Ryan Dahle’s rock outfit is back and its songs are a riot
MUSIC by Emmet Matheson
Limblifter with Library Voices
Pacific Milk, Limblifter’s first album in over a decade, isn’t Saskatchewan-raised Ryan Dahle’s first attempt at reviving the Big Shiny Tunes-era standard-bearer band. His 2009 solo album Irrational Anthems was originally conceived as a Limblifter album.
“It just didn’t end up sounding like I thought Limblifter should sound,” Dahle said earlier this month from his RecRoom studio in East Vancouver’s SongCity complex. “Then I had the opposite happen with this record. It didn’t make sense to call it a solo album or even something else. The songs were just obviously Limblifter songs.”
Dahle hasn’t been idle since Limblifter’s last record I/O in 2004. There’s the solo album and the recording studio where he specializes in mastering recordings and production credits on other people’s music — including k-os, Hot Hot Heat and Prairie Cat.
He’s also a member of Mounties, a CanRock supergroup with Hot Hot Heat’s Steve Bays and Hawksley Workman.
But it’s Pacific Milk that marks a return to the manic guitar-pop energy of Limblifter’s self-titled 1996 debut. While the end result is familiar, the process has changed.
The 1996 album was recorded after only 10 practices, in between Dahle’s day job at the time — lead guitarist of the popular rock group Age of Electric. Pacific Milk, meanwhile, has been in the works for a few years.
“I never forget how quickly that first album was done,” says Dahle. “There are aspects to it, like the lyrics, that I’d been working on for a long time, but the songs came together fast and we recorded it fast.”
Those were fast times. Age of Electric had cut their teeth as a cover band playing to rowdy bars six nights a week along prairie highways. In 1994, their first single, “Ugly” (written by Ryan Dahle), reached #11 the Canadian rock radio charts — without the help of a major label.
Limblifter came about during the time in between the first Age of Electric album and its 1997 follow-up, Make a Pest a Pet. Dahle’s brother Kurt, Age of Electric’s drummer, joined him in Limblifter but left the band in 2001 when his other band the New Pornographers became the biggest thing from the West Coast since Reid Fleming (Kurt Dahle left the New Pornographers in 2014).
“We were operating at a pretty high level of always rehearsing and playing,” Dahle says. “We were playing music for a living constantly. Records just kind of came out. Most of the Age of Electric recordings were done in a day.
“When you’re sitting in a studio recording other folks and doing other things, it can be a lot slower,” he says. “But I don’t ever forget that that record was done so quickly. I try to incorporate that into the techniques that I use now, based around improvising and capturing things really quickly when inspiration strikes. The mixing and editing of things, that takes a little longer.”
That ethos is on display in the video for “Hotel Knife”, which Limblifter made for the Canadian music magazine Exclaim. A putative “stripped-down version” of the Pacific Milk song, the video shows Dahle on guitar, Megan Bradfield on bass, programmed drums by Eric Breitenbach (who is not seen in the video) and Gregory Macdonald playing what looks like an old solid-state transistor radio, but is actually a tiny analog synth called a stylophone.
“No matter how rock or techno your record is, people always ask you to do something acoustically,” said Dahle. “So we wanted to kind of buck that norm of being squeezed through an acoustic version of each song. We thought we’d come up with something else.”
The video begins with shots of the band’s gear, including a close-up of Dahle plugging into a board of at least half a dozen pedals.
“I always hated the sound of that direct acoustic sound,” he said. “That kind of DI [direct input] sound. Any musician knows what I’m talking about — you plug in an acoustic guitar and it sounds like bumble bees in a tin can. I always want to avoid that sound.”
Life Out West
One of Pacific Milk’s recurring themes is life in Vancouver. Two songs, “Under the Riot” and “The Fauves”, specifically mention riots.
Dahle was on hand for two of Vancouver’s most notorious riots — in 1994 and again in 2011. Both stemmed from Stanley Cup playoff games.
“I drove my bike home after those 2011 riots happened,” Dahle says. “I was stuck at the studio in East Vancouver while they happened, just watching things unfold on TV and the Internet, delaying my return to the West End. Riding through downtown I saw police cars upside down and on fire. When you see stuff like that in your own city you realize that you can’t really look the same way at the news and see people rioting in other places for actual real reasons. People riot here over the poshest things, hockey games. It’s ridiculous. You wonder what’ s behind it.”
Dahle had a much more intimate view of the 1994 hockey riots. He was there at Robson and Thurlow when the crowd began to sour.
Sensing what was to come, Dahle and his girlfriend started to leave. “A minute later we heard this roar and the whole crowd was coming at us,” Dahle says.
So they fled to his girlfriend’s nearby basement suite on Cardero Street, where they watched the mayhem from below.
“We could see out the window as people ran by. They were just smashing the fence, just kicking it in for no reason,” says Dahle. “And then this line of cops had turned down Cardero, and we just watched through this window — this line of cops, in our own city, riot police with full gear on, sweeping the street.
“It’s just the most excessive thing you could ever imagine.”
Later on he found out rioters had smashed out the windows of Age of Electric’s tour van.
“So ever since back then, I’ve been kind of obsessed with it. It’s such a bizarre thing that I still don’t understand,” says Dahle. “Is it about all these people living in a city that’s too expensive for them, or is it just about yahoos coming over the bridge?
“People always blame the suburban kids,” he says. “But why do humans want to do this? That fascinates me as human behaviour, and my job is observing human behavior — at least that’s how I see it: observe human behaviour and put it out there for people.”