Few Canadian bands can elicit the type of unadulterated response, cerebral and visceral, from fans, critics and fellow musicians like Constantines.
On paper, their resume might seem humble: four albums that fused melodic punk and post-hardcore with classic rock sensibilities; an 11-year career spent in sweaty clubs and equally sweaty touring vans; brushes with big-label, big-tent status, but mostly that powerful cult fandom that lives at college radio stations and DIY squats. Yet a glimmer will almost always emerge in the eye of a Constantines fan. Their approach, wild and untamed as it was, resulted in a potent, tangible connection between audience and band. Ask those close to them (as we did for this story) and the same words pop up over and over: “Magical,” “Aggressive,” “Sweet,” “Well ahead of their time.”
I first saw Constantines on Johnston Green, a wide field filled with curious onlookers on my move-in day at the University of Guelph in 2002. I walked by hesitantly, as you do on your first day at University, and heard a sound that broke down barriers. It was powerful and loud yet pensive and inviting. Tiny fragments of riffs stayed with me for the next few days and, then, for the next few years. They haven't left me since.
Constantines went on hiatus in 2010. Though band members have been active with their own projects throughout this hiatus, This Sunday, June 8 at Field Trip in Toronto will see the band reuniting for their first performance in almost four years. The band will also celebrate with a re-issue of their classic 2003 album Shine A Light (one year too late for its 10th anniversary).Talk to some who grew up with the Cons and you'll quickly see that this is a very big deal for a lot of people. But Constantines — Bry Webb, Steve Lambke, Dallas Wehrle, Doug MacGregor and Will Kidman — are much less assuming. Though their influence is far-reached, the band declined to speak to Chart Attack for this story. “…They are looking at this like a chance for a bunch of friends to get together to hang out,” we were told by their publicist, echoing Webb's reunion letter:
"A great irony in all of this, is that I've become more aware of what the Cons meant to people in the years since the band last played together, than I ever was while we were active. I suppose that's no grand revelation — you often have to get outside of something to get a picture of what it is."
Constantines' legacy isn't written by them, but by the communities they formed, the bonds they cemented, the fans who came of age at their shows, the labels that rose and fell with their records, the bands they influenced. Their story is a unique one. Long a private band that eschewed the spotlight, their 11 years together were filled with endless tours, ups and downs in the studio, flirtations with mass success and all along, an intense dedication to the music. This is the story of Constantines told by those close to them.
Young Hearts, Be Free Tonight
In the late ‘90s, two Southern Ontario groups disbanded to form Constantines. Steve Lambke says in a 2008 interview that “When we started out - in terms of where we were, and the places we were playing — we were a punk rock band, playing community hall shows and church basements.”
Vish Khanna [friend, media personality]: [Dallas Wehrle], [Steve Lambke] and I grew up together and learned to play music together. We were in a band called Captain Co-Pilot before Constantines. It didn’t end very well.
Vish Khanna: We played a terrible show in Mississauga. A few weeks after that show we all convened at Jim’s house and did the vocals. That was pretty much the last Captain Co-Pilot experience. At some of our Captain Co-Pilot shows in Waterloo [Doug MacGregor] and [Bry Webb] would come to our shows. Doug was in Waterloo and Bry was just hanging out I guess. We loved their band Shoulder. Shoulder had broken up because their bass player had moved to B.C., so they were pretty interested in Dallas. When Captain Co-Pilot was finally done we never really talked about it. We never really said “we’ll see you around,” but they eventually asked Steve to join the band. I held a grudge.Lisa Moran [Three Gut Records co-founder]: Royal City had played a show with [Constantines] in Guelph and when they came back to Toronto everyone was saying, "You’re going to die. We just saw the best band ever.”
Vish Khanna: They were playing Hillside and I’d written a song for The Neutron Stars. Bry came up to me and said, "Dude, that song is awesome." I had assumed that because I had projected tension into the situation that they would be angry with me but they were always really nice and they wanted to get along. At some point I got older and mature. And we all did.
Lisa Moran: They were both aggressive and sweet at the same time.
The First Signs of Light
Constantines were already creating pre-online buzz before the release of their self-titled debut. A signing to Three Gut Records, a community-based label of Guelph, Ontario expats living in Toronto, aided their transition into the big city.
Lisa Moran: It sounds like a cheeseball thing to say but it was a community of people working on something. And the band would be the first to say that. It was a lot of people and a lot of love. It was a magical time.
Jim Guthrie: It was about making music with friends for friends and if the rest of the world joins in, then great.
Bry Webb would tell Eye Weekly in a 2010 interview that because the band grew up in smaller, south-western Ontario towns that the band was “intimidated” by “playing shows” in Toronto.
Tyler Clarke Burke [Three Gut Records co-founder]: One of the most impactful early shows was one we set up for them at Ted’s Wrecking Yard. It was just amazing. It was a really unique time in Toronto. I worked at Eye Weekly and was friends with Stuart Berman.
Stuart Berman [journalist, formerly of Eye Weekly]: When I first saw the Cons a few weeks later at a Wavelength show, I was taken aback by how mild-mannered they appeared. They just looked like a bunch of nice kids in t-shirts and jeans. Of course, such placid appearances were shattered the moment they started playing. They opened with “Young Offenders,” which gradually built up this monstrous sense of tension, and then, during the mid-song breakdown, Bry just casually muttered, “We like rock music” before blasting into the “CAN I GET A WITNESS?” part. I remember thinking that it was such a simple, pure yet heretical statement.
Lisa Moran: We orbited in a different world: very scrappy, arty, and not so much about being a business. We weren’t the mainstream and we weren’t trying to access the mainstream either.
Tyler Clarke Burke: At the time we were distributed by Sonic Unyon and they had approached the Cons too. They were big fans of Royal City and Jim Guthrie. There was just such a charge in the air. When they came over for that spaghetti dinner we just had the greatest time. We were really honest with them about what we could do. From a business perspective it might not have seemed like the soundest decision [for them] to work with Three Gut given that the person distributing our music was the person who really wanted to sign the Cons.
Demand for the band was so widespread that they signed to legendary Seattle label Sub Pop for releases outside of Canada.
Chris Jacobs [A&R, Sub Pop]: I saw them play in March of 2002, before I heard their record, and was totally taken by them. I came back to the office afterwards, raving about how great they were, to find that my co-worker Shawn Rogers [now Nolan] was already a fan of their self-titled album. And, we conspired to work with them immediately thereafter.
Tyler Clarke Burke: With Sub Pop it seemed like it was generally the opposite [of Three Gut]. There were so many layers, so many other bands and so much less attention. We were at the beginning and things were just taking off. They had barely played one show and people were phoning us from all over the States trying to see them.
Chris Jacobs: We were very excited about the possibility of working with them, and they seemed both gracious and maybe a little wary.
Justin Stayshyn [musician, The Hidden Cameras]: Constantines were the first band from our community in Guelph to get big. The cover of Eye, that sort of thing. Because of the way Three Gut operated people felt good that they were doing well. If they’re doing well, everybody’s doing well.
Lisa Moran: Tyler would come up with really cockamamie ideas to promote things. We would string up clothespinned envelopes with invitations to a party between poles. We knew we were going to lose money on the first couple thousand. We weren’t thinking about how many records we could sell but more about doing everything we could to make sure people knew about Constantines. They wanted to tour the U.S. and they asked us how to make that happen.
Fat Bobby [lead singer, Oneida]: Oneida received an email from Tyler Clarke Burke at Three Gut, just saying "Hi, the Constantines need someone to tour with." And we said, "okay." We didn’t know this person or this band, but we were constantly on the road and doing shows so we agreed.
Lisa Moran: I thought their first album was just so incredible and huge that I never thought of Shine A Light as better. It’s a strange thing. I knew they were going to make another record and I knew their new songs would be very anthemic, pump-your-fist-in-the-air songs.
Fat Bobby: We played Chestertown, Maryland at this place for singer/songwriters. Tyler must have booked these shows because there was no way we would have booked ourselves into these venues. It was real quiet and Bry plugged in his guitar and just strummed one chord and this woman comes storming out of the back screaming "That is way too loud." We soldiered through this show playing literally at a whisper, improvising and playing a little louder and totally sneaking our way up. But the audience doesn’t care because there’s no fucking audience. It was a huge bonding moment for us. We just drank whiskey and joked about it. We felt like kindred people doing things for the same reason with the same attitude.
Jim Guthrie: When you’re touring you’re a little run down, and pulling into the city you can get a little tired of soundchecking, loading in, that sort of thing. And I remember feeling that way sometimes on that [October 2002 Canadian East Coast] tour but then I’d get sidestage literally rocking so hard watching Constantines. It was my exposure to the spirit of rock and roll.
Fat Bobby: They played because they loved to play. Context can affect the band’s approach but it shouldn’t affect the band’s desire. At the very least, we were playing for those guys and that mattered. There was never that vibe like we were bands that had a destiny or were meant to be bigger than we were. We just thought, "Let’s go do it. Let’s kill it.”
Working On A New Solution
In December 2002 Constantines entered The Woodshed Studio in Toronto to record their second album, Shine A Light. It features the band firing on all cylinders, in complete control of their young, untamed spirit. But the recording wasn’t without its complications. They would finish the record in January 2003 at Chemical Sound in Toronto.
Steve Clarkson [producer, Shine A Light]: They wanted to make an album that translated their live intensity. I already knew most of their repetoire anyway from their live shows. I was in the ‘90s, Steve Albini mindset of recording things live off the floor. We were all excited about using two-inch tape. Woodshed had just opened and they hadn’t sectioned off the control room yet. So I had the console set up in the room with the band. That makes a lot of people nervous but I was fine with it.
Rudy Rempel [mixer, Shine A Light]: Jonathan James came to me at some point and said things were going off the rails a bit and people weren’t very happy with the mixes and the results they were getting.
Steve Clarkson: At a certain point in the process the band and their management had to make some decisions as to how to allocate resources. And it ended up affecting the outcome of the record.
Rudy Rempel: I think the band might have been a bit concerned because they were putting their heart and soul into this. After listening to more of their past releases I kept saying to myself, "This record has to be good.’" For them, for Canada, for the studio, for everybody.
Steve Clarkson: By taking money out of the recording budget to use in other ways, less time was put into the mixing and I think that resulted in a product that Sub Pop wasn’t happy with. The first session of mixing was collaborative between the band and I. I wasn’t privy to any of the conversations that happened after that about their decisions.
Lisa Moran: I think there are so many bands that would credit them for stepping out and doing things differently.
Bry Webb tells Eye Weekly in a 2001 interview that he “...(likes) the idea of reusing and revitalizing something that's become stale or has been ignored and ended up in the dollar bin at a record shop.”
Rudy Rempel: The band might have been worried about going over budget so I offered to work for free. I didn’t want to tell them their record sounded like crap and undercut Steve in any way.
Steve Clarkson: They certainly seemed into trying new things and being adventurous. The vocals on “National Hum” were done with a handheld mic run through a small tube guitar amp. And I really like how that came out.
Rudy Rempel: The first thing we did was re-track all the vocals. I think there was just one vocal track that was saved from the first session; I think it was “National Hum.” They really liked the spirit of that one.
Lisa Moran: Bry told me that “Tank Commander (Hung Up In A Warehouse Town)” was about meeting us at Three Gut and the sense of excitement at that time.
Rudy Rempel: We got paid right away. That turned out not to be an issue. But that wasn’t the reason we did it. It was an honour to work with those guys. It was essential for the band that the record capture the feel of the beds they had done. They had tracked to two-inch tape and they wanted to stick with that. It takes a lot of balls to do that all the way through. That’s how you capture something very magical.
Stuart Berman: The Cons were still technically a Guelph band when the first album came out, but they were all living here [in Toronto] by the time Shine A Light was released, and that seemed to be the moment when their relationship with the city was the most firmly entrenched. Bry told me in an Eye Weekly interview at the time that a lot of that album was inspired by his move to Toronto, and being surprised to find a sense of small-town community amid the big city.
The Light Keeps Burning
Shine A Light drew incredible accolades but the band’s artistic vision was still a work in process. Now completely entrenched in Toronto’s music community, the band continued to tour relentlessly including opening slots for Foo Fighters, The Hold Steady and The Tragically Hip. In a 2005 interview with Pitchfork Webb calls the dates with the Foo Fighters “rigid” and “very surreal” adding that “It was definitely the strangest tour we've ever done.”
Midway through 2005 began work on their follow-up. More touring would continue, including one of their longest tours to date, the mammoth cross-Canada Rolling Tundra Revue with The Weakerthans.
John K. Samson [lead singer, The Weakerthans]: We met them at Emo’s in Austin in 2003 to do a run of shows with them in the American southwest. I was pretty unprepared for their live show. I was confusingly delighted. I was thinking, ‘I don’t understand how this works.’ Every time I saw them on that trip I would discover something new about the band. That feeling has stayed with me. We were both travelling in un-air-conditioned vans in the summer, all of us drenched in sweat. I remember seeing [Steve Lambke] and [Bry Webb] get out of their van at a rest stop wearing just punk rock boots and underwear. We would stop in the desert and play bocce ball. It sounds like an acid trip and that’s how I remember it: transformative and psychedelic.
Jeff McMurrich [producer, Tournament of Hearts and Kensington Heights]: I had made a record with Sea Snakes that was put out on Three Gut. Lisa said that the Cons had specifically cited the Sea Snakes record. We got together and Fat Bobby from Oneida came up. That was the start of a really great working relationship.
Fat Bobby: I had so much fun in those sessions I lost my voice from just gabbing on. I was writing notes to the band to communicate. I was there strictly for encouragement. The anti-producer.
Jeff McMurrich: A lot of the beds on “Draw Us Lines” were complete takes. I’ve made almost 200 records and when you deal with something like that you realize you’re dealing with a force.
Chris Jacobs: It sounds to me like the band’s means of expression grew more elaborate [on songs like “Draw Us Lines” or “Love in Fear”] and, at the same time, more direct and less adorned [with “Soon Enough” or “Windy Road”). It feels to me like they were trying to experiment and evolve in both directions at once, to equally good results.
Jeff McMurrich: That’s the great thing about Constantines discography: you can chart the band growing older.
Bry Webb would address the different venues and changing trajectory of the band in a 2005 interview: "When we started, part of what we wanted to do was to play in as many different kinds of spaces as possible. Wherever we could play we would, out of the curiosity to see how the performance changes, how reception is different in different spaces. I'm still as interested in playing in a dirt hole as I am in playing the amphitheaters."
Lisa Moran: In my mind, they should have been on the same trajectory and should be as big as some other big bands that are out there. But the real world is quite different. And it’s hard to buy into success when you’re thinking about it that way.
John K. Samson: The 2005 Rolling Tundra Revue tour we did with the band was the best touring experience of my life. The bands were having a real artistic conversation every night. 32 shows right across the country.
Tournament of Hearts would be the final Three Gut Records release. When Lisa Moran folded the label, Constantines were left considering the next move. 2008’s Kensington Heights would be their first and only release on Toronto’s Arts & Crafts.
Jeffrey Remedios [co-founder, Arts & Crafts]: It was fairly organic. [Dallas Werhle] said Three Gut had folded and they were trying to figure out what to do. I probably said to them on a few occasions that our door was always open to them. We agreed to work together right as they started recording [2008’s] Kensington Heights. It’s a better record today than it was the day it came out. It’s aged incredibly well and those guys have proven to be well ahead of their time.
In a 2010 interview Bry Webb calls Kensington Heights a “reflective” record and that “Anytime I sit down to write lyrics for a song it’s to try and come to terms with something.”
Jeff McMurrich: There’s tracks on Kensington Heights that you just have to turn up. You have to really turn them up.
Jeffrey Remedios: When they first gave me the record I thought, "Wow, this record is really cool but we’ll never get it on the radio." On a certain level that proved to be true. They’d already been doing this for seven or eight years by the time we started working together so I wasn’t able to change their trajectory that much. Other than being able to be proud to work with them through one of their great records.
Jeff McMurrich: The Canadian music model is based so much on funding. [Constantines] didn’t have access to that funding because they were working with Sub Pop. Some of their songs could’ve been on the radio but they weren’t operating within that mechanism. They weren’t actively pursuing that.
The Light Begins To Fade
As the band enters their 30s their touring propensity begins to slow and eventually they call it a day, somewhat unceremoniously, on Vish Khanna’s Breakfast Club radio program in Dawson City, Yukon.
Vish Khanna: The rumours of them breaking up had been going on for a long time before them breaking up.
Jeffrey Remedios: Music’s tough. They all did it for so long. They were brothers. When you go past coming of age it’s a tough thing to continue with a childhood dream in the same way.
Jeff McMurrich: I loved all those guys like brothers. I think they spent an inordinate amount of time together touring and making records.
John K. Samson: We came from a punk rock background where you don’t need to talk about the industry side. We had the common feeling that that side of the world was a bit distasteful.
Vish Khanna: By the time I got to Dawson City it was in the program that this would be their final show. Bry’s parents were there and they were saying "Hey, this is it!" His wife was saying ‘This is it!’ and the rest of the band is just saying, "What is going on? Bry has not expressed this to us at all." Bry has said that’s not the case but it was very tense and strange.
Jeff McMurrich: On more than one occasion people would say to me, "Hey, I was hanging out with Constantines" and "You know, they don’t talk much. It was uncomfortable." I spent so much time with them in the studio that there was this telepathic approach. There was hours of silence and you had to be comfortable with that. People have just got to shut up and listen.
Lisa Moran: I could see how someone’s perception of them would be that they’re telepathically communicating. When you see them live and they’re not communicating through looks or movement, it’s a weird show. They were intentionally able to communicate without talking.
Chris Jacobs: I think “slowing down” is an over-simplified and inaccurate way of describing what the Constantines were doing. My opinion (and you know the thing about opinions…) is that what people responded to about them, certainly what I responded to about them, was a belief in whatever spirit they captured and conveyed as genuine.
Vish Khanna: For Bry in particular I think he was in a transitional phase where he was starting a family and figuring out how to do that and still do the things he wanted to do as an artist but couldn’t envision it as something that worked in concert.
Chris Jacobs: What I could see was the courage involved in continuing to try to share real moments with people.
Work and Love Will Make a Man Out of You
As Constantines prepare to return after a four-year hiatus, the legacy of one of Canada’s most influential bands cannot be ignored.
Jeffrey Remedios: I would like to believe that this band’s full legacy is yet to reveal itself. I’d like to believe there’s some amazingness that is yet to be created that will build on everything they’ve done so far and see them finally get their day in the sun. This is a very important band to Toronto, to Canada to music all over the world.
Fat Bobby: You’re [playing in a band] because you love to do it and because you’re a motherfucking gang. If there was any influence it was just reminding them that whatever is thrown at you, you’re still Constantines. You still get to be you. You don’t have to give a fuck about anyone or anything around you.
Jeff McMurrich: You cannot turn on the radio in Canada without hearing the legacy of Constantines.