By Divine Right, Jose Contreras Interview
After almost two decades of making music, By Divine Right has achieved a sort of cult status in the Canadian music industry; if you’re in the industry, you’ve heard of the band. Possibly one of the first major forerunners of Toronto indie rock, By Divine Right has seen the coming and going of such musicians as Leslie Feist, Brendan Canning, and Brian Borcherdt, who have gone on beyond the band to achieve a certain level of fame. After 24 years, the band, made up of Jose Contreras (guitar and vocals), Geordie Dynes (drums), and Alysha Haugen (bass and vocals), are still going strong, making the music that they have been passionate about their entire lives, and creating new sounds that resonate throughout the music industry, the ripples of which have touched countless bands. It goes without saying, that these three are indeed divine.
AMBY: What have you been up to lately?
JOSE: I live with my wife, who’s amazing, and my kids, who are gorgeous, out in the country, but after a while it’s quite isolated, so we’re thinking about moving back. We’ve been there four and a half years, but for the last year and a half we’ve been thinking that it’s time to make our plans. I’m in to chapters, and, uh… this chapter’s ending. It’s a big change, but it’s necessary. Where are you from?
AMBY: I was born in Toronto, but grew up in Oshawa.
JOSE: A bunch of my friends are from Oshawa.
AMBY: Who do you know from Oshawa?
JOSE: Geordie, the drummer from my band, is from Whitby, so pretty close. Brendan Canning is from Ajax. Michael Molosh, another ex-bandmate of mine, lives in Oshawa. Last time I checked he lived in his grandmother’s basement. You know artists.
AMBY: That’s true. That’s kind of what I’m doing, but I can support myself so it’s pretty good. I think that as long as you can support yourself, you’re probably doing alright.
JOSE: That’s a huge skill. That took me a long time to figure out.
AMBY: Oh, how old were you when you figured that out?
JOSE: Maybe 26.
AMBY: Then I’m doing better than you were.
JOSE: That’s the first time I got a job, and I had to. And before, I’d had jobs that had kind of fallen into my lap.
AMBY: That’s the nice thing about life sometimes.
JOSE: Any job I have I’ll make myself indispensable, but I was a super late bloomer. I had no game plans. I wonder if it’s an example of my generation. I wasn’t an ambitious person at all. I had artistic ambitions and, you know, life ambitions as far as wanting to have a wonderful life.
AMBY: What were your artistic ambitions? Not everyone does have artistic ambitions.
JOSE: Really? Well, to synthesize all the beautiful rock and roll music that I had, and also I’m from Chile, so a lot of my melody comes from that. To put that all together was my goal. I was never like “I’m gonna get a record deal and a manager and move to LA.” Never fucking crossed my mind, like zero.
AMBY: I don’t think a lot of times it does.
JOSE: I know a lot of people like that.
AMBY: That’s funny. I don’t have a five year plan.
JOSE: I kind of have a five year plan now. I’m older.
AMBY: Did you have one at my age? 22?
JOSE: Oh yeah, I was already making music at your age. I was touring a bit.
AMBY: When did you start making music?
JOSE: I started By Divine Right when I was 18, and I’m 43.
AMBY: It’s come a long way!
JOSE: There are things that you do, that are just temporary. And then there are things that you do, and this is one of those things that I would do regardless. You know, time is an immaterial thing. And I feel like I’ve just been figuring it out a couple times over the years, and I’ve gotten lucky a couple times, but now I feel pretty deliberate about what I’m doing.
AMBY: But you’re in a position now where you can make specific moves in the industry.
JOSE: I don’t think so.
AMBY: But you can make choices.
JOSE: I can’t call like “I want that, make that happen.” I don’t have those kinds of powers.
AMBY: Are you sure? Have you tried?
JOSE: I have and it usually works so maybe you’re right [laughs]. Thanks for the reminder. I know that now, and I don’t think it’s because I’ve been around for so long, I just think it’s where I’m at in my life, and when you’re at where I am you figure it out. Actualizing stuff is not some great mystery. You know you wanna do it, you do it. Intent is 90% of everything, and then if you pour everything you’ve got into something it’s going to work out. I don’t know any failures, of people who try hard, I only know failures of people who give up. The biggest, most successful people are the people that fail the most. I love that. It’s smart of you to say that, “Are you sure?” because no, I’m not. I do know that I want to do things like this, and like this. There were points where I was very young, I mean when I was 22 I was in art school and maybe I seemed like I had it together, but I was very young in my head, and in a way maybe a non-participant to a certain extent in my destiny.
AMBY: What do you mean by your destiny?
JOSE: [laughs] I’m not sure.
AMBY: Were you not that invested in the band yet?
JOSE: Oh I was, I was invested in everything. I don’t know if it’s because I’m an immigrant or not, but I felt a little less like a participant in the way things were going, until at some point you realize that you can affect things.
AMBY: Were you just kind of going with the flow, a bit?
JOSE: I was being taken care of. I’ve always been pretty lucky. I had friends that booked my first shows.
AMBY: So your label is Hand Drawn Dracula?
JOSE: Yes. I was in Montreal for a show and I saw a poster for Hand Drawn Dracula, and I thought there were so many labels out there, but I didn’t realize that [Hand Drawn Dracula] were my friends. They’d just started and then they ended up putting out my record.
AMBY: It’s a very small world when it comes to Toronto music. A lot of people know a lot of other people.
JOSE: I’ve traveled and I’ve been really lucky with friends. We just got home from a tour and it was just so wonderful. You kind of forget, a bit, how beautiful those relationships are. You remake them when you travel. I’ve been on lots of tours where I’ve felt not in the right place, whereas this tour everything just felt so natural and amazing.
AMBY: Why do you think that is?
JOSE: I have no idea. I think it stems from mostly luck.
AMBY: Why do the other records not feel like that?
JOSE: I think it stems from the fact that I really believe in the new record, and I feel really comfortable selling it to people and talking about it. Sometimes I felt uncomfortable with old records, like I semi-compromised. But, I’m learning. There are a lot of factors at play, not just the band, but the engineers and the studio and the mix and the mastering and your record label and the pictures you choose. But I don’t feel those conflicts this time. And my band right now, they’re so sweet and we love each other, it’s really positive. It’s an amazing thing, and I’m just happy to be a part of it.
For concert photos of By Divine Right, click here.