PS I Love You: The Interview

By Julia Wallace

PS I Love You – July 17, 2014

If you’re looking for an album that is going to blow your mind this summer, look no further than the latest creation from Kingston/Toronto duo PS I Love You. Back with their third album on Toronto-based Paper Bag Records, Paul Saulnier and Benjamin Nelson are proving what they are truly capable of. For Those Who Stay is – without a doubt – their best work yet. An impressive feat for a band that hit the ground running in 2010 with Meet Me At The Muster Station which was branded as some of the best new music on Pitchfork and also made the longlist for the much-coveted 2011 Polaris Music Prize.

For Those Who Stay is a true accomplishment. An album that is almost certain to gain the band the attention they so deserve around the globe, and has already received rave reviews from British music authority NME and made iTunes Canada’s list of “10 Albums You Must Hear This Month.”

I chatted with songwriter and vocalist Paul Saulnier on a sunny Toronto afternoon about how the band has evolved sonically, his move to the big smoke – Paul and Benjamin are in a long-distance relationship of the musical variety, and the very cool story behind the incredible photo on the album cover.

The new album is really fun. It’s engrossing, it’s exciting, it’s inventive. It also sounds quite a bit different than what you’ve done in the past. Where were you guys trying to go with For Those Who Stay?

I don’t know [laughs]. It’s funny. Sorry [Paul pauses to explain that he’s stuffed up due to allergies. It’s July in Canada, after all.] I don’t know where we’re trying to go… That’s a good question but a hard question, because I don’t think I have anywhere in mind. When we did it, it was just kind of… the thing that was different about this album than our other albums was just the circumstance and the timing. We took a long time to make this record, um, and our first two records, a lot of those songs we had for years, so there was kind of like a song build-up and then after Death Dreams came out I didn’t really have any more songs, so we took a bunch of years to write new ones. It’s kind of a more… um, it’s kind of the more current state of our band creatively. Benjamin and I write songs together more and better than we used to.

Did you find that your songwriting approach changed a lot with this record?

Not really. The songwriting approach is just, like, it’s not very refined. I’ll make up a thing – usually while I’m watching TV or whatever – and then I’ll show it to Ben and we’ll sort of talk about whether or not we can make a song out of it. It starts with a melody on the guitar and we sort of build it up. This time around the process took longer than it has in the past, and I think the end result was almost something that’s more extensive I suppose? We had more ideas crammed into the songs than before, because we had enough time to do it, so we did.

Definitely. Now, you left Kingston and Benjamin stayed living there. How did that sort of long-distance relationship impact you guys creatively? 

Well most of the stuff was already written before I moved, so I think only time will tell how it’s impacted us creatively as we move onto our next records, but a lot of it, about half the songs were sort of finished in the studio where we were staying for a few weekends in December/January. Benjamin and I have a unique working relationship where we can go for a long time without seeing each other, and then we’ll get together and it’s like 100 per cent, full on making this thing. So I think, I don’t think it’s hurting us in any way and we see each other probably as often as we used to when we both lived in Kingston. We’re pretty low-key people.

Kingston is only two-and-a-half or three hours away… 

Yeah. I take the Megabus a lot! [Laughs].

And a lot of emphasis has been on the move – whenever something comes up about the album it mentions the fact that you did move. Was it a big transition for you personally? 

Yeah, it was, but also… I don’t think I let it change who I am too much. Living in Toronto is funny, because it’s kind of like going back in time to Kingston four or five years ago. Most of my friends who I met in Kingston ended up moving to Toronto, so Toronto already kind of feels like home in that respect [laughs]. Toronto’s like the big Canadian vacuum. Everyone I know is either here, or was here and will end up here.

Do you find your environment has an impact on your creativity – is it easier to find inspiration in the city? Are you still getting over the shock of the cost of living here in comparison? 

[Laughing] The cost of living is definitely higher than Kingston, but it’s not that much higher. Kingston has gotten pretty bad in recent years with rent and stuff. I’m still inspired by a lot of the same things, like, you know… struggling to make ends meet is always a part of our lives and a part of our music, because you spend so much time on your music sometimes you can’t keep a day job. You make money in music in waves, you know? I’m doing a wave-y arm gesture right now [laughs]. There’s always that sort of struggle, and I think that’s what makes us put a lot of – a lot of the emotional intensity comes from the – [cuts himself off again] – it’s not desperation just from being poor, it’s desperation throughout everything that we do. I think we thrive in this kind of situation where we’re under a lot of pressure. It’s a now or never type thing. The sad part about my band is I think that if Ben and I were both in really comfortable living situations and made a lot of money and owned a bunch of cars, I think we’d make really boring music. ‘Now or never’ I guess is our thing, and we’re in our 30s now. We’re not young rockstars like we were [laughs].

For Those Who Stay was the first album you’ve done in a quote-unquote real recording studio. Why did you choose the studio that you did [The Bathouse] in Kingston?

I’d just always been curious about working there because I heard that it’s great, and Benjamin and I have not really… we’ve not really… We’ve kind of been averse to recording studios in the past because we don’t like a structured environment. And the Bathouse is like a big giant house in Bath, Ontario and it has a really laidback atmosphere and it’s also like a fun vacation. You’re staying in this awesome cottage slash mansion that’s totally got all this amazing gear, and it’s a professional studio. They do a lot of great albums by all kinds of Canadian artists. It was a real delight for us to be in that scenario that sort of combines everything we wanted. Casual but professional, creative but we took our time. A lot of the peak creative times were at two or three in the morning when we were just so exhausted and then all of a sudden something would happen and it would be like ‘Oh yeah! That’s what this song needs!’ those moments that I don’t think we would have found if we were in a more rigid environment. So Bathouse is a perfect studio for us, basically.

Were you more or less living there during that time?

Yeah, because I was already in Toronto we timed it around a bunch of different weekends – like four or five weekends.

What was the biggest benefit to using a real studio?

I’ve always been proud of the sound that we’ve got in whatever lofi situation we’ve had in our other albums, and our producer, Matt Rogalsky, can make great sounds pretty much anywhere. What we combined on this record was Matt Rogalsky’s expertise for sounds, and then the professional equipment of a studio. Like, I don’t even know what they all are, fancy boxes and boards and we mixed it to tape machines to get that seventies vibe, I suppose. There were tape echoes, and we had extra synthesizers and all this stuff that just sounds good arranged, and then when we got in there we were able to just take what we’ve learned recording in warehouse rooms and crappy lofts and use that in a studio to maximize the output, I suppose.

Very cool. You were on tour in England, the U.S. and Canada recently, and you guys did something really cool. I saw on twitter that you were hiding your tapes all over the U.S. for people to find. Did you get any stories back about the people who found your tapes?

Yeah – the stories were just like ‘I found your tape, that’s awesome. Thank you.’

Where do you think your best hiding spot was?

I don’t know… My record label mailed them out to people at different studios, and they hid them. I hid a few personally, like I hid one in Calgary when we were there for the Sled Island Festival, and I hid it in a restaurant I really like there called Tubby Dog – that’s my favourite hiding spot. There haven’t been any tape fights or anything, most of the stories I’ve heard are people who are like ‘I went to find your tape and it wasn’t there anymore’ and then I feel kind of bad about it!

So you only hear the disappointment! [Laughs]. So the album cover – Ben designs all your album art, is that right?

Yeah, he’s always been kind of like a designer first.

I find the cover art really interesting. How would you guys articulate what it’s about?

It’s the kind of thing we’re still working out. It’s one of those mysterious, amazing kind of coincidences that just… It’s a photo that Matt Rogalsky, our producer, took. We were out on like a wharf on Lake Ontario and he was looking in the water and he saw a door on the bottom and he took a photo of it – and we all kind of became obsessed with that photo. I mean, it’s probably just some joke. Someone was probably just like ‘I’m going to throw out this door – I better just throw it in the lake,’ but I don’t know… A door at the bottom of a lake… it was just too weird and mysterious for us to not use as the album cover. If there’s any other meaning, it’s still working itself out.

It’s a really cool, striking, image, and it’s neat to hear that you actually took it yourselves and that it’s Lake Ontario.

It’s actually near the studio – it’s in Bath. On one of our breaks we went out for some walks – we got stranded there during an ice storm, which was also exciting – but yeah, it’s a really funny photo. No matter what mood you’re in it could just be funny and weird or it could be deep and serious. Ben worked on it to treat the colours to make it that beautiful green hue. That colour was already in there but he just brought it out to the extreme saturation. He made it look really good.

It’s very unique. Do you have a bit of a break now before heading back out on the road?

Yeah, we play Sappy Fest in Sackville New Brunswick, and after that we go on a small tour with Frog Eyes. We’re excited to tour with them. They also have a new record out this year so I hope those will be really great shows. And then in the fall we’re doing a bunch of shows, but it’s not really… I don’t even remember. [laughs]

One day at a time right now!

Yeah!

How are you finding the reception to your new stuff on the road? How do you find it translates to a live performance? 

It’s a bit different live, because it’s just the two of us on stage. The sounds are going to be a lot looser and kind of louder, but in a more sparse way because there’s less instruments. With the last round of shows we played, the Sled Island Festival and the NXNE Festival, we’ve been getting great reviews. Great reviews always make me nervous because I don’t want to take it too seriously, because that’s a whole other kind of pressure – whereas bad reviews are just like ‘oh well, whatever’ and I can shake it off. Good reviews are sometimes hard to handle, but I’ve been happy that we’ve been playing the songs live and people have been liking them, even though the live versions are a little more hairy.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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