The Sylvia Platters – Youth Without Virtue (Q&A)

The Sylvia Platters have been crafting well-tuned guitar pop since 2014. Hailing from BC’s Fraser Valley, the band has demonstrated a keen appreciation for melody and melancholy across their many releases.

Their 2022 cassette Youth Without Virtue exhumed the band’s shared adolescence in the evangelical church, and garnered praise from The Vancouver Sun, Janglepop Hub, and college press across Canada. Brandon Kruze of Cups N Cakes described it as “catchy as all hell.”

The band will be releasing a five-song EP, Live at Malibu Sound, this spring before recording their studio follow-up at the Noise Floor.

The Sylvia Platters are Alex Kerc-Murcison (guitar), Stephen Carl O’Shea (bass), Nick Ubels (vocals and guitar), and Tim Ubels (vocals and drums).

Nick Ubels talks about the creation of Youth Without Virtue.

How did this record come together?

Our most recent record came out of a lot of writing we had been doing during the pandemic, when shows and even rehearsing in-person were no longer an option. From this big batch of music, we selected songs that shared a theme and mood. Youth Without Virtue unearths and processes a lot of our shared experiences growing up in the evangelical church, with its many contradictions and constrictions, yet strong sense of service and community. You might even say it was therapeutic! The songs were tracked with Jordan Koop at the Noise Floor Studio, a very special place tucked away on Gabriola Island just off of BC’s Vancouver Island. Getting away from our day-to-day lives to focus on recording and mixing this music helped us focus and enjoy the process of creating something new together.

These days, we’re sorting through songs for our upcoming record. We’ve written a lot and are continuing to work on new songs before returning to the studio this summer. I feel really good about where things are headed. I think we’re building on our strengths and also challenging ourselves to write our best material to date.

How did the pandemic and social climate impact the creation or release of the record?

It was a very strange time to be creating music. For a long time, we had no hope of being able to safely rehearse in-person, let alone play shows. And then it was off- and on-again for a long time. We tried rehearsing virtually, but the lag made it impossible. We also went through a line-up change, with Stephen Carl O’Shea joining on bass in late 2020. Eventually, we settled into a pattern of rehearsing in a well-ventilated space, wearing masks, and playing along with pre-recorded vocals. It was an odd set-up, but it allowed us to slowly, but surely, prepare the material for our latest album.

At the same time, the lack of live shows and intermittent rehearsals allowed more time for writing songs and sending demos back and forth. So we ended up with an abundance of material to choose from.

How do you typically come up with new song ideas?

It’s really a mix of different things for me. My brother Tim Ubels also writes about a third of our songs, and I can’t speak for him. Personally, I try to stay open to ideas as they present themselves and get into some habits that create better conditions for those ideas to emerge. On the lyrics side, that can be jotting down phrases I like or ideas for lines on my phone. Sometimes I’ll play word games to see if anything interesting emerges. On the music side, my favourite thing is starting from someone’s idea for a part at practice, playing around with it a bit, and then fleshing it out at home. But I also try to make a habit of spending some time creating new motifs for at least a half an hour a few times throughout the week. Exercising those muscles seems to keep the ideas flowing. We will also send each other fragments — a riff, progression, or melody — and see if someone else in the band has an idea for how to make use of it. Occasionally, I’ll light upon a melody while I’m going for a walk or something, but that tends to be more rare. I usually need to have some intention towards creating something new.

How do you decide when a song is finished and ready to be recorded?

I usually write by demo-ing and then working out and refining the arrangement with the band. But most of the songs I write don’t get to the rehearsal stage, let alone recording. It feels like a question of quality, fit with the band’s style, and what kind of time and financial budget we can set aside that determine which and how many songs we record. 

In terms of finishing writing songs, some never feel like they’re done. Others seem to emerge very quickly, like within an hour. I recently finished writing a song called “Kool Aid Blue”. It was based on a chord progression Alex [Kerc-Murchison] came up with that I’d been playing around with for a while. I had the chorus melody and lyrics locked in, but I spent about a month of consistently working it over before I felt like everything finally clicked into place. Some ideas aren’t worth that kind of effort, but when I feel like there’s something compelling trying to get out, I’ll keep pursuing it.

Lyrics are too often taken for granted.  What is the line of text or are the lines of text that you hope listeners will remember?  And why?

I try to balance mystery and cohesiveness in my writing. Some of the best lines I’ve written are the ones that feel like they convey a few layers of meaning. A favourite from “Youth Without Virtue” is “You hate the touch of silver/But you fasten it for your mother.” I feel like it evokes a lot of the themes of the record in a single scene of a disaffected teenager putting on a cross necklace. But I also love the big, affirming outro: “Distill what you want/You will what you need/You made me believe/You’ll make it in time.”

If you could tour the world with two other bands, who would you ask, and why?

Alvvays and Teenage Fanclub. Two all-time greats and I think it would make for a really cohesive line-up.

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