THE JOY OF EXCESS: Besnard Lakes

THE JOY OF EXCESS The Besnard Lakes

 

The Canadian group is abducted by an Imperceptible UFO and lives to sing about it…

BY SUSAN MOLL

 Are we alone? The Besnard Lakes don’t think so, and for good reason, too. Not long ago, their drummer, Kevin Laing, was relaxing beneath the night sky on the terrace of his Montreal apartment, where he spends many evenings. Everything was fine—until he looked up.

“He saw a UFO!” says singer and guitarist Jace Lasek, barely able to contain his excitement. “He lives on the second floor of an apartment and he has a terrace. Up in the sky, in the horizon above the buildings, he saw four—and then a fifth one—yellow, orange, glowing orbs. They were there for, like, five or six minutes! He was like, ‘I don’t want anybody to think that I’m totally nuts! I wasn’t drunk. I wasn’t high. I was sober as a judge.’”

Such bizarre and unexplained visitations are nothing new for the Besnard Lakes, whose music mirrors their passion for all things paranormal and unexplained. Strange phenomena haunt them wherever they go, even when they’re touring. At their 2011 show within the aged walls of Connecticut’s Wadsworth Atheneum, the band found itself in unexpected company.

“I think that there was actually a ghost onstage with us,” says Lasek’s musical and marital better half, Olga Goreas, whom he affectionately calls “Oggy.”  “During one of the songs, we had a really quiet part, and I heard this voice yell, ‘Kevin!’ I looked behind my bass amp to see if anyone was there fooling with us, and there was nothing there. We went to the caretakers of the museum and asked, ‘Have there been any weird experiences here, any hauntings?’ One of the janitors said there have been people who say they can hear someone sweeping the stage when there’s no one there.”

Between the four of them, the Besnard Lakes have had so many similar experiences that they’re practically a medium now. Three albums into their recording career, they’ve grown used to the ghosts in their machine. Growing up on the plains of middle Canada (where there really is a Besnard Lake), Lasek found excitement hard to come by. Motivated by what he remembers as “pure boredom,” he developed a keen interest in things that go bump in the night.

“We used to go ghost hunting,” he recalls. “We’d get drunk and get someone to drive us out to these abandoned churches. We never saw ghosts, but we would try to find a place that was haunted in Saskatchewan and go there at night to see if we could see anything.”  He deadpans.  “We never saw anything.”

That magnetic allure of the unknown and the mysterious inspires one of Lasek’s many other fascinations: shortwave spy numbers-station broadcasts of the kind collected on The Conet Project. Coded in series of letters, words or numerals recited by an anonymous voice in a clandestine location, they’re three-minute enigmas shrouded in static and secrecy. The companion video for “Albatross,” easily the most heart-stopping moment on their last record, … Are the Roaring Night, makes for a compelling, if disturbing, visual introduction.

“I have a shortwave radio that I bought when we did Roaring Night,” Lasek reminisces. “I recorded some of those numbers-station things, and they’re creepy. You could be listening to a message that’s telling someone to assassinate somebody.” He pauses. “Or it could be total bullshit.”

Either way, they’re scary business, especially when you’re home alone late at night, and they lend an eerie touch to the Besnard Lakes’ already-unsettling mix of droning guitars, piano, strings and Lasek’s laser beam of a falsetto. It’s the essence of their mystique: beautiful and, at times, terrifying. “In our music, we try to create this ugliness and this eeriness and turn it into something really beautiful and textured and large and grand,” he reveals.

 

 

On the just-released Until In Excess, Imperceptible UFO (Jagjaguwar), the Besnard Lakes have devised just that: an absorbing, powerful record of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. Lasek appreciates the (David) Lynch-ian kind of beauty” that permeates songs like “And Her Eyes Were Painted Gold.”   A narrative of—what else?—a close encounter of the third kind, it begins with celestial magic. But when the trembling strings subside and the foreboding guitars enter the picture, things take a turn for the ominous, only to return to the heavenly place from whence they came. “The uncomfortable atmosphere and then having that [type of] resolve happen is something we’re always working on,” he says.

The songs on  Imperceptible UFO, like those that came before them, were written entirely within the walls of Breakglass Studios, whose operations commit Lasek to a time-pressed schedule. He’s more likely to be found there, working with other bands, than strumming away in his and Goreas’ living room.  “I wish I had more time to sit around and do that,” he laments. “We just bought a house, so we have a garage now. So I’m obsessing over the idea of having a bass amp and a drum set in the garage.”

In short, the Besnard Lakes aren’t cut out to be a garage band, for the time being, anyway. Writing in the studio makes for a high-pressure situation, but one that reduces the risk of what Lasek calls “demo-itis.” He’s undoubtedly seen his fair share of moderate to severe cases from behind the boards at Breakglass.

“You create demos in pre-production and have recordings of songs as you’re building them,” he says, “Then you go into a studio and re-record them. Then everybody gets bummed out, ‘cause there’s certain elements of the demo that they really like that isn’t there anymore.”

Not so for the Besnard Lakes, who have developed an efficient way to prevent that. “Our demo becomes our finished song,” Lasek says. “The song gets discovered in the studio and completed that way.”   It’s not until the band takes the tracks on the road that they slip the surly bonds of earth and take on true life. “We’ve become like a cover band of our own music,” he adds, laughing. “We write the songs before we learn them. When we hit the road, we’re still discovering them for the next year and a half, which makes them a little more fun to play.”

If Lasek is the mind of the Besnard Lakes, Goreas is their feminine heart. While the two maintain an egalitarian split when it comes to songwriting, her presence grows more prominent with each album. Lasek’s voice may have ushered in Roaring Night, but it’s hers that begins Imperceptible UFO. “I’ve definitely contributed more in terms of singing and having more of a presence that way,” she says. “I’ve become more comfortable in my skin to sing. It’s always been a bit more of a struggle for me rather than just playing bass.”

Massive-sounding, anthemic album standout “People of the Sticks” chronicles Goreas’ days as a “skate Betty,” and while she never mastered the half-pipe (“I tried to drop in once and I just landed on my ass!”), she was introduced to the artists that would lead her to take up the bass, particularly the Pixies and Sonic Youth.  “I was enthralled by this music I was hearing, and strong female personas,” she reflects.

There’s no telling whether Kim Deal or Kim Gordon have ever encountered the mysterious happenings that shadow Goreas, but both she and Lasek believe the answers lurk not only in their music, but in their  imagery. “Every time we make a record, something really fucked happens!” laughs Lasek. Shortly after the painting of the fiery steed that appeared on the cover of 2007’s …Are the Dark Horse was finished, Laing suffered serious burns to his face in an occupational accident.  “Then Oggy—when Roaring Night came out—she had a weird dream that the water of the cover of our album was black. Then, we woke up the next morning and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill had happened.”

“There’s something really iconic and enigmatic about those covers,” Goreas adds. “It just triggers something. There’s this weird phenomenon that’s hard to discount otherwise. Hopefully people don’t think it’s crazy.”

She laughs. “It seems real to us, and I accept it as such.”

If Imperceptible UFO is any indication, it’s a safe bet that the Besnard Lakes will have no shortage of spectral beings to haunt them or covert communications to guide them. “I do try to be as skeptical about these things as I possibly can,” Goreas assures. “But at a point when you’ve experienced this kind of pile-up, you have to accept that perhaps there is a certain amount of truth to it.”

And the truth, as we all know, is out there.

A version of this story originally appeared in our favorite Southern music magazine, Atlanta’s venerable Stomp & Stammer. Visit them on the web at www.stompandstammer.com . Below, watch a clip of the band performing in Austin at this year’s SXSW—and many thanks to the band for being part of our annual BLURT day party during SXSW, too!

[Photo Credit: Richard Lam]