There’s an argument to be made that (aside from The Tragically Hip) Montreal’s Your Favorite Enemies are the most popular homegrown rock band in Canada right now.
And chances are you haven’t heard of them.
The fiercely DIY outfit released its latest album, Between Illness And Migration: Tokyo Sessions, on June 17 and it immediately hit the Top 5 in four categories on iTunes, along with selling over 26,000 units to put it (ironically) just behind The Hip’s Yer Favourites compilation on SoundScan’s Catalogue Albums chart.
The band already earned a JUNO nomination for Best Rock Album in 2015 for the original version of Between Illness And Migration, but soon after gave the album new life by completely re-recording it based on an updated artistic vision. It’s a move most artists would never consider, but Your Favorite Enemies have been playing by their own rules now for a decade and their achievements speak for themselves.
Formed by Alex Foster (vocals), Jeff Beaulieu (guitar), Sef (guitar), Ben Lemelin (bass), Miss Isabel (keyboards) and Charles “Moose” Allicie (drums), the band was shaped musically and philosophically by the likes of Fugazi, Sonic Youth, The Cure, Pixies, My Bloody Valentine and Mars Volta, establishing their label, Hopeful Tragedy Records, in 2007.
They quickly sold 30,000 copies of their debut EP through innovative and aggressive online marketing, leading to a headlining European tour after only four shows at home. The band’s 2008 album, Love Is A Promise Whispering Goodbye, found a rabid audience in Japan, and Your Favorite Enemies became the first non-Japanese band to contribute songs to Final Fantasy video game soundtracks, all of which would hit the top of the Japanese charts.
Using that windfall, they converted a church in Drummondville, Quebec into a multi-media headquarters and recording studio, while also using proceeds to set up a non-profit human rights organization, “Rock ‘N Rights.” In 2011, the band embarked on an audacious 17-date tour of China (documented on the DVD “The Uplifting Sound of an Epiphanic Awakening…”), while continuing to expand its loyal following in Japan with benefit concerts in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto for victims of the Tohoku tsunami.
Although their audiences in Europe and Australia consistently grew as well, the special bond they share with Japan inspired the re-imagining of Between Illness And Migration last year. Alex Foster took some time to explain how it all happened.
What made you decide to completely rerecord Between Illness and Migration?
The idea came together last November as we were in the midst of the rehearsals for a secret show in Japan, where we would perform the whole album. It was planned to be a storyteller type of show, just two or three acoustic guitars and a few microphones. As we were re-immersing ourselves into the songs, not only did we rediscover the essence of the album, but we realized how much it had evolved after years of touring. The easy and simple gig then became a concert involving several keyboards, electric guitars, controllers, effect processors, a crazy amount of percussions and a drum kit, all of it supported by the live projection of short movies designed for every song.
It became a moment of abandonment where we were swapping instruments, getting into improvised musical landscapes, and totally letting go. Once back home, we decided to record the album as the journey it became. Our advisers thought we were crazy, but after almost a decade of such singular nonsense, we figured it was best to keep following our own madness, which, in retrospect, has always been the foundation of our business strategy anyway!
What songs do you feel underwent the biggest transformation and why?
It’s a tricky question, since Tokyo Sessions is so intrinsically different from the original version of the album. But if I have to highlight what embodies the nature of what Tokyo Sessions is all about, I would say the songs “Satsuki Yami (My Heartbeat)” and “Underneath a Blooming Skylight.” “Satsuki Yami” used to be a short musical opening track defined by saturated noisy guitars interlaced with ambient keyboards. Its atmospheric and abrasive vibe reflected the very first colors of dawn, a balance of dark waves and bright lights, musically painting the state of emergency we were in when we initially wrote Between Illness and Migration.
As for the song “Underneath a Blooming Skylight”, which is totally different from the original version called “Underneath a Stretching Skyline,” it represents the most fundamental difference you can hear between the two versions of the album. The original focus was mostly on the words and the storytelling, while its new incarnation is about the musical landscape and the sonic sensations that come with it. It’s about the groove, and becoming one with the noises and rhythm. This all allows the words to reveal themselves in a totally different light.
What has been the biggest change in your life over the past year?
I think it would be about enjoying the moment for whatever the moment might be about, as simple as it may sound. We’ve been a DIY band from the very beginning and have been incredibly blessed to accomplish things that we never could have imagined in our wildest dreams. We are extremely privileged to do what we love, with our best friends and based on our values. Nonetheless, it has always been incredibly challenging for us to take a second to enjoy any of those blessings.
We all have a fear of becoming complacent, and being perceived as hedonistic a-holes by our friends. But for the first time in almost a decade, we collectively agreed that it was okay to slow down a little to enjoy the view, or at least to crack a sincere smile once in a while. So if you ask me a deep rhetorical question such as “How are you?” I might actually answer “Good” without being lectured by my bandmates about the horrible state of the world we are in!
What has been your most memorable experience while touring?
For us, every place we tour in is defined by the people we meet and the emotions we share with them, from the Beatles type of welcome we’ve experienced in Japanese airports, up to wondering if we were in the right venue in Hong Kong. Every moment is truly singular for us. But to pick one, it would be the first time we toured in mainland China. That was a crazy experience, rich in all sorts of moments. It was 17 gigs in 21 days, all over the country. It was an insane tour from the beginning, as the most influential Chinese newspaper put a picture of us on their front page, along with the mention that we were the most controversial band to ever set foot in China due to our role as spokespeople for Amnesty International and as human rights advocates. Let’s say that it was quite an introduction to the country!
Local authorities were quite concerned when we landed in Beijing, as they were probably expecting a kind of Sex Pistols circus to happen. We had a very serious welcome committee waiting for us. But after a few moments, we ended up being asked to take pictures and videos with the authorities. It was surreal to say the least. There’s no proper touring circuit in China, so besides the main festivals we were playing, local promoters pretty much established one of the first touring routes with Your Favorite Enemies, with all that comes with being the first ones to experience something that is more complicated that it looks.
But the most fabulous part of that whole experience was seeing a generation literally awakening before our eyes, gathering together, and eager to share their dreams, and ideas about freedom and peace. Most of the local concert organizers were young people opening venues with friends, serving a community of kids who were all discovering The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Ramones, Nirvana and Sonic Youth at the same time they were discovering classical music, jazz, Burroughs, Bukowski and Hemingway. We pretty much lived a cultural revolution through that tour.
And since a revolution cannot be a true one without a few incidents, I got back home with a broken jaw, cracked ribs, a chipped tooth, a back hernia and cigarette burns on my face, all of which occurred at different concerts. Making friends is easy when you’re ready to join the crowd; the problem is picking the right balcony to jump from and not losing sight of your band on the stage while body surfing for almost the whole set because the festival security lost their grip. We could write a whole book on that particular tour. It was incredibly disorienting, but in the most wonderful way.
If there is anything you’d like to change about the music industry, what would it be?
It would most definitely be the cynicism that floats on every level of the industry. A lot of people got into the music business because music changed their lives, from folk to punk to postpunk and metal up to pop music. But it feels like a lot of people’s heart and soul deserted them the day they added a framed picture of themselves with one of their musical heroes on the wall of their big office. For me, cynicism is like paying a fortune to hear Bono talk about poverty in the back of his private jet. It’s funny for a second, until it’s too much of a joke to laugh about.
And as much as I don’t drink the “new tech services will save us all” KoolAid, neither do I want to hear the same old lamentations about the glorious days of music. We’re in a plane dealing with major turbulences for what seems like a never-ending ride now, but as some complain about the quality of the champagne that got spilled on their designer jeans, others put together quite a party in the back. It’s all about perspectives and how hard you’re willing to work on what you believe in, on what is meaningful to you. And when the volume of the music is louder at IKEA than it is at HMV, maybe it’s time to dream it all over again.