Population II interview Montreal band

How new music by Population II was inspired by apples, wine and sin

An interview with the Montreal psychedelic jazz-funk band, whose latest release, the Serpent Échelle EP, is as biblical as it is homegrown.

It’s not often you hear a krautrocky psychedelic jazz-funk band making references to phrases like “tokébec icitte” in their lyrics — but Population II are not your average psychedelic jazz-funk band.

The trio, comprised of singing drummer Pierre-Luc Gratton, guitarist/keyboardist Tristan Lacombe and bassist Sébastien Provençal have generated plenty of buzz through their dizzying, jammy, musically complex (and heavily improvisational) tracks, as well as their ferociously energetic and airtight live shows. Their band name comes from Randy Holden’s same-named 1970 psychedelic metal album.

Their sophomore album, Électrons libres du québec, dropped in October on Bonsound, generating buzz for them both locally and outside Quebec. Now, the trio are about to unleash more new music in the form of a four-track EP titled Serpent Échelle (that’s French for “snakes and ladders”), due April 19.

In an interview via Zoom from their rehearsal space, Lacombe and Provençal told me that the EP is essentially a continuation from where their last full-length left off. “They were songs we felt didn’t fit on the record, but at the same time, it was heartbreaking (to cut them), because we thought they were very good songs,” says Lacombe.

Some tracks have been gestating for quite a while now, too: for example, the band has been playing the EP’s opening number “Hélène” live for four or five years now. Three of its songs were also made around the same time as Électrons libres du québec

The instrumental track, “Le Serpent,” was recorded during the sessions for their debut album, 2020’s À la Ô Terre, and was first laid down by the band in December 2018. Lacombe tells us the track had been recorded for 20 minutes before cutting it down. Second track “R.B.” was also initially planned as Électrons libres du québec’s first single.

So why get these songs out in the world merely six months after their last full-length? It’s essentially a companion piece to that album, if you ask Provençal.

“All of these songs were written in a time where we were structuring the songwriting more,” he adds. “We felt that they didn’t fit on Électrons libres, but they had their own place. We created a small oasis of weird songs — the little bastard child brother (of the LP).  Électrons libres has a clear direction. The little brother’s like, ‘I want to do everything.’”

Traces of a wide range of genres can be heard in the band’s music: psychedelia, jazz, funk, electronic, punk, progressive rock, art rock and krautrock, to name a handful.

Provençal attributes the jazz and funk influences specifically to Lacombe’s dad. “Tristan and I, we’ve known each other for 15 years or something like that,” he continues. “(His) father had a big impression on us. 

“He’s like, ‘Hey, if you come down to jam with us, you’ve got to listen to Funkadelic, Bootsy Collins… He gave us a bunch of good records. We decided to explore (stuff that was) more out there. He would listen to Miles Davis, but he wouldn’t listen to (his funk-influenced 1972 album) On the Corner. We’re like, ‘Hey, listen to this!’ He’s like, ‘This is weird, guys!’ But we’re like, ‘Hey, the weirder the better!’”

In case you were wondering: no, the title didn’t come from them playing a round of the board game. “We wanted to have a title that referred to the lyrics,” says Lacombe. 

“A bunch of lyrics were dealing with apples, wine and sins. It was a biblical reference. Also, it was a nod to a prog band we love called Gilgamesh. They have a record (where) the cover is a game of Snakes and Ladders. It was mostly for fun.”

Additional inspiration for the title came from their own environment. The members of Population II formed the band in the Lower Laurentians — more specifically, the 7,000-population municipality of Saint-Joseph-du-Lac. Not only is it a place that helped shape the band’s creative process, it’s also a town with apple orchards needing to be accessed using a ladder. Drummer/lead vocalist Gratton hails from nearby Pointe-Calumet, home of the soon-to-be-defunct Beachclub.

“(That area) is kind of a swampy place. It’s kind of trashy,” Lacombe says. “It’s a very good vibe, and it feels good because that’s where we started to play music. The houses are cheap, and I guess that’s where our parents could afford to live. It’s a very calm and beautiful place, not too far from the city.”

Given how the area is a good place to cultivate food and drink, the members of Population II have side hobbies in that realm. Gratton makes wine, while Provençal makes beer and maple syrup. This begs the question: can fans expect Population II-branded beer or maple syrup soon?

“We’d really love to make some sort of weird product for the merch table, that’s for sure,” Provençal says while he and Lacombe are laughing. Lacombe later tells us the band also want to start making their own Troll dolls, as they have a huge collection of them.

“We call (Pierre-Luc’s) wine ‘Pépérino’ or ‘Pépévino’. Wine would be more our thing (to sell) than maple syrup for now, though. We’ll see!”

A press release for the EP (which they’re also releasing in limited edition cassette tape form with exclusive hidden tracks) details it as putting an emphasis on “wilder, more adventurous sounds and a heavier atmosphere.”

Lacombe attributes most of that quote to the guitars on second track “R.B.” being “pretty gnarly and extremely saturated,” as well as “Hélène” sounding more intense than many of their other tunes.

“Our next record that we’re working on now, we’re going even wilder,” says Lacombe, who also tells me they’re already playing some of those tracks live. “We have another album maybe 90% done.”

Provençal adds that they have more songs to fit onto another album or LP, but the plan for now is to release the EP and finish their upcoming full-length. “We’re all gas, and it’s not us hitting the brakes,” Lacombe adds while laughing.

The band has also just gotten back from Austin, TX, where they played several shows at SXSW. They’ll also play a run of U.S. dates later in April opening for L.A. psych-rockers Meatbodies, with several shows in Quebec and the rest of Canada — including festivals — scheduled for the summer.

As far as the rest of the year goes, Population II hope to tour Europe during the fall, in addition to their upcoming U.S. tour with Meatbodies and planned summer dates in Quebec. “We’ve never truly done a lot of shows in Quebec other than Quebec City, Montreal, Trois-Rivières and Sherbrooke,” admits Lacombe.

The trio have also been described as a band “dedicated to its disengagement,” something Lacombe says is partially representative of their role within Montreal’s musical ecosystem.

“We always felt like outcasts,” he says. “There’s a beautiful music scene here, but we’re that weird black sheep in the corner — a face-melting explosion of punky riffs. We’re dedicated to doing our own thing.” ■

For more on Population II, please visit their Bandcamp.

This article was originally published in the April 2024 issue of Cult MTL. 

For more Montreal music coverage, please visit the Music section.