It’s another story of a young band that got a taste of success that almost destroyed them. Toronto’s Dilly Dally — singer-guitarist Katie Monks and guitarist Liz Bell (friends since they were 14), drummer Benjamin Reinhartz and bassist Jimmy Tony — almost didn’t have another album after 2015’s Sore. But on Sept. 14, they released Heaven, a bewitching noise-rock album Monks describes as “a bunch of self-help tools for people to get out of depression.”
The album that was produced in L.A. by Rob Schnapf — who did several albums for the late Elliott Smith, as well as for The Vines, Powderfinger, and Monks’ brother’s band, Tokyo Police Club — wouldn’t have happened without a little “DIY spirituality,” including a white room and angel cards. Monks spoke to Billboard and explained the unique creative atmosphere and preparation, as well as some important lyrical subjects from queer love to sobriety and medical marijuana — and how S Club 7’s “Bring It All Back” factors in.
Your bio says that after Sore you nearly called it quits. Clearly, the music part was working. Is that what kept you together after all and give it another go?
For Dilly Dally, the first record that we put out was written over the span of six or seven years. Some of those songs were seven years old when we went into the studio. Some of them were two months old. It was something that happened naturally over a long time. With this album, we showed up to the studio with 10 songs and left with nine. One of them didn’t make it. What I’m trying to say is whenever Dilly Dally writes a song, it comes from a real, genuine place. By the time everybody was able to say “Okay, I’ll show up to practice,” that one day, whenever it was in spring of 2017, was the first time the four of us got together in a room to write in forever, it felt like. I think that we all felt, like wow, we can’t take this for granted. It wouldn’t make sense to move forward if it wasn’t something that felt a bit remarkable.
What was the initial feeling like when Dilly Dally started getting opportunities and what was it like when it was winding down?
As the band leader, or initial songwriter for the songs, there’s times before we put out Sore when it felt like I’m leading everybody into a space that they can’t see as clearly as me. I can’t even clearly see how we’re going to make this work, but I just blindly believe in it. I suppose my three bandmates did as well otherwise they wouldn’t be here. When Sore came out, it was received so well, and we were able to tour everywhere. I thought that I put all this energy into this music in hopes that it would strengthen our friendships, and as a band, and it would also help each person be more at peace and happy in their lives. It actually, by the end of the tour cycle, felt like it was damaging to the friendships and damaging to our mental health.
Because it’s pretty demanding, the travel, the close confines, lack of sleep, then all the people at shows?
You’re not grounded. You’re away from home, so you don’t have the people from home to remind you who you are and why you’re doing this or anything like that, and instead it’s all of those strangers who love you when you show up into a new city every night, which is amazing, but it’s easy to lose yourself in that and forget who you really are because you start to identify as this person who is a character. And then each other, it’s so easy to get in your head about each little interaction and what it means because you’re around each other constantly to the point where it’s really unhealthy and a co-dependent relationship. That’s really what it is — a co-dependent relationship. I had to get to a place where I can’t need these people, I can’t need Dilly Dally, and that was a hard pill for me to swallow, because I was always ride or die. By the time I swallowed that pill and went “I don’t need Dilly Dally,” and everyone else went “Okay, I don’t need Dilly Dally,” we all had to go “Now knowing what this entails, do we want to do this again?” The fact that everybody went “Yeah, I do want to do this again,” here was so much power and strength in that. It made us walk into the studio and walk into writing new songs being able to turn a blind eye to any of that pressure of how it would be received because it just felt special.
Did you write at all during the band’s iffy period?
I really did write during that time because I had to. My attitude was “You guys can all leave if you want, but I’m just going to write this record by myself.” So I got a looping station, and I rented this white Flying V guitar, which is the least cool guitar, and I moved into this bedroom with white walls, curtains, comforter — everything white — and I dyed my hair white. I just took space from everyone in the band and I left social media and I just turned inwards. There was lots of journaling and meditating, and I bought these angel cards, scratched the eyes and tried to make them weird, make them my own. It was this DIY spirituality. I reached for any kind of cliché spiritual symbolism I could find, and found a way to turn it into my own, which ended up becoming what the album is — bunch of self-help tools for people to get out of depression.
The song “Marijuana” is basically how it helps you with anxiety. Straight up.
Totally. Obviously, it’s not for everybody; for some people, it heightens their anxiety. This is how I got through everything — how I make peace with friends who are angry at me or how I made peace with a music industry that supports alcoholism; how I move forward with dealing with dark energy around me, like death and other friends who struggle with various mental health issues.
You just mentioned alcohol in the music industry, and there’s a song called “Sober Motel” on Heaven. It’s hard to stay sober in an industry where there’s drink tickets, drink tabs, riders or simply offers to buy you a drink.
I used to work in restaurants for minimum wage six years ago. There was a time when all I wished was enough tips today, or enough money today, to buy a beer to relax after my shift. One time, when CMJ was still a thing, right when Sore was coming out, there was this moment when this cute person asked me to go outside for a smoke and I was like, “I just opened this full beer.” And they were like “So what? Just get another one when you go back in.” I was like, “Oh my god, there will be endless beer now. I can leave this beer.” The minimum wage kitchen punk inside me was like “Woah, there will be endless beer; my life is amazing now.” That wasn’t the reality for my bandmate Tony who was struggling with his addiction with alcohol, and we had to watch him, and be with him while he struggled through that. You see the world differently when you’re hanging out with someone who’s trying to get sober.
Is “Doom” about depression?
“Doom” is about coming back from this tour in Europe where we were in a pressure cooker and it exploded. It was when some of us weren’t talking with each other, and it was a real question mark. We still did the shows, and I think that tour began and ended with a funeral, on both sides. I had a funeral with my family in Ireland at the beginning of the tour, and then when we got back, Liz had a friend who was close to her. I wished I could be there for everyone more. That’s when it really hits you. We could have canceled the tour, and looking back, I wish we had. At the time, we felt it was ride or die; we finally worked all these years for these opportunities, and now just have to suck the industry’s dick so we “made it.” Now we realize that’s not the situation. We’re in it for the long haul, and it has to make sense for us with our lives, otherwise the art will suffer. Our mental health, what’s the point in doing it, if you’re just going to self-destruct?
The song that starts the album, “I Feel Free,” begins with the line, “we’ll start it again.” It sounds like a romantic relationship but is it about the band almost breaking up and healing?
“I Feel Free” is absolutely a song about me asking the band to do all of this with me again. When I was trying to write the record by myself, which by the way was a total failure — it wasn’t a total failure, I certainly got the songs to a place where it was time to bring in the band. It was when I turn inward, and I find all these weird ways of being spiritual and feeling like I didn’t care about what was cool anymore, what people would think if I played this kind of guitar, or sang a kind of a lyric, I just stopped caring. I felt so free. This has been really healing for me. I want everyone in the band to heal their wounds as well, and I want to share this with them.
Is that where “Believe” came from?
“Believe in yourself” was my own mantra to get through that process by myself without the band. I always had Liz there to push me back in and go, “I believe in this; yeah, we’re going to be the biggest band in the world; awesome, that sounds cool; let’s hang out; let’s make music all day together.” I’d always have somebody, and then when Tony and Ben joined, it was all the support from them. But when I started writing this album during a time when everybody’s confidence was shot and everybody was questioning what was going to happen, what this new record even needed to be or could we even do it, I had to turn inwards and find that confidence, which was this song, “Believe In Yourself.” I did a noise set with a bunch of my pedals; I was doing a lot of ambient weird noise art with my guitar and my pedals and I took S Club 7 — that song [sings] ‘don’t stop/never give up / hold your head high and reach the top…bring it all back to you.’ I took [“Bring It All Back”] and I slowed it down and I put it through a bunch of pedals and made noise art around it.
I haven’t heard that name, S Club 7, in many years.
I guess I turned back to my childhood. All these Spice Girls songs too that are about believing in yourself, which I suppose those are the songs that young girls want to hear.
The story of “Bad Biology” — “bad at being a girl,” “bad at being a boy,” “take your body off” — is a song many transgender people can identify with.
I feel like there’s something really amazing happening in terms of trans stories and perspectives. I feel like it’s a good time to talk about. I suppose it’s always a good time to talk about it, but it feels like there is more in conversation and it’s starting to be more accepted, I think with younger people as well. I say that hesitantly because obviously Trump has trans people not in the army [the White House instituted a policy to ban most transgender people]. It’s still an uphill battle. Regardless, that song is about a queer couple. When people challenge their gender stereotypes and then find love in the more queer side of things, it can be so sexy because you take away the script that has been handed to all of us through fairy tales and society in general and our parents and you’re left to create your own romance story. In a lot of ways, it feels like you’re being seen for who you truly are, and loved for who you truly are, but then no matter what that script is so deeply embedded in all of us, psychologically. There’s a guilt and shame. It’s a struggle. Or if there’s not guilt and shame, there’s a misunderstanding where you sometimes fantasize about this stereotype. It’s so bizarre to me. It’s such a strange subconscious psychological turmoil. I personally identify as queer, so it was that part of my mind that feels that kind of frustration.
When you’re touring, are you open to having those conversations off stage about anxiety or depression or sobriety or identity, subjects in your songs?
Totally. I love it. I creep our fans online sometimes and there’s a lot of the gays [chuckles]. But there’s also lots of guys that are nerdy guitar sad young guys with glasses and gear nerds, or there’s artsy girls with colored hair or there are people who were around for early ’90s grunge who comes out of the woodwork. But am I open to talking about this at the merch table? A hundred percent. That’s our favorite part of talking to our fans is when our fans open up to us that our music helps them through something or help them realize something amazing or help them fall in love with someone else, or whatever. There’s a lot of amazing stories. Getting through depression. That’s what we’re here for. That’s what music is here for and if someone comes up to me and tells me that our music helped them with something, then that’s it. “Desire” [from Sore] is a not visibly a gay song to people who aren’t looking through that lens, but people who do look through the queer lens I’m sure saw the music video for “Desire” and went “This seems pretty gay to me.”
How did Rob Schnapf shape the songs or bring out what was in your head or demoed?
What Rob did was help us embrace the things that make us each unique as musicians. Many sound engineers in the past have told us “Don’t hit the cymbals so hard, Ben,” “Don’t be so creative with your bass tone, Tony” or “Turn down the reverb Liz and make your tone sound brighter on your guitar.” These are things we’ve been told time and time again. It comes from a good place because these are the basics of how you can make a band sound good, I guess, and clear so you can hear all the parts, but Rob really encouraged us to just be ourselves, which came at the right time because we were on that path anyway. This album, my favorite part about it is that Liz’s guitar sounds like Liz’s guitar and the way she’s always wanted it to be, I think she had become more assertive and confident in what she wanted. It’s my favorite thing about it and it’s something I couldn’t have predicted or written myself in my bedroom that was all white.
Is it still white?
No. Not now.