Creating their own Big Bang: A talk with Stephen Ramsay of Young Galaxy

"It's all a trial-and-error thing. Sometimes you overcompensate when you haven't learned to play these songs as a band," laughs Young Galaxy's Stephen Ramsay. "The first tour we did with The Dears, we went out and had done some vocal lessons and we listened to some recordings after and were like, 'No, no!' We have to find the happy medium."

- Dara Hakimzadeh
Photo by Victor Tavares

posted March 8, 2007

Creating their own Big Bang: A talk with Stephen Ramsay of Young Galaxy
     Inside the former Ottawa Central Station, Young Galaxy frontman Stephen Ramsay offers some food from the buffet table before explaining he pretty much can't eat anything on it because he's trying to abstain from having flour. Instead, the Nanaimo, B.C. native and Montreal, Que.-based musician has been eating mostly manna bread a suggestion from roommate Susan Beckette.

     "It's whole-sprouted grains that you just pack together. It's moist and it's kind of sweet," he says of the manna bread. "The big thing about this cleanse is that you have nothing to put your stuff on. Now because you can't have crackers or bread, the stuff that holds all your food is gone."

     Ramsay coyly jokes about YG endorsing the diet before answering questions about the band and its connection to Montreal.

     "It was the polar opposite of Vancouver, where I'd come from. I was feeling inspired by the surroundings and the people I'd met," he says. "I think Vancouver has the classic scenario of being a place where you live to work instead of work to live, which is what Montreal is like it's still relatively inexpensive and a lot of people come there because it's cheap. [Critics] talk about Portland and Berlin being these places that have a lot of great bands and it's partly because it's a relatively cheap place to live in comparison to most major cities in the world. You still get the important cultural stuff happening under your nose but you're not enslaved by your need to make rent as much as in a place like Vancouver."

     Initially, the band was just Ramsay writing songs alone in his bedroom, but then girlfriend Catherine McCandless decided to join.

     "We finish each others' sentences literally when we're writing," says Ramsay. "I think the nature of people's relationships changes when they write together and they either become close or they hate each other. It develops into something a lot more galvanized in terms of an emotional exchange.

     "I know music is very subjective in terms of how music hits you and what kind of music hits you, but I've always liked the kind of music where musicians have taken the risk and said something very direct emotionally," he continues, and offers an example from his youth. "Even with Morrissey, when he was in The Smiths and he'd talk with the mannerisms of a sixteen-year-old, at the time, being sixteen, it felt like he was speaking directly to me."

     Upon returning from the road with The Stars as its tour guitarist, Ramsay decided to focus on his own band. In 2005 and 2006, Ramsay, McCandless and a few friends recorded the band's self-titled debut at Breakglass Studio in Montreal.

     "It's an old Guilden T-shirt factory," he says of the 3,000-square-foot studio. "My dad had one of those sparkle-print t-shirts. It was a picture of a pirate holding a martini and it said Playboy across it. Classic '70s stuff." Jace Lasek, of the band The Besnard Lakes, owns the studio with his partner Dave. "Making the record was like patch-work with no real band in mind with no line up," remarks Ramsay.

     After the record was made, YG signed with Arts & Crafts and formed a live band. "We turned where anyone would: to your own backyard," says Ramsay. "Montreal is so helpful in that way, that you can just put the word out and go out for a drink with friends and half the people are in bands or know somebody and you can just put it together so easily."

     Lasek added a classic rock feel to the record, says Ramsay. "He's particularly fond of vintage techniques: tape recording using beautiful amps and microphones that give you that warm stuff," he says.

     "The studio nerds will tell you 'tape is the only way, you can hear the difference.' Digital is catching up. There's a thing called RADAR, which is basically a tape simulator. Now they simulate everything, even the simulators are simulated," he adds with a laugh.

     Ramsay jokingly describes the album as "a moonlit ship-wreck, Malaysia 1973: A Malaysian girl pulls you from the sea and warms your breath with hers and from that moment on your life will change forever and you're now touched by something strange and wonderful.

     "Or I could say it's like warm flames shooting out of your spine and gently cupping your nether regions," he added with a laugh.

     The band's first single is set to be Outside The City, for which a video by Ivan Grbovic is being shot in Montreal and along the coast of Maine. "He's a hot-shot filmmaker that tends to make French hip-hop videos," says Ramsay of Grbovic. "He's totally into the idea and it's going to be very filmic with a storyline."

     The next hurdle for the band is figuring out how to present the album to an audience while touring, says Ramsay.

     "Some of the songs were written in 2001," he admits. "Now we're just playing them for the first time as a band and learning how to work the dynamics. If you add four people and everyone brings their own style, generally speaking, it's going to be a little less gentle and I realize many of the vocals on the record are very breathy.

     "It's all a trial-and-error thing. Sometimes you overcompensate when you haven't learned to play these songs as a band," laughs Ramsay. "The first tour we did with The Dears, we went out and had done some vocal lessons and we listened to some recordings after and were like, 'No, no!' We have to find the happy medium.

     "I'm sure at some point we'll start rebalancing what you hear on the record and how it sounds now, but right now we're a little aggressive," he suggests. "I think the trend in music in the last few years has been very flamboyant in a way. It's about getting people to dance and getting people to stick their chests out and strut.

     "Art has a really phenomenal function. You can see an hour-and-a-half film or listen to a four-minute song and it can change a person's perspective. It may not necessarily change their life or what they do day-to-day," he says observantly. "I just want to be a part of that.

     "I want people to laugh and cry and fuck and do everything they can to this record," he concludes, "and if they want to be bored and put it on as dinner music, go for it. I just want people to connect to it. I can't be pedantic in how I want people to change."

     YG will be at the South By Southwest (SXSW) Music Festival in Austin, TX in mid-March.