You Say Party and the enduring love of XXXX
The Abbotsford, B.C., band reflects on the emotional highs and lows of its 2009 record
Becky Ninkovic hadn't heard "She's Spoken For," an album cut from her band You Say Party's 2009 album, XXXX, in a decade. Recently, as she revisited the album in preparation for a special vinyl reissue for Record Store Day 2020 (Aug. 29), that song, nestled in the latter half of the tracklist, unanticipatedly came on in her home.
"All of a sudden," she reveals, "it was on and I was just having this full memory of that time, and that experience of holding him in my lap as he lost consciousness."
The person Ninkovic is referring to is the band's drummer, Devon Clifford, who collapsed in the middle of a performance at Vancouver's Rickshaw Theatre in 2010 and died days later from a brain hemorrhage. When he fell over onstage, he was in the middle of performing that song.
It's a traumatic moment that Ninkovic still feels viscerally, as she tearfully remembers that day, and the weeks, months and years that have passed since. Venues and loud atmospheres still set off her nervous system. She says that, in the years since You Say Party settled down and stopped touring, she hasn't been to many concerts — partially because she also became a mom. She does light up when talking about a funny experience she had seeing Sudan Archives earlier this year though, where she proclaimed that she was "probably the oldest woman in the room!"
The heaviness of Clifford's untimely death has cemented an extra layer of memories and emotions over XXXX's legacy, and Ninkovic admittedly has a hard time separating the joyous celebration and love that went into the album itself, and the tragedy that came in its ensuing release.
When asked how she feels about the album now, as it nears its 11th anniversary, Ninkovic says it feels like being transported into another life, then chooses to reiterate the affirmative words of bandmate Krista Loewen instead, looking down at her phone as she reads the message out loud, verbatim.
"She said, 'For me, XXXX was an album I was so proud of, that felt like the coming together of so many things musically, but also ourselves as a band family. Looking back on it, it feels like a crystallized moment in time. I have so many good memories wrapped up in it and particularly since losing Devon, listening to the album feels like revisiting that time with our friend.'"
As much as it's tough to untangle the good from the bad, the recording process for XXXX was a real peak for the band, and highlights a time that truly renewed You Say Party's spirit after everything almost fell apart on a gruelling 16-week European tour in 2008. When bassist Stephen O'Shea looks back at that tour now, he realized that "healing was needed."
When Ninkovic designed the artwork for band's first releases, 2004's Danskwad EP and their 2005 debut album Hit the Floor!, Xes adorned the artwork, something that she later brought to O'Shea and the rest of the band during the XXXX sessions to explain, "In my mind, that always stood for love."
And that's the sentiment that permeates each track on the album. Ditching the dance-punk confines that their earlier work put them in — which originally sprung up as a response to "cool, arms-crossed scenesters" in their music scene — XXXX leaned closer into a polished synth-pop sound that still made audiences move but felt less about the external physicality of dance, instead exploring a more spiritual sense of connection through movement. Sonically, that led to a darker sound, but Ninkovic's message was always one of love and light, as her voice softened around phrases like, "My heart needs a love dance," on the Twin Peaks-referencing single, "Laura Palmer's Prom."
B.C. producer Howard Redekopp (New Pornographers, Tegan and Sara, Mother Mother), who is also from Abbotsford (one of many reasons You Say Party chose to work with him), was brought onboard to helm the band's new sonic identity on XXXX and he, too, felt a major shift in the band's dynamic during that time. Even though he noticed a divide between members on whether they wanted to move in a more punk or pop direction, Redekopp argues that this made for "a good energy and the contrast made for some creative tension that added an element of excitement and depth." His role, he believes, was to find the common ground and harness that energy. "Everyone was proud of the end result," Redekopp concludes. "It was a reflection of the love that they had for their craft and for each other."
In the years since XXXX, and even after the release of the band's 2016 self-titled return — which the members didn't commit to extensively touring behind and only performed with a drum machine instead of a replacement for Clifford — Ninkovic has learned to take better care of her mental health. She's candid about her PTSD stemming from Clifford's death, but she doesn't apologize for her tears. "I just let myself cry when I feel it now," she says, as reflecting on this time continues to bring both wistful and sorrowful memories to the forefront.
In many ways, the songs on XXXX represented a restoration of love within the band, but the music can also be applied to the mending of a heart after losing a loved one. On "There is XXXX (Within my Heart)," Ninkovic sings, with conviction:
Now I have cried
My share of tears in the night
And felt the pain
An emptiness deep inside
Then a beautiful bird
Soared into my life
And with wings outstretched
It flew straight into my heart
Then we reach a moment of recovery, of rebuilding, as Ninkovic shouts the album's message, simple but all important and often bears repeating in times of darkness: "There's love, love, love."