Rah Rah’s new album deserves cheers

Canadian indie rockers look to extend success into the States

Rah Rah

I don’t know much about Saskatchewan, but judging from its general flatness and its central location, I imagine it must be Canada’s super-polite version of the Kansas- Nebraska area, just with a different accent and more snow.

Rah Rah is an infectious and poppy indie-rock band from Regina, the province’s capital, and the group embodies just the sort of approachable, joyous rock you’d expect from the frozen prairie of our friendly neighbors to the north. The band has just released a new album, The Poet’s Dead, its third, and is starting its first major U.S. tour. Needless to say, the band is excited.

“We’re going down to California and stuff at the end of the month — we’ve never been there,” says co-founder and singer-guitarist-keyboardist-drummer Erin Passmore.

“It’s amazing! It’s going to be warm! In our town right now, there’s like two feet of snow.”

Despite the tumbleweed origins of the band (well, not exactly — Regina is a city of 193,000), Rah Rah tries its best to make its live show an exotic experience.

“We still switch instruments a lot; we sort of incorporate that into our antics,” Passmore says. “We try to surprise the audience, piñatas and stuff. Giant Mylar balloons. It’s like a child’s birthday party onstage.

“We have these giant robot cats that we acquired from different thrift stores that take C batteries and they move around and meow and stuff. It’s actually ridiculously creepy now that I’m talking about it.”

What is now Rah Rah began in 2007 when high school friends Passmore and Marshall Burns started writing songs together. Burns was still in high school and Passmore in her first year “at university,” as goes the Canadian vernacular, and the songwriting chemistry was evident right away. Passmore, a piano player, hopped on drums out of both curiosity and necessity.

They started playing shows, and eventually one of the gigs was big enough to warrant a publicity poster. With the need for a poster came a need for a name, and they came up with “Rah Rah” and haven’t looked back since.

The band subsequently added Kristina Hedlund (violin, keys, accordion, vocals) and Erin’s brother Joel Passmore on bass. Leif Thorseth (guitar) joined as well, and Rah Rah recently absorbed its newest member, Jeff Romanyk (drums, keys, guitar).

Rah Rah released Going Steady in 2009 and Breaking Hearts in 2011. A remix CD, Rahmixes, followed shortly after, and on Oct. 22 the band released its third full-length album, The Poet’s Dead.

The new album marks several firsts for the band. Whereas they had previously enlisted a friend to record and engineer their albums (he took a “lo-fi” approach to the production, Passmore says), The Poet’s Dead marks the first time the band has worked with professional producers. They enlisted storied indie-rock gurus Gus Van Go and Warner F (most famous for their work with Canadian indie rockers The Stills, as well as Hollerado and Priestess) to lead the way, and their methods brought a much-needed jolt of professionalism to the band.

“We actually went through this sort of boot camp scenario,” Passmore says. “[Van Go] actually came to our town for about a week to do some pre-production, like real pre-production, which we had never done before. So it was sort of a wake up call as far as, ‘Oh right. We shouldn’t be practicing in a basement where you can’t hear anything except for this wall of sound. Maybe we should be listening to each other.’ Or, ‘I don’t actually know what I’m playing in this song.’ It was a little bit of an ‘oh shit’ moment.”

The results are stellar, though. Van Go and Warner F have created an incredibly full-sounding 10-track album that manages to create wave after wave of heavily layered pop-rock without sounding over-produced. Synths and multiple guitar parts form a dense base underneath the band’s infectious hooks, and the band’s strong songwriting shines like it never has before.

“I 100 percent feel like this is our best record, hands-down,” Passmore says. “I don’t know, it just makes us sound like a real band, you know?”

All the band’s members contribute songwriting, lyrics and lead vocals, so it’s a testament to the band’s camaraderie that the lyrics are so thematically similar. The record finds the band looking back at their years on the road, dealing with the shifting expectations and future-gazing that comes with getting older. “Art & A Wife” traces Burns’ progression as a musician, from a clueless kid with a guitar to where he is now. “I used to have a song / I would sing for every girl” but “now I just want a life / full of art and a wife,” he sings. On “20s,” which grips you with a desperate urgency, the singers sing, “I’ll spend my 20s on rock ’n’ roll / I’ll spend my 30s feeling old.” The song “Fake Our Love” deals with the loneliness of the road and the impermanence of relationships formed during two- or three-night stays in a city; the lyrics go, “I’m just in town for the night / but I’ll put you on the guest list for the show / we’ll get drunk / fake our love / then I’ll go.”

The band is now embarking on its first major tour of the United States, and the press accolades are rolling in. Relix named them an “on the verge” band, and other magazines have heaped praise on the new album. The accolades are encouraging for Passmore as the band tries to navigate the comparably enormous American market.

“For me personally [the press] really helps, because sometimes you’re like, ‘What am I doing? What am I doing with my life?’” she says. “I’m so poor, I’m sleeping on couches for six months out of the year, but then you know, especially the people that you sort of convert throughout your set that come up to you afterward and they tell you to keep going, ‘You’re amazing, and keep doing what you’re doing,’ all of [that] totally helps me. I don’t know, sometimes you just need that information.”

Passmore is looking forward to seeing parts of the United States she’s never visited before.

“We’ve toured Canada so much it’s kind of nice to go down south and just sort of tour these places that are new and different. We get made fun of because we have accents even though we can’t really hear them. Everything’s the same but completely different,” Passmore says. “We’ve never played Colorado, but we’re going down there too. It’s really nice having that opportunity. We’re from a small town in Canada. Not a lot of people get to do that.”

Rah Rah opens for Calling Out West at the Marquis Theater, 2009 Larimer St., Denver, on Friday, Nov. 23. Ashtree, Calibrate Me and Kyle Coy also play. Tickets are $8 in advance, $10 the day of the show. Doors at 7 p.m. Call 303-292-0805.

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