Matt Angus of Fast Romantics on The Dramatic and Traumatic Creation of 'Pick It Up'

Toronto-based Indie Rock band Fast Romantics will release their new album, Pick It Up, on August 7th. The story behind how they finished the album in time for release is pretty harrowing and inspiring, with a California writing session cut short by the impending closure of borders, and extreme determination in mixing the album once the band decided to go ahead with finishing it during quarantine.

The ideas behind the album are as interesting and compelling as the circumstances that have led up to its release, since the band have been trying to find new ways to connect more from the heart than the head in their music, and title track single "Pick It Up" has gotten a big reaction from fans for its unvarnished authenticity in the message it conveys.

Matt Angus previously appeared with Kirty on our Tower Instagram Live show, and Matt joins us here on Tower's PULSE! for an exploration of how life shaped art and how these new developments might mean big things for the future of music for Fast Romantics.

Hannah Means-Shannon: Your bio on your band website is so cutting edge right now, it’s one of the best I’ve seen. It actually takes in information up to the last couple of weeks. It gives your story, talking about how you were traveling to California, and working there, then everything changed on you. The story of this album is dramatic.

Matt Angus: Yes, it’s dramatic and at times traumatic, but I think albums often are. Just maybe in less of a literal-travelling-across-countries-in-a-pandemic way. We’ve been writing and making what we thought was the record for the last two years. I was in this crazy holding pattern of writing a lot of things and not finishing anything. But all of the sudden, everything is very immediate for me. And it was on that trip that everything became about now. Which is the only reason I think we were able to finish the record, to be honest.

HMS: It definitely takes things from the conceptual to the right here and now. You’re the first band I’ve spoken to who were in this specific situation. I’ve spoken to some who had finished recording rough material before the pandemic and were able to do editing later, remotely, and get albums out. And I’ve spoken to bands who did informally produced quarantine EPs and it gave them something to do. But you all managed to do a formally produced album that needed support during a time when that was almost impossible, so I do want to applaud you for that.

MA: Thanks. Yes, it’s been really hard to explain why it went the way it did. But I think it’s deeply linked to some personal stuff that I was going through, for sure, where I was straight up depressed for a couple of years. But the pandemic and the nature of being forced onto a plane early because they might shut down the Canada-US border? That’s insane. If you had told us that a year before, that would’ve been insane. They’ve never done that.

That was so wacky that I think it just snapped me out of a lot of personal stuff. And I’m the kind of person who, when I get snapped out of something that deep and that prolonged, I go all in. I’m a fairly extreme person. So the idea that we were supposed to be quarantined, that just made me more aggressive. I think it made us all more aggressive. We said, “What are we going to do just sit here? We’re not going to wait for a pandemic to end to finish it. The only option is to figure out how to finish it.” There was a lot of peace in that, saying, “Well, we have to.” Then it’s easy, in a way. You know what you can do, and what you have to do, so you find a way.

HMS: That’s amazing. It would have been understandable to back down at that point. I think it’s a really strong album and in the context of the band’s history, I think it’s going to stand out as an important one.

MA: Thank you. It definitely is. It’s funny, because for two years before the pandemic, we had a studio where my partner and bandmate Kirty and I live, and I had all the time in the world, and I couldn’t get my shit together. It took a pandemic and all these limitations to trick me into realizing that nothing’s perfect. I was waiting for something to be perfect, I think. I think a lot of artists do that.

HMS: That’s just such a great story. The description up online about the mixing and production kind of made my hair stand on end. It sounded so intense. How do you even do that on Zoom? Your collaborator there sounds like a really determined person.

MA: He is. We already knew this was going to be the first time we self-produced. That was the easy part, since we’d been tracking a lot beforehand. Even before Marcus Paquin came on the scene, there was a lot of grit and determination from bandmates. Realizing that we couldn’t be in the same room together to finish all these guitar parts and bass parts, backing vocals, and keyboard parts. Everyone else in the band has a home studio. What does sound kind of gross and unhuman as a way to collaborate became this incredibly rewarding experience. It was a different environment to create in for everybody.

But I’d get an e-mail from Kevin with a guitar part, and I’d go all freakin’ teary, hearing the result. It made it very special. I’d never met Marcus.

HMS: That’s right, you had never met in person.

MA: Right. We had been talking by e-mail for years about working together and I’d always loved what he’d worked on, like Arcade Fire, The National, and Timber Timbre. It took a pandemic to bring us together. As for video conferencing, I shriveled at the thought of it initially. We were wondering if I could travel over to Montreal, but he’s got kids and a family, so we came to the conclusion that the only way to do it would be by Zoom.

He found all this amazing software, so I was sitting in my studio, and I could hear what he was working on real-time by my monitor speakers, and we’d just be talking back and forth like he was in the room. “What about this. What if we add a little part here?” And I’d run over to the piano. It felt like he was in the room, but with this focus around it. He’s also an amazing person and we became fast friends, which helped.

HMS: It makes me think of being put on a space station with someone, since you’re both isolated but together, isolated. Also working with band members at a distance is like you’re out of the space station in a suit trying to do a job with a little wrench, and you can’t touch things with your hands, you’re having to interface. And you’re just hoping everything is correct.

MA: That is a wonderful way of articulating how that felt and I think everyone felt that way. But you talk to people who have been on a spacewalk, and they say it was a very religious experience, and I think it was for us too. It was very special.

HMS: That is so cool. I’ll call it now, and we’ll see in a few years if I’ve been right, but you’re going to look back and see later on how special this album has been.

MA: I hope so. It’s crazy but we spent so many years working on this record that we’ve actually ended up with two records of material. And we’ve started working in the same way, since we’re all still isolated up here, on this next record. We’re going to have another record done before a vaccine ever exists.

HMS: That’s amazing.

MA: I’m not afraid to tell you that, originally, this was going to be a collection of B-sides and we were going save the big record for the next one. Because who would put out their best stuff in a pandemic, right? We were going to call it “Pre-Sides” for a while, since they were better than B-sides. We love this record, but we’re pretty stoked about the next one, too.

HMS: Well, there’s no roadmap here. It’s not as if it’s clear whether to release records or not. It made me think of the fact that people are having babies right now. And you can’t stop that for a more convenient time, either. You can’t stop the clock on what needs to happen in human lives. The record arrives when it arrives. You couldn’t exactly say, “Let’s drain it all of energy by having us wait a year.”

MA: We also had a lot of our team, and people in the industry we trust, and peers, telling us “Don’t do it. You’re throwing your record away if you can’t tour.” But we just had to do it for our own creative purpose. Given what we’ve been through for the last three years trying to make a record.

HMS: For you, I can see why people might say that about touring, because Fast Romantics is particularly well reviewed as a live band. And you do tour a fair amount. And, of course, an album release is usually tied to touring. I can see why it’s a little scary to detach those things.

MA: Yes, we weighed that. This has really sucked. We’ve tried to do livestreams, but it’s not even close to the real thing, especially for a band like us. Fast Romantics was built over years and years of six people getting sweaty. But we really wanted to do this now, and losing another year just wouldn’t have worked for us.

But there are other ways to share a record. The internet is a magical place that no one truly understands.

HMS: Have you had a chance to play any of these new songs live?

MA: We had a chance to play about half the record on past tours, and that’s why they sound as good as they do, I think. There’s a track called “Made For You” coming out, and that tune used to be a standard epic Fast Romantics anthem thing, with big Motown drums and huge guitar riffs. We played it live for a year two or three years ago, but it didn’t feel right. We put it to bed.

But once we got back from California, we dusted that one off and tried it out. Because of not being able to play that one in a room, instead one on one, we started messing around with synthesizers and let other influences creep in that we might not have done otherwise. It’s now our favorite song on the record and I don’t think we would have done it if we had road-tested it in front of a crowd.

HMS: That’s a great story too! Wow. It was in being able to take it apart and put it back together that you discovered what was wrong with it.

MA: Exactly. The lyrics stayed the same, the melody stayed the same, the structure of the song stayed the same, but we just weren’t giving it the right arrangement. It was too over the top. We just started from scratch with the same tune.

HMS: It reminds me of a story about The Rolling Stones, that after recording “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, and it becoming a big hit right away, they didn’t often play it live because they didn’t like the way it sounded. It just didn’t work right live and things fell apart. Then, other people covered that song, mainly Blues artists and the like. Then those versions and solutions that other artists came up with solved it for them. Then they started to play it live more in the 90s, and it finally worked.

So that’s kind of the same idea of having to take something apart and reconfigure it.

MA: It is the same thing. I just saw them up here [in Toronto] last year and it was the highlight of the show to hear that song. They figured it out!

HMS: I must have seen them on the same tour, down here [in Philadelphia]. I didn’t know that story then, when I heard them play. I read it afterwards [in Keith Richards’ Life].

MA: I’ve had this kind of things happen before with songs, but I’ve let them die. I don’t think I’m ever going to let this happen again now that we’ve experienced this. I know that Wilco goes through that. If they know they have a good song, they will go through every sort of treatment for it. They’ll do it soft, they’ll do it loud. I’ve now seen first-hand that it’s something that you should do. You shouldn’t let a song you love die.

HMS: It must be a huge commitment sometimes. It’s a kind of equation, I guess, to decide how far you’re willing to go to get there.

MA: Yes, you also just basically defined the act of being in a band in 2020 anyway. [Laughs]

HMS: [Laughs]

The previous album, American Love, is one you’ve talked about before, saying that you didn’t think it would end up being as political as it has ended up being. You thought it was going to be a love-focused album. But things from life just flood in, so the album ended up having double meanings. Do you think that what’s happening in the world is going to affect you in a similar way?

MA: Oh, no question. Without a doubt. This record, Pick It Up, is an interesting one because it’s teetering on the edge of two different realities. A lot of the songs were written before the pandemic, before this racial stuff, and I’m usually a very political person. I’ll write a political record if the climate dictates it. This record really had one foot in each reality. When I listen to it, it ends up being very personal. These are “inside feelings” and not so much leaning on political commentary. That’s been valuable to me.

I love American Love, and it’s a special record for all of us, but if it had one failing, it’s that it was pretty up in its one head. Sometimes I think too much as I’m writing lyrics. This one was an amazing experience, though. It was really stream of consciousness, and I didn’t really struggle. I didn’t really try to be clever on this record.

I’ve noticing that’s now contributing to the next record stuff in a magical way. The next record, because of what’s going on, has a lot of sociopolitical goo in it, but I think I’m writing it all from a very personal place. I think that’s becoming my sweet spot. I’m much prouder of something I write when it’s tapping the feeling part of my body and not the thinking part of my body. That’s how the next record is going to work.

So, you’re right. This record is super important, because it was a starting gun for a new way of thinking about music.

HMS: That’s fabulous. It’s a really exciting place to be.

MA: I’m so stoked. Writing also comes at a faster pace because we all have this process, this self-production process that’s so rewarding. All that waiting and neuroses that came with the last two years of trying to write this record is gone. I think we’re going to put out a record a year at this rate.

HMS: I also wanted to congratulate the band on the video for “Pick It Up”. To state the obvious, you have footage from the band and band videos included, but there’s also the “normal life” parts with grainy, natural light. I did not expect it to flip, and to go into the footage from live performances and videos, when it happened. It produced an emotional reaction for me, because it felt like it was the contrast between life right now, and life just before this happened. But I didn’t notice how dayglo, and beautiful, and psychedelic life was before, until now. And now it seems like it was so magical, and I didn’t appreciate it.

MA: That makes me really happy to hear you say that, because that video was a real struggle. We had another video that someone else was making for us that didn’t work out because that song is so personal. The moment in time where we were making that song was so important that we threw out the other video, and I had about a week to make that. That video was made just by taking a camera to everybody’s house and filming them at a distance. That was the idea.

The idea was to show what it feels like right now, all of us just sitting in our houses, and then I wanted to viscerally remember what it was like, back then. Not just from a pandemic standpoint, but for us as a band, remembering all these music videos we did, and all these live performances. What that felt like. And the paradox of where we are now. It’s great that it wasn’t just part of the creative process for me, that you felt that too about it.

HMS: No, it really got me in the feels. It didn’t make me sad. It just made me feel like, “This is a true thing.” Something I’ve talked with a couple of musicians about lately is that you can look back and see yourself differently years later. At the time you thought that things weren’t great, and everything you did was flawed, but then you back look at photos and videos now and think, “Wow, I was awesome! Why didn’t I let myself feel like that?” It reframes your past, sometimes.

MA: What you just described is really what most people are going through right now, not just artists. We’ve had so much time to reflect, that it’s really about taking stock of ourselves, and our past. We’re going to remember the pandemic as one of the scariest and most rewarding in history, I think. That’s the optimist speaking.

HMS: It certainly is a defining thing. It has to be.

MA: I hope so. If we just go back to normal after this, it’s a sad state of affairs.

HMS: I don’t even think that’s possible. If we did it would be sort of delusional.

I went back and watched the video for “Julia”, which you did in 2014, I think.

MA: Oh, that old chestnut.

HMS: There was a little clip in the video for “Pick It Up” from “Julia”, I think. But anyway, seeing “Julia” made me laugh, totally out of context. Nothing to do with the music or the video.

I suddenly thought, “This is the greatest Zoom background ever!” You prefigured what people want now, but it’s more interactive, so it’s even better than Zoom.

MA: That’s hilarious. Well done.

HMS: So, you’ll take that, then? If people call you ahead of your time?

MA: Yes, I might just go rename that clip right now.

HMS: How important has to been to you to live near a studio with your partner, who’s also part of all this? Has this been a big component in getting the album done?

MA: Oh, god, yes. Kirty is the anchor of the whole record, and there’d be no record without her. And there’d probably be no me at this point. This arrangement that we’ve built over the last few years of having our studio is so majestic at this point. It’s kind of like we’re living in our studio at this point instead of having a studio in our house.

She’s just the rock of my whole world at this point, at getting things done, and figuring out who we want to be. I’ve talked to a lot of friends about how this era is either going to make or break a relationship, and, luckily, we’re in the former category. And it’s made our band unit stronger by proxy. We’ve always been tight, but I think we have a singular purpose now. And having the studio as ground zero is really going to set us up for what we want to do in the coming years.

HMS: I’ve been talking a lot to musicians about how they’ve had to set up spaces if they didn’t have them already. It’s great that you had that beforehand.

MA: It was always a dream anyway, but it’s lucky.

HMS: You’ve talked about being in a difficult mental place before managing to put this album together, and feeling you got snapped out of it. Is there anything you’d say to people who might be in that place now, who are trying to do creative work, and are actually kind of stuck?

MA: It is so different for everybody, but almost everyone I know, artists and non-artists, suffer from some degree of depression or anxiety. I’ve battled both my entire bloody life. I’m a textbook case of both to different degrees. In my 20’s, I was seriously out of control, and I’ve learned to manage it. Not with drugs, for me, but with meditation, breathing, trying to figure myself out over time. It’s not something everyone should feel like they have to do, but I wanted to.

You don’t really realize when you’re in a deep valley until you get out of it, and I think that’s what happened. For those two or three years, I couldn’t do much of anything, and I certainly wasn’t finishing anything. I was frustrated, but I couldn’t really name it as a super deep depression until this year. It’s a lesson for me about always remembering to take stock of where you’re at, because I think if I’d taken time outside of myself, I probably could have named it as depression earlier.

But that’s easy to say, and I know what it’s like to be in the deepest, darkest versions of this stuff, and sometimes it feels like there’s not much that can help. I think the most important thing is finding help. For me, that’s deeply reflective and personal, and something I do on my own. But for a lot of people, you really do need to talk to somebody. And in some cases, you really do need pharmaceutical help. But whatever that is for people, they need to seek it out. I think we’re getting better as a culture, since I never would have talked about this ten years ago. I would’ve been embarrassed. But I am willing to talk about it now, because I think almost everyone realizes that someone they know suffers from some version of this. In the modern world, I think we all do.

There’s no silver bullet for mental illness or anguish. I wish there was. It’s definitely set me back years. I think the most important thing is normalizing it and naming it. That it’s not something rare or to be ashamed of. That people we know and love are suffering from this. That really helps. It’s something I’m trying to infuse into my music more and more, that experience.

I had a lot of people resonate with “Pick It Up” that I didn’t expect to. I wrote that in twenty minutes because I was really having a rough day and I needed to do it. I thought it was just going to be some time capsule song. When I showed Kirty, she told me to show the band, and when I showed the band, they said, “We gotta put this out.” That’s how that happened. I didn’t think that was going to be a song. It was like medicine.

HMS: It is a really wonderful song.

MA: Thank you. Simplest thing I ever wrote.

HMS: Sometimes that’ll do it. Thank you for being willing to talk about this stuff. I know it probably could’ve been easy to leave it out of the narrative, but like you said, normalizing is progress.

MA: I think so. That’s why I chose to try. But I also don’t want to seem like it’s some kind of tool that I’m using to explain the record. It’s really not. It’s just that I was encouraged to talk about what brought us here, so that made sense.

I think it’s been amazing to hear other artists talk about it, and many who have inspired me. So I thought, “Man, if I can’t talk about it, what other people can’t talk about it until someone like me steps up and talks about it?”

HMS: That’s exactly right.

What do you think about our Tower Records motto of “No Music, No Life” and/or “Know Music, Know Life”?

MA: Those both mean almost the same thing, but I’d vote for “Know Music, Know Life” since it’s saved my life, but also has taught me, “Why”. When I was 12, I bought my first ever CD of something, a cracked, used CD of Joshua Tree. That was it for me. I listened to it on repeat for six months, since it was the only thing I could afford.

From that moment on, every record I bought taught me something about myself, and about the world, and about what other people meant. I learned the good things, and the bad things. So, the “Know Music” is directly proportional to my experience of music. Could we survive without music? We could, it would just suck.

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