Nick Bernal, Nevado Music
Rock ‘n’ roll, if it serves one direct purpose, is to articulate life lived to the fullest – be it messy, beautiful, or a complete disaster. For more than half a century, rock ‘n’ roll musicians have been able to show us the contours of lived human experiences, scrambling to make sense of it all through screaming guitar riffs and rhythmic drum beats, hypnotic as they are soothing.
This is what Sun K try to do on their thunderous sophomore record, Bleeding Hearts, which contains the whole spectrum of emotion in its 12 songs. The title of the album alone is a hat-tip toward the fraught, yet hyperbolic, emotional experiences one can endure. Vocalist and guitarist Kristian Montano says of the album’s title that the band is exemplified by just that. “This is what you’re like in your 20’s if you’re a bunch of expressive, emotional people,” he says. “You know, we really wear our hearts on our sleeves and the lyrics, the music, really reflect that. It’s songs about love and songs about, you know, all the stuff you experience: love, hate, angst, devotion.”
“My bleeding heart, it spoke too soon,” Montano croons on the album’s title track, gripping your own with a sense of relatability.
Montano, along with Stuart Retallack on horns and keys, Kevin Michael Butler on strings and guitar, Scott Tiller on drums, and Gil Paul on bass, fill out the Toronto group. Montano says that the band’s name is rooted in rock’s history - pulling further back to blues and jazz, where rock was really born - paying homage to artists likes Sun Ra. “I wanted something in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, but had more of a reach back to the artists—the artists that I loved—that influenced the Rolling Stones and the Beatles.”
Bleeding Hearts has the tone of a ‘60s rock record pulled in for a modern audience. Montano sounds like a long-lost Beatle, tucked away in the edges of music history. Sun K’s sound blends the strident particulars of rock music with the gentle and sharp purview of folk in surprising places. They bring to mind bands that have circulated the city for some time, such The Wooden Sky or Wildlife, weaving in and out of the fuzzy, grey area of rock music’s boundaries, but doing so much more loudly.
However, a rock life - one drawn to showing every sensation any experience - wasn’t always in Montano’s path. A former biology student at the University of McGill, Montano almost led a completely different life – one where he might have ended up in pharmacology, rather than learning how to craft his ideas into songs. During the singer’s fourth year of university, feeling especially low in confidence with a torn meniscus and little mobility, he dove into the history of rock music: consuming the works of Bob Dylan and Neil Young, at first dreaming of a life as a folk singer, touring America’s Deep South. He’d return home from school with musical biographies rather than his science textbooks, absorbing the vivacious, storied lives of his heroes. Though his mother was a piano and music theory teacher, the thought of pursuing music as a career (outside of a brief stint as a 3-year-old trying to learn the hard piano songs) was not much of a thought for him.
Montano, with the support of his family, made a switch that changed his life: he decided to do a second degree in audio engineering. From there, Montano worked in studios in Ontario and San Francisco, learning the technical ropes that would help shape his future original work. Upon Montano’s arrival back in Toronto, he began to pursue playing on his own; circulating bars, like the former Magpie, where a serendipitous meeting Canadian pop punk legend and future producer, Cone McCaslin, occurred in 2012. The Sum 41 bass player’s support, says Montano, helped give the singer a confidence boost in making this into a career. McCaslin’s mentorship, as a producer helping the band craft a solid rock song, and aiding their development as live performers, proved invaluable, turning from simply a working relationship into a friendship.
With Sun K’s debut, Northern Lies, Montano says the band was on a wild trip, touring relentlessly and experiencing highs and lows. Ultimately, the band had a lineup change, adding a new drummer and bass player, filling out their sound a little more. It’s these stories that begin to shape Bleeding Hearts, though the record full-tilt goes harder and deeper into the precariousness of life. Northern Lies is a different era of Sun K, says Montano. Sonically, that is very clear: Northern Lies, though still energetic, sounds more traditional; Bleeding Hearts offers something more loose and free. It’s a natural progression, mimicking life itself; the changes you go through in your 20’s, wild and dramatic, tender and cool, are different from the years past and the years that follow.
The running theme of Bleeding Hearts is celebrating these oft-felt mythic dramas that occur while you’re young and foolish. Montano says he’d look back on these songs and believe them to be epic stories, but inevitably they were simple things he and the group had endured together. Like the ending chapter of a book, the album’s last song, “Forever,” is an important farewell to a tumultuous emotional ride. “It’s more of gateway to a new part of your life that hopefully brings a little bit more emotional stability in terms of confidence in your past, and just belief in what you’re doing and the people around you,” says Montano.
And besides, he adds, “it’s just like waiting for the reprise, you know?”