Most bands entered in this year’s Peak Performance Project are acts that many listeners will already know. Some groups, like Good for Grapes, were just waiting until all of their members were old enough to compete, while folks like David Newberry, a veteran in the local music scene, only recently decided to give the Performance Project a shot. But there is an exception to this rule: the Tourist Company.
After coming out of nowhere last year with their debut album Brother, Wake Up, the four piece band has already done their share of touring, released a second project entitled the Space Race EP, and landed themselves a top 12 spot in this year’s Performance Project. It might seem like magic, but really it’s to be expected. Guided by leader singer Taylor Swindell’s sense of storytelling and melody, Jillian Levey’s gentle keys and backup vocals, Brenon Parry’s hard-hitting drums, and Josué Quezada’s smooth basslines, the group has in just two records created a loose but polished style of experimental folk that carries the kind of ambitious movements and storytelling of Bon Iver with the occasional aggressiveness of last year’s Performance Project winner, Rykka. This is a band that not only has a chance of breaking out in the province, but of winning the Peak Performance Project altogether.
With an upcoming acoustic tour and another album in the works, we decided to catch up with Taylor and Jillian to talk about the Space Race, screenwriting, and the joys of being Vancouver’s newest indie power outfit.
So, what’s going on with the Tourist Company right now?
J: A very busy week! We are one of the top acts in the Peak Performance Project this year, so there’s a list of challenges that they’ve given us and stuff that we have to work on on our own apart from that. It makes for a busy summer.
Congrats on making the top 12! A lot of people know about the project, but not about what it entails. Care to fill us in?
T: It’s basically like one humongous project, almost like being back in school again. They give you different assignments to do over six months that pertain to your career- the idea is that they’re things that you should hopefully be doing already. And then they give reports to fill out, your report is filled out and graded, and that’s your score in the project.
So it’s almost like homework?
J: It is actually, yeah!
T: Kinda like homework. They did give us a book to read and stuff like that, but the homework is definitely a lot more fun than school because it’s all about making music, which of course is awesome.
And you guys had a video shoot for the project just yesterday?
J: One of our challenges is to create a short video that introduces who we are as a band. So that was fun.
T: I don’t know when it’s actually being released, but it’s due pretty soon.
J: We spent so many hours feeling just frustrated working on it-
T: We’re not scriptwriters.
J: Exactly, we’re not. We enjoyed the costuming and the shooting of it, but actually writing it was difficult at times.
Any hints as to what the video’s like?
J: Well, we all like a certain director. Named Wes Anderson. I think that’s all I need to say.
What inspired you guys to write a whole EP around the Space Race, and even name it after it?
T: When I was a kid I was fascinated with the Apollo landings and would watch documentaries on them. Obviously I was a really cool kid [laughter]. That fascination stuck in the end and I ended up thinking in January that we should make an EP-
J: A EP.
T: A EP. And I just kinda wound up writing about that. The way people acted and things just happened in that era has always just seemed so incredible. The whole progression of the space race was just so…tumultuous. It’s always fascinated me.
Even in such a short time difference between your album and EP, there’s a huge stylistic difference– Space Race seems much more polished and more rock-oriented. What led to the change in sound?
T: We’re always trying to build on our sound, so we really just wanted to move forward and just, well, get better on the newer record. We always want to get better at what we’re doing. We also had the oppurtunity to work with Jordan Klassen on that record, and he’s just a phenomenal producer. His mind just really suits our music. He has a way of thinking that pushes us out of the box but also totally grabs your attention. He had so many good ideas. Working with him was just a great learning experience.
Taylor, before the band formed you had been writing songs in secret, right?
T: I always write. I just didn’t like people hearing my music back then, because I thought it wasn’t any good [laughter] and I still don’t all the time. I just felt it was finally time to do something with all the music I’d been writing, so I bugged these guys about it and thought “Let’s see what happens.”
Jill, how’d you guys find out that Taylor had been writing?
J: We always knew he was very talented. We all met at a camp, actually, and he was clearly very musical. And after getting to know him for a few years and just jamming, we knew that he wrote– we just had never heard anything. So when he asked if we could record some of his stuff in a studio, we were totally on board. We didn’t know we would ever wind up actually making a band, but hey!
Taylor, were you excited about releasing your own stuff?
T: No, it was absolutely terrifying [laughter]. It’s exciting, but I’m a naturally introverted and quiet person, so that kind of thing was a definite push out of my comfort zone. But it’s a good thing.
Do you still do most of the writing for the band?
T: Well, kinda yeah. I kinda write stuff and then show it to the rest of the band to be picked apart. Or not.
J: Usually we’ll have lots of suggestions, our own pieces to add, things to play with like drums and background vocals, then we’ll get together and see what everyone is thinking. But Taylor definitely creates the core of it. It’s not that Taylor wants all the control, but he creates the story of the song– and we don’t want to change that too much, because it’s usually great. But we may want to rework arrangements or rhythms and things like that.
Back to the Peak Performance Project. What are you most nervous and most excited for moving forward?
T: For me, it’s amazing getting to know the people in the other bands. There’s so much you can learn from them and absorb from such creative people. SEeing how good they are pushes you to be even better– like iron sharpening iron.
J: We met them all for hte first time at Khatsahlano, and they;re all so nice. The community of musicians in Vancouver are all super supportive of each other. I come from a background of dance competition, which isn’t exactly like that. It’s pretty competitive. It’s really cool just to see musicians caring about each other’s music and standing in front and just being very friendly with each other.
You guys experiment with the typical folk and rock formulas quite a bit. What are some of your influences?
J: I like stuff like the Oh Hellos, Aidan Knight……oh now I’m blanking! We’re going to cover a lot of the same bands, anyway.
T: I like a lot of weird stuff. I like Sufjan Stevens a lot, Royal Canoe is a current favourite.
J: We Are the City.
T: We’ve started listening to a lot morel local music ever since we got into this competition. The Belle Game is another one.
J: Oh, the Belle Game!
T: We also listen to Jordan Klassen’s music a lot too. .
J: Repentance is a great road trip CD.
A lot of bands write under really bad names before they find a good one. What’s the worst name you’ve ever performed under?
T: Well, we’ve only ever been the Tourist Company…
What about other bands?
T: Good point.
J: I haven’t actually been in any other bands.
T: Brennan would have some good answers for this.
J: Oh my gosh, Brenon.
T: Brennan was a metal drummer. I don’t know any of his former bandnames, but they’re probably great. Mine are pretty tame.
Shoutout to Brennan. Give me your worst.
T: I think we called ourselves “Patrick, Drive”, which just sounds like a person called Patrick being told to drive. I don’t even know, man.
J: I have a good name on the backburner that I kinda wanna use.
T: I don’t like it.
J: I’m worried someone will steal it, but I think the name Cedar Shakes would be good. Cedar is a solid thing, and then shakes sounds dancier, looser…
T: And of course everyone loves naming their band after building materials.
So, what’s next?
J: Tomorrow, we’ll be playing at the Harmony Arts music festival in West Van. It’s gonna be a really fun outdoor show. After that, Taylor and I are going through a stripped-down acoustic tour of BC and Alberta.
T: We’ve got new music in the works, and are developing a project that should hopefully drop sometime in September.