Two years ago, the Toronto band DIANA put out its first record of hyper-lush synth-pop and were caught off guard by its success. Perpetual Surrender gave the band more attention than they’d anticipated, and was longlisted for the 2014 Polaris Music Prize. But given the trio is somewhat of a Canadian indie supergroup, the project’s success seemed inherent: Kieran Adams was the tour drummer for the dancehall-lite duo Bonjay, Joseph Shabason is the distinctive saxophonist heard on the last two Destroyer albums, and vocalist Carmen Elle is part of art pop bands Austra and Army Girls.
“We were so panicked from the circumstance from being rolled into a bit of a spotlight so quickly,” said Adams of that time. Instead of leaning into that fear Shabason said the friends gave each other some leeway: “I think we’ve all worked really hard at trying to see where [we’re all] coming from and actually giving people the space to have their ideas heard.”
For this new album, Familiar Touch, DIANA travelled to rural Quebec and spent five months recording in a borrowed A-frame cabin in the middle of the woods on the edge of the Ottawa River. They emerged with a record full of big ambition and considered execution. Perpetual Surrender was an homage to Balearic-inspired sophisti-pop, but Familiar Touch pulls from more far-reaching influences: suspended synth breakdowns and kaleidoscopic melodies reference everything from Roxy Music to the Cocteau Twins — although, Elle noted, DIANA is “not a retro band or a revival band.” It’s practically implied in the sentimental titles of their records, but what really sets DIANA apart from their contemporaries is a penchant for emotional precision. Elle described the process of recording Familiar Touch as a “trauma,” requiring pushing through an incredible amount of internal tension. The FADER spoke with DIANA, from Adams’s downtown Toronto apartment, about self-healing, the politics of utilizing genres, and the limitations of a genius complex.
What’s changed for the band between the release in the two years since Perpetual Surrender?
CARMEN ELLE: Well, we’ve gotten to know each other quite a bit better, which has definitely informed the day to day stuff and then bleeds into the vibe of the music. I used to hate rehearsing and now I really like rehearsing with DIANA. I think we have radically different ways of working. I like to do things very quickly and intuitively; often I miss things or I’m sloppy. These guys are quite thoughtful. I think we’ve started to move towards a shared space in the middle
KIERAN ADAMS: We’ve all done various types of therapy in order to be better people for whatever reason. I think being able to express that in a creative setting has not only informed what some of the songs are about, but has also given us a way richer way of communicating whether it’s for a live performance or in the studio. It’s still not perfect.
Did any of those personal changes make their way onto songs on the album?
ADAMS: “Slipping Away” is definitely a song that’s about that. It was rewritten a few times; initially the song was way too coded and buried under these weird metaphors. It’s about letting go and accepting what’s there.
JOSEPH SHABASON: I think it made its way onto the album because there were some pretty tense moments when we were fighting or disagreeing and basically saying, We are in this, we’re going to finish this, even though it feels so brutal to be here. In that tension, there were also moments of total musical clarity.
ELLE: I consider making that record almost to be like a trauma. Trauma is not what happens to you; it’s how you feel about it afterwards.The recovery period was a couple of months. I think the whole album is about grappling with self a bit.
“Trauma is not what happens to you; it’s how you feel about it afterwards.” — Carmen Elle
The album feels intensely personal and I think part of that has to do with the somewhat atypical descriptions of relationships, which feels both honest and relatable.
ADAMS: I feel like I’m old as a human but young as a songwriter because what I’ve done most of my life is play drums. There are two ways that I end up writing stuff: one is more personal, and the other is more of a storytelling, kind of like painting a picture of a situation. I think that approach is even informed by some personal things you’re going through. “Miharu” is about being tortured by somebody’s absence. You get so consumed with somebody you get consumed by them. It’s this moment of just lying awake in this tortuous moment of desire
ELLE: We consistently re-say or re-frame in order to make it so that somebody new, or at the right moment in their life can hear it and feel like, That’s for me, right now. I think “Miharu” does that in an interesting way; not just because of the lyrics but because of the sound, the groove.
That song actually made me think of the legacy of genres that are present on the album, like '70s and '80s pop, and what they represent. Is that something you were cognizant of?
SHABASON: There were definitely moments when maybe we were heavily leaning on a genre that wasn’t necessarily ours, in a way that felt disingenuous. It’s important to be mindful of those things because it can be disrespectful. On our last album we said, so many times, that it needs to be weirder, stranger, and more obscure and we would actively make things sound less familiar. On this album, we said we’re going to try to write powerful and meaningful vocals that are catchy. I think that’s where that sense of familiarity comes from.
ADAMS: For me the Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis production of the ’80s and ’90s is very monumental. I think that style of production is very considered. Funk is one of those things that has become a bit of a dirty word but, being part of rhythm section, that’s always what’s gotten me excited. There are those elements on the album but it also has this synthy, J-Pop, ’80s washiness; it’s always about riding that line.
It’s worth noting that a lot of monumental music made in the last couple of decades also had a bunch of money and resources behind it. Did you have to make any negotiations in order to create certain soundscapes?
ADAMS: We are trying to recreate a sound that very often was done with large budgets. You’re not going to see that era again where there's a $500,000 budget to make ambitious music in a really nice studio for four months, so I think we did what we could in terms of recreating that vibe literally in my apartment with some rented gear.
SHABASON: The only thing we had to negotiate was the fact that we couldn't buy every synthesizer and piece of gear that we wanted. It’s amazing what you can do on your own though. But also sharing gear in Toronto’s music community is pretty incredible. I would post on Facebook gear groups being like, ‘I wanna borrow this thing, can anyone lend it to me?’ and someone would say, ‘Yeah, no problem I’ve got you.’ So you’re able to draw on all these different resources with a limited budget and you’re actually able to not feel rushed and not make any concessions, which is wonderful.
Describing the record as ‘considered’ is a really important distinction to make. I think sometimes people have a misconception that excellent albums happen easily or accidentally.
SHABASON: In a recent New Yorker article, Leonard Cohen, whose music I really love and listen to a lot, said it took him five years to write “Hallelujah.” It’s a perfect song in my opinion but that’s more time than I’ve ever taken to write anything. I think you can romanticize the genius songwriter but there’s a lot to be said for people who plot away and refine over time.
ADAMS: This idea stems from the male genius which is a composer, bust persona; there is something in that where men are considered to be less prone to asking for help with things. Part of making this album, and part of what’s inspiring to me about all kinds of people who are really cool musicians, is who they surround themselves with — like Blood Orange or Kindness. It’s about reaching out. In moments where we didn’t know what to do, we would reach out. It’s nice to not feel like you have to do it all yourself.