Back in April, Toronto punk band and Stereogum Band To Watch Greys released their second full-length, Outer Heaven. As it turns out, they have a second new album this year, and it’s out today by surprise.
Warm Shadow is a companion piece, a blearier and experimental sister project that has its roots in the writing and recording of Outer Heaven. Frontman Shehzaad Jiwani compares it to Kendrick Lamar’s Untitled Unmastered or to Radiohead’s Amnesiac, albums that couldn’t have existed without their immediate predecessor but are still their own thing.
In this case, the roots of Warm Shadow are literally in Outer Heaven. The spark for the project came as the group, inspired and led by bassist Colin Gillespie, experimented with tape loops of what they were recording for Outer Heaven. Warm Shadow was originally going to be a collection of tape drones, warped echoes of the loud rock songs on the preceding album. The casual exploration and collaboration was the end result of a transition that’s been taking place in the band, from Jiwani being the sole and/or primary songwriter, to him opening up the process and writing with his bandmates more.
Greys are touring constantly this year, but I managed to catch up with Jiwani when he passed through New York. We talked about the process of making Warm Shadow, where he sees Greys going next, and the Toronto scene they call home.
STEREOGUM: Was this a sister project that developed during the making of Outer Heaven, or did the idea come together after the album was done?
SHEHZAAD JIWANI: It was very much during the process. While we were recording it, there were all these extra elements that we had. I say “elements” because I don’t know how else to say it. A lot of sound collages and tape drones. Just little instrumental stuff that we really liked. There’s one piece on the record called “Colour Out Of Space” that’s just taken from a part of the song “Complaint Rock” from Outer Heaven. Colin would splice this tape loop that was like, several feet long. He would make it on his tape machine, wrap it around a bottle, and splice it all the way back, and we would listen to that while we were doing other stuff. We came up with this idea, “OK, maybe let’s just release an EP of all these drones,” because it just becomes meditative and you get lost in it really easily. We’re a punk band, so it seems a little…maybe a little highfalutin, or something like that, for us. I don’t know. We don’t really care at this point. People can like it or not like it.
But really the genesis of Warm Shadow came from our friend Ian Gomes, who runs [the Union Sound studio] in Toronto. We had booked some time there to do some video work for Outer Heaven, and that stuff kinda fell through. We had to use the time, and Ian was like “Why don’t you come in and we could do some more noise.” We were like, “OK, we’ll just come in and add to the shit we already have.” What ended up happening was…I borrowed this amp from my friend. I ended up writing four of five songs just playing around in my apartment. That was the day before we went in, basically, I wrote a bunch of these tunes, we went into the studio, fleshed them all out in like two days at Union Sound in Toronto. None of us really knew what it was going to come out as, but there are like four or five brand new songs. There’s one re-worked song from the Repulsion EP, then the new tunes and the sound collage stuff. It turned into this piece that we were really stoked on because a day before that, it didn’t even exist.
STEREOGUM: It came together very quickly.
JIWANI: Yeah, super quickly! It was mixed and mastered and all that within the week. Compared to Outer Heaven, which was a two-week, full-on studio thing…it felt really great to just knock something out. We’ve been playing these new songs with the other stuff live and it fits really well.
STEREOGUM: So did you go to the label and say, “Actually, we have two albums?” Or was Outer Heaven already wrapped up and you said “Hey, we have this other thing we want to do, too.”
JIWANI: Outer Heaven was done by December of last year. Mastered and sent in. We had told them there was this EP thing coming that we were just going to release at the start of a tour or something like that. They were waiting for it, and we were like, “Oh, this is what it is.” And it was like 10 new songs. [laughs] So they were kinda baffled as to what to do with it. It took everybody a little while to wrap their heads around what it was. Now we’re making it a pay-what-you-can thing, and all of the proceeds from that are going to this charity called Sistering, in Toronto, which is a NGO that provides shelter and a safe space for women looking for that in the city, who have been victims of abuse and all sorts of other things. They have this really great 24-hour program that they just fought for and won recently.
One of the songs, “Fresh Hell,” was inspired by the Jian Ghomeshi verdict. He worked for the CBC, he was a very prominent figure in the media and [he was on trial for sexually assaulting multiple women]. He got acquitted. That happened right when we were finishing this up and inspired the lyrics to that song. It was really jarring, and hugely disappointing to us not to mention the thousands upon thousands of women that were hurt by this, and hugely affected by this, and how triggering that must’ve been for them. Not to mention, obviously, the victims of this guy. Even though it’s just the one song on the record that addresses that kind of thing, we felt like we should maybe just try to do something that could help someone, at this point. We didn’t want to just put it out…I feel like we talk about this kind of thing a lot, but if we can do anything to help anybody, it kinda seems like a good vehicle to do that.
STEREOGUM: Thematically speaking otherwise — since this was made within the Outer Heaven era, is there a direct link between the two? Or is Warm Shadow dealing with different things that are intended to complement Outer Heaven?
JIWANI: I think it’s a parallel, flip side of the coin kind of thing. Outer Heaven was a lot more macro. It’s more topical than I’ve ever really been lyrically in the past. Warm Shadow is a lot more introspective, and it’s just a little bit more off-the-cuff. One of the songs is about when I visited my grandmother’s grave. I never met her, she died before I was born. And the first song on the record, “Minus Time,” is about that, and about how I’ve always felt this strong connection to her, and the way my family talks about her. Another song is me singing about my own parents and my relationship with them. But another song on the record is about a sandwich. [laughs] Because Outer Heaven was so topical and so specific, I just wanted to write something that was more for me. Even “Fresh Hell” is an abstraction on that subject matter and written from this more dystopian point-of-view, running with the theme a little bit, a lot of word painting. Whereas Outer Heaven was a little more direct and to-the-point.
STEREOGUM: What was your motivation behind writing more topically for that one?
JIWANI: I just got really sick of singing about myself. The first full-length we did was really specifically about things I was going through, a lot of mental health stuff, a lot of physical ailments, and how it was effecting my relationship with people. I mean, we had written topical songs before. But it was just a little bit more personal, and I got sick of it. To be in a heavy band and be whining about stuff…can be a little grating. Which is what the song “Complaint Rock” is kind of about, me poking fun at the idea of people being kind of whiny about everything. It was reflexive and reactionary towards everything I’d written before. So [Warm Shadow] being a reaction to that is the flip side…It’s not necessarily about me, per se, but it’s stuff that is maybe less obviously personal but also less obviously topical. More abstract. I was having a bit more fun. I think everyone was.
STEREOGUM: Was it more of a no-pressure approach?
JIWANI: Yeah, because we didn’t know if it was ever going to be used for anything. When we were in the studio, we were all like, “Yeah, this works, let’s go with it.” That had a lot to do with Ian, the engineer who recorded everything. That had a lot to do with his energy and being like, “Yeah, let’s see what happens.” I think we’re at a point in this band, we’re in this “Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman” phase. [laughs] We’re figuring out, “Oh, cool, we can do all this stuff.” It feels like in Akira, when the main character is learning to use his powers. That’s how we feel. Like, “Oh, we can do this and it makes perfect sense in the context of the band because we’ve set our own context for the band.” We’ve established what we are specifically by not doing things that people would expect a punk band to do. That’s why, right now, we’re the most energized we’ve ever been.
STEREOGUM: Where’d the title Warm Shadow come from?
JIWANI: It was an alternate title for Outer Heaven, actually.
STEREOGUM: It’s like the alternate universe album to Outer Heaven.
JIWANI: Have you watched Stranger Things? This album is the upside-down to Outer Heaven. Outer Heaven is very much a rock record, compared to this it’s a lot more straightforward.
STEREOGUM: “Minus Time” sounds almost like a shoegaze song made grittier.
JIWANI: It’s almost like a Guided By Voices record or something like that, but if they did a lot of drugs. [laughs] It was us being indulgent in and out of the studio, I guess, in that sense. It’s loose. Punk bands have a tendency to keep it as tight as possible, at least the ones we grew up listening to. It was really liberating, to be honest. It makes me feel like we could be whatever we want to next. We could sound more like Portishead or we could sound more like T. Rex, and it doesn’t matter.
STEREOGUM: There’s a song called “Outer Heaven” on Warm Shadow. Did that song exist during the initial sessions?
JIWANI: That drone was taken from the tape loop that Colin had made from the Moog drone that’s in the middle of “Complaint Rock.” It’s mixed in. You can hear the tape kind of eating itself a little bit. At the end of that, it turns into this Hawaiian song that was part of a tape Colin had. We happened upon it and it sounded so strange and ethereal, we just left it warts and all. We listened to it in the studio while we were recording over and over and over again. We were all just riding this tape wave. [laughs] We were really into the idea of room sounds and capturing that element.
STEREOGUM: Coming out of this more off-the-cuff experience, does it leave you in a place where you think you could experiment like this on your full-fledged albums?
JIWANI: Oh, yeah, 100%. I feel that way. Our entire band has always been about negotiating noise with melody. I think that these two records could not be more obvious in that regard. Outer Heaven is, I think, really crystal-clear, kind of pristine-sounding. Even though it’s noisy as hell. The best example really is [Deerhunter’s] Microcastle and Weird Era. One is so shimmery, and the other is so all over the place. I love that. I think that’s so cool. Those are the types of bands I really look up to. Deerhunter, Broadcast, Portishead. They can do the prettiest stuff in the world but can also be really harsh, and really violent-sounding when they want to be. So, yeah, I definitely think that stuff could appear in a way, on our proper records. I consider Warm Shadow a proper record for sure. The next thing. I think, if anything, it’ll be a further process of marrying and negotiating those two aspects.
STEREOGUM: Between that and the increasing collaboration within the band, it seems like it’s opened up the songwriting for Greys quite a bit.
JIWANI: That’s the whole vibe. At first, when we started our band, I saw it as maybe a five-year thing. We’d be a punk band, tour a lot…but now, ideally, we could be a band like Sonic Youth or the Fall or the Bad Seeds. Those bands just get better with age. My favorite bands — Sleater-Kinney, Unwound, Fugazi — all the bands I grew up really worshipping. They just get better. Even Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore’s new solo stuff is still worth checking out. They’re constantly motivated and they’re constantly hearing new things they’re inspired by, and that inspires me. I want to be as enthusiastic about this band, or at least this music, when I am that age.
STEREOGUM: Where was the turning point for you with that?
JIWANI: With Outer Heaven and Warm Shadow. Warm Shadow was done before Outer Heaven came out, so when I could listen to both of them back to back. The process started with the Repulsion EP that came out last year. That was opening up the door, whereas these two completely blew it off. I personally feel like we can do whatever we want at this point, and it’ll sound like us. I don’t feel like we’re beholden to any sound or anything.
STEREOGUM: Are you working on new stuff already?
JIWANI: Yeah. Been writing stuff.
STEREOGUM: Are you thinking of releasing another record next year?
JIWANI: Well, I’d like to have a record done next year. I say that now, but with all the touring…I think we’re all really excited. We’ve been touring since March, straight through. We’ve been hearing new sounds, different ideas. We’re all pretty jazzed on writing new stuff. I want to capitalize on that. You have to capture it when it happens. That’s the best thing about records. I was really stoked on our first one when we wrote it, and now I think that anything that we’ve done since completely trumps that. I want to do the next thing that makes me feel that way about all this current stuff. Or it sucks and then we break up. Either way, we tried. [laughs]
STEREOGUM: Before we finish up, I want to ask you about the Toronto music community, which has been generating a lot of buzz lately.
JIWANI: It feels really good to be a band from Toronto right now. This is the time where I finally feel as though we have — I feel proud enough about this stuff that I feel like we could hold our own with all the other bands I look up to in the city. I have so much respect for all the bands from Toronto, and I feel like we’re finally at a point where I’m confident with our output that it can stand toe-to-toe with a record that I might love, by Adonis Adonis or Weaves or Beliefs or Absolutely Free. I feel really inspired by that. I feel like we’ve graduated, or something like that. [laughs]
STEREOGUM: I feel like local music scenes are generally becoming more diffuse. Artists can’t always afford to live in major cities anymore, people can write a record by trading demos over email, all these factors converged at once. You don’t always have the same hotbed local scenes where everyone’s living within the same neighborhood, going to the same bars, sharing a house, playing on each other’s bills. It does still happen –
JIWANI: Oh, yeah, that’s a really good point. That doesn’t happen, that much.
STEREOGUM: But Toronto seems to have that.
JIWANI: Very much so, and it’s very human. That’s what I love about it. I know all of my favorite bands from the city. They’re friends of mine. And I love their bands, and it has nothing to do with us being friends. You can go to a show every other day if you want. I try to see as many bands as I can, not just the bands on our label but just like, any band in the city. It’s such an expensive city to live in, you have be really fucking good. People work really hard just to stay afloat in that city. Because the city’s still relatively small, there’s a community there. It’s not a competitive thing, but everyone really motivates each other.
STEREOGUM: Is there any element of like, “Oh, man, that Weaves album is really good, we have to get our shit together?”
JIWANI: But in a positive way. I’ve only ever heard it as a way of motivating myself to do better. There’s just so many creative folks that if you’re not contributing to that, you just gotta get out of the way. There are so many great young bands. You get surprised every day in Toronto.
STEREOGUM: With Toronto being a buzzed-about scene, does that result in any pressure to represent that city and scene? Or is there some pride mixed in there, too?
JIWANI: I’m so proud of it. I’ve always wanted to be a part of this kind of thing. Since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to be a part of a community that I could call my own. I do feel like all the bands in Toronto really did it ourselves, really created it ourselves. It wasn’t created through some fucking article. We built it from just playing shows together, from being friends and wanting to do something different than what was going on. I take it very seriously. I’m old enough to remember what it was like when we didn’t have that. Every band from Toronto owes it to themselves to give back to the place they’re from. That’s why I’m super proud of it, because I feel like every band is at that point now. Us, and Weaves, and Dilly Dally. So many other bands, obviously. Representing in other places and taking it back to being a band from a scene.
Warm Shadow is out now on Buzz/Carpark. Purchase it here, and catch Greys on tour this fall:
10/12 Washington, DC @ Comet Ping Pong $
10/13 Brooklyn, NY @ Aviv $
10/14 Philadelphia, PA @ Kung Fu Necktie $
10/15 Montreal, QC @ Turbohaus #
10/16 Saint-Hyacinthe, QC @ Le Zaricot #
10/17 Quebec City, QC @ L’Anti #
10/19 Halifax, NS @ The Marquee *
10/20 Fredericton, NB @ The Capitol #
10/21 Ottawa, ON @ House Of TARG
10/26 Toronto, ON @ Lee’s Palace *
10/28 Brooklyn, NY @ Knitting Factory %
10/29 Brooklyn, NY @ Knitting Factory %
10/30 Tallahassee, FL @ Club Downunder ^
10/31 Mobile AL @ The Merry Widow ^
11/02 Oxford, MS @ Proud Larry’s ^
11/03 Memphis, TN @ Hi-Tone Cafe ^
11/04 Nashville, TN @ Drkmttr
11/05 Atlanta, GA @ 529
11/06 Richmond, VA @ Sound Of Music
* – with White Lung
$ – with Big Ups
# – with Partner
% – with Japandroids
^ – with Bully