Some bands grow to become like family. Others are born that way – literally. Meet The Strain, an electro-indie-pop band from Wakefield, Quebec, made up of siblings Dave and Rylee Taggart, cousin Alex Serre, and longtime family and childhood friend, Nicholas Johnston.
Despite only having officially formed in 2010, the band has already made the music scene sit up and take notice. Dave and Alex have played in bands together for years, but it was in their final incarnation as The Strain that they recently took Ottawa by storm when they captured the top prize at the annual Live 88.5 rock lottery, Big Money Shot.
The massive battle of the bands contest had them up against 60 other bands from the Ottawa area, and The Strain was officially the youngest band in competition. But it may have been to their advantage as their unique, synth-infused rock with strong threads of pop and incredibly catchy lyrics powered them to the finals of the year-long competition. Now, they’re on a mini-tour of Eastern Canada, courtesy of the $25,000 grand prize.
“It was a kickstarter for us,” says Dave Taggart, sounding noticeably excited in a phone interview from the road as the band drives to the first of their tour dates in PEI and New Brunswick.
“We’re excited to go out to the east coast…well, myself I haven’t been pretty much anywhere, it’s our first time out of Ontario or Quebec, so we’re excited to see all new towns and new venues.”
They may be new to the touring scene, but they are certainly no newbies when it comes to the music scene. Canadian Music Week, Junofest, NXNE…it seems they’ve already hit all the major music festivals. Add that to two EPs already under their belt – 2011’s Three Sheets to the Wind and Hush Hush, released in March 2012, and plans for another EP by summer 2013, and you begin to understand why they made such an impact so soon in the band’s career.
According to Dave, the band’s name refers to the obvious familial bonds between three-quarters of the band.
“My sister, my cousin and myself, we’re all related, and I remember even when we were kids we had a – it’d be more a cover band – we had a band called DNA,” he explains. “But we kind of grew out of that, it was kind of overused and all cheesy. So we wanted to keep the same vibe about how we’re all closely connected, so “the strain” – we are a strain of relatives.”
But, he adds, the name also refers to the hard work involved in making music – a mindset that is obvious from the sheer amount of work they are putting into making a success of themselves.
Early reports following the band’s progress during Big Money Shot noted that the relatively young average age of the band – and by extension most of their fans – might be a factor against them. In fact, for many of their earlier shows, they were playing in bars where most of the band couldn’t even legally drink.
“When we were playing gigs when we started, it was a little awkward or hard to play, because the owners would be like, are you 19? We’d be like, No…so we’d have to play, then leave right away. For Big Money Shot, when we first started, everyone was just turning 19, so it was like, a lot of our fans couldn’t come, just out to the Ottawa shows. In Quebec where it’s 18, you’re old enough, so we always – especially Wakefield – we’d have a big crew out. But it’s good to be legal now!” Dave adds with a laugh.
The issue of age was a non-issue for their parents, though, who would turn up at the Big Money Shot shows with all their friends to support the band.
“They’re very, very, very supportive,” Dave says. “Especially since our stuff is actually being noticed now – we’re actually playing shows, we’re actually on tour out east, which is a big deal for them. They have kind of like a separation anxiety going on,” he says with a laugh, adding,
“Well, we’ve always been around, it’s a small town, we haven’t really left home, like, super long distance without them before. It’s cute! And they’re the ones that packed all our stuff in the van and our kit, and drove us to our shows at like, Rupert Fair, which is this small fair, the shows in Ottawa…yeah, they’ve always been very supportive.”
The older generation of Taggarts and Serres are also the ones who got The Strain started on music. Dave recalls there always being music around them growing up (“Our moms would go out and have a girls’ night, and then my dad and Alex’s dad would set up in the living room and just jam out all night, while Alex and I were just playing in the living room, not knowing what was going on!”) and he credits his dad for teaching him how to play guitar and sing.
“I’ve never really taken music lessons but my dad kind of taught me by ear, and I remember him saying, “You gotta sing! If you’re playing guitar you gotta sing.” He’s the guy who taught me how to sing and everything. I’m glad he did, I love it.”
Even till now, he says that his songwriting process goes through what he calls “the kitchen table” test.
“It usually starts out on acoustic guitar, I write a song on acoustic, then I get together with Alex and we talk about trying to make it more “Strain”-sounding, you know? It always starts off at the basics, kind of, in my bedroom, with acoustic guitar,” he says.
“Then the first test I put it through is called the “kitchen table” test, and I’ve done it since I was a little kid, I’d play in front of my parents at the table and if they seemed to like it, then I’d take it from there and bring it to the guys, and we continue writing it. If not, then I go back to my bedroom! It’s kind of funny, I don’t know why I do that; I’ve just done it since I was a little kid. My dad’s like, brutally honest, but I love that about him.”
It was another family member who cemented the “Strain” sound that fans have come to love, however.
“We definitely have a more electro vibe after we added my sister [Rylee] playing synth,” Dave says. “Alex and I have always been in alternative kind of indie bands, and when we recorded Three Sheets to the Wind, we added synth, we didn’t know who was going to play it. And I just asked my sister one day, she wasn’t even really a synth player, she’s a volleyball player! But she had a piano kicking around, she used to watch YouTube and do Rihanna covers and stuff, so it worked out. I just taught her her parts and we took it from there.”
Drawing inspiration from myriad sources – Dave lists Mother Mother, Half Moon Run and Elvis Costello as personal influences – the band’s infectious, energetic, synth-pop, lyrical rock music is a fresh sound that is already showing an ability to morph and take on a range of styles, going by their first two EPS. So I think it’s safe to say that their burgeoning success is only the start of the evolution of The Strain.
Catch them at The Horseshoe Tavern on the Toronto leg of their tour on January 29th, and check out their remaining tour dates here, including a final stop at The Black Sheep Inn in Wakefield, Quebec on February 22, in a homecoming of sorts to the place where they played their very first gigs.