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36? and the Tale of the Endless Tour

Life on the road is something that comes Naturally to the Calgary-based art rock troupe.

by Sebastian Buzzalino

Photo by Sara Kuelfer

Touring as a DIY band takes its toll. Endless kilometres zip past weighed-down tires; cramped van benches serve as ad-hoc living conditions; the glamour of travel eventually gives way to the monotony of gas station food, exhausting load ins, sounds checks, late night set times, tearing down, figuring out where to sleep — and then doing it all over again the next day. 

Calgary art rock band, 36?, were on such an endless tour. They’d been on the road for approximately eight months around Canada and the USA in support of their 2019 album, Milk Mountain, with another six planned for the eastern seaboard. Their plan was to live in their van indefinitely and keep grinding it out themselves, until the world itself ground to a halt.

“We had been going so hard for so long, and we really needed a break without realizing what we needed,” says Taylor Cochrane, the band’s leader and primary songwriter. “In a way, it was kind of nice because there was literally nothing we could do, nothing to be done, so we were forced to just chill and do nothing. That was really needed, instead of driving, playing and sending emails all day.”

It was during this downtime that 36?’s latest seven-track album, Naturally, came to be. This extended period of stillness afforded Cochrane the time to focus their often sprawling songwriting, writing and producing each track with a focused intensity and hyper-attention to detail. 

Cochrane has never been one to over-produce a song, preferring instead to let imperfections define 36?’s sprawling, whimsical art rock. But as they got to writing the title track that leads the album, they reflected on the process of making art and the tension of being a “successful” artist and making art for for art’s sake.

“The lead song [‘Natural’] is all about feeling like you have to make your art for someone else,” Cochrane says. It’s a gorgeous fall day in Calgary and we’re sitting on a van bench covered in fallen yellow leaves in their backyard in Bowness. Their partner, Laura Hickli — whose solo work is featured on the flip side of the split album — is inside their small garage apartment finishing an application and they’re both getting ready for a band practice later that evening to put the finishing touches on their live show for the album release. 

“That kind of thought, of making art for someone else, is this kind of weird thing buzzing around in the back of your brain when you’re making your own art,” Cochrane says. “Being a successful artist is seen as having a lot of notoriety, which is this internalized capitalism thing in art. It’s something I think every artist battles with a little bit, learning how to navigate your art being for you and your art being for someone else.”

“I’ve been hoping one day the fear inside/Would have a universal appeal/Relatable but genuine/But that has never been the deal,” Cochrane sings on “Natural.” To accompany the theme of the song, and fully utilizing the all-but-endless time they had on their hands now that touring was impossible, Cochrane started recording and producing the song, hyper-focusing on even the most minute details and seeing how far they could push everything before it sounding too over-produced.

“I’ve never edited this hard, ever. I found myself at the point where I was asking myself, ‘Is this good, or am I making it too perfect sounding?’ Eventually, I went with that as the vibe to conceptually tie it into the lyrics of the song.

“I got so hyper-focused on editing and then I arrived at something that was way more produced than I was used to. Whenever you edit any sort of art, it kind of pulls the life out of it, no matter what. It feels like what the record is talking about, so I leaned into it. I think it’s pretty easy to over-produce something where it doesn’t feel like the actual intent of the song anymore. That was a big fear that I was having when doing this super-produced record: I wanted it to still feel emotional and like it had weight to it and not just background pop music stuff.”

With a stronger sense of work-life balance, 36? is ready to “move back into the van” and resume their touring schedule. Their next album is also pretty much finished — Cochrane is ever the prolific songwriter and took full advantage of the enforced downtime — and their live show is as complex and variegated as ever. But what is clearer than ever in Cochrane’s mind is the absolute need to produce art for themself, first and foremost.