From the East: A chat with the Gramercy Riffs


photos by Samuel Engelking

As transplanted Maritimers, the members of the now Toronto-based band Gramercy Riffs still hold their East Coast appeal. Releasing their second album Desire Trails earlier this year after a lengthy pause between their debut LP release in 2010, the five-piece group’s sound is filled with catchy hooks and addictive beats that have garnered them critical acclaim.

Winners of the 2010 Atlantis Music Prize (Newfoundland’s mini Polaris), the band has toured across Canada with fellow Newfoundlanders Hey Rosetta!, and plans to continue with a few more shows before hunkering down to write their next album (and perhaps returning to Muskoka’s deep freeze?)

Two members of the Gramercy Riffs, Lee Hanlon and Jimmy Rose, joined Quip for a quick patio chat before their show. From tours to recording and life on the Rock, here’s what they had to say:

Laura Eley: How’s NXNE been treating you guys? 

Lee Hanlon: We haven’t gone to any shows yet. Everyone’s working. We’re playing tonight and Sunday at Bellwoods, an acoustic show.

LE: Awesome. Maybe you’ll see the albino squirrel.

LH: I almost ran it over with my bike once, true story.

LE: Actually? 

LH: That would have been a bad omen. But yeah, we’re going to check out some other shows, maybe tonight we’re going to go to something. I heard Spoon will be playing a secret show at the Horseshoe, that’ll be sweet. And tomorrow I’m going to Arctic Monkeys, which is not the part of the festival. Then Future Islands.

LE: And you guys played NXNE last year?

LH: No, we haven’t played NXNE in…four years, probably three NXNEs ago? We’ve been kind of inactive for a little bit.

LE: But you guys have played other festivals like Halifax Pop Explosion out on the East Coast?

Jimmy Rose: Yeah, we’ve toured the whole country.

LE: How do you think those shows compare to NXNE?

JR: I guess it’s a little different when you live here. When you travel to a festival you tend to take in more of it than when you live in the city where it’s actually happening. Toronto has so much live music happening, it’s just another weekend in some ways. But it’s kind of nice to get a pass, it gets you out there a little more and makes you pay attention to what’s going on.

LH: It’s always fun.

LE: You guys are originally from St. John’s?

LH: Yeah, all five of us.

LE: How long have you lived in Toronto?

LH: Me, five years. You [points to Jimmy] 10 years, and some of the other guys maybe four to seven years.

LE: Do you still feel like you’re an East Coast band?

JR: I think there is definitely influences still informed in our music, but we definitely changed a lot from the record that was made in Newfoundland to the one that was made here.

LE: How so?

JR: I think that in Newfoundland, the live show drives the songwriting a lot. The live show is like a party kind of scene at a bar, whereas the second record we made here, we were forced a little more to record to songs that are a little more introspective, a little more layered. There are a lot more nuances that we didn’t capture on the first record. The first album was more about capturing the thing that was happening on stage and trying to maybe use the studio as an instrument in some way; just going in and doing something that’s more like writing parts together while we’re recording and banging around ideas in the recording process.

LH: [The songs] weren’t all fully formed when we made it.

JR: Yeah we kind of recorded it over three months in three or four different studios. We recorded some in Newfoundland, some here, some up north in Muskoka.

LE: Muskoka?

LH: Yeah that was fun. We shot BB guns.

JR: Brooks Falls? Yeah, so we spent almost a week up there just recording and finishing stuff off.

LE: Was it summer?

LH: No, it was March.

JR: It wasn’t spring up there. It was bitter cold. But it was nice to be out of the city and focusing on that one task. Being in the city it’s kind of hard to really get down to the creative process you get when you’re sequestered for four-five days with no other distractions. That really helped us to finish up a record.

LE: How long did it take you to finish your latest record?

JR: It was probably about a year and a half total from when we started production until it came out. Yeah it was kind of like five days here,  five days there.

LE: I know you guys have done gigs all across Canada. Is there any little town you’ve found that’s a favorite spot? 

JR: Montreal is always my favorite city to play in. We’ve always done pretty well in Montreal and I like the vibe of that city. The kind of music we play sort of lends itself to bigger city audiences, so Montreal is one of the only other big cities in Canada.

LH: We had a good show in Edmonton once. We went out with Hey Rosetta! for a cross Canada tour a few years ago.

LE: How was that?

JR: Oh that was amazing ‘cause they were the main act, so we didn’t really have to bring the audience in. It was so nice to go out with those guys. We’re all friends, so we had a nice, calm three-week tour and hang together.

LE: I know with this latest album, it was streamed online before becoming available to the general public (a common trend). As musicians, do you view this as a positive or negative thing?

JR: I think at this stage in our career it makes sense gaining audience over selling albums, so it definitely helps. I think that with so many streaming sites people are less likely to buy digital music straight out, so it’s sort of nice to give them a preview of what’s happening and try to tie that to a live show or we had some plans to do vinyl at some point. You know, we do like some nicer packaging and do a nice release on vinyl and have your core fans buy that. I think in general we just really want to get the songs out there and financial side of things is sort of secondary.

LE: What’s next up for you guys?

JR: We’ve got some Toronto shows we’re going to try to do this summer and then, there is nothing confirmed yet, but I think we’re going to do something on the East Coast, a bigger kind of concert.

LE: In the coming months?

JR: Yeah, fall. And then we’re going to make another record. We really want to focus on recording and just getting more stuff out there. That’s the plan.

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