Canary Oh Canary have patiently and deliberately crafted a sound that has been described in several ways. One description that has been applied to them is the term “shoewave,” a hybrid genre which combines the genres of new wave and shoegaze. They have certainly taken elements from these genres during their natural evolution as a band. Yet it all started rather simply, with two individuals finding a kindred approach to music by slowing down a Zombies track.
The first step in Canary Oh Canary’s evolution occurred during a Spring 2010 attempt to revive Rock Lotto, a Richmond tradition in which bands would be assembled by drawing names out of a hat. Said bands would then have one week to write and rehearse a set in preparation for a show at which all of them would perform. One of the bands assembled for this particular Rock Lotto included Michael Harl and Josie Davis. The two quickly discovered their similar musical inclinations. “We were doing this song by The Zombies, ‘This Old Heart Of Mine,’ which they took from The Isley Brothers,” Harl relates. “Josie and I were on the same wavelength when we both thought to slow down the song. We kept slowing it down to the point of ridiculousness, and I don’t think the other guys really got it.” “Yeah, I think some of the guys actually flat out refused to play it that way,” Davis chimes in. “So I thought we should totally deconstruct the song, and then bring it back and make it something entirely different,” Harl continues. “That kind of stuck with me and in my brain–that if [Davis] really wanted to do something like that, then I should try to reconnect with her, and create our own songs [from] this idea [of] the sparseness and the space between.”
Harl christened the band based on a story he’d heard on the radio while preparing to go to the Rock Lotto drawing. “There was a story on WRIR, during Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature, that was talking about how our children were our canaries,” Harl recalls. “Basically, it took the idea of canaries detecting poisons so that they could evacuate mines, and how our children have taken on this role [in modern society]. That’s where the name came from.”
At the time of the Rock Lotto, Harl was still participating in local outfit Splork, in which he played bass. “With Splork, it was like, ‘Let’s fill it up with notes, folks,’” Harl explains. “Splork had a lot to do with following [Splork lead guitarist] Phil [Ford]’s lead and anchoring down a rhythm that could fit into what we wanted to do for that band.”
Also during this time, Davis was playing guitar in The Blackout Twins. It was a transitional time in her life, as she explains: “When I started playing in The Blackout Twins, it was at a point where I was trying out sobriety. It was tough to play some of the songs, just because they were about breakups and drinking too much. It was difficult to relate to for me, and I think that in itself initiated a distance in the band.”
Unfortunately, the spring 2010 Rock Lotto didn’t end up happening. However, the Rock Lotto version of Canary Oh Canary decided to play a set at Sprout. The group could easily have ended afterwards, but in light of Harl and Davis’s similar thought processes about what to do next, the two decided to carry on. Drummer Noell Alexander, who had joined Splork shortly before they dissolved in August 2010, became the group’s final component. “Noell joined Splork, and then we broke up,” jokes Harl. Soon after Splork’s breakup, Harl asked him to join Canary Oh Canary, and the trio began working together in October 2010.
At first, they were moving away from the original thought behind the band. The songs were becoming faster, and the deconstruction they’d initially sought was fading. “This was a point where we decided to start over,” Harl explains. “We weren’t against going for faster songs, but we wanted to keep the original thought of slowing down in mind. We didn’t want to just bash out a few power chords.” “It has a lot do with intention and intensity,” Davis remarks.
“Intensity without volume was the thing,” Harl responds. “We have even caught ourselves being too loud. We don’t need to be loud, we just need to be intense.” “Being loud is easy and we are smarter than that,” replies Alexander. “There is driving, and there is speed for the sake of speed, and I think that’s kind of a cop out. There are times where we catch ourselves being fast, and it’s fun to play, but I think there are so many bands that are having fun doing that, and its not the most interesting thing to listen to. I think that’s our biggest challenge. It’s more of us backing off and slowing down. We avoid taking the easy route–being loud just because we can, or being fast just because we can.” “I’ll turn it up louder if the room demands it, but I try to keep my amp at five,” jokes Harl.
Before they played a show, they spent the greater part of four months engaging in frequent, marathon rehearsals. “Even when we were preparing for the Rock Lotto, we ended up practicing every day for about two weeks,” Davis recalls. “I don’t know if the rest of the band knew at first, but I guess they can see it now that I’m a bit of a control freak,” says Harl. “So we would [practice] for hours on end. We practice twice a week. We even meet up at 10:30 on Saturday mornings.” It’s this type of work ethic that helped provide ample space for the group to engage in the pivotal properties of their sound. During these sessions, they let Davis steer the songs by playing a bass-line repeatedly for long periods of time. This allowed Harl and Alexander to figure out which sequences worked better for the song.
The first song they completed was “Embrace,” a ten-minute jam that Harl has declared their “rock opera.” The song begins with Davis strumming and the harmonics of Harl’s guitar humming. Harl’s vocals come in with an elongated wail, and the first words uttered are “Baile, baile” (which translates to “Dance, dance”). At first, the command to dance is amusing, given the tempo of the song, but at the same time, it makes sense. The dance that Canary Oh Canary evokes is a patient waltz that flourishes with contemplative bursts. When discussing the song, Harl mentions that it was initially inspired by crackling noises and pops, but he soon found an additional source of inspiration in Egon Schiele’s painting, Embrace. The work of art involves two lovers clinging to one another in a way that indicates intertwined lust, desire, and companionship. The sparse textures of “Embrace” cause Harl’s words take on further impact, and the climactic crescendo reaches towards expanding heights. In this song, Canary Oh Canary both declare a mission and provide a testament to their ability to achieve it.
After months of preparation, the day finally arrived for Canary Oh Canary to unveil their work to an audience. They played their first show at Sprout in February 2011. “I think the easiest way to explain why I waited so long for us to play our first show was that I just didn’t want for it to suck,” explains Harl. “I think the reason bands are waiting longer to play their first shows is more a testament to the caliber of bands performing,” Alexander observes. “There is a time and a place to just play for the sake of playing, but you really have to bring your professional game these days. When you have [local] bands like The Diamond Center, The Trillions and so on, it creates more of a desire to really nail it.” The show left a lingering impact, and a buzz began to spread across Richmond.
Almost immediately, there was overwhelming demand for the band to release a recording. “I remember playing those first shows and having people demand an EP,” Harl recalls. “My immediate reaction was that it was only our third or fourth show, and that we wanted to take our time.” However, the group eventually reached out to local musician and musical archivist JK Kassalow to record a four-song EP. Davis accidentally sliced a part of her finger off just before the recording session. “I always have to mention that we recorded this release after I had a slip-up with a knife at work,” she says.
On the EP that resulted, entitled Last Night in Sunway Knolls, Kassalow was able to capture the outfit’s unique dynamic. Tunes like “Embrace” and the title track demonstrate their talent for long-form songs. On the title track, Harl relates a tale of childhood adventure, making something as simple as hopping fences to a shady part of the world seem like a risk that could change everything. The song never requires the music to intensify, because the lyrics do so on their own. When Harl wails “And we’ll run!” overtop of gentle guitars, Canary Oh Canary accomplish what they set out to do–creating intensity without a corresponding increase in volume.
“Face In The Magazine” and “In The Panelled Basement” are a bit steadier tempo-wise. “Face” assesses celebrity to a beat reminiscent of Devo and other new wave brethren of the eighties. This particular track allows Davis and Alexander to shine in their respective departments. Expanding on a simple bass line, they lay a strong groundwork for Harl to gracefully slide through a jangly melody. “Basement” is based around Harl’s memories of spending time in his uncle’s basement, which closely resembled the practice space where the group spent their early days together, on the day that Elvis Presley passed away. As a last-minute inclusion to the EP, the group added a four-track demo version of a new track entitled “Hypomanic Punctuation,” followed by the beginning of their practice session with “Basement.” The demo was captured on the anniversary of Presley’s death, which indicates that everything may in fact come full circle, and that the momentum behind any of our creative developments is truly out of our hands.
When considering their future, the band reflects on the reason they started in the first place. “I just don’t want to be in bands for the sake of being in bands any longer,” notes Alexander. “It’s really important to me to play music, but this band satisfies me more than anything else I’ve done.” Harl also considers the early success of the group as a triumph on its own. “If the band were to end tomorrow, Canary would be the furthest I’ve gone with any project,” he says. “We have played DC twice, released an EP, played close to a few dozen shows, and nothing has begun dulling out yet.” “With this band, we are all type-A personalities,” Davis explains. “Yet, when we write a song, we all write our own parts, and we bring our own ideas to the table. It’s really rewarding in the end, and it’s something that feels fresh to me in relation to other bands I’ve played in.”
Canary Oh Canary has been steadily writing new material for a forthcoming full-length. One song that stands out is entitled “Integrity Among Men.” This tune often acts as a set closer for the band. During the final drumbeats, Harl stretches past the microphone, repeatedly screaming “you have lost control.” While instances on the EP indicate the band’s proclivity for letting the songs evolve on their own, a lack of control is one thing Canary Oh Canary doesn’t have to worry about. Their first year of existence has been full and eventful, and they won’t be slowing down anytime soon.
Words by Shannon Cleary
Images by PJ Sykes