Halifax, Nova Scotia is home to John Mullane and Glen Nicholson of In-Flight Safety who – with their latest release, Conversationalist – have seemingly stepped up their creative musical game through the simple art of talking to one another. The result being an indie rock sound that’s perfectly ‘Canadian.’ John, who is quite adept at conversation, shared his pride in the new record, named-dropped bands that he loves, games that he plays, Game of Thrones and – in a moment of clarity – acknowledged a career path best not taken.
High Voltage: I have to confess that I’d never heard of In-Flight Safety and the way I found out about you, of course, is working for a music magazine you get press releases all day. I got yours some time ago, listened to the Soundcloud link, liked it and flagged that e-mail for later. Maybe a couple of weeks later, my editor in chief forwarded some e-mails and asked if anyone might be interested in them. I looked and realized one was the same e-mail I flagged two or three weeks before.
John: That’s awesome. I mean it’s so hard to just find music randomly like that anymore. So that’s pretty cool.
HV: Now you have been around for a minute.
John: Yeah, our first album was 10 years ago 2004, Vacation Land. We’ve been around for a little while, but every album is a kind of push in a different direction so we are always evolving and stuff. It’s not surprising that you haven’t heard of us. I mean how would you hear of us? We’ve never put a record out in the States before or anything like that.
HV: I didn’t know that.
John: Yeah. I’m pretty excited because with Ooh La La [Records] this is our first release in the States.
HV: So tell me the premise of In-Flight Safety. Number one, where does that band name come from?
John: The band name came from just me being a terrible flying person. Especially when we started the band, I really didn’t like flying and I wrote a little bit of music about a plane flying and then crashing into the ocean. In some weird way it’s trying to deal with my fear of flying. At the time we didn’t really have a band name and I ended up suggesting In-Flight Safety: this little weird piece of music that I’d cobbled together. It was very odd. It had like whale sounds in it and things.
HV: Considering all the touring you have to do, are you okay with flying now?
John: I’m better. I don’t love it but it’s just like anything, with repetition you get familiar with it and you get to know the quirks of it. I still don’t love flying but I do it.
HV: The core of In-Flight Safety is you and Glen [Nicholson] and you play with friends as a touring band?
John: We have some really amazing friends here in Halifax who are on the road with us right now who play in other bands in Halifax. It’s just a really cool situation where Glen and I are making a lot of the creative decisions but have another set of people coming on board to hang out with us on the road and help make the songs sound awesome live.
HV: This album came to be from parts of conversations you were having over a period of time. What’s the difference between this particular album and either your first album or the last one? You seem really proud of it and that it’s maybe a creative step or a creative leap for you guys.
John: Yeah. I think this record is a step out of the old world of what we used to do and it’s kind of us arriving at where we wanted to be maybe three or four years ago. You can hear little bits and pieces of what we’re doing today on We Are An Empire, our last record, but it really…we weren’t ready to make that artistic leap and kind of spent a lot of time figuring out how to make the next leap forward.
That’s what those conversations are all about; those conversations Glen and I had in passing records back and forth for many, many months. Trying to figure and trying out different techniques and redrafting and drafting songs over and over to find what it was we were searching for. I think that’s why we’re super proud of Conversationalist because it feels, truly, like this is what we do and what we might have been trying to do on the last record.
HV: How long did it take to record this one?
John: We chipped away at it for two years I would say, off and on. It’s just not possible when you’re in an indie band to work on something 24/7 when you’re trying to do other things and keep the rent paid and so on. Whether we were just working on learning how to program synthesizer stutter or we were working on trying out different…renting different guitars. We just spent lots of time just finally doing things we had kind of put off doing.
HV: With 10 tracks, I found it really easy to listen to the album straight through which is always a good thing. But the first thing that I noticed was who the producer was [Gus van Go] and who he’d worked with: it was like a light bulb went on. The Stills. I can hear that sound.
John: Yeah, I think that’s in there.
HV: It’s a very graceful sound and probably one of the reasons I gravitated toward the record because I miss the Stills.
John: Yeah, they were great.
HV: But it’s a very classically indie and attractive sound you have. Obviously you’re not copying the Stills, but it sounds very Canadian. I don’t know if that’s a thing, but your music sounds very Canadian. It reminds me, also, of the Darcys. A very icy tone, a very clear tone. It feels like a Canadian thing to me.
John: Anybody that hears it – I’ll just get even more Canadian on you: the Stills are a big influence on us when we started and we always looked up to the Stills. One of our favorite records – if the band was a person, one person – one of the band’s favorite records would be Logic Will Break Your Heart by the Stills.
John: That was one of the records that informed how we played music. We didn’t know it when we started the band, but when we heard it we kind of adapted a few of those ideas. With like with the Darcys, Jason (Couse) and Wes (Marskell) are friends of mine. I’ve always admired Jason and Wes for their ambition with the kind of music they make. The Darcys music, like In-Flight Safety, is very Canadian but it’s also very different, it’s also very alien from the folksy kind of Canadian gene.
And bands like Stars, in a more grander sense, for carrying that torch of their’s like maybe a new wave post punk, I don’t know what it is. But it’s still very poppy but there’s all those sort of elements. I like being part of that group of bands or at least I like to think we’re part of that group of bands. I don’t know if we’ve graduated to that yet, but it definitely is something we love.
HV: I’m thinking you’re there considering that listening to you kind of brought all those pictures to my head. You’re a solid reflection of Canadian music in your own right. Who are you guys listening to today?
John: I’m trying to visualize my vinyl collection. I buy a lot of new vinyl. I don’t buy old vinyl much anymore or older vinyl. Do you know the Constantines?
John: Their lead singer, Bryan Webb, has an amazing album out called Free Will. I’ve been listening to Washed Out’s Paracosm a lot over the last many months. I’ve been listening to Wild Nothing steadily for two years and Wild Nothing as a touchstone for what we were working on in our album. There’s this band DIIV. We just bought their record called Oshin; we love that record. Bombay Bicycle Club and, of course, the Walkmen Heaven, is just like an ongoing infatuation with Hamilton’s singing and his writing is – to me – beyond human. I love the Walkmen. So underrated.
HV: Do you ever get mind blown about what seems to rise to the top as far as notoriety, commercial success and what doesn’t?
John: Yeah. I think I’ve realized in my 10 years of being heavily involved in music and music scenes, the one truth that I’ve figured out is I have no idea what’s going to be popular. I thought I knew some stuff, but I really don’t. I just know that I can just make the kind of music that I can make and I know I have the capability to do that. Everything I do informs that, but I really have no basis for what will be successful. In fact, I’m quite bad at predicting that.
HV: Well, you should not be an A & R guy.
John: Yeah, exactly. I do producing and stuff like that and I enjoy it. I like helping young bands make songs or I do a lot of co-writing but I would be a terrible talent scout, because I’d pick that band that no one would ever like but it’s so awesome.
HV: On the album, “Animals” is the lead off single, right?
John: Yes. We teased out at a song last year to kind of see what people thought of our new direction. We put out “Destroy” on-line for a bit and then we kind of promptly took it down once we kind of got the feedback from our Canadian fans.
HV: And how was it?
John: It was great. We just were really curious so we just kind of put it out. Because we are an indie band, we can do crazy things like that.
HV: There is some beauty in that kind of freedom isn’t there?
John: Yeah. We just put it out. We were just like who cares. People want to hear new stuff, let’s put the song out. Then we were just getting feedback from people and seeing how they thought things sounded. It’s great.
HV: The thing about “Animals” is, when you look at it lyrically: I’m not sure whether you’re striking out at or calling humanity on it’s crap or you’re feeling sorry for us. I’m not sure which one you’re doing.
John: I don’t know, but I’m sure of what I’m doing. I just know that the lyrics are right. I can’t tell you what they mean and I think that’s how I look at art. I know when it’s done. I just don’t necessarily know what it means. That’s for you to tell me and I think you’re on to something.
HV: You just put it out there and let the listeners figure it out.
John: Yeah. There’s a weird sixth sense. I know when something’s done. It might be just two words that are wrong for two weeks and I’ll get them and I know they’re done. I don’t necessarily know why and that’s really cool because when they are done it means that they’re probably good and I think, in my opinion anyway, and I think that makes a good song.
HV: When it comes to lyrics do you favor lyrics more linear or more abstract or does it just depend on the music?
John: I think it depends on the song I’m working on. But for me I tend to favor abstract because I don’t like to be too involved, personally, as a character in the lyrics. I like to involve my own experiences but I like interpretation. I don’t like being told there’s a cup of water on the table. I want to just sort of have a slightly more abstract picture painted, but I don’t want it to be too abstract because it seems kind of meaningless, somewhere between those two.
HV: As the whole package of the album…I understand what you said about you just want to put it out there, but is there something – an overall essence to this collection of songs?
John: Definitely. I agree with that. Do you want me to speak to that?
HV: Please do. Tell me your thoughts on the body of work that is Conversationalist.
John: When I’m writing for In-Flight Safety, I tend to need to have some kind of banner, like a Game of Thrones banner that has “Baratheon” over the project. I need to fly a flag, otherwise I don’t know what I’m doing. With this record, it started in little bits and pieces. But it wasn’t until we had a few key lyrics done and we kind of saw it.
A lot of the lyrics I was writing were about hunting and roaming in the hills and things like that. Then I realized there was a connection there somehow. I don’t know, wildlife came up a lot, and animals, and then I saw the connection to friendship, and somewhere in there the album started to take shape. A lot of the album just feels like it’s set outside in the wilderness or something, if you think of destroying, hunting, gathering.
In the second verse of “Destroy” there’s the perspective of the group of animals that are probably on the other side of the hunting. Obviously the song “Animals” is about roaming outside and “Blue Flares” feels like someone who is marooned on a weird place, on a beach or something or on an island. So everything does have that feel and I kind of went with that.
HV: The video for “Animals”: It’s beautiful scenery.
John: That’s just Nova Scotia. We didn’t have to do much other than film it. It’s very, very rugged and beautiful – I think it’s the tie in between beauty and scary. The cliffs are very scary and very dangerous but also very beautiful.
HV: With the tying in with nature and animals and hunting, you just reminded me of the Interpol album that’s coming out. It took me a while to catch it but there seemed to be this running theme of tides and tidal waves and water.
John: I love that band. Glen is a student, for sure, of Sam Fogarino and I’d like to think I’m a student of some of the stuff that Paul Banks does and that Daniel Kessler does. I’ve studied those guys for years as a fan. I like to think they write similarly. They seem to have very abstract, but something about their lyrics are just some of the best I’ve ever seen.
HV: So before I let you go, tell me something nobody knows, either about you or about the band.
John: That is a good question. I could tell you that I can finish Super Mario Brothers 2 in one sitting every time. Without dying.
HV: Super Mario Brothers in one sitting?
John: Super Mario Brothers 2. I’m much better at that one than number 1 because you gotta use a princess in 2 to float around. There’s something not everyone knows.
HV: Video game junkie.
John: Yeah, especially the old school.
HV: Okay, one more thing. If you could go back in time and pick one old school video game that you can bring forth and play, what would it be?
John: I could only bring one forward? I guess this is kind of old school now: I’d have to say for me Street Fighter 2 for Super Nintendo.
HV: Today that probably is old school.
John: I think so. What were you thinking? Were you thinking of another game?
HV: I wondered if you’d say something really nerdy like Centipede.
John: No, I don’t know enough about those games, but…. Oh you know what, can I change my answer?
HV: Yes, you can.
John: I think I’d say definitely say Double Dragon; the arcade game. That was my jam.
HV: Wow, I haven’t heard that in years.
John: I will go on-line on eBay and sometimes look for the cabinet and the game for sale in some…you know, someone found it in a garage and there’s one on eBay and I’m contemplating going to pick it up. I’ve been trying to get it. That’s my game for sure.
HV: You are that guy.
John: Well, that was the game that got me into playing video games. I fell in love with video games after I played that.
HV: I will accept that answer and I applaud you for it.