The history of Vancouver via Abbotsford British Columbia’s You Say Party is a storied one. Imagine this: trapped in a never ending nightmare of suburban dystopian hell, you form a band. With the simple adjective of having fun, spreading a message, making people dance - you leave the confines of a religiously stifling community. Within a few years you’re playing the world’s top festivals, winning awards, and wooing critics.
But now I find myself piecing foggy bits of memory fragments together with duct tape and hairspray. Like stickers on a dive bar bathroom stall, I know I was there. But why and for how long? I feel like I’m sifting through a shoebox of handbills and press clippings like some True Crime podcaster placing myself at the scene.
I’m not sure where I first heard the name You Say Party! We Say Die! but it caught my eye. It was an era of exuberant band names. !!!, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Shout Out Out Out Out, Hot Hot Heat, Fake Shark- Real Zombie! And my own band GoGoStop! It was also a time when bands out Vancouver’s sleepy conservative suburbs were starting to break out: Witness Protection Program, The Hand, Fun100.
It was exciting. There was a sense of community. Of people just wanting to have fun. Perhaps we were shaking off the anxieties of a post 9/11 world, or shrugging off the self seriousness that was emo and hardcore. We still made mix tapes and zines- scoured Terminal City and The Straight for new bands. There was this new social networking craze called MySpace that had yet to be a ubiquitous omnipresent corporate behemoth that dominated every corner of our lives. We were called Scenesters not Hipsters. Everyone was in an art collective.
Adorned with white belts and one-inch pins; asymmetrical hair cuts and red velvet blazers we set out to prove Vancouver wasn’t No Fun City at now long shuttered venues like the Marine Club, the Pic Pub, and Mesa Luna. I didn’t drink at the time so dancing, and by extension dance punk, had become my saviour- bands like The Rapture, Les Say Fav, Pretty Girls Make Graves to name a few. When Mp3 blogs became a thing, I immediately downloaded The Gap from their 2005 debut Hit The Floor! and loaded it on my 100 song iPod shuffle. I like so many others, became an instant fan.
I moved into what could only be described as a punk rock compound- 3 houses that were owned by a former Christian sect that we dubbed Triple Threat. Members of Bend Sinister, No Dice, Witness Protection Program, and Devon Clifford from You Say Party and Cadeaux (and Whiteloaf) all lived there. He drove an orange 1981 Camaro Berlinetta to match his bright red hair and big personality. We would walk to the greasy spoon Bon’s Off Broadway to get terrible but cheap breakfast and to watch The coffee Sheriff pour undrinkable refills of sludge. It was like living in the movie Withnail and I, but funner. We all wore pins that said Do You Party? on them.
It felt like Vancouver was blowing up and You Say Party was the hand-clapping drum majorette leading the pack. Ladyhawk, Black Mountain, Radio Berlin, New Pornographers, Destroyer, S.T.R.E.E.T.S., The Doers, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? And The Organ highlighted just how tight-knit and diverse our scene was. Relentless touring and glowing reviews for You Say Party’s sophomore Lose All Time ensured they were head of the class, despite being unable to tour the US due to a previous border snafu.
Lose All Time sat on top of the Earshot charts for what seemed like forever. Famous for their frenetic live shows, and aided by stunning videos, their sophomore effort was a clear progression from Hit The Floor! It still harnessed the visceral rawness of their origins, but hinted at a confidence and maturity that was to come. The title of Lose All Time was a reference to the discombobulation of constant touring and it too was a hint of what was to come.
The touring would take its toll. Fuelled by
Chinese Red Bull; a well document public dustup between band members at a bar
in Germany would throw everything into uncertainty. But it was that turbulence
that would set the stage for XXXX and after a restorative tour to China,
the stage was set for the penultimate You Say Party record.
Flash forward to 2009 and the city was on edge. Everything was about to change. Vancouver was preparing to host the world amidst the unfolding Great Recession. Anti-Olympic protests ramped up. A gang war raged in the streets and made international headlines, tucked behind Swine Flu hysteria and the ongoing imperialist war on Iraq.
It seemed like all the venues started closing and all our friends were moving to Berlin or Montreal. We starting looking in. Is this the city we want? Was it just growing pains? This kind of introspection is clearly reflected in XXXX. If Lose All Time was a record the band wanted to make, XXXX was a record for the people; a record for the city of Vancouver; a record for 2009.
“I finally feel like a singer, rather than a dancer who loves being in a band” said Becky Ninkovic at the time. It’s a perfect quote. One that succinctly captures the maturity and focus of the record. After a breakdown for Ninkovic, a year of rest and vocal lessons, Exclaim! announced XXXX to be a career resuscitation.
And it was. Going back now and rediscovering the record is such a magical thing. Opening for You Say Party with my band Taxes in 2008, I was impressed with the new material even if was a little jaded (I mean I was almost 30). But now with time and space I can see the songs they were working on were truly timeless. Laura Palmer’s Prom could so easily slot in with the latest 80s synthwave revival along alongside bands like Lust for Youth, Lower Dens, and Chromatics.
Overall, XXXX sounds like an exhale. A moment of stillness when you know you’ve made something extraordinary. When you know all those moments combined; moments of sheer terror, adrenalin, elation, boredom, and longing- culminate in a piece of art that once you let go of it- you just know in your gut that it’s right. It draws you in, wrestles with a brooding tension, then sends you into a churning whirlwind of tight drums and buzzing synths. It’s a remarkable achievement.
There’s plenty of vintage YSP sass throughout. “She’s Spoken For”, “Make XXXX”, and “Cosmic Wanship Avengers” are all classic synth punk gems, but the it’s in the subdued that the album really grips. “Dark Days”, “There is XXXX (Within My Heart)” and the sprawling Kate Bush like ballad “Heart of Gold” are the hallmark of a band that is comfortable exploring the limits of their genre. While lyrically quite positive, the melodies are daunting. Indeed, as Pitchfork put it, “the slower pace and more sentimental outlook of XXXX gives listeners the necessary space and encouragement to surrender to the band’s emotional message”.
And it was a message they would finally return to the US with in 2009. The band was poised for mainstream breakout success. They were long listed for the Polaris and they won a Western Canadian Music Award for Best Rock Album of the year. Much has been written about what would happen next. I don’t want this article to be about the tragic onstage death of drummer and friend Devon Clifford, but it’s inexorably linked to the band’s story.
And I can only really tell it from my point of view. I wasn’t sure I would go to the funeral but a mutual friend told me that Devon would want me to go. Portland Hotel Society, a local housing provider which Devon had thrown the weight of his passion behind, rented a bus to drive out to Abbotsford. I held up pretty well until my friend Al Boyle got up to play. Then some yelled “Spagett”. Then Krista and Becky sang “Cloudbusting” and I lost it.
The band would try to carry on. Krista would leave the band and Bobby Siadat and Robert Andow of the band Gang Violence would fill in for touring. When that didn’t go as planned Al Boyle who had been in the punk band Hard Feelings with Devon would replace Bobby. They officially went on hiatus in 2011 only to reunite a year later with Krista back on keys and a drum machine in place of Devon.
And while the band’s self titled 2016 release would be their moment of closure, the reissue of XXXX is one of celebration. Celebration of what they made with Devon. Celebration of a near perfect moment in time. A capsule of a entire city at it’s peak. The band has changed. The scene has changed. And I’ve changed. But there will always be XXXX within in our hearts.
‘Cause every time it rains
You’re here in my head
Like the sun coming out
Ooh, I just know that something good is going to happen
And I don’t know when
But just saying it could even make it happen
We are so excited to reissue a limited run of XXXX on clear vinyl through Paper Bag Records Vintage for Record Store Day on August 29th! Support your local stores & grab this album on vinyl for the first time in 10 years! https://recordstoredaycanada.ca #yousayparty #YSPWSD
About Sean Orr
Sean Orr is a writer, musician, artist, activist, and dishwasher living and working in the unceded Coast Salish territories of Vancouver, B.C. Besides his twice weekly news column in Scout Magazine he writes for Beatroute and has written for Vice Magazine and Montecristo among others in the past. He’s the frontman in the punk band Needs and also has a pickle company called Brine Adams.
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