Young Lions

Canada's Constantines chat about rock's golden trifecta: Dylan, Neil Young and Motorhead

In 1999 the Constantines formed and within a few short years had become a favorite of indie music listeners and college radio DJs from Alberta to Albuquerque. They also made some fans in the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, who honored the band's self-titled debut with a Best Alternative Album nomination in 2001. Since then, the Constantines have built a well-deserved reputation for explosive live performances and bombastic rock records, a reputation that hasn't been sullied by this year's tremendous Tournament of Hearts, their second record for Sub Pop. While often described as the bastard lovechild of Fugazi and Springsteen, their beautifully ragged sound also evokes the more focused work of bands like the Grifters or the Replacements, only soaked in earnest intensity instead of booze.

The Constantines arrive in Dallas this week as part of a dizzying tour that began in their Canadian homeland, careened through a couple of European dates and picked up a few days later on the other side of the planet in the American Northeast. Guitarist and vocalist Steve Lambke was in the midst of one of the few days of rest he's had in nearly three weeks. Hey, what better way to spend your downtime than talking on the phone with a reporter about festival gig perks and the state of protest music in our digital age?

You just played the Sasquatch Festival in Washington and the Primavera Festival in Spain within the same week. How did that go?

"Now music doesn't change anything," Constantines guitarist Steve Lambke (center) says. "But it can still inspire and fire people up. That's the goal, you know?"
Davida Nemeroff
"Now music doesn't change anything," Constantines guitarist Steve Lambke (center) says. "But it can still inspire and fire people up. That's the goal, you know?"

Lambke: We were only at Sasquatch for one day. For Primavera we kinda hung around for all three days and got to see lots of cool things. But they were both really, really exciting in their own way. Both were in very beautiful environments.

Any performances that stuck out?

Yo La Tengo and the Boredoms in particular were both amazing. Got to see Motörhead, which was awesome. I saw the Deadly Snakes from Toronto who are one of my favorite bands of all time and good friends, so it was cool to hang out with them in Barcelona. At Sasquatch I got to see the Tragically Hip for the first time which for a Canadian is sort of a rite of passage. That's one of the exciting things about those [festivals]. 'Cause when you're in a band and you're touring a lot, whenever any of those bands come to town most likely you're somewhere else. So it's cool you get to do those things and get to watch from the side of the stage, and getting to meet all those people is pretty amazing. We haven't done too many of these bigger festivals before, but we're definitely enjoying it.

How does the live show, which is almost legendarily enthusiastic, translate to these festival crowds?We just try to do what we do. It seems to go all right. We don't necessarily change the approach too much. We didn't shy away from playing the quieter stuff, and it seemed to work well.

Canadian artists seem to be more sympathetic to fans that want to download their music. Have you noticed anything like that?

I certainly haven't noticed a difference between how Canadians or Americans may feel about that issue. But I do know that anyone coming from any kind of indie scene is for the most part really positive about it. Or they at least acknowledge that it's just the reality now. It's the impossible fight to stop that. For a young band or a band like us, it's great. That's how people hear the music. It's the same as making a mix tape, really. It's just the new form of word of mouth. And that means people come to the show, and hopefully they buy the record or they buy a T-shirt. It's just part of it now, and I don't even really have a comment about it, like, good or bad.

Well, five or six years ago, Metallica was taking kids to court for downloading their music. Now Canadian bands are defending fans when it's being politicized.Barenaked Ladies and a bunch of the Broken Social Scene were involved. And they're just sort of standing up and saying, "We don't want to see music fans being sued for liking music." Everything's just in flux right now, and we're certainly not at the end of this whole discussion. The times they are a-changin', but they haven't totally changed yet.

Sure--you're still making good, traditional full-lengths and playing wherever you can.And that's sort of an interesting thing too. The idea of a record is a pretty antiquated idea in terms of the way that people listen to music now with iPods and stuff. They probably rarely do listen to the whole record. So it's sort of only a matter of time before we're maybe not releasing 10 or 15 songs at one time. Like, maybe you're putting out a song every month or a few songs every couple of months or something like that. The idea of an album is relatively arbitrary in a digital format when it could be instantly long or instantly short.

You guys are big Neil Young fans...I'm guessing you're a fan of his latest protest album as well. Do you think it's maybe time for a resurgence in protest music?I don't know that it ever really went away. I think the difference between this era and the '60s, as far as protest music, is that there's just so much more access to media. And everyone has their own niche. Even if Neil Young goes on David Letterman, for example, it's not the same as going on Ed Sullivan. It's a totally different era, and it's sort of impossible for there to be someone with the impact of someone like Dylan in terms of the pop culture. Now music doesn't directly change anything, but it can still inspire and fire people up. And that's sort of the goal, you know? I still think that it can happen, but I think it will happen very differently than it did in the '60s. So to compare it can be interesting, but it's still kind of a dead end.

I have this completely unfounded theory that somewhere between the hippie and the punk is the perfect dissenter. You guys may not fall into that, but there seems to be some sort of blending of these ideals. Do you think there's a way to go forward with what these movements did right and bypass where they may have gone wrong?

I think all this stuff exists at the same time now. That's kind of the defining characteristic of this era, culturally. It's all valid. And what you end up doing for art is you take little pieces and you throw them together. Obviously that can be done artfully, and it can be done very clumsily as well. So I think saying you're hippies or saying you're punks or stoners or rockers or whatever, you're all that because you're aware of all that tradition.

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