Experience makes the difference: in conversation with Fly Pan Am

It’s Friday, Sept. 28, 2018, an early autumn evening. Crisp but not yet chilly. Dogs bark at the dog park. In the distance, green clouds flirt with the Big O. Streets are closed. The metro is broken. These are givens. I am on my way to visit with Fly Pan Am, who have recently announced their intention to play live together for the first time in 14 years — a momentous occasion if ever there was one, but also one that’s threatened to be overlooked amidst a climate of meaningless comebacks and reboots. But the venerable artists’ return is already the stuff of local legend.

During their hiatus, each of Fly Pan Am’s members has been busy. Drummer Félix Morel also plays in the psychedelic no-wave band No Negative; Roger Tellier-Craig releases far-out electronic music eponymously and with le Révélateur; Jonathan Parant is a sound designer for theatre and dance; Jean-Sébastien Truchy is a member of Constellation label mates Avec le soleil sortant de sa bouche, and founder of the cult cassette imprint Los Discos Enfantasmes. No flies on these lads.

An election is scheduled in the province of Quebec for Oct. 1. Political propaganda mars every corner under construction, every impassable intersection. I ask nobody in particular what the outcome will be. Someone answers, “I think a politician will win.” This is how our conversation goes, among four very clever, very wry and multi-talented fellows who are set to take the stage by storm.

Ryan Diduck: Why reform, why now?

Jean Sébastien Truchy: Do I joke or not? The first thing I think about is Johnny Rotten when he was asked why the Sex Pistols got back together. He just straight up said, “We want your money.”

[laughs]

JST: I don’t remember if there was an exact moment or reason, but I think talking with Roger over the years, not necessarily about Fly Pan Am, but just enjoying each other’s music, and the music of everyone in the band. So the idea of seeing what we could do now after all we’ve done separately and see how that could come together and perhaps be in a way that would be really interesting, and something that we had never done before.

Roger Tellier-Craig: Also I think that there was always — on my part with the first version of Fly Pan Am — there was always a frustration of not being able to do the electronic stuff I wanted to do, because I didn’t know how to do it. Now we have a better idea of how to do stuff with synthesizers and computers. Finally this is an opportunity to make music in a way that I personally always wanted to do in the band, which was really a merging of technology and rock tropes. There was no interest to necessarily revisit old material. It wasn’t out of the question, but we’re not reforming so we can play the old tracks. It’s really more like, let’s see where we’re at now, what we can do. We’ve always been interested in looking forward. It’s not a nostalgia for the old music we made, it’s more like, what can we do now?

JST: Since we started playing, I think it’s been two years now. We didn’t tell anyone. The idea was always that we would play together: if something good comes out of it, great; if not, too bad. And we’ve actually never played an old song.

RTC: But it kind of takes off where the last record stopped. It relates to N’écoutez pas. It’s connected.

RD: What’s the difference between Fly Pan Am then and now?

RTC: We had kind of said what we could where we were at. All of us needed a breath of fresh air. We all needed to try things differently.

JST: My understanding is for now, we’re fairly…

RTC: Classic rock.

JST: Yeah, people generally have a problem understanding songs the way we understand them. I don’t know if they’ll be perceived as Classic. At least structurally, we’re more Classic than ever. The songs are four to six minutes.

RTC: It’s all still album format. It’s our generation, maybe.

JST: Solo wise, when I was working with cassettes, it was easier to do longer or shorter formats.

RTC: Most of our tracks are at the most five or six minutes.

JST: Four or five. It might change. I’ve never had a band with such short songs.

RTC: None of this is conscious. We didn’t set out to make five-minute tracks.

JST: Time was never an issue.

Félix Morel: People have a shorter attention span now. They just click on something else. But if it’s on Netflix, they’ll listen to it.

[laughs]

RD: Do you care about an audience?

RTC: We’ve always done music for ourselves in pretty much everything we’ve done. That doesn’t mean we don’t care if people like it. There’s something I’m not hearing out in the world, and I want to do it. It doesn’t mean that it sounds that unique, but this is the way I’m looking at it. If people like it, that’s great.

Jonathan Parant: I personally don’t feel good if I don’t create. And music is the medium. If I’m not creative, I don’t feel good at all. I’m way more awkward. When I receive feedback from anything I do musically, I care about what I receive. But that’s it. I would do it even if I were alone. On the planet.

RTC: And I’m sure you don’t care if the feedback is negative.

JP: No.

RTC: We’re used to getting — whether it’s our solo music or with Fly Pan Am at the time — there’s always been a lot of negative…

JP: “Chinese Water Torture.” One critic said that about our first record.

RTC: Yeah, there’s one track on the first record that we very intentionally repeat the same note for eleven minutes.

JP: Actually, it’s two notes.

RTC: Oh yeah, you’re right!

JP: It’s B and B# I think, but it makes some sort of a tension, non-stop.

JST: Though it’s also been described as “breathtaking beauty.” The Wire said that.

RTC: It’s all a question of perspective.

FM: When I read “Chinese Water Torture”, I almost took it as a compliment.

[laughs]

JP: When I compose music with an instrument or a computer, I don’t use this moment to think about others. I know they are out there. But there’s also objects and plants. I am conscious that everything exists around me.

JST: At the beginning of Fly Pan Am, we pushed ourselves to come out with something special. Not necessarily something completely new, but stuff that others weren’t doing, as far as we knew, because it was harder to know at that time. We’ve just continued to do that in our own directions. If I’m completely honest about the question, the time I start worrying about others is when I give the masters to someone. That’s when I start doubting everything. But before that, I’ll try to push myself to the max. I think we all share that.

RTC: Yeah, you can always doubt if the people you’re working with are going to like it, but that’s a different question. As far as audiences go, I don’t have any control over that. We’ve never worked that way. And we’ve also been kind of intentionally obnoxious. That’s part of what we are.

RD: What’s special about this place?

JP: This question. I always answer it when I go out of Montreal. I really understand where I live when I go out of here. I always have a fantasy of leaving this place. I would love to have a map of all the construction.

JST: There is one online. It’s just a sea of orange.

JP: Bike-riding is absurd. The street is closed, and then there’s a bike path in the wrong direction on a one-way. Half of it is closed, and then you turn left into a big container or something. C’est comme, wow!

JST: I remember when we first started touring, I was thinking of staying in Europe, or maybe even moving to Europe. But then, every time I’d come back, I’d feel like Montreal is this nice little mixture of everything.

RTC: I agree.

JST: And on top of that, you add the fact that it’s pretty cheap, and it’s pretty nice.

RTC: It’s not overwhelming. I just came back from Buenos Aires, and it was fucking awesome, but living there would be insane. There’s people everywhere, all the fucking time. Montreal is pretty relaxed.

FM: Every time I go to New York, it’s cool, but living there? People all over the place, everything is super high. You can’t even see the sky.

RTC: I don’t think Montreal directly inspires us, but it definitely has an impact on the way we work, and maybe on the way we are as people.

JST: And as artists, because of the fact that it’s cheap, you know, we can actually still do this in our 40s, and we’re still worrying about money, and we still don’t have money, but if we lived in New York or Paris, it would be so much harder.

JP: One of my friends used to live in a van in Brooklyn. Even parking his van was half of what I pay in rent a month. That’s just for a parking spot.

[I bring up the old Constellation Manifesto.]

RTC: A lot of people talk about Spotify being the new enemy.

FM: But I know people who’ve bought the actual record because they heard it on Spotify. Or they’ll come to the show. Otherwise, they would never have heard it.

JST: It’s good that those outlets exist. It would be nice to have a bigger share.

RTC: That’s for sure.

JST: But I’m not opposed to file sharing and streaming. Just because I know that Spotify is an example. People are well paid there. The share we get is insignificant. It would be great if there were a bigger share for musicians. But at the same time, I think that it’s good. It happened to Fly Pan Am where…

RTC: Oh yeah, you were talking about that the other day…

JST: …someone put one of our tracks on a mix, and we ended up making money, and that’s how I experienced the fact that we only get a small share. But without outlets like that, some people had probably never heard of us before that mix.

JP: Honestly, I just don’t trust them. I just don’t trust big corporations. It’s confusing for me. I don’t trust Spotify. I don’t think it’s an enemy, but I don’t go there because I don’t like it. Searching is difficult. One of my friends told me: “just put your music on non-stop on a loop so you can get some share.”

[laughs]

JP: I did it a few times at the gym. Not listening to it, I turned down the volume. But here’s the thing: you type the name of the band and it’s not the album or the song that appears. There’s other stuff. Compilations appear first. You need to scroll and search.

JST: I wonder if that’s done on purpose because people may not necessarily be interested in the band or a record, but might just want a playlist? Maybe that’s how we consume now. Like, oh, that’s a playlist that got a lot of plays, so I’ll play that.

FM: Or it’s a playlist by a famous artist, like Kanye West.

JST: Do people actually relate to records like they used to?

RTC: It’s hard to know.

FM: Even Beyoncé, she’s got three or four good songs on a record. The record is crap but there’s three hits, so it’s amazing.

RTC: Then there’s people like Frank Ocean, though.

JP: Yeah, but he releases a shitload of singles, too. I like Rihanna and Beyoncé and I was listening to their records, but if you go on YouTube, it looks like they release records all the time, but they’re just singles. Some of them aren’t on the record. I’m exaggerating because I don’t know the numbers, but there could be another record’s worth of singles in between albums, and I’m like, when did they do this? It’s pretty amazing.

JST: Whatever it is, it needs to be played a lot to make a shitload of money on Spotify. I remember looking at how many times our playlist had been played and then looking at the amount we were paid. I don’t want to say a number. How much did we get, a thousand dollars?

RTC: I don’t remember.

JST: I think it was something like that. But then the number it had been played was insane.

FM: Millions.

JST: So I’d be curious to see really how much it generated, and how much came to us. How many times would it have to play for us to make a shitload of money?

[I tell them it’s something like 0.006 cents per play.] [laughs]

FM: That’s why all these artists like Rihanna and Beyoncé have to tour constantly, because they don’t sell CDs anymore. And make clothes and make shit appearances.  Everything except releasing a record, because people don’t buy the CDs. They’ll go on YouTube, from Spotify, from everything, the tour, the t-shirts, and the clothes, and the socks. Even the big ones like Kanye West and Madonna have to tour constantly. It wasn’t like that before. They would do a world tour for like three months, and be in the studio for the rest of the year.

RD: Are you excited for your gig?

RTC: The first show is a weird thing, you know.

JST: One of my sons this morning came in the house and said, “Hey, are you excited? Everyone’s talking about it.” I don’t know who “everyone” is, but he’s on Facebook and he says, “So, are you excited?” And I’m like, uh… I don’t know. I’m happy for it. I’m scared. And I’m looking forward to the last note.

RTC: The thing is, we haven’t done this in years, and obviously, you have to start somewhere. We wanted this to be low-key, saying hi. But there’s still going to be people there. I haven’t sung in fucking ten years.

JP: It’s true. You’re singing, so you have more pressure.

RTC: Singing and playing guitar at the same time, I’m like, Jesus Christ! I want it to sound okay.

JP: I love the new material. I wouldn’t play a show just to play a show because they’re my good friends. We actually really worked. It’s fucking new material and we love it. I’m excited for the songs, the pieces, more than playing live. But the first one after fourteen years has to mean something. It triggers nervous curiosity.

JST: I think we’re at a place that we really like. I think we’ve reached a point where it’s actually good. So we can now open the door to the world and say, hey, we’re back.

RTC: It’s a learning curve, and this is a modest first step.

JST: Plus the fact that we can now play with our laptops. It was great to play with four tracks at that time. But now we can actually do so much more. I think we’re really good working on music in our rooms. And now we have to learn to do it live with a band. If we all play solo, we know how to do it, but doing it with a band, that’s what we’re starting to learn now. ■

Fly Pan Am play with opener Kee Avil at Dazibao (5455 de Gaspé #109) on Saturday, Oct. 20, 9 p.m., $15 in advance

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