Winnipeg’s finest Paperbacks

By Ashley Spinella

Doug McLean, self-effacing singer and guitarist for the Paperbacks, is no rock star wannabe. McLean and the band are creating a growing buzz the best way they can–by playing jangly, confessional pop to as many audiences as possible, and in doing so, proving there is a place in this world for well crafted music. Although McLean’s trademark singing style instantly recalls the poppy greatness of his previous bands, such as the Bonaduces, he isn’t too concerned with trying to imitate or surpass previous efforts.

“It wouldn’t be a calculated effort to try and outdo them,” McLean remarks. “People who are familiar with that stuff will have expectations, it gives you something to work towards. It’s nice that people are looking forward to what I’m doing now, because that’s a boost, regardless of what you feel you have to live up to.”

Whatever McLean has had to live up to he has accomplished it with the Paperbacks, whose quality output and constant touring has been turning heads on both sides of the Atlantic. Of course, hailing from Winnipeg, the most unassuming hotbed of hipster credibility this side of Montreal hasn’t hurt things. While this may lend a certain cachet to the music in the minds of rock critic types, McLean insists he hasn’t noticed.

“The attention doesn’t really affect anyone here, no one is feeling the watchful eye of the media,” he explains. “I think if there is attention placed on Winnipeg it’s because there’s a lot of quality music. It’s a great place for creativity because it’s cheap and relaxed. In Toronto, there are a million bands, and 95 per cent of them are working under the assumption that somebody important will notice them. Being free from the hype is actually kind of liberating. Winnipeg’s weird because no matter what you achieve as a band, at the end of the day you come home to Winnipeg. I don’t think anyone gets too egotistical here.”

McLean is equally casual in response to comparisons with indie darlings du jour, The Weakerthans. The Paperbacks’ sound is often described as a permutation of John K. Samson and Co.’s signature folk-punk melange, albeit with a poppier sheen and greater use of multi-layered vocal harmonies. While their 2003 release An Episode of Sparrows has all the charm and lyrical sensibility of the strongest songs on any Weakerthans album, it refuses to offer listeners a simple rehash of another band’s catalogue.

“When I see the Weakerthans in a review I don’t cringe–it makes sense in a journalistic shorthand sort of way,” McLean explains. “The Weakerthans have kind of trademarked Winnipeg for a lot of people. We probably do have similarities just because John [Samson] and I have been friends for so long and we have a lot of the same influences. We wouldn’t have asked him to produce our new record if we were worried about becoming Weakerthans Jr.”

Though the upcoming Paperbacks release won’t be a Weakerthans knock off, it will contain many of the same elements which have garnered the success to date. McLean admits the band isn’t trying to reinvent their sound with their upcoming album.

“Every time I hear someone talk about their new record they always say, ‘it’s so different… It’s way more rockin’ than the last one’-you always hear that in interviews. When you actually get the record, it sounds like the band, but a year later,” he concedes. “I think our new album is more…rockin’. It could be proved wrong, but I’m super excited about it. It’ll be a bit louder, for sure.”

The Paperbacks perfected their sound rocking out throughout Europe. Though they often found themselves playing in typical club scene occasionally they performed in some unconventional places.

“A lot of the venues were government run youth centers where they encourage bands from North America to play,” says McLean. “One of the reasons the shows would be packed was becasue places could get liquor licenses for a night. It’s just a different culture, they really support that stuff.”

While the band has received strong support from their label in the UK, even unfamiliar audiences were quite receptive.

“It’s so festive there,” McLean remarks. “As a band we got so used to the standing and watching but it’s so participatory over there. Europeans are so excited about North American bands, even if they’ve never heard of them. In Canada people often just listen, especially in Ontario where it’s pretty stoic”

The Paperbacks’ upcoming Calgary show promises to force audiences out of their stoicism and marks the end of a brief western Canadian tour, on which the band has been previewing songs from their forthcoming release. McLean is so confident in his musical endeavor he even offers a money back guarantee as an incentive to potential show goers.

“If you come, and you’re unfamiliar with us, come up and tell us afterwards and I’ll give you a quarter. It’s like a rebate. I think I can guarantee the quarter.”

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