Dears in the Spotlight

Every year a wide swath of the nation's rock critics singles out one up-and-coming band as the greatest thing since reverb. Last year that distinction fell to a Montreal troupe coyly named the Dears. As the new year dawns, the superlatives have yet to subside.

Fortunately the Dears' ironically titled third album, Gang of Losers, lives up to the hype. Its stirring melodies and relentless rhythms call to mind the anthemic arena rock of Coldplay and U2. Suffice to say, subtlety isn't a part of the signature style.

An effusive rush of guitars and keyboards propels most of the tracks, from the rollicking "Hate Then Love" to the roaring "Bandwagoneers." Meanwhile charismatic frontman Murray Lightburn crafts lyrics that reflect the band's unabashed humanism. "No one should have to live all of their life on their own," he sings in "Ballad of Humankindness."

Products of Montreal's vibrant nightclub scene, the Dears formed in the late Nineties, taking their cues from Lightburn. Back then, he played the role of a cabaret singer in dapper suits, crooning over the band's tightly structured arrangements. The Dears' early sound, based in large part on traditional musical theater, owed as much to Brecht and Weil as it did to rock and roll.

After a few shifts in personnel, the Dears settled on a lineup that now includes Lightburn (the group's chief songwriter), his wife Natalia Yanchak (keyboards), George Donoso III (drums), Martin Pelland (bass), Valerie Jodoin-Keaton (flute, keyboards), and Patrick Krief (guitars). Their debut disc, End of a Hollywood Bedtime Story (2000) — a collection of stylized, cinematic songs with orchestral flourishes and grand ambitions — lived up to its fanciful title.

Two eclectic EPs followed before the release of a second full-length, 2003's No Cities Left, which opened the floodgates of critical acclaim. Although Lightburn often exuded doom, his lyrics were cloaked in irrepressible pop melodies. Britain's influential New Musical Express anointed the Dears "Probably the Best New Band in the World" and went on to list No Cities Left in its annual Top 10 albums of the year. Rolling Stone and Spin soon jumped on the bandwagon.

New Times recently spoke by phone with Lightburn, as the band prepared for its next series of tour dates in support of Gang of Losers.

Much has been made of the Dears' theatrical style. Is that an image you deliberately wanted to project?

That was just a media fixation that wound up in subsequent biographies. We were never really theatrical. We just always had a shitload of people onstage. There is a lot of sweat and veins popping and stuff. I think the Dears, for the most part, are pretty unbelievable — what's real to us is theatrical to others. That said, I can always get down with a good musical.

So how does it feel to be hailed as one of this year's coolest bands?

I guess it feels pretty great. Though I had no idea.

How do you keep all the praise from inflating your ego?

It's just another test of humanity. Personally I find it's too easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of hype and lose one's humility. It's much more of a challenge to remain normal when everyone is telling you that you're not.... We're pretty grateful for all the little triumphs we've had and carry them with us in times of trouble.

What do you think it was about the new album that put the band over the top?

I honestly couldn't really tell you, only because I'm not hyperaware of the good news — only the bad news. Maybe it's our humility that puts us over the top? Seriously if I had to say anything, it's that the Dears make records from the heart. Eventually everyone can relate to that. That is, unless they don't have a heart.

The new album seems to echo all of these grand philosophical sentiments. So are you all about cloud-gazing and meditation?

Yes. In fact that's all we do. The Dears talk about the stuff either no one cares, or wants, to talk about. [We're] kind of like indie rock's ... waste management services.

Are you more philosopher than musician, or vice versa?

There is definitely a philosophical side to the Dears. That's probably why a lot of people don't get us right away. They expect something else. Most will tell you that we're not a first-listen band. I reckon that's partly true. We talk about difficult stuff, so listening can't possibly be easy.

Gang of Losers seems an unlikely name for an album. Would you mind letting us in on the joke?

Gang of Losers is meant to be interpreted pretty much any way you want. It is not, literally, about losers. If there is a joke in there, well, it's probably as funny as [former Seinfeld star] Michael Richards's fork-up-the-ass joke.

So what's next? Have you started thinking about the next album and what you need to do to top this one?

I have a few broad strokes I'd like to present for the next album. I suppose all we have to do to top this one is to hit the record button.

Are all eyes on you at this point?

Not if I pluck them out first.

What's the Dears' next step on the road to world conquest?

I'd like to take it one note, one kilometer, one autograph at a time, thanks.

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Lee Zimmerman