Ivory Hours: Love and Loss
Guitarist and vocalist Luke talks his outlook of life, death, and experiences as a young songwriter.
Unlike past generations, it seems as though today’s youth are burdened with more mature expectations. Gone are the days of finishing high school, knocking up your girlfriend, and still living a happy, financially comfortable life. Nowadays kids finish school lost in debt, and are spit out into society to experience real problems such as taking care of loved ones, and ultimately trying to figure out what type of person they want to be in this fucked-up world we live in.
London, Ontario native Luke Roes is no stranger to the dilemmas of young adulthood; after attending Queens University in Kingston, Ontario for mechanical engineering, Roes fled to British Columbia where he and his sister Annie worked on their songwriting skills and the formation of alt-pop outfit Ivory Hours. However, after the loss of their brother, Luke and Annie returned home to Ontario where they spent time with family, and put their experiences to music on their recently released album Mary (June 3). Luke sat down with Noisey to talk about his new outlook on life, death, and his experiences as a young songwriter.
Noisey: Tell me a little bit about how the band started. Did you and your sister always play music together growing up?
Luke: I started the band as I was leaving university in 2012. Annie and I had played together infrequently before that, but I really wanted her to be a part of the project; her ability to harmonize is amazing and I thought it'd be a great way to stay close as siblings. Annie had been really active performing in dance and theatre in high school, but I was a much more isolated player.
Were any of your other family members musicians?
Our parents were really big on each of us having some kind of musical interest, despite not playing anything themselves; my older brother Adam took up drums pretty young, our younger brother Paul got a bass by default but really took to guitar. Other than that there are just a few acoustic strummers in the extended family.
Who were some of your musical influences growing up?
I was always into rock and roll - Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath - I was primarily a guitarist so it wasn't until later that I developed a passion for singing and writing lyrics. Once downloading became more popular I branched out to some electronic stuff, folk and hip-hop. Eventually I went on a big Beatles rampage, got really into Radiohead, Queen's of the Stone Age and some more progressive music like King Crimson. All the while I maintained a guilty pleasure for guitar pop - some Coldplay and the like - I think that stemmed from the nineties when I only had two tapes to listen to and I had my ears glued to the radio. I eventually got really into fingerpickers and lyricists like Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen.
How did your time at university change your musical preferences and your views on life?
When I first left London to go to Queens I found that I had a ton of time on my hands to listen to new music, practice and write. Downloading was rampant so I had access to all kinds of music collections that really broadened my ears. I met a lot of good friends, one in particular who turned me on to poetry which really made me pay attention to lyrics for the first time. I fell in and out of love for the first time, and progressively became more jaded about the value of my education. Hard to say how much of that is just life. Unfortunately the social climate there made me guarded and a bit pretentious about a number of things; in the end it's my own fault and I'm happy to have shed that now.
After your time at Queens University studying mechanical engineering you moved to Vancouver; why?
Looking back on it, I think part of me really wanted to distance myself from where I went to school; I'd gotten really fed up with the environment there and wanted a huge change of scenery. I'd spent a summer in Victoria a couple years before and was completely enamored by the ocean and mountains so it was an easy choice that way. A couple of the musician friends I had were from the city so it seemed to make sense that way as well. All in all pretty rash, but it made for some amazing travel and incredible experiences.
What influenced your return home to London, Ontario?
My sister Annie and I left Vancouver to be closer to our family after the loss of our brother. Since then we've pursued music with a renewed passion, and an invigorated purpose.
Such a loss must have really altered your perspective on songwriting and life in general; care to explain the effect it had on your music?
I'll start by saying that for the sake of the family we're trying not to focus too much on that part of our experience; everybody's working through it in their own way so we're always trying to make sure everybody is comfortable with what information gets put in the public sphere. That said; I felt it was impossible not to mention it - it shattered our lives in countless ways and I think we've come out stronger individually and as a family because of it. Coming home made it so much easier to support each other and talk our way through it.
I think I can only accurately explain my own feelings about it, so in terms of the music, knowing first hand how fragile life is drives me to pursue my passion in the most ardent, authentic way possible. I put a whole new value on communication and redefined my goals in songwriting. Beforehand I'd started to lean on abstraction in the writing, and was holding onto a lot of immature pressures and ideals that suddenly seemed silly and unnecessary. Hence the move to a more pop-influenced format, pared down playing, and always trying to create a focus in the music and a stronger intent supported by every part of the music. Lyrically I used to be really concerned about telling the listener something, giving them some kind of answer, but now I just want to tell stories. Because art (if you go so far as to call it that) is able to elevate common experiences, I think there's a real responsibility there as to what you draw people's attention to. As such, my goal for the year is to write a truly happy song.
How would you say the sound of your music has changed after your loss?
The music is upbeat and colorful, while lyrically undercut with themes of loss, relationships and depression. As a younger songwriter it sometimes felt like I had to seek out chaotic experiences in order to tell compelling stories, but time has shown me that hardship will eventually find everyone. Songs can't change difficult circumstances, but I hope they can help people navigate them.
Let’s turn the focus onto the new album Mary; how was the recording process?
We recorded it at EMAC Studios in London, Ontario; we covered most of the costs through a contest we won from a radio station here called 98.1 Free FM. Recording took place over about three weeks, with dedicated sessions for drums, bass, guitars, and then keys and vocals. It was our first time in a full-on studio so it was inspiring to work with other people, and a huge load off me after recording the last two EP's myself.
Each track on the record seems to differ in genre and writing style; care to shed some light on this?
One song's been around for a couple years (“The Attic”) another for about a year (“Nettle”) - both those are remnants of my lengthy love affair with country/folk finger-picking. The remaining four came about in the last four months or so while I was trying out different types of writing. I started to focus more on rhythm; building songs from drum beats and bass riffs (“Young Blood”, “Mary”) and really tried committing to specific genres with individual songs (instead of the musical hodgepodge I'd been aiming at in years previous). That led to the soul track “I'll Stay Away” and the unabashed pop tune “Hello Honey”. I spent a lot of time learning songs by ear, going through whole albums and absorbing different styles. I think each tune has a separate set of influences’ everything from Gordon Lightfoot to the Chili Peppers, Paul McCartney to Paul Simon and many more.
Was this your initial goal when you started putting the album together?
Well I wanted to make something far more accessible than what we'd made in the past. I stripped away a lot of progressive elements. For example “Hello Honey” was originally in an odd time signature, which was scrapped after my dad repeatedly thought the song was skipping. I took a lot of people's opinions into consideration and I think it really helped me identify what's important in a pop song. I hope that the album will gain a lot of trust from listeners so that they'll have the patience for us when we decide to take some bigger risks. I hope that doesn't sound like I think the songs are boring or simple, I just compare it to using common wording instead of esoteric language.
I found the title track to be lyrically intriguing; the song touches on themes of addiction, partying, and the negative repercussions they can have on somebody’s life. Is “Mary” based off of a real person?
The song's not based on anybody in particular, but rather a kind of lifestyle I've witnessed and always felt is a little tragic. The relationships are hedonistic and superficial but instantly gratifying so it ropes a lot of people in. Addiction makes people myopic and eventually they dig a hole they can't get out of. Mary starts off as an innocent, affluent girl, adding to the tragedy knowing that she had every advantage.
The song also addresses a type voyeurism (I think it's called schadenfreude); at times I can be really cynical and think that people like seeing these kind of things from the outside because suffering makes for a gripping story. I'm guilty of the same rubbernecking interest so it makes me ask a lot of questions about my own intentions. Despite that, I'm reminded often that the response is more empathetic than I give it credit. Most people are attracted to harm because they have an instinct to help the person.
Have you ever experienced losing someone to such a lifestyle?
Not directly, only through friends.
What are your plans for after the album; is there a possibility of a tour or more recordings?
We'll definitely be doing some touring this summer, playing at some festivals (Lachie Music Festival, Wild Mountain Music Festival and Rockin' Wheel). We'll also be playing regularly in Toronto (June 11th @ Supermarket, July 25th @ Horseshoe) and our home-town of London. I've got a FACTOR application in the works to try to get us in the studio by fall. I get really productive by having due dates so I like to have something to aim at.
Adam is a writer living in London, Ontario. He's on Twitter.