Elliott Brood

Elliott Brood
Despite a loyal fan base, critical accolades, and awards won, Toronto’s Elliott Brood remain something of an underdog in Canadian indie rock. The hard-touring trio of Casey Laforet, Stephen Pitkin, and Mark Sasso have created an undeniably distinctive sound, mixing earnest folk tales with an edgy, minimalist punk edge for a style some have called "death country.” They’ve released fine records in 2004’s Tin Type, and have crossed Canada six times supporting 2005’s Juno-nominated Ambassador, earning rave reviews for their live show in Europe, as well. Yet, for whatever reason, Elliott Brood hasn’t elicited the hipster drool of some of their Canuck contemporaries. Guitarist Casey Laforet doesn’t seem to mind too much, reflecting instead upon a new Brood record and cross-Canada tour on the horizon that will hopefully attract new fans.

I was gonna start by suggesting that you guys have been quiet lately but that’s kinda impossible because you tour so damn much. It is coming on two years since Ambassador was released though; what’s new with Elliott Brood?
Casy Laforet: It’s been that long, eh? That seems strange. But yeah, touring’s always news for us; we’re always playing somewhere these days and promoting our live show, which is really important to us. We’ve been busy with the festival season in Canada this summer and that’s just winding down. Then we start the Exclaim! tour in October, which leaves us about a month in September to finish up the new record we’ve been working on and we hope to have it done by the end of September.

Cool, it’s close to being done then?
It’s close. I’d say it’s about 45 percent done. That’s the number we can all agree on.

Wow, that’s very… specific.
(Laughs) Yeah, well, it’s been due for a long time so we want to make sure. The songs are pretty much picked and we’ve got them mostly all started, so it’s about finishing touches in most cases.

You guys have been really fervent road warriors. Seasons have changed, babies have been born, and milk has gone bad, all while you were away from home.
Indeed.

What keeps you guys going out there so hard and for so long?
We’re still trying to build our audience and reach as many people as we can with our show to prove how fun it is and hopefully keep building those friends so that we can continue to do it. We realise that that’s our livelihood; we’re not the kind of band who sells lots of CDs in stores but we seem to do well when we can present ourselves in a live realm. So that’s our bread and butter, to continue being a live band and being known as a live band. I mean the travelling can be wearisome; I’m exhausted right now because we’ve been driving a lot lately. But yeah, just knowing that we have another record coming out and a big tour and we want to reach new people every time — we’re still enjoying it. We don’t hate each other yet so, we’re gonna keep going until we wanna kill each other I think.

Well, that’s good. How much of your new material is being honed on the road?
Mostly all of it actually; there are only a few songs that we haven’t tried yet live that will be on the record. That’s usually how it goes for us; we like to try a lot of the new stuff in a live environment first. We even work songs out on the go, as we’re playing, mostly with audiences that we’re comfortable with, where we know we have a lot of friends who’ll accept the flaws and mistakes of the new stuff.

So, when the record comes out, people who’ve been following the band will know the songs.
They’ll know most of them. On this one, there are still a few that have not been played. It’s about half and half actually. There are some that we’ve been playing in our live show for over a year that were waiting to get on there. That’s probably because, as we’ve recorded in places and been in different spots, we’ve written parts of the album as we’ve gone along and other parts have come out as we’ve recorded other things. There will be a few surprises that haven’t been heard yet.

Now, coupled with the artwork, the music on both Tin Type and Ambassador each had its own distinct feel and maybe even a narrative. I’ve heard Mark describe Ambassador as a concept record of sorts; do you have any sense if the new record might have some kind of thematic connection?
Oh yeah, that’s usually how it goes with us; there’s always gonna be an underlying idea and thematic thing between the songs. Not that every song flows linearly in a narrative but there’s definitely going to be a certain vibe or idea to the record. So, we’re at that stage with artwork, which Mark designs. On the road, we’ve talked about what we want it to be; "is it gonna be militarily, old world themed?” That involves the sequencing of the record and the songs that are chosen. So we’re getting closer with that and the artwork is obviously gonna be as important as previous records because that goes right along with the music for us — making sure it’s presented properly. I’m not sure what that will exactly be yet but we’re working on that as we go.

Can you give me any hints? Anything that might be illuminating later on?
We’d originally thought of a WW II idea, something to do with that era. That’s the first thing we were all focusing on and agreeing on. After that, it was just like Ambassador; discussions changed it. But originally, there were ideas towards what it might be like to be a solider back then. I can’t confirm that that’s going to be the actual presentation but that was one thought. There’s still endless debate, like, "What do these songs make you think about?” Lyrically, as I said, there’s no linear narrative between the songs but you wanna present them in a package where, in another way, they all do fit together and this is how. We really enjoy that aspect of presenting the product of the CD and the artwork and everything else. That’s what really ties together the different songs and lyrics and we can create a more liner thing with the whole package. So, the artwork will dictate what the feel is… once it’s done!

This exploration of WW II soldiers is interesting to me because I find that Elliot Brood have a really unique relationship with history and the past, exploring things that happened long ago.
Yeah, definitely.

When you bring up this WW II motif, is this a way of addressing the insane times we live in now through that lens?
Well, I dunno. For us, it’s more like the character of Elliot Brood… it’s funny because the name became a character and we’ve perpetuated that character. Basically, the idea for us is that, he kinda shows up at different points in history; Tin Type was a certain time and Ambassador was another time. This would be another appearance for him at some point in someone’s life, which could be in a war or something like that. It’s not necessarily to reflect what’s going on now; by no means is it a commentary on the state of things. We would definitely avoid that at all costs; I don’t think we’re a political voice by any means or anything like that. To us, it’d be to represent a character at a certain time in his situation. We’re definitely romanced by old times, which… I guess it’s easier to like those things because they’ve already happened. You can trust it because it’s done. We like to showcase things that were really beautiful back then.

So, the instrumentation will reflect that as well; there’s no synths or anything like that?
No, nothing crazy; it’s not electronic yet. But we have been able to explore different instruments and there’s nice piano and layers of ukulele, organ, and things that weren’t on the last one. For us, it’s always been "Here’s the story, how do you present it so that, if someone heard it, what will it do for someone visually?” Instrumentation is key to presenting those ideas. You can do a lot with words and sound to get your point across.

With all this time travelling, will Elliot Brood ever end up in the future?
That’s what we’re waiting for. One day you might hear the future-electronic-hip-hop Brood. I’m not sure.

That sounds interesting.
That’d be a strange venture but who knows? We actually started this crazy project when we were in the Netherlands with this girl named Solex. Her band’s called Solex, which is an electronic band and they have this program in the Netherlands where they pair a Dutch artist with an international artist. We were there for three days recording with her so there’s actually, on the horizon somewhere down the line, there’s some kind of synth stuff, Elliott Brood/Solex songs that will hopefully come out eventually.

Is this like the Fishtank thing?
What’s the Fishtank thing?

There’s this thing where…remember Tortoise and the Ex made a record together? [Dutch label Konkurrent’s collaboration series In the Fishtank.]
Yeah, it’s a similar idea. I believe it’s a government funded program that promotes Dutch artists and gets international artists who are touring the area to get together for three days and try to write songs together and then, at the end of it, they perform it. So, on the fourth day, we did a show and it was actually really, really well done. It was weird for us because we’re playing banjos and guitars and this girl’s got Korg synths and loops but we were actually really happy with how it turned out. For us, it’s just a matter of time, with her label and ours, before we can actually release something. That’s something we’ve never really done before and the sounds are completely different than something we’d make ourselves, so it kinda felt good to do that and expand our horizons a little bit and hopefully we’ll hear something from there some day. We have to get our record out of the way first.

Right, what did you say you were at? 49 percent?
45, I said.

Oh sorry…
With each minute though… we might be at 46 right now if Steve’s mixing at home, I’m not sure. Actually, we’re really picky about the three of us being there for everything. So, if we’re gonna mix on a certain day, we all wanna be there so we don’t have to backtrack and be like, "Well, we weren’t here for this and we should change this and that…” It’s a matter of scheduling but, like I said, September’s a big month for us to flesh out those ideas and get that straightened out.

You’ve toured Europe and Canada but not as much in the States.
We’ve done little pockets of things but, it’s amazing that they’re our neighbour and it’s so difficult. Just the amount of money you have to spend to tour legally and not get kicked out of the country with visas and everything else — it’s astounding. Then, if you don’t have a publicist to tell people you’re coming…we’ve taken trips to both coasts and basically played to a few people here and there. That’s where it becomes really hard because you’re investing a lot on very little return. Hopefully the right people see you and they tell a friend. So yeah, we’re working on the U.S. as a place that, hopefully we can return to.

Right, okay cool. You’ve got this Exclaim! tour for the "Wood, Wires, and Whiskey” section of the magazine. People have had trouble describing Elliott Brood in any kind of generic manner and have come up with things like "death country” or whatever; how do you feel about these alt-country handles?
I guess they’ve always been necessary for some kind of focus on how you sell the music to people. There’s obviously "country” and then "alt-country” had to happen so that you knew you weren’t gonna see a country show. If you’re gonna see Son Volt, you better know that it’s not gonna be like Hank Williams or something. This "death country” thing has been following us around but it’s self-inflicted; Mark said it once and it kinda stuck. Then there’s "urban hillbilly” and "deathgrass” and this and that. I dunno how important it is but I don’t think music will ever stop being labelled. One day at music stores, hopefully all you’ll do is buy microchips and it’ll be "Here’s the music; go alphabetically by the band names.” Things are crossing over so much with technology and people being able to make music at home. You can put a banjo, a synth, and all kinds of stuff together, so I dunno how you can describe music; it’s harder to pigeonhole things. It’s like the Acorn, who are on this tour with us. You can’t call them folk necessarily or… modern… I dunno what they’re considered — they’re just good.

Yeah, given the "Wood, Wires, and Whiskey” banner, it is a rather eclectic bill.
I think so too. I can’t question any of that but that’s the section we’d fall under so that makes sense.

Say you’re talking to your Uncle, uh, Jimmy or somebody and he’s like, "What’re you doin’ now?” and you say, "Well, I’m playin’ in this band,” how do you describe the band?
It happens to us all the time. We’ll be in a diner in a small town where we’re playing and people will look at us and, we’re all dirty from the road and look like shit, they know you’re in a band. They’ll say, "What do you guys play?” and we all look at each other and laugh like, "Which way do you wanna describe it this time?” We kind of describe it to people as we think they’d like it best! If you’re a young kid, it’s death country, and they’re like "What?” We like to say it’s foot stompin,’ good time music, as much as possible. It’s always been hard for us to describe it because we really didn’t know what it was.

Do you feel like it’s a compliment because it’s hard to describe?
I definitely do because that’s the music that I like most. I love getting told about a band, "You gotta hear this band.” "Really? What do they sound like?” For the person to be able to say, "I have no idea what they sound like; they sound like no one else.” That’s kinda cool; that kinda distinction will create interest. At the last festival we were at, we were labelled as "death country” and people were asking us, "What is that?” and we’d say, "Just come and see it because there’s no dictionary term for it.” So it’s fun.

You guys have earned all sorts of accolades and put on such a great show yet I sometimes I wonder if you get your due. Do you ever feel underappreciated?
I don’t think so. We keep getting shows and getting asked back. We feel fortunate that it’s lasted this long already. We know it’s really hard in this country to make a living doing this and we’re starting to scrape our way through, so I’ve never felt let down by anyone. We realise how hard it is for everyone in the business, like club owners to keep having bands back. It’s expensive and the geography is crazily large, so we feel like we’re working our way up, grassroots style. Whatever happens, we know how hard we’ve worked at it, we know how much we put into it. It’s our entire lives, it’s our child and we hope it can grow up and mature, but if it dies young, well that happens too. We’ve definitely surpassed what we ever thought would happen and hopefully we can keep it moving.

How much of that success is shaped by audience and critical reception? Would you be doing this irrespective of that stuff?
That’s a hard question to answer for sure because you have to live obviously. For us, being a touring band, our audiences need to be there or we’re definitely in trouble. Critical acclaim is always great and it helps build an audience. If people can attach "Juno-nominated band, Elliott Brood” or whatever, in the long run, that doesn’t really mean anything, but if it helps people to get interested and then if you can prove to them yourself that you’re worth seeing, they will come back and hopefully bring a friend with them. That’s how we perpetuate our audience and keep paying our rent. So yeah, we know how hard it is to keep it going but we’re gonna try to for as long as we can. Like you said, there are babies coming into the picture and families and stuff, so it only gets harder. We’ve got a good foundation so far and we want to do this as our career. We’ve had the chance to go to Europe a few times and we want that to continue. If you can get your year built around a trip to Europe and then back to tour Canada and then record, hopefully you can keep doing it. It’s like a big, open dream and so far, so good.

To get all the tour info head to Exclaim!'s Wood, Wires, & Whisky Tour