Interview Series: Imaginary Cities
Marti Sarbit and Rusty Matyas are the founding members of Winnipeg’s little treasure of a band known as Imaginary Cities, who formed only a few years ago from very unexpected and humble beginnings. For a band that’s only been around for a couple of years or so, Imaginary Cities have really made their mark in the Canadian indie music scene. Not only have they toured with Besnard Lakes, Ra Ra Riot and opened for The Pixies across all of North America, their debut album Temporary Resident has been long-listed for the Polaris Music Prize and they’ve won a Western Canada Music Award for Best Pop Album of the Year.
As Imaginary Cities will be playing the Waldorf in Vancouver on Thursday July 12th, along with Saskatchewan rockers Rah Rah, I thought it opportunistic to speak with Rusty Matyas—one of the two founding members of the band—regarding the beginning of Imaginary Cities, songwriting, tour life, and what we can expect for the future of this stellar band.
A MoreThanAFeeling Music interview with IMAGINARY CITIES
Could you tell me a little bit about how Imaginary Cities was formed?
I was doing sound at a bar called The Cavern in Winnipeg and [Marti] had a weekly gig with her Motown band—they did great old, soul stuff like Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett—and I thought she had a great voice and was inspired to write a Motown song for her. She came in and recorded it and we became immediate friends with a good working relationship right away, so she asked me to work on one of her demos, which turned out to be Say You, the first song on the record. That’s essentially the demo you’re hearing on the record that’s just been mixed and the drums have been redone with better mics and stuff like that. From there, we consciously decided to not make Motown music because [Marti] has already got this Motown, soul-inspired voice, so we said “Let’s just have fun! Go and make whatever music,” and we did. Over a year we ended up having 10 or 15 songs, and then Steve—our current manager—approached us and asked if we wanted a manager. We hadn’t even thought about being a band; we were just kind of doing it for fun, which sort of shows through on the record. We weren’t attempting to do something contrived or even sell records, but it was fun, and that’s a big part of what we’re doing is because music should be fun.
Was there ever a point where you both thought, perhaps without verbalizing it that you realized you should really commit to this band, for more than just “for fun”?
Yeah, there was definitely a moment about a year ago where we could actually quit our [day] jobs and do Imaginary Cities. We were surprised and high-fived each other and decided to take this really seriously and work really hard at it so it can keep building and keep growing, because you couldn’t ask for anything more than to be playing music, if that’s your passion! It certainly has been mine my whole life, so we’re pretty thankful that we get to do this for a living.
How did you go about settling on the band name of “Imaginary Citites”?
We were actually originally called Sparrow, but I believe the drummer from Zumpano had a band called Sparrow, or something like that so we had to change our name, so we called ourselves Oh Sparrow but that was also too close. Marti’s parents have this extensive library and one of the books was called Invisible Cities and one was called Imaginary Beings and we just thought it sounded cool to put the two together!
Could you explain a little bit about your song writing process?
Sure! We went about it a number of ways but the most common was Marti would send me voice notes—30 second clips of little melodies she would have, and I would wake up in the morning and—she would usually send them to me at 3:00am—and I’d write chords to them. I’d put my phone on speaker and play guitar along to it and try to write chord progressions. We’d go in and just build off that and let songs sort of grow themselves, you know? Hummingbird was sort of one of those. We went in with nothing—just the smallest bit of inspiration to start the song. I had the verse chord progression and she had lyrics from another song, we put the two together and by the end of the day we had Hummingbird pretty much as you hear it on the record.
So Marti comes up with most of the lyrics and the vocal melodies, then?
You know what, it happens all different kinds of ways. There’s a song on the record called Don’t Cry which was a solo song of mine that we erased my vocals and put her vocals on it. We work on everything together, she’s in the studio all day with me while I’m recording instruments. I’ll basically do a take or try to come up with some unique keyboard sounds and I’ll look to her and I can tell right away if she’s going, [unenthusiastically] “Yeah…..” and then I know it’s not good and we try something else until we both agree on it so we can both be happy at the end of the day. It’s about having fun and making music that we can both enjoy—that we can all enjoy.
Marti has a beautifully unique voice that pairs wonderfully with your musicianship and vocal harmonies; how would you describe Imaginary Cities’ sound to somebody who’s never heard you before?
It’s definitely got elements of majestic pop like Arcade Fire, or even some Metric-y moments and [Marti’s] voice is sort of this Motown, slightly chipmunk-y—she laughs when I say that so it’s OK, I’m allowed to say that—almost childish yet wise, old-lady quality to it. She sounds like a singer who’s been singing forever, and yet she sounds cute as hell, so… Yeah, I guess that’s about the best I can do.
You guys have opened for some pretty impressive acts like Ra Ra Riot, Besnard Lakes, and perhaps most notably, the Pixies on their last North American tour. Could you describe that experience a little?
Well being a brand new band, or as a growing band, something you kind of want to do is get on opening slots so you can play to a larger number of people, and for each band, it’s a totally different dynamic of people. The Pixies have a huge span of fans and they’re die-hard Pixies fans—they’re there for the Pixies, they’re certainly not there to see Imaginary Cities. It’s a neat challenge to win their hearts and keep them interested because really, they just want you to hurry up and finish so they can see the Pixies. When you come back to that city for your own show, if even 30 of those people come back to see you, it’s success! And the next time you come back, maybe they’ll bring 10 more people.
Were you able to take away any important nuggets of touring knowledge from these experiences?
Yeah, we were did their whole Canadian tour and then were asked 6 months later to do their American tour, and I think the biggest thing you can do is not think that you are awesome or special. We’re very thankful and humbled and respectful and so are the Pixies. The idea is that just because you’re on-stage in a band doesn’t mean you’re any more special than anybody in the crowd—you’re lucky to be there and to be doing what we’re doing. It’s important to not have any expectations or feel like anybody owes you anything, or that you’re too cool to be talked to, because you’re lucky to be in a band!
So with your hit debut album, Temporary Resident, released almost a year and a half ago, can we expect anything new from Imaginary Cities in the near-ish future?
Yeah, we’re playing a lot of our new stuff live and we’ve pretty much written the second record, and recorded most of it. We’re going back into the studio in September and through October to finish recording and mixing and hoping to have the new record out by springtime 2013!