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The Intersecting Styles of Donlands + Mortimer

Eclectic and collaborative Toronto six-piece prepares for release of first LP

by Michael O’Leary

How far back can you trace a band’s unique sound? For Donlands + Mortimer, keyboardist Johnny Spence locates them in a cassette tape he recorded with his fifth grade piano teacher: “There’s one song where I’m smashing the synth, playing whatever, and he’s beatboxing, and I’m burping the alphabet. And there’s another song where I’m just going ‘Halloween! Halloween!’ and there’s like freaky synths in the background.”

“It’s pretty much the prequel to Donlands + Mortimer,” surmises trombonist Ewan Kay.

While it would definitely be a stretch to locate any of these precise elements in Donlands + Mortimer’s music, there is an eclecticism that comes from this recognition of the sonic possibilities that can exist within a song, beyond its chords and melody. Kay, Spence, guitarist and vocalist Carmen Elle, drummer and vocalist Steven Foster, bassist Ben Harney, and saxophonist Edwin Sheard play ambitious, well-crafted tunes in which their melodies hint at folk-rock; however, the rhythmic sophistication underlying their songs and the horn arrangements which deepen them point further out to jazz and post-rock.

This expansive sound had a smaller origin: the band was started by Foster and Spence while still in high school, with the name being taken from the location of Foster’s home, where their first demos were recorded. “Our first big band fight was over who gets to be Donlands and who gets to be Mortimer,” Spence recalls.

With the band’s lineup soon widening in late 2006, more voices and influences were added to the band’s sonic palette — five of the six band members have contributed songs. “The thing is, with us, every single idea pretty much gets entertained,” explains Elle, “so it takes a while to reach the conclusion of the song even when it’s an easy arrangement.”

This commitment to a democratic writing and arranging process shows on their new single “What You Offer” — the band’s first since their EP Scylla in 2009, released digitally on January 24 and set for a limited-edition 7” release soon. On the track, Elle’s clear voice carries the melody before giving way to nervy, scratchy guitar and frantic drums, punctuated by staccato breaks. The B-side, “One Eye,” features shared vocals from Foster and Elle, and a beautiful harmonic horn arrangement.

The single precedes the band’s debut LP, New Mythology, which is due out this spring. Recording sessions took place over three consecutive weeks last June at the aptly-named Barn Window Studio in West Lincoln. “We just lived there, and we slept there, and basically recorded every day for about six hours,” Foster recalls.

The band’s sequestering was a unique experience, and testifies to how serious they take their careers as musicians. “Even bigger bands — obviously they record for longer than a three-week period, but not all at once,” Spence says. “So you got a bit of cabin fever, and I think that comes across a bit on the album.”

The musical tension that came out of this session did not translate into tension within the band, however — in fact, very much the opposite is true. “[One] way that our music has kind of become more cohesive in the past couple years is because we all started becoming more serious friends with each other,” explains Harney, “which is not necessarily the same in most bands.”

“That was part of the reasoning behind waiting so long before doing our first full-length,” confirms Spence. “We were aware of the fact that we were growing as people, and growing as a band, and getting more cohesive… And it’s been great to be in a band [where] none of us were really in a rush to get really famous, you know? The music really kind of came first. So it wasn’t like, ‘We’ve got to make our first full-length now, because we’ve got to ride that wave.’ It was more like, ‘Let’s wait,’ and now it feels like the right time.”

Follow Donlands + Mortimer on Twitter (@D_and_M) and Facebook for show dates and other information. The “What You Offer” single is available as a free digital download at donlandsandmortimer.bandcamp.com.

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