Judging by the boldness of their choices, you’d never guess the Trews are 10 years, five studio albums and thousands of gigs into their highly celebrated career. Clearly, someone forgot to tell them that bands are supposed to become more predictable as the years go by, not less so.
And yet, evidence of a stubborn refusal to play it safe abounds, most notably in the East Coast-bred, Toronto-based rock squad’s eponymous, electrifying new disc, The Trews. It tallies so many firsts that even band members Colin MacDonald, John-Angus MacDonald, Sean Dalton and Jack Syperek cop to being a smidge flabbergasted by their own achievements, 13 Top 10 Canadian radio singles (including two #1s) notwithstanding.
There is, first and foremost, the assured manner in which it was written (through the lens of real life), underwritten (by fan support) and recorded (super-fast alongside marquee producer Gavin Brown). Guests bring flourish – witness Serena Ryder’s smoky vocals on ‘In the Morning,’ a contemplative almost-ballad with lyrics co-written by singer/guitarist Colin MacDonald and his pal, songwriting dynamo Simon Wilcox and buoyed by cellist Anne Bourne’s melancholic accompaniment.
Add in the fact that of late the Trews have been piling up the accolades touring acoustically despite being certified rock brawlers and the net result is something you just don’t see every day: proverbial old dogs issuing some seriously new tricks.
“I think with every record, you are kind of re-applying for the job,” chuckles guitarist John-Angus MacDonald. “There are so many bands out there, so many good ones, the fact that we get to keep going is a privilege. And as much as you get better and wiser with your craft, you still have to be ear-to-the-ground competitive. There is pressure in that.”
There are also wicked-cool rewards in that, none greater than the Trews’ daring and wildly successful PledgeMusic campaign which offered their loyal fans coveted and highly unique access to the band and its recording process in exchange for financial backing.
Everything from Skype chats to drum lessons, lifetime guest list privileges to adding vocals and hand-claps in-studio to songs like ‘New King,’ ‘The Sentimentalist,’ ‘Age of Miracles,’ and ‘Under The Sun’ was snatched up by supporters during the roughly year-long PledgeMusic drive.
“It was so much fun bringing fans into the studio, putting 20 people around a microphone,” Colin MacDonald enthuses. “This whole campaign was a great way to have an even deeper connection with the people who have been supporting us all these years.”
Adds John-Angus MacDonald, “I’d be lying if I said we didn’t have some trepidation at the onset. But it was all about the fan experience. We got to tailor those pledges to what we thought our fans might like, and at the end of it, we got to make a record for fans while giving them access they couldn’t possibly have had otherwise.”
Of course, the whole PledgeMusic exercise would be academic if the Trews weren’t making freaking phenomenal rock and roll full of the hairpin stylistic turns you’d expect from four guys who’ve been playing together daily pretty much all their adult lives.
Take the new album’s blazing first single, ‘What's Fair Is Fair’ which Colin MacDonald describes as “A song I wrote about a relationship falling apart. Sometimes when you cross a line you can't come back.”
And then there is the quaking, spit-drenched ‘New King,’ a biting indictment of bullies on digital pulpits. “We were pissed off and we wrote a song about it. I mean, if you can’t use your rock and roll to tell somebody to go shove it,” John-Angus MacDonald howls, “what the hell good is it?”
At the other end of the sonic spectrum is ‘65 Roses,’ a song inspired by former Trews booking agent Paul Gourlie, who succumbed to Cystic Fibrosis last May at age 37. It is, says John-Angus MacDonald, an illustration of the band feeling comfortable turning the volume down thanks to their acoustic touring, and an example of the impact producer Gavin Brown (see Metric, the Tragically Hip, Billy Talent) had on the new disc.
“The song ‘65 Roses’ was originally presented as an upbeat and rollicking song but the subject matter is quite sad,” the guitarist confirms. “Gavin was really insistent on that song being played as an acoustic number without drums. He saw us performing at Paul’s memorial and I don’t think he would even consider it being anything else.”
Indeed, Brown brought a whole new way of working to bear when he gathered with the Trews – including long-time keyboardist Jeff Heisholt - last fall in their rehearsal space for pre-production before moving the show to Toronto’s Noble Street Studios for “a concentrated two-and-half week session with some additional recording in November, mixing in December and mastering in January,” Colin MacDonald recalls.
“Gavin takes awesome bands and makes them awesome-r,” the singer cracks playfully. “And I think with our band, self-production would be a one-way ticket to divorce. We all respect each other but it’s always good to have that sounding board. Gavin is a giant personality who works quickly with such precision. So we entered that orbit and it made for a really interesting time. I’d do it again tomorrow.”
“For us, working quickly is a function of having our material together,” John-Angus adds, noting that the group amassed some 30 songs between January and May 2013 despite all members “doing a lot of other things. Life was being lived, we were traveling, but I think that fed the writing.
“From there we went about arranging it and making it sound great in the studio which, in my opinion, is much easier than songwriting. With Hope & Ruin” – the Trews’ chart-topping 2011 release cut with Hip bassist Gord Sinclair – “we were writing and recording at the same time and that record took seven months. Taking a kind of church and state approach to writing and recording this time worked really well.”
“I think we are getting better at pinpointing when a song is good and when it’s not,” Colin MacDonald says. “That’s what happens when you make five albums and tour all the time – you can tell a timeless idea from one that rocks hard but gets old fast. If I have to sing these songs 200 nights a year,” he smiles, doubtless envisioning the Trews’ itinerary for the foreseeable, “I want them to be good.”