- November 2013 -
HAVE A BEER WITH THE STRUMBELLAS
Meet our favorite emerging musicians of 2013, The Strumbellas. Though this six-piece Toronto-based group has roots in small-town Lindsay, Ontario, their folk-driven sound is hitting it big in the Great White North. The band’s independently-released debut album My Father and the Hunter was nominated for a 2013 Juno Award in the Roots & Traditional Album of the Year category, and their sophomore album, We Still Move on Dance Floors, has been well-received by Canadian listeners since its release at the end of October. Produced by Ryan Hadlock (The Lumineers, Foo Fighters) and released via Six Shooter Records, We Still Move embraces the same folk sensibilities and lyrical depth present on the first album, but approaches their staple sound with a little more punch.
On November 22, 2013, The Strumbellas played their first U.S. show at Evanston SPACE with St. Paul & The Broken Bones. We had some beers with the band for their first American interview and chatted about the difficulties of being on the road, reasons they love Chicago and the fact that what you see isn’t necessarily what you get.
The Show: Evanston SPACE with St. Paul and the Broken Bones // November 22, 2013
Drinks of Choice: Canadian Beers: Creemore // Mill Street Organic
Kristen from A Beer with the Band: So, you’re from Canada. I can hear it in the accents.
Simon Ward: Really? You can hear that? I was just talking with Paul from St. Paul and the Broken Bones, who we’re playing with tonight, and he has a total southern accent, but I thought they were from here [Chicago] and he was just messing with me.
Simon: Turns out he’s from Birmingham.
Kristen: He’s definitely southern. We usually start out the interview with drink of choice, but it doesn’t have to be beer.
Simon: The problem is, it is beer.
Darryl James: Yeah, we’re beer drinkers. I’m also a whiskey man. We like our Jamesons on the road.
Simon: We also like a fine single malt scotch. And as for types of beers, we all have our favorites, but we like to try something new wherever we’re going. Because we’re in Canada so much, we drink beers like Creemore and Mill Street Organic, which are Canadian brands.
Jon Hembrey: We like the microbreweries generally. There are some western companies and if you go out east there’s Propeller.
David Ritter: Yeah, we tend to stay away from the top 40 beers unless we’re forced to drink them.
Simon: Have you ever drank any Canadian beer?
Kristen: No, I haven’t.
Simon: You’re not missing much. Though I have heard that Canadian beer is a lot stronger than American beer.
Darryl: Around 5% or 6%. When we were in Seattle working on our album we drank Ranier, like the cheapest beer around.
Kristen: Cheers to better beer. Let’s talk about home in Canada. You go out on the road, what are you most excited to come back to?
David: Most of the band is from this little town called Lindsay [Ontario] and I’m not, so I feel like I might have a little perspective on it because I’m the outsider. I think these guys really have two homes. They live in Toronto but Lindsay—the small town—is home. I’m not really like that. I just live in Toronto and that’s pretty much where I call home. These guys have a real sense or where they were born. There’s a lot of family there, there’s people there. I don’t know if you guys miss Lindsay…but you guys just have this sense of home that I don’t because I grew up in the suburbs.
Simon: We have a mild small-town Canadian accent. If we go back to our hometowns, they literally talk with thick, Canadian small-town accents. It’s the best.
Darryl: As far as Toronto, I think it’s a great city for us as well. It’s multi-cultural, lots of different places to eat. If you want to eat any type of food worldwide you have that option; musically, there’s just tons and tons and tons of venues. It’s funny because everybody outside of Toronto hates Toronto, because there’s a lot of traffic, stuff like that…
David: It’s comparable to New York.
Darryl: Yeah, but everyone I know who has moved into Toronto has fallen in love with it. Once you’re in that sort of culture and you’re at the markets and in the areas that people don’t see because they only go to the high tourist attraction areas, but if you get to the small little pockets you kind of fall in love with it. Toronto is a great spot for that.
David: And Jon’s from where Neil Young lived.
Jon: Yeah, so the thing is, we’re all from Lindsay, but I’m from Omemee [Ontario], which is even smaller. Neil Young spent his formative years there. He wasn’t born there, but it’s where he grew up for a couple of years.
Simon: His dad lived there up until he died.
Jon: His dad was an author—Scott Young. I went to Scott Young Public School. There’s also a Neil Young museum in downtown Omemee.
Kristen: Would you say that being from a small town informs your songwriting and your subject matter?
Simon: This is a debate that me and Dave always have. I don’t know. I just don’t know…I’m not saying that because I’m trying to avoid the question, but I just have no idea.
David: I think so. That’s why there’s a debate. And again, it’s because I’m not from a small town. For you guys, it’s normal; that’s just your lives. I see a small town in a sense, not in a condescending way of course. A lot of your songwriting is about home—about missing people, about being away. Your childhoods and stuff. Like…my childhood stinks. I don’t want to remember growing up in the suburbs… It sucked [Everyone laughs]. I got out of there as quickly as I could and I’m happy. I don’t have any of these nostalgic feelings.
Kristen: Yeah, well and Simon, with songwriting, I’m sure it’s an organic process for you. It’s not like you sit down and say, “I’m going to write about Lindsay.” It just sort of comes out of the woodwork.
Simon: Exactly. It’s hard to say that the small town influences me when I’m brushing my teeth and a melody comes into my head, and that turns out to be a song on the album. I don’t know how that relates to me being from a small town…but maybe subconsciously it does.
Jon: We’ll talk. We’ll do some in-depth melodic analysis.
Kristen: I’d like to talk a little bit about the music you have out there. You have your EP that came out in…2009?
Simon: Nobody knows. It’s a mystery.
Kristen: And then your first record was 2012, and you recently released a new album We Still Move on Dance Floors in Canada, but [at time of interview] not yet in the United States.
Simon: Yeah, I just can’t figure out the logistics of that, of why you can put an album on the web but not available in two countries.
Darryl: We do have it available on Bandcamp for the U.S. right now, but iTunes has been a weird thing for us. We’re just keeping you guys waiting, trying to build that momentum.
Kristen: How has your creative process changed from that first EP to this album, or do you feel like it has changed?
Simon: I actually don’t feel like it has changed much at all. Basically, I write the bare bones and the band adds their parts and then we go into the studio and the producer adds his parts. It’s kind of the way it has been from the start.
David: I guess it depends on what you mean by creative process. We recorded the EP in Simon’s living room…
Simon: I would say that’s the technical process.
Jon: I think the songwriting process has mostly the same.
David: Yeah, I agree with that. I would just say it’s one thing to record in your apartment and it’s another thing to record in a studio.
Simon: Yeah, but this band does not jam. We never, ever jam. We never pick up instruments and play together music unless it’s a song we’re writing for an album. It’s really weird actually. Like on the road, we never jam together. We never sit down and are like, “Let’s make a song together.” For some reason, it just never happens. I don’t know why, but no one seems to be interested in jamming.
Jon: I think it’s more of a timing thing.
Simon: It has to be an interest thing. If we were interested in doing that, we would make it happen.
Jon: We’re not trying to get into a Strumbellas argument…[Everyone laughs]. For the rest of us, we don’t have acoustic instruments. Like, you and Izzie could jam all day long on the road because you have acoustic instruments.
Simon: But my argument is, jamming doesn’t have to include being plugged in. There are so many creative ways to jam: with vocals, with whatever. But for whatever reason, we don’t jam, and it’s nobody’s fault. So our creative process up to this point for the first three records has been a very structured thing.
Kristen: It’s interesting because I wouldn’t have pinned you guys as that sort of band. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s just…there are so many parts that come together in such a natural way.
David: Yeah…well, the way I think about it is, if you edit books all day, you don’t necessarily want to come home and read. I don’t necessarily want to play music for fun if I’m playing music every night…I don’t necessarily want to spend the afternoons playing as well. I want a little time off as well. There’s just a lot of music in our lives already.
Darryl: But it’s weird because before the band started, we jammed a lot.
Simon: Yeah, before the band started we jammed all the time. But that’s when we didn’t have a band. But some of the songs that came out on our first record were songs that I found on old, fun jams. “The Bird that Follows Me” was something I found on a jam.
Jon: Life goes in waves, you know. We’re gonna jam again.
Simon: We get this vagabond label all the time because we have beards and our music is kind of folky. So, most interviews are like, “Oh, these guys are hippies and vagabonds,” but we’re actually completely opposite.
Darryl: We hate hippies.
Simon: We’re anti-hippie. We’re pro-capitalism. We do all of our shopping at Walmart, all the time. Our image is just the complete opposite of what we actually are.
David: Simon hates being outdoors, which is incredible. He looks like he’s camping…right now.
Simon: And Darryl looks like a hippie but he’s like a books guy. He’s a business-owner.
Kristen: You are?
Darryl: Yeah, I’m an arborist and do some tree-work and irrigation.
Simon: It’s actually a huge joke in the band. Darryl will take business calls in the van and we’re all just laughing hilariously in the background.
Darryl: When you have your own business, you’ve gotta work on the road…
Simon: We always hear that. “When you have your own business…”
Kristen: Aside from taking business calls in the van, what’s the least rock-‘n’-roll thing you’ve done in the past year?
Simon: My entire life. I literally go to bed at like 9:00 every night if I’m not playing a show. Outside of the band, I don’t go out. I do not ever go to a bar unless I’m with the band. I’m literally a hermit. I have the most un-rock-‘n’-roll lifestyle…unless I’m on the road.
David: I spend a lot of my days in a library. I’m doing my Ph.D at the University of Toronto and that’s not very rock-‘n’-roll…
Kristen: But you’re learning a lot.
Simon: I’m not doing brunches at the strip joint, you know what I mean?
Jon: We also pray for early shows.
Simon: We love early shows.
Jon: Oh, you want us to play at 8:00? Awesome! That sounds perfect!
Simon: Last night we had a show at 12:30 and we were just like…
Darryl: It was a late one. And it tends not to be favorable to some of our habits. If it’s a late show, we might be a few too many beers in.
Kristen: I would probably be asleep before the set even started.
Simon: That’s the problem. If you don’t drink, you’re already tired by that time. But then if you start to drink and you drink too soon…
Darryl: You get to 12:30 and you’re too drunk.
Simon: Being on the road is the weirdest thing ever. Your whole life is down time. You literally sit around. You sit in the van for ten hours, then you get out, you do sound check and you sit in the bar for three hours. Then you play for thirty minutes. Then you go sit in the hotel until you can fall asleep. You’re literally sitting around 80% of your time. But I’ve heard actors have that, too. You think it’s this glamorous life, but really they just sit around the set for hours.
Kristen: Would you say that’s one of the hardest things about being on tour?
Simon: Without a question. I’m for sure going to end up in a mental institution. I’m going crazy. It’s weird. My brain can’t handle it. Down time means you have to sit and think and I don’t like thinking. I need something to do…
Darryl: I agree. The more you think, the more stressed out you get.
Kristen: I’m sure you think about it like, “Oh, I have all this time to be creative and write,” but when you’re sitting around for that long, it kind of drains you of all that creative energy and motivation.
Simon: Exactly. It’s so tiring sitting in a van and doing nothing. To write creatively, I have to wake up fresh in the morning, have a coffee and start writing. In a van, I just watch episodes of T.V. shows.
Kristen: Your first U.S. show is tonight at Evanston SPACE. What are you most excited about for tonight?
Simon: We’re just excited about this being our first U.S. show, and I’ve actually always wanted to come to Chicago. Growing up, I was obsessed with Michael Jordan. To the point that it was bad. I used to buy old shoes off people—old, disgusting Air Jordans—and I’d keep them on my shelf and my whole room stunk. I grew up watching Bulls games, so I’ve always had this weird romanticism with Chicago. I was just excited to come here. Am I going to go see the Bulls stadium? Probably not because we have to leave so soon. I’m bummed we’re not going to see more of Chicago while we’re here.
Kristen: You’ll be back, and hopefully you can spend a day here.
Simon: It’s a beautiful city. Just coming in, it’s beautiful. It’s got a lot of character…old buildings and the Ferris wheel and the lake.
Darryl: That’s the thing about Toronto. They have that much of a waterfront and it’s always compared to Chicago, but could we do something more with it?
Kristen: And the summers here definitely make up for the winters. We’re about to get it really bad.
Simon: You realize who you’re talking to, right? We’re about four hours north.
Kristen: I know, I know.
Simon: It’s funny though because whenever anybody thinks about the States they always think about nice weather and they have this idea of palm trees…
Kristen: Palm Trees and Michael Jordan. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Simon: You can’t polish a turd…
Jon: But you can throw glitter on it.
Kristen: You guys were ready with that one.
Simon: “Simon, stop being a musician, you’re an idiot. Get a job.” No, on a serious note…my favorite quote is the one by Albert Einstein that says, “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it’s stupid.” I love that because I’ve realized over the years that I’m not a lot of things…I’m terrible at some stuff…and I have to find what I’m good at and that’s what I need to figure out how to do. I don’t know if that’s an inspiration, but that’s a quote that sticks with me.
David: It’s a bit of a band inside joke, but I do think about it often. “If it’s in the barn, shoot it.” It’s a weird expression we came up with, but it means life is short. Shit or get off the pot. If it’s there, make it worth it.
Jon: I think that’s our third record title…
Darryl: I would say that’s pretty much me, too. We’re not young and we’re doing this. Simon and I have families, so the fact that we’re doing this at an older age means you do what makes you happy…
Kristen: Do you think the whole “Cholera” pronunciation argument was a breaking point for the band?
Darryl: They captured some pretty epic Strumbellas arguments there. That’s kind of what we do all the time.
David: I think we should have just called the song “Love in the Time of Bananas” instead of “Love in the time of Cholera” or “End of an Era.”
Kristen: What’s next for you guys?
David: We have a big homecoming C.D. release party in Toronto that we’re really excited about. We’re having it at the Horseshoe Tavern which is kind of this legendary Toronto club.
Simon: And everyone here is on the guest list. Get way up north immediately.
David: That’s going to be fun, and then we’re back up here in January, so we’re excited about that.