impenetrable and seemingly aimless digital sound file dragged home from a cathartic desert session at Joshua Tree’s infamous Rancho de la Luno studio – yes, that Rancho de la Luna studio – for nearly a year before the hard-working Toronto band had a chance to sit still for a minute, take stock and realize that, wow, it was sitting on one hell of a record. And that record was Hawk vs. Pigeon, the monstrously sublime slab of stoner/shoegaze/psych/prog/Goth/punk/pop you now hold in your hands, you lucky scamp. Cancel your appointments for the rest of the day, bolt the door, settle back on the couch with your favourite intoxicant and prepare to drink in seven shades of spontaneous awesomeness because this one’s a keeper. And a keeper all the more keep-able because, as we’ve already noted, it was never intended to be anything more than one endlessly put-upon band’s personal revenge on all the bullshit that kept making it forget why it loved being a band.
Some back story, then. A scant three weeks before Dearly Beloved’s much-touted international debut, Make It Bleed, was set to surface via Anthem Records in Canada and Rounder Records in the U.S. in 2010, its American booking agent bailed, leaving it – as virtuoso bassist, co-vocalist and bandleader Rob Higgins puts it – “completely devoid of any tour dates in the U.S. to support the record.”
Needless to say, Dearly Beloved was shattered. There was nonetheless a silver lining to the sudden collapse of its much-anticipated cross-border breakthrough, albeit one that was itself born of tragedy. A couple of years previous, Higgins – wracked by the too-early death of his father and subsequent, intensive preventative surgery that removed 80% of his large intestine to spare him a similar fate – had absconded to the California desert for 10 days in a haze of grief, pot smoke and post-recovery morphine and Percocet prescriptions to get his head together. It worked. The desert, in his words, “kicked my ass,” and he returned to civilization after all that soul-searching with the dream of making a record out there in the dunes. And when he mentioned that dream on the way home to some friends in Los Angeles, they casually let slip that they knew some people with “a little desert spot” they ran as a studio.
That “little desert spot” turned out to be Rancho de la Luna, the Joshua Tree haunt responsible where a bunch of Kyuss, Queens of the Stone Age and Eagles of Death Metal records you love – not to mention Joshua Homme’s celebrated Desert Sessions series – were birthed and presided over by musician and studio multi-tasker Dave Catching. So when shit went south and Dearly Beloved was suddenly left without a tour two years ago, they said “fuck it” and went to the desert instead with no plan at all, just the intention of “making some real music.”
“We didn’t go there with any songs,” says Higgins. “We just booked five days, showed up and every morning it was the same: we’d wake up – me and Niva and Gavin (Maguire, drummer) would be the first ones there – and roll a huge joint and make a big pot of coffee and once I was super-baked I’d grab the bass and the first cool thing that I played we’d work out and turn into a song. And we’d do that all day until the whole track was done. And at night, we’d cook a big dinner, start drinking tequila, smoke more joints and do the whole thing until morning. And in five days we had a record.
“We didn’t use any click track, we didn’t use any ProTools session files. We just turned on the computer, turned on all the machines, hit all these old pre-sets – everything was vintage and old – and just dumped it all into the computer. So when we got home it wasn’t all broken up as songs. It was just one session file with eight hours of jamming. It was, like, ‘What am I gonna do with this?’ Literally, I had to go in and listen to every take of everything and find cool takes and add overdubs and vocal sweetener to them and that was it. I just picked good performances. Whatever it was, it was.”
True, you couldn’t pull an achievement like Hawk vs. Pigeon off without the time and experience and roadwork collectively logged by the members of Dearly Beloved over the years that led us to this point. Higgins – the nephew of Rush bassist sans pareil Geddy Lee – alone has a resume that includes Change of Heart, Tristan Psionic, By Divine Right, Rocket Science, Doctor and even a couple of stints as touring bass player for Our Lady Peace, while Chow was part of fondly remembered Toronto combo Sticky Rice and Maguire plays with Peter Elkas Dearly Beloved was walking into the studio cold with a reasonable measure of confidence that it could deliver the goods. Whatever those goods might be.
“You know what gave us that confidence?” says Higgins. “The first 20 minutes of every rehearsal is always the best thing we’ve ever done. And we never record it. But the essence and spirit of that session was that first 20 minutes of rehearsal where we’re not conscious of what we are as a band, we’re just making whatever comes out, come out. And the band always says ‘That was wicked shit. We’ve gotta remember that. We’ve gotta record that.’ So it felt like every day down there was the first 20 minutes of rehearsal.”
Good fortune played a role, too. Catching suggested an engineer for the sessions, for instance, by virtue of the fact that he was another Canadian. Improbably, that engineer was former Sloan producer Brenndan McGuire, who once rolled a By Divine Right tour van in which Higgins was a passenger when he was serving as soundman for that particular pack of road warriors.
“It turns out he lived down the road,” laughs Higgins. “He’d just become their new best friend and was essentially their house engineer.”
Despite Higgins’s lingering misgivings, the band wound up taking a flight with McGuire in his new plane over Joshua Tree during their stint in Joshua Tree. Legendary Jack White/Queens of the Stone Age soundman and Rancho de la Luna regular Hutch would also turn up periodically during recording to offer praise, make soup and whisk the band away “to inspirational places in the desert,”. Catching, for his part, wound up contributing guitar to Hawk vs. Pigeon’s fond Sonics cover, “He’s Waiting,” and “Living Proof.”
Back home, while Higgins finally set about producing the record in earnest after a belated year on the road in support of Make It Bleed with Juliette Lewis, Sloan and Die Mannequin, further contributions came from Broken Social Scene’s Brendan Canning, who lent guitar to “Miles” and piano to “Doves Above the Door”; Sloan guitarist and tireless Dearly Beloved cheerleader Patrick Pentland on “To Better Days”; and Care Failure and Anthony Bleed of Die Mannequin on “To Better Days.”
Fortunate after-the-fact happenstance also had Higgins stumbling in the middle of the album’s assembly across an entire tune, the ominous “Day Trader,” that might otherwise have been consigned to the abyss.
“I found it while going through the drive,” he says. “We’d completely forgotten it even existed. So one day when I was going through listening to takes of shit, I found it and I was, like, ‘I fucking love this.’ Had I not stumbled across it, it probably would have been lost forever. And it’s one of my favourite things on the record.”
The resulting record-that-was-never-meant-to-be-a-record can be summed up by the exultant refrain to “Living Proof”: “What we have right here is real.” No fucking around, no scheming, none of the sometimes too-overthought “look at me” musicianship that occasionally made pieces of previous Dearly Beloved albums more admirable than listenable. This is simply the sound of a band getting on with it, having fun again and creating incredible music divorced from the stifling effect of intentional creation. It might be Dearly Beloved’s best record yet. Even if, y’know, it isn’t technically a record.
“I think, to be perfectly honest, things happen as they should. And, for me, I listen to this record and it’s the first of our records I can be really proud of,” says Higgins.
One more thing. Dearly Beloved had the title Hawk vs. Pigeon in mind well before they finished tracking the thing at Higgins’s downtown-Toronto studio when – and you’re not gonna believe this – a hawk and a pigeon lent the band some further, unsolicited perspective.
Chow was doing one of the last vocal takes to grace the recording and a hawk flew into a tree outside the studio window with a pigeon in its grasp. It proceeded to disembowel the poor bird in front of her as she sang. We won’t even bring up the point that this whole, sordid tale began with Higgins having his own guts torn out. That would be too weird and airy-fairy. But still…
“I’m downtown at Queen and Spadina and the whole time I’m watching a hawk take this pigeon in its talons and pick out its entrails,” says Chow. “The whole time I’m recording, I’m watching this thing. For 45 minutes. It was intense. Fascinating.”
“We were at the point of trying to decide ‘Is this or isn’t this the album title?’ and just letting it be to see if it would just decide itself,” concludes Higgins. “And then that happened. We were, like, ‘If we don’t title our album that now we are the stupidest people.’”
released 22 May 2012
Produced by Rob Higgins
Joshua Tree sessions recorded by Brenndan Mcguire at Rancho De La Luna
Toronto sessions recorded by Rob Higgins at Phoebe St.
Mixed by Rob Higgins and Rob Sanzo at Phoebe St.
Mastered by Andy Van Dette at Masterdisk, NYC
Artwork by Niva Chow and Rob Higgins
Rob Higgins - Bass, Voice, Guitar, Trash
Gavin Maguire - Drums, Trash
Niva Chow - Voice, Tambourine
Coz Sylvan - Guitar
Chris Molson - Guitar
Brendan Canning - Guitar, Piano
Jeff Heisholt - Distorgan
David Catching - Guitar
Patrick Pentland - Guitar
Care Failure - Voice
Anthony Bleed - Voice
Jason Thomson - Percussion, Piano
Bernard Maeizza - Cello, Violin
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