Some things are just part of your DNA when you’re a young Toronto rock ‘n roll band. Mainly, it’s the echoes of smoky nights in Yorkville coffee houses when Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot found their voices, while a few blocks away on Yonge Street, The Band was forging the sound Bob Dylan would soon make his own.
It’s all ancient history to the young members of Sun K, but no one ever had to explain the significance to them. It came out the moment they began playing together in 2013 and has been the foundation of a sound that has quickly evolved to embrace the edginess of the early New York underground scene and the glowing, complex harmonies of west coast folk rock.
Sun K’s unshakable desire to add their link to the chain of all this great music is at the heart of the group’s full-length debut album, Northern Lies, out March 3 on MapleMusic Recordings. Produced by Cone McCaslin of Sum 41, whose production credits also include The Strumbellas and Operation MD, the eight-song collection is the first statement from a band eager to make its mark straight out of the gate, but also wise beyond its years in the knowledge that this is a seed from which a body of work will eventually grow.
While Sun K’s line-up is sonically dynamic – keyboardist Stuart Retallack also plays horns, and guitarist Kevin Michael Butler is equally adept at fiddle, complementing the rhythm section of bassist JuHang Sin and drummer Aaron Bravener – the band’s vision is in large measure conveyed by front man Kristian Montano. With a voice that simultaneously channels Lou Reed and Julian Casablancas, combined with guitar chops honed directly through the Neil Young songbook, there seems nothing else Montano was better suited to be than a band leader.
“A lot of these songs have been with me for a while, when I was doing more of a folkie thing on my own,” he says. “But as the band came together, we started experimenting with heavier tones and seeing how what we all brought to the sound could be incorporated. We wrote more songs along the way, and I think the album overall reflects this journey of discovery we’ve been on for the past two years. It’s been really interesting.”
The core of Sun K initially formed years before the band’s inception. Retallack and Montano met in 2007 when both attended McGill University, while Montano and Butler first crossed paths in 2010 during an open mic at Oakville’s Moonshine Café. They met again two years later when Montano happened to drop into the Toronto bar, The Emmet Ray, where Butler was working. Montano decided then that if he ever formed a band, Butler would be a part of it.
Around the same time, Retallack and his horn appeared out of the blue at Montano’s first ever gig and asked to sit in. He soon became a fixture at Montano’s solo residency at The Magpie in Toronto’s Little Italy.
Things kicked into high gear after Montano and McCaslin connected, with the latter immediately recognizing a wealth of untapped material. Their initial encounter was a classic case of being at the right place at the right time, when McCaslin happened to drop by the Magpie. “I was playing my usual show from, like, 4-7 p.m., and there was literally just me, my fiancée and the bartender,” Montano says.
“I wanted to leave after my first set, but my fiancée convinced me to do another, and after I got back on stage, I saw Cone walk in. He listened to the whole set, and afterward I was afraid to even look at him. But he waved me over and asked if I was working with anyone. I said no, and since then he’s really been guiding the whole process, from helping me put the band together and turning us into a cohesive unit. We both listen to the same music, and after hearing what he’d done with The Strumbellas, I didn’t need any more convincing that he was the right guy for us.”
What had convinced McCaslin was hearing the song “Sweet Marie,” one of the standout tracks from Northern Lies. With its rough-and-ready groove and unforgettable chorus, the track embodies all the grit and soul that makes Sun K a breath of fresh air within a world more and more integrated with technology. Nothing about the song is contrived, although technically, the love expressed in the lyrics is in equal measure directed toward Montano’s significant other, as well as his vintage Gretsch electric guitar.
“It is a love song, although it’s a way around writing a true love song,” he says, laughing. “It was the first song I wrote on that guitar after I bought it, and at the same time I was falling in love with my fiancée. I gave my guitar the name ‘Sweet Marie,’ but obviously the song has a much deeper meaning to me now.”
The depth of Northern Lies is further displayed on tracks such as the piano-driven rave-up “New York City Blues”—from which the album title was drawn—the slow-burning, finger-picked ballad “The Road” and the gritty, stomping “Cowboys + Drugs.”
Like all great rock ‘n roll, Northern Lies is an album that will make its impact felt at the precise times you need it most, whether its providing the soundtrack to a raucous night out, or providing reassurance against doubt and frustration.