After two years of hard work, Illusion Avenue has developed a live show that netted the band the top spot in the Hamilton Music Awards Rising Star category. Since the HMAs last November these four Westdale Secondary students have been keeping up a steady creative pace while at the same time juggling the everyday demands of high school academics and extra-curricular activities. Matthew Page on drums, Nathan Belgrave on guitar, River Guard on vocals/guitar and Charles Kostash on bass now find themselves putting the finishing touches on their first CD and tightening up their live show in preparation for their first headliner on May 20th at This Ain’t Hollywood.
Illusion Avenue’s new CD, Less Than 24, is a fitting and well-produced demonstration of what Illusion Avenue has been playing from the get-go. Which is to say, a variety of rousing and adventuresome riff-rock tunes touching on youthful themes: punk rock smoothed over and flavoured by a half a dozen post-punk metal flavours. The band enlists Chris Houston (Forgotten Rebels 1979-80), one of the resident music gurus at Locke Street’s Picks and Sticks music centre, to produce and with Less Than 24 has successfully completed a major step in what promises to be an exciting musical journey. Recording took place at Grant Avenue Studio with Amy King at the board.
Illusion Avenue makes it seem easy to carve out their own path while being in the company of seasoned music veterans and watchful parents who are teaching and mentoring them at every step and balancing the usual demands of life in general. Guard says, “[Without the coaching] I don’t think we’d be exactly where we are now. I feel like we’d be doing pretty well, but we wouldn’t be exactly where were are. We would probably have made a few wrong turns.” It’s an honest answer, revealing a healthy sense of reality that is usually lacking in younger bands. All coaching aside, because each of the guys possesses a strong practice ethic, sincere artistic desire and all-round musicianship, they are performing well ahead of their peers.
Officially, the new CD will be released at Illusion Avenue’s show at This Ain’t Hollywood on Saturday May 20th. The 16+ event it is open to high school friends and fans, so no doubt there will be a damn good showing. Adding up their social reach on Facebook, an army of more than 1100 people could show up! Illusion Avenue, with experience as two-time finalists in Y108’s Last Band Standing, Rogers Rock and Roll Challenge, and many other local gigs, including a video shoot for M.AD.D. has established a reputation for outstanding stage chops, with each band member pulling equal weight to deliver the whole package. They aim to deliver the goods once again at the James Street North venue. It helps that they’ve played there before, opening for Monster Truck. Hanging out with the MT guys has allowed a good mentoring relationship to develop. As Belgrave says, “The guys from Monster Truck are great. I always ask Jeremy about stuff before we do it … Harvey is such an amazing singer.”
With the band writing all of their own material, they can claim full ownership of the final product on the CD, as well as the stage show.
To pull off an exciting, well-rehearsed show means the guys are putting in the necessary hours of practice. They can take their own medicine in big doses (see sidebar: Five Surefire Steps To Winning A Band Competition). After rehearsing twice a week, three hours at a time in the weeks before a show, they know what’s needed for success. For some young bands this would present a challenge. As Guard says, “When we write songs, we work on it until we have a finished version of a song, then we keep playing it over and over until it’s drilled into our heads.”
The intensity and authenticity of Illusion Avenue’s live show stems back to their complete ownership of their material. They could focus on playing covers, but they get more of a charge from doing their own stuff. Page says, “There’s a really good feeling when you come out of a show and people say that’s a really good job and it’s all your own stuff. There’s a different feeling or connection when we’re playing our own songs.” Guard adds, “There’s more drive. We want to get out there and build a name for ourselves rather than just do covers. If it’s a song you can get into, it’s fun to play live. You have to put your own twist on everything. It’s like a fun jam out on the stage when we do covers.”
All four band members agree that the songwriting credit is shared equally between them. “We’re all in the band, and we couldn’t do it without one another.”
Guard, a largely self-taught musician who takes some piano lessons and plays and sings daily, is involved in theatre at school as well as music. He and Belgrave will often sit and jam, and an idea might come along like a passing train. They’ll play with it and see if something works out. It’s important to capture those moments before the train passes and is gone forever.
When asked about their songwriting process, Page explains, “It starts out with a small idea. Everyone brings in something new until it combines into something that everyone’s happy with and they enjoy the sound.” Guard adds, “We don’t sit down and say I’m gonna write a song like this. We never talk about what it’s about. We just write it how it feels. We don’t try to plan it all out in our head. Usually when I write lyrics I write to rhyme. But I use phrases that sound good, and maybe they don’t mean so much but it feels really good to sing it.” With Belgrave getting songwriting coaching mixed in with his guitar lessons from Gord Lewis (Teenage Head), the duo has got a solid background, all of it being evident on Less Than 24.
Drummer Page is taking lessons with Jack Pedler (Buxton Kastle, Mercy Brothers, Ray Materick, Teenage Head) of Picks And Sticks, and building his drum chops playing in two bands, The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and Paris Port Dover Pipe Band, is no slouch when it comes to adding or vetoing musical ideas. “If I hear something I don’t like, I’m usually the first to jump on it. I’m not afraid to put my two cents in.”
Bassist Charley “Hammer” Kostash has been playing since the age of nine and began taking lessons with Houston at the ripe old age of ten. Recently Kostash began double bass lessons with Rob Wolanski, connected with his playing in the junior orchestra at school. He was out of town in Boston at the time of this writing. Kostash was invited to jam with Illusion Avenue back in June 2010 and joined the band shortly after.
First-timers with the band, such as sound techs, will often look at the guys setting up for the gig and think, “Ha! Just a bunch of inexperienced kids.” Then they kick into their show and it’s heads turning across the room. Illusion Avenue is good. Very good. They can deliver a performance that wins awards. It’s perfect evidence that here in Hamilton we’ve got the history, the people and the places to make all kinds of great music. No illusions required.
Official CD title: Less Than 24
Release date: May 20, 2012
Produced by Chris Houston
Recorded and mixed by Amy King Mastered by Ian Court at Grant Avenue Studio, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
by Glen Brown, May 5, 2012