One of the catchiest songs on No Culture, the sixth album from Vancouver-based five-piece Mother Mother, is the declarative singalong “Back in School.”
At face value, the pop-rock stomper channels the same schoolyard disobedience of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in The Wall Pt. 2” and Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out.” But if you dig a little deeper, there’s some soul searching going on, that’s closer to something like Smashing Pumpkins’ “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” than it is a snide shot at the education system.
Ryan Guldemond, Mother Mother’s vocalist/guitarist – and a founding member, along with his sister Molly Guldemond – says the song was about going to a different kind of school.
“That song is about going about back to the school of self, which is what I was going through when I wrote it,” says Ryan, accompanied by Molly at a West-end Toronto coffee shop, two weeks before No Culture’s Feb. 10, 2017, release. “And this idea of being in the classroom of your own soul, not getting it, not getting the lesson. Looking up at the chalkboard and all the letters are scrambled because your brains don’t work anymore. It takes that confused schoolyard angst and attaches it to an adult identity crisis.”
This self-questioning idea of identity crisis is a central theme that runs throughout No Culture. It’s been three years since Mother Mother released their last album, Very Good Bad Thing, and the time between records was a period of deep reflection for Ryan.
“The album centres around the theme of identity, specifically authenticity versus facade,” says Ryan, “and we use the term ‘culture’ in a pejorative sense – suggesting that it’s an adopted thing that detracts from your true essence. So the description is to strip yourself of your culture, your influences, that have led you astray from who you actually are. That came to me in the grip of an identity crisis of my own.”
You wouldn’t think Mother Mother would be the sort of act to suffer from a crisis of faith. This is, after all, a band that has an armful of JUNO and MuchMusic Video Award nominations, and an impressive mastery of modern rock radio. They’ve hit the Canadian alternative radio charts with more than 12 separate singles, including “The Stand” in 2011 and “Let’s Fall in Love,” which hit No. 3 in 2012. On top of that, the particularly striking band – which also includes keyboardist/vocalist Jasmin Parker, drummer Ali Siadat and bassist Mike Young – have attracted more than 1.3 million views of their music videos on YouTube.
But not all of the crises Mother Mother faced were so existential. Take No Culture’s first single, “The Drugs.”
“I think it’s pretty straightforward,” says Molly, stepping in to explain the song. “I think it’s about how love of oneself or another human being – that ‘high’ – is way better than any high you get from a vice. Any sort of vice. And it’s more sustainable, more real.
“You might spend a lot of time in your younger years trying to find that exhilarating feeling from other things, other forms of reality. You dabble in whatever. Then you come out the other side realizing that while you felt those things, there’s no foundation, there’s nothing underneath, they’re just hollow moments. And what you really want to look for is this feeling that’s way more full.”
Many of the other songs on No Culture continue in this personal, inward-searching vein. The bounding opener “Free” serves as a mission statement, with its message to let the love go free. The second single, “Love Stuck,” doubles down on that pursuit. Elsewhere, “Baby Boy” and “Mouth of The Devil,” with their allusions to losing oneself in the gutter and slipping into bad habits, respectively, explore the flipside to the feeling of love that Mother Mother are generally chasing here.
“I think every song [on No Culture] expresses this concept in different ways,” says Ryan.
There’s a sonic familiarity to many of No Culture’s songs. While the band’s music rests firmly in the world of present-day alternative radio pop, there are liberal musical splashes that recall the deeper recesses of an ‘80s record collection. “Baby Boy” displays a prog-rock keyboard swirl that could’ve made a Rush album of the era; “Mouth of The Devil” hints of a Chris Isaak guitar line; “Free,” in a way, could share space with Def Leppard’s later-period fist-pumpers; “Love Stuck,” sounds like a descendent of Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping.”
“We want to provide those two experiences: Something that’s animal and primal, and something that’s heady.” – Ryan Guldemond of Mother Mother
It wasn’t a conscious plan to hide these sonic Easter eggs on the album, though Ryan does admit to pursuing one specific sound. “I do recall wanting to lift the bass sound from LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Someone Great’ for the song ‘Mouth of The Devil,’” he admits. “That was a conscious effort. That staccato synth-bass with three-second decay. I wanted that, so I sought it out.”
The LCD Soundsystem nod makes particular sense, considering Mother Mother’s evolution since the band formed in 2005. The early phases included the Guldemonds and former member Debra-Jean Creelman trading gymnastic vocal sequences and folk-rock-ish harmonies. In a sonic evolutionary arc similar to that of Tegan and Sara, as the band gravitated towards more straightforward pop and rock, so the level of their success has grown. In the process, though, Mother Mother have lost some of their initial vocal “audacity” (Ryan’s word) in favour of more streamlined modern rock.
“We started humbly, with limited instrumentation, and song-focused energy,” he explains. “I think there’s always been a fervent curiosity surrounding how to expand the sound, and how to infiltrate the songs. That equates to more elaborate guitar effects as the years go by, and synthesizers, drum programming and a wider range of tools in the studio. All of which seems to expand as every record happens. This record is the sort of zenith of all this experimentation.”
Part of Mother Mother’s music growth can probably be attributed to Ryan’s growing list of side gigs. In recent years, he’s helped produce music by Hannah Georgas (with whom he earned a SOCAN No. 1 Song Award for co-writing her hit song “Don’t Go”), hip-hop artist Kyprios, siren chanteuse Jocelyn Alice, and Swiss-Canadian singer Rykka. Additionally, he’s found some work in the ultra-competitive world of television advertising jingle-writing, for companies like Kraft, Sunrype and Wireless Wave.
Ryan’s entry into that world was mostly the result of good timing. “Production was my avenue,” he says. “I was working with Hannah [Georgas] on her album This Is Good and her manager, who had a relationship with an ad-man in New York, phoned. He asked, ‘Would you guys halt production and take 12 hours to submit for a back-to-school Walmart jingle?’ So we did, and we got it, and it was really eye-opening. That ad-man from New York and I became good friends. Whenever something would come up for him, he’d call me up and I’d try my hand at it.”
It’s also helped the band develop a sharper focus. “Learning the value of brevity via a jingle is something you can take to a song, and hearken back to bolstering the bright idea without diluting it,” says Ryan.
For all the talk of identity crisis and self-examination that Mother Mother went through in making No Culture, the response they’re hoping to receive from listeners is a simple one.
“It would be nice if they could let the music wash over them, and have a visceral, physical reaction – to dance, to move, to feel something, inexplicably – without feeling the pressure to define it,” says Ryan. “But also having a portal to dissect and in turn flex an intellectual and interpersonal muscle. We want to provide those two experiences: Something that’s animal and primal, and something that’s heady. But that physical response we want to come first. As with any good song, it should get people moving.”