When you name your band Purity Ring there are bound to be some confused individuals who take it literally. As in, they think you’ve not only vowed to practise abstinence until marriage, but that you also listen to the Jonas Brothers — while they were still ring-flashing virgins. Megan James knows this first hand.
“Some people hear the name, think the Jonas Brothers and ask, ‘Are you Christian?’ They don’t ask if there is any similarity in the music we’re making,” says James. “We’ve just stayed away from any kind of relationship to the term.”
James does remember a gig last year at a Christian college in Connecticut when she couldn’t resist referencing the band’s name in its true meaning.
“I asked if anyone had a purity ring at the show and everyone just sat there and didn’t say anything,” she says. “No one put up their hand. But I could see most of them did. It was a good show but there were maybe 15 people in the front who were excited and knew what was going on. The rest were like, ‘Oh, there’s a band here every Monday night.’”
Purity Ring was formed at the end of 2010 by James and producer Corin Roddick after they played together in Edmonton experimental pop outfit Gobble Gobble (now Born Gold). Both from E-Town, they were involved in the city’s DIY arts community, but didn’t actually begin making music as a duo until James relocated to Halifax and Roddick to Montreal.
The 1,200 kilometres between their current homes might seem like a major obstacle, but they made it work from the onset. James says they each do their parts on their own — she writes the lyrics, he writes the music — and only need to unite for recording and touring.
“We usually come together just to work,” she says. “I think it’s been really good for us. We both work independently and have very different parts, which we’re comfortable working on separately. At this point I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The band began out of Roddick’s love for hip-hop, R&B and pop production. He had begun making music touring with Gobble Gobble and produced a number of songs that would become Purity Ring. When the two realized they were born to do this together, they forged something unique: James’ sweet, cherubic voice is laid over top of Roddick’s shadowy synths and snapping, clapping beats.
“For me, Purity Ring’s sound doesn’t come from any music I listen to at all,” explains James. “It comes from completely other things. I listen to a lot of old lady blues music and really old country music, but nothing you’d relate to Purity Ring. For Corin, his inspiration comes from Top 40 because the production is really weird and good.”
Were you to put a rapper like Soulja Boy or Lil B — two of Roddick’s favourites — over the music, it could roll with the work of producers like Clams Casino or AraabMuzik. With James singing, Purity Ring have been dubbed “future pop” for their inventiveness, but also the music’s potential to find a mainstream audience.
“I think he wanted a vocalist, a female vocalist,” says James, over Roddick’s decision not to seek out an MC. “I don’t think he expected one thing in particular from me. He just liked my voice and wanted to see if it would work. That was pretty much it. And it did work, so he looked no further.”
Their debut single, “Ungirthed,” dropped online (and later as a 7-inch for the Transparent label) in January 2011, and in no time their world began to change. Every blog worth reading picked it up, noted the track’s singularity, and marked the duo as an act to keep an eye on. They scored a tour with Neon Indian, did CMJ, and from that signed a deal with revered indie label 4AD (and eventually Last Gang in Canada). With only one more song released before the end of the year (a split single with former Cowtown-ies Braids for Fat Possum), it became apparent they were either saving up for the full-length or just slow moving. It turned out to be a bit of both.
“Corin takes a long time to produce something,” explains James. “He’s gotten a lot faster, but with ‘Ungirthed,’ I don’t know how much time he spent on it, but it was the first track he made for us. He sent it to me and I had it for a few months, and when we finally got together, because we were living in different cities, I showed him what I had and we recorded the vocals in four hours. I think it was on New Year’s Day. And then it took two weeks for him to send me a remixed version with the vocals. It was fast for me, because we only worked on it for four hours.”
In an age where music is serviced so immediately and plentifully, July 29, 2012 seemed like an eternity to wait for an album. But when Purity Ring released their debut, Shrines, the response was overwhelmingly positive. The album landed the much-coveted Best New Music honour from Pitchfork, which also added them to its music festival in Chicago this past July and Paris in November.
Every little drop of praise it receives is deserved. Shrines is a marvelous collection of forward-thinking pop music by a band that has yet to celebrate a second birthday. Roddick’s production, with its transitioning from light to dark textures, evokes a moving image of the sky set to time-lapse. James’ sublime, candy-sweet voice grabs you when she utters prose fit for chilling spines in a supernatural horror flick script.
James admits a recent foray into watching scary movies, but views her lyrics as original fairy tales from her own mind. “In the past couple years I’ve done that more and become more comfortable with that,” she says. “I used to stay completely away before. I think it’s a matter of creating the lyrics myself instead of being inspired by a movie — finding that cathartic release on my own.”
In fact, the lyrics on Shrines were already written before recording began, lifted from journals James had been keeping. “I heard [Corin’s production] and just went to my journals and found some words that fit,” she adds. “I don’t write lyrics after I hear the music. I find [previously written] ones after.”
Electronic music tends to go one of two ways in a live setting. Either it’s a DJ with gaudy visuals to distract you from seeing him/her merely pushing buttons — the Deadmau5 way — or the artist has concocted some elaborate tactic to translate the laptop-bred tunes onstage. Both can be as exhilarating as they can lifeless, but Purity Ring work to ensure that the ticket cost will be justified.
Their label describes Purity Ring’s show as a “spectacle [featuring] infectious vocal leads chopped and screwed improvisationally, synth leads and lighting triggered live with a drummer’s precision.” They just wrapped up a summer tour opening for Dirty Projectors and now they’re headlining their own. All the talk has been about what exactly is going on onstage. Their secret weapon is a handmade device resembling a tree of LED lights and cloth that is touch sensitive. Connected to both drum pads and synthesizers, the lights change colour with different notes. They call it “The Instrument,” for lack of a better term. And, apparently, it’s quite resilient. At least, this one is.
“It is pretty reliable now,” assures James. “Electronic music can be risky because your computer can cut out for a second, anything can happen. But we’ve taken as many steps as we can to ensure nothing bad can happen. We haven’t had any serious problems. That ‘Instrument,’ it’s taken a few versions. We’re on the second-and-a-half version right now. It’s going really well, it’s pretty solid and as reliable as the programs. We just have to make sure everything’s charged, y’know?”
James laughs at the importance of having gear full of juice for a performance. But she’s pretty deadpan on the assumption that one day Purity Ring will evolve and expand into a live band featuring touring musicians (guitarist, drummer, bassist, multiple keyboardists, etc.) to help flesh out the music. It always has and always will be just the two of them up there performing.
“We’ve known from the beginning that [bringing in other musicians] is something we never want to do,” she says. “It’s electronic music and it’s made on the computer. Why would we want to perform it with live drums and guitars? It’s not even a question for us. When we were trying to develop our live setup, that was top of the list: no instruments other than things we used to make the music.”
A FAMILY TREE, OF SORTS
Before they transformed into the electro-pop juggernaut Purity Ring, Corin Roddick and Megan James both cut their teeth as members of Gobble Gobble (recently rechristened Born Gold), the heavily touring insta-rave project helmed by former Edmontonian Cecil Frena. That band has spawned several other solo offshoots and side projects as well, so here’s a brief family tree.
James’ original musical moniker is documented on Yes We’ll Glow, a self-released 3-inch CD with hand-stitched packaging (probably eBay gold if you can get your grubby mitts on one). Giraffedactyl’s library-quiet piano tinklings are a world away from the stuttering Southern rap beats and dreamy R&B production of Purity Ring, but her goosebump-inducing voice remains the focus no matter its backdrop.
II. Fuck The Tundra
It may seem surprising that a gang of hardcore kids could also be responsible for something this sugary, but Frena and former Gobbler Graham Nichol have a long history of breakdowns, mosh pits and all-ages throw-downs through bands like Gift Eaters, and before that, Snic. Roddick was also the man on the traps for short-lived Ghost Throats favourites Fuck the Tundra, whose bizarre in-jokes and jaw-dropping mathematical fills can be heard on the Bart Records cassette Grin Diesel.
This solo project from longtime GG/BG associate (and sometimes member of Grimes’ backing band) Calvin McElroy has been picking up steam in recent months with a 12-inch release from hepper-than-hep label UNO NYC. His haunting sound-world would fit right in with the kinds of things making crowds go mad in murky U.K. clubs, mixing pitch-shifted vocals with b-boy beats and blasts of icy synth. Bonus style points for the feather earring he’s been rocking lately.
IV. Gyre, Spire and Spindle
Of course, McElroy has a hardcore pedigree as well, and this spasmodic combo featuring Graham Nichol on guitar and mom-rocker-gone-wild Amy MacDonald on vocals is one of the most interesting acts from the Edmonton expats. Hyper-literate, hyper-fast and just hyper in general, their switch-on-a-dime micro-anthems are collected on another tape from Bart Records with the cheeky title Nuggets.
V. Born Gold
Lastly, this rebooted incarnation of the mother-band deserves its own entry since Frena has made some serious sonic and aesthetic shifts. On his upcoming album Little Sleepwalker, the peppy choruses, maximalist arrangements and diversions into chiptune have been replaced by a sleek electronic sound more in line with Montreal’s Mutek festival. The stage outfits of tutus and butterfly wings have also been swapped out in favour of kabuki masks and a remote-control leather jacket that has to be seen to be believed, but fans of the party-starting live show will be pleased to know that it’s still a total blast.