The Deep Dark Woods Winter Hours

The Deep Dark Woods Winter Hours
With this band name, album title and songs called "The Gallows," "All The Money I Had Is Gone" and "The Sun Never Shines," you know you're not in for a sunny pop record. Sure enough, the third album from Saskatoon's Deep Dark Woods is a sombre, melancholy, oft-bleak affair, but it is also a highly compelling and convincing work. The group cite such influences as the Band, the Grateful Dead and old English folk ballads, and the group's chief songwriter, Ryan Boldt, is clearly inspired by the latter form (one traditional tune, "When First Into This Country," is covered here). He has a rich and mournful voice that suits these ballads perfectly, while his comrades chime in with fine vocal harmonies. Ace producer Steve Dawson contributes both sonic clarity and his fluent skills as a multi-instrumentalist. Deep Dark Woods take a few chances too, as on Burke Barlow's unfashionable, but totally mesmerizing, lengthy, Neil Young meets Carlos Santana-like guitar solo on epic eight-minute closing track "The Sun Never Shines." This is a band worthy of real attention.

I gather as a band you have quite a spontaneous approach to writing and recording. There's no great mandate about style or sound of a record, but it's just what comes out. Correct?
That is exactly how it works. Some of the songs on the record we'd never really played before. I'd just written them, we showed each other the song in the studio, recorded it, and that was that. We don't really have an idea of what's going on until it is done.

You get credited with most of the songwriting. Do the other guys have input with their parts or contribute arrangement ideas?
Yes, we come up with arrangements together, and they come up with their guitar parts, etc. So we do collaborate, but I usually come with the song and we go from there. Chris [Mason]sometimes has a couple of songs he'll bring.

He has one on the new record, right?
Yes. "The Birds On The Bridge."He wrote that a couple of years ago. We'd always tried to do it, and this time it seemed to work.

Your bio references some songs "older than the band itself.' Were these ones you'd written for a solo project or another band?
I just wrote them on my own, when I was living in BC, about four years ago now. I wrote a couple when I was staying in Greece. Most weren't written when I was in this band.

How did you hook up with the other guys? They had more of a modern rock band, right?
It was a band with the guy who draws all the art for our albums. Then I moved back from BC, and we got together and started playing. They were more of a modern rock band, but they all liked folk and country too. Burke [Barlow] was all into Gram Parsons. We always talked about playing in a folkie rock band. I had the songs that sounded that way, so we got together. They're still more into modern rock, where I'm not really into that sort of thing. Radiohead etc. I'd rather put on a Stanley Brothers or Carter Family record.

Were you playing in a band before Deep Dark Woods?
I was in a band in BC, kind of a Celtic group, but I was writing songs for myself then, not the band. I didn't really want to go out and play, just wanted to play my songs for myself. Then got together with these fellers. It started going pretty good, so we started doing some shows. And here we are. It's weird.

How was recording with producer Steve Dawson?
Boldt: We had a great time with him. He mixed the second record in Vancouver but he wasn't there when we recorded it in Saskatoon. This time, we went to Vancouver and did the whole record with him and hung out with him. He's really easy to work with. We all love hockey so much. We went to a couple of games and we played NHL '09 on the PlayStation 2 at the studio in between recording tracks. One of the most fun times I've had playing music, that's for sure.

Did Steve have a few ideas re arrangements and instrumentation? I see he plays on the record too.
He came up with some arrangements for "Polly."  For the most part, we just went in and recorded it and that was that.

And you went for a live feel on the record?
It was all live for the bed tracks and vocals. We overdubbed a few things like the organ and the occasional guitar solo, but for the most part it was all live. The first time we did live vocals, it was much better than going into a booth and trying to get the same feeling out of it. One of the funnest times I've had playing music, that's for sure.

A signature of your sound is the vocal harmonies. Does that get easier the more you play and tour?
Definitely. It has got a lot easier. When we first started, I'd go home some nights and just feel like "oh man, the vocals were so bad tonight." I'd just get a bad feeling. But eventually we worked it up, and now it feels dead-on. It feels good to all sing together.

How do you find some of the traditional folk tunes you cover?
I listen to a lot of English folk music. My favourite folk singer of all time is English: Shirley Collins. She is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me musically. I learned a lot of songs from her and from finding books she'd written with [American folklorist] Alan Lomax. Those old lyrics and folk tunes are just so wonderful, and you have to bring them back again. The way I write lyrics is very traditional too.

So they have influenced your own writing style?
My songs I base on traditional music. The way I write the lyrics is very traditional. For example, the "Farewell" song on there is a murder ballad. The structure of the song is like all the other folk songs. I wrote it, but I see it as traditionally-based. The same with "As I Roved Out." The first line in there, well, there are a million traditional songs with the first line of "as I roved out." I just love the language of those old folk songs. It's just wonderful to hear it, and I love singing it, so I thought I could maybe try to write that stuff.

You think it's important to not just borrow from a tradition, but add to it?
Exactly. Everybody has done that in the past. I was listening to Springsteen's Ghost Of Tom Joad yesterday, and there's a song on there that sounded familiar and I realized it was an old Irish folk song that he took the melody from. Everybody does it.

Do you sense there are kindred spirits in Canadian music in this sense? People like Elliot Brood and Sunparlour Players?
Oh yes. Elliot Brood are a great band and good friends of ours. They're carrying on that sort of thing too. I love those guys. They helped us out a lot too.

Does your music get heard outside of Canada?
The albums are released in the States and Europe. I don't know how many people buy them though. We just have to go down and tour the States. We've been to New York a couple of times, and Vermont. We're going to tour down there more often, and we're going to South by Southwest in March. I'm really excited about that. Canada is a very big place but not a lot of places to play.

(Black Hen)