The Return of By Divine Right

By: Orlando da Silva

The Return of By Divine Right
Photo: courtesy of the artist
By Divine Right

February 25, 2010 – Toronto, Canada

When I called Jose Miguel Contreras at his family home for an interview, the domestic sounds in the background were heartwarming. "This looks great, Lily," I hear Contreras comment on the Christmas lights his wife put up in the kitchen in honour of his first day back from tour.

Their toddler son is also being audibly vocal in that way that children do at that stage when they are getting a grasp of speech but not necessarily the meaning of words

"My son's having a little star power hissy-fit. He's hilarious. I don't know if you're familiar with my wife, Lily Frost, she's an amazing singer and songwriter herself so he's a bit of a natural-born prima dona. He's beautiful—kind of like Salvador Dali meets Napoleon—he's sort of like this bossy surrealist."

For over 20 years now Jose Miguel Contreras has been the nucleus of By Divine Right—a band known largely for its famous alumni—Broken Social Scene's Leslie Feist and Brendan Channing stand atop that list, but it is a rather deep list full of names well-known to any fan of the current wave of Canadian indie music.  This has led to a certain "elder statesman" status being attached to Contreras.

"It's funny how I'm sort of turning into Yoda," Contreras jokes. "They're writing articles in a way that's sort of reintroducing me to a lot of people. There was a point 10 years ago where there were a gazillion articles about me all the time, and it wouldn't have to necessarily catch people up, whereas now it's been five years since I've put a record out. For me that's nothing, but I guess in music culture that's a long time.

"At the end of touring in '05, I felt really good about what I had just done, they were probably the best shows I had played until that time. I felt good about taking a step back, and the fact that a lot of other people blew up at that point just sort of made sense. My name is Contreras, and in many ways that's kind of defined me. I just do things backwards."

At a time when the world became very interested in little bands from Canada, By Divine Right was taking time off and Contreras immersed himself in producing records for other artists, using the lessons he learned from recording his own stuff for so long. He returned with By Divine Right's strongest record in late 2009 after a five year absence—the tight, lean Mutant Message.

"Yeah, I just kind of stopped fucking around a little bit," is how Contreras explains the rejuvenated back-to-basics sound of By Divine Right.

"Sweet Confusion was just an album that I was trying to record sort of like a rock show in our rehearsal space, and it was successful sometimes. And Good Morning Beautiful was sort of the overdub album—every song has like a million overdubs. This one's more about capturing the core of the music and not doing too much to it. There are songs that are like two minutes long and they still have a chorus and a bridge and a solo and a rock-out section.

"I always felt like like out of all the things I've done, keeping it simple was my favourite thing, and in recording other artists that's what I kept telling them—keep it simple, just deal it down to its purest form. And that's just what I did when I worked on Mutant Message."

At one point during the hiatus, Contreras was unsure as to whether he would ever release this album.

"I'm pretty excited about it, I have to admit—I guess there were some times in there where I wondered if I would bother. I was certainly writing and recording lots of songs but I was wondering if I was going to go through the whole thing—putting it together and releasing it and rehearsing and touring, having done all that so many times before, and still enjoy it."

Producing for other artists and working with Frost on her records has allowed Contreras to stretch out musically and try things he wouldn't with BDR.

"I write a lot with my wife Lily, and so I sort of let that thing out more often with her. The first song on her last record was sort of a Bossa Nova and I wrote that with her. It was my song and she liked it so we finished it together. I can do string arrangements and I can play jazz; By Divine Right isn't the only thing I can do. Even engineers I've worked before with were watching me conduct strings for Lily's record and they were really shocked and I was like 'well you've known me for 15 years what did you think? I thought you could hear that in my songs, that I'd made them simple and crazy'—that was a conscious decision."

Mutant Message's title is adopted from a semi-fictional book by Marlo Morgan about her experience crossing the Australian continent with a tribe of aborigines titled Mutant Message Down Under. I asked Contreras what the connection is between the book and his record.

"I love The Mutant Message, it's a really important book in my life. My record doesn't really have anything to do with the book, but that book is really important to me and it has a strong message regarding our humanity and our power as humans with each other. I just knew about five years ago that I was gonna call my next album Mutant Message. The book is about aborigines in Australia imparting their world view to this American woman so that she could write this book and share it with the rest of the world. I was touring in Australia too at the time, and I've bought that book several times, I've given it to so many of people.

"She calls it fiction to protect the people in it. She was kind of abducted, she could have died, but she's better at the end of it. There's some stuff in it that I think about a lot."

Contreras' spiritual side should come as no surprise to even the most casual of By Divine Right fans—there has always been a certain uplifting quality to the music, even when it's kind of sad.

"People love sad songs. I write sad songs too but when I do they're painful. They're painful to listen to. When you go through my album, there's still a place of angst yet there's this positive vibe on it. It's not by design, I'm glad, I'm lucky. Maybe it's just more of a spiritual dimension—I mean, [pop music] is fluffy, so I dig deep to make it mean something, and in digging deep it becomes imbued of a spiritual nature, and that's what seems positive.

"Things can kinda feel like 'well, life sucks and everything's gonna end badly,' but if you've got a spiritual side to your life things still mean something. There's still a redemption to life if you think there's more than just this because if this is all there is than it's pretty depressing. So it's not like I'm the happiest person in the world constantly, but I guess I am a positive person, a positive thinker."

Indeed, the main impression you get from Contreras when talking about his music is that at this point in his life he is grateful to be touring and recording 20 years on, and confident about the future.

"This tour's been pretty rad, it's funny you were saying that I've sort of turned into an elder statesman or whatever, and there were lots of people out there who were like 'I've heard about you. I had never heard your music, but holy fuck!' They were pumped. When you come to see By Divine Right, you come to see a dude who was born in 1969. I'm legit, Just by virtue of having started this band in 1989. I'm not copying Dinosaur Jr. I'm not copying these bands. I'm putting it together my own way. It never reached a cultural critical mass so it's not famous, but...."

Contreras trails off trails off for a second, lost in his thought, but continues, giving a hint that a new record is in the pipeline.

"I don't really know how.... I just count myself lucky, I play music. It's been 20 years—still happening. I just got home from a tour last night. I feel pretty lucky, and I'm just gonna try to dig deep and pour my heart out so that it feels like it's real, that I'm doing real work for me, and so that it feels real for the people that dig it.

"I'm trying to achieve a balance between the aesthetic of the music and the aesthetic of the recording and then the aesthetic of the lyrics and singing. I feel like I'm getting closer and closer to it all being cohesive, and I think I may get it right the next time around too. I feel like this is the best, most clear-headed I've ever been and I'm really excited to make another record. I've got the material ready, and as soon as I can open up some time, it'll be done."

We can only hope that By Divine Right is back for good this time, but if I have learned anything from this conversation with Jose Miguel Contreras it's that it's much better to stay positive about these things.

Video: "2002-2003" by By Divine Right

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