Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Sainte Catherines

It may be difficult to tell, but Hugo Mudie is ready to settle down—sort of.

Consider his particularly striking appearance—his two-toned and tangled hair, the stretchers in his ears and thick frames on his face, his occasional shirtlessness and constant sleevelessness—or that his band the Sainte Catherines released Fire Works, their fifth full-length album, in the fall; this doesn’t describe someone who fits society’s definition of “adulthood.” It’s true: Mudie isn’t quite ready to retreat into this conventional and colorless existence any more than the Sainte Catherines are ready to quit touring. Despite this, Mudie and his band mates are on a course that seems a bit more mature than before.

It might be because two-thirds of the Sainte Catherines had children in the same year, including Mudie, guitarists Frederic Jacques and Louis Valiquette, and former drummer Rich Bouthiller. “We wanted to do that right,” Mudie explains. “We didn’t want to be on the road in the first year of having a new child. That’s not very intelligent.” In addition, many of the band’s members pursued new professions and/or continued to tour with Yesterday’s Ring, the punk-country project that contained many members of the Sainte Catherines. These priorities limited the band’s ability to perform, let alone record and release a new record.

It’s likely, then, that these priorities also inspired Fire Works, at least partially. Released by Anchorless Records in the fall of 2010, the record is the epitome of grown-up punk-rock.

Fire Works is the band’s first album in of new material in four years and feels somehow warmer—or fuller, or sophisticated—than 2006’s Dancing for Decadence, a record that’s not as much fast as it is ferocious, where songs gallop with the aggressive rage of raiding horsemen, swinging swords and setting fires; Mudie’s scratchy, melodic snarl rises from each distorted riff and dangling lead like he’s commanding this militia.

This fury is missing on Fire Works, replaced by heartier chords and steadier, simpler drums. “We wanted to do something less aggressive, a bit more melodic, a bit more sing-able, maybe,” Mudie says, explaining this perceived shift. “When we started, we wanted to be more of a mid-tempo punk band like Jawbreaker and Leatherface and all that, so we kind of went back to that.”

To those who were introduced to the band through Dancing for Decadence, though, the Sainte Catherine’s most recent record may feel like a departure and—despite the up-tempo pace of the record, its distorted guitars, and the return of Mudie’s coarse vocals—considerably less “punk-rock.” But Mudie isn’t interested in that old argument. “I know a lot of people that would say that the Sainte Catherines are not a punk band, but it’s not really important to me,” he says. “I don’t think the style of music you play affects it that much anyway. It depends on how you respect the history, how you grew up on it, and how you’re involved in it.”

It’s also depends, Mudie argues, on age. “When I was seventeen or eighteen,” he says, “if a band would sign to a major label, I would be like, ‘Fuck, they’re not punk anymore.’ Now I know that it has nothing to do with that.”

Punk or not, there’s something else stylistically different about Fire Works, something less tangible that several critics have sensed. Perhaps it’s the sporatic presence of gooey slide guitars, of a clean-plucked acoustic and a harmonica’s bright chords; perhaps it’s the trebly guitar tone, or the rhythm with which these Telecasters shuffle, but there’s a clear country influence on the band’s most recent record. “A lot of people say that, but we don’t understand it,” Mudie admits. “We’re kind of happy about it because we like country a lot, but it was never our intention to put any kind of country influence in the Sainte Catherines. I think it’s funny because, in a lot reviews, people have said, ‘It seems like they’ve spent too much time in Yesterday’s Ring.’”

These elements—Mudie’s evolved perception of “punk” and the Sainte Catherine’s more melodic, folk-influenced musical approach—may be one reason why Fire Works feels like a musically “grown-up” punk-rock record. Mudie’s lyrics seem to reinforce this aura as well. “Chub-E & Hank III / Vimont Stories Part II” is one song in which Mudie’s lyrics lament the stresses associated with the unconventional lifestyle (and look) of a musician. “If only I could get minimum wage,” he sings while “woahs” hang in the air above him, “I’d play your town and I’d sing your name / But I can’t afford the price of fame / - You’ve got tattoos on your hands…”

The same goes for “The Great Somewhere Else”, which begins like slow, lonely walk home after a long night; here, Mudie sings in metaphor—the ocean is the open road calling him to begin yet another odyssey—before the song tumbles into its faster first chorus (which echoes the record’s second track). When the song slows back down, Mudie muses on what he will miss while on the road. “I’ll be back on the boat,” he sings, “but I’ll be counting the days and the dogs are all dead but the fire still works / I thought I needed more, but I was doing okay / […] I spent my whole life in the Great Somewhere Else”.

“A lot of the lyrics before used to be about other people,” Mudie explains, “like ‘You live like this and I don’t like it,’ or ‘You live like that and it’s not the way you should,’ but I don’t think the anger is there anymore; I used to be a lot angrier at people and everything, but now I’m happy. For this record, we decided to look at ourselves and what we do—what’s good about it and what’s not. I think that’s why it seems a bit more personal.”

This introspection is just another sign that Mudie is settling down. Here, it’s important to clarify that “settling down” means finding what one is looking for; it means feeling satisfied—finally—with what one has become.

A cynical listener might say that the Sainte Catherines have softened, that they’ve stepped away from punk-rock and politics and finger-pointing. This sentiment seems misguided, though, since Fire Works exhibits a settled, satisfied group of guys that has decided and developed itself into exactly what it wants to become: a mid-tempo, country-toasted punk-rock band with introspective and personal lyrics.

Settling down, though, doesn’t mean stopping mid-stride. Despite the occasionally conflicted lyrics on Fire Works, Mudie describes what he’ll miss most when the band breaks up on the song “I’ll Miss the Boys”. “I won’t miss stressing out,” he sings, “Talking to bands I don’t know / Not even the goddamn music / But I know I’ll miss the boys.”

“At some point,” he explains, “I realized what I really like about being in a band and touring is not necessarily the part where you play music, or the part where you see new things or the places you visit, but mostly the part where you hang out with your friends around the world and have a bunch of inside jokes and a stories to tell. The song is about, when the band is going to end, what I’m going to miss the most is the boys in the band.”
Maybe it’s not so difficult to tell, then, that Mudie and the Sainte Catherines have finally settled down.

Singer Hugo Mudie and guitarist Marc-Andre Beaudet recorded these songs in the late fall at the Café Culturel La Chasse-Galerie in Lavaltrie, Quebec. Being that the band was on tour, these songs (along with the interview) were recorded using the venue's landline phone in the relatively short amount of time before their set started.

"Better Like This" appears on the Sainte Catherines' 2010 record titled Fire Works. "Come Pick Me Up" is a Ryan Adams cover; the song originally appeared on the 2000 album Heartbreaker.

Sorry, but these songs were taken down due to space constraints. Please download The Switchboard Sessions, Volume One for a track from this and other sessions recorded in 2010. If you're desperate for a copy of these tracks, please see the "About the Switchboard Sessions"page for info on how to contact the author.