By Walter Price
Jubilee Riots (Bruce McCarthy, Craig Downie, Trevor Lewington, Mark Abraham, Brian Buchanan) are well traveled persons in the music world. Establishing themselves as road warriors and purveyors of story based Rock N’ Roll. Guiding them through nearly all of the clichés the business has thrown their way. At a recent point the band moved away from the perceived comfort zone of their former selves, Enter the Haggis and set out on new paths.
The new album, Penny Black, drives deep in personal experience, not just the band’s but more importantly (in this case) their fan’s joys and tribulations, fans that have journeyed with this outfit through 10 previous albums and all the triumphs, bumps and bruises along the way. Penny Black is an album built on foundations developed from letters from these very fans. An album that moves its way through thick sonic tapestries and wears experience and influence with pride…Penny Black (Out 4 November) is an album that traverses compassion, passions and rollicking hell yeahs with ease.
Time, wants and needs do not stand still and Jubilee Riots have understandings that are progress in motion.
I recently caught up with JR’s Brian Buchanan for a chat about things their Rock N’ Roll.
First things first, Penny Black is (without being cliché) a dynamic collection.
We consider that a compliment, so thank you. I get bored listening to albums or attending shows if it’s one volume, or one type of song, or one lyrical idea repeated over and over. We listen to all kinds of music and we’re lucky enough to have fans who don’t mind when we shift gears pretty dramatically.
What’s the story with changing professional gears with a new band name and sound?
Our sound has been a pretty gradual evolution, albeit with a few noticeable leaps (like when Craig picked up his trumpet again after 20 years). As we grew as musicians and songwriters, we started to feel a bit of a dissonance with the name of the band and the identity that it implied – it’s pretty “niche specific”, if you know what I mean by that.
We also felt like at times we were trying so hard to keep one foot on each side of a fence – on the one hand, we were incredibly excited and passionate about the music we were writing, but with a long legacy behind us we continually ran into resistance from people who didn’t think our new albums were “ETH albums”. I guess one day after listening to Penny Black in its finished form we all looked at one another and realized that in a way, those people were right – this really was something new and different. For me personally, the cathartic “parting of the clouds” moment was when I realized that I felt DISHONEST telling people who loved the band as it once was that they had no reason to complain, that we were still writing the same music because we’re not. And some people who love our earlier albums won’t like newer albums, and that’s OK. I don’t like every book by my favourite authors or every movie by my favourite directors.
It is funny, when you think about it – musicians more than any other type of artist face a pressure to repeat themselves, to cater to a certain demographic or niche. If Quentin Tarantino put out a straight horror movie, people would judge it on its own merits first, and decide whether it was a good film. Comparing it side-by-side with Reservoir Dogs or Kill Bill would be a waste of time. With music it’s different, because our favourite bands become a part of our identities and it’s jarring to us when those touchstones shift or evolve.
It’s humbling to think that our decision could have that affect on people, even people we don’t know. It was a big decision.
The way most of this album was created was fan based. How did this letter campaign come about?
Trevor had the idea when we were recording The Modest Revolution – that album was inspired by a single issue of a newspaper. As we dug deeper into the stories we kept coming back to the idea that good stories are always about PEOPLE and the way they’re affected by events in their lives. After that it was obvious to us where we’d look for inspiration next. We’ve been lucky enough to have a wildly supportive group of people around the world who have helped us to fund our last few albums, and they’re also many of the most interesting and unusual people we know. The idea of reaching out to them and hearing their “defining moments” firsthand was exciting to us, and it really turned out to be a great creative journey.
Trevor blogged about sorting the letters, how interesting was it to be able to see glimpses of people’s lives on paper?
It was fascinating. In some ways I think it changed the way we all look at the world – I mean, it’s cliché to say that everyone has a story, everyone is struggling under their own weights – but what the experience really hammered home for us was that however different we are, many of us are struggling with the SAME fears, pressures and insecurities. Loads of people shared similar stories about love; infidelity; substance or alcohol abuse (both their own and in their families); sex and death. Every person is complex, but there are universals that we can all relate to, and those universals are the kinds of things that translate into lyrics that touch people on a personal level. We hope.
Anything become too personal or were there any correspondences that went to weird town?
Yeah, there were a few. We didn’t get any explicit confessions of crimes or bizarre sexual anecdotes, but there were a handful of letters (some of which were anonymous) that were obviously from a person in pain who was opening up about something for the first time. It’s a strange feeling of responsibility when you realize that someone is telling you something they haven’t told anyone else – but I guess some people just need to know that someone’s heard them.
Another part of this album’s story is how you guys successfully navigate crowd funding, do you think this is a long term financial avenue for artists. Doesn’t it really only work if you have an existing fanbase to pitch to?
You hit it on the head – crowdfunding is only a viable source of revenue if you’ve already got a fanbase established who trust you. Oftentimes people will pledge their support over a year before they actually hear any music, so crowdfunding isn’t for the casual fan (or the artist who can’t connect with fans on a more personal level).
Crowdfunded albums are kind of like commissioned works of art; the difference being that instead of one wealthy benefactor footing the entire bill, artists can pitch an idea to their fans and the fans divide up the expenses (provided they’re excited by the idea). This is why “concept” albums do well – instead of just saying “We want to record a new album”, an artist can get their fans excited about the over-arching IDEA behind a project long before any music is written or recorded.
It’s very hard to say whether or not it’s a stable business model. Most successful crowdfunded projects depend on a hardcore “core” group of super fans who buy the expensive packages and pledge the bulk of the money. There’s pressure on artists to cater to their fans and not ruffle any feathers due to the fear of the gravy train derailing – but we’ve found that the most important commodity is trust: trust in ourselves to create memorable music, and (just as important) trust in our fans that they’ll support us as long as we’re true to ourselves.
All that being said – we’ve crowdfunded three studio albums, a live album and a film. It certainly FEELS like a business model we can rely on, but things can change so quickly.
Talking about your fanbase, have you had any negative reactions to the changes with the band?
Sure, yeah. I mean – every album we release there’s a smattering of grumbles. Part of the motivation behind changing our name was that we wanted the new record to stand on its own without having to live up to a pre-conceived expectation.
A lot of people are very invested in our band as part of their own personal identity, and the name change certainly came as a shock to some of them. We’ve got a couple dozen fans out there with our old logo tattooed on their bodies!
I wanted to personally assure people that the core ideas of the band aren’t changing and that we’re still dedicated to writing music that they’ll love hearing live – ESPECIALLY the people with ETH ink. That’s no small commitment to your fandom. I’m collecting the names of everyone with a tattoo, and once I think I have a comprehensive list I’ll be designing a tattoo for myself incorporating all of their initials. That way I can keep them close and carry them ahead as we evolve, literally AND figuratively.
The Penny Black Project is structurally rich and wide ranging in textures. Did the band have a list of ideas in sound that didn’t fit what you were doing with Enter the Haggis?
No, nothing like that. Every time we hit the studio we follow every creative spark that interests us, which is why you generally hear so many styles and influences on every album. We actually didn’t make the decision about the name change until AFTER Penny Black was recorded and mixed, so it would have been the same record even if we’d released it as ETH.
Setting up a studio in a cabin for a month sounds almost relaxing, how was it?
It was pretty amazing – loons calling over the lake, summer rainstorms, a firepit and an upright piano in the living room. Great atmosphere at the end of a long day.
There is mention that not everything made it into this release is there a chance for a part 2 or an EP down the line?
We’ll be releasing the remainder (along with other goodies) on our very first vinyl release, titled Penny Red. We sold a couple hundred of them in our Pledge campaign and we’ll be making the remainder available at our live shows. Penny Red will also be sent out digitally to ALL of our backers, and eventually sold digitally as well.
Has the band considered some sort of documentary or web series going into depth about the letters of inspiration?
We talked about tracking down individual people, but in the end some songs were inspired by themes spanning multiple letters so it wasn’t quite so cut-and-dry. That’s not to say we won’t do something like that in the future, but we don’t have any plans to at the moment.
Does/Will any ETH history make it into your live sets?
Absolutely! We’re still playing as much of our catalogue as we can squeeze into a show on any given night; we just have to make room for a few new songs now that Penny Black is in our arsenal.
As people do, your personal lives have changed, how does this effect band decisions/ touring?
I was 18 when I joined the band, so obviously a lot of things have changed for me, yeah. Some of the guys have kids and wives now, and we take that into account when deciding how much to be away from home – but honestly the biggest changes have come about thanks to unstable economies, the evolution of the industry as a whole and the rise of technology/the internet. We don’t tour for five weeks at a time now, but largely it’s because gas prices are more than double what they were when we started out and touring in general is more expensive.
Over 10 (now 11) what have you learned about the music business you’d wish you hadn’t?
Interesting question. If you mean what do I now know to be true that I wish WASN’T true, there are lots of answers. I learned that good songs, a good live performance and good manners won’t necessarily get you out of your garage – hard as it is to swallow, it really IS all about who you know and how well you can navigate shark-infested waters.
I’ve also learned that you only get one crack at a first impression and that it’s crucial you make the right one, which is hard. Don’t be impatient and over-expose yourself before you’re ready – attention is very valuable and most people won’t give you a second chance.
Some people are just jerks. They’ll try to rip you off, they’ll lie to your face and they’ll throw you under a bus if it gains them favour with someone they deem more valuable than you. Shake it off, take a shot and move on – you’ll need all your energy to claw your way up and there’s no point wasting it on petty grudges or feuds.
Back to your question though – I can’t say I wish I hadn’t learned those things; I just wish they weren’t true.
Any misconception about the band you’d like to set straight?
Ha. Well – I suppose that’s what we’re attempting to DO with all of our decisions. I will say this though:
A few people have implied (or said to me outright) that since our new album is “more commercial” (whatever that means) we’re abandoning our roots and “selling out”. I find that hugely ironic, because the easiest way to make money in this business is to shamelessly exploit a niche – if we were just trying to make more money, trying to compete with the major labels in a mainstream market would be a stupid decision when we already had a name established in a niche market. As far as I’m concerned, “selling out” would have been smothering our evolving creative impulses in favour of safer, more expected choices. Trust me, we know what it’s like to watch other bands make money hand over fist by playing it safe. This isn’t about money.
What 5 things people should absolutely know about Jubilee Riots?
- We love to play live and we make an effort to write music that translates well live. The live show is really important to us and we try to make every show special.
- We’re Canadian, even though 95% of our shows are in the US.
- We’ll come out to talk to you after every show, and we’ll stay until every picture is taken and every cd is signed. Promise.
- We actually do all get along remarkably well, which I think is unusual. Maybe it’s why we’ve managed to keep it together for so long.
- Penny Black is the first Jubilee Riots album of many. Count on it.