Dustin Bentall Roots Away

Dustin Bentall Roots Away
Although Dustin Bentall has a well-earned reputation as one of Canada's leading young roots rockers, signs that he was growing a little uncomfortable with that tag began appearing with last year's Orion EP, produced by Limblifter's Ryan Dahle. It turned out to be just the first glimpse of Bentall's evolution, which is more evident on his new full-length, You Are An Island, also produced by Dahle. On it, Bentall and his band the Smokes explore new pop-rock territory, and fiddling sensation Kendel Carson (also of Belle Starr) gets to stretch out as well in non-traditional ways. Exclaim! caught up with Bentall on the eve of the album's release at his B.C. home base.

Were you making this album and the Orion EP at the same time, or did you plan them as separate things?
It was all very much supposed to be one body of work. We recorded most of this record and Orion all at the same time. At certain points we ran out of money, so we hit the road a bunch. It was all just taking longer than we wanted, so we decided to focus on the songs on Orion and release them as an EP. Two of the songs that ended up on You Are An Island were from a different session last fall. "Shine" was a track I wanted to re-record, and at that time we also recorded "Dreaming of a Nightmare."

What went into you decisions to put songs on one as opposed to the other?
They were hard decisions to make because we all really did feel that it all belonged on one record. There were songs we were excited about that we wanted to get out there right away, so that's the main reason we put out Orion. The stuff that ended up on You Are An Island was more rock, or more poppy, and we wanted to keep all of that together.

How did you and producer Ryan Dahle end up working together?
It was through a photographer who we were mutual friends with, Mark Maryanovich. He always told each of us that we should work together. A couple of years ago I wanted to knock out some demos, so I called up Ryan and asked to book a day. The way that day went made me want to work with him more, and that kind of ended the search for the person I wanted to produce my next record. For my first two records, I don't think I was that well prepared. We just went into the studio and hammered them out, which was cool, that was the vibe. But Ryan said that he wanted to spend as much time as we possibly could in the two months leading up to the sessions, working on different arrangements and different melodies. His goal was to make the songs as big and strong as we could.

Did that motivate you to look at your whole creative process differently?
Yeah, it was very motivating. Ryan said at the beginning that the way he likes to work is to just suggest any thought that comes into his mind, and it would be totally up to me whether to go with it or not. I was totally up for that, and he ended up pulling melodies out of me that I didn't know were there. It was a great working relationship.

Did having the full participation of your band make the experience different as well?
Yeah, it really did. I'd sort of been running the whole thing for quite a long time, at least for the first two records. I do like to have control, but I also always wanted to have a band where it felt like we were all in it together. I worked really hard at that, playing with Del [Cowsill] for five years, and then having Kendel Carson in the group for a few years. Getting [drummer] Rich Knox on board was kind of the final piece of the puzzle. I wanted them to be a part of the entire creative process, and it was really exciting going into the studio for the first time with a band like that.

Was it important for you to try to break away from being classified as a roots artist?
It definitely was a conscious decision. It's so hard to define what genre anybody is in, especially for someone like me who isn't surrounded by these creative heads trying to slot me into a specific sound in order to get on the radio or whatever. I just want to stay true to myself and I know that I'll have success with it eventually. But a big part of it was that I wasn't feeling some of the descriptions of the band were accurate. Sometimes when people see Kendel playing fiddle they expect a kind of Canadiana thing, but we're trying to do something different now, something more electric. Ryan and I specifically talked about getting away from those kinds of familiar rhythms and melodies and just trying to do something more interesting. I think it comes from wanting to challenge myself the more I play and write and the more music I listen to.

At the same time, you've played gigs with some true roots music legends. What are some of those moments that have stuck with you?
Well, to go back to your last question, yes we have played some great shows with John Prine and Blue Rodeo, and it feels totally natural to do that. But we also want to show we can hold our own with a band like Mother Mother, who we've just played with. We know how younger audiences react when we get exposed to them, and we're hoping for more opportunities to do that. But that being said, we did 12 shows opening for John Prine, and after we got to know each other a little bit, he would bring Kendel out for the encore and do a couple songs, then he would take his '64 Martin D-28, the one he wrote all of those incredible songs on, and hand it to me and we would play "Paradise" together. I've been a fan of his since I was 12, so that was always just mind-blowing.