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Michael Brock
Photos by Marcus Jolly

The Comet crashes down in Chinatown

Vancouver is the perfect setting for this future-noir concept record .

By Scott Wood

Chinatown is currently one of Vancouver’s most dynamic neighbourhoods. It’s an area with a long and storied history, sandwiched between the squalor of Vancouver’s downtown lower east side and the hipster central Strathcona neighbourhood. Gentrification and the expansion of downtown Vancouver are slowly and steadily crushing these neighbourhoods together into a bizarre patchwork quilt. If you take a walk through the gates of Chinatown at Pender Street you will pass by the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden Hello folks, Scott Wood here! I'm the host of the interview show, which is a syndicated radio program you can find on several campus community radio stations across Canada. Each month, I profile one of the "hidden talents" in my local Vancouver scene. Basically, I am going to give the campus community radio readers the chance to get to know some of Vancouver's most interesting, up-and-coming bands. (water, plants & rocks are arranged according to Taoist principles to create a serene space), college girls high on MDMA heading for the Fortune Sound Lounge to see the latest indie hip hop or electronic act (that you’ll like in about a year), a homeless man shooting heroin into his arm in a “closed” store front entrance, the newest hipster eatery (for example BESTIE which specializes in sausages), some band practice and art installation space (like The China Cloud), as well as the expected Chinese (in name only) stores and restaurants.

The Comet is a project born in the in this hodgepodge neighbourhood. The Comet is CBC Radio producer Chris Kelly and partner Christopher Leitch. In addition to producing the wildly popular CBC Radio current events spoof show This Is That, Chris has also had a long history performing in bands like Analogue Bell Service.

Once these songs started to crystallize, it became very addictive - so much so that I ditched out of my "high profile day jobs" make sure the record was completed.

Chris describes The Comet’s debut record, While the City Sleeps, as “a dark concept album, set in the future, about a hard-boiled detective—think Blade Runner meets Alan Moore's Watchmen. It's densely packed full of synths, obscure samples and croony vocals.” The album’s first single is called “Up Hill Lakes” and it’s embedded at the bottom of this chat.

Scott Wood: Hello Chris Kelly! You've got a couple of high profile day jobs. What made you decide to devote time to yet another project?

Chris Kelly: Because it was one of the most fun and creatively satisfying projects I have ever done. Once these songs started to crystallize, it became very addictive—so much so that I ditched out of my “high profile day jobs” many a day and dedicated a good portion of my nights and weekends for the better part of 3 years to make sure the record was completed.

Scott Wood: The Comet is not just you alone. You've got a partner, Christopher Leitch. Could you introduce the other Chris in the band and tell me how you guys came together as The Comet.

Chris Kelly: Chris Leitch is a long time musical collaborator. He is one of the founding members of the China Cloud. He is also one of the finest visual artists I know.

The Comet came out of wanting to still make music together after our last band, Analog Bell Service, came to an end. For seven Sundays in a row in 2010 we met at The China Cloud and recorded these elaborate musical improvisations. That really laid the groundwork for what would become The Comet.

The Comet
Photos by Marcus Jolly

Scott Wood: You've told me that The Comet's debut record While the City Sleeps is a dark concept album set in the future about a hard-boiled detective. Think Blade Runner meets Alan Moore's Watchmen. Geek out for a moment and tell me what you love about the noir genre.

Chris Kelly: Ok I will, but let’s talk genre first. I don’t see it as typical noir, there is a spacey element to it. I'd say this record is more in the realm of future-noir or nu-noir (if those are even genres).

Although we didn't actually set out to write in any particular style, it sort of found us. I think it was a combination of recording these songs on rainy nights in Chinatown. I guess in a lot of ways Vancouver is a future noir city, especially when you're viewing the glass condos looming over Chinatown, and we started to embody that.

I think we knew things were clicking when we started picturing Tim Burton's Batman. It came to mind very early on from some of the sounds we were getting. That film is typical of this future-noir genre we felt were filling out—cigars, hats, and trench-coats but with some weird techno detail. Inspirations like that started to lead us down this path of blending futuristic sounding synths with more traditional analog instruments.

Scott Wood: Concept records can be controversial among music fans. I guess to some people they can seem a bit pretentious. Can you say some inspiring words in support of the concept record?  

Chris Kelly: Hmm… I've actually never heard anyone describe a concept album as pretentious before. Perhaps I’ve turned a blind ear so to speak to such comments—perhaps because I've always admired the idea of the concept album. I enjoy it when an artist takes an idea and really examines it from all angles. The project becomes a focused study and in the case of this record, it became a puzzle trying to build characters and their environments while engaging in the parameters of the medium. There's only so much information you can fit into a composition and have it still convey what you want and in a way that is pleasing to an audience.

...In a lot of ways Vancouver is a future noir city, especially when you're viewing the glass condos looming over Chinatown, and [The Comet] started to embody that

Scott Wood: You've never heard a music fan bitch about a concept album, Chris Kelly? Really?

Chris Kelly: Ha! Sorry Scott, I actually outsourced that question to Chris Leitch—you can credit him with that if you want. If you want an alternate answer: I think that every album is a concept album—mostly they are around an emotional theme and not a narrative theme. This one is a blend of both because the narrative isn't actually that overt and we were definitely working through some emotions, namely loss and darkness.

Scott Wood: The project's bio says The Comet's music is made in the heart of Chinatown, an area of Vancouver rich with ominous, inky alleyways, relentlessly abuzz. The real life history of that area if filled with tons of weird and wild stories. Did you draw on anything in real life for the narrative in While the City Sleeps?

Chris Kelly: None of the true history of Chinatown entered into the writing of the lyrics, but it definitely had its influence as I mentioned above. Most of the songs I picture taking place in Chinatown.

While we were writing the album I had a friend die and while it wasn’t a murder, it did introduce the idea of death into the record. The song “Chesterfield” is primarily about that.

Scott Wood: Imagine that this question is the before-the-opening-credits teaser scene for your noir film. Set up the story for While the City Sleeps record...

The Comet
Photos by Marcus Jolly

Chris Kelly: "While the city sleeps, the heartless creeps are living in the shadows. They whisper fear through the breathless night, they evade the day and light. And lie low from the blaze of The Comet: The detective that doesn't eat, that doesn't sleep, that may not even be from this planet."

Scott Wood: You have a day job and score films on the side—and also found time to form this new band, make this record While the City Sleeps and now do interviews to promote it. Let's talk time management! How do you get it all done?

Chris Kelly: Well, let’s be honest—it has taken me a while to get back to these questions!

I’ve always lived by the idea of:
Do one thing that makes you money.
Do one thing that you love.
Do one thing that you’re interested in but don’t really get.

It also helps that I feel very guilty whenever I say “no” to things and so I end up committing to way too many things but they usually lead to other interesting things.

Scott Wood: In your day job, you work as a producer for CBC Radio. This year the CBC has been going through some dark times. Constant budget cuts from the Harper government and the Jian Ghomeshi scandal. I think that every album is a concept album - mostly they are around an emotional theme and not a narrative theme. The CBC has many dedicated workers with an almost patriotic sense of duty. Can you talk about weathering the storm during this era of the CBC?

Chris Kelly: You nailed it on the head. CBC folks are loyal to their duty to the country, but boy has it been a tough couple of months. I’m very fortunate because I work on a show that Canadians are really enjoying (and they’re letting us know by tuning in and in our ratings online) and more importantly, it doesn’t cost much to make. Although even that doesn’t make us immune to cuts, so all I can do is do the work, make it the best I can and vote for a party that values the CBC in the next election.

Scott Wood: Thanks for answering my questions, Chris Kelly! Please introduce your favorite The Comet video (and provide me the official link). Basically give people a reason to click.

Chris Kelly: I’ll give ya two links. When we released the album, we synched the entire record to 9 sliced-up, classic noir films but, if you don’t have the time to watch all 26 minutes, watch the video for the single from the album “Up Hill Lakes,” it features guns, hypnosis and Deforest Kelley who also played ‘Bones’ on Star Trek!


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