There’s a recurring feature on Chart Attack called Essential Albums, which aims to unveil the records that influence or inspire today’s independent artists. The Darcys are an open book when it comes influential albums, but they have another equally as important body of influence: literature. The stately Toronto art-rockers’ latest album, Warring (out now on Arts & Crafts) is directly inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s epic Western novel Blood Meridian and they’re working on a 20 minute instrumental song based on the same author’s Border Trilogy.
“When everyone’s in the green room drinking beer or on their phones before a show, we’re that annoying band reading The Great Gatsby,” jokes drummer/songwriter Wes Marskell, who started the band with lead singer Jason Couse as Critical Theory students at King’s College in Halifax. We sat down with Marskell to find out what other works inspired Warring. His answers could easily serve as the reading list for an intro course in the Great American Novel.
Cormac McCarthy – Blood Meridian (1985)
We got a lot of flak for not printing out the lyrics on our last album, so we knew that we had to do this on Warring and that it was something people wanted. But I didn’t just want them to read “I love you” repeated ten times in a row, so one of my strategies was to take influence from works of literature, which I think helps avoid going into time-stamped sounds of really current music. Cormac McCarthy was a big [influence] right off the top. [lead singer] Jason [Couse] and I were reading Blood Meridian while we were making the album. [Bassist] Dave [Hurlow] kept a loose blog on our Tumblr about it. And so it just started to creep its way in that way.
A lot of Warring’s themes stem from Blood Meridian’s general state of war. That’s also where the title Warring comes from, but it just seemed like that sort of imagery set a nice tone for the music that we were making. It was cool to do something like that on record. You have to be somewhat in the know to pop the references out and understand them, but Jason and I worked quite a bit to create that sonic atmosphere, where even if it’s a love song it has this tinge that makes you feel like you’re in a different sort of world and not necessarily, you know, in the city courting girls at a bar. Something a bit more timeless.
Cormac McCarthy – Cities of the Plain (1998)
One thing that we wanted to do once we started recording Warring was to have an alternative project like [our reinterpretation of Steely Dan’s] Aja was for the self-titled. The thing that we came up with is a 20 minute instrumental song influenced by the last novel of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. So we set out to work on that during the Warring sessions, just to have this outlet to be creative and maybe explore something that we wouldn’t normally do on our albums and see if it would transfer over.
That’s all about cultivating emotion and feeling and idea through sound. When you’re trying to make something emotive musically that isn’t lyrical you develop a lot of different and interesting ways of recording and creating. It gets into this esoteric thing where instead of saying “this synth needs to sound more like ‘blank’,” and then using some sort of technical term for cutting out decibels, you’re saying “sad” or “anxious.”
The character John Grady Cole goes through the entirety of the Border Trilogy, and there’s a moment in Cities of the Plain, which is the last book, where his love interest is killed. We tried to create this wordless vocal memory that represents her from his perspective. And then that becomes something that flows through this entire 20 minutes, constantly popping up as the reference point for why everything else is happening. And then it goes through his quest to find the guy that killed her, but it’s also about his internal struggle. It was interesting for us to try to apply those ideas and images into the musical setting.
We’re thinking maybe Record Store Day for that.
Jonathan Franzen – The Corrections (2001)
The Corrections was a big book for me when I was younger. I read that book so quickly for such a big book and I didn’t know how to feel about it. And then I read it again immediately, and I read it so quickly again and again I didn’t know how to feel about it. What I realized is that he had essentialized the idea of a great novel and edited it to a point where it’s so readable and so digestible, but also intelligent and well written. It’s kind of unbelievable.
We both read that book, Jason and I, and thought, oh, we can do something that’s good but it doesn’t have to be bogged down in all this grandiose art rock stuff. It could be something a little bit more immediate or interesting that people can get right away when they listen to the record. But also just the idea of writing about these big basic themes of family or love or loss in a different way than Blood Meridian, which is so dense and so dark.
So we wanted to create this sort of layer of right away where you can hear “747s” or “Pretty Girls” and they can just be fun, but then when you break them down, oh, there’s some interesting stuff going on; the key change or the time shift of it goes from 4 to 3 and you don’t really know it’s happening and of a sudden you come out having heard something that’s a bit different or off-kilter but you don’t even realize it because it’s enjoyable in its own sense.
Don DeLillo – Underworld (1997)
I read Underworld while demoing and recording the record. The thing that I love about Don DeLillo is that where Cormac McCarthy writes these beautiful prose-like paragraphs, Don DeLillo does this thing where he’ll write a sentence that’s so strong that you have to stop reading the book and just go “holy shit, that’s amazing.”
Underworld is about a thousand pages long. When you want to do something like that, you need to really capture the reader immediately. I think Underworld has the best first hundred pages in literature. I remember reading it and thinking, you know, if that wasn’t part of this book I don’t know if I would have got through it, but I was so invested and so in love with that introduction to that world that I kept going.
That shaped how we organized songs for the layout of Warring. What’s going to come first and what’s going to set the mood and the tone so you know immediately what you’re going to get into and what it’s going to be like and how it’s going to flow. I hate the idea that if there’s three pop songs you should put them up front. Because then the rest of it feels like, oh this is arty and weird and boring and I don’t get it and I just want to hear those three songs. But if you find a way to make it all function cohesively then people will follow you all the way through.
Phillip Roth – American Pastoral (1997)
Personally, my interest has always been in the Great American Novel. I guess it goes along with our interest in the Studio Opus. I remember I found a New York Times list of the best American books of the last 25 years and I’ve read every single one of them except one.
American Pastoral actually feels like the most American novel ever written. Jonathan Franzen doesn’t really list Phillip Roth as an influence, which I think is bizarre because the way Franzen writes about the Midwestern family Roth does about New Jersey. I think what’s great about American Pastoral is that it wrestles with all these themes: the idea of marriage, the idea of love, the idea of these affairs, revolution, loyalty, and all the emotions that come around with all these things. That book made those themes interesting to me again.
That was part of the mindset: great books, great records, and then getting a producer that could make great sounds and trying to make this really, really strong effort that was also fundamentally “us” instead of jumping on some sort of fad. Because I feel like if you go out and you fuse trip hop and disco or something like that then your band might be huge for a year and then no one cares anymore. If you’re in August of 2013 it makes sense and then every other month no one understands it anymore.