THE BIGGEST underground rock band from Toronto actually has its roots in Thornhill. By Divine Right, the 20- year-old juggernaut that launched members of Toronto super-collective Broken Social Scene, including Grammy sweetheart Leslie Feist, actually got its start when all four members of the original group were students at Thornlea Secondary School in Thornhill.
Jose Miguel Contreras, the group’s founder,is now 40 and a father and finds as much inspiration in producing new bands as he does recording his own intricate brand of psychedelic rock ’n’roll pop. However, in support of the worldwide release of Mutant Message, the band’s addictive sixth record, Contreras has a new version of By Divine Right back on the road.
“We’ve been out for a couple of weeks, and everything is going pretty awesome,” says Contreras, reached on the phone as he navigates the group’s van through a snowy patch of rural Quebec. “By Divine Right is certainly the weirdest band I’ve ever been in, and believe me, that’s saying a lot.”
By Divine Right is rock royalty firmly anchored in Thornhill.Not only were all of the band’s original members from the same forested neighbourhood, but they cut their teeth playing shows that were put on by other ambitious local kids.
“I remember Jose when we were both in high school. I remember him getting up and doing a version of ‘Taxman’ that would rival the Beatles,” says Jian Ghomeshi, another Thornlea graduate and host of the popular CBC show Q.
Ghomeshi was best known as the leader of Moxy Früvous when By Divine Right was beginning to explode. “I think he’s the real deal as an artist.He’s never really appeared to be doing music for the trappings of material success, girls (or boys) or commerce. He immerses himself in his art.”
According to Contreras, there’s no separating that art from where he’s from.He says his environment still bears the result of old hockey fights.“My teeth are probably still floating in the bottom of Thornhill Pond,” Contreras says with a laugh, taking great pains to stress the fact that he never felt like he had to move down to Toronto to make it. Musically, he could get everything he wanted at home in Thornhill.
“I grew up with a sense of wanting to discover the world. I loved my house on Henderson, right across from the forest. It gave me the space to experiment,”says Contreras, whose group has been an influence on everyone from Nelly Furtado to Arcade Fire to Jully Black to Kings of Leon. “I think maybe that’s what the suburbs are for.”
For Contreras, whose parents moved to Thornhill from Chile when he was only a boy, his childhood was spent playing hockey, learning the guitar and listening to music by Neil Young and Pink Floyd. At the time,Thornlea had a reputation as being “Rock High,” and Contreras not only went to school with Hayden and Jian Ghomeshi, but also members of groups like Prozzäk and the Philosopher Kings, who were popular at the time.
“I always remember Jose’s passion. From his teens in our high school days, he was kinetically and emotionally involved in the music he was playing,” says Ghomeshi,who used to host a night at their high school called Swe, which provided Contreras with his first stage. “He would close his eyes and disappear into the song he was playing. And he was already playing some good guitar leads when he was in his teens.”
Those good guitar leads have only grown and blossomed through early albums like All Hail Discordia and Good Morning Beautiful. With Mutant Message, the mixture seems only to have ripened with age. A potent blend of rock, pop, ’60s-era psychedelia and the work of ex-bandmates Feist and Broken Social Scene,the album’s ten tracks seem like a perfect antidote to the waning winter days of March.
“I knew certain songs would be short and sweet and have some pretty bits in there, but I wanted to make sure the album also had that good experimental edge,” says Contreras, whose wife, Lily Frost, a respected singer-songwriter from Oakville, not only appears on the record, but also inspired “I Love a Girl,” the record’s unforgettable opening song. “I love my wife like crazy,and it was easy to focus on her. But even though the song itself isn’t necessarily about her, it …I don’t know, it’s just a pop song, but it provided a certain vibe.”
If there’s an discernable vibe to By Divine Right, it would be a feeling of inclusiveness. Although Broken Social Scene’s Brendan Canning has said that the group went through their “Fleetwood Mac phase”— referring to various makeups and breakups within the band — there’s a sense of harmony beneath even their hardest guitar discordance.
Perhaps it’s that optimism that catapulted them to the head of the pack of a burgeoning Toronto indie rock scene that included acts like Sloan, I Mother Earth and Len and saw them open stadium shows for the Tragically Hip.
Michael Milosh, the group’s newest member, was a student at Thornlea when By Divine Right was first becoming rock stars.
“We’d hear the names all over school: ‘Oh look, there’s whoever’s picture is in the yearbook.’ I had just moved to Thornhill from Whitby and definitely loved the rock vibe,”says Milosh,who,at 20, is a full two decades younger than Contreras but says nevertheless he’s inspired by the leader of his new band.
For his part,Contreras seems proud of the two decades he’s spent writing experimental love songs and introducing some of Canada’s biggest talents to the world. He produced much of his wife’s new record (it’s called Viridian Torch and due out mid-April) at their new home in the Scarborough Bluffs, and he says he’s pleased — but not surprised — by the success of his talented former bandmates.
“I’m obviously proud of Leslie [Feist], but I wasn’t totally in shock because I figure these things can happen,” Contreras says. “Everything she’s doing now, she was already doing back then. It just takes a moment sometimes for everything to fall into place.”
Jose Contreras started out as a teenager putting together a rock band in Thornhill and then spent almost 20 years on the road making music.
By Divine Right will go down in the annals of Canadian rock history, no less important to their scene than groups such as Rush, the Guess Who or Neil Young were to their own. Of course, you’d never hear Contreras make some kind of wild statement like that. As much as he’ll say of his legacy is just that he’s proud to be part of a continuum.
“If anything, I’m just a link in a chain and that’s it,” he says as he pulls his van up to the group’s show for the night.
“Some links may be unknown,and some links may be famous, but we’re all just links in that chain.”