The Luyas
Grande Royale
by Kevin J. Elliott

Editor’s note: As we’ve done in the past, for the month of January, our features will be focusing on up-and-coming artists, what we call “rated rookies.” These musicians are making what we feel is the cream of a new crop, and we think you will (sooner or later) agree. Enjoy!

Any patron of the bustling, yet insulated, Montreal music scene has likely already been wooed by the whimsical art-pop of the Luyas. Through the lavishly conceptual live performances or their earnest 2007 debut, Faker Death, they have already established themselves as a supergroup of sorts on their home court. With next month’s sophomore effort, Too Beautiful to Work, poised to reach a much wider audience, it’s time for the world to become acquainted with the Luyas’ orchestral mischief and sparkling melodies.

With the Luyas’ members possessng a rich musical pedigree, one would imagine Too Beautiful to Work would be much more studied than it is organic and spirited, and the combination of Pietro Amato’s spooky French horn wails, Mathieu Charbonneau’s pulsating Wurlitzer lines, Stefan Schneider’s minimal and spatial percussion, and Jessie Stein’s icy coos and strange Moodswinger (a type of 12-string zither) tumult shouldn’t work on paper. But together they’ve found a common plane on which to create atmospheric and truly spellbinding pop music. On the surface, songs like the haunting “Canary” and the heartbeat crashes of “Tiny Head,” tend to float by without allowing for a conscious rendering of what is being heard. That imagined dream state, a testament to just how well the quartet hides their influences and weaves a pattern of disparate instruments, continues for the duration of Too Beautiful to Work. There’s really nothing to which to compare the album besides perhaps Björk’s grand sweeps (but that’s only because of Stein’s fragile voice) and Stereolab’s retro-futuristic movement (and that’s only because of the band’s strategic velocity and choice of tone). In a day in age when aping the past is de rigor, what the Luyas compose is exciting and refreshing—as was the conversation I had with Stein, who gave me the sense that the Luyas exist more as a collection of ceiling-busting artists continually inspiring each other than a traditional band going through the motions.

I’m interested in what led to the creation of the Luyas. It looks like you’ve been a band for a few years, but before that you were all in different bands in Montreal. How did you come together?

Jessie Stein: Well, we’ve known each other since 2000. Those guys all went to music school together. They played in bands together around Montreal during that time. Pietro and Stefan were in Bell Orchestre for almost 10 years and they also were in a band called Torngat, so those guys are like family. I saw Torngat play in Toronto when I was 18 and we became friends after that. We played in an indie band that nobody knew and nobody really needs to know. When I moved back to Montreal we started playing together again because we were fans of each other’s work. It started very casually in December of 2006. I was also in a band called Miracle Fortress.

The band employs a number of unusual instruments, like the French horn for instance, in your music. So I’m curious to know if you all were classically trained musicians before forming a band. Did you meet in school?

JS: Not me. I didn’t ever go to school for music. Those guys are trained. They were all jazz students when they started, but they made quick work undoing all of the good that their teachers taught them. Now they’re just weird idea factories. As far as what they play, those are the instruments that they play. Everyone who came into the fold played what they played best. It was actually the most natural relationship I’ve ever had in my life. We’re not intentionally trying to be a novelty. It’s not as considered as you may think.

And you play the Moodswinger? How did you become attracted to that? Where did you learn to play it? It looks like a very rare instrument.

JS: What happened was I was playing in Miracle Fortress and we were touring in the Netherlands. One night the opening band wasn’t a band, but a lecture in Dutch by this experimental instrument maker named Yuri Landman, who is the inventor of the Moodswinger and a bunch of other strange instruments. I just loved the way it sounded. Since the lecture was in Dutch I had to ask him a ton of questions after the show. So we drank a little wine and I kept trying to convince him to build me something. He built the prototype for my Moodswinger for a guy in Liars and improved upon that and made me a really amazing instrument. I taught myself how to play it and I figured out my own technique for it. It’s not like a guitar. You can’t transfer your knowledge of stringed instruments onto a Moodswinger. It’s not tuned at all like a guitar.

Too Beautiful to Work includes a lot of guest musicians, like Owen Pallet and Sarah Neufield (of Arcade Fire). Were most of these players already friends of yours or did you recruit people to play on the record?

JS: It’s all much more organic than that. Owen was my roommate and has always been a good friend. He did all of the arrangements and called friends that play on his records to do those parts. Most of the recording is played just by the band. It’s not really a very orchestrally heavy record, but those are the moments that stick out. There are a lot of names in the liner notes, but they come in and out of the record in little flourishes.

Let’s talk about how you composed the record. A song like “Canary” could be played straight, with guitars and drums, but here it’s much more spatial, minimal, and as a result, more effective. So I’m interested to know how a song like this comes to form.

JS: It was actually pretty quick. I wrote it on the Moodswinger. We made an arrangement for it in a day, and the next day recorded it in the studio. It’s pretty simple. The whole recording process was very unconsidered. We did what felt right to us. There’s nothing really digital on the whole record. There are two synth parts, but they are almost invisible. Everything was performed. That’s important for our band, to have everything performed without any gimmickry. What you hear is what was played in the room. There might be a bit of echo, though.

Those orchestral moments on the record don’t sound like much music that’s coming out today, so were there particular artists or records that you were listening to when you were writing and making the record?

JS: I think that we were intentionally not referencing other music too closely. It’s a classic thing when you’re making a record to compare it to other interesting music to see how it sounds. We did some of that, referencing sounds, for engineering purposes. Like, “How do we make the bass sound like the bass on a Radiohead record?” The idea of our band is to play with each other and each other’s natural musical inclinations. There are records that we all agree are amazing. Of course Radiohead is a mighty force, but we are also really into Nina Simone and Billie Holiday. Some of that Nina Simone stuff sounds like a ghost in the room. It’s all very natural, but also blissed out and strangely sublime. I was trying to capture that spirit and that light discomfort you have that’s also euphoric.

Is there something distinct about living and playing in Montreal that you think adds to your music?

JS: The best thing about Montreal is the incredibly high quality of life for very little money. That gives you the golden opportunity to have your own time to do what you want, opposed to maybe living in New York where you’d have to work a lot harder to get that time. There’s just something in the air here. It’s a simple—not meaning unintelligent—life here and something I can’t describe. It’s conducive to my happiness because I have a lot of time to think about stuff and about life.