It was in Sackville, N.B., late last decade, when Josée Caron and Lucy Niles connected at Mount Allison University's meal hall, becoming fast friends over regional delicacies like garlic fingers and Moose Light Lime. At a party days later, Caron pulled out a trick – soloing on the guitar – which set off a college-town rock-band origin story that'd feel trite if it weren't for the friends' way of telling it.
"Oh, I guess I shred," Caron says now, air guitaring while affecting a cool distance to cover her retroactive embarrassment. Niles jumps in to rib her: "Yeah, you used to be all about playin' guitar at parties."
The friends take not being serious very seriously. For a few years, they've been sprinkling songs into the world as the band Partner, blending the urgency of punk with plain-faced observations of life to varying degrees of absurdity. Songs like Hot Knives, in which they realize all their knives have been christened as hash-smoking tools, are matched in equal measure with those like The "Ellen" Page, which celebrates the Halifax-born actress's coming-out as a story as welcoming as a Maritime accent.
Caron and Niles are both gay, too. But not partners. That's the joke. Now, though, a serious matter has arisen for the band: This week they're announcing that their debut record, In Search of Lost Time, will finally be released Sept. 8 on You've Changed Records, both in Canada and worldwide.
"You should compare us to Frank Ocean – 'They're also gay, and their album is taking a long time to come out,'" Niles says, erupting into laughter between sips from a tallboy during a Canadian Music Week interview in Toronto.
Looking beyond anticipation, more musically apt comparators emerge. Caron and Niles take much inspiration from nineties-bred weirdos Ween – crudely irreverent genre benders who write songs about whatever they feel like, from Prince-referencing oral-sex jams to failed Pizza Hut jingles.
Ween provided a crucial lesson in songwriting. "No idea is less holy than another," Caron says. Niles jumps right after her: "And you can give a guitar solo to any idea."
That, too, informs Partner's work: deeply assertive rock songs that happen to draw meaning from passivity. On Lost Time, Caron and Niles put in limitless guitar work in songs about hardly working at all: on Everybody Knows, about being stoned in public; on Comfort Zone, a gospel of sweatpants and frozen pizza; on Daytime TV, about daytime TV. Even when they strike upon standard pop themes, as with love-and-lust anthem Play the Field, Partner manages to balance technical prowess with slacker predispositions.
When Partner cold-e-mailed demos to Grammy-winning producer and engineer Chris Shaw, admiring his past work with Ween, Shaw immediately thought of another band: Weezer. "I'm really big into 'W' bands," he says by phone from Texas, chuckling, as tends to happen when Partner comes up in conversations.
Shaw engineered Weezer's 1994 eponymous debut, a sea of crunchy guitars and eager themes that became one of the decade's loudest alt-rock statements. He saw parallels in Partner, and happily agreed to mix Lost Time. "It was a real nineties thing," he says. "The material is just ridiculously good. I found myself laughing most of the time because the lyrics were so great."
That attitude has given them a growing list of admirers. Jay Ferguson of Sloan – who's also worked with Shaw, because the world is always smaller than you think – was "blown away" when he got a sneak peek of Lost Time from band manager Mar Sellars. The nineties references keep piling on: Ferguson hears the Breeders meeting Nirvana. "It makes for a really exciting record," he says. The riffs, the humour, the atmosphere: "It sounded like a hit record – like, a top-20 album."
Partner is now a five-piece – including bassist Kevin Brasier, guitarist Daniel Legere and drummer Brendan Allison – and moved to Windsor, Ont., a few months ago, for easy access to the touring markets along Highway 401 and America's Rust Belt. It's also, like Sackville, cheaper than Toronto.
Caron is from Prince Edward Island; Niles, Labrador. Windsor's a little far from home. But their roots are all over Lost Time. It's in punk moments inspired by Sackville's heavily cross-pollinated scene, in rock moments rooted in their early days "jammin' the blues" together. (Their words.) And it's in the record's interspersed skits, too, starting with a send-up of cartoon band Prozzak and ending with a phone call with Caron's dad.
"They say rock 'n' roll's dead," he says. "That's a pile of nonsense. Just a big pile of nonsense."
Discussing the call during Canadian Music Week, the merits of rock come up for debate. "Everyone loves power chords," Niles says.
"There's a lot of power in a power chord," Caron says. "Or, like, an A chord. Or a D chord."
"E is my favourite."
"But, like, D! It comes at the end, so you've got, like – "
Caron drops the sentence. Instead, she and Niles raise their right arms, and, as if both possessed by the still-living spirit of Pete Townshend, send them crashing down on a pair of invisible guitars.