Jessica Paiva of Music Vice Magazine had the privilege of catching up with award-winning songwriter and drummer Alison MacLean and singer/guitarist Chris Ioannou of Toronto band Little Creatures before hitting The Painted Lady’s stage during North by Northeast festival (NXNE).
Why do you choose to be a part of these festivals?
Chris: With this festival you know that you will have people who will want to attend. I know that tonight there’s going to be people walking by here who are music fans, who have gone out and bought passes because they want to be able to take in whatever they can.
Alison: It’s such a treat to know that at any time you can go see any band you want. When does this ever happen? 15 years ago – one of the reasons why my old band got a lot of attention was because of North by Northeast. You know you got to be on your A-game because that’s the night you play really well. For the bands who just start out, it’s something to achieve. It’s a little bit of an accolade to be able to say that I was accepted to play at North by Northeast. It’s kinda cool. It’s a big party in the city and the fact that it’s in Toronto is pretty cool.
Chris: It’s awesome to meet other bands. You can really link up and form some great relationships. You get to hang out with all these other bands – maybe they’re doing better than you, maybe they’re not doing as good as you, maybe they’re exactly on the same plane and maybe you can book shows together. It’s important to know other people who are doing what you’re doing.
Now, Little Creatures, where did that name come from?
Alison: Years ago Little Creatures was Talking Head’s album name, since then the band name kind of stuck. We did this TV show for the History Channel called “What’s in a Name?” It was kids who could vote online for their top five favourite names. I was able to tell the producers that I like the name Little Creatures. To be Little Creatures means a whole bunch of things. I love Talking Heads, it’s a great honour to pay homage to them because it was the name of their album, I love animals – we both do – and I always wanted to raise money for animals too. But I also had to look at my band mates and say, “Are they Little Creatures? Are they little characters?” -and Chris seemed perfect. We were lucky that a lot of kids ended up voting for that name.
Along side playing gigs you have also organized a benefit for PAWS (Peoples Animal Welfare Society) – how did that come to be?
Chris: It was kinda amazing to see the kind of support we can kind of rally. Yvonne Matsell really helped; she was booking the El Mocambo at the time.
Alison: Yvonne has been suggesting for us to do a benefit for years because of my love for helping animals and we did. For the amount of time we had which was a relatively short amount of time – we were able to raise $2,000, which was incredible. The next morning we met Kimberly Heys, who runs PAWS, for breakfast and gave her the money we raised. We kept none of it.
Chris: Our benefit was called “Little Creatures for Little Creatures,” it was perfect. We should do it again basically because it worked out really well. It was a lot of work but man it really paid off at the end.
To Alison: You, yourself, do you write all the songs for Little Creatures?
Alison: How it started was that I had a bunch of songs and I had a bunch of singers and different musicians for whatever reason didn’t work and so Chris joined as a rhythm guitar player and singing backups. I always had female singers as lead but he slowly made it to the front. Naturally the progression became a free piece. He started to sing it and started playing rhythm and adding leads – we needed to figure him out because I don’t like writing with everybody. I’m a very shy writer and I write in a kind of weird way.
Chris: Alison would always come with these great ideas and their pretty much done start to finish – basically I just get to add my flavour to it.
Alison (To Chris): Your strengths are your hooks.
Alison: I’m so used to being a writer on my own that writing with other people doesn’t always work. The way I write – you have to be able to really understand it. I don’t just play guitar and sing – everything is pretty much all over the place and if you’re a singer and you want me to co-write with you, I look nuts. He (Chris) gets it, which makes me comfortable. I don’t know about you guys but when you’re in a comfortable environment you actually excel. I can’t turn it off though – I try to quit writing and then I end up waking up with a chorus in my head.
Where do you get your inspiration?
Alison: Oh I know exactly where it comes from always. It’s books and movies. It’s not the movie itself; it’s the soundtrack of the movie. I don’t care about the movie, I usually wait until the credits roll and I instantly want to know who scored the song and I wanna know who produced it and all the writers. Books are for my lyrics. I read a lot of books on spirituality – not religion, but wisdom where magic is present. My interests lie in the human condition. We have a lot of songs – ones about addiction, ones about trust, ones about the way a woman feels however it always ties into the human condition and something that I’ve been through. It’s always something anyone else can relate to.
Chris: And not to speak on your behalf but when you’re coming with a song it seems so rooted in an emotion. So the inspiration will come from wherever it came from but at the core of it there is this emotion and all of these points need to connect back to that nucleus. And that’s the thing – in the studio taking a stab at a song you need to emote – you need to understand where it’s coming from otherwise it’s not going to come out right. If you don’t understand what that chore is, then the whole song will stop making sense.
Alison: The more I write – the more I’m fascinated with the process of it and the more I’m fascinated with other writers and how they do it. There’s a song I’m writing right now and I have this vision in my head of the video. So it comes from an emotion and it comes from the human condition somehow but now I have a very strong picture of it. Even “Angel in the Sky” stands from the death of my mother – the emotion of it. Now she died a long, long time ago so it’s not like I’m devastated that I can’t write about it. At the end of the song it’s not about her at all, it stands from the pain of the lost of a loved one but the song isn’t about that and in my head the video is so strong. In my head it’s a guy looking around saying, “Everywhere I go everyone is in love without me.” So you see this guy walking around the boardwalk he’s all by himself and he sees that everyone around him is in love without him.
Chris: There’s always a b-reel that goes along with the song. Aside from the emotion there’s all that visual.
Alison: That’s why I find that I’m not a really good co-writer because my brain just goes off into this other land. If my publisher sits me down with a really well known, phenomenal singer they’ll turn around and go, “My God, she sucks! I can’t write with her, she’s fucking crazy!” He (Chris) gets it. He let’s me go and play in my head. And that to me is hard to find.
What message do you try to send through your music?
Alison: My favourite saying of all time is…
Alison & Chris: “True champions uplift.”
Alison: Billie Jean King – famous tennis player. All the guys said she couldn’t beat any male tennis player and she just got out and whooped their asses. She’s one of the best tennis players in the world – for anyone, not female, not male, just the best. She said, “True champions uplift.” So lyrically – like I said, I’m a bit spiritual, and when you’re writing words I don’t like to inject the planet with negativity. We have a song called “The Way You’re Wired”, that’s me fighting back because I was bullied a little bit by a girl. That is me going, “It’s not my problem – it’s just the way you’re wired.” I don’t slander her I don’t cut her up – I’m just saying I’m going to fight back. To me it’s not a negative song.
Chris: It’s not. There’s some catharsis in it. Being able to put a song out there in which you’re fighting back whether it’s negative or not it doesn’t matter because it’s going to help somebody who’s in a similar situation. We’re a fun band when we perform, we like people to dance, we like people to get up, you know – no one really gazes at their shoes when we play, it’s not really like that. We want everybody to leave our show feeling better than they did when they walked in and we want them to leave the venue a little bit better than it was when they got there. Our interest is the universal good – we’re fighting the same battle that everyone else is fighting we just have a slightly louder voice.
You’ve performed at a number of venues, is there one performance you played that stood out most for you?
Alison: I like the Horseshoe show with the tap dancer.
Chris: Oh yeah! We played at the Horseshoe Tavern and we just finished writing the song “The Way You’re Wired” that we were talking about earlier and in the middle of it there’s this breakdown where Alison is just holding the beat – she’s hitting the cowbell and we were wondering what to do. Alison was like, “I got it. I met a tap dancer we’re going to have him come in and tap.” We had a great crowd going and there was good energy and just in the middle of our last song we got Tosh Sutherland, this great 19-year old kid to go up and tap dance. Of course I stepped away from the mic and I just sort of jump to the crowd and I look at all these faces – everyone’s jaws just hanging open. Any show where you really bridge that gap between you and the people who are there to see you – those are the great moments.
Alison: It’s not much the favourite venue or show but my favourite moments. When I saw Tosh doing that and saw his head jump off the stage just tapping with all the hot chicks – it was one of the best moments.
I hear a full-length album is underway, when do you expect to release it?
Chris: We finished recording it. It basically just needs a bit of mixing and mastering and that’s about it. So realistically – before the end of the summer. It’s just, the ever looming question now is format. Do we make a bunch of CDs? Do we just put it on iTunes?
Do you have anything else to add?
Chris: We like to rock. We like when people have a great time and be able to uplift them in some way in order for it to be paid forward.
Alison: From my angle, I want to see girls picking up drumsticks and I don’t care how old they are. My message have always been that people should truly do what they love whether it’s music or rescuing animals or anthropology – I don’t care what it is, if you love it then do it. Nobody can penetrate your path – not your parents, not your boyfriend, not your girlfriend, not anyone but yourself.
© Jessica Paiva, Music Vice
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