Published Aug 01, 2005Having a beer with the members of Cuff the Duke on a scorching afternoon in Guelph, Ontario, it's hard to imagine four more diverse personalities making up a band who've been together for five years. Singer/guitarist Wayne Petti's studious facade barely masks a wickedly dry sense of humour, while his guitar-playing counterpart Jeff Peers' openness borders on manic. Straight-laced, bearded bassist Paul Lowman appears the odd man out as he smokes hand-rolled cigarettes, but it becomes evident that he's the glue holding things together. It's hard to tell what drummer Matt Faris thinks of anything, since the others seem to have all the angles covered. He's content to keep everyone's glasses filled.
Getting to know Cuff the Duke, it makes sense why their music is equally diverse, and subsequently unclassifiable. While they're primarily rooted in classic pop songwriting, with heavy leanings toward the country/folk end, they have also experimented with a variety of sonic textures. It's an approach that has managed to be the perfect complement to lyrics that often deal with the isolation and frustration of modern suburban existence in a way that's far more real than what the traditional outlet for teen angst punk has become. Of course, the band members can only speak from the first-hand experience of living in their hometown of Oshawa, just east of Toronto.
"I grew up skating, so I know that it's all about sticking with your friends and making fun of everybody else," Peers says.
"That's what the suburbs are all about," Petti adds.
"Punk has just started to feed off that," Peers continues. "You've got guys who form bands for all the reasons except to be in a band. There might be one guy who's really into it, but the rest are only in it for chicks and beer, or to have their friends come out and see them at the local club."
"That's probably why we were always inspired more by guys like Johnny Cash," Petti says. "They played for people no matter who they were or what they were about. Because at the end of the day it's all just music, and if you can make anybody happy through what you're playing, then you've done your job."
It's probable that Cuff the Duke will make a lot of people happy with their new self-titled album, the long-gestating follow-up to their acclaimed '02 debut, Life Stories For Minimum Wage. While that album was driven by the innocence of discovery both in writing and production, drawing on everything from folk balladry to Pet Sounds Cuff the Duke reflects precisely what the band has become: a confident live unit who have honed their varied influences down to a keen knack for melody.
It is a sound that still can't be called strictly pop or country, folk-rock or Americana. It remains as enigmatic as their name, yet as unpretentious as the players themselves. "After the first album came out, we looked at each other and said, Well, we're a band now, we have to tour, that's what bands do,'" Lowman says. "Some bands make great records and don't tour, but any band who tours are going to be a better band."
In the two years that followed Life Stories, Cuff the Duke embarked on several cross-country jaunts with the Sadies, Sloan and Hayden that had a big impact on new material. "By the time we did the last few tours, a lot of these songs were staples of our live show," Petti says. "It was a little weird seeing people respond to them right away. They knew the words to some of the songs too."
Peers adds, "It was also weird because by then we were almost at a point where we resented having to promote the first album, just because it seemed so far removed from what we had become."
It all started with a T-shirt. Petti and Peers were indie rock kids in Oshawa looking to do anything other than play the same punk rock they had been conditioned to listen to. Peers had a four-track and the pair began pushing it to its limits in an effort to find something that felt right. One day, rummaging through a thrift store, Petti found a homemade T-shirt that simply said "Cuff the Duke." Its creator and meaning remain a mystery, although at least one person has suggested it's an antiquated hockey term for pulling the goalie. But it made a great band name, and immediately became Petti's trademark garment every time he took the stage. "I'm saving that shirt for the Canadian rock'n'roll hall of fame," he says. "Or maybe the Canadian country music hall of fame. It can go beside the Good Brothers' display."
Petti and Peers played a few shows as a duo before enlisting Lowman and drummer Brad Fudge, who lasted until the release of Life Stories before being replaced by Faris. By the summer of 2000, they were gigging regularly at home and in Toronto, but it was clear that they weren't the typical band from the suburbs looking to make it big downtown. The Oshawa scene revolved around local heroes Sum 41, who were just becoming one of the biggest bands in the world.
"We started playing in Oshawa at a place called the Dungeon that didn't have anything close to alternative music or country music going on," Peers says. "It was all bad SoCal skate punk. We'd play a lot of these shows and go over really well, just because we were different enough that people got interested in what we were doing."
Peers says they knew early on that the Oshawa/Ajax scene was too narrow. "We got a little resentful over the fact that we couldn't buy, or even hear about, the music that we were into. And also the fact that there weren't many other people around who related to us and wanted to make things better. You can either stay in the bubble or break out of it; staying in Oshawa was never in the cards for us."
Peers now lives in Guelph along with Faris, while Petti and Lowman are in Toronto. Peers says the change of scene was a revelation when it finally happened. "To live somewhere where there's an actual community, and people go out and do things has given us all a new perspective. The thing that people don't realise about the suburbs is that nobody walks around. Dogs become these crazy beasts because they're just chained up in the backyard all day. People who were out walking around were viewed as suspicious."
Lowman's take on the situation is more personal. "People thought I was weird for wanting to move to Toronto. I think I made the decision when I was 15 and it was just a matter of time. It wasn't uncommon for me or any of us to be walking down the street and have guys drive by and call us fags. It happened to me once, and I remember looking into the car and there was just one guy by himself. I couldn't believe it; he just felt like calling me a fag. That sort of epitomises Oshawa for me now. None of us is gay, and I can only imagine how tough it is there for kids who are."
It was largely experiences like these that propped up songs on the first album such as "The Difference Between Us," "The Trouble And The Truth," and "Anti-Social," the last re-done for Cuff The Duke in a much heavier, streamlined fashion. The inevitable move out of Oshawa was aided greatly after the band caught the ear of Three Gut Records' Lisa Moran and Tyler Clark Burke, who made them the label's first signings outside of their immediate circle of friends. From there, the band recorded Life Stories over two sessions at Umbrella Sound and Andy Magoffin's House Of Miracles, turning their primitive four-track ideas into full-blown band arrangements.
"We never had to compromise anything because of the people we've been involved with," Peers says. "No one ever had zany schemes or anything. They just wanted to do what we wanted to do, and that was really important for our first record."
Petti concurs. "Three Gut might not have had as much mainstream support as we would have hoped, but in essence we got to be a part of a great moment in time. We'll always be grateful for everything they did for us, but we started feeling like we should go elsewhere. I think everyone was starting to think about doing other things."
Leaving Three Gut was not a problem, since the band were touring steadily through the help of manager William "Skinny" Tenn, whose other primary client is Hayden. In fact, one of Cuff the Duke's better tours was a North American trek with Hayden where they also served as his backing band. It turned out to be a perfect match the Canadian indie legend is also a refugee from Toronto's suburbs with a desire to do folk-based music. With the band's new album already in the works, the suggestion was made to release it on Hayden's own Hardwood label, distributed by Universal, and once again Cuff the Duke became the first outside act to land with someone's personal project.
"Hayden turned out to be a fan even before he found out that Skinny was working with us," Petti says. "For the Elk Lake Serenade tour, he wanted to tour with a band, and it made sense in a lot of ways to have one that was already together, so we ended up opening the shows and then backing him up. It worked out great because we all travelled in our van and it gave us a chance to really bond. At one point we were talking about our new record and who would put it out, and he just said, Well, I can try to do it.' He'd thought about doing it with other friends of his, like Bodega and Howie Beck, but never felt responsible enough. We were really flattered that he would make that effort with us."
Peers adds, "It's really the ideal situation for us, being on an artist-run label and sharing the same manager. It keeps the lines of communication open. We can still have complete control over everything we do, and that was probably our biggest concern after leaving Three Gut. There really aren't a lot of options like that in Canada for a band like us."
One of the perks was the luxury of recording the new album at their own pace. The band chose to work with one-time Sadies sideman Paul Aucoin as producer. They even undertook pre-production at Hawksley Workman's studio in northern Ontario during the dead of winter before moving to more comfortable environs at Halla Studios in Toronto. The band credits Aucoin with getting to the core of their sound and revealing subtleties they hadn't even noticed.
"Paul's a classically-trained dude, so we were totally in awe of his ideas in terms of arranging," Peers says. "But he also had a great way of encouraging us just to do things in a more logical way."
"He really does understand how we work," Lowman says. "We felt way more comfortable with him than other people we've recorded with in the past. He knew our strengths and didn't try to change us at all, but at the same time he pushed us to develop a vision for the record, because we didn't have one when we started. He reminded me of the high school teachers I had who got me into things I never would have considered."
In an odd way, Cuff the Duke are bucking the current trend in alt-country by making a more straightforward sounding album, rather than opting to get continually more experimental, as artists like Wilco and Joe Henry have done. "In the early days it was all about trying to use toy pianos, and Moogs and saws anything we could make cool noises with," Lowman says. "We've been able to get that under control. Now we're more concerned about the challenge of making something as big as it can be, and then taking it that extra step further. Nothing's better than getting people to react to something like that."
In Petti's view, "On the first record, a song like The Difference Between Us' sounds great, but we never played it live because of all the studio trickery that went into it. With this album, on songs like It's Over' and There Was A Time,' Paul did a great job arranging strings, but not having that when we play live won't really affect those songs as much as earlier songs."
All of this has led to a shared excitement over getting back on the road, knowing that their audience will finally be familiar with most of the album. Anticipation breeds expectation, something the band haven't really thought about. "I think the only expectations we feel are from ourselves, that we've made a good record," Peers says.
"We all agreed that this should be a self-titled record because I think we've now finally found out what Cuff the Duke is about," according to Lowman. "The first record we did without much of an idea of what was going on, but on this one we all knew our places, and could grasp what the songs should sound like right away."
It's a given that Cuff the Duke's fan base within the indie rock community will embrace the new album, but with all of the accolades they have earned they could be the next Canadian indie to cross over. If that indeed happens, it will be on the back of the album's first single, "Take My Money And Run," an infectious country rocker that, despite a lack of typical production sheen, would not sound out of place on country radio.
"We were actually just at a Universal party, and were told that people at CMT were big fans of our first album, but we never made a video," Petti says. "Now that we're making one for Take My Money And Run,' it'll probably get a few spins, which is cool."
The notion sparks a flurry of unflattering references to current new country artists, and it's a little surprising how well-acquainted they are with the genre. "It's funny how much we hate new country, but we totally immerse ourselves in it," Peers admits.
After the cheap shots die down, and thoughts of potentially becoming a CMT band sink in, Petti says, "I'm sure we learned a long time ago that you can't choose your fans."
"There's a void in country music," Peers adds. "I'd be so happy if my grandpa could turn on CMT and see us instead of some bad new Vince Gill video."
The irony is still that country music has never been the domain of suburban Canadian kids. Yet, without being conscious of it, Cuff the Duke has become one of our nation's best country bands. "Our only real connection to country music is that we're a song-based band," Lowman says, "and the best country music has always been about great, honest songs.
"Maybe we'll be to country what the Arcade Fire are to rock'n'roll right now."
Surviving the Sadies and Other Road Adventures
All four members of Cuff the Duke agree that the key to their success has been touring. It's hard work and little money, but it also means a lot of good times with the bands they played with. Their best stories concern the Sadies, with whom they did their first nationwide tours. "The first show we did with them was in Winnipeg and we were terrified because we'd never met them before," Jeff Peers says. "I'd just got busted for pot coming from Thunder Bay and I was totally freaked out. That really broke the ice, and Dallas [Good] started telling me about getting busted in Missouri. They kind of took us under their wing right away because of that. Dallas gave me the best advice later on: Don't break two laws at once.' We were doing stuff like setting off firecrackers and pissing in public at the same time."
"They've called us the Duke boys,' since then, which is really flattering because I found out that they don't really talk much about their opening acts," Petti says. "The only time I got scared was our second show with them in Saskatoon. There was this article about us with all these totally fabricated quotes about us working with the Sadies. Dallas came over, slammed the paper on the table, and said, Better get your fucking facts straight.' We found out that they were putting us on, but after that we never wanted to get that look from Dallas or Travis [Good] ever again."
"I think the best moment was when we played Pop Montreal together with Matt Mays," Petti adds. "Matt went way over time and really pissed off everyone in the Sadies. I was sick as a dog, so I said, Let's just play for 20 minutes so the Sadies can do their full set.' I guess they never forgot that, and still mention to me how much they appreciated the gesture."
Touring with Hayden turned out to be an entirely different experience, as they discovered how loyal his fans are. "My first reaction when I heard we were backing him up was, I'll get to play Dynamite Walls,'" Petti says. "What was cool was that he really seemed to be having fun, especially playing some of his older songs. I'll never forget one of the last shows in Ottawa, when he played Skates,' after never playing it the whole tour. I wanted to tell the whole audience how lucky they were.
"I guess that was the tour that really made a difference, because on the way home we did our own shows and that was the first time we noticed a lot of people actually coming out to see us."