Canadian two-piece TRAITRS are frontrunners in the new wave of post punk/coldwave bands. They started in 2015 and have consistently worked on building their fan base ever since through playing live and several releases; their first full length album “Butcher’s Coin” came out in 2018.
Our editor Jimi already met them last year to talk about the album release, missed opportunities, and pain, hurt and happiness. So when they played Hamburg this time around, we talked about song writing, production and how they bring their band-oriented sound to the stage, just being a duo. In the previous chat they mentioned their goal to have an album out every year, just like The Cure in the early days. But the year is almost up and no album is out – which probably has to do with the level of international touring they’ve done, not leaving a lot of time to even think about anything else.
Standing on the steps of stairs in the Hamburg harbour area with low hanging clouds above us, we launch into a chat about their musical backgrounds prior to starting the band. And of course it started to rain, this is Hamburg after all.
Here, there and everywhere: Touring all over for a year
Since the release of “Butcher’s Coin” last year TRAITRS have toured relentlessly. They are already playing Hamburg for the second time this year, in February they were here as support for Holygram. The willingness to tour is one of the key requirements for any band today, it is quite hard to earn a living as a “recording artist” in the age of unlimited streaming: So how do they cope with being on the road so much?
How much did you tour since you released your album in May 2018?
Shawn: (laughs) Yeah, how much did we tour? We did a July tour in 2018, a fall tour, we did February and March 2019 in Europe and Scandinavia.
So you manage to live off the TRAITRS project, no day jobs?
Sean: We do! We don’t do anything (laughs). Shawn and I do small things on the side, but nothing major.
Shawn: Especially to come from Canada and to disappear for a month or two months, or like in this instance three months at a time, you can’t have a [steady] job with just two weeks of vacation. You need that it’s sort of “unstable” in that sense, because there are times where you’re just like: “You know we’re a little tight for our bills and rent.”
But it’s worth it in the long run, because people back home always say that not everybody gets this opportunity to actually go and live as an artist, and to work and live off your music. It’s something that we do not take for granted, especially because of how long it’s taken for us to do it. That wasn’t the case on the previous tour.
In my preparation for the interview I noticed that there’s not much information about your past, prior to TRAITRS. I read somewhere that you already knew each other before TRAITRS started. Could you tell me a bit about what you did before?
Shawn: Yeah, we were friends and we sort of bonded over enjoying the same kind of music, just post punk and a lot of the newer wave of bands.
Did you do music before, I mean in other bands?
Sean: Yeah, I had other projects here and there. But I don’t think Shawn did that much?
Shawn: No, not that much. I mean, I had other projects here and there when I was younger but I wouldn’t count high school bands as being something, that’s like a learning process. And then there were bands that I played with in university. But when I went to university, I kind of had enough of it a little bit. I was just not working with the right people, and that sucked the fun out of playing music, and I thought ”Ok, I am just going to focus on English literature and try to be a writer or something”.
I sort of shifted my focus and kind of not even thought about even touching gear or doing anything musical for years. And then I met Sean – it was actually the year I was graduating university – and we started talking about old post punk bands and the newer crop that was coming around at the time, like Interpol and Bloq Party, and just bonding over that. That kind of drew me into it and then it still took a while to figure out what we wanted to do.
There was a period of just learning how to run music software, and learning how to make drum beats. You know, we’ve never worked with a drummer.
Sean: I was living in the UK before I met him, and I was kind of trying to do that whole band thing at that time.
With Shawn, early, early on, we just started to learn what exactly we were going to do, like if we’re not going to have a full band, how would the two of us do it? We had to learn programs like Ableton and Reason, and just kind of dip our toes in. And we started dabbling with a lot of electronics at that time.
Because I’d played guitar in previous bands, I figured I didn’t want to play guitar so much in the beginning, and we started TRAITRS almost as an electronic project in the beginning.
Sure, we do like electronic artists, but we didn’t want to be an electronic act. We found that a lot of electronic acts are kind of – sorry – a little bit boring live. I mean, sure you can go in there with great aesthetics and it’s great, but the energy isn’t there. We wanted to see if we could just take two people making it easy to get around. Everything’s much simpler with our decisions and the writing was easier, and that’s kind of really how this started.
Shawn: A big part of losing the electronic part of it – which is kind of funny, because now I think we’re bringing some of those tricks that we learnt back into our music – was when I was programming drums.
I was making them sound like somebody was playing them. I would watch tutorials on how The Police would write their drum beats, and actually watch drummers play and program the drums so it sounds like somebody’s actually playing, as opposed to very electronic kind of drum machine sounding stuff. It is important for us for it to feel like a band.
Production values: Song writing and working with producer Josh Korody
It is always interesting to hear how bands write and work in the studio, as everyone seems to have their own recipe. TRAITRS have worked with studio owner and producer Josh Korody since they started. He co-owns a studio in Toronto with Leon Taheny and is a proper gear-nerd according to the guys, which includes building his own wall of modular synthesis – a dangerously addictive pastime that knows no end and can take up ALL available space.
Your producer Josh Korody, what is his involvement and influence?
Shawn: He’s a huge part of it…
Sean: …not the writing though.
Shawn: We bring him everything structured already, for the most part, like sometimes we’ll bring some of the longer tracks as “Heretic” on our first album: That was just a sort of a big piece that we did structure in the studio with him once Sean had the vocals set out.
He’s great because Sean and I, with just two of us, we do feel like we do hit a wall at some point where we know a track is maybe 85% there, but we don’t know what that other 15% is. And Josh is really great there.
Sean: We take our demos in and we’re like “This is what we have”, and sometimes we’ll try and keep it a little bit open that he can see maybe another part that we won’t think of. He’s got a really good ear for what we do.
Shawn: He works with a huge collective group of bands, like with hardcore bands or very indie-sounding bands and more dreamy pop and shoegaze.
Sean: And it’s exciting for him because he can tackle into it and hear something different. He has a shoegaze background, too.
Shawn: He also has a modular synth side project, a solo project called Nailbiter which he actually started around the same time that he started working with us. And he was learning meaning we were able to see him build it. He had just a couple just little filters and oscillators.
At first probably?
Shawn: Yeah! And now he’s got this huge rig set up, and it’s really cool. He likes working with us because he feels he can experiment and try some of this new stuff that he is learning too. It’s really cool because he’ll come up with ideas that we just won’t have ourselves.
Shawn: It could be small textures or it could be like sequencing or just rhythm. Our demos actually are very close to the final project, the “final cut” of everything. But still, at the same time, without him putting that extra edge on it…
It would be interesting to work with someone else at this point because we’ve only ever really worked with Josh.
Sean: And we have a really good rapport with him. He really understands not just our sound but how we work. We feel very comfortable there, not comfortable like we’re not being challenged but comfortable in the sense that we have so much trust in him, and he trusts that what we’re bringing we work very hard on.
How do you write? Do you start with a drum beat, or a riff, lyrics?
Shawn: Yes, Sean and I will talk a lot about rhythms because, especially for the two of us not having a drummer, the drums really shape how we enter into tracks. We might have a more kind of “ethereal” idea of a song, and the drums will sort of guide it, or shape it, early on.
Then Sean and I write like we’re a three-piece band and the laptop is just the drums. I play my keys with the octaves down really low, I’m basically just shaping the chord patterns before, and just trying to help Sean find the melody. And we just improvise and jam it up.
Sean: Right now we are halfway through our new record. We wrote a couple tracks, like in Copenhagen, while being on tour, which is the first time we’ve ever done that.
Sean: We actually discuss what we think we need [for an album]. Sometimes we say “Ok, this is the BPM we want, we want to start with this kind of a tempo”. And then we go “Ok, we’ll do two like that, we’ll do four like this and three like that”.
Talking about songs, how did “Omen” come about for instance?
Sean: Oh, that was the drums, it does definitely come from the drums. I play all the bass as well. Once I can hear the drum I can almost hear a bass line and then it will help me form my melody.
What do you use for programming your drums?
Shawn: Honestly, I just use Reason. It’s a very stripped-down approach. What I like about it is that it’s kind of hard to make it sound good, and you have to really work hard at it. I’m running a really, really old version of it, but I kind of like how stripped back it is.
Do you use Redrum or the NN-XT sampler? [Both are devices in the Reason software.]
Shawn: Redrum and NN-XT, I use both of those things. It’s really good, but I like the “less is more” approach. We’ll use what I write on Reason, like for a templating, and then when we go into the studio.
We’ll run a lot of drums through modular synths and we’ll do a lot of different kind of things.
But do you program the drums in Ableton and then use Rewire, to use the sounds in Reason or do you really program them in Reason?
Shawn: We only used Ableton Live for a very brief amount of time, I just rip the stems off of Reason and then put them in Live’s sampler.
Sean: When we go into the studio we take the synthetic drum and we actually will have real, organic drums over it, and we’ll kind of amalgamate the two together.
Shawn: Yeah, we always wind up recording live toms and crash cymbals in the studio, it’s a hybrid.
Sean: Because we want a humanistic element to it, right? You want it to sound as human as possible, you want it to sound kind of like – well, we want to sound like a band! (laughs)
Shawn: Yeah, that was important to us and learning how to use the electronics better. And using them more to create atmosphere and tone as opposed to having them sort of dominate the track.
New album in 2020: The ‘inner mass murderer’ is ready to come out
A track I find really interesting on “Butcher’s Coin” is “Lovely Wounded”. It‘s a song that really stands out from all the others. Speaking about your future music, will it be more exploring new directions like that particular song?
Shawn: It’s really important for Sean and I, especially in this genre, to find our own voice and our own identity, and it’s good to have things, like starting points kind of. It’s not enough to just be like a revival band or just to sound like all of these old bands. For us it’s about really discovering what TRAITRS is and what our identity is, and what our sound is. That definitely comes from adding elements.
For the new record I’ve been writing a lot of stuff on piano. That doesn’t necessarily mean that piano will be on the final version, but just thinking about how we write things differently. Same with the drums; how can we approach these songs or come into them from a different angle and different perspectives. It’s not just like the same kind of “gothy music”. I mean, it always works and it is tremendous, but it’s like “What else are you doing?”.
Sean: It is interesting though because “Lovely Wounded” was the last track that we decided when we were choosing what was going to go on. That was a particular track that we thought “This is us, let’s just let it go”, because a track like that does show change.
Shawn: And we put it in a very specific spot, we put it in the middle of the album on purpose. We discussed that as sort of being a turning point.
Listeners might think they know where we’re coming from. I don’t like that, I want there to still be this element of surprise and trying to push our sound in different directions. That track, “The Lovely Wounded”, is the one, probably more than any other track, that people come up to and they really connect with it emotionally, which is more than anything the whole point of why we play music in the first place – to actually connect with that.
Sometimes I find with some of the more “gothy” music, that it it’s dancey, and it sounds good, but I’m not connecting emotionally to it. I feel a sense of detachment, which is a part of the aesthetic too and part of the point. But that’s not what we want, we want people to feel hurt and sadness and support to remind them of things that they went through in their life.
About the forthcoming album; do you have any timeline yet?
Sean: For the next album we have five tracks cut right now. They are in their early, early recorded studio-version-state and we’re so excited. They’re sounding really great.
And no plans for an EP in between?
Sean: No, definitely not.
Shawn: No, it’ll be a full length. “Butcher’s Coin” was the longest piece that we had worked on, and we always talked about wanting to make complete albums. And I think, at the time we thought we did.
But I can listen to “Butcher’s Coin” now, and as proud as I am of that record and what it’s done for us, especially in the last year and a half since it came out, I hear things that we can do better. And I hear ideas that maybe weren’t fully realized, or maybe patterns that we kind of fell into, and it’s important to learn from your previous work and try to grow from it. We’re very excited to come in with a fresh perspective, and the new ideas are really interesting. I’m very excited to continue working on it.
But are there any horror movies left you can use for your lyrics?
Sean: There’s always a little something in there. This next album is changing a little bit. But yeah, there still is. There’s some, like French horror, that I kind of took some pieces from already. So yeah, I still love them. It’s interesting, from the beginning I felt like I could play with what I was doing with the words, and now it’s like, I’m intertwining with my own feelings.
Meaning that the inner mass murderer is finally coming out?
Sean: It’s finally coming out. I got my collection of axes ready.
Shawn: The sociopath is part of the game and brought to life, for sure. And yeah, I’m terrified, I have to be in a car with this guy for three months, so I’m scared, every minute. Just jerk the wheel.
“… so let me show you my new knife collection, Shawn…”
Sean: Oh, it’s hammers…
Shawn: …he’s all about hammers!
Now you are starting to scare me.
Shawn: Like: “What are you doing later? Where do you go? Are you parking nearby?”.
Sean: (laughs) Actually, I got some hammers in the trunk.
“Hamburg, I love it – it sounds like “hammer”.
Shawn: Yeah. Hammerburg, and it’s good.
Sean: Hammerburg (laughs).
And you were saying the album will be called “Hammering home”?
Shaun: Oh yeah, I’m fine with that. It’s going to have a big really cool-looking hammer on the cover, maybe some blood.
Shawn: So cool (laughs).
Sean: I really like how the next record’s shaping.
Shawn: I think people will be surprised. Even in the five tracks that we’ve demoed, although it’s not drastically different I think it’s something else.
So more in the sense that the sound has evolved?
Shawn: Definitely, and that’s the whole point! That’s the fun. I love when we can bring in a new component or a new idea, it’s almost like discovering a new part of a house that you didn’t know existed. It’s very exciting and it’s very creatively stimulating, and that’s what I feel TRAITRS is: there’s no shortage of ideas. If anything there’s almost too much!
After the photo session the dynamic duo went straight back to the club to set up and prepare for a storming gig at Hafenklang later that night.