On the tenth anniversary of its release, Stephen Ramsay of Young Galaxy recalls the genesis of their “fraught, flawed” – but not forgotten — second album, Invisible Republic.
Invisible Republic turns ten this month [August 25]. This album is the bastard child of our discography – it’s probably the Young Galaxy album that people have heard the least. I can’t say I don’t understand why, for I probably haven’t listened to it all the way through since it was finished, way back in 2009. It’s a lost album, perhaps because the band was lost itself. We were in tremendous upheaval, having just parted ways with Arts & Crafts (our label at the time) and half of our touring band members. It truly is the Difficult Sophomore Record.
Our self-titled debut album from 2007 was a lifetime in the making. Catherine [McCandless] and I were completely naïve and had no aspirations while we were making it. Nevertheless, we got signed to Arts & Crafts on the strength of a handful of demos before we’d put a band together or even played a show live. We were under the microscope from day one. After the signing, we were quickly ushered out on a six-week tour with The Dears. We had to scramble to put together a live band of friends and associates from our neighbourhood (including our roommate at the time, who’d never been in a band) and play shows to audiences who were ready to judge us as a new act on a high-profile label from a high-profile music city.
Needless to say, it was a bit of a shit-show. We struggled to find our feet as a live act. When the debut album came out the label was instantly disappointed with its lukewarm reception (though it received the kind of prolonged blanket coverage any of the musicians I know would kill for now, frankly). In light of this, Arts & Crafts issued an ultimatum: either let us manage you (i.e. take more of a percentage of your overall earnings), or we will stop investing in you because this isn’t going well.
All this is to say the whole experience made me particularly miserable. In the year that followed the debut, I was desperate to keep the band a going concern. At the same time, I was dealing with the hurt of having had my first public offering as an artist get met with a resounding “meh.” Catherine, who is a much more reasonable person than I am, would tell you I was pretty intolerable at that time, ranting about the music industry, the label, and the band on a daily basis. To put it bluntly, I wasn’t handling it well.
So when it came time to make Invisible Republic, the band was in flux, and I was volatile. We turned our backs on Arts & Crafts due to a perceived lack of respect from them and decided to self-release after pedalling demos to indifferent labels for several months. I was full of angst, rage, disappointment, and the feeling that I needed to prove myself to the world, to show everyone they had been wrong about the band (which I felt had been largely written off as a Stars side project).
Despite my bleak headspace at the time, there were little glimmers of hope. We were fortunate to have received a FACTOR grant to make a second album, and we found two brilliant recent graduates of the McGill Music program – Max Henry and Liam O’ Neill (later of the band Suuns) – to join the group. They were much younger and new to playing professionally, so they brought a much needed youthful vigour and enthusiasm to the proceedings. Max became the first writing contributor to the band outside of Catherine and me (on “Pathos” and “Oh Sister”), did string arrangements, and both musicians brought a level of virtuosity to the proceedings that previously didn’t exist in the band.
On top of this, Catherine was beginning to emerge as a naturally gifted singer and performer. I struggled to find my voice as a singer from day one. It is deeply apparent on Invisible Republic where I veer from attempts at a deep, mid-period Bowie croon to a more maudlin version of my natural voice, that, I think, is very jarring within the album. Onstage, the audience was turning more and more to Catherine as the focal point of the band. It seemed natural to begin moving the material towards Catherine as a focal point, which I think she was reticent to do for she was timid and introverted about singing in public for many years. On Invisible Republic you can hear us questioning what direction to go in, from a vocal standpoint; it’s a significant element of the record, I’d say.
Musically, I believe we were trying to shake the shoegaze tag, which had surprised us a bit in the aftermath of the first album. We prided ourselves in having varied musical interests — I DJ’ed for many years, and we grew up in clubs and raves, listening to dance music, hip hop, Krautrock, and indie. We wanted the music to reflect these broader influences the second time around. Max and I were particularly enthralled with the Berlin Bowie albums: Low, Heroes, and Station To Station in particular. You can hear their influence on tracks like “Dreams” and “Smoke And Mirror Show”. On tracks like “Long Live The Fallen World” and “Disposable Times”, you can hear our bastardized attempts at Krautrock; on “Queen Drum”, “Light Years”, and “Firestruck”, the remnants of the previous album’s big room indie and shoegaze sound.
The recording process was fractured and drawn out, in part due to the upheaval the band was going through. I vaguely recall that we had trouble figuring out how to manage the convoluted requirements of the grant we’d obtained to make the album, so it was recorded in a number of locations at different times: at Breakglass studio with our friend Jace Lasek of The Besnard Lakes, who’d made the first album with us; at Hotel2Tango with Radwan Moumneh of Jerusalem In My Heart; and with Graham Lessard, a friend of the band who’d recently moved from Edmonton, in his apartment.
Tony Doogan mixed the album in Glasgow, Scotland (he made most of Belle and Sebastian and Mogwai’s records) which felt like a minor coup. Doogan’s presence instilled a sense of excitement in the final stages of the album that I think I needed. I travelled to Glasgow and attended the session and remember feeling a lot more excited about the record by then, mostly because of the travel and Tony’s pedigree. This was a high point in the making of Invisible Republic. I think he did a great job, adding a certain muscle and sinew to the recordings that had not been there previously.
The album came out in August of 2009, soon after the release of In Rainbows by Radiohead, which turned the industry on its ear by being a self-release where the buyer could pay whatever they wanted for the album. We were excited to see if we could test that system ourselves, to implement it towards our own designs. Unfortunately, we were too inexperienced, and working from within the Canadian industry to boot, which was still behind the times and not set up to do something so forward-thinking correctly. We ended up paying an independent ‘marketing company’ $12,000 to promote the record in lieu of having a label to help us. I remember the head of the company sending a single picture of a display from a Mississauga HMV with our album in it, and thinking to myself, “This is not what we had in mind.” The truth was, we were out of our depth, and we knew it. Invisible Republic disappeared as quickly as it came. All the major publications passed on reviewing the album or failed to mention its existence, so it didn’t exist really.
Ultimately, we managed to navigate our way through and past Invisible Republic. During its making, we made contact with Dan Lissvik, who has since become our long-time collaborator. He attempted to rework “Long Live The Fallen World” while we were making it, but we agreed afterwards it would be better to work together from the start on the next album. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Invisible Republic is a fraught, flawed record, but in retrospect, it was the album we needed to reset ourselves and redefine our creative process. We had Dan Lissvik on board for the next project [2011’s Shapeshifting], which as an obsessed fan of his band Studio, filled me with creative anticipation I’d never felt. On top of it all, Invisible Republic received a long-list nod for The Polaris Music Prize the following year. That was a genuine surprise and gave us the tiniest sense of bittersweet vindication, even though we knew we were dealing with a commercial flop. We were fortunate to survive that period as a band, but it made us stronger, as clichéd as it sounds.