It’s hard to know where to begin when describing Canada’s Rah Rah. Despite the band’s vague name, the group has handfuls of details that make them unique, like their small-town stomping grounds of Regina, Saskatchewan, or the fact that they have three lead singers commandeering their own strengths. Rah Rah is releasing its third full-length album, The Poet’s Dead, today through Hidden Pony Records. The masterfully mixed album (with help from Gus Van Go and Werner F) celebrates the band’s six years as a group, retrospectively looking back at the band’s career path and what it’s taken for the six members to get to where they are today. All ten songs take the ambiguous band name and turn it into a powerful, optimistic moniker…if listeners didn’t know Rah Rah before, The Poet’s Dead is a favorable place to start.
While the band was en route from Montreal to Kingston for a show, THE BOMBER JACKET spoke with Erin Passmore, one of the band’s lead singers, who also happens to drum, play the keyboard and guitar, and sometimes hop on bass, too.
TBJ: So you’re on the road right now?
We just played Pop Montreal and we’re headed to Kingston. We have a couple shows left and then we’ll be touring for the release around mid-October, primarily through the states and then coming back up through western Canada.
I looked up Regina–I admittedly don’t know much about the towns and cities in Canada–and it looks like a pretty rad place. I had to zoom out before being able to really understand its location [laughs], but it looks nice. It’s near a town called Moose Jaw?
Yep, Moose Jaw is where my parents grew up. It’s smaller. Regina isn’t as small as you get in Saskatchewan, but it has a small-town vibe, especially for people growing up in their 20s or so. You find yourself in same groups of friends and communities…you can get outside of them, but it is sort of hard once you’ve integrated yourself in them, and then it’s kind of like everybody knows your business, you know?
Are you guys still based there?
Yes, we are. One of our guitarists moved to Vancouver a number of years ago…I might actually end up moving there as well later this year, but Regina will always be our home base, our prairie.
How did you get into the music business growing up in Regina? Wasn’t that hard because the town is so small?
The thing with Regina is that it has a smaller music community, but it is really supportive. The industry people we do have there…they are incredibly encouraging and supportive. Like, our first show outside of Saskatchewan was Pop Montreal. It was kind of ridiculous. We hopped on a bill of an after-party with Wintersleep. By then, my brother in the band Joel, had toured with Wintersleep back in 2005 or so, and I had gone on a tour too, so it was really about getting to know people. Marshall and Joel got really good at making connections and sending out the right emails and booking tours…things picked up from there. Now we have a U.S. agent which is crazy big news for a small-town Canadian band.
Wow, that’s great. I’m glad the transition hasn’t been too hard. So, the new album is The Poet’s Dead. Including the title track, there are three songs with death and or killing in the titles. What is the idea behind “The Poet’s Dead”? Can you explain how it kind of came to be?
Well, aside from the titles you mentioned, I think it’s all about a transition in our lives. I don’t think it was a coincidental title. We’ve all sort of had to grow up a lot. When you’re on the road, it’s basically like bootcamp for getting to know yourself. I don’t want to sound too hokey, but when you’re stuck in a van touring with people, you have to know what makes you crazy and what makes you not crazy in order to survive. For me, that was always a big issue, to figure out, “What’s the appropriate balance?”
As far as the title track goes, I know Marshall has touched on it with me…he says that it’s about the push and pull of art and what drives us to do music–to keep touring and pushing ourselves. It touches on the phenomena of an artist, and after passing away, the art lives on. The person isn’t necessarily remember for what kind of a person they were, but their work lives its own life.
That is an interesting point.
For me a lot of the songs were kind of about trying to figure out what kind of person I want to be…and then of course “Prairie Girl” is about coming home and trying to live in a place that you feel like you’ve outgrown. But it might just be that it outgrew you because you’re away all the time, you know?
The first track “Art and a Wife” really pulled me. Sounds like you really know the ins and outs of the industry now. How does that affect your outlook on music, what you’re writing now, what you’re thinking on tour, how you present yourselves…
Creatively, we have a really good way of separating the business from the art side of things. I know the industry is somehow reflected in our writing, but we try to keep them as separate entities. Personally, I’ve been being a little too nit-picky about the way I look or present myself…on tour, we’ve learned how to be better performers and present ourselves on stage. You know, no one wants to look like an asshole on stage. It’s about trying to find a balance, like, “How do I take a good photo and look okay on stage without becoming completely neurotic and worrying about every single thing?” That’s the transition I’m going through right now.
It doesn’t seem like people in our circles of friends talk about this, and I’ve never really thought about it until this summer.
I listened to The Poet’s Dead with new headphones, and it is so well mixed! Gus Van Go and Werner F–did they do the mixing? The producing, mixing and mastering? Or how were things done? What were their roles?
They were primarily producers and they mixed it too–they have an incredible ear for sound. Even when they were tuning the drums–Werner hears frequencies on a snare drum, overtones, that will be picked up by the mics–small details–he can hear them when no one else can. It’s crazy. They just really understand what a good balance should be. I think with our songs, they got to really experiment with different harmonies–they’re huge fans of The Beatles, the “ah”s and the “ooh”s. They never got to try such experimenting with other bands, but I think it worked with us.
From the beginning when we did pre-production with them, they sort of took us through a different approach to songwriting and writing altogether. We had many different drafts of songs. Gus would sit there with paper and pen and write out all the structures and look at things formulaically and see what should be next. They spent some time on mixing them up…they mix as they go, and I think that is what made the difference. There wasn’t a ton of post-production on this record at all.
Did you go through a lot of listening sessions and takes to determine how the songs would end up?
Yeah, but it was mostly determined in pre-production and as soon as we got into it, it sort of became obvious how things were going to pan out, which was great. We did so many other songs and we were a little worried about which songs would be recorded and which ones wouldn’t, but it all became pretty obvious.
Wow, so how did you decide which songs to include and which ones would be leftover, so to say?
We had about 20 that were mainly sort of rough ideas, and they’ve stayed that way. I know we sort of tried to go back and rehash them, but it didn’t work out. You know when you try to go back and work on something and you’re like, “Okay, I need to just not play this anymore…” [Laughs]
So you guys have always had a girl/guy dynamic since about 2007. I dig the fact that you guys work collectively. How do you go about dividing the songs or choosing who gets leads, or writing and choosing which songs get to be on the album?
It’s mostly like if Marshall has written some of a song and has a riff, then he will be the one who gets lead on it and everyone else will sort of figure out their parts accordingly. None of us really write lyrics for each other–I know Joel has written some lyrics for chorus ideas, but normally if a person has a lyric or piece written, then that person takes the helm of things.
Has sharing writing and recording always been your approach or did you change anything for this record?
Not really, I think we just got better at it. That was our goal. Breaking Hearts was pretty collective.
You’re listed as playing drums, keys, guitar, and you sing…you’ve gone from a three- to a six-piece…what do you usually play now? What’s your instrument of choice?
Well, in the set, we switch things up because Jeff, the new guy, can also play drums and keys and a little guitar, so I’ll start out on drums and switch to guitar and then play some keys. And then if we feel up to it, we can play a song where I play bass too, but Joel mostly plays bass. We just have options where we can mix and match.
Yeah, that’s useful! It’s unfortunate–I don’t know too many female drummers–so it’s cool that you can drum. Do you have a favorite female dummer or are you friends with any awesome female drummers who inspired you to drum?
The first female drummer I remember feeling pretty compelled by was Anne Gauthier. She used to play with The Hot Springs from Montreal. She’s a rad individual to begin with, and I remember seeing her live and being like, “Holy shit–she’s pretty badass.” On this tour, we’ve also seen a couple talented female drummers who can waaail on the drums. It’s really nice to see these female musicians who aren’t so worried about looking pretty or not sweating, or embarrassing themselves.
So did you write the song “Run” on the album?
No, Kristina did actually.
Oh okay, but you sing on it?
No, she does.
Oh, okay, wow–so you guys really do divide the songs? Are there two lead female vocalists and one lead male?
Yep, Marshall is the lead male. Kristina sings “20s” and “Run” and I sing “I’m A Killer,” “Saint,” and “Prairie Girl.”
Okay, it’s all making sense now. That’s fantastic that you’re able to have such variety on one album. Kristina can play violin, accordion, and keys? Is Kristina actually able to sing while she plays violin at shows?
Usually if she’s singing lead, she is just managing vocals, but she sings backups as well and she can play violin and sing backup, or play keys and do backup.
What?! I can’t imagine.
Yeah, I catch myself looking at her sometimes while she’s playing violin and singing at the same time, and I’m always like, “How does she do that?!”
So, I’ve had my share of musician boyfriends…”Fake Our Love” is a funny track. How do you see the side of the musician’s life? Is it what you thought it would be before you got into it? Now that you’re on your third album, is touring getting a little easier?
Yes, it is easier and harder. You’re progressing in your band but also in your own life, and to put that on hold can be a little hard sometimes. I think Marshall put a nice spin on the whole musician-on-tour thing. I think we’ve all done a little of that [referring to "Fake Our Love"] in our early years, but now we’re a little more settled into things.
That song, and others on the album as well, sound very retrospective…there’s a lot of looking back, so to say. How did it come to be that way?
I think this whole record is about reflecting on our previous years and trying to process all that we’ve been through and all we’ve had to do so far to be where we are. For me personally, music has helped me understand things a little better and understand the decisions I’ve made. That’s kind of why my songs are more retrospective. And I think I can say the same for Marshall as well.
You have a song ["20s"] that talks about change and age…sounds like you guys are in your thirties now, maybe? [Laughs]
There are a couple of us in our 30s now, some of us are in our 20s. Joel wrote the chorus on that one and Kristina wrote the verses. It was about if this is what she’s meant to be doing, her ancestry–parents and relatives–who have worked to get her here. The song’s questioning if we’re just pissing away our lives doing this.
Yes, well you know, being on tour is a little less glamorous than people would imagine.
Yeah, I think it’s really hard to be working in the industry right now and not do it in the trendy, cliché way. You know, it’s really hard to do it the so-called “right” way.
So how has your music taste changed from when you guys started to where you guys are now?
Well, I have always had really terrible taste in music and it hasn’t changed. The last album I downloaded was Robyn’s Body Talk. But I’ve also been listening to Kathleen Edwards, which makes me feel better about my taste in music. She’s from Ontario…she’s amazing. The way she writes music is so person, like you’re in her living room. She’s up for the Polaris Prize in Canada.
Great, thanks for the recommendation. Okay, so last thing–you guys have crazy on-stage antics, some people say. Are you maintaining that? When you tour through New York, can I see you and expect some crazy antics?
Oh yeah, we will bring the party.
What can I expect?
Well, we have these giant mylar balloons that spell out R-A-H…sometimes we fill up two sets of them. Sometimes we have home-made piñatas, that no one really knows what they are until Kristina starts smashing them and candy comes out. Sometimes we have confetti…we switch around a lot. It’s like musical chairs.