One of the best parts about meeting and interviewing bands is that I get to meet and interact with really great people. Almost without exception, all of the musicians I have met over the years have been hard working, humble and appreciative people and I really respect that. The gentlemen who make up Toronto band Low Hanging Lights are no exception. While setting up the interview, they kindly offered me a place to stay for the night in case I didn’t want to make the drive back home late at night. When I met them in person, they were just as welcoming. Before we get into the interview, let me introduce the band.
Low Hanging Lights formed in early 2011 following a solo album that singer/songwriter Alex Grantham released. After many line-up changes, the band has found the right mix with Grantham on guitar/vocals, Ian Boos on bass/vocals and drummer Aaron Bennett on drums/vocals.
Funny story about how Grantham and Boos originally hooked up. Both grew up in Paris, a small Ontario town about an hour and a half from Toronto. After Grantham released his solo album, there was a feature piece in a local Paris newspaper which Boos’s mother read, and suggested to Boos that he contact Grantham so they could play music together. Boos had also recently moved to Toronto, so he contacted Grantham and they started jamming, originally with Boos on drums. It became apparent that Boos was more inclined to play bass, so they decided to bring on a new drummer. Enter Bennett. The band first released an EP titled Small Talk.
The show I attended on June 28 was a launch for their latest release, titled Insulated Picnic Bag.
Within the music, their small-town roots and love of folk music can be heard alongside influences and experiences picked up since moving to the big city. As for their musical influences, they’re huge Nirvana fans, enjoying the distortion and noise aspects that have crept more and more into their latest repertoire. These little outbursts of noise are injected, like moments of chaos that eventually sleep when their momentum fades out. There’s punk in there too, with the way they move onstage and also that they don’t seem to strive for “perfection” (think over-production) when performing or recording, preferring something of a raw, emotive sound. Lyrics are of the utmost importance and are a driving force for Grantham, who does most of the songwriting. The lyrics are thoughtful and a main focus.
It’s this interesting blend that give Low Hanging Lights their unique sound. Since settling into their charismatic three-piece group, the music has become less folky and more direct, highlighting punk and rock elements. They also strive for a visual component, and brought a friend they affectionately call “Michael Jackson Jr.” who danced along to their set and had some killer moves.
“Undress and fall into arms, you were completed the day you were born. Undress and fall into arms, remove your face” are some poignant lyrics in ‘A Sharp Minor Suicide’, the song on their website that is most similar to their more recent output, with a noise outro to finish an indie-rock song which emphasizes lyrics. The song was composed after Grantham read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. He is voicing his distaste for arrogance and reaffirming his belief that everyone has flaws, and on a fundamental level, we’re all the same. “Everyone should be full of doubt, apprehension, skepticism and curiosity.”
Following their energetic and intense set at The Press Club, the band and I sat and discussed their music, lyrics and much more.
Stephanie Beatson: How has being in Toronto affected your songwriting?
Alex Grantham: Most of my songs were written when I lived back home. I’ve often thought that there’s a freedom from responsibility when you’re living in the house you grew up in. You don’t have to be the grown-up which gives you freedom to create. Now that I’m a busy dude trying to scrape by in Toronto, it’s sometimes hard to sit down and write songs, but I do it. The songs are different because they’re informed by where I live now.
Aaron Bennett: I grew up in a small town too and I think the difference is the level of artistic license that you can take in a big city is way more. There’s more people trying different things. You can meet so many more musicians, artists, filmmakers and share a common bond. It’s inspiring.
Ian Boos: I can literally walk down the street and see some of my favourite bands. Last night I saw Beck. It’s so inspiring having that access. In a bigger-picture sense, some of Alex’s earlier songs might have been a little simpler but since moving to the city, you can hear there’s more chaos in the music now. I think bands are taken in by their scenery.
Grantham: One of my favourite things about being in this band is that I feel we have so much room to grow. I feel like we haven’t tapped into the full potential of what we could be. We’re getting more aggressive and realizing what works for us and our musical personalities. You never want to feel like you’re at a dead-end with a band.
Bennett: The city allows that growth as well. There are more venues here.
Where do you draw your songwriting influences from?
Grantham: I’m usually more liable to write a new song when I’m in a place of emotional vulnerability. I went through a really bad break-up about a year ago and I got an entire album out of it. Whenever I’m in a place of emotional turmoil is when I write more, which is probably true for a lot of people. It’s so hard to write a happy song! [Laughs].
Bennett: We were talking about this the other day. For me, I think a song has to be really genuine and people relate to it when it’s genuine. When you write a happy song, it’s hard to make it not campy. A song that evokes darker feelings is easier to relate to. You can almost make that connection instantly. For myself, if I were to write a song, it would have to have those real elements.
Boos: When Alex is writing a song from the bottom of his heart, that’s the way we play it.
Bennett: What drew me to this band were the lyrics. They’re really thought out. That’s what made me want to work with them. I connected with the music and I think other people do too.
You guys have an obvious punk influence, and to me the biggest thing about punk is the attitude and often the lyrics and music take a backseat to the attitude. In your music, lyrics are the driving force. How do you manage to get the two seemingly opposing traits to work in tandem?
Grantham: As a songwriter, I’ve been very much influenced by Bob Dylan and many others from the ’70s. Their lyrics were very confessional and emotional. To me, the best thing about punk — and you talked about attitude — is it’s non-conformist, it’s skepticism, it’s anti-authority. It’s questioning what’s laid before you and I think you can do that in an intellectual way like Dylan did. When you do it that way, it’s not some bush-league thing, it’s a higher intellectual pursuit. I read a lot of philosophy when I was in my early twenties and it had a profound impact on me. I read a book called The Outsider by Colin Wilson, Straw Dogs by John Gray and those books touched me because they’re intellectual and they’re punk inspired. If I could equate that to music, that was punkish because it was anti-conformist but it was done in an elegant and intelligent way and I respect that. Sometimes punk music can be a bit crass and stupid, and I hate it when punk music is demeaned like that because I think the higher goal of punk is more noble.
Do you have any closing words you’d like to share?
Boos: We want to be theatrical, we want to play well and we want to give it all we have. That’s what we do and it’s true to our hearts. We believe in it. We believe in the lyrics, we believe in the songs and I think that if we get a chance, we’re going to take it.
Grantham: If you can afford a grande latte at Starbucks, you can afford to see a really good musical act in Toronto. Next time you go out, consider that for every one established act, there are twenty up-and-coming who are doing amazing shows. Find the smaller clubs; Press Club, Not My Dog, Rancho Relaxo, Silver Dollar… any of these small bars. If you want to see original music in Toronto, all you have to do is take the initiative and pay a $5 cover, the cost of a cup of coffee.
Bennett: Whatever you do — whether it be art, film, music — always do it with integrity. Never compromise. Do what you feel is best and someone will like it. If you’re doing what you love, that will last far beyond a flash-in-the-pan band or movie that comes along. Longevity is important. Often today, artistry in music is lost. When you see independent bands trying to do something new or different, give it a chance and support them.
The guys dressed up in suits for their show to mimic their dress in this video for ‘Solitary City Man Death’.
Photos by Stephanie Beatson