Below is an excerpt from an interview with Bryan Webb of the Constantines. As his music would suggest, he was quite gracious and amicable on the phone. The March/April issue of Stylus will (hopefully) feature our conversation in full.
There's a lot of hopeful sentiment running through Kensington Heights and it's quite striking to compare that to some of your earlier stuff, like your self-titled album.
Bryan Webb: We all grew up in that hardcore punk network in the nineties and that's how we met one another. Those were our formative years as musicians and learning to be a band. And that's how we learned to write songs, being in that world and receiving that style of play. For me, I didn't quite get that songs have to come from a frustrated energy. For a while I wrote from that punk-rock energy of being restless and fed-up or not being able to identify with most of what you face from day to day. So I learned to write songs in that mode and gradually I started to realize that the songs, anything I said from that perspective tended to be really short-lived. The energy that came from anger was productive, but the tension that came from that was more temporary. Whereas anything I said that was in celebration of something was more lasting. I felt like I could revisit it and be happy that I'd written it...something beyond myself. With Shine a Light, I wanted to start writing more loving songs. Songs that celebrated people that were living in a way that was inspiring or interesting. People that we actually knew who were surviving in interesting ways. And there are some songs that we just don't go back to, that were so much in that frame of mind that we can't go back to or identify with. Like some of the songs from the first record or Shine a Light don't speak to me or I don't feel like I can get back into that frame of mind. The songs that we do [play], like "Young Offenders," which we've been playing for nine years or more - there's a kind of good spirit in them that I want to preserve and keep putting out there. That's why they keep being part of the set. That said, we still play "Hyacinth Blues," and that's a pretty angry song, but it's specific enough but continues in popular culture and it's still worth talking about.
One thing that's always puzzled me about the Constantines, is that you guys often use a lot of pretty loaded references, sometimes theological references. You're name for example is kind of ambiguous.
BW: The original reference wasn't anything historical. It was the name of a guy who did ghost recordings of static and it was just [called] the Constantine experiments. His name was Constantine and it was kind of a cool idea. Ultimately I just like the idea of it being a family name, like the Ramones or something. But that name resonates through history in weird ways. The emperor Constantine was the guy who brought Christianity to the Western world. That was a turning point for the West to become what it was to become.
I've always wondered whether that was a sort of ironic move. Is there an ironic intention behind having that name because I think some people see it that way.
BW: It's just that to me that moment in history is an interesting reference, or that character in history is an interesting point. I don't feel like we [the Constantines] identify with him in an ironic way necessarily or an unironic way. It was just a key moment in human civilization. But we're not a specifically religious band.
There are some interesting moments on your new album, like the song "New King," which you wrote as a tribute to your friends the Kings, who had a new baby girl. But when I first heard that song, I thought it had a very messianic quality to it.
BW: Right. I love ambiguity in that way. I like putting out seemingly incongruous ideas, from one perspective suggests something but in actuality suggests something different. I mean, I think that those connections are ambiguous ones, but that ambiguity says a lot. It speaks volumes about how we receive information.
I have a friend who once said to me that you guys sound more Christian than the kind of bands that use it as a selling point. Don't take that the wrong way, but to me that says something about where your hearts are in your music.
BW: Yeah, I like devotional music. I'll say that. I love sacred harp singing and spiritual music like Eastern Orthodox kind of stuff, and like the Staple Singers. And I'm really moved by that, but it's not because I identify with the specific references. I find the devotion to it moving, or the purity of intention [behind] it. As many ambiguous kinds of things as I try to put into songs, I don't ever want to be insincere. The Constantines as a band are about trying to bring a certain amount of humility to rock and roll, you know, which isn't usually that kind of a medium.
March 7, 2009