For many, it’s an auspicious occasion: a band celebrating 20 years of making music and attaining significant success in the process. Regardless, Dears founder and frontman Murray Lightburn is having none of it. There’ll be no expanded reissues of older albums. No victory lap in the guise of a world tour. Not even a big party for the public, other than a celebration for family and friends. “We did get some 20th anniversary pins made, which was fun,” he allows. “And we had a little wingding in our hometown of Montreal a few weeks ago. We did a show, but that was that.”
It’s not that the Dears aren’t prone to amping things up. They adhere to a majestic motif, flush with pomp, grandeur and a heady approach that’s been seen by some as classic prog rock in modern indie trappings. Yet however it’s described, it’s garnered them considerable accolades. For example, two of their early albums—2007’s Gang of Losers and its follow-up, 2011’s Degeneration Street—were shortlisted for the prestigious Polaris Prize.
Credit Lightburn and his wife and co-conspirator Natalia Yanchak with their steady stewardship throughout the course of the Dears’ career. Likewise, with a new album to tout— that being Times Infinity Volume One, with a Volume Two soon to follow—the Dears seem to have found the stability that has eluded them in the past. The band’s current incarnation—Lightburn (vocals, guitar), Yanchak (keyboards, vocals), Patrick Krief (guitars, keyboards, vocals), Roberto Arguilla (bass) and Jeff Luciani (drums)—have been the core band for their past three albums, a fact Lightburn points to with pride.
“We’ve only had two drummers on our records and only a couple guitar players and only a couple of bass players,” he argues. “In addition, we have members who will tour the album, but maybe didn’t actually play on it. Or the opposite. They played on the album, but didn’t go out on tour. I know it might seem on the surface like there’s a parade of people, but it’s really not that many, especially when you consider the band’s been together 20 years. And really, anyone wanting to do the same thing for 20 years is actually kind of insane when you really think about it.”
Still, given his role as the band’s singer and, to a great degree, its musical mentor, the popular notion seems to be that the Dears is mostly his pet project, and that he and Yanchak are the sole proprietors. That’s a presumption Lightburn is quick to deny.
“I think there is that misconception, since I’ve been here since the beginning and Natalia has been here since ’98,” he says. “So naturally, people think we’re the ones calling all the shots. It’s kind of like being a bank heist team, where you have the safecracker, you’ve got the driver, you’ve got all these different roles. That’s kind of how our band operates. Everybody’s got a very specialized part to play. In the early days, I wrote the majority of the material, but the band still arranged everything. Now everyone contributes, which is very important, because they’re the ones playing the music. It’s a vision that’s based on being in a band. And for the past five to seven years, it’s been the same people contributing to that vision.”
Nevertheless, there’s a certain mystique tied to their mantra that makes the Dears difficult to define, particularly when it comes to the music they make. Once again, Lightburn shrugs it off. “I’m a simple man when it comes to these things,” he insists. “As I get older, I just want to simplify things even more. So I tell people we’re a rock ‘n’ roll band. It’s the simplest explanation I can offer. Some people might say, ‘Oh like Chuck Berry?’ And in some instances, I think we’re channeling that. It’s just super organized and meticulous in the way that racket comes across.”
Nevertheless, with all the disparate elements that enter the mix—especially on the new album—that explanation doesn’t quite jive. While the progressive rock handle may seem somewhat inflated, the intrusion of orchestration, drama and high-minded, overarched ambition suggests a more studied approach than your average garage band ensemble.
“That’s a by-product of being a group project,” Lightburn maintains. “Our drummer used to play in hardcore bands, but he’s also really into jazz and R&B. Therefore he’s got a very broad palette. He can play lots of different shit. For me, I never really wanted to be in a band that was just restricted to one genre, sharing that one little piece of real estate with a bazillion other bands that all dress the same, look the same and sound the same. Being super homogenized is not something that appeals to me.”
It might be argued that that’s not something the Dears need to fret about. Even a cursory glance at the song titles on the new album makes it clear that they have a very different vision of the world around them. Study the names—“We Lost Everything,” “I Used to Pray for the Heavens to Fall,” “Here’s to the Death of all the Romance,”—and it’s hard to escape the notion that this is a band with a somewhat twisted perspective.
“Every time I come up with song titles or album titles, and I Google them, what will turn up is a death metal band that’s already come up with the same title,” Lightburn muses. “It makes me laugh out loud. It’s our sense of humor. There’s levity there and way less drama than people think. Again, these are things on the surface that people may not recognize, but if you go deeper in and get to know the band you’ll recognize that.”
Still, for all the high-minded ambition, Lightburn‘s ultimate goal is fairly simple. “All I want out of it, at least for the amount of work I put into it, is to be able to pay my mortgage,” he says. “My goal isn’t to have a fucking gold Bentley. I just want to be able to pay my way like everyone else and make an honest living. We may be all grown up now, but it’s kind of like we’re still doing a kid’s job. I feel like we’re swinging from vine to vine like indie rock Tarzans.”