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You Say Party finds hope in music after drummer's death

From left, Al Boyle, Stephen O'Shea, Becky Ninkovic, Derek Adam and Robert Andow in Abbotsford, BC, July 26, 2010.

Lyle Stafford for the Globe and Mail./lyle stafford The Globe and Mail.

Of all the challenges a band might face, this one was certainly never imagined, not even in their worst, wildest nightmares: The drummer collapses onstage in the middle of a show and dies.

How, as individuals, do you deal with the grief? And what, as a band, do you do? Call it quits? Take a prolonged break? Soldier on? If you do choose to continue, how do you replace your bandmate, your friend? And what do you do about your band's name when it happens to be You Say Party! We Say Die!

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For the band that now calls itself You Say Party, the answer to moving on from Devon Clifford's death was found in hope - and Hope. But it wasn't found easily.

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"When it first [happened]I had absolutely no concept of how to continue, how to move forward, the future," said lead singer Becky Ninkovic during an emotional interview in her Abbotsford backyard. "It just seemed like everything stopped. Everything was done. I couldn't fathom anything beyond the moment. It was just complete devastation and despair."

To hold it in just feels very toxic. It's all about turning that into something. Becky Ninkovic

Clifford, 30, collapsed during what was supposed to be a triumphant homecoming show at the Rickshaw Theatre in Vancouver last April. At first thought to be an aneurysm, the cause of the collapse was determined to be an undetected congenital disorder, arteriovenous malformation (AVM), where there is an abnormal connection between veins and arteries.

Looking back on that night, Ninkovic, 29, and bass guitarist Stephen O'Shea, 28, recall a subdued Clifford, more solemn and quiet than usual. Rather than go about his usual pre-show routine (arm exercises; a quick, last smoke), he stuck around backstage with the rest of the band for a group hug and to listen to Ninkovic and keyboardist/vocalist Krista Loewen do their nightly warm-up song: Kate Bush's Cloudbusting - which the women would sing together again eight days later at his funeral.

Following the shock of Clifford's very public death, each member of the band faced a private hell; in Ninkovic's case, grieving deeply, researching various religions' philosophies on the afterlife, and feeling unsure about how to proceed. "It all felt pretty complicated and complex and a cacophonous mess of emotions."

She considered disbanding. So did O'Shea. "I think individually probably each member considered it," he says.

They wondered what Clifford would have wanted. "I went through a time when I thought he would be really mad if we continued," says Ninkovic.

"He'd also be really mad if we stopped," adds O'Shea.

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It was a hike shortly after Clifford's death, even before the funeral, that left Ninkovic feeling that they needed to keep making music. They were visiting the Othello Tunnels in a provincial park near Hope, B.C. - a spot where Clifford, Ninkovic, guitarist Derek Adam and their friends had hung out as teenagers. When their good friend and videographer Jeff Scheven suggested they return to shoot the video for Laura Palmer's Prom, Ninkovic was aghast.

"I just stopped and said how would we possibly do that? Or anything? I just couldn't at all see it. And Jeff just took me by the shoulders and said 'Becky, we're still alive. We have to keep living. We have to keep [following]our dreams.' He just poured all this truth into me for a few minutes and it was a major wakeup moment. It felt like someone kind of slapped me across the face: 'Wake up. You're still alive.' "

Clifford's parents supported the idea of the band continuing on, and Adam - who had been extremely close with Clifford since childhood - felt the same way. "He's had the most courage, I think," says Ninkovic.

"And that was how we were able to begin the process … so quickly," says O'Shea.

In June, the band announced it would continue on as You Say Party - Clifford's mother's suggestion - but that Loewen had decided to leave. Replacements for Loewen and Clifford were announced. But a few weeks later, their new drummer pulled out - another blow. Al Boyle, a friend and mentor who was in Clifford's band Hard Feelings, stepped in.

The dark days since Clifford's death have had some creative bright spots. The band now has its own jam space, and under a large photograph of Clifford - and using his drums - they've been rehearsing eight hours a day, preparing for their upcoming European tour, which had been scheduled for the spring but had to be delayed.

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Ninkovic has been writing a lot of new material. "I feel like I can't not create through all of this. I have to. I have to keep expressing all this and getting it out and finding ways to express whatever the emotion is. To hold it in just feels very toxic. It's all about turning that into something. Creating life out of the death of it all.

"I think hope has been the key to all this," she adds. "Perseverance and hope have been two words that I'm holding strong to."

There are plans to demo some songs in the fall and record a new album next year, perhaps as early as January.

But this is a new era for the band. "It will never be the same. We'll never be the same. The music won't be the same. Everything has to change, must change, is changing, has already changed," says Ninkovic, "and we must honour the change that has happened. It can't be like a replication of before at all. … There is a new spirit to this music."

The band will likely never again play She's Spoken For - the song they were performing when Clifford collapsed. Ninkovic says she has a hard time getting through Laura Palmer's Prom - she loves the little tremble in Clifford's backing vocals toward the end - and also Dark Days, a song whose lyrics feel prophetic, with lines such as "After the rain comes / And drowns us in sorrow / The light comes in."

"I felt like it was a song … to comfort us in times of sorrow," says Ninkovic. "I didn't even know what that meant yet."

The band, which officially consists of Ninkovic, O'Shea and Adam for the time being, played its first show since the tragedy at the Jam in Jubilee in Abbotsford in July. "We wanted it to feel like a community event, a safe place, and Abbotsford, our hometown, has been that for us," says Ninkovic.

"It felt really wonderful," she said after the show, reporting a "Devon-like presence" that evening. "I felt him there. Not in the way of a physical body, but I felt almost as if it was like a thick blanket covering all of us."

You Say Party plays the LIVE at Squamish festival in Squamish, B.C., on Sept. 5 (

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About the Author
Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More

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