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Getting To Know: The Besnard Lakes

By Cameron Bird on May 24, 2010


Getting To Know: The Besnard Lakes

Jace Lesak’s house is quiet—like post-apocalyptic quiet. The 36-year-old songwriter, producer and sound finder (not necessarily in that order) holds the keys to a Mecca-popular recording studio in Montreal, and this is the first moment of the wind-chilled winter that he doesn’t have his hands and ears full. Most recently, he has been immersed with organizing and reorganizing the sonic layers of his own band’s upcoming album. But another set of indie outliers has been in the soundproof box for the past few weeks, and they’ve brought along their own mix-man. So, from home, Lesak is remotely playing his least active role: building manager.

“I’m the on-call guy in case anything breaks,” he says. “I get to sit in my big leather chair, which is actually just a little wooden chair, and pretend I’m shuffling papers.”

Silence and solitude, though, have been faithful muses. In the summer of 1995, Lesak was lured by friends on a trip through the tortuous logging roads of his home province, Saskatchewan, to a blip called Besnard Lake, known locally as the “lake of many islands.” The only others present were fishers, whose lines whispered as they arced toward pike-populated waters. Sometime during the visit, Lesak walked down the shore and dove in, paddling to a lone, deserted island. On that decibel-devoid resting place, he heard the faint melodies of loons in the distance. “But not much else,” he says. What struck him was the familiar din that he didn’t hear—“residual city noise.” The experience became branded on Lesak’s brain.

And it banked him a name for his then-nonexistent band. When a half-decade later he courted, fell for and started writing songs with (not necessarily in that order) bassist Olga Goreas, the duo decided to pal around as The Besnard Lakes. It made sense: Their earliest batch of songs conveys a deceptively placid ambience, like Floyd taking an after-hours Slowdive with the Cocteau Twins. The fact that Volume I emerged from the same city (Montreal) and moment (2003) as a bombastic act like Arcade Fire set Besnard’s first effort far apart. The isolation didn’t last for long—chalk that up, in part, to a population boom.

By 2007, the headcount had jumped to five: Lesak, Goreas, guitarists Steve Raegele and Richard White, and keyboardist-arranger Nicole Lizée. The Besnard Lakes are the Dark Horse (Jagjaguwar), released that February, was grounded by the elegant melodies of the Goreas-Lesak pact and shot through the stratosphere by a Hubble of Sound: World War II imagery, starry strings and high-frequency scrambles. The band opted to reverse-engineer and riff off some of the legendary Conet recordings, shortwave radio ciphers that government agents allegedly used to direct spies in the field. “I’ve always been a big fan of heavily orchestrated records,” says Lesak. “I love density.”

Other artists—Stars, Wolf Parade, Patrick Watson—seem to share Lesak’s preference, queuing up over the years to lay down tracks at his co-owned studio, Breakglass. “When bands come to me as a producer, I tell them to listen to Besnard records to get an idea of what I do because, ‘I might fuck your shit up and you’re not going to like it,’ ”  he says, laughing, and then letting the humor fade. “There’s always a push and pull, and I like that. I offer suggestions but in the end it’s always up to the artist, because they have to live with the result.”

The table was politely turned last year when actor Mark Ruffalo approached Lesak and company to score the music for his directorial debut, Sympathy for Delicious (which premiered this year at the Sundance Film Festival). Ruffalo didn’t bark parameters or commands at the band, but in creating a secondary work—a jewel for someone else’s crown—the group realized its limitations. “With our own material, we’re always being bold—making big brush strokes,” says Lesak. “But with a film, you have to be really subtle. You can’t steal the moment, only accentuate it.”

The band steals the moment—pathologically—on its forthcoming opus, The Besnard Lakes are the Roaring Night. The cover art depicts a fiery battle but only hints at the combatants—a tank muzzle pokes diagonally from one corner, persimmon flames rise on the horizon. The songs march along to a matching wartime timbre, punctuated by moments of near-muteness, the sound (or lack thereof) that started it all. F