In August, 2010, Bry Webb of Toronto (by way of Guelph, Ont.) indie rock band Constantines announced his band’s hiatus in a laissez-faire, Constantines-ish way.
“We’ll just say ‘see you around.’” Webb told CBC Radio 3, teasing, “The future is half-full.”
On Feb. 11 of this year, Constantines made good on the tease, announcing in a heartfelt, earnest blog post – yes, a heartfelt, earnest blog post – that the band would return for a run of summer dates, kicking off this weekend at Toronto’s Field Trip Festival at Fort York, hosted by powerhouse indie label Arts & Crafts.
“I’ve become more aware of what the Cons meant to people in the years since the band last played together,” wrote Webb.
“I suppose that’s no grand revelation – you often have to get outside of something to get a picture of what it is.”
Formed in Guelph in 1999 by friends Webb, Steve Lambke, Dallas Wehrle and Doug MacGregor (later replaced by Will Kidman), the Cons earned a steadily snowballing following on the basis of their songwriting – which fused a pounding punk heaviness to the sort of foot-stomping, barroom-friendly twang familiar to Radio 3 listeners – and energetic, extraordinarily tight live shows.
Their dovetailing of thrashing musical dynamism and sophisticated lyricism drew comparisons to campus radio immortals the Replacements and that burly chronicler of everyman melancholy, Bruce Springsteen.
The Cons cut three albums for Guelph-based Three Gut Records, including Shine a Light (“We all got along like a house on fire,” says label co-founder Tyler Clark Burke) before jumping to Arts & Crafts in 2007 for a few singles and their final (to date) LP.
Like the Replacements – road dogs of America’s indie underground in the 1980s turned expert purveyors of singalong torch songs – Constantines eased plenty of foot-dragging kids through the transitional unease of their twenties; a soundtrack for that awkward, fumbling cocooning stage separating fronting teenage brassiness from self-sufficiency, humility and (eventually)
They also exploded the possibilities of what it sounded like, and meant, to be a rock band in Canada.
“I never really discovered a lot of good Canadian music,” says Joanna Lund, singer/guitarist/songwriter of Toronto punk trio the Beverleys.
“When people say ‘Canadian music’ to me, I always think of Gordon Lightfoot. Or the Tragically Hip. Or Nickelback. The Cons were doing something different,” she says.
For Lund and countless others, the Constantines were seminal. The first time she saw the band, at Call the Office in London, was nothing short of life-changing.
“My jaw was on the ground the entire show,” she recalls.
“I bought the CD, I went home, I listened to it on repeat for like four hours and woke up all my roommates. I just hadn’t heard or seen anything like that.”
In addition to being darlings of Canada’s indie underground, the Cons’ impact trickled up.
“Their influence certainly transcended progressive, left-leaning, art-driven artists as well as commercial mainstream acts,” says Arts & Crafts co-founder Jeffrey Remedios.
“Bands like the Gaslight Anthem do the Cons in a more commercial way and get a ton of success. Arcade Fire cover Constantines’ songs at their shows.”
After the 2010 split, the Cons moved on. They started families and worked on other projects.
Webb’s second solo record (Free Will) was recently released via Ideé Fixe Records; Lambke and Kidman recently played a sold-out set of Neil Young covers (under the name Horsey Craze) at Toronto’s Silver Dollar Room.
But legacies, even modest ones, tend to blossom in obscurity.
While the Cons’ four-year hiatus is nothing compared with the gaps separating some other bands from their breakups and their big-ticket reunions (the Replacements played their first show in 22 years at Toronto’s Riot Fest last summer), it’s just enough time to process the band’s bequest to Canada’s contemporary indie rock scene.
Still, as earnest and heartfelt as a renewed, reinvigorated Constantines seems, rock reunions feel dinted by compromise. Granted, a few of the indie, alt rock, rap and punk bands that have reformed over the past decade have managed to parlay their cash-grab reunion tours into something artistically valid. (Riffing noise rockers Dinosaur Jr., who have released three good-to-great records since returning with the original lineup in 2005, seem to have embraced their status as a sort of contemporary classic rock act.)
More commonly, the recent reunions of bands such as the Stone Roses, Pavement, the Jesus and Mary Chain and OutKast (headlining every summer festival from Gulf Shores, Ala., through to Montreal and Warsaw, Poland) seem singularly fuelled by the nostalgia industry: a last gasp for fans to wriggle into too-tight tour T-shirts and pay through the nose to sing along to old standards.
As exciting of the prospect of seeing your favourite band again (or even for the first time) is,
realizing that the fact they’re beholden to the crude ebb and flow of supply and demand can feel gauche, even plain gross.
Yet as Remedios points out, such seemingly spurious motivations are part and parcel of the whole complex relationship between art and commerce.
“Every artist, on some level, when you take money for art, is on this path,” he says. “It’s an ecosystem of authenticity and compromise.”
As Arts & Crafts honcho, Remedios has his own stake in the Cons’ continued success, noting that he hopes the band is entering a “second arc” of their career. For their part, the band is mum on future prospects, declining to be interviewed for this article.
Burke, the band’s former partner and long-time friend, shares Remedios’ optimism.
“I feel like their story hasn’t even begun yet,” she says. “Long live the Cons.”
With the right perspective, the future is always half-full.