Dizzy interview: We get to know the Canadian alt-pop quartet and the influences of their debut album Baby Teeth
This Friday will see the release of Baby Teeth, the debut album from Canadian alt-pop foursome Dizzy. The band first blipped onto our radar last year with the single ‘Swim’, and have dropped a string of stirring tracks from then right up until now. Their blend of electronics with emotive analogue instrumentation consistently delivers pristine capsules of feeling, carved into shape by Katie Munshaw’s imagistic lyricism. In combination, Dizzy craft micro coming-of-age tales, spawned in their small suburban town of Oshawa that have resonance for people the world over.
The quartet, comprising Munshaw backed by brothers Charlie, Alex and Mackenzie Spencer, were in London during our recent July heatwave, and we had the opportunity to sit with them on Brick Lane for an lively discussion. We covered their inter-band dynamics, their young lives in Oshawa, their sonic and lyrical influences, and how all this feeds into the wonderful debut album Baby Teeth.
Katie and Charlie, you started the project originally, Alex and Mackenzie, were you aware of what they were doing?
Alex: Yeah they were sort of doing their own acoustic duo singer songwriter kind of deal. A bit more of the folky variety.
Katie: Yeah it was a different band at the time. Different name, different sound.
What's the age difference between you three brothers?
Charlie: I'm the youngest, Alex is the oldest. We're only a year apart each.
Would you guys hang out a lot growing up and share music taste?
Charlie: Yeah, sharing bedrooms and everything. TV taste, movie taste. We were pretty close growing up.
Who was the one who usually found new music?
Charlie: Usually Alex, because he's the oldest. He was discovering the most sooner than we were.
Alex: Nowadays you guys have your own stuff. I'm off on another tangent somewhere.
Charlie: We play each other's playlists frequently.
Does the band sound anything like what you listen to?
Charlie: Some stuff. But then we get into really weird jazz stuff.
Alex: Weird stuff, experimental stuff.
Charlie: Some of the stuff we listen to is more pop influenced. But the pop we listen to is usually a bit older, like 2000s pop.
Alex: Any singer songwriter stuff has probably the most direct influence on us.
Anyone in particular?
Alex: For myself, Neil Young, James Taylor, even Pink Floyd.
Charlie: Then as far as straight up pop, John Mayer, Vanessa Carlton.
Alex: Shania Twain. We're big Shania fans.
Katie were you similar growing up?
Katie: Yeah, I was mostly pop. I would never dabble in the jazz world.
Oshawa is quite a small town, so how would you discover music there?
Charlie: The radio or Spotify.
Katie: I think it was mostly YouTube for me. Because there wasn't really Spotify, there was Limewire.
Charlie: Yeah we had Limewire and weird ways to download.
So let's talk about the debut album Baby Teeth; you haven't done an EP or anything, you've gone straight to the record. Were you advised against that?
Katie: We had the songs, so we went for it.
Charlie: We were closer to a record than we were an EP, so it just made more sense.
How long ago did you first start working on the album?
Katie: Almost two years now. We recorded it in Montreal, with a producer called Damian Taylor, and it was a really great experience.
Charlie: We're really excited now it's almost out. It's been a long time coming. We started tracking a couple of years ago, but some of the songs are almost 3 or 4 years old; the ideas that they stem from.
Let's cover the basics: tell me about the title Baby Teeth.
Katie: It originally stemmed from a lyric from the band Bright Eyes, from a song called 'Bowl Of Oranges', and the lyric is "If the world could remain within a frame like a painting on a wall, I think we’d see the beauty and stand staring in awe," and it was kind of the idea that every song I wanted to be this memory, this kind of painting of a memory that I could look back on with nostalgia, and look at it better than it was, paired with the idea that those memories are also life lessons that I had to shed for new ones to come through. So Baby Teeth: making room for big teeth.
The big teeth will be on the next album.
Katie: I think the baby teeth keep coming! Until we're all gummy grandmas.
And I need to know about the front cover, is it shot in Oshawa?
Charlie: It's shot in Toronto, because the suburbs in Oshawa are very new, where we're from the houses were built in the last 10 years and aren't the nicest to look at. The suburbs of Toronto remind us of proper suburbia. The idea of the sort of floating we hadn't planned that, it was a total fluke...
You just started floating.
Katie: [Laughs] Yeah it just started happening.
Charlie: We thought about it a couple of times, and it became this ascending out of suburbia and hopefully not being stuck there the rest of our lives.
Katie, I find your lyrics quite poetic, do you have any background in poetry?
Katie: Not really, I like to read a lot of fiction, I like stories, I like lyrics...
You use a lot of symbolism, usually quite elemental, so in opening track 'Stars & Moons' what does it mean when you're "starting to see stars and moons"?
Katie: It's kind of like a blissful, dream-like state of being in love that isn't really real.
I also love the line "for the fraudulence braiding all their broken parts into sourness"; did something in particular inspire that?
Katie: I think falling in love when I have lots of relationships around me with my family and friends that are falling apart; it's very scary falling in love when you see everybody else failing at it. So that's where that song stemmed from.
Do you bring the songs to the band with lyrics, how does it work?
Katie: A lot of times Charlie will come to me with a couple of chords, or one of the other guys will come up with something and we'll hash it out. Sometimes I'll have little lines here and there... it's always different.
Do you guys try to match the mood of the lyrics?
Charlie: I think it goes kind of unspoken; there's not much trying to match the vibe or mood, we know well enough our sound at this point, because we've spent a lot of time carving it out.
Katie: And I think once the lyrics go over the top it's easy to kind of steer it in the direction of where it should go. Because we usually don't touch something too much until the lyrics are pretty much there.
Alex: Before then most of it is just "temporary vibe creation."
Charlie: It's true, the songs go through a lot of different phases.
Is there any particular song that changed a lot?
Mackenzie: Oh yeah!
Charlie: 'Swim'. That song is the newest of ours, we wrote that last year, but the sound changed completely. We had the whole song, and then we went to actually cut it and it became a totally different animal. I think we knew that it needed to become something different because it wasn't quite like a Dizzy song before that.
So does 'Swim' sound like the newest? Are there things on it that show your progression?
Charlie: Sonically, yeah; we're trying a couple of different things here and there and we're trying more live recorded stuff, like big kinda Kate Bush toms.
Alex: We tend to me pretty dark, so 'Swim' is a little more uplifting.
Charlie: It's a nice one to play live, because we get to jam out a bit.
I've noticed in your lyrics there's a lot of balletic movements, even just looking at titles like 'Swim', 'Backstroke', 'Pirouette' - do you have a background in any kind of athletics?
Katie: Yeah I do! I used to play hockey, lacrosse and I swam. I don't think that's why it crops up in my lyrics though... maybe the swimming.
Tell me about the line "you are the athlete and I am the astronaut" from 'Swim'.
Mackenzie: That's my favourite lyric of the song, I've always enjoyed it. The imagery of them being two very different things and putting them together in that place really sticks with me.
Katie: It's more metaphorical, not an actual athlete, just a strong person - in contrast with...
Charlie: A space cadet?
Katie: A space cadet! Someone who's a little bit lost.
Do you guys discuss the lyrics amongst yourselves or do you leave them open to interpretation?
Katie: No! Nobody ever questions me! [Laughs]
Charlie: We don't have to, most times we're just sort of like "OK, that's perfect..."
Mackenzie: There were a few times when we were stuck on a verse or something, and we'd really try to hash it out, but we mostly find that Katie has it covered.
'In Time' is such a heartbreaking song, I think everyone's felt that feeling of getting a year outside of school and suddenly you're distant from your old friends…
Charlie: A lot of our friends went off to post-secondary and we sort of hung back and were throwing everything at this...
Alex: Not knowing whether it would come together...
Charlie: And there's a nostalgia for having that consistency of high school and your friend groups.
Katie: It's less about high school and more about partying really [Laughs]. I feel like when I graduated I didn't really love to party anymore, but all my friends still did, and I kind of missed it, but at the same time I thought "I kinda like being at home."
There's a few songs on the album where parties pop up - is Oshawa a big party town?
Charlie: There's not much else to do except house parties!
Did you guys ever host? I feel like 3 brothers together, you'd know everyone...
Charlie: No no no no no no no! Our parents would've kicked us out on the street.
Did the parties get wild?
Katie: I've been to a couple of dingers! I was never a bad kid though... Some kid got his house completely robbed.
Charlie: It was an open house party, anybody could come, and his house got trashed.
Katie: That was a mess... then he threw another one a year later!
What's the spoken sample that you use in 'In Time'?
Charlie: That's our grandfather. He passed away last year; he had Parkinson’s. He had a lot of stories; Alex would sit and talk with him, put his phone down to record and see what we picked up.
Katie: Taking advantage of the old man! [Laughs]
Alex: It's really invasive looking back on it now, but I had to capture something. It's so easy to just hit record...
It's a great source of inspiration.
Charlie: Yeah, the stories he had we were amazing! We were finishing that song up just a couple of months after he passed away, so it felt right to sneak something of him in there, and it fit perfectly.
What's the quote?
Katie: I think it's "when you're waiting for something, time doesn't fly."
Alex: When I was having that conversation with him, I was meant to just babysit him at home while our grandmother was out shopping, so we were just sort of sitting there and talking about stuff and when it got quiet he said that...
You mentioned that you guys like to get dark, and sometimes Katie your lyrics get dark too, I'm thinking mostly of 'Ghost Limbs' - what was the genesis of that song?
Charlie: I think the dark tone of the music came first; we were sitting in the basement and I recorded Alex whistling, which became the opening line that I sampled onto a keyboard. From there it sort of reminded us of a haunted mansion or something, it was very spooky, and I think Katie just sort of rolled with that idea and the lyrics came pretty quick...
That line "even the gutless spin" is quite visceral, were you thinking of anyone in particular?
Katie: The lyrics were inspired by one of my friends that I wasn't friends with anymore, and I was having these really vivid dreams about us hanging out again and acting as if nothing had ever happened.
Who does the backing vocals?
Charlie: Usually me and Mac.
You do it quite sparingly, only a couple of tracks...
Katie: I gotta keep ‘em on a leash, I don't want them getting over confident [Laughs]
Charlie: Having too many of the same vocal tone layered and layered can be pretty harsh to the ear, but I love the sound of the male and female vocal together, so blending those sounds together makes it a little richer and thicker.
Mackenzie: I think there's a craving for harmony at certain points - if it naturally fits there.
'Bleachers' is about your sister, Katie; there's not enough songs about siblings...
Katie: I feel like the sibling relationship is underrated, for sure. It's the most unconditional love, at least in my case.
Charlie: It's like best friends that you don't ask for, but they're still just there.
Are you encouraging her to become a musician?
Katie: She loves to sing, she plays piano...
Charlie: She's got a great harmonic ear.
Is 'Joshua' the most personal song on the record?
Katie: I would say so… [Laughs]
Charlie: It's about as personal as you can get...
Were you trepidatious about bringing it out? What made you decide you were brave enough?
Katie: Yes, I definitely was. You can't really get around the first lyric, "Joshua's a Gemini, he broke my heart," and we were like "we can't not put that in." I think that song had to be heard, but it was also scary.
I like the anecdote in the middle of this song, you switch scene to where you're singing in the car, it feels so real.
Katie: It's actually about a different kind of scenario; Charlie and I had been recording Bonnie Raitt's of 'I Can't Make You Love Me', and it was during the time when I was going through that break up, and I remember I got very emotional - because I'm a very emotional person - and I just looked at him and he was like "OK, you're obviously going through something," and he just nodded and said "that's enough for today..."
Do these guys show up in the lyrics anywhere else?
Katie: Charlie does, he wrote the first verse of 'Arcadia' and the first verse of 'In Time'.
Charlie: It's as far as I can get in a song, and then I have to hand it over. It's like "if I keep writing the lyrics it's just going to get bad."
Katie: No! I don't think so... I think I'm just too much of a control freak.
In 'Pretty Thing' you're looking back on a former time in your life and seeing it more beautiful than it was, it's pretty sad...
Katie: Yeah... [Laughs]
Charlie: It's the definition of nostalgia.
The line "pretty girls on the stairs with their hopes up" is interesting, why on the stairs?
Charlie: It's when you go to a house party and there's nowhere else to sit but on the stairs.
Mackenzie: And at school for instance, people sitting on the stairs that would go up to the next floor, that's what I think of...
And the next line "making noisy dreams," is that something you would do?
Katie: I think that's what I'm doing right now! [Laughs]
There's that guitar solo on the end of 'Pretty Thing' as well, which is kind of unique on the album, was it just the right vibe?
Mackenzie: Yeah... Alex and I did that.
Charlie: Growing up on jazz music taught us to improvise, so a lot of the stuff that came out of the studio - especially with guitar lines - is something that was improvised the first time and we though "OK that was good, let's do that."
Alex: We tend to instrumentally throw a lot at the canvas to find that one little thing that sticks, and then we cut it all back to make it just that pure melodic statement. So in a way it's like a solo, but it's also just the melody at the same time - that's what I'm striving for there.
In 'Backstroke' there's the later verse that begins "All of our friends and all of our foes come and stand by the water where so many froze" - what's happening there?
Katie: That idea came from this kind of thinking of yourself as floating in the water waiting for somebody, and everybody's like "what are you doing?! Stop!" and you're just like "no, I'm gonna wait, even though I'm sinking to the bottom of the lake..." [Laughs]
The album finishes with 'Pirouette', which is acoustic - was it always going to be that way?
Charlie: I think so. It fits the sentiment of the words 100%. If it had gone somewhere else lyrically it might have gone somewhere else, but that one I think we knew from the get go that it was to stay the way it was.
Alex: There wasn't any sort of meat.
Tell me about "fictitious kingdom in sweet rotation."
Katie: That's a play on Earth, being the fictitious kingdom... It's about somebody who's passed away, and I'm talking about when the person singing passes away they'll come back to Earth with that other person and dance around everything that's been man made.
Where would you like to dance around first?
Katie: Probably here in London [Laughs]
The producer, Damian Taylor, has worked with the likes of Björk, Arcade Fire, The Killers – how did you get hooked up with him?
Charlie: Our manager sent him some stuff, and he got back pretty quickly, he was really into the music. We met him in Toronto in a cafe - he was based in Montreal at this point - and he came down to hang out. Within the first meeting we knew it was the right match. He had already made some notes on the songs, things that he wanted to work through. So it was like "OK, he's definitely on the same plain as we are." Then from there we took a couple of trips out to Montreal where his studio was, and it was great!
Did the songs change much in that space?
Mackenzie: Not a whole lot, a couple of them had a bit of re-work, but a lot of them were very much the same as the demos that we brought to the table.
Alex: There were bits that were cut back and re-arranged a little bit, but compositionally it stayed true I'd say.
Katie: 'Joshua' was very different from the beginning to the end. I added a whole other verse because he said "you can do better" - he was good at that, pushing us a bit.
Did you learn a lot from it?
Charlie: Oh yeah. That was our first time in a proper studio environment. We definitely learned a lot, especially about using our creative time wisely. Damian had this phrase "low hanging fruit"; so you would get into the studio and get through everything you knew you could do really quickly and really easily, and that would give you the time to experiment and try different things.
And when you're not working on music, what's your favourite form of escapism?
Mackenzie: Video games! The PC game Elite Dangerous; it's a big space game that lets you explore the whole galaxy.
Alex: Whenever we don't know where Mac is it's assumed he's in space... For me, it's a lot of music - film as well. I find myself revisiting a lot of films that I've seen that have had a huge impact on me. Going for a lot of walks and bike rides...
Are there any films that are linked with this album?
Alex: There's probably some influence from the soundtracks. I really enjoy a lot of Alexandre Desplat's work; at the time I might have been listening to a fair bit of it. I would just go for walks and listen to soundtracks.
Charlie: Same with me really: walking, listening to music, playing music... being able to just sit at a piano and play for a while is really a form of escapism. There's not much else to do, really.
Any artists you would cite as influences on production?
Charlie: I look to a lot of Jack Antonoff, his production style is really interesting, using everything you have and not just a specific set of tools.
Alex: London Grammar.
Charlie: Producers like Paul Epworth and Mark Ronson, who is really big into sampling, he sort of got me into the sampling thing. Taylor McFerrin, of the McFerrin legacy, he's an amazing producer. I like producers that don't come from a production standpoint; he's an amazing beat boxer and he comes from that standpoint and you hear that in his prodcution. Jack Antonoff is a guitarist and you hear a lot of that. Also production-wise a lot of the Brainfeeder artists from LA like Teebs and Flying Lotus.
And Katie, what's your favourite form of escapism?
Katie: I like to do yoga, I like to read, and I like to be with my family...
Any writers that might have influenced your words?
Katie: I really like Raymond Carver's short stories, Sylvia Plath... just fiction, generally. I'm currently reading Max Porter’s Grief Is A Thing With Feathers; it's good, kinda creepy and eerie, very sad, but it's very inspiring.
And have you guys had time to think about what's next? LP2?
Charlie: Yes! Definitely.
Alex: We're pretty much ready to go...
Charlie: We've got a couple of ideas brewing. I think we're ready to try some different things; I think we trust ourselves a little bit more now in songwriting and doing things on our own. I think we're really ready to dive back into it.
Dizzy’s debut album Baby Teeth comes out through Communion Music / Royal Mountain Records this Friday, August 17th.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 14th August 2018.