Building a History
Mark Sasso and Casey Laforet of Toronto’s electrifying, country-tinged rock trio Elliott Brood encountered Mountain Meadows separately, yet the story immediately resonated with both songwriters. Laforet has devoured books on the incident, while a documentary about the mass murder enthralled Sasso. "At first, they just said ‘Mountain Meadows,’ and I thought ‘Oh, what a beautiful name,’” Sasso recalls, sitting between Laforet and drummer Stephen Pitkin in their favoured Toronto haunt, the Dakota Tavern. "Then, all of a sudden, it turns into this brutal massacre. But at the end of it, they let these children survive who were younger than seven years old, figuring they won’t remember the event. Then they incorporated the children into their society and homes.”As they’ve done before on their 2003 debut EP Tin Type and 2005’s Juno-nominated full-length Ambassador, Elliott Brood continue to obsess over the past, infusing historical events and individuals with a vague sense of revisionist wonder. While Tin Type possessed an otherworldly tone thanks to banjo and guitar-led rural stomps and Sasso’s heart-stopping rasp, Ambassador was named after a lost and then found wallet/workbook, where one man’s displaced identity is pondered and fleshed out in a loose narrative. If there is a concept within Sasso’s songs though, it compels observers to seek out the concept themselves, to conjure the storyline from clues and unconfirmed facts, just as their investigative creator did.
In titling their stunning new record Mountain Meadows, the hard-touring Elliott Brood lead listeners directly to an actual event, yet their songs twist and turn around and within the circumstances of the gory slaying to become a harrowing, timeless travelogue. "Mountain Meadows is more of a jumping off point, as opposed to us trying to describe it historically,” Sasso explains. "That’s already been done. For me, it’s more about ‘Okay, what happens to these kids afterwards? What happens to their relatives or their families down the line? Do they take part in WWII? How did their lives then factor back into life and can we drop in and visit them again?’”
"Because the name’s so evocative and pretty, it reminds me of a line in Casey’s song ‘31 Years,’ where he says ‘We tried to take the mountain/But the mountain got in the way,’” Pitkin adds. "It’s something that Casey often marvels about while we’re driving through some Saskatchewan town like, say, Yorkton. There are always roads that go nowhere — the road that used to be. Like, ‘Wow, people came this far from the Ukraine or Ireland or wherever — why didn’t they go further?’”
Collaborating more together on Mountain Meadows than they ever have previously, Elliott Brood remain committed to curiosity. Drawing from their own shared experiences globetrotting and winning fans over one plane trip at a time, the trio still take cues from anecdotal, historical accounts to craft an enigmatic, uniquely bright musical style all their own. Just as Mountain Meadows refers to a specific moment in time, the band chose it as the departure point in a speculative journey they themselves can relate to. "That’s the best part about it,” Sasso says of the album title and its subjects. "From there you can go anywhere. One of their ancestors might have been a mistress to somebody famous or something but nobody knows. The fun and enjoyment is to create those stories that no one would know or hear.”
Though they frequently tackle dark, morbid themes and have tagged their own music as "death country,” there’s a profound exuberance and optimism within the songs of Elliott Brood that stems from an earnest belief in the din they’ve been making since their first days as a band. Sasso and Laforet were high school friends in Windsor, Ontario before each ending up in Toronto almost a decade ago. Ostensibly coming for work, Sasso also had an (admittedly cynical) eye towards establishing himself as a solo artist. Laforet on the other hand simply followed a lady friend to Toronto and soon hooked up with Sasso to make some music. The two agree that their first show took place at Holy Joe’s in 2002 as a quartet but can’t recall whether they were then known as the Token Hillbillies (Laforet’s assertion) or Mark Sasso and the Sassettes (Sasso’s pained memory of how Laforet referred to the group).
"The other two guys dropped out quickly after, saying ‘This isn’t going anywhere,’” Sasso recalls. "I just remember one time where we’d been practicing and on our way home. I was like, ‘I really think that there’s an energy here; we should keep this going.’ And Casey had just broken up with his girlfriend and said, ‘Listen man, wherever you move, I’ll go with you.’ It was one of those moments where we felt like we could really run with this and we just did it, the two of us. We didn’t have any grand schemes; it was just like, ‘Let’s get a demo so we can play out of Toronto.’ We were Elliott Brood by our second show.”
That November Sasso and Laforet hooked up with Pitkin, who produced their wonderful debut, Tin Type, igniting an auspicious period for the band and their fans. From their earliest shows, they possessed a clear vision and aesthetic, dressing like funeral directors in collared shirts, dark suits and ties. Laforet’s urgent guitar playing propelled Sasso, who mostly wielded a banjo, and cried out in a remarkable voice as compelling at peak volume as it is whispered. Elliott Brood’s initial displays of raw, impassioned hunger were simply intoxicating and Pitkin ended up being the perfect soul to harness them in the studio. "I was fortunate enough to be their soundman at the Cameron House when they played there and I just thought their energy and chemistry was really special,” he says. "I look at chemistry as a main agent, as opposed to the calculated nature of some pop music.”
With no drummer, Elliott Brood experimented with different percussion, and the inherent drive in their songs lent itself to organic rhythms. Inexplicably, Laforet was the principal source of these sounds; Sasso would put a mic to the floor to capture his stomping feet or, in another case, his repeated hammering of a peanut butter container against the ground. "That hurt,” Laforet says, wincing at the memory. "It was like a pound and a half Costco jar. It was the worst.”
The need for a percussionist in the live setting became apparent and, fortunately for Sasso and Laforet, they had an experienced one in their corner with Pitkin. A rock drummer from bands like Mrs. Torrance and the Flashing Lights, Pitkin knew he’d have to adjust his playing to suit Elliott Brood’s acoustic sensibility. His reasoning led to the creation of an icon in the band’s story thus far: the suitcase kick drum. Pitkin literally uses hardshell luggage to give Elliott Brood its distinctive thump. "The suitcase was brought in after recording Tin Type, and was necessary because these guys stomp onstage,” Pitkin explains. "I was trying to emulate that stomp.”
Sticking out on the bar circuit, Elliott Brood garnered more attention with each show and Tin Type took on a life of its own. Sasso is a talented graphic artist and his beautiful, handmade packaging for Tin Type is from a bygone era — a miniature photo album that houses music steeped in a folk tradition spanning hundreds of years. The EP caught the attention of the weewerk record label, which re-released it in 2004 and actively promoted the band to college radio, pushing them to tour. With Pitkin aboard as a full-fledged member, Elliott Brood’s star was on the rise. When asked to cite a crystallizing moment of connection for the band, Sasso immediately mentions their very first show outside of Toronto. "We drove all the way to Lethbridge [Alberta] and it was sold out when we got there. We were like, ‘What the hell is this?’”"They liked Tin Type, and they were playing it on university radio like crazy,” Pitkin adds.
When the album hit number one at CKXU, Elliott Brood felt obligated to drive across Canada to figure out what was going on. "We were actually gonna skip Lethbridge but I think our whole career would’ve been totally different if we’d done that,” Sasso says. "The next show was in Calgary to two people but we played Lethbridge three times within two weeks to sold out shows. It was awesome and that was a huge moment. Like, ‘Holy shit, it’s packed; who would’ve thought?’”The band’s popularity and work ethic attracted the interest of Six Shooter Records, who released the band’s first full-length, Ambassador, a mature, critically acclaimed album that sent the band on a travelling whirlwind that has yet to cease. Behind Ambassador alone, Elliott Brood crossed Canada six times, toured Europe three times, and recently played shows along the east coast of Australia, where the album was just released. Beyond being a tightly honed trio, the band endeavour to make their shows truly inclusive. "We’re always talking to the crowd,” Laforet says. "‘Let’s forget we’re up here and you’re down there; we’re all gonna get up on stage eventually or we’re gonna come down there.’ We love to engage the crowd and if you can establish a relationship with people, that’s a huge thing, particularly if things aren’t going well.”
Forced to leave wives, girlfriends, and young children behind, there’s more travel and road weariness popping up in Elliott Brood’s songs lately but all they talk about is playing more shows in new and different places. "I miss my kids dearly when I go but the band as a whole is sensitive to that,” Pitkin says. "I think our respective spouses are super supportive. My wife loves the band and we’re married because we understand each other. It’s not a case of ‘me or the band,’ which I think a lot of musicians get into. We’re fortunate to have that understanding in our lives.”
Comprehending and compartmentalising Elliot Brood’s sound, however, doesn’t come quite so easily. With its dark themes and punk-ish take on accessible country music, Ambassador was tricky to place and a flurry of roots rock-based generic signifiers — "urban hillbilly,” "blackgrass,” and the band-approved "death country” among them — were soon applied to Elliott Brood. "Death country” has lingered the longest, but even this descriptor seems passé. "I think ‘death country’ is dead,” Laforet declares wryly.
"Yeah, the only reason ‘death country’ ever came about is because people kept saying we were bluegrass music because of the banjo,” Sasso explains. "It got so bad that we ended up on these bills where we didn’t quite fit with our distorted guitars. If people are specifically going to hear the Good Brothers and a traditional style of music and that’s not what we are, that’s not really gonna work for everyone. So I myself actually consider us a rock band and definitely not bluegrass.”With all their musical myth-making derived from fact and fiction, it’s no wonder Elliott Brood have eluded easy definition. Poised to celebrate a master achievement with Mountain Meadows, they continue to infuse their work with artful intrigue. Even their namesake has taken on a life of his own, as an entity that inhabits particular corners of each record. "The idea of the Elliott Brood character is something we want to keep strong,” Laforet asserts. "He’s an embodiment of what the records are and they represent where he stands at a certain time.”
"The nice thing about that is, we always want the music to be in the forefront so if there’s a character pushing the music, it’s better than the three of us,” Sasso reasons. "We’re always one step behind him though. If we could actually catch him, maybe we’d get more out of him.”"We need Elliott Brood to be on TMZ,” Laforet chuckles. "He’s never in the big papers. In the context of this record, the children they let live at Mountain Meadows were too young and couldn’t talk about it. So, maybe he fits in there with those kids, because where did they end up?”How the tale unfolds for Elliott Brood the band is just as interesting. Even as one of the top-draw concert attractions in Canada with a growing international fan base, their ascent up the musical ladder has been relatively unheralded. Though never quite an "it” band, Elliott Brood don’t feel particularly unappreciated, yet still revel in their ability to surprise new and familiar listeners alike. "We have expectations for sure,” Pitkin admits. "I do hear a lot of bitter musicians where there’s no end to the drivel of ‘How come so-and-so is getting all of this attention and I’m not.’ We’re pretty intent on enjoying the process and that’s what drives us.”
"A lot of that is out of our control,” Laforet says, referring to hype. "Before anyone cares about you, you better care about what you’re doing more than they do. If the real music lovers are into it, that’s what we’re happy with. It’d be nice if critics thought we were ‘the next big thing’ or whatever but that’s not gonna change what we do. And if that does happen, people are gonna knock us down. As soon as people start saying you’re the best band, there’s a line-up of people saying ‘No they’re not!’”
Sasso is similarly philosophical. "If it ends today, I’d be sad but we’ve accomplished a lot. Playing outside of my bedroom was an accomplishment so now, to be able to go and play around the world, that’s a pretty amazing thing and I’m never gonna be sad about that.
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