As he walks through his neighborhood in Victoria, B.C., on a sleepy Friday evening, Dave Lang reflects on the time before his band Current Swell started recording their latest album. His 8-month-old daughter, who he's carrying now, hadn't been born yet, and his wife had just received the unexpected news that her dad only had a short time left to live.
It was a period of deep personal turmoil, and Lang found himself throwing his emotions into his songwriting, placing himself in his father-in-law's shoes.
"If there's something he would want to pass on, what would it be?" Lang recalls thinking. "And what if I was in his position? What advice would I give?"
That session of writing would eventually inspire When to Talk and When to Listen, Current Swell's upcoming LP, which is set to drop the day after their May 11 show at the Big Dipper. Much of the record is preoccupied with death and loss, not only on its title track but on "Marsha," the shimmery, Beach Boys-inspired song that bookends the album and sees guitarist Scott Stanton reflecting on his own mother's death.
Despite its subject matter, though, When to Talk is hardly a bleak record, exploring life-changing themes with the buoyancy and unpredictability of a band jumping headlong into stylistic experimentation. More than ever before, Current Swell's versatility is front and center on this collection of songs: "Like I Fight for You" recalls Top 40 folk-pop bands like the Lumineers or Mumford & Sons; "It Ain't Right" and "Thief of Joy" are rousing rockers with hooks a hundred stories high; the title track channels the delicate introspection of '70s singer-songwriters.
When to Talk and When to Listen, which was recorded in a matter of weeks in both Vancouver and Nashville, represents the band's most obvious leap forward yet, and Lang credits producer Jacquire King, who's worked with everyone from Tom Waits to Norah Jones to Kings of Leon.
"We could just never settle on being one-dimensional," Lang says. "We really like playing rock, but also playing rootsy stuff, and then having some surf music and messing around with different things. We just can't make up our minds. What are we? It doesn't matter."
That fluidity has defined the band since it began in 2005, which Lang now describes as simply "stumbling into some songs." Current Swell has always rolled with the punches, but they've built up a fan base doing so: They've racked up a couple of big indie singles in Canada, and Lang says they have quite a following in Australia and Brazil.
Stanton and Lang are the band's primary songwriters, and Lang says they usually work on material separately. But they collaborated closely during the When to Talk sessions, hammering out two-man demos before bringing the rest of the band in to flesh out the songs. They wanted "to get fewer cooks in the kitchen," as Lang explains it.
"It was pretty fun and pretty rewarding to see where we could take it," he says. "It's a trusting partnership."
As the band gets older, and as the members expand their families and perhaps experience other losses, Lang believes that he and his longtime writing partner will be better able to channel their own lives through their music.
"When we were younger guys, maybe we were a little more insecure about being open about some of that stuff. You don't really want to go into the shadows," Lang says. "But it was kind of neat to see [Scott] go down that path with what he was writing about. I felt like we were both having a similar moment in our lives." ♦
Current Swell with Hey! Is for Horses and Cattywomp • Thu, May 11 at 7:30 pm • All-ages • $8/$12 at the door • The Big Dipper • 171 S. Washington • bigdipperevents.com • 863-8098