On October 9th, Vancouver-based trio We Are The City (keyboardist/vocalist Cayne McKenzie, drummer Andrew Huculiak, and guitarist David Menzel) announced that the band had died from “natural causes”:
“Nothing goes on forever and it is important for us to recognize that the band reached its peak and it is time to call it. We Are The City has been a glorious chapter for the three of us. What an awesome ride,” the band writes in a statement. On October 23rd, We Are The City will host one final event, “RIP We Are The City: A Live Streamed Celebration of Life” which you can buy a ticket for here.
Laura Stanley: My memory fails me a bit, and so I don’t exactly remember the first time I heard We Are The City. Their debut record, In a Quiet World,came out in 2009, so it must have been through CBC Radio 3. I know you were a big Radio 3 fan as well, so you probably remember that alongside We Are The City, there was a pretty big boom of BC-based acts that year playing on Radio 3: Dan Mangan, Said The Whale, and Hannah Georgas immediately come to mind.
We Are The City’s song “There Are Very Tiny Beasts In The Ground”, — the first We Are The City song I heard and one that is still a favourite of mine — stood out to me because it sounded completely different from what those other BC bands were doing but also from anything that I was listening to at the time. It is mostly rooted in piano-pop but there’s a punkish, rough energy to the song as well. There’s that line McKenzie repeats: “she said, ‘let me clean my teeth and I’ll be right down’”. It’s kind of a goofy lyric, but it’s delivered with such an intense staccato — underlined by Huculiak’s steadfastly impeccable drumming — that it sounds so exciting.
After “There Are Very Tiny Beasts In The Ground” sparked my curiosity about We Are The City, I am pretty sure that I downloaded the rest of In a Quiet World via Limewire (sorry!) in my university dorm room. Like “There Are Very Tiny Beasts In The Ground”, the rest of the album had a unique pop-rock hue about it, but when I revisited the album recently, right before writing this to you, In a Quiet World feels almost tame compared to what the band goes on to create.
Michael Thomas: I wish I could say I have a less mundane way of first hearing We Are The City, but it was literally from a promo I received early on in the days of Grayowl Point. Still, I recall so clearly the chills I felt during the album’s intro when McKenzie sings, “I had my health/But now I’m ill.” The simplicity and quietness with which he sang the first line and the passion of the second had me hooked. That’s always been a strength of this band: the one-two punch of softness and passion, most recently in RIP’s “Killer B-Side Music.”
It’s funny you mention that line from “Tiny Beasts”, because that was the song that guaranteed I would be listening to this band for a long time yet. It’s sung with such sincerity but is so incongruous to the vibe of the song that it becomes unforgettable. I did not have the pleasure of seeing We Are The City live for the first time until their Violent days, but I’m just imagining a crowd of people chanting, “Let me clean my teeth and I’ll be right down.” It’s delightful.
It’s interesting looking back on In a Quiet World as a window into what they would become. There’s certainly a lot of complexity to be had, like in the epic “Astronomers,” but you’re right, they manage to evolve so many times in the next ten years that I don’t think anyone listening to them in 2009 could have even imagined the warped excess of Above Club or the experimentation of AT NIGHT. Their debut album also firmly established their conversations with God that continue right until the end of their career. Were they the first “religious people but not religious music” band you stumbled upon, Laura?
It’s also interesting to see how this led to High School. I remember in 2009 thinking that “Peso-Loving Squid” was a strange song to include on this album, but now I can see the playfulness of this song fitting in quite well with High School.
Laura: High School IS a playful release but it can be quite brutal too, which in many ways feels in line with young adulthood. The opening almost guttural-sounding guitar chugs on “Get Happy” always feel ominous to me, a feeling that gets stronger as the band winds their way to “1987” and “An Angel In White.” On the other hand, “Happy New Year” — a song I listen to every New Year’s Eve — is so buoyant and has a youthful energy to it which I love so much. This is an interesting time for We Are The City because Menzel left and Blake Enemark was filling in. But despite the (brief) lineup change, I think this trio also has fantastic chemistry. I feel like this was a big turning point for the band creatively, what with the music video series that accompanied High School, which really took the visual side of the band to another level.
I’m glad you mentioned the religious aspect of the band. It’s funny — and maybe this shows how passive a listener I can be sometimes, or maybe it was the band’s intent — but I didn’t fully pick up on the spirituality of their lyrics until their 2013 record Violent. Sufjan Stevens (and his record Seven Swans) was my introduction to religious songwriters who make music that’s not labelled “Christian music.” So no, We Are The City wasn’t the first “religious-people-but-not-religious-music” band that I listened to, but compared to the quiet musing of Stevens, We Are The City’s approach on Violent — a boisterously emotional record — was something entirely new for me. The anxiety within “King David” in particular always moves me: “I’m afraid to go to hell. David, am I going to hell?”
We have exchanged a lot of excited messages about We Are The City records over the years — these included, hah! — but for some reason, I specifically remember how blown away we were when Violent came out. Do you remember that feeling too?
Michael: We must have exchanged some excited messages about Violent when it first came out, but sadly I cannot find those initial reactions in my searches. Either way, yes, Violent was and continues to be a force. “Blown away” is a good phrase because this record did that to me in multiple ways. The increased experimentation with form and the particularly emotionally charged lyrics were one aspect; the sheer volume of sound was the other. I think this would have been the point where their live shows started to pack a walloping low end that could very well blow out your eardrums. I remember hearing “Bottom of the Lake” for the first time and feeling sheer awe.
You mentioned the visual side of We Are The City and I’ve always been fascinated by how the band, from High School onward, added a tangible element to their albums. Violent had its accompanying feature film of the same name; Above Club had an unnerving “livestream” accompanying its release; RIP had the band opening an “RIP Store” to encourage and help creative people. They’re also acutely aware of their presence when playing live; when I saw them touring Violent, it felt like each of their movements had a distinct purpose. It was hypnotic.
Anyway, Violent itself: I imagine this is your favourite of their records? I think that this album is a masterpiece, and I don’t use that word lightly. There are so many huge and small moments that feel inextricably intertwined. You mentioned “King David”, probably one of the quietest overall songs on the record, which really makes that line you quoted all that more of a gut punch. And speaking of gut punches, I think we’ve talked at length and multiple times how “Friends Hurt” may be one of the most emotionally affecting songs we have heard or will ever hear. These illuminating moments pair nicely with the heavy instrumentation, like the explosive end of “20 Ft. Up” or the heavy electronics in “Legs Give Out.” Huculiak’s titanic drumming is also inescapable on Violent: I can’t imagine “Baptism” having the same impact without the distinctive percussion. Huculiak even gets a little showcase of his own with the 38-second “Passing of the Peace.”
I imagine you have some things you want to say about Violent as well, but I’d also like to ask you about Above Club and all of its glorious excess. I found it thrilling in a completely different way than Violent, and its “livestream” may have been one of We Are The City’s most brilliant moves.
Laura: For my favourite We Are The City album, it’s definitely a toss-up between Violent and Above Club. Violent is one of those rare albums where I think every song is great. It is We Are The City at their tightest and most focused. “Friends Hurt” and “Everything Changes” are two songs that arrived at a time (that I haven’t outgrown, tbh) where I was dizzy from all of the changes that were going on in my life, and they both offered affirmations that I was not alone.
And then two years later, We Are The City released Above Club — a gnarly pop-rock and synth-infused album — and all my expectations about the kind of records that the band makes were thrown out the window. I think We Are The City could have put out three more records that sounded like Violent and I would have been okay with that, but I’m sure the band would have felt the opposite. Above Club, as you say, is full of glorious excess but it never feels out of control, don’t you think? Even the squealing instrumental mess of “Sign My Name Like QUEEN” manages to match McKenzie’s confidently delivered sass. My favourite song, “Lovers in All Things,” remains the only song that I know of that combines impassioned rock with what sounds like a recording of club music made by somebody standing outside of a club and a deeply spiritual mantra: “Read the Bible, believe the Bible, need the Bible, need the Spirit.”
I found this Facebook message from you from 2015 that I think will make you smile: “Also this We Are The City song is killer. I am always nervous when a band returns with new music that has a song with “Dance” in the title because I assume they’ve gone into a shitty mainstream pop direction but I never need to worry about We Are The City.”
Michael: While I don’t specifically remember writing that message, I can definitely remember seeing “Keep on Dancing” as a title and being a little nervous. But then — as I should have anticipated — Above Club defied all my expectations. The album was definitely as maximalist as they could get: I still feel a kind of musical high every time I hear “Heavy as a Brick”. It’s a completely disorienting experience in the best way.
The “livestream” that led up to the release of Above Club added to the disorienting nature of the album. What was initially thought to be a genuine livestream was actually a carefully planned performance, resulting in what might be the longest film of all time. These kinds of ambitious, creative endeavours make We Are the City’s legacy all the richer.
A few years later We Are The City announced two albums simultaneously, though there would be a year and a bit separating AT NIGHT and RIP. I’ll be honest: my initial reaction to AT NIGHT was just plain bafflement. Perhaps intentionally so, it’s a lot more disjointed than the band’s other works, but revisiting it for this piece, I’m actually finding it to be full of interesting ideas. You’ve drawn a lot of attention to their powerful lyricism, and the opening of “DARK HORIZON” really speaks to me: “You have been doubting yourself, you’ve been guarding yourself, and hiding yourself somewhere out of sight.” The song is one of the gentle coves in a sea of more difficult pieces, like the explosive “DELTA LAB” or the stuttering “CHOICE IS UNLIKE ANYTHING”.
I’m not going to go on about RIP since I have already done so here, but I’m also curious as to what you think is next for them. Reading into their notice of death of “natural causes,” they also say, “But we’ll see you again soon. The future is wide open.” I will not at all be surprised if they change their name and start doing punk music or something. We Are All The City.
Laura: I remember you being baffled by AT NIGHT! I had a similar, immediate disconnection with this record for the exact reason you mentioned: it felt too disjointed. But I’m so glad that you mentioned “DARK HORIZON” because that was the one song on this record that made me return to it again and again and helped me to appreciate all of its jagged fragments. You know my fondness for soft sounds very well, so it’s probably not surprising to you that “DARK HORIZON” is my favourite song because it has one of the album’s quietest moments: the opening line that you highlighted. I also love songs that include a dance proposal in their lyrics, and this track has a hell of a good one: “When we dance, can we dance until the bar closes down?” A few other AT NIGHT highlights for me include the plainspoken romance of “WHEN I DREAM, I DREAM OF YOU” and the screechy distortion that takes over McKenzie’s tender worries on “TO GET IT RIGHT YOU HAVE TO GET IT WRONG SOMETIMES.” But, hilariously, I think that We Are The City summarize this album themselves: at the very end of the instrumental interlude “DELTA LAB” — a haze of drums and synths and maybe guitar but I can’t really tell — somebody says “that’s a weird one!”
I saw We Are The City play in Toronto in 2018 at Adelaide Hall, a cramped venue with an oddly low ceiling. The band played the then-unreleased “Killer B-Side Music” from RIP, and I thought the ceiling was going to come down because of the wall of sound (as found in the song’s chorus) the trio unleashed. I’m so happy to have that memory. I know that when RIP was released, the band said that it might be their last, and I think that it is a great farewell. It’s a record about change and death and it has a peculiar vibe to it that We Are The City pulls off so well.
I think the future holds a solo release or two and probably some films. And, most likely, friends like us re-listening to (or discovering for the first time) We Are The City’s records and eagerly writing to each other about them.