from Vancouver BC
On the night of his birthday party in 2006 it all became clear. Jeffry Lee was high on life and other substances when he hatched the idea for Hard Drugs. Hard Drugs was to be a rock opera. It provided the perfect solution to his domestic quandaries. A rock opera would provide Lee with the creative outlet he needed while requiring less touring, allowing him to spend more time with his soon-to-be-wife Jenni Nelson. Since then, it has spawned at least two bands, a concept album and a new life of it¹s own.
Initially started as a side project for members of Vancouver¹s Blood Meridian (which was in turn the side project of Black Mountain bassist Matt Camirand) the original lineup also consisted of husband/wife duo Jeff Lee and Jenni Nelson fronting the band, keyboardist Shira Blustein and bassist Kevin Grant from Blood Meridian, friend/guitarist/visual effects artist Pete Dionne, drummer Jason Dana.
These five original band members rehearsed and performed the show live, helping Lee formulate the idea on stage. They began recording sporadically later that year when finances and touring schedules would allow. Jeffry recruited everyone and anyone of his friends in the Vancouver music scene who might contribute to the project.
By the following year the live band had expanded to include vocalist/percussionist Ashley Webber and keyboard and guitar player Colin McKill, and the recording was completed with 13 densely orchestrated songs.
Almost as soon as the rock opera was ready to take off, Lee and Nelson left town. Finding a move to New York City impossible to resist, Jenni Lee Nelson was transferred in her position as a clothing designer and left in the fall of 2007. Lee didn¹t stick around Vancouver much longer and followed her the next year. The relocation was sure to be the end of Hard Drugs until Lee met fellow Canadian transplant and music industry veteran David Bason shortly after arriving. Bason said he loved the record so much he would release it on his Stay Gold label and help put together a New York chapter of the band.
Between the two of them they soon came up with a lineup that consisted of Jeffry on lead guitar and vocals, Jenni still sharing vocal duties and playing mostly tambourine, Bason playing rhythm guitar and Dave Purcell on drums. For the first few shows they would schedule shows around visits from Colin McKill so that he could fill in on keys. Later they added Jenni¹s best friend Toby Bannister on bass who¹d also recently moved from Vancouver.
Hard Drugs now has Vancouver and New York-based bands. Rounded out by new keyboard player Lee Godleski, the New York chapter is working with producer Michael Tudor on a follow up to their debut album which is out digitally and on double LP. They've also played a number of great shows recently with Pink Mountaintops, Lighting Dust, and Ian Astbury who had this to say about the band "Hard Drugs are a wolf among a flock of bleating post modernist sheep"
Jeffry Lee had a simple goal when he began working on the record that would become Hard Drugs: to tell a story that wasn't as bloated and impenetrable as two of rock opera's definitive albums.
“I wanted to write something that made more sense than Tommy or The Wall,” says the Brooklyn-based former Vancouverite, on the line from the Sunshine Coast, where his wife's family has property. “I have a background in film, and I've worked on some scripts. The idea of doing a rock opera seemed to be a challenge.”
It's a challenge that Lee proved more than up to meeting on Hard Drugs, which is also the name of the band he put together with his wife, Jenni Lee Nelson, drummer Jason Dana, organist Shira Blustein, and bassist Kevin Grant. The sprawling double LP tells the story of Lloyd and Aline, two star-crossed, drug-addled lovers trapped in the grindhouse that is Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. She's a hooker working the streets for a pimp named Slim; he's an addict too weak to do something about the fact that his girlfriend prostitutes herself. Over the course of 13 stellar tracks, the two do their best to extricate themselves from the life they're leading, which leads to people getting shot, drug dealers looking for revenge, and a tension-dripping saloon showdown.
Packed with the kind of details that separate great stories from good ones, Hard Drugs plays out like a stage production or movie waiting to happen, something Lee is quick to acknowledge.
“If that happens, it happens,” he says. “For me, I wanted to do this just to prove to myself that I could do it. But there's a fellow in Vancouver who said he was interested in working on a screenplay [based on the record]. I met with him, gave him some suggestions, and he's going to take it from there.”
With help from a small army of the Vancouver music scene's heaviest hitters, the music is just as epic as Lee's story. At a base level, Hard Drugs sound like the house band in shit-kicker heaven, with Lee and his massive supporting cast trafficking in an unvarnished brand of classic country. “Lloyd and Aline” finds Lee and his bandmate-wife trading verses like Johnny Cash and June Carter during the booze-drenched years, and “Terminal City” makes a good case that someone was mainlining melted-down Waylon Jennings and Loretta Lynn records.
But as much Hard Drugs aims straight for the hearts of those still mourning the demise of No Depression, Lee looks well beyond the badlands for inspiration. Listen for the Tex-Mex trumpet flourishes in the title track, the druggy prog-rock breakdown in “Salvation Blues”, and the crystalline piano in the pop-tinted “Happiness”.
Now located in Brooklyn, the singer-guitarist sees Hard Drugs as a gritty love letter to Vancouver. His mission was simple: to find the humanity of the lost souls that haunt the junk-wrecked alleys and streets of the Downtown Eastside.
“When I look down there, I see human beings, not the monsters which a lot of people do,” he says. “They go down there and don't know what they are seeing—they think they are in zombie-land. These people are humans, and they deserve to have a life, no matter what kind of choices that they've made.”
By Mike Usinger, July 23, 2009