At the end of our conversation, Kevin Stebner, guitarist-vocalist for local post-hardcore act Stalwart Sons, thanks me for giving Stay Cold a thoughtful listen. It’s certainly a nice sentiment, but completely unnecessary on Stebner’s part: Stalwart Sons’ sophomore LP — following 2010’s Revolution Winter-released Burn Daylight Like Torches — is, even to the least discerning listeners, a head-flexing outing. (No one would confuse Stalwart Sons for Bridge 9 chongo hardcore act Trapped Under Ice, who also released an LP named Stay Cold in 2008.)
That isn’t to say that Stalwart Sons’ Stay Cold is overly academic. It’s just that Stebner and his bandmates, bassist Matt Learoyd and drummer LeeJay Dunphy, think big: They pair a post-hardcore bedrock — think: the gap between Rites of Spring’s End on End and La Quiete’s La Vache Qui Rit — with the muscular dynamics of the Constantines. The album’s title, meanwhile, is part Walt Whitman ode, part environmental call to action and part nod to Canada’s overt politeness. (“It’s a plea for sensibility,” adds Stebner, “To remain calm and unmilitaristic.”) Heartfelt, if bitter, analysis of their native province litters each of Stay Cold’s songs, with Stebner lamenting the slow death of the province’s agrarian culture, criticizing the nefarious influence of the oil industry and decrying the dwindling stock of wolves in northern Alberta.
“I love Alberta, therefore I can’t leave it — nor stand by quietly and not comment on it,” he says. “I watch this beautiful place get destroyed through this detrimental [oil] industry, [and it’s] just a complete lack of stewardship.”
Which explains Stay Cold’s political bent — and its beautiful cover art, frigidly depicting Moraine Lake. “I’m compelled by the landscape. I can’t help but respond to it. The Canadian prairies are a land of contradictions, and despite having this reputation as being true-blue conservative, there’s a long history of protest movements here, like UFA, agrarian socialism, social gospel, the NEP protests. I don’t think the way I feel is anything new in particular.”
Stebner’s willingness to confront Alberta’s ugly political truths is a rarity among the province’s musicians — post-hardcore or otherwise. But Stay Cold isn’t dogmatic: It chooses questions over answers, tackling the ill-sketched Canadian national identity (“Horse Blanket Rash”), the value of lives carved from the prairie landscape (“True North”) and the value of oppositional counter-cultures (“Good Man”).
Yet its most pensive moment comes in the form of the sarcastically titled “Wave More Flags,” a track that pits Stebner’s deep love of the surroundings against nationalism. Through it, Stebner’s modus operandi becomes clear: Like Toronto country act One Hundred Dollars, Stalwart Sons are here to tell a nation’s stories, not celebrate its nationhood. So yeah, they won’t be passing around mini flags at their shows.
“The concern, for me, has to do with the idea of pride itself [not national pride], to combat the collective indifference,” he says. “Canada has a strange relationship with nationhood. It tries to define itself by these tenuous things: Canada minutes, CanLit, the CBC, Douglas Coupland. Canada has never been able to figure itself out, and it seems to me that more and more people are caring less about finding that definition [of who we are as nation].”
With all this national identity talk, though, it’s easy to forget Stebner’s main passion: the music. On Stay Cold, he says that he had hoped to capture something “fiery and artful.” On that note, he succeeded: It’s a loose album more focused on emotion than precision, with Stebner’s intense, gruff vocals often occupying centre stage. That, he says, came from his newfound obsession with Jason Molina, the former singer of Songs: Ohia.
“He’s the king of vocal cadences,” says Stebner. “And I think I’m inching closer to where I want to be, artistically and vocally. Or maybe I’m becoming an old man.”
Yet he doesn’t intend to slow down. Quite the opposite, in fact: Stalwart Sons are gearing up for a split 7-inch with Self Defense (the Deathwish Records act formerly known as End of a Year), while Stebner is also gearing up for a new release from Cold Water, his haggard, solo country act. More ebullient outpourings, indeed.