The Dears: Big mouth strikes again

The Dears are a Canadian band in thrall to a British rock star. James McNair meets their front man
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The Independent Culture

Some interviewees reveal nothing of themselves. Not so Murray Lightburn, linchpin of Canadian sextet The Dears. "I have an enormous fear of abandonment," he says, "this thing of wanting to hold on to what I have and keep it in order. When 9/11 went down it seemed like a grand metaphor for my entire life. Some say I'm a control freak, and to a degree I probably am. If I lose control I become upset and depressed. That threat is always there: the threat of extreme misery."

Some interviewees reveal nothing of themselves. Not so Murray Lightburn, linchpin of Canadian sextet The Dears. "I have an enormous fear of abandonment," he says, "this thing of wanting to hold on to what I have and keep it in order. When 9/11 went down it seemed like a grand metaphor for my entire life. Some say I'm a control freak, and to a degree I probably am. If I lose control I become upset and depressed. That threat is always there: the threat of extreme misery."

More sanguine company than the above might suggest, Lightburn is chain-drinking cans of Stella at the back of his band's tour bus. It's parked alongside The Zodiac theatre in Oxford, where a "sold-out" sign outside testifies to The Dears' word-of-mouth fuelled rise. Lightburn is wrapped in a fur-hooded parka and has a heavy, phlegm-laden cold. When not swigging at his lager or playfully flattening the drained cans against his forehead, he takes comfort from passing a miniature American football from hand to hand.

The tour-life microcosm is such that we are interrupted, first by the bus's driver, then by the tour manager and sundry band members. When my questions are personal, we wait until the intruder has left before continuing.

At one point Lightburn relates that, while guesting on Jonathan's Ross's radio show, he accidentally revealed that he and The Dears' keyboard player Natalia Yanchak have marriage plans. It's news, he says, that will have his mother turning cartwheels, but a recent NME article that he felt made too much of his band's nods at Britpop and a certain Mancunian act fronted by Steven Morrissey is clearly less cause for celebration:

"People say: 'Oh, they sound like The Smiths or a Britpop throwback,'" Lightburn says, "but for me it's 'not really' and 'definitely not'. There is only one Smiths, but there is also only one Dears. If you look at the entirety of what we do, no other band sounds anything like us.

"This Australian newspaper misquoted me, too. They said I claimed The Smiths were better than The Beatles, but what I actually said was that The Smiths meant more to me personally than The Beatles ever could. When we supported Morrissey and I realised that we were in the same room, you have no idea how much I was bawling. It meant so much to me that he acknowledged our existence and gave a small stamp of approval."

Bold though Lightburn's claims about The Dears' singularity are, they are justified. Indeed, The Dears' second album, 2004's No Cities Left, is a record for which the adjectives "fresh" and "eclectic" might have been invented. For while it certainly does have shades of The Smiths and Britpop front-runners Blur, the album's choice cinematic arrangements know no bounds. "Expect The Worst / 'Cos She's A Tourist" starts out as chamber-pop, mutates into something redolent of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, then metamorphoses into sepia-tinted jazz with deftly-arranged horns. Elsewhere, too, seamless time signature changes, diverse instrumentation and regular, often radical changes of vocal timbre cement the notion that The Dears are impossible to second-guess.

Lightburn formed the band in Montreal just over 10 years ago. Naturally, there's a story behind the group's slow ascent and less than prolific output. Shortly after the release of their strong, if wearingly dark, debut End Of A Hollywood Bedtime Story, Lightburn found himself deserted by his band mates who'd grown tired of his depression, heavy drinking and cocaine use. "I was left with this album that I thought was pretty good, but I didn't have a band," he has said. "I was ready to off myself." It was also around this point that a previously supportive Montreal press temporarily turned its back on The Dears. "That was when I had my little nervous breakdow," says Lightburn with a hollow laugh.

The way out of this pit of despair, he says, involved re-forming The Dears with more like-minded musicians. And it meant going back to the philosophy that inspired the band's name in the first place.

"When I started this group it was a misfits and outcasts thing. The band name reflected the fact that it's good to aspire to be dear to someone, or even to everyone. Cheesy as it sounds, everybody in this band tries to do the right thing in every situation. Even if we find that another band has left behind a guitar-stand after a show, we won't take it, because that would be the 'bad karma guitar stand'. We believe in 'do unto others'. No Cities Left is about getting back to basic human kindness," Lightburn adds. "It sickens me that it takes tragedy for people to be nice to each other. Look at 9/11: it took two planes smashing into skyscrapers and taking out 3,000 people for New Yorkers to drop their cutthroat attitude. And they dropped it for how long - maybe six months? They're right back to normal now."

The youngest of four brothers, Lightburn was exposed to the live music scene early. Up until the age of five, he travelled from gig to gig with his jazz musician father, sleeping in dressing rooms "while mom worked the graveyard shift at the hospital". Everything changed when his mother found God, his father soon following suit and quitting music to become a minister. "They became so hardcore that me and my brothers weren't allowed to watch TV or go to the movies. I didn't hear The Beatles and The Stones until I was in my mid-twenties."

Lightburn had trouble fitting in at school, and at any job he subsequently took, his mind "worked against the grain a lot of the time". Music allowed him to create a world in which he did fit in, and, perhaps rebelling against his father's view that The Beatles and their like were "tired musicians who couldn't play a lick", he started listening to The Jackson 5, REM, U2, The Cult, The Smiths - even Depeche Mode. As some have pointed out, Lightburn's musical journey has seen more Caucasian signposts than is perhaps usual for a black son of a preacher man. And when I confess that I would never have guessed his colour from his singing voice, our conversation opens up further.

"We're all culturally brainwashed," he says. "I hope that in generations to come we won't think that black or white people have to be a certain way. Just this week, I turned up at a venue where they thought I was manager of the support band, and at another place they assumed I was part of the road crew. They didn't think that I could have anything to do with being in an indie rock band. In the US all I see is blacks and Hispanics pushing mops and picking up garbage. Over here, class decides more than race, but race is still an issue - don't you worry about that. I'm not being all Malcolm X, but the older and more successful I get, the more I'm always dealing with subtle racism. It's something I'm writing about in my newer songs."

What, then, of Joss Stone winning a Brit Award for "Best Urban Act" earlier this year? As a black man in a traditionally "white" musical role -and thus a vice-versa example of Stone's situation - Lightburn would presumably support her in that? "It's a bit like asking me about Eminem being a white rapper and all that shit," he says. "The bottom line is the quality and durability of the music. Let's see where Joss Stone is in five years. If she's still making good music, then maybe she deserved that award. If not, then maybe she didn't."

At that, Lightburn stops to take a call on his mobile. It transpires to be from someone who is remixing a Dears track, and as the band's singer, songwriter, producer and arranger it's natural that my host is being consulted. During his brief phone conversation, his mispronunciation of a word prompts Lightburn to remark that the touring lifestyle is dumbing him down, and that he can no longer talk or spell properly. Not that he had any trouble penning an article on his beloved Smiths for the Los Angeles-based music magazine, Under the Radar.

Having met Morrissey, he's presumably like to meet The Smiths' guitarist Johnny Marr, too? "Absolutely," he says. "A Manchester-based journalist told me that Johnny is digging The Dears, so I was hoping he might show up at one of our gigs. If I ever get to meet him, I'll give him a guitar ask him how to play the intro to "Girl Afraid". It's the one Smiths guitar part that has always stumped me."

Never one for understatement, Lightburn has described The Dears as "a quest for God". He says that this has nothing to do with his own beliefs or his parents being born-again Christians, but instead reflects his view that his group aspires to "greatness beyond music".

The downside, he maintains, is that this makes The Dears a publicist's nightmare. But this seems unduly pessimistic given that his band will appear on tonight's Friday Night with Jonathan Ross show, a TV promo slot that most up and coming groups would give their eye teeth for.

"I'm a perfectionist, and this is a lonesome quest," Lightburn continues, seemingly unable to shake his bleak outlook. "A lot of The Dears' music is to do with me exorcising my shit - and I have a lot of shit to exorcise. I'm exploding inside and I can't help it, so I have to scale back sometimes to protect myself. If I could make the ultimate Dears record it would be like painting the Sistine Chapel, but I doubt if I'll be given the time to do it. We live in a fucked-up world that screws everything up."

But hold up a minute: The NME has opined that The Dears are "probably the best new band in the world right now", this newspaper called No Cities Left "a magnificently heady work", and Lightburn is about to play yet another sold-out gig - surely there's some cause for cheer? "That's just it," he says. "Ten dollars says that the people who come out tonight are a bunch of losers!

"But you know what I mean," he continues. "I'm head geek. The Dears are just trying to bridge the gap between all us losers. As for those cool dudes that come to one show and don't dig it because we're not the Smiths sound-alike band they've read about...well good riddance to them."

By now Lightburn and I have consumed enough beer to dispense with formality. "Can I ask you a question?," he says, surprising me. "I've been reading reviews where people claim I'm arrogant and egotistical. Do you know where that's coming from?" I'm stuck for an answer, but fortunately my host keeps talking, relating that he wasn't a perfect kid, but that he never ever stole anything.

"In Grade 5 my teacher had $30 taken from her desk," Lightburn adds. "I got pegged as the chief suspect and my parents came to the school. I got mom to believe I was innocent, but I'm not sure I convinced my dad. And now when someone with a pen in their hand accuses me of being something I'm not, I don't know what to do."

At that, my host and I shake hands and I promise not to slander him. As I'm packing up my recorder, he flattens another empty Stella can against his forehead and slam-dunks it into the bin.

The single '22: The Death of All the Romance' is out on Bella Union on Monday; The Dears play The Junction, Cambridge, on 4 May, and the Astoria, London, on 5 May