The Most Serene Republic Pay It Forward

Music Features The Most Serene Republic
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The Most Serene Republic Pay It Forward

As teenagers, Ryan Lenssen and Adrian Jewett often cruised around during the “magic hour”—7 p.m. to 8 p.m.-ish—in an old yellow Mercedes, navigating farm areas and vast stretches of trees near their hometown of Milton, Ontario, Canada. Their soundtrack was mostly early 2000s alternative and pop-punk (Death Cab for Cutie, Jimmy Eat World, The Get-Up Kids), and their windows were always rolled down, the breeze beckoning them to dreams beyond high school boredom. One evening, the friends decided to channel their angst into an electro-chamber-pop musical project called Thee Oneironauts—which later evolved into The Most Serene Republic, one of indie rock’s most consistently underrated bands.

“It was maybe the happiest moment of my life,” Lenssen reflects on that early pact. “If we can write music where, somewhere out there, some kid out there is doing the same thing we did—driving through the country with the windows down, feeling free, excited about life, and doing hand-surfing—then that’s it. That’s it. No money necessary. Just that. Pay it forward.”

For Lenssen, that nostalgia feels renewed. After a five-year hiatus—filled with various day jobs, military stints, college degrees, marriages, babies, and general career disillusionment— the progressive indie-rock sextet have finally finished their fourth LP, Mediac, a disciplined song cycle that peels back their signature bombast to reveal new emotional depth.

The making of Mediac was so messy, so fraught with real-life anxiety, it shouldn’t even exist. But nothing about this band’s career path makes any goddamned sense: In an age of instant gratification, of smartphone streaming and dying physical media, they’ve specialized in dense, surreal patchworks (like 2007’s Population and 2009’s …And the Ever Expanding Universe) that reveal their secrets up-close, strapped into headphones with lyrics in hand.

Probably as a result, Most Serene have consistently straddled the line of indie fame and obscurity: prominent enough to sign with Broken Social Scene’s Arts & Crafts label, to tour with bands like The Strokes and Ra Ra Riot; but too under-the-radar for most mainstream music publications, too quirky and busy for late-night TV spots. Bottom line: At a certain point, the blind faith of that windows-down teenage promise could only propel the band so far. And after wrapping a U.S. tour in 2010, Jewett told the guys his plan to pursue an English degree—leaving everyone else to figure out a new adulthood.

“I remember when Adrian said that, I was like, ‘Oh, fuck, what do I do? Do I go back to film school?’” says guitarist Nick Greaves, who worked in advertising before saturating himself in the Toronto music scene, eventually joining indie-rockers Wildlife as a touring member. “We were burnt out. We needed to find purpose in our lives outside of music.”

Lenssen, the band’s keyboardist, producer and chief songwriter, found himself craving a challenge beyond music—a deeper sense of responsibility and a grander purpose. He found exactly that in the Royal Canadian Navy.

“We got signed—Nick, Adrian, and I—when we were 19,” he says. “And I realized by the time I was 25 that we’d done all this cool music stuff, but I didn’t know how to be a man at all. We’ve always had a sort of interesting structure in terms of leadership and band dynamics—it’s not conventional. We all play different parts, and we’re all managers, so to speak, of our different departments. When it came to trying to figure out how and when it’s appropriate to behave in a certain way, that’s military 101. Learning how to work as a team, learning how to control your emotions, push through things, going past a sense of self and going more to a collective goal. And being professional regardless of pain. Those sorts of things actually come in very handy in the music world, and I realized that I didn’t want to be 30 years old and not have the sense of confidence that my father had and his father had, and all those gendered ideas of what a man is supposed to be. In terms of how we grew up: how to be a man, how to be strong and be a good leader.

“That’s stuff that the Navy was able to give me, and also a sense of pride,” he continues. “Sometimes when we’re doing what we do, if you feel any kind of success, you can feel very self-important. And that’s just an illusion. There are people who are definitely important, like doctors and firefighters and paramedics. They are important. They are immediately important. There are people who are latent in their importance—because music is important. It changes people’s lives. It can bring them out of a dark place. But it’s much less dependent on an individual than it is on the whole. For me, it was very important to join an organization that I believed in and knew was doing a great thing. I felt a sense of pride when I was making stuff, but I felt like it was a false pride. I wasn’t saving lives. I wasn’t improving society as a whole, necessarily. I was just putting out music some people would walk to or drive to.”

Most Serene had just released the resilient Fantasick Impossibliss EP, a six-track set that found the band—Greaves, Lenssen, singer-lyricist Jewett, bassist/string arranger Simon Lukasewich, guitarist Sean Woolven, and drummer Adam Balsam—balancing their progressive and indie-pop elements with renewed clarity and guitar-heavy force. Building on that momentum, they’d written sporadic fragments of new material, but the recording (not to mention live performances) slowed to a trickle.

“We started with the intention of trying to do the record together,” Greaves says. “We would do sessions, go over to Ryan’s apartment or Adam’s house and record. Because of everybody’s time constrictions, and because we were getting on with our lives and doing what normal people do at our age, that’s when we decided that if we were going to get it done, we just started going back and forth, sending our tracks toward the end of it. A lot of times we’d finish sessions and everyone would get really excited. Little bursts of excitement where we’d get three or four tracks done, and then there’d be a few months of not getting anything done.”

The band had plenty of time to fine-tune—they amassed 55 demos in total. But they also had “too much time,” Greaves admits. “Especially when you have the track for a year or two. It’s like, ‘How can we make this better? Maybe it was better before.” Tracks like chiming opener “Loves Loves to Love Love,” which finds a pissed-off Mother Earth nearing the end of her rope, went through nine versions, with Lenssen endlessly disassembling the groove and melody. “It was getting ridiculous,” the producer admits. “Fortunately it worked itself out.”

“I had the record done a long time ago, and then I had producer anxiety,” Lenssen admits. “I didn’t get that when I was younger. When I was working on [the band’s 2005 debut, Underwater Cinematographer], it was full confidence all the time. [2006 EP] Phages was full confidence. Population was a little questioning here and there but mostly full confidence. By the time we got to Universe, I’d lost all my confidence. Getting older, I guess. I’ve had my ego rattled a few times, too. And I recommend it for all young gentlemen. It’ll turn you into the guy your parents want you to be.

“But after Universe I got my wind back and thought, ‘I’ll try my hand at this again,’ and we did Fantasick,” he continues. “Then we went off into the world, and when we came back, this record was complete. I’d listened to it a little too much, gotten a little too familiar with it, and all I could hear was its flaws. So I thought, ‘You know what? I think we should hand off the ones I’m most concerned with to [producer] Dave Newfeld. We like working with him, and we were lucky enough to get him onboard. I think when you’re producing and mixing especially, where you are in life is an indicator of how confident you’re going to be in the end product. Over the years, you can almost track the trajectory of my self-esteem through the sounds of the songs.”

Mediac, the title, is a portmanteau of “media” and “maniac”—a fitting summation of Jewett’s lyrical themes. Throughout, in sparse but elliptical thickets of prose, he surveys the insecurities and idiocies of modern life, from being “lost in the cell phone’s pound” (bittersweet sing-along “I Haven’t Seen You Around”) to being swallowed in a black hole of advertising and marketing (horn-driven anthem “Capitalist Waltz”) to the sad escape of over-medication (turbulent closer “The Feels”).

Lenssen describes the latter epic as a pivotal turning point in the band’s writing process. “It represented the way the band was feeling: It was frantic; it was loud; it was discordant,” he says. “We were really lost and angry and sad. Some of the advice we’d been given hadn’t been great, and some of our actions hadn’t been great. That song was very cathartic in getting out a lot of issues we’d had.”

Mediac finds the band at a puzzling crossroads: It’s easily their most accessible work—tracks like propulsive lead single “Ontario Morning” find the band cutting the fat from their arrangements and giving Jewett’s expressive voice some breathing room. Their commercial appeal has never been broader. But this maturity works both ways: Now the band members’ lives are busier juggling acts, with added responsibilities.

Unsure if anyone even cared about their music, Lenssen considered posting the album on iTunes, sending out a single tweet, and letting the dream die.

“Honestly, I thought nobody gave a crap about Most Serene Republic,” Lenssen says. “I still don’t have any idea what’s going on really, after all these years. Even at the peak of the band, I still have no concept of if people were listening. It’s a really weird thing. Every time we ever did a show and it was sold out or a really big crowd, I would always assume it was because of the other band playing—or someone knew someone. [“Or a Groupon!” Greaves adds, with a laugh.] I never understood it. I thought, ‘There’s no one in the world who gives a crap about us.’ In this age of the Internet and streaming services, I was like, ‘What’s the point of having a band and a brand?’ Everything is so fast, and no one has a sense of loyalty. Even if all the musicians in the world just stopped right now, there’s no way we’d get through all the music libraries that are available to us. When the time came, I was like, ‘Let’s just put it out. There will be like 20 people who download it, and that will be that.’”

But Greaves, the band’s de-facto manager and hype-man, was determined to make more out of their creative struggle. He lined up a distributor, Canadian label MapleMusic, freeing these songs from what seemed like a hard-drive life sentence.

The band dynamic will be tricky moving forward—with the members scattered across Canada, touring is impossible and recording will likely require email. But Most Serene already have at least one more full LP in the can, and the inspiration is flowing freer than ever.

“I don’t know where the music comes from,” Lenssen reflects. “It’s some kind of weird garden, and we planted all these seeds and forgotten all about it, and then we’re like, ‘See ya!’ Every once in awhile when we’re walking past the garden, we’re like, ‘Look at all these songs! I guess we should do something with this year’s crops!’”

Even if Lenssen is unclear about his band’s impact in an over-saturated culture, he seems content knowing he’s contributed something real: music with substance and sophistication that will stand up in the long haul, regardless of how many people are listening. More than a decade after he and Jewett took the plunge and pursued their vision, he’s still cruising—just in a more realistic way.

The Most Serene Republic have paid it forward, and then some.