A conversation with Funeral Lakes

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of discovering the brilliant Canadian alternative duo, Funeral Lakes, and – specifically – their latest release, Golden Season. I was immediately taken with their sound, along with their intensity, and soon found myself checking out their eponymous debut album from less than a year ago.

Made up of partners Sam Mishos and Chris Hemer, the Toronto-based band specialise in anthemic alt/indie rock loaded with sociopolitical lyrics, heart, and a shit tonne of anger at the state of the world around them. One of the most impressive things about their work is that – though it’s thematically heavy – it never feels condescending or grating. There’s more than enough light in there to balance out the dark, and above all a sophisticated sense of melody that keeps things accessible. I like that they stand for something too; there are too many bands and artists out there (unfortunately getting the majority of attention) that have nothing of interest to contribute, so when a Funeral Lakes comes along it’s worth paying attention.

Having listened to their music an awful lot over the last few weeks, I was pleased when Sam and Chris agreed to answer a few questions about what they do over email. They also kindly agreed to go through the brilliant Golden Season track by track too, which you’ll find right at the bottom of the piece. There’s so much interesting stuff here and it’s been a joy to put this feature together. I’m pretty sure that I said it in my review of the EP, but I’ll say it again anyway: Funeral Lakes have something quite special about them and I looking forward to their next release.

(Note: my questions are in bold and Sam and Chris’ responses in plain text).

• As you’ll know from my Golden Season review, I really enjoyed both it and the album. Given you only started releasing music together in the last couple of years, I was quite interested to find out how the band came about, and what you’d been doing musically beforehand?

We’ve been partners for 5 years now and we’ve been playing music together since we met, but we didn’t start Funeral Lakes until 2018. Before that, Chris has been writing songs and playing in bands since high school. Sam has also been writing songs on her own since she was a kid.

Also, how does the writing process typically work with your songs?

We write our songs together, but every song is a bit different. Sometimes we’ll work on them on our own and over a long period of time, but the final product is always collaborative. Generally, they start with progressions and melodies on an acoustic guitar. Other times we start with an idea or a subject matter that we want to address, and write lyrics without a melody in mind yet. We’re lucky to have a space in our apartment where we can record, so once we have a general idea we can start messing around with other instruments and layering sounds. 

• I think political lyrics always seem so tough to get right. Most people that sit down to write something overtly political, or as a protest, risk being way too preachy or the result can be too laboured. I think one of the first things that struck me was that your songs don’t sound like you’re trying too hard in that respect. Why do you think that is?

We really try to strike a balance with our political themes. We’re trying to paint a picture and appeal to emotions, rather than throw political messaging at the listener. We’ve learned that people don’t like to be preached at, and that doesn’t really provoke much change or reflection. Our hope is that what we’re feeling comes through in the music that we make and that it resonates with people.

We want to take the listener on a journey and get them on the same page as us by the end of the song. Like with the song Eternal Return we’re singing about petro-nationalism, which has been playing out in really violent ways this past year in Canada. We get pretty confrontational at the end of the song, but not before we lay out the emotions and realities of why we should be angry, why we should be shouting.

• I didn’t mention it in the review, but I thought the artwork to the EP was fantastic. I tend to gravitate towards stuff that has a great cover and I think it definitely informs the way I feel about a piece of music. What were the thoughts behind that image in particular, but also is the artwork something that you think a lot about?

We always try to make the artwork reflective of the themes of the music, so it’s definitely something we put thought into. We aim to create some balance between the beauty and the sorrow – I think the same balance is reflected in a lot of our songs. With our first album, we used a painting Chris’s late grandfather had made a long time ago, so that was really meaningful.

For this EP, we thought about using an old photograph we had taken on film and then adding layers on top of it, turning it into something new. We wanted to capture texture and shadows, to create a sort of lively and organic quality. The coffin is something we’ve used a lot, and we’ve contrasted it with the trees and flowers to make something beautiful.

• I’ve been keen to ask who your main influences are, in terms of how the songs sound but also in terms of how you approach things? Are there any artists in particular that you thought a lot about during the making of the EP?

We have a wide range of influences between the two of us, so that comes through in the music we make together. It keeps things interesting for us to not write all of our music within one genre. Lyrically, we’re inspired by reading the news, what’s happening around us, and what we’re feeling about it all. Musically we’ve always been moved by folk singers like Buffy Saint-Marie and Neil Young, but also by the political punk of The Clash or Bikini Kill.

Ultimately we really gravitate toward music with a message. We like things that are different, but also what people might describe as imperfect. We really value emotion over something like production value.

• How are things in Toronto – and Canada in general – at the moment with regards to Covid-19. Are you currently under restrictions at the moment, and if so how has it affected what you do? I ask as, in Scotland, we’ve only recently gone back into a more restrictive phase in terms of what you can and can’t do. Also, arts and culture – but especially music – has been hit hard in the UK. It’s looking increasingly likely that many artists/crew/venues/businesses won’t make it through this year. It’s a long question I guess, but how are things where you are?

Like everyone else, we’ve been impacted in many ways, but of course we have a lot to be thankful for, especially our health. This pandemic has been devastating for so many people, so we realize that things could be a lot worse. We did have some shows, festivals, and plans lined up that obviously fell through due to the restrictions here. Our trajectory has changed and we’re adapting. It’s not possible to play live right now, but we’re continuing to put out music.

Politically speaking, our government is seriously failing to protect the public as they begin to decrease restrictions and put the economy before public health. As a result, we’re seeing a second wave of cases, which means there will be more restrictions for the foreseeable future. Independent venues are really struggling to stay in business. The venue where we played our first ever show as a band has just been slated to be turned into condos, which is pretty bleak stuff.

• What’s next for Funeral Lakes?

We don’t really know when live music will be a reality again, but we’re not going to let that stop us from putting out music and continuing on. We’re always writing and recording in our home studio space, which has been a real source of relief and joy for the past number of months. We should have another EP ready in the spring, and probably a single or two before that. There’s another big project we’re working on that’s still in the very early stages and will take some time to complete, but we’re looking forward to sharing it in the future.

Funeral Lakes’ track by track breakdown of Golden Season

Eternal Return – This song has existed for quite a long time and in different forms, but took a long time to get just right. It was really exciting to be able to execute this song in the studio with the help of our friends Charlie Van (drums) and Colin Spratt (engineer) – who also helped us out on our first album. It’s a song about petro-nationalism, toxic masculinity, and the politicians who promise a future that no longer exists for their own personal/political gain. We only had the opportunity to play it twice live – but that was a pretty cathartic experience. We really look forward to playing this one live for folks again in the future.

Earth Falls – This is another song that has existed for a long time in different forms. It was originally written after a fight with some friends over the reality of climate change. It takes a look at a lot of the emotions, especially fear we’re feeling and experiencing around grappling with a world on the brink of something quite terrifying. We gathered around a mic to do the sort of Gregorian chants you hear at the end underneath the mad rambling where we present the idea of the “golden season”.

Power Trip – This song was really inspired by the Riot Grrrl genre. It’s a political song that can be about something really macro like the heteropatriarchy, or just everyday encounters that make you want to scream. It’s really getting at the ego that’s at the heart of toxic masculine behaviour – the need to be the loudest voice in the room, the need to make others feel small. The guitars are really aggressive and pretty abrasive – we wanted these emotions to come through sonically as well as lyrically.

You can find Funeral Lakes on Bandcamp, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

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