Since their first single “Not Ready to Go” first came pumping out of Canadian radio back in 2003, THE TREWS wasted no time piling success on top of success and watching their stature grow with multiple hit singles and an incomparable live show.
As the first leg of touring wrapped up on their sidelong 2009 Acoustic – Friends & Total Strangers retrospective, for the first time in years the Trews found themselves facing time off and a blank canvas. As Colin MacDonald bluntly puts it, “We didn’t really know what to do.” The rest of the tour was months away. The band had forward momentum but nowhere to go.
Enter Gord Sinclair. The Tragically Hip bassist surfaced amidst this rare period of suspended animation and offered the Trews a little shelter at the Hip’s fabled Bathouse Recording Studio. He said they could cool their jets, make some demos. “And I’ll hang out for a couple days, drink some beer, and listen to what you guys have got going on,” he suggested. It sounded like a holiday to John-Angus MacDonald.
“We were just looking to run away a little,” the guitarist admits. “And we wanted to do something fun, organic, be a band again, all that stuff.”
And so bassist Jack Syperek, drummer Sean Dalton, and the two MacDonald brothers faded into the bucolic splendor of Bath, Ontario, where they had so much fun and got so organic that a couple months later, the Trews had a new album – Hope and Ruin.
The choice of lead single, the title-track, might surprise some who have followed the band (originally called Trouser) since its formation in 1997 in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, and subsequent full-length studio albums, House of Ill Fame (2003), Den of Thieves (2005) and No Time For Later (2008). The band didn’t want to go with an expected Trews-style rocker this time. “Hope & Ruin” is a lilting melodic pop-rocker with the emphasis on the lyric. It’s about taking the “blessed to cursed,” as Colin sings, and getting through it. “We thought it summed up life,” the singer explains. “Life is just a sequence of hopes and ruin.”
The moving piano ballad, “If You Wanna Start Again,” which gives over to a blistering guitar solo and intense end, is also a variation of that pick-yourself-up theme. “If you wanna start again / You’re gonna need to find the strength within” and “Soon your heart will find where you’ve got to be.”
There are also more neurotic “relationship” songs.
“’Misery Loves Company’ is a psychotic, Woody Allen kind of character,” says Colin. “I was just thinking of the man driven to edge of insanity by a woman. I was thinking of ‘So Lonely’ by The Police. And ‘Love is the Real Thing’ is another psychotic desperate-for-the-girl songs.”
“We didn’t go in to make a record; we went in to spend time as a band and see where we were at creatively and play,” says John-Angus. “Gord offered to come out and help facilitate with the space and that turned into him collaborating with us. That was last January and we came out with five songs; we did a song a day and we didn’t know what we were gonna do with them.”
Four of them are on Hope & Ruin: “One By One,” “Dreaming Man,” “The Word I Know” and “Love Is The Real Thing.”
“We sat on the material and showed it around a little bit and we were intrigued by what we’d started, so we booked another session to go back in April and we cut three more, and then another session a month later and then another session a month after that, and then we were done,” says John-Angus.
“It was really cool organic process,” adds Colin. “Everybody would wake up in the morning, have a cup of coffee and start strumming on guitars. One person would be like, ‘Oh, I have this lick I wrote in my bedroom last month,’ and if enough guys were turned on by it we’d start working at it. Songs would either start with a lick or a melody or a chorus line. It was really collaborative.”
“It was like anything was up for grabs,” continues John-Angus, “And we just needed to get a hold of where we were at, which is why we retreated to Bath. We went there to try and figure out what kind of record was in us.”
In contrast to the cinched, vaguely political alt-rock of No Time for Later, the Trews swing low and loose on Hope and Ruin, which Sinclair unexpectedly found himself co-producing with John-Angus. Their customary wall-of-guitar is there on tracks like the explosive and somewhat insane “People of the Deer” – albeit bigger and more visceral than ever – and “The World I Know” puts a perverse twist on the kind of Aerosmith redux the band accomplishes in its sleep. “I’ll Find Someone Who Will” is their patented classic-rock, power-pop hybrid, and naturally more fun than a sugar rush after a blast of nitrous.
But title track and single “Hope and Ruin” is something altogether different, superimposing chiming guitar and Colin’s reflective-yet-triumphant lyrics onto a pumping disco beat, while the guitar atmospherics of “Stay with Me” are redolent of a certain world-devouring, ‘80s rock giant. Opener “Misery Loves Company” suggests an alternate universe punk version of Cheap Trick while “Dreaming Man” is even more outré; a lambent, silky shuffle that the band whipped up over breakfast one day. Equally, “Burned” goes from a funky, clavinet-goosed intro to an inspired jam that Colin wanted to sound “like Little Feat at 2 am at some big, summer festival.” Ditto the way piano dances around John-Angus’ super-reverbed slide on “Love Is the Real Thing”.
And perhaps most striking of all is the album’s centerpiece, “If You Wanna Start Again”, where the Trews actually find a credible détente between the grandeur of mid-tempo Foreigner and their own reliably good taste. It should be mentioned that their drummer was the force behind this particular masterpiece, right down to its ecstatic “woo-hoo” chorus. “It’s so killer,” says Colin. “That was Dalton.”
John-Angus puts it best: “It was like our first record again,” he says, of the band’s most collaborative, exploratory, and intuitive effort in years. “When you make your first record, you don’t know who the songwriter is. Those roles aren’t established yet. The band is just trying to be the best band they can be. And we were back there.”
This meant building each song from scratch, on a day-to-day basis, until the four of them were ready to hit record and take “the Jimmy Iovine approach” to tracking. Which, John Angus explains, amounts to “just playing it till it feels right.”
Notwithstanding that what you’re reading here is a band bio and a therefore a big, obvious marketing tool, let it be said that only a deaf person, a fool, or a damn liar would argue that Hope and Ruin feels anything but right. If the Trews were tired when they walked into the Bathouse, they were rejuvenated by the time they walked out, having found hope in ruin. This is the record where the Trews sound like they’re having a flat-out gas.
“It was glorious,” reflects Colin. “I hope people like the record because if they do, I’ll be, like, ‘Yes! We can have fun while we’re doing it!’”