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Interview: Jessie Stein of The Luyas

"I spent a lot of time humanizing schizophrenia in my head."


The Luyas

The Luyas

Dead Oceans

The Luyas are a quartet from Montréal founded by Jessie Stein, whose members also perform with Torngat, Bell Orchestre, and, at times, Arcade Fire. With Stein's tiny voice, French horn, wurlizter organ, and metallic percussion their chief instruments, the band has a singular sound, perfectly captured on their second LP, Too Beautiful to Work.

Interview: 11 January 2011

When did you first start making music?
"When I was 15 or 16 it started becoming real to me. I'd taken piano lessons, faked my way through sight reading, but finally got serious in high-school. I'd been listening to a lot of Radiohead, and really bad Canadian alt-rock like the Matthew Good Band. I can't believe I'm admitting it in an interview, but I loved that s**t a lot; it was super-angsty and took itself pretty seriously. I loved classic rock, Bob Dylan and Neil Young. I found music to be incredibly moving, and that made me want to make some."

How long did it take to to find your own identity in sound?
"I think that this band is really the culmination of that. I was in different bands over the years, with different people: indie-rock, pop bands. The Luyas is a band that's taken a few years to turn into a serious project, and the beauty of that is that we've gotten to know each other really well; musically and as people. We've got a great dynamic, now; I feel like we've been able to find a sound that satisfies me just enough to make me want to keep trying to find a new sound."

Was that one of the ideas you founded the band on?
"Yeah, I really wanted to do something that wasn't a traditional rockband. I wanted to be sure that songs were a big priority, but I wanted the sound of those songs to be unique. This wasn't one of those things that was started with a specific idea; 'let's be a garage-rock band!' It was more about trying to avoid direct quotation, aesthetically, and seeing what happens when each of us does what comes naturally to us. I think we're lucky that our musical backgrounds, our aesthetic histories, just happen to bleed together in a pretty inspiring way."

Your first album seemed to really be about putting your songs into strange and unexpected contexts.
"Faker Death was recorded a month after we all started playing together. At that time, I had written a lot of those songs independently, and we were trying to work with a three-piece set-up of drums, guitar, and French horn. And a French horn only fills up so much of the sound, and my skronky guitar-playing only fills up a little bit more; so, there was a lot of room. I think the nature of the spareness of that record really defines it. But, what we're doing now is fairly distinct from that record."

So Too Beautiful to Work is far more the band LP?
"It really is. Too Beautiful to Work was the product of all four of us; they weren't my children, they were born bastards. They weren't singer-songwriter songs that got twisted for the sake of it; they came out that way."

Did it take a long time to make?
"Making something out of nothing, you never know how long it's going to take. It took a lot of time to write the songs, but not that long. Recording took a lot of time, but not that long. What really was the main impediment was the music industry. Trying to find record labels, record deals, having them not work out for one reason or another, having to stick to our guns, running out of money, becoming broke, having to take tours with other bands to make the cash to finish the record. But I'm really glad we scratched, and scraped, and stuck it out. The fact that we had to wait gave us the opportunity to really know what the record was by the time it was ready to be coming out."

Why title the record what you did?
"You're actually the first person to ask me this! Too Beautiful to Work is the name of the first track, and I like that it has multiple potential meanings, and that it's a bit of a joke. The song is about a messed-up situation where someone is acting really spoilt, so in that context it's the princess connotation. But then there's the idea that the music is too beautiful to sell a copy! Or the engineering concept, something that can't hold its functionality; or the preciousness of something impeding it, like the flower or the animal that's too beautiful to hold its weight."

Are there themes that unite the songs together?
"There are definitely melodic themes, and tonal themes. In terms of words, Faker Death was a lot more of an autobiographical record, this one's not a very literally written record. But the main theme is mental illness and hallucination; sanity and insanity. It's not about me; I'm pretty lucky, so far, that my mind generally gets along with my body. But I've been surrounded by mental problems in a number of capacities, so the record is my understanding of it, coming through my reality. I spent a lot of time humanizing schizophrenia and suicidal tendencies in my head; trying to understand other people's perspectives on their own mentalities. Putting myself in their headspace made me want to try and work it out through songs."

And what did you work out?
"I guess, the only conclusion there ever really is: there's no definitive conclusion. I found it interesting to spend a little time trying to access other people's feelings, trying to understand the way their brains worked. It's the battle of holding onto your own sense of reality to keep yourself healthy, whilst being flexible enough to engage with someone living in a completely different reality. I don't know if I succeeded, or ever will, at understanding another human, fully; especially given it's those most complex parts of us, where we don't line up with society. Everybody has parts of them that don't quite fit, and those parts are more pronounced with people going through trouble with their minds."

You're a Montréal native. What was your experience of those hype years, circa 2005?
"It didn't feel like a big event. It didn't really feel like anything, to be honest. If you live in New York, or London, it doesn't feel like the same city you visit when you're a tourist. The Arcade Fire is a very big band, and I think people confused that one big band for some crazy big scene. It's a great music community, but it was before, and it has been since."

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