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Prairie boys make good: an interview with These Estates

These Estates
22 November 2014

Photo courtesy of These Estates

We’re often led to believe the big cities are where the great music’s made, but then a band like These Estates comes along.

Hailing from Canada’s 18th-largest metro, Regina, Saskatchewan — hardly a hotbed of hip — the twentysomething trio is writing some of the catchiest, most articulate tunes you’ll hear anywhere.

And lots of ‘em — they’ve issued two full-lengths in 2014, The Dignity of Man and Triumph, Reign. The first is a physical LP, the second a pay-what-you-can download.

The group’s pithy, poppy style takes cues from the indie rock of yesteryear — Pavement’s snark, Silkworm’s first-take toughness, Sloan’s huge hooks — but rises above ’90s pastiche on the strength of the songcraft.

Frontman and founder John Cameron isn’t only a shit-hot guitarist, he’s a quick-witted wordsmith with a knack for finding poetry in his day-to-day — what’s on the stereo, on the news, in his glass, on his mind.

Dignity came out in February, ten trenchant odes to been-there things like the awkwardness of dating (“Pay Me Some Attention”), closing out the bar again (“Stripes of Faith”) and long drives with nothing to think about (“Highway 11 Theme”).

Triumph arrived just eight months later, upping the ante with a more diversified, confident sound. It’s audible in the pronounced shifts in tone and mood from track to track, incongruous in theory yet completely fluid in execution — “Stolen Blues,” a verbose political rocker, into “Engine, Absent,” a propulsive punk instrumental, then “Notice,” a sensitive slow jam.

Although These Estates has existed in various iterations since 2007, the current full-band lineup — with Mason Pitzel on bass and baritone guitar, and Matt Carr on drums — is the first to stick. Between the two LPs, Cameron even found time to back up Pitzel on Natural Ice, his second mini-album of DIY slowcore under the alias Plywood. For fans of Red House Painters or early Death Cab For Cutie, it’s a must-hear.

Whether something substantial is going on in Canada’s breadbasket, or if it’s just an isolated case of a group of friends enjoying a creative breakthrough, these are songs that merit recognition. With search results yielding little further insight into either These Estates or Plywood, I got ahold of the self-described “prairie nerds” on a recent weeknight and found them as affable and unaffected as their music.

CHARLIE ZAILLIAN: How far back do you guys go as friends?

MASON PITZEL: John and I first met over the Electrical Audio message board in September of 2009, which is dumb because we’re from the same city and were a ten-minute drive away from each other at any time. I’d been playing bass in a hardcore band called Invasion that had broken up, and John needed a bass player so he hit me up. We met at a These Estates show the day before I started university.

JOHN CAMERON: It’s strange to me that Mason isn’t older than he is. He was still in high school when I was in university.

MP: With the way my voice sounds on record, I’m surprised I’m not asked more often how I’m putting out so many records at 14.

CZ: John, were there things that weren’t working for you in These Estates before Mason came on board?

JC: It wasn’t that there were problems so much as Mason just being a great bandmate and writing partner. Since he joined, we’ve had a crazy amount of output.

CZ: Seriously. Two albums in a year — or two-and-a-half, counting the Plywood EP.

MP: Well, I still associate The Dignity of Man with the previous years because we finished recording it in February of 2013. But we made [Triumph, Reign and Natural Ice] very deliberately. One basement, one month, a lot of stress-related Wendy’s. (laughs)

CZ: Outside the odd hometown-paper writeup, I couldn’t find any These Estates interviews anywhere.

JC: Yeah, we’re not really a press band. We did a little for the first one, but with the volume of work we put into it versus the amount of attention we got, we just figured the energy would be better spent on making a new record.

CZ: To you, what are the biggest differences between Dignity and Triumph?

JC: I feel like Triumph is a band that’s more comfortable in its own skin and trusts each other more. Instead of having the baggage of having to restart the band and get it off the ground, which was the context of Dignity, it was just about writing songs together.

MP: We were much more confident to try and test things… an acoustic song [“Arrears”], a nine-minute baritone song [“Consider It All”], stuff like that.

JC: There’s also a song [“It’s So Rad!”] that’s a blatant Pavement rip.

CZ: Yeah, “Silence Kit.” That’s funny. I was going to call you out on that, but you beat me to the punch.

MP: That’s the oldest song These Estates still performs… dates back to before I was in the band.

JC: I was making some serious jeans-and-vest choices when I wrote that one. College undergrad, hair short of a fedora shit. It was a period where you could actually wear a fedora on occasion… dark times. But we brought it back for our buddies who’ve stuck with us for seven years, and because it had a real good guitar solo in it.

CZ: Shades of Silkworm on both records too, particularly the sequencing on Triumph.

JC: I was always more of an Ein Heit dude. (laughs) Yeah, I mean, we’re big Silkworm fans, but I don’t know if that played into the versatility of this record. That just came naturally out of us figuring out how to be less “here’s something cool that a band we like does, let’s do it,” more “here’s something that a band we like does and here’s how it relates to our strengths, so let’s take it and make it ours.”

CZ: You reference a few other bands in your lyrics, too — Sloan on “Highway 11 Theme,” Hüsker Dü on “Put the Poison in My Body”…

JC: The reason those make it in in such an obvious way is that I’m a big poetry dweeb, a B.A. English grad… so I’m always writing lyrics in a songwriting idiom. It makes sense to me to try and acknowledge that music plays a role in the development of music.

CZ: And booze? “Poison” and “Stripes of Faith” are pretty killer drinking songs.

JC: I don’t do a lot of drinking while writing nowadays, but it still works its way in because, to me, the language of drinking is poetic. There’s a real rhythm and beauty to it.

CZ: Do you identify as a poet or lyricist first?

JC: I don’t really consider myself either. I’m more just a dude who writes lyrics and, occasionally, poetry. But I do try to take lyric-writing seriously. I get the feeling a lot of rock dudes just want something people can sing along with and remember easily. It’s secondary… just a vehicle for melody.

CZ: What’s Regina like? Is there much of an audience for what These Estates does?

JC: Christ, no. But I also think there’s not much of an audience for what we do anywhere. It’s a pretty geeky brand of rock’n’roll.

CZ: What sorts of bands do well there?

MP: Traditional indie pop. Stomping and clapping.

JC: One of the most popular new bands is a band called The Dead South… four guys with acoustic instruments, just givin’ ‘er.

MP: I’ve always found it a little odd that Regina wasn’t more of a pressure cooker for odd, original, frustrated music. But it’s not, so what you get is kind of just a reflection of what’s on trend at the moment.

CZ: Is there a reason These Estates hasn’t toured more, or shopped its music to labels?

JC: We’ve never sought out label infrastructure, PR, distro or anything like that because those things always seemed tertiary. Given the amount of times we had to stop and start due to lineup changes, the actual creation of music felt way more pressing.

MP: I have an interest in doing the occasional tour, but there’s no indication that touring all year leads to better music.

CZ: You mentioned the Electrical forums earlier, which is how I first heard your stuff. What is that corner of the Internet, to you?

JC: It’s a community of like-minded people that you don’t get to have when you’re in a place that’s the size of a Regina, at the age that we were when we joined.

MP: Like, I didn’t have any friends to discuss The Wipers with in high school.

CZ: Has the seal of approval from that community helped push the band forward?

JC: Yeah, it’s [been] really crucial. Dudes like Police Teeth and Risk/Reward have put out records that absolutely kick my ass, and they’re not bullshitters, so to be like “I guess these are my peers now” is nice. It’s not that no one in our town gets us, because there have been about 40 people here willing to listen to the band through seven years of lineup and sound changes. It’s more that the idea of somebody in Chicago or Seattle or Germany or the U.K. — people operating in music scenes of a very high caliber — saying “hey, this speaks to me” is very validating.

CZ: Mason, the Plywood recordings are great, and quite different from These Estates. What would you say you’re going for with that project?

MP: I once described it to John as “slow, fist-bump music.” One of my favorite feelings is listening to shit like the earlier Teenage Fanclub records, or maybe some Silkworm… you’re bobbing your head, you’re drunk as fuck at a show and you’re just like “yes!” I wanted to try and do a band that was only that.

CZ: Do you see it as a revolving-cast singer-songwriter thing, like a Mt. Eerie or Bonnie “Prince” Billy?

MP: It wasn’t intended to be — I just needed a clearinghouse for stuff I’d written — but there is an allure to the project name. I like the aspect of plausible deniability.

CZ: Is the title Natural Ice a reference to the shitty U.S. beer, or something else?

MP: Oh, it is. 100%. It’s also just a pleasant-sounding phrase, which is the important thing.

CZ: Before we part ways, anything you’d like to add?

JC: Thanks for talking to a couple of prairie nerds about their obscure records about bourbon and gender.

MP: Thanks for devoting journalistic time to downloads.

Listen to These Estates and Plywood on Bandcamp.