Toronto-based label Arts & Crafts isn’t so much a tangled family tree as much as a labyrinthine hedge maze. Members of one band are just as likely to record and even tour with other groups and a seemingly unlimited number of solo albums and side projects crop up regularly. So obviously Young Galaxy—with Stephen Ramsay on vocals/guitar and Catherine McCandless on vocals/keyboards—don’t exist in a vacuum, with Ramsay a former touring member of labelmate Stars. The band’s gentle melodies and synth-heavy spaciness positions them as the slower, trippier version of Broken Social Scene. (Think Spiritualized if frontman Jason Pierce added cough syrup to his drug arsenal.) The “new kid” in the Arts & Crafts family sat down with Baeble to talk about his all-star band, past obsessions and, oh yeah, his own band.
Baeble: You were in Stars and now you formed Young Galaxy. What’s up with all the astronomy references?
Ramsay: I pulled the name [Young Galaxy] out of an astronomy book very randomly. Me and some friends were choosing our e-mail names and they had come up with some great ones. I ended up flipping through this book and the first thing I came across was just this phrase "Young Galaxy." I was like, “Oh, I’m gonna call my Hotmail that.” It’s actually totally coincidental given Stars’ name and our name. I’m a real namer of bands. This one, I just dismissed because it was such an old one for me. But when it came down to it, I actually identified with it because it was my hotmail account.
B: If we print that, everyone’s gonna know your address.
R: Aha, but I don’t use that one anymore. (Laughs) My other band name—and this is my actual side project which doesn’t exist yet—is called Electric Border Collie.
B: That sounds psychedelic.
R: It’ll be a little more of an ambient, electronic thing. Chill-out room music.
B: I’m picturing you covering T. Rex albums.
R: Sure. We’ll do a really weird glitchy, backwards percussion kinda thing.
B: Is there one real band name you prize over all others?
R: I think the Flaming Lips is genius. What a great name. Does it get any better than that? Because it’s so ludicrous but when you see what they've done with it.…
B: Musically, your album fits in nicely with other acts on Arts & Crafts. Was it a natural fit to team up with them?
R: Completely. When we signed to them, we had already cultivated by proxy this relationship where I was playing in Stars and I was seeing the people who worked at the label all the time. I liked them all and they were also committed and good at what they did. My impression always was, “You can’t trust the industry.” The easiest thing in the world when I was in Stars was to give them my music because they were there and they were very interested from the beginning. It was kind of a ridiculously simple exchange to get to the point where we actually signed.
Plus, there was the appeal that it was a Canadian label and we’re a Canadian band. The Canadian arts get funding from the government and it’s sort of a no-brainer financially because you actually have support being on a Canadian label from the government.
B: How is that perceived in Canada? Do bands try to downplay the role or act more nonchalant about it?
R: I suppose personal belief will actually dictate what people think about it but from my perspective, I think it’s really important to talk about it. Look at Sweden. You wonder why the hell Sweden is always putting out these great bands. Well, they’ve taken it a step further by the government funding the bands for rehearsal space, gear etc. They look at music as being an actual import. It creates a cultural identity for them and it also generates revenue for them nationally and I think that’s a changing perspective. I think a lot of people used to look at music and the arts as being entertainment only. It didn't have the resonance for countries as it does now.
B: In the beginning, were you wary of any restrictions the government might put on you?
R: The government has no involvement on that level. Their sole purpose is as funders. That being said, we’re still losing money hand over fist. It helps, but you get relatively small amounts.
B: So we’re not gonna see a picture of you lying on a bed of coke surrounded by four hookers anytime soon?
R: (Laughs) No. Nor will you see a picture of me surrounded by high-level Canadian government officials. I think that would be worse.
B: What sort of responsibility, if any, do you feel musicians have to take political stances?
R: I think it’s a personal choice but I definitely feel that it’s growing in me. For me, music was really a personal conversation, but as I make it more, I see how it’s part of a bigger conversation. I look around and see how it’s a voice that allows you to get your ideas across to a lot of people. In this climate of the world now, and I don’t want to sound clichéd or pedantic in any way, but I think that the climate of the world is getting more intense and from my perspective, I need to do something. And I haven’t figured out exactly what I need to say or how we need to present it or what I can do specifically but I do understand the choice to make music is political by nature. When you see wars breaking out and all this tension, you have to look at what we do and think, “Is this worth doing because it’s so very indulgent to step on stage and talk about your feelings?”
B: Did working with Stars have any effect on your Young Galaxy work? Did you consciously try to differentiate between the two?
R: I wasn’t that conscious about making them different because I had already been working on the songs before I joined Stars, so a lot of the music you hear happened two or three years before. I joined Stars as a touring guitarist and wasn’t involved on a compositional level, so I really drew from the experience of playing live. It wasn't something I did a lot and it taught me to become a player rather than a hobbyist. Young Galaxy before Stars was really just a bedroom project for me where I demoed in my room late at night. So there was a whole part of the music that was unexplored before I joined Stars and had I not joined, I don’t know that I would have had the confidence to actually form the band and go out as easily.
B: Oh, so the songs had all been done for a while?
R: Yeah, this record took years in many ways. We probably could've made it a lot sooner but it wouldn't have been as good. I had a feeling had we just gone out there and thrown it out without having a whole record of strong music, in this climate, you just get swept under the carpet so easily, even if people are excited by a song of yours. I wanted to make a record that could resonate and mean more to people as they listen to it more.
For me, it’s not just about being in a band. It’s about the outside world. It’s about having lived a large part of my adult life not being in a band, working in day jobs and just hanging out with my friends and family and living my life like anyone would. A lot of that gets filtered into the music and I think that’s very valuable because when you do nothing but music, it’s hard to relate in any other way to the world. And I think you gotta have that balance. Still, I've wanted to make music since I was three years old. I'm a classic music obsessive.
B: Who was the first musician you ever obsessed over?
R: Probably Ace Frehley [of Kiss] when I was three. I had the poster that came with the vinyl of Dynasty on my wall. One of my earliest memories is sucking my thumb and staring at that poster. After that, it was Morrissey. Part of what we want to accomplish musically is to be able to have people draw out of it the same kind of meaning that bands like The Smiths and Stone Roses created for me and hopefully it’s as intimate an exchange for them. I’m not under any illusion that it will be because of the nature of music now and that's fine. But if they can draw more out of it than they would at most things, that’s great.
B: If you could choose your all-star band, living or dead, to back you up, who would you pick?
R: Dude, I am loving this. The first time I’ve been asked this question! Johnny Marr on guitar. Aston “Family Man” Barrett on bass just ‘cause he’s a heavy dude. Maybe Bonham on drums. Irmin Schmidt of Can on synth. And Giorgio Moroder on programming.
B: So Young Galaxy is now going to become an avant-garde, reggae prog disco outfit.
R: With Johnny Marr to boot!
By Jason Newman