Not long after Halifax garage-rock duo Cousins -- Aaron Mangle (guitar) and Leigh Dotey (drums) -- released 2012's excellent Palm at the End of the Mind, Mangle's grandmother, Betty, died. She lived with dementia towards the end of her life.
Mangle, 29, found himself recalling the conversations he and his older sister had with their grandmother on visits to Wickwire, her assisted-living home. "We had to decipher what she was saying. She was there, but she was on a lot of medication. She was hallucinating a lot. She could feel things in the air; she had a sense of some sort of electric field," he says, over the phone from the road. "It also gave her powers." (Specifically, it helped her win card games she wasn't paying attention to.
After she died, Mangle began writing songs based on those conversations with Betty. "(Songwriting) was a way to process her passing," he says. "I hadn't lost a loved one before. The songwriting process was helpful."
Two of those songs -- Phone and Body -- anchor Cousins' latest album, The Halls of Wickwire, which has earned a spot on the latest Polaris Music Prize longlist. Released in May and recorded with Graham Walsh (Holy F ) and Josh Korody (Beliefs) at Toronto's Candle Recording Studio, the new album serves as a tribute to Betty -- even if it was somewhat unplanned. "A lot of the songs on the album were written outside of that situation, and a lot of them were being worked on already," Mangle says. "We didn't go in with a concept."
While it certainly has emotional heft, The Halls of Wickwire is also just a great slice of urgent, energetic garage rock. Its immediacy can certainly be owed to the way it was recorded: in one week-long, see-how-it-goes session.
"We figured we'd just get a start on it," Mangle says. "Everything went really well and we ended up recording everything in seven days." That's in stark contrast to Mangle's approach with home recording, which he says is often drawn out and frustrating. "It was nice to be able to hammer it out. We didn't expect to accomplish as much as we did, and I think that lack of pressure worked out for us."
Walsh, in particular, helped crystallize Cousins' vision. "He took songs in directions we wouldn't have thought of," Mangle says. "It was a challenge at first, but all in all, we're happy with how it worked out."
Mangle is also happy he elected to immortalize his grandmother's spirit on record.
"We didn't have to do it, but it felt like a good opportunity to deal with something that was happening in my life," he says. "It was a hard thing to go through -- I didn't know what to do or how to help. (The record) is a nice thing to have."