Equally at home with thoughtful, introspective soundscapes and with solid verse/chorus/verse tunes designed to be blasted from the radio, Canadian four-piece Pilot Speed has, with their latest offering Wooden Bones (out April 28 on MapleMusic Recordings in Canada and Wind-up Records in the US), delivered a set that will appeal to music fans of all stripes.
“There are a lot of pop hooks that the listener can grab onto,” says singer/songwriter Todd Clark. “We really wanted to focus more on the song itself with this album. It can be easy to write long, sonically intricate, shoe gazing music, but to create more compact songs, and do it well, can be very satisfying.” The infectious first single, “Put The Phone Down,” is one such song, managing to sound at once expansive and intimate, thanks to its irresistible hook and Clark’s simple yet moving plea: “Please put the phone down/Put the phone down/And lie with me tonight.”
Absent, then, are the five-and-eight-minute long epics that helped Pilot Speed’s previous albums win critical acclaim. (Their debut Caught By The Window spawned the smash hit “Into Your Hideout,” which won the 2004 MuchMusic Video Award for Best Independent Video.) “I felt it was important for us to write songs that could work in any environment. Songs that would have a conventional appeal but still sound like us,” says Clark. “Even the ‘weird’ or ‘artier’ tracks have what I think are pretty easy points of entry for the listener.”
But that doesn’t mean the Juno-nominated band has entirely abandoned the enchanting flourishes found in their past work. Indeed, unusual touches like the calliope-styled intro to “Today I Feel Sure,” the metallic percussive effects on “Up on the Bridge,” and the back-to-the-‘60s mellotron vibe heard throughout the album are conscious indicators that Pilot Speed is still more than willing to bend the rules, even within the confines of a seemingly straightforward four-minute pop tune.
“Art songs with hooks,” Clark laughs when asked to summarize Wooden Bones. “Even with the poppier, more commercial tracks – ‘Put the Phone Down,’ ‘Light You Up,’ and ‘Bluff’ – there are unique aspects to each of them; they’re purposely a bit rough around the edges.”
A recurrent theme throughout this set is the fragility of life and of humanity in general. “This life we have is all we’ve got, and it’s short, so better make the most of it,” Clark maintains. “I think the album takes an observational look at some of these universal themes, from era to era and across generations. For the most part, these things don’t change. “
Making your way through life’s ups and downs is very much at the fore of such songs as “Bluff,” which starts out as an almost Aimee Mann-ish piano lament before bursting into a full-throated, arena-ready ballad, and “Light You Up,” a ringing mid-tempo rocker that evokes inevitable comparisons to epic compositions deep in emotional depth.
Then there’s the title track. The first half of “Wooden Bones” is a sort of slow-motion lament about our fragile and fleeting place in the world. The word “suicide” is mentioned in its very first line, but then, with an insistent, grungy guitar part, the song evolves into a realization that, for the all the struggle, “It’s all right.”
“I don’t find the themes on this album depressing,” Clark asserts. “To me as an observer, it’s just the way it is. Life is precarious, in a lot of ways; the trick is to feel comfortable with that realization.”
Pilot Speed’s own journey has been rather less fraught, though it’s definitely taken some unexpected turns. Clark was born in Wellington, New Zealand, before a new job for his father mandated a move to the Toronto area when he was sixteen. In 2000, after leaving the University of Western Ontario’s music program, he placed a web ad for like-minded musicians and, relatively easily, enlisted bassist Ruby Bumrah, who in turn brought in guitarist Chris Greenough and drummer Bill Keeley.
“We’ve been together for seven or eight years now,” Clark says, “and I can honestly say that we’ve never had any major blowouts. With any group you’re going to have some issues to deal with, but everyone understands their role in the band, and we’re each comfortable in our own skins.
“On this record, we’ve grown up a lot,” he continues. “We’re the band that we want to be, not a band that’s trying to be something, or someone, else.”
The process of presenting who Pilot Speed currently is took about two years, in part, Clark says, because he wanted to take his time in composing the album’s 11 tunes.
“I’ve been around long enough, and know what I was like when I was growing up, to know that people often care most about tunes that define a particular time and place for them,” he states. “And obviously, that comes down to a song itself. Will it become a song that finds its way in to people’s hearts? Will it become for them directly linked with a time and a place in their lives?
“It has nothing to do with trends,” he adds. “It’s about creating something that people can react to as they will, and hopefully it becomes a part of them.”
The irony in approaching songwriting so carefully, he laughs, is that “Just as I started to feel that I was getting good at it again, we had to record, and then we had to go straight into the business end of things, thinking about touring and videos and so on.”
The rest, he says, is up to listeners.
“It’s out of our hands. The people decide where you sit in the marketplace, whether something will be a success or failure, at least in terms of sales. I felt like I could keep writing, and keep recording –ultimately it can be difficult to realize when something is ‘done.’”
Nevertheless, Clark says, he’s secure in the feeling that Wooden Bones “is our best work. We worked as hard as we could on it, to make the best record we could, and I feel we’ve accomplished that.”