By Carl Begai
Only the good die young. Either that, or they sell their gear and get something close to a real job.
Case in point with Neurosonic frontman / founder Jason Darr who, after only one album and two-and-a-half straight and gruelling years on the road in support of it, officially pulled the plug this month (April 2009) on what was supposedly his dream gig. And while here are plenty of people who will stare blankly at this page thinking ‘Who?’ there’s a loyal legion of Neurosonic fans mourning the loss of a seriously underestimated Canadian rock act that shone far too briefly. Darr didn’t stray too far off the beaten path, however, turning up as producer and collaborator with former tourmate / labelmate Bif Naked on her new album, The Promise. It’s a significant release for both in that it’s Bif’s highly anticipated comeback following her tooth and nail battle with breast cancer, and Darr’s highest profile effort to date sitting in the producer’s chair. He’s clearly excited about what the future holds both for himself and Ms. Naked, having come to terms with the end of Neurosonic quite some time ago. As a result Darr offers up a refreshing dose of honesty when asked what brought about the band’s demise.
“I’m 37 now and I’ve gotten to that point in my life where, if something’s going to happen it has to start revealing itself a little bit, and as absolutely proud as hell as I am of Neurosonic – every aspect of it – it wasn’t moving forward. It seemed to be moving sideways on a business level. I was having a hard time developing business relationships that would bring us to the next level and it didn’t seem to matter what we did. It got to the point where it wasn’t fun anymore. The music was great; the touring and the shows were great, but you can only break even for so long. There comes a time where you’re either going to have to start digging a little deeper into your own pockets or move on to something else, and I’ve dug into my pockets enough for the last 10 years that it was time to move on.”
An unknown act like Neurosonic being able to stay on the road for almost three years was a highly unusual arrangement given the worsening music industry downturn, but the band’s label Bodog Music seemed to have no qualms about spending money to keep them out there. Darr freely admits that when Bodog chose to focus its attention and finances elsewhere he decided it was time to pack it in.
“That was the whole thing. We had tremendous label support and everything was going as good as it possibly could, but when the label decided they weren’t going to do music anymore – they were tied to that gambling company and moving to their entertainment side – it was like ‘You’ve got a good profile, let’s go get you another deal…’ and I said, ‘Uh, nope. I’m not going backwards, this is a sign, it’s telling me to move on.’ It’s a travesty, really. You look at what’s out there and what’s successful, and it’s gut-wrenching. I don’t want to sound like (Smashing Pumpkins frontman) Billy Corgan, where I’m quitting because N*Sync sold records or whatever his problem was (laughs), but I’m not selling enough records to make an impact.”
There’s no kicking and screaming on Darr’s part. He simply acknowledges the circumstances that dictated his decision if he was to have a life outside or alongside his music.
“Exactly, and it’s funny because after I packed the whole thing in it was like, ‘Okay, now what the hell do I do?’ I didn’t start producing right away. That kind of fell on me a little bit later. I went and got my real estate license, and of course right before I passed my course the market crashed (laughs). It was almost too much. And then I jumped into the producing thing, which has been just amazing for me. It’s really, really liberating to be able to do music but not have to cry yourself to sleep at night.”
Still, given his talent as a songwriter and the energy he put into Neurosonic, it’s hard for the fans to wrap their heads around the idea of Darr not making music of his own.
“That’s the great part about the Bif project,” he counters. “I was doing a lot of co-writing and collaborating with her, which was great for both of us. It seems that a lot of the projects I’m working on I’m collaborating in. I’m pretty much doing the same thing but it’s not me singing and I don’t have to tour (laughs). I don’t quite know how to explain it. You’re attached to the music but you’re not, and it’s amazing how much clearer you can see stuff. Hopefully that’s going to make me a good producer.”
Darr has most certainly left his stamp on The Promise. In fact, the first song and video from the album – ‘I Won’t Cry (Fuck You 2)’ – began life as a Neurosonic song and was performed live during their run in spite of never having been recorded. Neurosonic fans that dismiss Bif’s new album outright as not being their cup of tea would do well to take a listen, as there are more than a few Darr-isms to be heard.
“A lot of the Bif record came from ideas I had that I was going to use for the next Neurosonic record,” he reveals. “I actually started producing an EP for Bif because she was sick with breast cancer and chemo and all that, and they wanted to put something out for the fans. They ended up really liking the stuff and decided we had to keep going and make a full record. I had the opportunity to pitch a lot of my ideas and Bif really liked a lot of the stuff. We ended up working really, really well together, which was strange for me because I was used to being in control up to that point. I’m really excited about the Bif record and it’s a lot of fun just to wreck somebody else’s music for a change (laughs).”
Which included the occasional foray behind the microphone…
“Yeah, I did a little bit of singing,” Darr admits. “You can hear me here and there. On ‘Fuck You 2’ you can hear the Beatle-esque / Queen harmonies in the background, and that was just me in the studio by myself being a peckerhead, and they let me keep it on the record (laughs).”
Was it hard giving up song ideas meant for Neurosonic?
“It would have been difficult if she hadn’t been such a good collaborator,” Darr admits, “but the stuff ended up being cooler than it would have been if I’d worked on it on my own. Bif definitely brings something to what I do and hopefully vice versa that really makes things better.”
What makes The Promise particularly outstanding is that it was written and recorded while Bif was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, not only during her recovery. This made for an added challenge in getting top-notch work in the can.
“We made a bit of a deal,” says Darr. “I said that if she was going to come in and try to do some singing, if we weren’t getting gold out of her she should go home. That way she wasn’t wasting her time and I wasn’t wasting mine. It was ‘Come in when you feel up to it,’ because the one thing I don’t have the ability to do with anything is settle. Luckily she was a fucking machine and a monster when it came to the chemo. She just said ‘Don’t worry about it, I’m just gonna do it…’ and it was un-fucking-believable seeing somebody who literally crawled up the hill to get to work (laughs). Our studio is up the hill from where she lives, Bif would come in looking like death because she had the shit beat out of her with this chemo treatment, and for her to go ‘Just don’t look at me when I sing, let’s do it…’ was amazing. Close your eyes, put the headphones on, and it was ‘Holy fuck!’ She nailed it, she was a total pro.”
Working with Bif wasn’t new territory for Darr. He and his Neurosonic bandmates pulled double duty on the 2006 European tour as support act and performing with Bif as the headliner. Familiar as he was with her catalogie, Darr says he didn’t use it to get a trademark Bif Naked sound on The Promise.
“Absolutely not. I never ever look back. What’s the point? They don’t need me to make another Bif record, they’ve already made them without me. So if they want to work with me it has to mean something to everybody to make something different. Not necessarily crazy different, because you want Bif to keep her identity – and that’s unmistakable anyway – but it was my job to bring something fresh and new and hopefully beat the crap out of it.”
Which explains the existence of a song like ‘Sick’. The first single off The Promise, it’s easily the heaviest of Bif’s officially released tunes to date.
“‘Sick’was a fun song to make,” says Darr. “It was a song that had many faces and many directions, and when we finally stumbled on the chorus you hear now we knew that was it. We took a couple of different tries at ‘Sick’ and a couple other songs on the record because they were actually meant for a heavier project, but they were just too good to not be on a Bif record.”
Asked if he’s going to be heading back out on the road with Bif in support of The Promise, it comes as no surprise to hear Darr will indeed be on board.
“I’m going to do the first run. They’re actually starting to put some dates together. I didn’t originally volunteer but they asked me to do it. I was a little reluctant at first because I just got rid of all my tour gear and I wasn’t interested in going back out on the road, but as the record’s getting closer I want her to have a great band and help her put it together.”
“I have to tell you, I’m really excited about just being a guitar player,” he adds. “It’s great because there’s no stress, I don’t have to piss around with anything. I just show up, play guitar and have some fun. I’m not looking at it or producing so much like a job where I have to worry about what’s happening with it tomorrow. I’ve got enough on my plate to keep moving forward.”