Elling Lien speaks with Bry Webb, vocalist, guitarist and lyricist for The Constantines.
You just moved to Montreal recently. How’s the weather out there?
I like the winter here more than in Toronto. I find in Ontario you get a lot of snow and cold, but you get warm days more often, so it just ends up being kind of dirty and messy. Whereas here you get the snow and the snow stays. It’s much more picturesque.
Also I’ve been trying to write a lot for this new record so I don’t even go outside. I just kind of hibernate and write.
How does it work with The Constantines? Is it mainly you that writes the songs?
No. But we have no consistent system for writing songs, which I guess in itself is sort of a system. Like, I’ll write some stuff beforehand either whole songs or little bits of songs, and then we’ll put stuff together at practice or we’ll just jam out parts until something comes together like a song, and then I’ll go and write some lyrics for it or something like that. But really there is no consistency. Steve does the same thing. He’ll bring in bits of songs, or entire songs. But I feel like the best stuff we’ve written has been through playing together at our space.
Does writing in the winter make a difference to your music?
I’m not sure. I think it had more to do with what we’re all going through personally at the time, independent of the weather. Although I imagine, it does have something to do with it, but nothing I can put my finger on.
I try not to ask too many questions about where the songs are coming from and let things happen organically. I know that certain things resonate through songs that are written at a certain time but I like to look at that afterwards rather than try and be aware of it while it’s happening.
Kind of like, it’s working so why fiddle with it too much?
I usually just try to write songs about people I know. There’ll be someone going through my mind for a particular reason and that person will make it into a song.
I like writing tributes to people. To specific people I know who survive and adjust to what is happening in their lives.
Can you give me an example?
I have a lot of songs about family and specific people in my family. I wrote a song for my friend Tim who’s working in Nicaragua right now. He’s helping to build community services down there and he’s a pretty incredible, inspiring person. I like the idea of writing tributes and songs that celebrate people rather than writing hostile or angry songs, you know? I think that’s a better use of time and energy.
…But there is a kind of angry energy to your music.
Yeah, well I grew up playing punk rock and hardcore punk and stuff like that. That was the first live music I was introduced to and I think that’s kind of engrained in the technical side of what we do. I just feel like its loud rock and roll music and it’s really physical and I like for there to be a lot of exertion on stage and in the performance of the song. Because that comes out as really loud singing and it can sound kind of angry, but I don’t intend… I don’t want it to sound that way.
It’s just more about the exertion of it.
Where did you come up with the idea for tribute songs? Is there a particular tradition you’re following?
I’m a big Tom Waits fan, and I like a lot of character songs. Springsteen, obviously. But I don’t really want to write these vicarious things where it’s imagining what it’s like to be a fireman or something like that, or imagining a character. I’d much rather look at someone that I know is real and has problems, and struggles that are real, and triumphs that are real because of the struggle. I feel like there is much more depth to those stories than what I could imagine with a character.
And I love the people I’m writing about a great deal so I out that into the song, I think that makes for much more meaningful songs I guess.
I like humour in songs too. [laugh]
No! They’re all deadly serious! [laugh]
I like the idea of celebrating something with a song.
How do you bring someone to life in a song? How do you represent them accurately?
I like having really literal references—a lot of literal content mixed in with some real beauty and even some sort of coded messages between me and the person that I’m writing it to. Things that other people maybe wouldn’t understand but that have some resonance because there’s a reality behind it. I like to read poems that I don’t fully understand if I feel like there’s something behind it I don’t understand.
If I’m going to write about somebody there’s a great desire to please them with that song, so I hope that drive brings their life into the song.
Is there an example of something you put in there that most people wouldn’t know?
The first line of Shine a Light is “Don’t talk to me about simple things there’s no such thing.”
My father’s store was called Simple Things. A little home and garden shop. Little references that have double meanings are good.
Can you tell me about your father’s shop?
He was a teacher for most of my life, and then he got fed up, particularly with the Harris administration when that all went down in Ontario. So he just took an early retirement and opened a garden shop. And he ran that for like, five years, putting everything he had into it. It was amazing to watch him build it. It was fairly successful but it ended up not being as … as he hoped and he sort of set these goals for himself that he realized he wasn’t reaching so he just decided to retire from that as well.
How was that for him?
It’s difficult for me to talk about.
I mean I watched him build this, and then live it, and then let it go. It was an amazing thing to watch. But it’s all in the song, or at least the way it’s sung.
…It does mean a lot to talk about real people.
Yeah. Neil Young was saying that’s what you shoot for. You want to write something personal that ends up having some sort of universal resonance. So I think that’s what you shoot for.
The Constantines will be performing w/ Jon Rae and the River on Friday, March 16 at Club One. Tickets: $15/$20, 1-800-874-1669