5 Questions: Raymond Biesinger of the Famines

Montreal’s the Famines have made a career out of disruption. Lead singer and guitarist Raymond Biesinger has described their music as “damaged 60s garage songs”—wry, cynical, and noisy, with sharp and insightful lyrics that challenge the modern world. It’s earned a cult following for the band, a duo of Biesinger and drummer Drew Demers (a Peterborough native, in fact), with fans who hang on the band’s words almost as much as their music.

The 'paper album' release of The Famines Complete Collected Singles 2008-2011

The ‘paper album’ release of The Famines Complete Collected Singles 2008-2011

In interviews, the Famines have been notably outspoken about the challenges of being a weirdo indie Canadian band in the modern climate, when old music industry models are rapidly collapsing. And, instead of just complaining, the Famines are actually doing something about it. In a world where a physical album is mostly just a container for a download code, the Famines have released a series of “paper albums,” large-format posters and smaller postcards designed by Biesinger (an illustrator by trade) to represent their songs, each coming with that precious download code.

They’re done this for their own albums and have also released a series of three Pentagon Black Compilations, bringing together DIY musicians from across the country on a single ‘album.’ (Read our review of Pentagon Black Compilation No. 3.)

The Famines just re-released The Complete Collected Singles 2008-2011 in this format, and will be in Peterborough this month.


1. Can you talk about where the paper album idea came from?

A couple years ago I was working on a print catalogue for my art, and I managed to find a newsprint printing outfit out of the UK that was really into doing small runs really inexpensively. I was kind of thrilled by this. I love print, and I love exploring new formats.

Drew and I were talking about what we were going to do with the new Famines release. We knew that printing a single on vinyl was just financially impossible and a break-even process at best, and we realized that this format would be incredibly artist-friendly. And it worked incredibly well. Even if we sold like zero copies, the simple fact that we had just invested like $200 into the paper album instead of $2000, being in a band was suddenly not risky. It was pleasure. You could not care about money and not worry.

And then we realized, there’s technically no limitations to the number of minutes we can put on one of these things. And that’s how the compilations were born. It was an incredibly good match: it was inexpensive enough that we could ask the bands to co-operatively pay for the release, and mail them a dozen copies that they could sell in turn, and it would just be an incredible exercise in trans-Canadian scene-building.

2. You’ve been quite outspoken about the struggles of “DIY-enthused” bands in the modern world. Do you see a way forward for these bands? Are we screwed?

I do see a way forward. Case in point: I just turned 39, and being in the Famines is the most fun and least risky and least draining on the rest of my life it’s ever been. The central concept is, let’s do something special. We’re artists. Let’s not just try to be creative about the art itself, but also about the way the art is released. And unless we find like-minded people who are enthused about what we do, and vice versa, we might as well be hanging out in a closet not releasing anything.


3. These songs are a few years old now, and recorded with your previous drummer, Garrett Heath Kruger. When you look back on them, how do you feel now? Do they still represent the Famines?

The Famines (photo by Karol Orzechowski)We don’t play many songs from that album any more, aside from “First World War” and “Got Lies If You Want Them.” As a band that stands for a lot of things, there’s some ideas in these songs that I’m not into as much as I was, or even have completely opposite beliefs. Musically I think that band was way more of a blunt-force object: definitely more angular, more brutal. Garrett’s style of drumming was incredible and Olympic-calibre, but much more mechanical. Drew’s drumming has a much more warm, humane sound—still incredibly powerful, but there’s a certain swing now.


4. You’ve said that this release is trying to put the emphasis back on the Famines. What’s next for the band?

We have this new touring model, so instead of doing the classic “put out an album, tour the crap out of it, write, record, tour…” we basically choose one weekend per month to go out and do a two-night stand. We’ve been doing that solidly since November, and it’s just been incredible, to always be on and working on the live show, and always have this lab for presenting new music.

We actually spent most of last June through October working on a 15-minute-long noise epic that didn’t actually have any words and was really just an exploration of rhythms and drone and tone in a way that I personally have never done. We were just about to bring it on the road, and make it half our set, when we decided that was too terrifying and stressful, so we pulled the plug on it. But the things we learned from that are now informing the other songs and the spaces between our songs, and that’s really exciting. We can do loose improv soundscapes that just pull into one of our songs in a second, and that dynamic is just feeling really correct.


5. Can you tell me a bit about the band’s Peterborough connections?

Drew lived in Peterborough for a long time. When the Famines were Garrett and I, our very first show in Ontario was at the Spill, and Drew was totally there. Him and Cody Ovans’ band, Double Dragon, was the opening act. We came back to the Spill a lot, and Drew was always there. When Garrett and I split up, Drew had just moved to Montreal, and he already knew all the words, he knew all the beats. He was a friggin’ superfan. And that led to him joining.

[Pentagon Black has also featured a number of Peterborough artists, including] BEEF BOYS, Garbageface, and Lonely Parade. A little bird told me No Pussyfooting is working on something for our next compilation [coming in April]—no one knows that yet, but whatever you want to say is totally cool, and that way if they don’t make it happen they’re in deep trouble.


See the Famines live on March 24 at the Garnet with Pseudo and Belly Flop (more info).


Photos by Karol Orzechowski.

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Gabe Pollock

Gabe Pollock

Gabe Pollock is Editor-in-Chief of Electric City Magazine. He is a Peterborough-born freelance writer and editor who has covered Peterborough music and culture since 2012, first on Electric City Live and now in its magaziney successor.