Published Aug 20, 2007Despite a loyal fan base, critical accolades, and awards won, Torontos 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. Theyve released fine records in 2004s Tin Type, and have crossed Canada six times supporting 2005s Juno-nominated Ambassador, earning rave reviews for their live show in Europe, as well. Yet, for whatever reason, Elliott Brood hasnt elicited the hipster drool of some of their Canuck contemporaries. Guitarist Casey Laforet doesnt 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 thats kinda impossible because you tour so damn much. It is coming on two years since Ambassador was released though; whats new with Elliott Brood?
Casy Laforet: Its been that long, eh? That seems strange. But yeah, tourings always news for us; were always playing somewhere these days and promoting our live show, which is really important to us. Weve been busy with the festival season in Canada this summer and thats 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 weve been working on and we hope to have it done by the end of September.
Cool, its close to being done then?
Its close. Id say its about 45 percent done. Thats the number we can all agree on.
Wow, thats very specific.
(Laughs) Yeah, well, its been due for a long time so we want to make sure. The songs are pretty much picked and weve got them mostly all started, so its 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.
What keeps you guys going out there so hard and for so long?
Were 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 thats our livelihood; were 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 thats our bread and butter, to continue being a live band and being known as a live band. I mean the travelling can be wearisome; Im exhausted right now because weve 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 were still enjoying it. We dont hate each other yet so, were gonna keep going until we wanna kill each other I think.
Well, thats 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 havent tried yet live that will be on the record. Thats 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 were playing, mostly with audiences that were comfortable with, where we know we have a lot of friends wholl accept the flaws and mistakes of the new stuff.
So, when the record comes out, people whove been following the band will know the songs.
Theyll know most of them. On this one, there are still a few that have not been played. Its about half and half actually. There are some that weve been playing in our live show for over a year that were waiting to get on there. Thats probably because, as weve recorded in places and been in different spots, weve written parts of the album as weve gone along and other parts have come out as weve recorded other things. There will be a few surprises that havent 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. Ive 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, thats usually how it goes with us; theres always gonna be an underlying idea and thematic thing between the songs. Not that every song flows linearly in a narrative but theres definitely going to be a certain vibe or idea to the record. So, were at that stage with artwork, which Mark designs. On the road, weve 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 were 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 its presented properly. Im not sure what that will exactly be yet but were working on that as we go.
Can you give me any hints? Anything that might be illuminating later on?
Wed originally thought of a WW II idea, something to do with that era. Thats 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 cant confirm that thats going to be the actual presentation but that was one thought. Theres still endless debate, like, "What do these songs make you think about? Lyrically, as I said, theres 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. Thats 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 its 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.
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, its more like the character of Elliot Brood its funny because the name became a character and weve 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 someones life, which could be in a war or something like that. Its not necessarily to reflect whats going on now; by no means is it a commentary on the state of things. We would definitely avoid that at all costs; I dont think were a political voice by any means or anything like that. To us, itd be to represent a character at a certain time in his situation. Were definitely romanced by old times, which I guess its easier to like those things because theyve already happened. You can trust it because its done. We like to showcase things that were really beautiful back then.
So, the instrumentation will reflect that as well; theres no synths or anything like that?
No, nothing crazy; its not electronic yet. But we have been able to explore different instruments and theres nice piano and layers of ukulele, organ, and things that werent on the last one. For us, its always been "Heres 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?
Thats what were waiting for. One day you might hear the future-electronic-hip-hop Brood. Im not sure.
That sounds interesting.
Thatd 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 bands 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 theres actually, on the horizon somewhere down the line, theres some kind of synth stuff, Elliott Brood/Solex songs that will hopefully come out eventually.
Is this like the Fishtank thing?
Whats the Fishtank thing?
Theres this thing where remember Tortoise and the Ex made a record together? [Dutch label Konkurrents collaboration series In the Fishtank.]
Yeah, its a similar idea. I believe its 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 were playing banjos and guitars and this girls got Korg synths and loops but we were actually really happy with how it turned out. For us, its just a matter of time, with her label and ours, before we can actually release something. Thats something weve never really done before and the sounds are completely different than something wed make ourselves, so it kinda felt good to do that and expand our horizons a little bit and hopefully well 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.
With each minute though we might be at 46 right now if Steves mixing at home, Im not sure. Actually, were really picky about the three of us being there for everything. So, if were gonna mix on a certain day, we all wanna be there so we dont have to backtrack and be like, "Well, we werent here for this and we should change this and that Its a matter of scheduling but, like I said, Septembers a big month for us to flesh out those ideas and get that straightened out.
Youve toured Europe and Canada but not as much in the States.
Weve done little pockets of things but, its amazing that theyre our neighbour and its 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 its astounding. Then, if you dont have a publicist to tell people youre coming weve taken trips to both coasts and basically played to a few people here and there. Thats where it becomes really hard because youre investing a lot on very little return. Hopefully the right people see you and they tell a friend. So yeah, were working on the U.S. as a place that, hopefully we can return to.
Right, okay cool. Youve 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 theyve always been necessary for some kind of focus on how you sell the music to people. Theres obviously "country and then "alt-country had to happen so that you knew you werent gonna see a country show. If youre gonna see Son Volt, you better know that its not gonna be like Hank Williams or something. This "death country thing has been following us around but its self-inflicted; Mark said it once and it kinda stuck. Then theres "urban hillbilly and "deathgrass and this and that. I dunno how important it is but I dont think music will ever stop being labelled. One day at music stores, hopefully all youll do is buy microchips and itll be "Heres 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; its harder to pigeonhole things. Its like the Acorn, who are on this tour with us. You cant call them folk necessarily or modern I dunno what theyre considered theyre just good.
Yeah, given the "Wood, Wires, and Whiskey banner, it is a rather eclectic bill.
I think so too. I cant question any of that but thats the section wed fall under so that makes sense.
Say youre talking to your Uncle, uh, Jimmy or somebody and hes like, "Whatre you doin now? and you say, "Well, Im playin in this band, how do you describe the band?
It happens to us all the time. Well be in a diner in a small town where were playing and people will look at us and, were all dirty from the road and look like shit, they know youre in a band. Theyll 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 theyd like it best! If youre a young kid, its death country, and theyre like "What? We like to say its foot stompin, good time music, as much as possible. Its always been hard for us to describe it because we really didnt know what it was.
Do you feel like its a compliment because its hard to describe?
I definitely do because thats 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. Thats 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 wed say, "Just come and see it because theres no dictionary term for it. So its 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 dont think so. We keep getting shows and getting asked back. We feel fortunate that its lasted this long already. We know its really hard in this country to make a living doing this and were starting to scrape our way through, so Ive 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. Its expensive and the geography is crazily large, so we feel like were working our way up, grassroots style. Whatever happens, we know how hard weve worked at it, we know how much we put into it. Its our entire lives, its our child and we hope it can grow up and mature, but if it dies young, well that happens too. Weve 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?
Thats 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 were 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 doesnt really mean anything, but if it helps people to get interested and then if you can prove to them yourself that youre worth seeing, they will come back and hopefully bring a friend with them. Thats how we perpetuate our audience and keep paying our rent. So yeah, we know how hard it is to keep it going but were 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. Weve got a good foundation so far and we want to do this as our career. Weve 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. Its like a big, open dream and so far, so good.
To get all the tour info head to Exclaim!'s Wood, Wires, & Whisky Tour