When John MacPhee was 10, his older brother taught him to play Nirvana’s 1991 hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the electric guitar. Neither had any idea that more than two decades later, the younger MacPhee would be fronting the pop-rock band Paper Lions, backed by his brother Rob on bass, their childhood neighbour Colin Buchanan on guitar, and high school pal David Cyrus MacDonald on drums.
“We’ve been jamming with the same four guys for quite a long time,” says McPhee, now 33. “We’re really like family – we’ve shared so many experiences, good and bad, together. There’s a foundation there that’s far more unshakable than friendship.”
MacPhee credits that foundation for supporting their evolution since they first began performing together 12 years ago in their native Prince Edward Island, where Paper Lions is still based.
“I feel we’ve upped our game on every level.” – John MacPhee of Paper Lions
That familiarity that has also allowed the band, who have opened for CAKE, Tokyo Police Club and Hollerado, among others, to push their own musical boundaries – most recently with their third full-length album, Full Colour, which includes the catchy, synth-heavy single “Believer.”
“I feel we’ve upped our game on every level,” says MacPhee of the album, due out this spring. “From the songwriting, lyrics, melody, production… the whole thing. We feel really proud of it.”
To create the album, the band spent hours in a Charlottetown studio that they were able to rent regularly for a few days every week. “So songwriting and recording became more like a nine-to-five for us,” he says. “It was a different process than with past albums, but really rewarding.”
MacPhee says that having regular, uninterrupted time to work together on trying out new sounds, coupled with band member Colin Buchanan’s in-house engineering and production skills, allowed the band more room to experiment. “I think we had 25 demos coming into the recording,” he laughs. “Because of that, the sound and mood is more diverse than on previous records.”
Already boasting a roster of quirky videos, the foursome has since finessed a re-imagined live show, which includes a catwalk and projections to complement the new album’s energy. “It’s so much fun,” says MacPhee. “We’ll look back, both at this record and this new live show, as a turning point in our careers.”
If a recent performance at Toronto’s Mod Club is any indication of things to come, MacPhee is right. He recalls walking out onto the catwalk before a packed house and hearing the audience singing along with him. When he hit a bridge in the song, MacPhee says he took a backseat and let the audience take over. “It was the first time that’s ever happened,” he laughs. “I had no control at that moment. It was a real highlight for me, as a performer and as a songwriter, to see a song being embraced that way.”
But no matter what the future brings, MacPhee says that the band plans to stay rooted in its home province. “It’s just a matter of going for a long drive, which isn’t something we shy away from. And the advantages of being here outweigh the cons,” he says, describing his recent purchase of a 2,600 square foot Gothic Revival Catholic manse for $80,000. “You just can’t do that in the city.”
Ultimately, MacPhee says it’s also about staying close to the friends, fans and family members who keep them going on a daily basis. “There’s a security that comes with that,” he says. “And it’s probably what has allowed us to do this for so long.”
- Paper Lions’ video for “Travelling” has been viewed 7.65 million times on YouTube.
- In its earlier incarnation as Chucky Danger, the band won the 2006 East Coast Music Award for Pop Recording of the Year for their EP 6-pack.
- In late 2015, when they spotted talented 12-year-old busker Braydon Gautreau in their native Charlottetown, they invited him to sing “Travelling” onstage with them at their show that week.
Two Brothers, a Major, and a Minor (2003), 6-pack (EP, 2004), Colour (2006), Chucky Danger (2007), Trophies (2010), At Long Creek (2012), My Friends (2013), Full Colour (2016)