With the world roiled by fear and division borne out of politics, economic uncertainty, and terrorism, perhaps there is no better time for the arrival of music underpinned by the belief that love wins. Into the maw of anxiety comes Vancouver’s indie synth-rock band Mother Mother and their new album No Culture, which posits that society uses negative byproducts of culture — such as narcissism, hedonism, and addiction — as a means to nurture its fears of the unknown. “If we can strip back the culture, or the masks, attitudes, and stories that feed our differences, and just connect as people we might be more united at a time where we really need to be,” says Mother Mother’s frontman, guitarist, and lyricist Ryan Guldemond.
To amplify the themes on No Culture, the album’s cover art depicts a painted-white baby doll dabbling in black paint, suggesting the immediate imprint society makes on us once we enter the world. As its creator Molly Guldemond, Ryan’s sister who sings, plays keyboard, and makes all the art for Mother Mother, puts it: “The idea for the image came from careful consideration of what culture is and how it is used in society as a form of self-identification and belonging. What would it be like to be clear of this? How much of our identity is placed on us from the environments we are born into? A baby, shiny and new, is without culture. It is the tabula rasa, the clean slate. Slowly through immersion in domestic and social environments, it is painted with the brush of other people’s ideas, fears, and beliefs … it is imprinted with culture.”
For Ryan, stepping away from cultural influences was crucial to his ability to write Mother Mother’s new album. Unless he did so, Guldemond was afraid he’d never be able to write another song, much less an album — a significant concern given that Mother Mother fans were expecting a follow-up to 2014’s ‘Very Good Bad Thing,’ which hit No. 1 on Canada’s Alternative Albums chart. In 2015, the band, which also features singer-keyboardist Jasmin Parkin, drummer Ali Siadat, and bassist Mike Young, was nominated for a Juno Award for “Best Group” and toured the U.S. extensively, including dates with Imagine Dragons and AWOLNATION.
When it came time to write, Guldemond retired to a home studio he had built in the woods on his dad’s property on Quadra Island off the Eastern coast of Vancouver Island where he and Molly grew up. “It was so perfect and quiet that it became deafening and self-defeating,” he says. Three months before heading there, Guldemond put down a long habit of self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. After a few months of sobriety, the honeymoon wore off and he fell into a depression and “a regression back to the shit that I was trying to avoid when I was a kid,” he says. “That stuff just lies dormant.”
A debilitating period of writer’s block ensued, which inspired anthemic first single “Love Stuck.” “It’s about the condition of overthinking and how it creates blockades against creativity,” Guldemond says. “I wrote this on my birthday at the height of my funk and so, always having believed in the magic and synchronicity of the universe, despite not feeling it at the time, I told myself that some element of cosmic numerology would inform the birth of a song.”
As a result of his paralysis, Guldemond was forced to write autobiographical songs for the first time in his life. “I was having my own identity crisis at the time so I couldn’t help but write about it, despite not wanting to,” he says. “So I really had to capitalize on everything that I was going through. The clean-living experience surprised me with a lot of discomfort and confusion, and a loss of confidence. I was second-guessing everything, what my intentions were with the music, what good was, what bad was, what authentic was. I had grown used to conducting myself with a kind of intensity, and sobriety seemed to take that ability away from me. I found myself more open and softer, which allowed for more authentic connection.”
It turns out that exploring life, songwriting, and his own identity — and being clear of mind and substances during the year that No Culture was written and recorded — resulted in Mother Mother’s most emotionally honest, vulnerable, and least cynical album to date. Guldemond says he felt free to explore lyrical concepts unfiltered by persona, a move away from the allegorical and conceptual writing the band was known for on its five previous albums. “The Drugs” is about the euphoria, or “high,” that one gets from being in love and replacing one source of dopamine with another, with love being the “true” path of light and health. The piano ballad “Letter,” a song Guldemond sat on for years as he searched for a deserving chorus, morphed from a simple idea rooted in unrequited love into a lament for the past: “a case of toxic nostalgia, which I directly related to, being in my own state of longing, looking back on the good old days and indulging their mythological qualities,” he says. On “Baby Boy,” Guldemond delivers confessional verses that admit his penchant for self-destruction and deceit, while Molly takes the lead with a melodic intervention, singing: “Baby boy, baby brother, we’re losing you to the gutter.” Molly also shines on the album’s closing track, “Family,” which began as a fairly caustic take on the Guldemonds’ family dynamic, but eventually softened into something that celebrates the idiosyncrasies of kinship.
But just because the album’s themes skew dark does not mean the sonic mood of No Culture is gloomy. “It’s not a down record,” Guldemond says. “There’s never a dark theme that isn’t accompanied by an answer or a way out. And it was crucial to take introspective themes and prop them up with energized and optimistic music. Sometimes sadness is better carried in a vehicle of happiness.” On their new studio album, Mother Mother continue to honor their synth-driven sound with aspects of alternative pop, creating a shimmering blend of strong hooks, big beats, ethereal vocals, and sing-along choruses, with an injection of punk-rock energy. The listener is taken on an epic sonic journey that is filled with emotion, similar to Guldemond’s experience during the writing process. Now he’s relieved to have some distance and to be able to represent his journey from a place of objectivity. “I think a story is better told when you’re not so entrenched in living it,” he says. “I look forward to performing these songs from the vantage point of having moved on from what led to their creation in the first place.”