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Ice Breakers 

The Constantines help Canada cope with a year of no NHL.

Go puck yourself: The Constantines are not hockey - fans.
  • Go puck yourself: The Constantines are not hockey fans.
Right now, nearly every denizen of Canada's 10 provinces (and 3 territories) is sitting in a dim basement amid a pile of Labatt Blue cans, playing a videotape of Kirk Muller's 1993 Stanley Cup-winning goal for the Montreal Canadiens -- the last Canadian team to win the Holy Grail of hockey -- over and over and over again, as the sad, eerie glow from the screen illuminates each tear-stained face. Certainly, that must be the scene at the Toronto-area home of Constantines guitarist Steve Lambke, when he talks about the quintet's upcoming U.S. tour in a recent phone conversation.

"I'm so distraught," he mutters over the crackly line. "I don't know how I'm gonna get through this conversation."

Oh yeah?

"Fuck no," he laughs. "I don't really give a shit."

Okay, so maybe the devastating emotional effects of the hockey strike on Canadians have been blown out of proportion. Maybe the entire population of Ontario isn't really wandering the streets in a daze, clutching at their Maple Leafs jerseys and wondering what to do with their lives. But with the Great White North's frozen national pastime, uh, on ice, a lot of Canucks are suddenly finding themselves free to pursue other interests. Like eating. And sex. And, y'know, checking out indie rock bands in clubs.

"We were in Calgary during the playoffs last spring, and there was literally no one there; the place was completely empty," Lambke recalls. "So we started playing and then, like halfway through, all these people turned up at exactly the same time, so we knew the game was over. Pretty weird, but that's the way priorities go up here."

Still, it would be inaccurate to say that Canadians haven't embraced the Cons -- who merge the gruff roots-rock of Bruce Springsteen, the buzzy urgency of the Clash, and the angular fury of Fugazi to an odd, but exceptionally potent and engaging degree -- over the course of the group's nearly six-year existence. Their 2001 self-titled debut stands as one of the longest-charting albums in the country's history; their 2003 follow-up, Shine a Light (released here in the States by Sub Pop Records), was hailed as an even greater achievement by critics and fans. The group has garnered Best Alternative Album nominations at the Juno Awards (Canada's version of the Grammys), though so far they've been robbed of the trophies by Rufus Wainwright and Nova Scotia hip-hopper Buck 65. And they've earned nothing but raves for their intense, boisterous live shows, where they'll flail around the stage like sweaty psychotics and, on occasion, hand out dollar-store percussion instruments to the entire crowd to incite one giant, glorious noisefest.

But even as Canadian audiences are starting to reprioritize the Constantines -- Lambke, singer-guitarist Bry Webb, bassist Dallas White, drummer Doug MacGregor, and keyboardist Will Kidman -- the band is setting its sights on attaining similar success in the U.S. They've done OK so far on several tours, and Shine a Light got lots of glowing press here (as did Sub Pop's summer 2004 rerelease of the band's first album, previously available only as an import). But all the members are aware that they have to keep building on that momentum to avoid becoming, say, another Sloan -- kick-ass Canadian heroes who end up criminally overlooked in the lower 48.

"Things are going really well for us up here," says Webb, also speaking by phone from his home. "We can do this full-time now and not worry about day jobs and stuff, but it would be really amazing if we could do as well in the States. The crowds down there have been really supportive, and it's like each time we go back to a place, it seems like there's a few more people there, so maybe the word is spreading."

"We're only an hour and a half from the border, so it seems ridiculous not to go and play the U.S. as much as possible," Lambke adds. "I mean, it's much closer to play Cleveland than a lot of places in Canada -- we can drive west for 10 hours and it doesn't get you anywhere, it doesn't even get you to Thunder Bay. Plus, there's so many places to play in America. For an indie band like us in Canada, there's a total of 10 or 15 cities you can play coast to coast -- maybe 20, if you really stretch it -- and it's like, there's that many places to play in most U.S. states. In a way, that makes it hard to break through there, since it's so segmented and kinda regional, but if you can, there's a lot of people to reach, and you know, a lot of money to be made!"

For this jaunt, the Cons plan to road-test a slew of new songs before heading into the studio in February or March to cut their third album. Both band members say that the new material is veering away somewhat from those points of reference to Springsteen, Clash, and Fugazi (comparisons they admit they understand but, unsurprisingly, don't exactly welcome), but they stress that any stylistic shifts are not a reaction to the way the group has been perceived thus far.

"You definitely get interested in different sounds and ideas as you go along, so hopefully all of our albums will be different from each other -- but not necessarily purposefully so," says Lambke. "That's gotta come from inside and not as a response to external things. I try not to think about how people describe our records or what kind of band they think we are. That kinda thing isn't that inspiring to think about when you're trying to get yourself excited about making new music."

And even if the Canadian national mood is currently in the dumpster, Webb says that the Constantines' collective spirit couldn't be higher.

"Our favorite time as a band is when we're totally in that creative mode and have all these great new ideas, instead of just playing the same old songs night after night," he explains. "It's really nice, the process of getting new songs out there for people to hear. I remember hearing Tom Waits once say that when a brand-new song is first performed, it's like having a mouse in your pocket that nobody else knows about yet. So we hope you like the mice we're bringing along."


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More by Michael Alan Goldberg

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