In the middle of a heat wave, I biked across the high level to 124th street, my bangs plastered to my forehead, squinting in the sun, sensing the coming burn, bobbing to Cantoo, navigating the intersections left without lights in the wake of the rolling blackouts. Summer bliss with undertones of apocalypse.
I arrived at Steeps, an air-conditioned island where cooling sweat made for hypothermic customers. There I met Aaron Parker, the mastermind of Edmonton’s Cantoo. Melding psychedelic, beachy rock with electronic beats, Cantoo’s self-titled debut album offers a modern, dark take on sixties pop. It’s sunny dance music that never denies the sunburn.
“It’s changed a whole lot since the first song. I wanted to actually make an album that sounded like it was from 1968. I just wanted to make a perfect copy, because I love the wonkiness of those sounds. But it was kind of a providential thing that I discovered all these wonky electronic sounds that I could add wonkiness with without being just a nostalgia act anymore. By the end I knew I couldn’t just do nostalgic sixties guitar music.”
From the comfort of the tea house’s wingback chairs, Parker steered me through the evolution of the album. Cantoo’s influences are varied but never cobbled. There are tangible connection points between sixties pop and modern electronic music. Parker grew animated when he explained how he came to synths– an opportunity to share a well-kept secret.
“Through MGMT I found out about an old sixties synth guy—a crazy synth guy from Bragg Creek, Alberta, named Bruce Haack. It’s the weirdest thing. In the sixties he built his own synthesizers. And he was just nuts. He made the craziest music with vocoders that he made himself. So I got into that. I really enjoyed the insanity of it, and I liked the synthesizers when they weren’t directly associated with dance music yet. These days if you say you want to be electronic, it’s immediately assumed that there’s going to be a beat and dance, or you’re going to be totally experimental noise. But he was in the middle.”
Heat exhaustion settled in and I felt guilty for keeping Parker so long from his family. His wife, Giselle Parker, is also his bandmate. When they sing together, their voices weave together with a warm dizziness that makes you want to twirl around on your toes. Not too long ago, the pair welcomed a son, Aubrey, into their musical world. I asked Parker how becoming a father influenced the album.
“The themes definitely got darker when I found out that we were having a baby, because one of the big themes on the album is—forgive me for being pretentious—that love is a really messed up thing. It’s never entirely selfless, it’s never entirely pure, it’s always tainted. So I guess the thought of this baby coming into the world, I knew that I would love it. I just knew that it would have almost as much pain as it would have joy, but the joy would be sort of real joy, and the pain would be part of love, so it would be almost worthwhile pain or something. There’s one line in the songs that’s directly about my son, which is ‘God’s little way to share his pain.’ I was thinking when you love something—anything—you open yourself up, you allow it to cause you pain. … You just think in the end, it’s just how it’s supposed to be. Love is a total shake-up, it’s a kind of insanity, it’s the opposite of logic in so many ways, it throws you for a loop but in the end it brings you to places you wouldn’t have gone. Good places you wouldn’t have gone.”
After excitedly talking about our favourite Simon & Garfunkel tunes (to my delight, Cantoo was formerly known as Baby Driver), Parker and I parted ways and headed out into the muggy grey air. Traffic lights were changing again and the yellows and the reds and the greens seemed to melt into another. It reminded me of an album cover. Walking back to my bike, I exchanged sympathetic looks with weather-weary strangers. I saw the storm forming in the west. I smiled and twirled on my toes.