Separation can't make Gramercy Riffs drift apart

Justin Brake
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Mara Pellerin and Lee Hanlon of The Gramercy Riffs. Submitted photo

Distance has a way of destroying relationships. It tears people apart physically and emotionally and leaves a mark on its victims. Unless you're the Gramercy Riffs, it seems.

Winners of the 2008 Best of St. John's award for Best New Band, the five members of the recently formed townie-pop ensemble have spent more time apart in the year they've been a band than they have together.

But they're all in town for the summer and preparing to continue gathering keen ears for the newfangled legacy they began constructing this time last year.

The five young veterans of the St. John's indie music scene - Lee Hanlon, Mara Pellerin, Daniel Banoub, Adrian Collins and Jamie March - may all be in their 20s, but they've just put forth a gripping medley of new tunes on their sophomoric "Make Yourself Warm" EP that hints at a maturity beyond their time and falsifies any preconceptions of what a band under a year old might sound like.

"I'd love to do a tour. I don't know when, but it'll happen," Pellerin says during a recent interview with The Telegram, smiling at the thought of someday taking the band's music on the road.

Seated next to her is Hanlon, Riffs co-founder, vocalist, lead guitarist, co-songwriter, Maddox Cove native and Pellerin's boyfriend.

The couple have played in several local rock bands, including the Nordic Beat, Texas Chainsaw and The Late Greats, but feel they're a part of something bigger and better than anything before.

"I played in other bands, but I always wanted to start my own band because I had ideas of my own," explains Hanlon, sporting a pair of black thick-framed glasses and a Black Horse in hand. "After eight or nine years playing, I worked up the courage … so this is my first band, me and Mara both."

The two share the majority of the songwriting duties, a task they humbly decline as being strictly their own, but which they admit is intensified by their part-time long-distance relationship.

Having returned from completing a semester of university in Germany last year, Hanlon now spends his time working and playing music in St. John's, while Pellerin is off working on her master's in performance and music at the University of MontrÉal.

"We had always been kind of writing songs," Pellerin explains, referring to the pre-Riffs period. "We'd always be like, 'We should write songs … or we can watch a movie,'" she laughs.

Hanlon says while he was in Germany the two exchanged the songs they had written via the Internet.

"Then I came home and we started the band in April and played our first show June 6 at CBTG's," he adds.

During the summer of 2008, the band played about a dozen shows and generated enough of a buzz that Hey Rosetta! asked them to open two shows last December while Pellerin was home for the holidays.

Each time she returns to St. John's, it seems their sought-after status continues to rise.

They opened twice for death country trio Elliott BROOD last month at The Rock House and The Ship, playing to a packed house the first night.

"There were like 200 or 300 people watching us do an opening set … which is an awesome way to start off a summer," says Hanlon.

Banoub, who plays bass in the band and also has a hand in at least a half-dozen other bands around town, says he feels "serious" about The Riffs' potential.

He plans to attend York University in Toronto this fall to work toward a master's in anthropology, but says he won't give up his spot in the band.

"When I heard Lee and Mara were starting (The Riffs) I just said, 'I don't care what I play - I can play rhythm, tambourine, something - I just need to be in the band," he remembers with a laugh.

Hanlon says he also plans to move to Toronto in September to find work, meaning more than half the band's members will reside in two of Canada's biggest independent music markets.

"We'll play our hearts out over the summer as we did last year," says Collins, forecasting the coming months in St. John's. "We'll get ready for Christmas to get (some shows) together again, and if we can play shows in Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa in the meantime, in between … who knows where it'll go from there."

As they promote the new EP, they also eagerly plan to begin work on their first full-length record and say they already have local musician Mark Bragg and engineer Don Ellis on board to produce and mix the album, respectively.

With friends The Pathological Lovers and The Kettle Black, visiting from Ottawa, The Riffs will continue to celebrate the release of "Make Yourself Warm" at The Ship Saturday at 10:30 p.m.

Organizations: University of MontrÉal, The Rock House, York University The Riffs

Geographic location: St. John's, Germany, Toronto Black Horse Canada Montreal Ottawa

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