I have not been to Canada too much the past couple of weeks…
so it is about time I made a return! I have been listening to and chatting with Cubs Refrain. Jordan and Erin discuss their new single, When It Started, and their forthcoming album, Tell Me You Love Me; how they got started and whether there are tour dates planned – and whether a visit to the U.K. is a possibility.
I was keen to know what the scene is like in Canada and why Toronto is so up-and-coming; if they get time to chill away from music; whether they had eclectic musical childhoods; how important it is to gig and keep musically active in Canada – what Cubs Refrain hope to achieve as we head further into this year.
Hi, guys. How are you? How has your week been?
We’re great, thanks. It’s been a crazy week of work and exams, mixed in with the release of When It Started and then, to top it off; we played our first show on Saturday. We feel like it’s been pretty productive, though.
For those new to your music; can you introduce yourselves, please?
We are an indie Synth-Pop duo from Toronto that plays a mix of sounds - kind of like a mash-up between CHVRCHES, M83 and Oh Wonder.
When It Started is your new single. What is the story behind that track?
Erin: The song came together when we decided to write a concept album, which centres on two young characters navigating their first romantic relationship. I wanted to write a song that would describe their first experiences together; when exhilaration and adventure are at a high. I channeled many personal memories from my adolescence into the song; experiences shared with friends and from early relationships that involved anything that would get us into trouble - as well as feelings of insecurity I held on my own.
I really wanted to make the song about the characters learning to share parts of themselves, mixed with the wild sense of urgency and false confidence that youth tend to hold.
It is taken from the forthcoming album, Tell Me You Love Me. Is there a narrative and story that runs through the album?
Yes. Tell Me You Love Me is a concept album and story that we developed over the past two years. We wanted to play off of the nostalgia of young love - which is a theme that some of our favourite albums revolve around. It follows these two teenagers who fall in and out of love, experiencing the highs and the depths of their emotions as they learn about themselves and about each other.
We made the decision around the time the album was mastered to only distribute physical copies in 12” vinyl. We wrote an album that was meant to be heard from top-to-bottom and we felt that the only format to do that justice was vinyl. There’s also a real nostalgia and romanticism to vinyl - and we felt that it was a great parallel to those themes we played off of when writing the album.
What was it like recording the record? Did the songs come together quite naturally?
We actually put the entire album together ourselves...
We wrote quite a lot using soft synths originally (actually, it started to be very e-piano/clav-driven) and then fell in love with the warmth of the analog hardware synths. Once we got a hold of a few good synths, our sound really transformed into what is heard on the album.
We recorded all of the synths, vocals and other instruments ourselves in Jordan’s apartment in Toronto. He rented a three-bedroom apartment with a buddy and used one room as a studio. That’s also where Jordan did all of the editing and mix for the album.
We worked on the story and the songwriting a lot. Things really started coming together when we began to storyboard our characters and understand them and their emotions. It really helped the music flow in a natural way. Being so narrative-driven; we feel as though we would not have realized the story as well if we had not fleshed out these characters as thoroughly as we did.
How did Cubs Refrain come together? Is there a story behind that name, too?!
Jordan: We actually started the band unofficially when I was working in British Columbia and Erin was working in Spain. I had a vision for a sort of down-tempo Electro/R&B-type group (basically Oh Wonder, but heavier Electronic) and I really wanted Erin on board to sing. I knew she had a background in keys and a killer voice; so I put together some demos to try out - which we thought had a lot of potential. We both ended up in Toronto around the end of 2015 and started to work on our sound more seriously.
Erin: When I think of how we started; I always think of a festival that we went to with a big group of friends that first summer. We were so inspired by the artistry and atmosphere that we started thinking, ‘maybe we could actually make this work’. I think that’s when we decided to seriously go for it.
In terms of the name, we agreed early on that we’d let others interpret that the way they want to. What we will say is that part of it means something important to each of us.
What sort of music did you both grow up around? Did you have eclectic backgrounds?
Jordan: I grew up listening to a lot of Classic-Rock, Punk; Blues and Folk. Oddly though, in high-school; I had a pretty big Classical and Metal phase (roughly at the same time). I didn’t ever listen to much Electronic music - so the transition into an (essentially) entirely synth-based genre was quite a shift. I am definitely much more open and listen to many more genres of music than I did when I was young.
Erin: Being the youngest in my family, I’d say I was pretty impressionable - and took recommendations from anywhere. I was exposed mostly to Folk and Rock early on and, later, I got more into Pop-Punk and Alternative Rock. My playlists were always all over the place, though, with random artists from Mozart to Duran Duran; 1980s New Wave synth-pop hits were the best feel-good tunes.
Toronto is thriving in terms of its music. Why is it such an appealing place for musicians, would you say?!
Toronto is incredibly diverse and that’s likely a huge reason why it appeals to musicians. There is a taste or a scene for all types and you can reach a lot of people without actually going too far. It’s a great city to experiment in: probably one of the most forward-thinking cities, musically.
Can we see you tour soon? What gigs do you have coming up?
We’re hoping to tour a bit in the summer and into the fall throughout Eastern Canada; so, for anyone in the area, look out for those dates!
The big gig we’re focused on right now will be our album release-show - which is tentatively set for early-mid-April.
How important is it to gig and play in Canada? Do your live performances sound very different to studio-recorded music?
It’s huge. So much of your reputation is based on your live show. We’re fortunate to have such supportive friends, family and fans spread out across Ontario. We think it’s important that we establish a strong foothold here. This album has a lot of implicitly-rooted sentiments that we think are felt pretty strongly in Canadian youth - so there’s a lot of potential for it to really resonate here.
As for our live shows; we definitely try to maintain as much of our sound as we have on the record. We have all of these fantastic synths that are so powerful. It’s an incredible thing to hear when they’re all playing together. It’s the type of sound that we’d want to hear live out of bands in the same genre. We remember being absolutely blown away by CHVRCHES’ sound the first time we saw them play: it was the sound we wanted to try and emulate in our own way.
Do you think a U.K. visit will be on the cards? Have you played here before?
We’ve never played in the U.K., although we’d absolutely love to and hope to in the near-future. The musical climate in the U.K., Canada and Australia seems to be very similar - and has a lot of great Indie artists producing some incredible music. We think the U.K. is a great market for us to try and reach - and a tour would be an awesome way to introduce ourselves.
What do you hope to achieve in 2018?
Right now, our main focus is on releasing the album.
It’s been a long time coming for us and we’re extremely excited for it to finally be heard as a whole. As we mentioned previously, we’re going to continue to gig here in Toronto and, hopefully, line up a tour in the fall. By the end of 2018, we’d really like to have a broader, foundational fanbase and be poised for a big summer of festivals in 2019.
Hopefully, all our vinyl will be sold by then…
Have you each got a favourite memory from your time in music – the one that sticks in the mind?
Erin: I had the best time in university playing with my band at the time, Sloths in Denim. It was a pretty relaxed group: we did mostly covers but we just had a lot of fun together. We played a few shows and faced off with Jordan's band in a bit of friendly competition. It's exciting to look back on that and compare to where Jordan and I are now with Cubs Refrain.
We've put so much into the front-end of our original music - so we're just getting into gigging again now…and I'm getting pumped...because that's my favourite part.
Jordan: There are too many to count: music has been such a huge part of my life. We (Cubs Refrain) recently played our first show together and I remember actually being startled by the power and ferocity of our synths. It was the first time I heard us play at full-volume through the venue mains and it was actually a bit scary. These synths are crazy-powerful but an absolute dream to pla (It’s kind of what I’d imagine setting off a big explosion would be like).
An awesome thing to behold - but a power to wield very carefully.
What advice would you give to new artists coming through?
Your work ethic has to be relentless and more than just on your music (which also has to be very good). The more artists we meet, the more we realize that you have to learn to wear all hats at all times. It extends beyond music into marketing, advertising; social media, production; web design, graphic design - the list goes on. Point being; if you can learn these skills and be really effective with them, then you’ll have an easier time building your brand.
With all that said; patience is key - even if it means working a full-time job and doing music on the side for a while. To give you an idea; Erin is currently working full-time as a civil engineer and, until Jordan left his job (to finish the album and go to school for Audio Production), he was working full-time as a mechanical engineer.
A head-first dive into the life of a working musician is the dream - but it’s not always realistic.
Do you get much time to chill away from music? How do you unwind?
Jordan: Essentially, none. Haha. I’m currently at school for Audio Production at a private college in London (Ontario) called OIART (Ontario Institute of Audio Recording Technology); so I’m working on music/sound projects full-time - about six days per week. Any other free time I have, I’m working on stuff with Cubs.
Erin: I’d really love to spend more time on music, actually, but I work nine-five and spend almost every other moment focusing on the band as is. I don’t allow myself much time to chill and I’m trying to change that. Incorporating little things into my routine like meditation and yoga has helped recently.
But, when I can otherwise; I like to unwind by spending time with friends and family - whether it’s at home, at the bar or on some weekend trip out of the city.
Finally, and for being good sports; you can each choose a song and I’ll play it here (not any of your music - I will do that).
Jordan: Daytona/Fever by Roosevelt. Technically two tracks - but they run seamlessly one into another (If you have to choose only one, use Fever).
Erin: Time to Dance by The Jezabels
Follow Cubs Refrain