Culture & Conversation

A shot across the bow

The album cover for Cannonhead's We Are Silent Now

The album cover for Cannonhead’s We Are Silent Now

Regardless of taste or postal code, there are three things that an ’80s kid will always have a nostalgic love for: cassette tapes, album sleeves and Lauryn Hill.

It’s no surprise then that all three of these came up in conversation when Rover sat down with the Montreal-based band Cannonhead to discuss the release of their new album, We Can Be Silent Now. But the nostalgia didn’t stop there. Growing up as hip-hop loving teenagers in the ’90s, it wasn’t long before the members of Cannonhead began to reminisce on the local scene that once was.

“The reason why we started doing music in [Montreal] in the first place was because of all the battles that were going on,” says vocalist Jay Newcomen (a.k.a. Spin). “We’d drive down from Hudson and do battles at Off the Hook and Vibe. When you spat a punch line people would go crazy, the whole place would go wild. That was a long time ago though, before a cappella battles, back when you had to rap on beats.”

That’s not to say that Montreal hip-hop isn’t still thriving. With a longstanding admiration for local artists like The Narcicyst, Nomadic Massive and Northern Lights, the Cannonhead crew recognizes the current scene as nothing short of incredible. “There’s a definite hip-hop vibe out here with people making amazing music,” says Newcomen. “You recognize the same people coming out to all the shows,” continues guitarist Dillon Crosilla. “Artists have a loyal following here.”

In the midst of bidding adieu to battles on beats, the members of Cannonhead went through a series of their own transformations. Starting off as two high school buddies who would rap and record original tracks in their rooms, Newcomen and Mikael Larsson (a.k.a. Freddie 5ive) gradually began performing under the moniker Velvet Trench Vibes.

Equipped with a small band and the vigour to produce their own albums, Velvet Trench Vibes went from performing around the city to touring across the country. Despite receiving much praise, including consecutive top rankings in the Mirror’s Best of Montreal music poll, the group decided it was time for a change.

“After years of producing and being around musicians all the time, it was only natural that we’d want to do something else,” says Larsson. “Our focus now is on making music.”

Rather than limiting their craft to writing lyrics and vocals, Newcomen and Larsson have broadened their palette, perfecting their skills on the keyboard, autoharp and lap steel. Top that with the undeniable talents of longtime guitar player Crosilla, bassist Mathieu Lefebvre and drummer Max Lapointe, and what we’re left with is an album like We Can Be Silent Now.

“We want to create these big, creative, elaborate sounds,” says Newcomen.

Elaborate, indeed. Before anything else, what we hear on We Can Be Silent Now is the intricate layering of different sounds. Songs like Civilized with Johnny Griffin (as in the local singer/songwriter, and not the bop saxophonist – ten points to anyone who knows the difference) and What Would Three Stacks Do? are clearly products of years of experimentation, growth and musical evolution. The influence of hip-hop is undeniable, but so is the band’s refusal to be limited by it. Needless to say, Cannonhead’s music will most likely attract fans on completely different ends of the spectrum.

Together, the five-piece ensemble has created a debut album that is a representation of where they’ve been, where they are, and where they’re headed. And if the diverse sound isn’t enticing enough, the band is releasing their album for free. When asked how they felt about the onslaught of digital downloads, the entire band seemed at peace with it. “You have to embrace it and just go with it,” says Newcomen. “We’re releasing the album for free because we want as many people as possible to hear our music. That’s what it’s about.”

The conversation ended off with a debate on digital packaging. The album cover, by local designer Eebs Berenstein, stands as the only form of album art for We Can Be Silent Now. While some members felt the album should be released with a back cover as well, the others weren’t convinced.

“There’s no use for a back cover anymore because you get the track listing when you download the album. No one will look at a JPEG of the back cover,” says Crosilla. Still, we all agreed that there is no anticipation quite like that of slipping out a sleeve from a CD case.

As a compromise, with each other and the digital world alike, the band will be offering a literary supplement by way of a custom-designed lyric book. Set to include handwritten marginalia expressing the band’s afterthoughts and reflective digressions, the lyric book is still in production and is expected to be released (via free download, no less) within the next few weeks. In the meantime, Cannonhead are getting ready to celebrate their debut album with a listening party/vernissage in collaboration with Berenstein.

Although the party hasn’t officially started yet, the people of Montreal have much to revel in. In the words of the much-loved Lauryn Hill, “Music is supposed to inspire.” A band like Cannonhead brings something new to the city, something that allows us to watch a redefined, self-producing band move ahead with their craft. This, along with their refusal to be cemented into a single genre, is the most inspiring detail yet, and I can’t wait to see what they come out with next.

Download Cannonhead’s We Can Be Silent Now for free.

Visit their Facebook page for announcements about the listening party and official tour dates.

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