The word ‘collective’ comes up often when one speaks about the Toronto-based post-everything sextet Respire. Yet, from the organically singular feel and sound of their music to the roster of recurring guests and collaborators, without whose input the music sounds much less complete and impactful, the band feels more like a family. One can go even further and say that this feeling extends to all of its listeners, giving them a sense of meaning, belonging, and even hope, in these times of atomization and uncertainty.
The feeling of hope seems to take a center stage in Respire’s third album, released at the tail end of 2020. A spectacular experience of an album, Black Line takes the listener to an honest and vulnerable journey that ends in emotional purification, even a feeling of hope and recovery. This is something that many, if not all, of us have needed in a year that felt filled with despair and hopelessness. In that, the band embodies the meaning of its name completely.
Hey, it’s absolutely great speaking to you! Can you walk us through the history of the band and tell our readers why do you actually refer to Respire as a family besides anything else?
The core members of Respire met a decade ago, playing in bands and going to DIY screamo/hardcore punk shows in our home of Toronto. Most of us played in other bands together (Foxmoulder, Delo Truda, Tell-Tale Hearts, Quone) before we decided to form a new project, wanting to create something more ambitious.
Since 2013, we’ve grown together as a collective, experimenting, evolving and learning how to play and write with each other. We refer to ourselves as a family because we’re more than just a band, we are a support network, an outlet, and a project where even if you take a back seat, you’re still part of it forever.
I’m sure 2020 was a weird one for all of you. There are many things I would rather forget, but there’s still so much that I’m grateful for. Musically speaking, I was stoked on the new albums from Infant Island, Blue Noise, Svalbard, NØ MAN, but Respire’s Black Line was just the best thing I’ve heard in a long time. Was it a long and difficult process given all the circumstances?
We actually wrote Black Line well before 2020, and were lucky to wrap up recording in March, right as the pandemic really hit Canada. This record took two years of writing and six months of production overall, so it was quite an arduous process.
The writing began as we returned from our 2018 Europe tour, and most of the songs on Black Line were formally put together during a cold weekend spent at a lakeside cottage. We are typically a fairly slow moving band since we have so many pieces in play. Each new record has motivated us to push the envelope, to prepare things in more meticulous ways, with every element painstakingly planned.
We scored all guitar and bass parts, went through a pre-production process, took a few weeks to analyze and revise the songs, and then spent ten days recording. Our last day of recording was March 7th, literal days before the Covid-19 pandemic shut everything down. We mixed the songs over Zoom—which had many technical issues and frustrations that came along with it. It was definitely a long process with some 2020 interruptions, but we ended up with a product that we’re extremely proud of.
P.S. That’s a great list of albums mentioned!
Black Line was supposed to be released on Holy Roar Records but after serious allegations against their label owner, it was necessary to cut all ties with them and join Church Road coming along with a tape release by amazing DIY labels like Zegema Beach and Middle-Man Records. Is there anything you want to comment on this whole situation? Unfortunately, that kind of abusers are still something that we can’t get rid of in our scene.
We have always stood, as individuals and as a band, against sexual assault and for survivors. Our vision for Respire extends beyond music, into community organization and political/social discourse. As such, the issues surrounding assault are extremely important to us, as they are in our DIY music community. We wanted to make sure we were on the right side of this incident from the start.
When our demands for accountability and contrition were not met, we knew our relationship with Holy Roar was over. We’re grateful for the solidarity shown by the other bands on the label, the staff, and our fans. We’re also grateful that Justine/Church Road stepped up to help out, and for our friends at Zegema Beach, Middle-Man, and Narshardaa, who have supported us from the very beginning.
Even after we decided to sign the record with Church Road, we wanted to do more, so that we might back our own words up with action. We pledged to donate a portion of Black Line sales to a worthy cause, and we’re happy to have been able to donate $790 to the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre, an organization in our home providing important support to survivors of sexual assault.
The advice we would offer is to hold people in your community accountable, believe survivors, and work to build a more inclusive, diverse, and just community where victims are unafraid to come forward to seek justice. The problem of abusers in our community will not end here. Unless we continue to engage and talk about these things, people will continue to abuse their positions of power and corrupt our music communities. They must be stopped.
Can you go a bit more in-depths into the feelings, ideas and underlying message behind these compositions? If you would know about the global pandemic, George Floyd’s uprisings and all other turbulent events that happened in 2020, would you change anything when you started writing these songs?
Looking back, we wouldn’t have changed anything. While 2020 brought with it an endless barrage of devastation, it only further solidified the importance of the message behind Black Line.
There is a palpable tension, a muted horror ever present in this forsaken century. Our lives have become a ceaseless loop of outrage and pain. We are faced with a mounting tide of existential threats and a complete lack of solutions. We are void of any vision for the future. We have become a society of maintenance and status quo.
The lyrics of Black Line were written while the ancient forests around us billowed into flames, as the continued mutations of imperialism and fascism wreck havoc on our society, our world, and our people. Black Line is about the possibility of redemption within this sickness. It’s about wanting to be better in a world constantly falling apart. About regaining agency against the backdrop of global forces far beyond our control.
By its end, Black Line is about community, about taking on the fight together. A new world is possible, but only if we are willing to lay waste to the corrupt structures that have brought us to our heels. It is a call for fire. For destruction. For rebirth.
Respire family is notorious for its diversity—of instruments, of musical genres and influences you’re blending, and not least important is gender diversity in music. Do you think the hardcore punk scene is working hard enough towards more diversity and inclusivity of marginalized folks?
There are pockets of communities and scenes within the larger punk/hardcore bubble that are putting in the right work. There are people within our scenes that only see diversity as a stepping stone to further reach and popularity. There are others still who could not care at all. I don’t think we are better simply by being punks.
We need to match our actions with the beliefs we continue to espouse. That means continuing to highlight and support those who work towards inclusivity, diversity, and acceptance. While punks do a lot of good, there are still too many white men at the top of the social scenes.
What we are seeing, in Toronto and elsewhere, is a slow but sure changing of the demographic coming into radical music and identities/politics. In time, we are hopeful the traditional power structures will fall, even within our own communities. Let the queer punks have their day. Let the trans activists speak before our shows. Let the men take a step back and let’s have punk actually live up to its ideals and name.
What does DIY mean to you and how’s the underground music and radical political scene in Toronto going? (I know Rohan, Darren and Travis played in Foxmoulder, who toured and released a split with my Serbian friends Eaglehaslanded)?
As we mentioned before, we all met and formed friendships in the DIY scene. We’ve always identified as a DIY band, and believe in building community and solidarity. Touring Europe as a DIY band has provided some very formative experiences for all of us, and has motivated us to strengthen our community back home.
It’s difficult to say what the scene in Toronto is like now, as the pandemic has upended everything. Before the pandemic, Rohan and Egin booked shows under the umbrella of ‘New Friends DIY’, including the annual New Friends Fest. We’re hoping that New Friends Fest can make a comeback in 2021 in some form, and continue to keep our fingers crossed.
At the start of Respire, many of us played in other projects, but Respire has sort of consumed most of them at this point. The only currently active side-project is And Always, a screamo band in which Egin plays drums. (Big shout out to Eaglehaslanded, love and miss them!)
What are the biggest challenges to your band and the local DIY scene in a time of global pandemic and social unrest? Were there any DIY venues and community spaces closed down during that time?
Unfortunately, even before the pandemic, Toronto had seen so many DIY venue closures in the past few years. Toronto is a city besieged by gentrification and redevelopment, and as such our music communities are directly targeted and continually erased. It’s a city that is increasingly unaffordable, where global capital pushes out underground arts and culture, and where every venue is one step away from being torn down to build more condos.
We’ve lost Soybomb, D-Beatstro, Siesta Nouveaux, Skramden Yards, and many more in the past few years. While artistic expression is brought to a standstill during the pandemic, we remain hopeful that the end of this disaster will provide new opportunities and new hopes, new energies and passions injected back into our home.
From Nomeansno to Submission Hold, Union of Uranus and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Canada has been a fertile ground for experimentation within the broader DIY punk scene. What are your biggest influences and are there any lesser known local bands that you want to talk a bit about?
Focusing on bands from Canada, some of our big influences are: GY!BE (and their many offshoots), Broken Social Scene (and the Arts & Crafts family of bands), Alaskan, Buried Inside, Do Make Say Think, A Silver Mt Zion, Alexisonfire. Some of our favourite active DIY bands from Canada right now are Frail Hands, Terry Green, Marée Noire, Obroa Skai, Albatros, and probably some others that have inconveniently slipped our minds.
Also, we’d like to plug our ‘Respire Family Mixtape’ playlist on Spotify. That’s probably a more up to date way of keeping up with what we’re listening to at any given time.
Do you think that what we’re doing in the underground music scene has an impact outside of our own communities? How do you define terms like quality of life and self-determination?
Absolutely! We all come into underground music from different backgrounds, with different goals, careers, impacts, and outreach. Taking the ideas held dear in DIY out into the big wide world can have extremely positive consequences. Take our own lives as an example. The aspects of mutual aid, self-determination, self-empowerment and expression have been vital ingredients in Egin’s path through addiction recovery.
The same ideals can have an impact in life and society no matter what we do for a living. The overall lessons of caring for each other, making sure those who are voiceless are heard, and being completely vulnerable and honest with one another are part of what we see as necessary in improving ourselves, and the world around us.
What are you doing on a daily basis outside the DIY ethics of punk that have a positive impact on people’s lives and deal with the idea of mutual-aid and being nice to each other? How can we enact in our everyday lives against the alienation, violence and nihilism in modern society?
This is another element that is complicated by the pandemic we are currently living through. Many of the organizations providing outreach, some of which our members have volunteered with like West Neighbourhood House in Toronto, have ceased parts of their public programmes. Narcotics/Alcoholics Anonymous meetings can no longer happen, leaving many of us in recovery to take up new platforms and ways to break the cycle of alienation and isolation. While we yearn for the days where we could enact positive change in our community through first-hand, real-world involvement, we are doing what we can.
Rohan continues to work in green infrastructure, with a dream of turning cities away from destructive entities into regenerative and sustainable places. Egin has left their career in advertising behind to study law, with a desire to engage in mutual legal aid and community legal action as a student and as a future-lawyer. We will continue looking for the right avenues, to take our ideas out of the context of art and into real practice.
What do you hope for in 2021? Anything else you want to add?
We’re hoping not for a sense of normalcy (although sometimes just going back to normal seems welcome), but a chance for a new beginning. A world that has seen its fissures exposed, and that works to heal them. One that moves away from hate, division, and bigotry, and one that is ready to address our next big challenge: climate change.
Interview by Mittens XVX, introduction by Martin.