KARKWA: Smarter Than Your Avg

How does a multiple-award-winning, lush-sounding Indie band who have been compared to Coldplay, Radiohead and Sigur Rós slip under the radar?  By actually being more like none of those bands.

Words: Anna Graizbord
Images: Marie-Claude Hamel

The fact that Quebecer fivesome Karkwa do not sing in English has simoultaneously overshadowed and pushed the melodic component of their music to the forefront. On one hand, because they sing in a foreign language, English-speaking music critics and fans have a knee-jerk tendency to instantly compare them to any and all non-English speaking bands. So, it is curious then, that because Karkwa only sing in French, their sound actually becomes more easily focused upon than their lyrics.

Sonically, it’s a bit of a mistake to put Karkwa in the same boat as the drone-y elfin creatures of Sigur Rós. It became apparent to me, anyway, that Karkwa is much more rooted in Folk and have an earthier quality, creating an ambiance more akin to Fleet Foxes or Midlake, than to the alienesque Radiohead or the blandly twee Coldplay. And yet it still doesn’t make sense to compare them to those other bands either.

First off, Karkwa has seen a longevity incredibly rare for bands that start out in their teen years. Louis-Jean Cormier, Stéphane Bergeron, François Lafontaine, Martin Lamontagne and Julien Sagot started their band because of a battle-of-the-bands-type contest at school. Since then, Cormier says, the group has been gradually refining, fine-tuning and simplifying their sound and work process, being most interested in minimalist compositions and piano loops. The result is not some opaque Philip Glass carbon copy, but a lush, almost cinematic quality that isn’t very hard to give in to right away.

Winning the 2010 Canadian Polaris Music Prize was a major turning point for Karkwa, both in terms of breaking through to new audiences as well as shifting their own paradigm — their perception of themselves as a band as seen through those new audiences. Vocalist/guitarist Louis-Jean Cormier asserts that Karkwa felt like a fairly established band before winning this award, as they’d been well-known in the Quebéc (particularly Montreal) music scene since practically their beginning. Yes, yes, like Sigur Rós, Karkwa sing exclusively in their native language. Though French is definitely more an accessible language, at least in comparison to Icelandic, it had served to contain and perhaps even incubate Karkwa within their own French-Canadian bubble for many years.

One of the most interesting things about Karkwa is precisely that they’ve had such a long and rather successful career before they even broke into the collective consciousness of English-speaking music fans. Sort of like an alternate-universe version of what Phoenix could’ve been, career-wise. It follows then, that Cormier told me that one of the primary influences on the band has been all the other bands that they’ve traveled with, played with, as well as those musicians with whom they feel part of the same scene—or more appropriately, community.

This collective or collaborative approach to finding their voice as a band is either something that bands don’t admit to very often, or that doesn’t actually happen much. In all the self-absorption and veritable Lady Gaga-esque proportions of self-importance common in the attitude of many Indie Rock musicians, it was quite shocking to speak to one who seemed so generous, open and honest about the nature of his band’s work and process. Perhaps the English-speaking Indie music scene needs to take a page from the way Karkwa gets things done.

Listen and buy Karkwa’s fourth album, Les Chemins de Verre HERE

Follow Karkwa on Twitter, @Karkwa_

Images courtesy of Marie-Claude Hamel.

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