Murray Lightburn enjoys Jay-Z’s new record, the American version of “The Office,” and the food channel, but right now he’s not thinking about that because he’s stuck in traffic. “My car hasn’t moved in ten minutes,” he says. “I’m on my way to Philadelphia, passing by New York off of I-95, and it’s totally blocked, and I’m surrounded by trucks, so I can’t even see what the problem is.” Lightburn has to get to Philadelphia for the second night of his East coast tour with his band, the Dears. Trafficking in lush harmonies and desperately affecting pop songs about alienation and desire and need, the band released “Gang of Losers,” their third LP, in 2006. Alternately recalling more recent bands like the Stills and Bloc Party, the tag the Dears get most often is nouveau Smiths, which is fair, as the sad melancholy of those seminal Mancunians does percolate in Lightburn’s songs. So how’s his band’s new record? Let him tell you.
“I think it has all the ingredients of a classic, and I’m not saying that in a sort of boastful way,” the singer says. “I’m able to be outside of this record for some reason. When we first finished it, I listened to it a lot for the first months, like a lot, as if it was a record I picked up or something like that. I was able to listen to it and not recognize myself in it too too much… I wasn’t sitting there masturbating to it or anything, it was more a situation that I really enjoyed the songs and I really enjoyed the playing and what everybody did and the way it came across, you know, it just had so many really fucking fantastic moments, that I just enjoyed it from start to finish. I was really proud of it, when I thought of it being my band, the band that I was in, and hearing this record come out of the speakers, I was enjoying it… I can only hope that people will discover it over time, so it doesn’t bother me right now that record sales are not through the roof or if you haven’t sold a million records yet.”
Lightburn is clearly thinking of posterity when he makes his music-he thinks that while “Gang of Losers” is a classic, “the thing about some classics is that they’re not recognized as classics right away”-but he’s also deathly serious about people hearing his music. Today. The relentless touring is part of that.
“It’s kind of a fifty-fifty thing,” he says. “You half dread it and you half look forward to it. You know, I don’t really get nervous about it, this is what we do. We spent the better part of 2004, 2005 on tour. It’s not a big deal, it’s more like, if anything, it’s kind of like getting home sick a lot quicker nowadays.”
Home for Lightburn is Montreal, Canada, a veritable tinderbox of indie rock at the moment. His band is signed to Arts & Crafts, the same label that’s brought you the likes of Stars, Feist, Amy Millan, and genre juggernaut Broken Social Scene, who Lighburn has recently worked with. How much does Montreal mean?
“It used to be really important,” he says. “Now it’s only fairly important.”
“I think what’s changed is the traveling that we’ve done and the places that we’ve been to have sort of broadened our scope. Even though Montreal’s still fairly important to who we are… you know, hopefully the Dears are trying to reach as many people as we can, so if we want to stick with just Montreal as our mindset, not a lot of people are going to be able to relate to that.”
All the populist talk aside, the challenge is to appeal broadly while never losing the critical edge that makes the Dears so exciting. A single on the new record is called “Whites Only Party,” and with lyrics like “We ain’t here to steal your women,” Lightburn, a black man, addresses problems of racism in society. Looked at from a different angle, though, and it’s hard not to think that it could also be about the homogeneity of indie rock. Lightburn remains focused on the larger picture, though.
“A poll just came out in Quebec that 59% of Quebecers… have admitted to being racist, and that just tells me that whenever my friends say, ‘Oh, you’re paranoid,’ or ‘Oh, you’re crazy,’ no, I’m not paranoid, I’m not crazy, this is actually happening,” he says, echoing another line from “Whites Only Party” (“Don’t say I’m paranoid It’s more like just annoyed Maybe a bit destroyed”).
“I think it’s like 80 or 85% of Americans are supposedly Christian, or something like that,” he continues. “And when I talk about America, I’m also talking about Canada, because you’ve got to believe there’s some very, very similar stuff, I’m just using this as an example so we can kind of gauge, because this is what we know, right… It’s kind of freaky how Christianity and Jesus Christ, who is the founder of Christianity, I suppose, it’s kind of astonishing how little people truly understand those teachings and that idea, you know, of turning the other cheek, et cetera, et cetera. It’s kind of freaky, you know, how far away it’s gotten from the original idea, you know, where, certain people claim to be born again Christians, and yet they believe that killing someone is okay.”
There’s clearly some discontent, some disappointment, some pain brewing. Does Lightburn really want to appeal broadly to a society he sees so many problems with? Well, maybe such a society needs his band more because of its sickness.
“You take the good with the bad,” he says. When somebody swiped the sideview mirror off my car [in New York City], I just thought it was such a lame thing to do, like so desperate, but it’s a subtext for something much, much, a much greater problem, in New York, and probably in America, and in the world for that matter. If somebody steals, if the only way they’re gonna get ahead is by stealing the fucking sidemirror off your car, it’s a sad, sad place to be. I feel not just sorry for that person, but more like I kind of feel like anytime that kind of thing goes down, where somebody has to do that, it’s just symptomatic of where they are and where a whole group of people are. In a weird way, it’s kind of what this album is about. You know, maybe not everyone’s going to get [it], but there’s a whole group of people out there who feel like they have to steal the sidemirror of a car, and that ain’t right, you know? And the thing is it’s not shame on them, it’s more shame on everybody, because everybody in the world has created a situation where someone needs to do that. I know that’s borderline commie talk, but…” He breaks in to laughter.
“I’m just trying to do my thing, and carve a little spot, and write some songs and sing ’em,” he says, but one gets the sense that the mission is much greater than that. Na’ve it may sound (and it’s not), there’s this desire to make the world better, even just a little bit, that permeates this music. “No one should have to live all of their life on their own,” Lightburn sings, no pleads on “Ballad of Humankindness.” “And I can’t believe I haven’t lent a hand That I’m just standing here” he continues before saying “I’m gonna change” over and over and over again. So that’s the message-forgiveness, serenity, change, change above all.
The Dears are changing. “Our first record, “End of a Hollywood Bedtime Story,” was about a downward spiral, and then [sophomore effort] “No Cities Left” was more about a journey back, and so this album is about what you kind of find after your journey back… It’s a journey, the whole Dears experience is a journey.”
So where’s the journey going next?
“No clue. All I know is that I’m stuck in traffic.”
The Dears play 9:30 Club on Saturday. Annuals and Pilot Speed are opening. Tickets are $15.