By Lucas Canzona
I distinctly remember one late night among many spent distracted by the offerings of an infinite Internet. Before coming to McMaster, I would convince myself that my lack of sleep was really an investment – one that would later help me get a jump-start on discovering this mystical Hamilton music scene that I had heard so much about. Hamilton was going to be my new home, and music was surely going to be a part of it. My laptop screen lit up my face as I took in everything I could about artists, venues and promoters. I jumped from blog to blog and read about bands like The Reason, The Rest, Young Rival, The Dirty Nil, Terra Lightfoot and, eventually (inevitably), New Hands.
The young band was unlike the other names I had discovered, and that night I made a plan to someday see them live. Seven months later, I found myself in their collective living room, talking music, Hamilton and everything in between.
I spoke to Spence Newell (vocals), Pat O’Brien (guitar, drumpad) and Evan Bond (bass, keyboard), though New Hands isn’t complete without Ben Munoz (keys, guitar) and Gordy Bond (drums). New Hands wasn’t always the New Hands of today, as the band’s early incarnation went through what the three refer to as the quintessential “high school band” phase. They met through a collective will to craft their own music and formed the Social Workers several years ago, though a change in moniker and direction was imminent.
O’Brien summed up the change of pace when they started taking things seriously.
“When we entered the studio in 2011 [Hamilton’s Threshold Recording Studio with producer Michael Keire], we quickly realized that these songs we were turning out were of a higher caliber that our past material, and that’s when we agreed that the direction we wanted to take was largely electronically based,” he said.
“I think a big part of it was, we realized we were putting money into it,” said Bond. “We recognized that, from that point, we did have to pay attention to our image – one that wasn’t the Social Workers, because we didn’t want to look like that.” The name New Hands was a name that everyone “didn’t completely hate.”
O’Brien added that, “I don’t think there is such a thing as an incredible band name. I think it’s the band that backs it. There are good bands that have bad names.”
“It’s ambiguous,” Newell concluded.
“We have hands,” offered Bond.
Refocused and ready to work as New Hands, the five still occupy the daytime with education and work in Hamilton. Each attended McMaster at one point, though Evan currently studies at Mohawk College and Gordy is in a graduate program at York University. They have a lengthy practice once a week and intensify their work time together if a show is coming up. This past December, they released a 7” record featuring their new songs “Whichever Way You’ll Have It” and “Tulips,” and the two tracks are a prelude to more material in the near future.
The decision to go vinyl was a collective one. “I think there’s something to be said about having such a tangible piece of music,” O’Brien explained.
“This resurgence is definitely something that needs to be happening,” Evan added. “When you put on a record, there’s more work involved. You are going out of your way to appreciate it … It’s always been a dream of Gordy and mine to have our own vinyl someday.”
A particularly powerful moment of “Whichever Way You’ll Have It” happens as gang vocals shout “I’m alive and can’t say no.” The part of the song was recorded with a group of friends during the band’s residence at Threshold Studio, and among the featured voices are Evan Bentley of The Rest and The Dirty Nil’s Luke Bentham.
“We felt bad because we couldn’t invite everyone, so it came down to this really creepy process of, ‘whose voice do we like the most?’” Bond explained. “And then we had to go through weird criteria like ‘who laughs the best,’ so essentially some of our best friends got left out because of their laughs.”
Laughing aside, the two-track release has garnered positive reviews and blog attention around the world. The two songs on the 7” will be on the band’s full-length album of about 10 songs, which is currently being mixed and mastered. The release is planned for some time before the fall.
As for the band’s writing process, Munoz is the primary songwriter and the person who comes up with the initial ideas for the structure of songs. “Ben has ideas, and your individual interpretation of those ideas is what makes us a band,” O’Brien said. “I think everyone’s required for it to become a New Hands song.”
“If someone doesn’t feel comfortable playing something, it shouldn’t be brought to the stage,” Newell said.
“If I can’t dance while playing it, that’s a pretty good indication,” O’Brien added.
Newell mentioned that although New Hands’ sound hasn’t drastically changed, he still couldn’t have predicted some of the songs they’ve turned out. Although they assert they sound like themselves (as all bands do), reviewers have pinned comparisons on them ranging from New Order to Depeche Mode, Passion Pit to Joy Division and Caribou to the Strokes.
“We basically get comparisons with new-wave bands because I sing in a lower register,” Newell said. “It used to bug me a little bit because I thought some of those bands didn’t have very varied vocalists, but now I get it because I’m a bass. It’s endearing because a lot of people are really into that music … at the same time we want to be very explicit that we don’t draw from that material.” Primary influences for New Hands include the Strokes, LCD Soundsystem, Caribou, James Blake and Burial, with some UK garage music influencing Munoz’s writing. (O’Brien wanted to make sure I included that New Hands’ sound is distinctly “lototech,” a genre they are pioneering.)
The group agreed that the hope of touring and doing what they love on a consistent basis is what really pushes them to make things happen. “Another thing too is, keeping on going, keeps you going,” Newell said.
“Our parents really want us to do our schooling, so I don’t think it’s right to throw that opportunity away when they’re also so supportive of the band,” he added. “My mom used to make us cookies when we practiced at home.”
“There’s definitely the distinction to be made that it’s a community versus a scene,” Newell said of playing music in Hamilton. “No one is out to get you, and people are out to support. You’ll go to so many venues and you’ll see fellow artists.”
“It’s also this community of fans that are so open to a lot of music just because they’re in the area and they want to absorb it,” Bond added. “There aren’t a lot of venues around here, but the ones we do have put on really good shows.
“I think also, in comparison to Toronto, there’s more of a communal vibe here in the sense that, since it’s not as big of a city, it’s easier to be a community here.”
New Hands cite help from other Hamilton musicians as being a big part of their past successes. Young Rival, The Dirty Nil, The Rest, Terra Lightfoot and Dinner Belles have all played a significant role in New Hands’ history. This pattern of connections, not surprisingly, is also how New Hands’ recent show opening for Arkells at This Ain’t Hollywood came together (a text message from Arkells’ singer Max Kerman sealed the deal). The show was as a definite highlight of the band’s time together, along with Supercrawl and a show at the ROM, where they performed in front of dinosaurs, and which turned into a club afterwards.
New Hands’ evolution has been a lengthy one, and they offered some insights to provide to others wanting to start a band of their own. “Something that’s important is both maturity as a band and maturity as people,” Newell said.
“Before you get all of the professional things rolling, like shows and press and all that stuff, be critical with your music. Keep writing, too,” Bond said. “I think it’s important that you don’t rush it. It’s stressful working around school and work, but the thing to remember is the fun always outweighs the stress. And if you’re doing it for the art and the fun, you should be with your friends.”
“Develop thick skin,” O’Brien suggested, “because there are going to be people who aren’t fond of your music. You’re going to be bad at some point … learn to roll with the punches.”
The future of New Hands is something the five are eager to write. They apologized for their full-length release taking so long and explained that the delay stems from each of them being very particular through the process. “We’re very proud of what we’ve done so far with it,” Bond said. “It sounds super lototech.”
If you’ve seen New Hands live, you’ve likely heard a good deal of the songs already. But a successful album release isn’t the only thing the band are hoping for. “We’re ambitious; we’re not trying to be a small band for a niche group of people,” O’Brien said. “There’s nothing wrong with a lot of people liking your band. I always get bothered when people say ‘sellout’ or something because that’s a choice they make.”
“I would appreciate respect from a music community more than becoming famous,” he added. “I think being respected from your peers for what you do is a rewarding thing in any field.”
“Meeting Ke$ha would also be a plus.”