Stephen Stanley cemented his place in Canadian alt-rock history early in his career as a founding member of Lowest Of The Low, and by playing a vital role in the creation of their landmark 1991 album Shakespeare My Butt. However, since severing ties with the group in 2013 after many tumultuous years and several brief reunions, the Toronto singer/guitarist has found stability, and his own voice, leading the Stephen Stanley Band.
They recently released their debut album, Jimmy & The Moon, which contains a lot of the literate roots rock that Lowest Of The Low fans will appreciate, but on the whole its songs stand as a love letter to Stanley’s hometown.
There are laments over the closure of one of his favourite bars (“The Troubadour’s Song”), a tribute to his grandfather who worked in the same location as one of Yorkville’s famous coffeehouses (“Under The Mynah Bird”), and, with the title track, finding poetry in conversations overheard on the street.
Jimmy & The Moon was produced by Hugh Christopher Brown at his Post Office Studio on Wolfe Island near Kingston, with the band’s core quartet augmented by a wide range of guest players that bring out the emotional depth of each track. Back in the early ‘90s, Lowest Of The Low seemed far ahead of their time in terms of adding true song craftsmanship to a post-punk template. Now with Jimmy & The Moon, the Stephen Stanley Band fully embodies that approach, while adding to the legacy of his past accomplishments.
You can find out more at wolfeislandrecords.com/stephenstanleyband, and the group performs in Toronto on Wed. Jan 24 at the Horseshoe Tavern, opening for Lee Ann Womack.
What made this the right time for you to do a new solo album?
I put this new band together about two years after leaving Lowest of the Low. Initially, I thought I would throw a bunch of songs at the guys, and we'd start doing as many shows as possible. That idea pretty much got flipped on its head the first time we went into the jam space. That night, we worked on one song only, and that pattern continued for quite a while, slowly building up to the 18 songs we took into the studio. Almost exactly a year later we headed for Wolfe Island and the Post Office studio. We'd played a handful of gigs, but had really dug into the inner workings of these songs. We knew exactly when it was time to start recording. We recorded bed tracks for all 18 songs, but soon after that a thematic strand emerged that led to the 11 songs that make up the album.
What songs do you feel best capture your current musical vision?
The title track, "Jimmy & The Moon," and "Under the Mynah Bird" are the songs that stand out for me. They share the augmented arrangement aesthetic that we were striving for with producer Hugh Christopher Brown, and are about day-to-day living in Toronto, "Jimmy & The Moon" is a true story about a man I met while waiting for a streetcar at Woodbine & Gerrard. As he talked to me, he was moved to tears over the fact that he was losing his view of the moon over the lake because of the condo going up on the corner.
The city was just recovering from the Ford brothers shouting "cranes in the air" when anyone rightfully pointed out that they were getting nothing done. I thought, this can't be the only thing that is important in this town. And “Mynah Bird” is a very personal story about my grandfather taking a job in a sporting goods store in ‘60s Yorkville during the last months of his life. It's more of a historical tale, but similar in that it's about the city struggling with developing an identity. Storytelling was a big focus on this album.
Some of the songs celebrate our connections to our favourite bars. What's your take on the bar scene in Toronto, and the state of live music venues?
They say write what you know, so I seem to write a lot about bars. Not that I'm a barfly, because I really am not, but when you play a lot, you spend a lot of time in bars, and it just seems like that's where everything happens. So many bars have been the backdrop for songs on my last two records. Graffiti's in Kensington, the aforementioned Jimmy's at Woodbine and Gerrard, and the gone but not forgotten Troubadour in the Junction, to name a few.
I think the current state of the bar scene is fact more than opinion. It's difficult, likely too difficult. You try and run a small room where your only revenue stream is alcohol, and that's a tough go. You may get a nice full room on the weekend, but you need full rooms throughout the week to make up for the city's radical rise in storefront rentals, and the trend seems to be that people are drinking less. Then add in laws that allow one angry person who moves into your neighbourhood and decides that your venue is too noisy, to tie you up with court and other legal fees for years. You have a recipe for throwing in the towel. This has happened to more than one barkeep that I know.
I'm an optimist though, so I hope that through initiatives like Music City, there will be a new focus on the importance of the small music venue as a building block for a vibrant music and cultural scene. Songwriters, bands, artists... they don't just fall out of the sky into Massey Hall, they need lots of places to grow.
What's been the biggest change in your life over the past year?
Two things I guess—First, one of my two daughters moved to Montreal, and in as much as you are a total cheerleader for your kids and what they want to accomplish with their lives, it's downright depressing to really face how fast life moves past you. And second, finishing this record was a huge change. I have said to a few friends that I didn't really want to finish this recording.
We chose to make this album on Wolfe Island, and that meant travelling out-of-town for about four days a month for a total of seven months. I looked forward to every minute that I spent there. Obviously, the goal is to finish and get the record out there, but the experience of making this record was easily the best time I've had recording in my life. So I really didn't want it to end.
What you most looking forward to in 2018?
Having a new record in hand, I'm most looking forward to getting out and playing in as many places as possible, with as many other artists as possible. Music allows you to meet interesting people constantly and that's likely my greatest joy. We have already been booked for a summer festival in Germany called Static Roots, so we'll be spending some time in Europe and will hopefully get out across Canada and dip our toes into the US. And somewhere in there, I’ll be working on new songs with the band.