Having experienced the electrifying musical stylings of the Toronto-based folk quintet Union Duke during their visit to Edmonton’s Northern Lights Folk Club last year, we thought we’d better catch up with the band for a lightning interview before their stop at the New Moon Folk Club this Friday. Of the five member group—Ethan Smith, Jim McDonald, Matt Warry-Smith, Will Staunton, and Rob McLaren—we spoke with Matt who plays ukulele and sings.
How did you get started in music? Are you self-taught or otherwise?
We all sort of came at music from different angles. Rob is the only one with an actual music degree I think. I took private trumpet lessons as a kid and then performed in lots of musicals growing up. We’ve all been playing in bands in one way or another since we were young teens so while we all had at least a little bit of musical education we’ve also done plenty of learning with each other.
How did Union Duke form?
Ethan, Jim and I met in high school. We played in a bunch of rock bands together and pulled a reverse Bob Dylan by going acoustic. Met Will and Rob through mutual musical friends a few years in and things just clicked.
You spend a lot of time on tour—do you have a favourite part of touring? A favourite place to tour to?
I mean, it’s all pretty good, except the crazy long hours in the car. I would say the top things are meeting interesting people and hearing their stories, staying in cool places we otherwise wouldn’t have found ourselves in, and obviously playing shows. We like to have fun wherever we can find it so we always keep an eye out.
Most places we’ve been have been great for different reasons. It’s tough to settle on just one. We like to say “different landscapes for different band mates”. A few great spots off the top of my head: hidden cliff jumping spot near Moncton, NB, mountain hot springs in BC, BEEF in Alberta and back home for bed.
In previous interviews you have said that your writing process involves workshopping ideas from individual band members—what happens to the songs that don’t make the cut for Union Duke?
Sometimes they hang around and become part of the live show. Sometimes they even end up becoming a recorded song on a later album or on a digital release. A few of them end up going to other projects we might be working on but most never see the light of day. We write A LOT of songs so we don’t really end up missing the ones we don’t love.
You have said that you have eclectic musical influences—what was the last concert you attended as a fan?
I just saw Future Islands at Massey Hall, talk about a far cry from folk. But we’ve seen plenty in the last little bit: Micah Erenberg at Burdock, Matt Mays at the Hayloft, Jayhawks at The Opera House.
Anything else you would like to mention?
Union Duke plays the New Moon Folk Club in Edmonton on Friday the 27th of October 2017.
Edmonton Folk Music Festival is just around the corner and here are our picks of what we can’t wait to hear this festival.
Most Anticipated Artists
Sable: The Unthanks
I find it hard to resist the melodic and harmonic intertwining of treble voices. Their upcoming performances at EFMF is significant because its their only North American stop on their summer festival circuit with their other dates based in England, Scotland, and Finland. While their recent series of folk music symphonic collaborations demonstrate a progressive move to share their art, I am excited to see them in their raw vocal form.
Twila: The Jerry Cans
I’m about 95% sure I ran across The Jerry Cans at a folk fest a few years ago, and seem to remember enjoying what I heard immensely. However, surrounded now with old festival programs I can’t seem to put my finger on where & when exactly that crossing of paths might have taken place. Regardless of my own questionable memory, The Jerry Cans are my pick for most anticipated artist of EFMF 2017 … have you heard their cover of The Hip’s “Ahead by a Century”?
Most Anticipated Workshop
Sable: Talking About My Generation; Saturday, August 12, 11:00 AM – 12:20 PM; STAGE 6
I will be in the mood for some mellow vocals and heavy strums of the acoustic guitar at this Saturday morning session. I find the workshop title alluring since it’s always interesting to consider perspective through a distinct musical voice.
Twila: Ceili; Saturday August 12, 11:00 AM–12:30 PM; STAGE 5
On Saturday morning I’m anticipating requiring the high energy infusion that is an EFMF Ceili. Hopefully these talented artists blending, Irish, Scottish & Acadian trad music, will make up for me running on lots of coffee and very little sleep.
Sable: Birds of Chicago
The sweet tunes of Allison Russell and JT Nero last played to a sell-out crowd at New Moon Folk Club. That performance left YEG audiences with a desire for a return visit. I am so excited to listen to their tunes on the hill!
Combining two amazing Quebec trad bands = essentially one of the greatest ideas yet. It’ll be a powerful kick off to EFMF 2017.
The Slocan Ramblers — Frank Evans on banjo, Adrian Gross on mandolin, Darryl Poulsen on guitar and Alastair Whitehead on bass — are consistently described as one of Canada’s up-and-coming bluegrass acts to watch. We wondered how they got their start, their musical taste, and how they go about writing their tunes. Whitehead of the Toronto based group answered some of these questions for us prior to their visit to Edmonton.
The Slocan Ramblers had a whirlwind start, practically booking an opening gig before you even had played together. What prompted the formation of the band in the first place?
Yea, it’s funny to think back on it now. Adrian and I (Alastair) were living together while at music school, Darryl, Adrian, and I had started jamming at our apartment, and had bonded over our mutual enthusiasm for bluegrass and folk music, something not all that common for a few jazz school guys. I had met Frank at work and heard he was a great banjo player. We upgraded our jams to the garage to make room for him. The four of us hit it off both musically and socially pretty much from the get go. We were offered a gig before we had even really decided to be a band let alone chose a name. It went really well, and we were offered a monthly gig, then a weekly gig. Eventually we made our first album, started touring, and now it seems to be a full time occupation. We’ve definitely been really lucky with how it has all worked out.
How did you guys become a bluegrass band given the diverse musical backgrounds of each of the members as individuals?
We all got to bluegrass in our own separate ways, and perhaps for different reasons, but I think we can agree that our love of the music was solidified by the very vibrant bluegrass scene in Toronto. We get asked a lot how a bunch of young guys in Toronto got interested in bluegrass, the truth a lot of people don’t know is that there is a world class bluegrass scene in Toronto, with top notch bands almost every night of the week. Bluegrass is definitely a music best appreciated in a live setting. Having such a wealth of live bluegrass in Toronto was always a great source of inspiration.
A lot of your interviews mention the Foggy Hogtown Boys — how has this group has influenced your group?
As I mentioned before, Toronto is a great city for bluegrass with weekly gigs on almost every night of the week. One of the longest running and best known of those shows was the High Lonesome Wednesdays at the Silver Dollar Room. It ran for almost 20 years and was a major institution in Toronto, not just for bluegrass fans but all kinds of folks from all walks of life. For the majority of the High Lonesome Wednesdays existence, the Foggy Hogtown Boys, a well known Canadian Bluegrass band were the entertainment, performing under the name Crazy Strings. We all used to go to that show regularly. The Foggy Hogtown Boys are a great band, and set the bar high. They were a great source of inspiration for us, and in many ways helped shape the sound of our band. We have gotten to know all of them over the years and they have really supported us. Chris Coole one of the groups co-founders was kind enough to produce our last album. A couple of the Slocan Ramblers also perform somewhat regularly with another Foggy Hogtown Boy John Showman. I think the Foggy Hogtown Boys really helped establish the Bluegrass scene in Toronto and inspired a whole bunch of younger aspiring musicians to get into the genre.
Some of your songs are written by you and some are traditional tunes — what does the process of writing a tune look like for The Slocan Ramblers?
We started playing bluegrass because we loved the genre. There’s a pretty rich repertoire of songs in the bluegrass canon, and the best way to learn the music is to learn as many of those songs, and listen to as many recordings as possible. We really took that to heart when the band first got going. I feel like we will always enjoy digging up old songs and finding ways to adapt them to our sound. However, as the group evolved from our bar band roots we definitely wanted to challenge ourselves and find a sound we could call our own. Writing original music seemed like the natural progression. We have all really embraced composition and song writing, and I feel it has definitely become a strength for the band. In terms of our writing process, I feel like it is still continually evolving. We still draw a lot from the traditional roots of the music, but we are also a lot more confident to stretch the boundaries and challenge our listeners. The process is pretty fluid and often different from tune to tune. We try not to self analyze too much.
Reviews of your gigs constantly praise the vibrancy and excitement of your performance — how do you keep the enthusiasm levels of your shows high night after night on a tour?
Bluegrass is a really infectious and energetic music to begin with so that definitely works in our favour. It is also a music that is best enjoyed in a performance setting. Often people that had no idea they would enjoy bluegrass see the show and are total converts. There’s a lot of factors that play into it, the improvisational aspect of the music, the energy of playing live, the energy you get back from the crowd, when it all clicks it’s something really special. For me I think the biggest factor is that as a band we all still get along really well. I think the longevity of a band, and its success is largely based on whether or not the members still enjoy each others company after 5 years of touring, spending time together in the van, sleeping in hotels etc. Ultimately we all still get along really well, we still laugh at each others dumb jokes, and most importantly we are still inspired by each other musically. We all feel pretty lucky to be able to go on stage together every night and play our music for such great audiences, the energy seems to provide itself.
There are couple opportunities in Edmonton to hear and/or be a part of this infectious and energetic music for yourself:
- February 22th The Slocan Ramblers will be the backing band for Bluegrass Karaoke hosted by the Northern Bluegrass Circle Music Society (NBCMS) at Pleasantview Hall (10860 – 57 Ave Edmonton). Admission is $2 and homemade pie is $3.
- February 24th The Slocan Ramblers play Edmonton’s New Moon Folk Club. For ticket information please see New Moon’s website.
*The last time we saw The Slocan Ramblers was at the Edmonton Folk Fest in 2015, we searched our archives and found the in-text photos that accompany this interview.
Scott Ward of The Wardens took some time to chat with Folk on the Road prior to the group’s upcoming concert at the Horizon Stage. The trio of park wardens/musicians (Ray Schmidt, Bradley Bischoff and Ward) have been described as humbly telling homespun stories, and are based in the Canadian Rockies of Banff National Park.
Did you start out with the intention of making warden stories known through song?
Yes, we started at the national gathering of park wardens in 2009 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the park wardens service—we wrote some songs to perform there. We kept going after that and have branched out from that into mountain culture songs.
How do you do go about researching the stories that become The Wardens songs? Or are they from first hand accounts?
Most songs are from first hand experience and a few such as Bill Neish [“The Ballad of Bill Neish”] are based on research.
Some of the characters in The Wardens’ songs are really interesting — where did you find the characters that are woven into your songs like “War(den) Bride” or “The Ballad of Bill Neish”?
These characters are historical persons affiliated with the National Park Warden Service. Dorothy [featured in “War(den) Bride”] is a friend of Scott’s—he worked with her husband Ed during the first ten years of his career. Bill Neish was a warden from the ’30s. Lots of colorful characters to choose from in the Canadian Rockies.
Who writes the music and lyrics? Is it a collaborative process?
We each write our own songs, bring them to the group, and work on the arrangements together. Whoever is singing the song is the one who originally wrote it.
Where do you draw musical inspiration?
All three of us as singer/songwriters have different influences. Both Brad and I are big Tom Russell and Ian Tyson fans. As well I am influenced by Gordon Lightfoot, John Prine, Bob Dylan and a host of other “folkies”. Ray loves bluegrass. We all like folk/rock.
How did you gain your instrumental ability? And how did you maintain it while in the backcountry?
We have all played since we were kids. I had one guitar stashed for the summer in one of my backcountry patrol cabins—but my district had 13 cabins and 2000 square kilometers of area so I didn’t get to it all that often! We always performed or jammed at parties in the bygone days.
Are there any similarities between being a National Park Warden and performing in a band?
Similarities—both require hard work and team effort!
What is your favourite part of performing?
My favourite part of performing is meeting great folks from all over western Canada and hearing some of their stories and connections with people we know at the end of the show and often staying with hosts.
What is your most memorable warden story?
So many gripping stories—some that can’t be told and others told in song. This is what sets us apart—very real and gripping stories between the songs that lead up to a song. Mountain rescue, bears, lonely horse patrols for weeks at a time, working with wildlife.
What are The Wardens’ future plans?
We just finished our third album and it’s now in Toronto for printing—it’s definitely our best effort to date—recorded at Leeroy Stagger’s Rebeltone ranch in Lethbridge with four months of pre-production working closely with Vicki Ambinder a producer and performance coach from Oregon. It has 11 new songs and a new version of our classic “Ya Ha Tinda Bound”. We are headed to the International Folk Alliance in Kansas city as a part of Team Alberta in mid February. We plan to take this little band as far as we can!
Is there anything else you’d like to mention that we haven’t asked?
We are having great fun with this project now in its 8th year and are grateful to be playing fantastic venues such as the Horizon Theatre.
The Wardens are playing an afternoon show at Spruce Grove’s Horizon Stage on February 9th, for more information or tickets please see the Horizon Stage’s website.
Coming from PEI, an island that has a small town feel, how does the warmth of this community emerge in your music?
Prince Edward Island is an amazing place to grow up, no matter what your interests are, but as a writer or an artist, it is so engaging and encouraging you can’t help but create. There is music everywhere, in every home, every bar and nook and cranny.
As a musician here, there isn’t the sense of competition there might be in larger urban centres, we are a very close knit community.
But what also makes this a perfect place to create is the quiet, the solitude. I live in the country and am inspired by the life around me, whether it is the animals in my yard, the wild ocean churning or the leaves or snow falling to the ground. There is a lot of time for me to contemplate and to turn the world around me into song.
Your Father, Gene MacLellan, was a songwriter while you were growing up before he passed away when you were 14. Are there any memories of his songwriting process or lifestyle that stood out to you as a child?
I will never forget the image of my father sitting in the living room with book and pen and guitar, always at work, always editing and creating. He would never take the easy way out with his music, he worked every line until it rolled off the tongue perfectly.
Sometimes, I would wake in the middle of the night and go downstairs to find my dad in the kitchen, at the table, working on music. I think those quiet moments were his most productive times. When the whole world is asleep, there is a sort of quiet magic or inspiration.
You manage multiple roles, such as being a singer songwriter as well as a mother, do you find multiple roles informs your perspective while performing in either domain?
My writing certainly changed after becoming a mother. There is a certain shift in perspective that happens when you give birth, a very abrupt awakening to the realization that the world and all the people in it are multifaceted, many layered, and all someone’s child.
Perhaps it’s just a growing up, maturing thing as well – you realize that not everything is about you. It has allowed me to look into other people’s stories and wonder about what’s going on in their heads, which became a whole new source of inspiration.
You have mentioned in previous interviews that songs may be subconsciously percolating in your mind while you are creating quiet moments for yourself, such as through gardening. How do you create a meditative atmosphere for yourself in order to channel the creative flow of your thoughts?
I’m not sure it’s something that can be planned, but it is a common phenomenon. If you think too hard about something, you’ll never find the answer. But if you take a break and do something mundane or meditative the answer or the idea may come to you out of the blue. I meditate every day, which helps keep my mind clear and present. Other than that, I try to give myself over to my hobbies like gardening or this time of year it may be knitting or sewing. I’m a maker, it turns out. I like to plant a seed and see how it grows.
Is there anything else you would like to mention that I’ve missed?
I feel very grateful that I get to play music for a living… I think everyone needs some sort of creative outlet and I feel fortunate that mine is also my job.
Catherine MacLellan performs at New Moon Folk Club on Friday, February 3, 2017.
Spoken word Artists and Bassist, Pat Braden, from the New North Collective takes some time to speak with Folk on the Road while on are on tour.
What is the significance for you to live a traditional lifestyle but translate this for contemporary audiences?
In our understanding of a traditional lifestyle, we see ourselves as contemporary northern artists. We connect to traditions in our individual lives through language, community, our teachers and elders and living like most northerners do by connecting daily to the land. We interpret our northern lifestyle through our music, acknowledging and paying respect to the traditional cultures that have formed and influenced us. These traditional values as well as our own stories and experiences of living in today’s modern world are all subjects that we write about in the NNC.
Do you have any specific memories of living in the North that was formative in you becoming an Artist?
Pat: My Mother played organ in the church for as long as I can remember and my brothers would bring home LP records and Rolling Stone magazines which I consumed voraciously. As a boy in the mid 1960s, I had the opportunity to hear a few of the local musicians playing around town. In the basement of the Legion one Christmas, I was able to catch a glimpse of a guitar player on the stage and thought that was the coolest thing I had ever seen. Later on, I got to know that guitar player and after I started to play music in Yellowknife, many of the other musicians as well who played music through the 1960s and 1970s.
What does a collaborative session with the other Artists look like when you are rehearsing?
Our rehearsals or writing sessions have taken place in recording studios, performance spaces and in one of our sessions, in Burwash Landing in Kluane Park, YT at Diyet and Robert’s home where we were quite rudely interrupted by a visiting grizzly bear.
We set up our instruments and amplifiers in a circular or semicircular arrangement and jam and pitch ideas back and forth until we have the structure of a song. There are usually band member’s children around our sessions as the work/life balance can be demanding for all of us. This also helps to keep our work real with family close by. Meal times and downtimes are also an important part of our process as we take these times to reflect and discuss the work of the day.
It has been mentioned that there is a common goal in NNC to discard the stereotypes of the North, instead, what image do you wish to leave audiences with instead?
We hope that an audience will leave with a sense of having been invited into our lives and welcomed into our community. Leaving our concert with a small sense of freedom and leaving whatever assumptions of the north that came in the door of north behind. Maybe a spark for an adventure and desire to learn more about this incredible, diverse and humble part of the country.
Members of the NNC are passionate about a wide range of musical styles, including folk, rock, jazz, improvisation, classical, singer-songwriter, storytelling, etc. and we bring them together in the Collective.
What is the personal significance for you to be a part of the NNC?
Pat: It is important to be a part of a group of northern based musicians who have similar values, lifestyles, life experience that we all wish to express in our music. It is also significant in that this is based on first and foremost, the creation and performance of collective / collaborative created music. Each of us have our own solo careers but the NNC gives us a chance to contribute new ideas to a collective process and to gather new ideas for our own personal creative works.
New North Collective will be performing at the Arden Theatre on Saturday January 28, 2017.