Duotang smashes the past to get to something new

Image courtesy of Duotang.

Nicholas Friesen @Nicholastronaut  November 1, 2016

In 1995, Winnipeg’s Rod Slaughter and Sean Allum formed the mod-meets-Joy Division flavoured Duotang, a bass and drums duo that has long outlived its original descriptors and, after more than a decade of being more off than on, is very much back on. Last month saw the release of New Occupation, the band’s fourth full length and first for Stomp Records. Recorded earlier this year with producer Shawn Dealey (Imaginary Cities, Chic Gamine), the 12 song LP delivers the same classic combination of Slaughter’s in-your-face sardonic wit and catchy bass lines, mixed with Allum’s combustible and consistent drumming. It’s a sound that can only be described as Duotang.

“I think I’m usually the one that says we don’t wanna add anything more, to keep it just bass and drums with some flourishes of little things,” Slaughter says. “This is the first album where I think we could’ve done a little more, but Shawn Dealey was insistent we keep it as bare bones as possible. As a band you play live and you have the advantage of bouncing around a room and it creates something much larger than it actually is, you take that exact sound and put it on a record and it’ll sound small, then you wanna build it up with other things. This is probably the most true to our live sound of any album.”

“All that time it took for the album to come out and listening to different mastered versions and mixes and everything, it’s cool because it seems like the response has been really positive and we’ve gained a few new fans along the way, so it feels really good,” Allum says. “You can tell when you have a few close friends who didn’t know you then, because our last shows were 12 years ago, so you obviously move on in life and you meet new people. The people who knew us from before have tried to compare it to different albums, but then they all seemed to kind of unanimously say is that it’s kind of a cohesive album, that it flows from start to finish, and a lot are saying it’s our best record, and I feel that way as well.”

“I think what I like most about it is that it’s very similar to our old sound but it doesn’t necessarily sound like it’s stuck in 1998,” Slaughter adds.

Having released three full lengths via Mint Records during the band’s initial run, 1996’s Smash the Ships and Raise the Beams, 1998’s The Cons and the Pros and 2001’s The Bright Side, Duotang called it quits(ish) in 2002. Slaughter went on to spend the oughts fronting Novillero (followed by a short spell making music with Dave Berthiaume as The Shallow End) while Allum DJ’d. After a pair of reunion gigs in 2006 (one in Vancouver for Mint, another in Winnipeg), Duotang didn’t seriously consider playing again until the opportunity came in 2015 to mark the band’s 20th birthday.

“Mint asked us to play a show (for the label’s Christmas party in 2006),” Allum tells. “(Co-founder) Randy (Iwata) came to us and said, ‘Out of all the bands your stuff still sounds fresh today.’”

“What he said was, ‘You guys weren’t in then, and you’re no more less in now.’,” Slaughter adds. “Which is a great compliment, actually.”

“That was gonna be our only show, but it’s just progressed,” Allum continues. “I’m really happy about it because it’s more fun now. I don’t think we’re gonna be rockstars, and I think you can hear that in the music, that it’s for fun, and it’s coming off that way.

“I could have ended on that note, but then Rod started bringing in these new songs.”

The songs that make up New Occupation began life as a trio of tunes recorded at the end of 2015. A way to test out the recording relationship with Shawn Dealey after a career making music with friend/producer Cam Loeppky, a planned EP quickly morphed into a full length.

“When Stomp Records said, ‘No guys, it’s LP not EP,’ we had a bit of a panic,” Slaughter says with a laugh. “We wrote some new songs last minute but we also pulled some songs from the past, so more than 3/4 is new, but there’s a couple old songs.”

“It’s more organic than what he’s making it sound like, too,” Allum counters. “The album thing, sure we were thinking EP, but once we got to writing more and more songs came out. There were even songs we kept off the record and we’re still writing now. It wasn’t something where we quickly had to write these songs to make an album, it just started coming to us. When we started practicing before that reunion show, I was rusty. Once everything started clicking these songs happened very easily.”

“The first two songs on the album, one of them is a song that has been kicking around for a long time, from the Novillero days, and ended up being our lead off song, ‘Nostalgia’s a Vice’,” Slaughter says. “The second one was an idea Sean had hashed out and it became ‘Karma Needs to Come Around’. Those were two songs that wouldn’t have been on the EP and they wound up being the first two songs on the album.”

It’s that spontaneity that works in the duo’s favour, going as far back its debut, Smash the Ships and Raise the Beams, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. After signing with Mint Records at Canadian Music Week in March of ’96, Duotang recorded Smash the Ships later that spring in Vancouver with Darryl Neudorf (Neko Case, Sarah McLachlan) at his home studio on East Hastings. The debut came together quickly, capturing the band live-off-the-floor, and was released that September.

“Darryl wanted to capture us pretty raw, which is one thing I’m not crazy about when I listen back,” Slaughter says. “We were a new band, we were still trying to figure out how to do everything in our sound, but it was kind of neat.”

“It was one of the best weekends of my life,” Allum says. “We got into Vancouver, played the Mint showcase, Chris Murphy from Sloan was there, we got interviewed by MuchMusic, the show was awesome, they bought us tickets to see Stereolab and Guided by Voices, and we started recording. The first day and we got a phone call, ‘Do you guys wanna open up for the Flaming Lips?’ That was in one weekend. Then we started to record our first record.”

With the industry pressure behind them, Slaughter and Allum have approached the recording and release of New Occupation with a laid back mentality.

“All that mattered to me was that it was a good experience and that the album turned out the way it did,” Allum says. “Giving the album what it needed and having fun in the studio, which we did, I think you can hear it on the record.”

That fun continued with the Jim Agapito (KEN mode, Cancer Bats) directed video for “Karma Needs to Come Around”, a clip that features a certain youthful spirit.

“Jim was incredible,” Slaughter says. “He knew exactly what he was doing.”

“I remember we were having our first meeting and he said something about being really happy to be working with our band, that he’s a fan, and I thought this is great – someone with a new perspective that we haven’t worked with before, but he knows of and likes the band and right there he had a vision of where to take the video,” Allum says. “What was really great for me was to have my daughter in the video, she’s the bully. That was cool because she wasn’t even born when we broke up.

“It’s a little weird now, doing videos and interviews and the tour and everything. When people write ‘mod’ and whatever, ‘from the past,’ it almost seems like so far away and so far removed. I spent all these years with Rod and we got to tour around the world, but it almost seems like we’re a new band and just starting out. It happened organically when we started again, it wasn’t just ‘let’s go and play some old songs.’ This new album has taken on its own entity. I remember stuff from the old band and I respect what we’ve done in the past, but it’s almost like this is a brand new chapter.”

Visit duotangband.com for more information.