On Interview‘s last night in Calgary for Sled Island Musical festival, we were ready to party. Half sedated and half electrified by Feist’s headlining performance at the Olympic Pavillion, we headed to the HiFi club to visit our friend How To Dress Well. As HUMANS set up their stage shortly thereafter, we were expecting a run-of-the-mill DJ performance. It wasn’t long before we switched from beer to Red Bull to keep up with an audience visibly under the influence of Canada’s newest audible narcotic—for which we are happy to be the mule transporting the goods stateside. HUMANS, comprised of Robbie Slade and Peter Ricq, asks listeners to traverse the oft-shaky bridge between electromechanically produced sounds and handmade guitar and vocal melodies—but smart production and skillful instrumentation weave a strong net to fall on. The duo from British Columbia provides a wholly economical experience—blending DJ sets and live vocals and instruments into one part synthetic, part unmistakably human performance.
Music is somehow the first and final frontier for the pair, with their backgrounds in animation, filmmaking, and firefighting. HUMANS’ ability to perform automated, computerized sounds while retaining the spontaneity essential to any good live performance reminds us that behind every good mechanic is a good human, and behind every HUMAN is a good party.
AMANDA DUBERMAN: Happy Canadian Thanksgiving! Where are you guys right now? Are you promoting anything specific on this tour?
PETER RICQ: We’re home for a couple of days. We had a couple of days off, had Thanksgiving dinner.
DUBERMAN: What does a Canadian Thanksgiving dinner consist of? The same as an American Thanksgiving?
RICQ: Probably. I think so? Yeah.
DUBERMAN: How did you guys meet?
ROBBIE SLADE: We met in 2008 and we didn’t really start making music until summer of 2009. I was new in town, helping out my friend put on an art show. The concept was a robot having sex with girls. Peter and I started talking and drinking and talking about music; he was a musician too. He was actually designing the merch for the band. We had a consultation with him about what we wanted and we jammed with him a bit. From there he asked us to do a couple songs with him. We did a few songs together and then became HUMANS. Prior to that, I had done a lot of blues, reggae, and folk, and Peter did lots of electro and metal.
RICQ: Also, I’d been drawing a guy that looks a lot like Rob for two or three years before I met him. It’s kind of odd to actually see my drawing alive and wanting to play music with me.
DUBERMAN: Sounds like some sort of divine intervention was going on.
RICQ: Yeah, and some people are like, “He looks a lot like your band mate, why do you draw him all the time?” and I get defensive and I’m like “No, I drew him before I met him!”
DUBERMAN: You both have broad artistic backgrounds. What kind of outlet does music provide that your other artistic endeavors don’t?
RICQ: It’s easier, it’s less work to play a show than to make a movie and plan a premiere. Music is instant gratification, in terms of seeing how the audience responds, at least. With music, you can also help out all the other aspects—it’s always good to have a good score in a movie. It’s also easier to get more fans in music, there’s a broader audience who has easy, instant access to music.
DUBERMAN: I saw that you were a forest fighter? Can you talk about that?
SLADE: Not a forest fighter, a forest fire fighter. I’m not sure what a forest fighter would be.
DUBERMAN: Right, that’s what I meant. I don’t know what a forest fighter would be. But I think the EPA would have a problem with it.
SLADE: Definitely. But fighting forest fires actually has a huge impact on who I am today. My specific role on the crew was as a faller. Before a crew can go into a forest fire and safely work it, someone has to go in and cut down all the burning trees with a chainsaw. I did that. It was so sweet.
DUBERMAN: That seems like a very solitary experience, and one that would make you very aware of your own mortality, I expect.
SLADE: It’s definitely very solitary. So I learned how to write songs and remember and tweak the melody all day. Now I use my iPhone a lot, but after that I can easily write songs and remember them in my head. It was really formative for me; I was going through a breakup at the time.
DUBERMAN: I can’t think of a more cathartic, symbolic way to deal with a breakup than to cut down burning trees.
SLADE: Dude, totally, not to mention in the fire areas it’s always raining. It’s not what people might imagine, like squirrels running away from fire. It looks like Mordor.
DUBERMAN: If someone asked you 10 years ago, “Where do you see yourself in 10 years,” what would you have said?
SLADE: I probably would have lied and said something like music. I think deep down, I wanted to be doing exactly what I’m doing right now.
RICQ: In high school, that was 12 years ago now, I really did want to be a musician. Then I started making cartoons and pursuing visual art. And I thought, “Oh, well, that’s done. I’m never going to be a musician.” And now I’m doing this, which is really weird, honestly. Five years ago, when I met Robbie, I was like, “Okay, let’s start a band, and I’m actually going to try really hard to make this happen. Play shows. Make videos. Really go at it.” Robbie was down and it was on and up from there. I just hoped if I tried really hard, it would happen. It’s happening and eight years ago, I never thought it could.
DUBERMAN: Tell me about your music videos. Do you conceive of those yourselves, or do you have people sending you treatments?
RICQ: I studied filmmaking in university, so I’m always the one directing, writing, producing, and editing the music videos. Some of them Robbie helped out. We like to do all of it ourselves.
DUBERMAN: Do you guys think about how songs will translate live during the writing process?
SLADE: Honestly, we don’t have any rules other than dance-y. Like, we just write songs. Sometimes they’re wimpy, and we make them dance-ier for live performance.
DUBERMAN: If you could have a song of yours in any TV show, what would it be, and what kind of scene would you want it to be scoring?
SLADE: I want to do a car commercial. We write so much of our music driving around.
RICQ: What kind of car, Robbie?
SLADE: Like a 1984 Volvo wagon.
DUBERMAN: I think it would have to be a really good song to sell a 1984 Volvo wagon.
SLADE: We could do it.
DUBERMAN: How’s the music scene in Vancouver, compared to some American cities? Is it easier to network because it’s not so as saturated with band as New York or LA?
PETER: It’s awesome, and it’s pretty tight knit. The art funding in Canada is pretty amazing—you can get all sorts of grants for the travel that you do, which makes it a lot easier. I know that’s not the case in the States. The States is a really tough market. The only thing about being a musician in Canada is that all the cities are really far away. It makes it really expensive to tour.
DUBERMAN: What is your most memorable tour experience?
RICQ: For me, it was probably in Calgary. Do you know where Calgary is?
DUBERMAN: I was there for Sled Island.
RICQ: That’s what I was going to say. Our most memorable experience was Sled Island. It was just a great day. We played two shows in one day, one was for about 1500 people—a packed house at HiFi.
DUBERMAN: Was that the one where you played after How To Dress Well?
DUBERMAN: I was at that one. It was pretty incredible. I straight-up went by myself, all alone, and I had a great time.
RICQ: Really? [laughs] You should have come and said hi!
DUBERMAN: Well, I think I’ll have lots of chances this week—you’re playing five shows for CMJ. What are you looking forward to about New York?
RICQ: Every time we’re in New York, we have such a blast. It’s always a little bit different every time, and I love that. It’s always a different story, a different New York every time.
DUBERMAN: What’s the biggest compliment you could receive?
SLADE: I would like to deliver your babies. [laughs] But really! If a couple came up to you and said, “Robbie, I’ve been thinking about it and we’d like you to deliver our baby.” That would probably be the biggest compliment ever.
RICQ: The biggest compliment would be, you know what, here’s one: When people go through hard times and there’s that album that brought them back to life, I think that’d be a really good compliment.
DUBERMAN: Maybe your album will help Robbie’s hypothetical patient through their labor and delivery.
RICQ: Yeah, perfect.
DUBERMAN: Do you have your Halloween costumes planned out?
SLADE: My girlfriend is going to go as Han Solo and I was going to go as Chewy, but Chewy costumes are really, really hard to find—and very hot, too. It’s kind of an homage to the first time we hung out—which was also Halloween—where she was freezing cold in this wedding dress and I stripped out of my teddy-bear costume and gave it to her.
RICQ: I think maybe an emo Where’s Waldo. Or a dead Where’s Waldo. Still deciding.
HUMANS ARE PLAYING FOUR NEW YORK SHOWS THROUGH SUNDAY, OCTOBER 21, FOR THE CMJ FESTIVAL. THEIR ALBUM TRAPS IS OUT NOW. FOR MORE ON THE DUO, VISIT THEIR WEBSITE.