Since the early 1990s, Jose Contreras has been a fixture in the Toronto independent music scene, as frontman for (and lone constant member of) power-pop perennials By Divine Right, and as a producer/mentor to countless fledgling artists. For the past four years, he’s been maintaining a lower profile locally—because he and his wife, chanteuse Lily Frost, ditched their Ossington Village home to take a crack at country livin’ outside Caledon. However, the arrival of By Divine Right’s new record, Organized Accidents, has inspired the couple—now parents—to take up residency once again in Toronto. Prior to Saturday’s (Aug. 3) album-release/homecoming party at Lee’s Palace, Contreras shares with us the Top 5 reasons why he left the city, and the Top 5 reasons why he moved back.
Lily and I moved to the country in spring 2009. It’s been amazing. Lily made our daughter out here. We both made records out here, made dear friends—no regrets. But it’s over—we’re heading back, got to go. End of chapter. Next!
Why we left Toronto
1. Nature: We love being in nature. We were so inspired coming out here. The air is so clean and smells so good in the country. My son’s asthma was a wake-up call, too—cities are toxic.
2. Space: We found a big house with a huge garden surrounded by forests and farmers’ fields, I have a studio building on my land—it’s the size of our old house on Argyle—and it’s a 90-second walk from my house. Pretty incredible spot. We have so much room.
3. Quiet: After years of touring, it felt great to be somewhere quiet and dark. So mellow.
4. The zombie apocalypse: The market was crashing in 2008; 2012 was coming soon. There was a shooting right outside our house, car chase, pop-pop! We thought, “Let’s get out and see what happens.” We have a contingency plan now: vehicles, weapons, you know…
5. That feeling: You know that feeling you get when you’re driving back into the city after spending inspiring time in the country or at the cottage? And you’re wondering why you have to leave nature and go back to the stinky crowded pavement? And you wish it was the other way around, and you start dreaming of staying out there? Well, that feeling won. We just said, “Fuck it” and went for it.
Why we’re heading back
1. Sidewalks: Seriously, walking down a sidewalk is an underrated part of city living. There is some wonderful hiking out in the woods, but you will never bump into anyone, you will pass no book stores, cafés, art galleries, parks, garage sales; you will not make a new friend, see posters, graffiti, get a glimpse into other people’s lives… people who are busy making their dreams come true. Cities attract dreamers, and Toronto is a city of dreamers—it’s inspiring.
2. Croissants: Without cafés, you live in a perpetual crisis of not knowing when your next espresso/snack/bathroom break is coming. Even my kids feel the pain, they know the deal: As soon as we pull into civilization, it’s time for break at a café. All over the world, humans have figured this out!
3. Books: It’s like you’re denied culture by geography. Except for garage sales or antique shops, there is practically zero chance that you’re gonna find anything out of the ordinary outside of the urban bubble. Same goes for music and movies—you’re too far away from a critical mass of nerds, and the only culture you can access is mostly disposable.
4. Isolation: We miss people. Space is good; total isolation is intense after a while. I’ve probably spent 200 nights by myself in my studio; 160 of those nights have been some of the most exciting creative moments in my life, the other 40, however, have been pretty bleak. It can get dark quick when you’re too isolated. I need people to keep me in check. Not sure I’d survive another record out here: late night alone in the cabin studio again, snow, no one around… I shudder even thinking about it! Even though we’ve had tons of people out here all the time, I feel like I’m entering a stage of even more intense collaboration. I want to bounce ideas off of other people without having to drive everywhere. Actually, driving everywhere is driving us crazy, period.
5. Diversity: Just outside our bubble of freedom and creativity [in the country], there is an ingrained racism and homophobia that is mind-blowing. I guess I’ve spent 20 years surrounded by free thinkers and fair thinkers. I’m a freak out in the country. I miss seeing people holding hands regardless of colour or gender. It’s a bigger deal than I thought. Every racial and homophobic stereotype you can think of is normal everyday stuff out here amongst regular middle-class folks! I guess that’s why small-town freaks head to the cities… You know, there is the constant debate: you need the people and the inspiration from the city; you also need the space and tranquility and solitude that you find in the country. I could see moving back to the country one day. But the burbs are not an option—I’ll either be in nature full-on, or south of Dupont.
Photo: Jonathan Abrosimoff & Ben Srokosz