Bison B.C.

Bison B.C.
Vancouver’s Bison B.C. are one of the heaviest bands to emerge from the city in a very long time. Formed by singer/guitarist James Harwell out of the ashes of skate punks S.T.R.E.E.T.S. (Skateboarding Totally Rules Everything Else Totally Sucks), the band build heavy like molasses metal jams from monster riffs at stomach-churning volumes. This September, the band will release Quiet Earth, their debut for Metal Blade Records and follow-up to 2007’s fantastic Earthbound. They’ll also be joining Baroness and Genghis Tron on this year’s Aggressive Tendencies Tour. Exclaim! spoke with Harwell to get the scoop on their Metal Blade deal and recent name change, as well as what it’s like to fall in love with a riff.

A lot of the bands that have formed out of S.T.R.E.E.T.S. (Pride Tiger, Children, Bison B.C.) have gotten a lot of attention outside of Vancouver, while S.T.R.E.E.T.S. didn’t. Why is this?
I think that any musician progresses as their bands go on. S.T.R.E.E.T.S. were a really good band to cut your teeth on. We toured a lot and we recorded a lot but we were delinquents. We just wanted to get drunk and cause trouble. After S.T.R.E.E.T.S. ended, I think we all grew up a bit. While we took S.T.R.E.E.T.S. seriously and loved playing music, we kind of realized that maybe it’s time to consider the longevity in maintaining a band. You just learn so much from being in a band for seven years.

Did you go into Bison B.C. with a specific sound in mind?
The one thing I had in mind was that I wanted the music to be a little heavier and a little louder, a little more untamed. I wanted longer riffs, not as technical. I wanted it to be abrasive.

Where did that desire come from?
I think it ties into the fact that you just progress. I had been playing skate thrash with S.T.R.E.E.T.S. for so long that I didn’t want to do that again. I didn’t want to be redundant. I love S.T.R.E.E.T.S., I’ll always love those songs we wrote, but ask any musician, except for maybe NOFX or something, and you want to progress. There are all kinds of bands out there that have been around for a long time and if you look at the basis of their work, there is progression. Some people like it, some people don’t. In this case, with Bison B.C., people have really liked what we’re doing.

Is there a good story behind how Bison B.C. formed?
Not a really good one. After S.T.R.E.E.T.S. broke up I was really depressed and I was basically holed up in my apartment getting wasted and writing songs. Then one day I snapped out of it and decided to form a better band.

Are you still friends with all of the S.T.R.E.E.T.S. dudes?
We’re still really tight. We did a reunion in Tacoma and a reunion in New York.

Who are your influences musically?
My main influences will always be punk rock, that’s where I came from. Punk rock and thrash, and then crossover is where the main metal influence came from. Sonically, I kind of pictured it in my mind as slowed down thrash — louder and heavier. I really love classic heavy bands like Black Sabbath, Budgie and early Metallica. There are bands that are doing really interesting heavy music these days like Mastodon and High on Fire. They’re not direct influences but you sort of look to those bands and see that you could go in different directions. Sometimes you just need that little push to see that you can do things differently. It kind of pushes you harder to make something kind of different and original sounding. Because that’s the idea behind Bison B.C.: I wanted it to be its own sound. You can’t shake your influences but you can totally try to make something new.

Was it weird to switch from playing punk to playing straight-up metal?
Not at all, it came very easily. It’s cathartic music. Amps go up to ten for a reason — some amps go up to 11. Volume, I just love it. You get so into the actual sound, it just makes me really happy.

Did you have some concerns with signing to Metal Blade, a much larger label?
Of course; I had been in a very DIY scene for a very long time and it’s exhausting. I have a girlfriend that I love, I have a dog that I love, I have a job, I have a band, I have to book tours. I have to do everything involved with the band. It gets exhausting after a while. I’ve been doing it for a really long time. So when you get the opportunity to work with a really good label that’s been around for 25 years, that has a really good reputation for putting out quality music, it’s a dream come true really. S.T.R.E.E.T.S. never got one record offer from any kind of non-local record label, which was fine. But this really blew me away.

How did you first connect with the label?
We met a dude that wanted to help the band out and he became our manager. It was really new to me to have someone to do all the legwork for me. Now all I do is write riffs, which is a huge blessing. He asked me to give him a list of labels that we’d like to work with and Metal Blade was at the top and they expressed interest. And then it happened.

Was there something they saw in you that set you apart from other bands?
I don’t know. I think they recognized that we were a working band and we weren’t afraid to go on the road. We weren’t afraid to eat shit in order to take our music outside of Vancouver. We’re ready to go on the road. We’re ready to make albums. We’re itching for that. You don’t want a band that doesn’t want to go on tour. You don’t want a band that’s not interested in writing music and making that their life. They might have seen that in our work ethic. And I thank being in all those touring bands before, where it taught me that’s how you do a band. You go on the road. It’s your duty. If you are serious about your music, it is your fucking duty to take that music and show it to as many people as possible.

Did you grow up in Vancouver?
I grew up in Winnipeg. I moved to Vancouver in ’91 but I consider myself from Vancouver.

Is there anything inherently Vancouver about Bison B.C.?
That’s a really interesting question. I think there is an attitude that we have towards the music. We grew up in this really beautiful environment so because I create music in this certain environment, even though it’s really abrasive and loud, I recognize the certain beauty in it. There are social problems in Vancouver that are pretty specific to here. That doesn’t really make its way into the lyrics but because two of us work in the downtown eastside, that affects you. You see how people live in marginalized communities. You see impoverished people and people with mental illness and drug addiction, and the way our municipal, provincial and even federal governments try to keep them from existing. I don’t want to get too political because I’m not a political dude and it doesn’t get into my music but I think it will inherently affect you if you have a fucking heart and a brain. If you make art, it’s going to seep into it. Whether it’s the intensity with which we play or the passion we have.

Do you feel like the scene is thriving in Vancouver?
I think Vancouver could be an excellent rock city but I think we need more venues — there’s the support for it. The love from Vancouver for us is amazing. I’m so grateful for it and it blows me away every time. People want to go out and hear loud music, and I think it’s happening. There are some really good loud bands in Vancouver, like Hagatha, Jaws, Grass City, Impeders of Progress and many more. There is the whole scope of straight-up ’80s hardcore to straight up doom to Southern, almost grunge stuff — all kinds of loud music making its way. It’s really nice.

I can see this desire to play loud music relating to all of the social problems.
People are angry. You get up and see a beautiful mountain. You know, I’m a ten-minute bike ride from a beach. All that shit that makes living here really fucking awesome. But then there’s that weird underbelly where all that shit is awesome but there’s this real sort of darkness to this place. I think that’s a good addition to anyone’s band, to have a little bit of darkness.

How do you write songs?
I generally do most of the songwriting. Dan [And], the other guitar player and singer, will write a couple songs as well. We’ll bring riffs to practice, work them out and everyone puts in their two cents. We’re all very like-minded. We’re all on the same wavelength, so most of the stuff I bring into the jam spot, the other dudes are digging it. That’s basically how it goes.

It seems like riffs play a central role in Bison B.C. What constitutes a good riff?
It’s hard to explain; it’s kind of like being in love. It’s this feeling: when you first write it you get butterflies, then you kind of almost get a little sick, then as you continue the relationship with that riff, it just grows inside of you. It really is like love; it’s something that makes the hair on your arms stand up. It’s exciting. It’s the most exciting thing in the world and you take it to jam and you play it with the other dudes and it gets tenfold. You can play it over and over and over and over again and it still gets you just as stoked, if not even more.

Do you have a certain method for finding those riffs?
We’re fortunate that we’ve got 24-hour access to our rehearsal space, so I can go there the minute I want to play guitar. I can be at home at three in the morning and I can’t sleep, jump on my bike, go down, play loud guitar whenever I want. I think that’s very conducive to writing.

How was the recording process different with your new album?
There’s a little bit more pressure on you; there were no expectations for the first record. I think people know the sound and there’s a little pressure to have it be as good or better than the first record. It’s going to go all over the world. That could also cause a bit of pressure. Someone else is putting a lot of time into it through advertising and promotion.

So does that pressure cause anxiety or inspiration?
That’s the thing: when we were talking to Metal Blade, they were just really rad. There was no pressure to create anything. All they wanted was a metal album. That’s what they said to us: "Just don’t give us a folk album, give us a metal album. You guys can do whatever you want as long as it’s heavy.” I think it’s pretty fucking heavy, so there you go. There was actually a little bit less pressure because we got to book way more time in the studio. We spent two weeks in the studio and to a dude like me, every record I’ve ever made in my life has been three days, maybe four. Two weeks? You’ve got to be joking. I was kicking my feet up — piece of cake.

A lot of bands will go with big-name producers when they sign to a big label. Why did you stick with Jesse Gander at the Hive?
I’ve known Jesse Gander for 15 years. He worked with S.T.R.E.E.T.S. the whole time. I know him and trust him. He’s got a great fucking studio. He’s helped me out so much in the past. I’m from Vancouver and this community helped this band get to where we are, so I’m going to record the fucking album in Vancouver. I’m going to get my friend to draw the cover. I’m going to get my friend to take all the photos. I want to get as many people from the community involved with this project as possible because they all do quality work. They do just as good of work as if we went down to goddamn Los Angeles to record the album with some huge douche bag. They do good work. I want to keep it local for as long as I possibly can because we’ve all worked hard. People have come out to the shows and they’ve supported us. It’s very humbling to have that sort of support.

What do you hope to accomplish with this record?
I want people to be stoked. I want to spend a lot more time on the road. I want to go on tour. That’s basically all I want to do.

Now that you’re on a major label you won’t have to worry about sketchy border issues right?
Yeah, well, it’s kind of a good thing and a bad thing. We’ve got to be legit now. Every other time, I’ve just lied my face off to get across that border. But there comes a time where you’re like, "Oh, if we get caught we’ll get banned from the States, and we have too many people working for us.” It’s all legit now.

You recently had to change your name to Bison B.C., right?
Yeah. It came out of no direct threat but there are a couple other Bisons that have been around before us and there are a lot of college bands who are the Bison Band and I had heard a couple horror stories about a couple of bands who had gotten into legal difficulty and lost their label support. We’re kind of just covering our asses.

Was it a bummer for you guys to change your name?
Initially it really fucking pissed me off. I can be a little bit of a hothead but you know, after a while I don’t really care. It can stand for so many things. It can stand for British Columbia. It could stand for Before Christ. It could stand for brutal crucial. Whatever you want it to stand for that’s what it stands for.

Now that you’re on a big label, you might have to play with some cheesy bands like Disturbed or something. Are you ready for that?
I think we’re pretty strong headed people and I really think because of our sound and the kind of music we play we’re not going to be paired up with anyone too heinous. You’re not going to only get to travel with bands that you like. That’s the way it goes, especially when you’re starting out. And I’m willing to put in the work of touring with bands that maybe I’m not so shit-hot about but they’re certainly not going to be bands like Disturbed. I’ll tell you that much.

Sometimes the worst bands are the nicest dudes.
That’s absolutely true. I have a lot of musician friends where I don’t like the music they play but, fuck, they’re rad dudes.

Anything else you want to add?
I just would really want to make sure that everyone who has supported us in Vancouver knows that we have undying gratitude. Best city in the world!