It’s a story that began with hope, excitement and promise and quickly plunged into frustration, anger and disappointment. One year ago, Regina-based quartet Despistado had everything going for them: the band were blowing minds with their punkish angular rock, they had a freshly minted, worldwide deal with American mega indie Jade Tree and tens of thousands of dollars in sponsorships were filling the band’s bank account, giving them touring security and the ability to pay the people who had worked so hard for their success.
The band’s fans were dedicated and grassroots buzz spread quickly among similar musical circles across North America, thanks in large part to the backing of the Jade Tree name. But in the summer of 2004, the band returned from a cross-Canada tour fed up with each other and the road. The members took the summer to prepare for a fall of touring and to focus on making the opportunity work; sacrifices had, after all, been made for the sake of the band — one member had passed on a scholarship to play basketball overseas while others put intense work schedules and personal relationships on the back burner.
The band were to tour Canada and the U.S. for three months, return for the holiday season and take on Europe in early 2005. Bassist Joel Passmore, the only member with significant financial and familial responsibilities, opted to stay home and bank money in preparation for the overseas leg. To replace him, guitarists Dagan Harding, Leif Thorseth and drummer Brenan Schwartz called on Robin Sernich, an all-purpose musical man-about-town type who had previously travelled with the band as road manager and merch guy.
The tour began near the end of September and within days it was evident the old tensions hadn’t cleared up. Members took issue with everything from significant others to how to best handle the group’s growing profile, the latter coming under even more scrutiny after the band accepted a sizeable sponsorship from American wireless provider T-Mobile. Arguments over how to use the money deepened the rift between members and with Passmore at home, news of the deteriorating situation on the road came to him in sporadic phone calls that left him feeling helpless.
This is where the frustration begins to creep in for many. It’s fine to hold certain socio-political values close, but when you’re operating within an industry that, despite its corruption and dissonance, values what you do, you dial down and find a way to make the machine work for you. Despistado had people on side that aligned with the band’s collective moral conscience. They had opportunities falling from the sky that independent bands — especially from Regina — could only dream of.
None of this was news to Passmore, who could only sit at home, feeling increasingly powerless.
"I think the biggest thing was that people just lost perspective of what exactly they were doing and how that fell into the grand scheme of things," he says. "The whole band wasn’t into it anymore. Obviously there were relationship issues that started to take over. I wasn’t there, so it’s really hard. It shocked me as well, to hear over the phone that they decided there was absolutely no way to resolve anything.
"Basically, people weren’t happy anymore. I talked to everyone and everybody gave me the same story. It was a combination of people not getting along, which I can see if you’re on tour for three months and there are already issues at hand and some people deal with pressure differently than others. I don’t think we ever figured out a way to deal with each other and to deal with the idea that people are always looking at you and the only thing you have to offer is music.
"I knew so-and-so didn’t get along with so-and-so most of the time, but you deal with it and get on with things. To get the phone calls and hear the circumstances about how it all came to a head, then to hear the stories afterward about how it really happened, I had to wonder why when I was asking how things were why all I heard was ‘OK.’"
As the van turned around just days short of the end of the tour, news of the split began to break at home. Passmore did his best to control what he says became a "big melodramatic thing," but diplomacy didn’t lend itself well to the situation.
"It’s not like I’ve got nothing, but it did feel like it," he says. "If you think about being at home and working every day with that stuff to look forward to, a month and a half before it’s supposed to start you say ‘Nevermind, I’ll just keep going to work.’ For me it was like ‘Are you serious? You guys would just rather go to work at the Freehouse? Yeah that’s awesome, that’s way better than playing music.’"
Next came dealing with Jade Tree, the label that had taken a risk on the young Canadians and had handed them a worldwide record deal late in 2003. Home to Pedro The Lion, These Arms Are Snakes and renowned for launching the career of the Promise Ring, breaking the news to owners Darren Walters and Tim Owen wasn’t easy. Even still, the label has stood by the band and released their full-length debut, The People Of And Their Verses, in digital format only through jadetree.com on Tuesday.
With all members of the band back in Regina, Passmore is focusing his efforts on Sylvie, his critically acclaimed (nominated for a 2003 Western Canadian Music Award) band that have just been asked to join a number of dates on the upcoming Death From Above 1979/Controller.Controller tour. Harding is in a new group called Darling, and Thorseth and Passmore have been playing together informally in a yet-unnamed band. No one has heard from Schwartz since the tour ended in December.
Passmore is intent on putting the past behind him and sums up the lifespan of Despistado in one sentence:
"It was a moment when all of our lives could have changed, and they didn’t."
Sylvie tour dates:
April 6 Edmonton AB @ Starlite Room w/Death From Above 1979 & Controller.Controller
April 7 Calgary AB @ Warehouse w/Death From Above 1979 & Controller.Controller
April 8 Saskatoon SK @ Louis Pub w/Death From Above 1979 & Controller.Controller
April 10 Winnipeg MB @ West End Cultural Centre w/Death From Above 1979 & Controller.Controller
April 12 Toronto ON @ Horseshoe
April 13 Montreal QC @ TBA
April 14 Ottawa ON @ Mavericks
April 16 Thunder Bay ON @ Appolo