As frontman of Canadian indie band the Dears, Murray Lightburn has managed to carve out a stable, consistent career that’s earned him a loyal following. In 2013, Lightburn is starting over, in a sense, with his debut solo effort MASS:LIGHT, a pseudo-concept album that boasts a dense electronic sound. I recently sat down with Lightburn in Toronto, and over a couple of pints we talked creative limitations, breaking out as a solo artist, and the dark state of the music industry.
Did you come at MASS:LIGHT with a certain sonic concept in mind? The album sounds as if texture, particularly your use of synths, took precedence over melodies and lyrics.
Well, in the Dears, we’ve always explored synthesis and electronic-type music; we’ve always had our fingers in that stuff sonically. But to me, [The Dears] is a rock band. You know, drums, bass, lots of guitars, face melters, jam sessions that go on for eight minutes. But there’s also this side of me personally, as an artist, who wants to explore these other textures. It wasn’t a rule from the outset, but I wanted to force myself to be more creative sonically, really push myself harder by creating limitations.
Yeah, or budgetary. You know, I didn’t want to throw a lot of money at this record. So, whatever was in my studio, that was it. I did invest in a couple of toys along the way: a Moog Prodigy which is a big part of the sound of this record. I didn’t want this to be a “gear” album either though. I didn’t want to go to too many synthesizers. For me, this was about limitations, so even though there’s a wall of guitars in the studio, maybe I can try and express myself without using the guitar.
Walk me through a bit of the process of making this album then.
I was alone the entire time. I engineered everything myself. I was telling somebody yesterday that it was like two years of the opening scene from Apocalypse Now, like, everything from crying to…I probably drank like 50 gallons of whiskey over the course of two years. I was really wallowing in the loneliness, like the loneliness of a truly solo project. I wanted to make a truly solo album all the way to the end, including the artwork and making the videos, everything DIY. I had help here and there, but I was spearheading the whole thing.
Is part of that process a way of distancing yourself from the inherent collaboration of being in a band?
Yeah, I wasn’t relying on anyone for opinions, no one was telling me what to do. It’s like, I turned 42 this year, I have two kids, and I’m starting to get a clearer sense of who I am and what I want to achieve as an artist and I think this was the definitive work. Not that my music career is winding down; it’s more that my artistic career is winding up and I want to diversify and do a lot more things. This was a really good way to define who I am as an artist, how I want to work and how I want to refine that for the rest of my career.
How much of the DIY approach, of setting limitations on recording, comes from a fear of complacency after having been in the industry for quite a while?
I think it’s a safe thing to make the same record over and over. It’s easy for everyone—for everyone that’s working with you, for the business. To me, it’s incredibly boring. You know, there’s always a familiar bag of tricks sitting in the room when you make a record, and it’s hard not to reach into it when recording. With this record, I went in with nothing, no bags of tricks. I wanted to find new tools because I felt like I had been relying, as an artist, on those bags of tricks for the last 10 years at least. And then when you go out into the industry, everything is done the same. It’s hard to reach a lot of people outside of that system; I don’t have that power. If I did, I would completely reinvent the way people consume music. And then I wouldn’t have to rely on the system that exists.
Well, there will be people who like the system the way it is and want to squash anything I have to say about it, because they don’t want people to think independently; they want them to think homogenously. Homogenization is the corporate world’s best friend. As in, “We make a lot of money doing it this way, it’s a factory, get with the program.”
It’s a catch-22 in some ways, in that you have to be enough of a brand, you have to hold enough cultural capital to even get away with the slightest challenge to expectations and industry standards.
Yeah, but I’m not trying to make a big deal of it. I’m not writing essays about how shitty the music industry is. I’m still operating within the business, but at an arm’s length. Look at a thing like Kickstarter, which is coming to Canada now. Now Universal is harnessing Kickstarter to start Uvinyl, and it’s like, they’re taking something that’s meant for people who don’t have that kind of capital. Like, you fucking assholes! It sickens me. Now it’s going to happen all the time. You’ll see Bell is doing a Kickstarter for a new kind of phone, shit like that. And the worst part is that it seems like people are just kind of accepting it. It’s so fucking dark, dude. I have to be careful, though, because I want to be off the grid, but I know I have to interact with the grid.