In October of 2012, July Talk celebrated the release of their self-titled, independently released debut album before a couple hundred bodies crammed into the claustrophobic, low-ceilinged confines of Toronto’s legendary Horseshoe Tavern. Three years later and roughly 20 tours later, they were playing a homecoming date at Ontario’s WayHome Festival for tens of thousands of ecstatic souls shouting the words of their songs back at them. Sure, a lot had changed in the interim: Their debut record had become a staple on modern-rock radio, earning the band a gold record in Canada and a Juno Award for Alternative Album of the Year, while worldwide deals with Island, Polydor and Universal had spread the good word overseas. But one fundamental quality of July Talk’s performances had remained unchanged: the jugular-seizing power of their confrontational, sensuous rock + roll. Whether you’re experiencing it in the dingiest basement dive or the biggest festival field, a July Talk show makes you feel like you’re part of some secret-society congregation. It’s a gathering of kindred spirits united by a desire to escape the institutional pressures and LED distractions of our daily lives to reconnect with something real—a primal, fiercely physical remedy for mind-numbing, glassy-eyed smartphone addiction.
When it came time to draft the action plan for album number two, July Talk turned to the only focus group that mattered: those sweat-soaked fans slithering up against one another to lose their minds and morals at the band’s electrifying concerts. That’s the space where the blinding contrasts in July Talk’s music—Leah Fay’s crystalline communiqués vs. Peter Dreimanis’ three-cartons-a-day bark; greasy southern blues vs. urbane new-wave cool; sexual tension vs. cathartic release—collide with thundercloud force, and their new record, Touch, represents its perfect, lightning-in-a-bottle distillation.
“It was easy to create a vibe and sound direction for the new record,” says Dreimanis, “because we literally just looked at our live show and what was fun about it, what kind of people came, and what sense of community you felt in the room. We’ve never been about drawing the stage line—that was our mandate from the beginning, and with our live show, we’re really about breaking that down so that we’re in the room as much as our audience. We wanted songs where we can grab people by throat and show them something unique—the kind of songs that feel incredible in a sweaty room.”
“Thematically, Touch has been inspired by our human experience over the past few years, just as much as our time spent as a band on the road.” Fay adds. “Touring constantly provides a strange view of the world because you’re in transit more often than you’re still. We became sensitive to the varying reactions we’d get from any given audience depending on the cultural norms and politics of a place. Because humans love to categorize in an effort to understand, Peter and I were often perceived as these opposing forces, representing “light vs. darkness”, “female vs. male”, “sweet vs. scary” blah blah blah, with each of us just dying to get a word in edgewise. These types of assumptions had a massive influence on the way we wrote the lyrics for this album because we knew we didn’t want to feed into that sort of boring archetype. We became drawn to the idea of what it actually means to be a living breathing human. It’s messy and visceral and unpredictable.”
“It seems to get easier every day to disconnect from the people around you,” Dreimanis observes. “Leah and I started to see human touch as this pure thing—this antidote to a world that had become obsessed with mirrors and screens. We became fascinated with that moment where two bodies can actually touch and experience each other honestly. There are so many substitutes for that now, there are so many ways you can get a lesser version of that feeling elsewhere. And that’s terrifying. You’re always able to keep that slight amount of distance from actually having a face-to-face, eye-to-eye conversation with somebody.”
“When you’re touring, you have very fleeting and sometimes vacuous relationships with people outside of the band,” adds bassist Josh Warburton. “It puts you in a perfect mindset to start looking at the various technological interactions we have and see them in a different, potentially dehumanizing way.”
On Touch, human connection becomes a full-contact sport: Dreimanis and fellow guitarist Ian Docherty power songs like “Ask You” and “Johnny + Mary” (not a cover of the namesake Robert Palmer classic) with punked-up aggression, while the glam-rock stomp of “Beck + Call” (featuring guest growls from throat-singing phenom Tanya Tagaq) showcases the wrecking-ball swing of Warburton and drummer Danny Miles. And throughout it all, Fay holds court in the fray with a switchblade-wielding swagger she only hinted at on the first album. If that record channeled the blues, this one’s all about the bruise. And that in-your-face immediacy was further encouraged by the album’s producer, Ian Davenport, tapped for his work with kindred spirits Band of Skulls.
“There was a real warmth to the records he had made,” Warburton explains. “You could identify the personality of the performers in the songs. Sometimes, you can get fairly automated when recording on computers. Ian encouraged us to not use any click tracks, and we did very limited overdubbing. Generally, we would just track a song until he was up in the control room dancing. He had this little captain’s hat on, and if he was up actually physically moving and dancing, you knew you were onto something.”
For July Talk, that collaborative spirit goes beyond recording—it’s crucial to the very way the band presents itself to the world. Warburton and Dreimanis come from a filmmaking background, while Fay boasts a contemporary-dance and performance-art pedigree; together, those multi-disciplinary skills have yielded a visual aesthetic every bit as striking as the band’s music. “Because our experience extends outside of music, we’re always working as a collective,” Dreimanis says. “We want everything created under the July Talk moniker to come from the same place.”
That philosophy extends from the stark, black-and-white videos, to the mugshot-style photos, to the brutalizing ballet of Fay and Dreimanis’ onstage interactions, all of which serve to reinforce the fuck-or-fight showdown at the core of July Talk’s signature songs. Touch continues to play up that dynamic, as the lascivious “Lola + Joseph,” the dirty-disco grind “Push + Pull,” and the bittersweet, smoke-ringed serenade “Strange Habit” revisit the sort of dialogue-driven, pop-noir narratives that drove first-album favourites like “Guns + Ammunition” and “Summer Dress.” But true to the album’s communal intent, Fay and Dreimanis’ relationship here isn’t so much “he said”/“she said” as “we said,” whether the two singers are taking the piss out of macho misogyny over the “Passenger”-styled shuffle of “Like a Man”, or skewering coked-up, self-absorbed hipsters on the searing “Johnny + Mary.”
“The easiest thing to write about is heartbreak and exes and failed love,” Fay explains, “and I feel like we covered that on the first album. Time passes and your worldview expands, and suddenly injustices are pissing you off more than the thought of your ex-lover. You notice one messed up thing about the way society functions and suddenly realize how deep-seated close-mindedness and a lack of communication are at fault for almost everything wrong with the world. It’s like, we can only do so much and get so far by staring at each other, engaging in a two-way yelling match and letting our egos duke it out on stage every night. We can shed more light, and connect with more people while facing outwards standing side by side, listening just as much as we speak… or sing, in this case.”
“It all comes back to that community we feel in the room when we play,” Dreimanis adds. “I’m constantly drawing on the moments I’ve seen in rock ‘n’ roll that changed my life forever. Like, I remember walking into the Starlite Room in Edmonton when I was underage, and the door guy let me in to see the Constantines play, and it was the same way people talk about going to church for the first time. It was the most powerful thing I had ever seen. I felt the same way the first time I saw Iggy Pop. When I step out on stage, I want to make people feel alive and like they’re in a very special place and provide them with a little hope and faith in rock + roll and its power as a borderline religion.”
And you’ll find no more persuasive sermon than Touch’s closing title track. As the song steadily builds from desolate dissonance into a raging, piano-pounded anthem, Dreimanis and Fay reassert the album’s key mantra in no uncertain terms. “We get so tired and lonely,” they declare with gospelized gusto. “We all need a human touch.” It’s a reminder that no Snapchat selfie is a substitute for an intimate conversation, that no emoji provides the warmth of an embrace, that no YouTube concert video can instill that exhilarating feeling of leaping off the stage to crowd surf. Touch is music of the flesh—the product of hoarse-throat howls, bloodied fingers slashed on the fretboard, and sticky bodies pressed against the barricades.