With his new album the follow up to 2010’s Peace Maker, McGrath’s Young Canadians is the 23-year-old singer-songwriter’s gritty new chaos theory. McGrath charts a path that defies the categorical restrictions of punk and folk. Instead, McGrath chooses an eclectic foray and Pollack-like approach to sound with his latest ambient offering; the body of work is that of a moody unhinged anti-cliché storyteller.
What was your mood working on Young Canadians? The opening song seems to come from this dark seeded spot it’s a perfect starting point for the album’s trajectory.
Young Canadians is an optimistic album. The record was written mostly on the road [while] touring Canada, the UK, and Europe, kind of observing my life from the outside. Going on tour is like living as your alter ego, and there are times when you can kind of look into your life from the outside-in. I started to really think about myself as a Canadian and what it was that defined me as that when I toured pretty much nonstop for two years in support of Peace Maker.
I came to the conclusion that it was a history that was not only being written in its infancy, but that my own history as a Canadian was also being written and in its infancy. I started thinking about Pierre Trudeau, The Constantines, Rene Levesque, hockey, SNFU, The Tragically Hip, Sidney Crosby scoring the gold medal goal in 2010… all these things have had this amazing effect of uniting people thousands of miles apart at the same point in time. Only Canadian history and music has had the ability to socially shrink to a pinpoint one of the biggest countries on the planet.
The country is so young [and] optimistic because there [are] so many of those moments yet to be had. “Eternal Adolescence” seemed like a good starting point for the record because it’s a song about that kind of youthful innocence in the joy of discovering your place in the world, and that kind of works as an analogy for Canada.
Who have been some of your biggest influence for this particular album?
Each song kind of has its own inspiration. I looked to some songs from Wilco’s Being There, particularly “Misunderstood” and “Sunken Treasure,” for more of the ambient, noisy folk stuff on the record. Of course, The Replacements is a big ongoing inspiration in tracks like “Signals.” Early ’90s stuff, like Nirvana or Pavement, was a big inspiration for songs like “Rabid Dog.” Bakersfield country, soul music, Joe Cocker, and of course ’80s British, Canadian, and American punk rock: GBH, SNFU, Black Flag. Lyrically, the themes are kind of centered around traveling and growing up.
How long did the album take to record where was it recorded? It seems that most albums these days are recording in multiple studios — what was the process like for Young Canadians?
The album was recorded over almost two years in Vancouver, in four sporadic sessions that lasted four days at a time each. Each time I’d fly out I’d have a new batch of songs that were contenders for the record. The album is cut from the standout tracks from all of these sessions, except for “Auditorium,” which was originally going to be a demo but we decided to put it on the album.
“Johnny Brought the Bottles Back” has a blended acuity sound to it. I enjoy the layers and restraint. Can you talk about putting that song together?
The drummer I work with in Vancouver, Rob Josephson, is a great drummer, and he’s super metronomic. For that song, a story about alcoholism and regret, we really put our heads together and thought about ways to make the drums sound really sad, so we experimented with the tempo and groove of the song and tried to intentionally play really behind the beat. If you listen carefully that song is always slightly out of time. The idea is that the rhythm is supposed to mimic this stumbling old drunk, chained to his cups, soon-to-be-forgotten in the dust and dim lights of his neighbourhood pub.
What has been the live reception of the work over the last year?
The live show has grown to be more consistent. I think it’s been more or less my approach to playing live that’s changed, and for the better. I used to be very anti-rehearsal, very anti-sound guy, very anti-sobriety…very anti-audience, essentially. Those attitudes are definitely exciting, sometimes they’re rewarding, and I’ve played some crazy shows that have had very spontaneous and unexpected moments, in ways that are both good and bad.
But for the most part, being really fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants just leaves too much to the wind as an artist. You can only accidentally knock over so many cans of paint on your canvas before it doesn’t become your painting anymore. I think in the [recent] past, I’ve been a lot more focused on making a more consistent finished product and that’s led to some live shows that are consistently better.