Photo Courtesy of Strut Entertainment

Juno-winning bluesman Steve Strongman has just released a new album called No Time Like Now that injects hard rock and gospel into traditional blues. He’s shared stages with legends like B.B. King and Buddy Guy, but it was before a working-class weekday headlining set at Toronto’s Rivoli that I caught up with Strongman. We talked about the warm tone and diverse influences on the new album, whether awards help underground musicians, and how he feels about modernization in blues.

 

Steve Strongman has a number of dates lined up for the spring and summer in Ontario and Quebec. You can listen to the title track from the new album No Time Like Now here.


Photo by Ty Watkins

The San Diego melodic metal group gets political on their second album following the shocking dissolution of their former band.

San Diego melodic metallers Wovenwar (vocalist Shane Blay, drummer Jordan Mancino, guitarist Nick Hipa, and bassist Josh Gilbert) have recently released their second album Honor Is Dead on Metal Blade Records. It’s far more aggressive than their first self-titled release, which arrived not too long after the end of their time as the high-profile metalcore act As I Lay Dying. The now well-documented story is that their ex-vocalist Tim Lambesis was sent to prison for attempting to hire an undercover FBI agent to murder his wife. So it was hardly surprising that their first album as Wovenwar, and the first featuring Blay on vocals, would come across as self-referential. On a recent tour stop in Toronto I spoke with Gilbert about how they dealt with such a sharp transition.

“I think on the first record we had been hit with a curveball in life, to put it lightly” he says with a laugh.

“We had just got Shane and we were writing lyrics together. We sort of wrote a really optimistic record. We were looking, however we could, to stay positive and maybe cope with the events surrounding whatever had just happened to us. But on this record I think it’s a lot more honest in the fact that we were looking outward. We were being influenced by outside events, happenings around the time of the writing of the record. Sometimes it comes across as political, sometimes it comes across as just personal. We weren’t censoring the lyrics we wrote. On the first record I would say that the lyrics were cathartic for us in the situation. We kinda moved passed that.”

The political aspects of Honor Is Dead don’t exactly seem subtle upon listening to the album, and although Gilbert is more diplomatic about it in person, he doesn’t hide the band’s disdain for the United States’ current direction.

“‘Pissed off’ is a great adjective to describe it” he says while nodding emphatically.

“Not only for us but I think a lot of our friends and family were coping with the realities of what’s going on in the world around us. On this record we expressed the concerns and thoughts we had on those happenings... I’m trying to be as middle of the road as possible here (laughs). We’re not exactly satisfied with the events politically going on where we’re from and I think that comes across in the lyrics. We tried to write it in a way that was tasteful and artistic, but also trying to demonstrate how we felt about what was going on.”

This brings up further questions about Wovenwar’s audience. They have an unique position among contemporary metal bands in that they have both strong secular and Christian followings. As I Lay Dying was arguably the most successful band from the Christian metal scene to cross over to secular music. I was interested to know how they felt about how these two groups of fans would react to their political lyrics.

“I think the lyrics of the song ‘Lines In the Sand’ illustrate our opinion pretty clear on the matter” says Gilbert, referring to a track on the new album that expresses disdain over deep social divides.

“It’s hard to estimate how either side is going to view the lyrics that you write. It’s art to us, it’s expression to us. When we’re writing it’s just an expression of that moment. We’re not trying to make a political statement, necessarily. It’s just what we feel at the time. You can take it for what you will. Some people might take it the exact opposite way (of what) we intended. That’s the beauty of art and lyrics, it’s in the eye of the beholder. Most people who are coming to the show, they’re sensitive to music, they’re sensitive to art. You expect that people are open-minded and that’s all we really ask of our audience. It’s weird to know that someone who values our art and values what we do as band, feels so differently, ethically than we do. But that’s also the beauty of just, freedom. Being able to feel how you want.”

In addition to more outspoken lyrics, Honor Is Dead also boasts heavier guitars and extreme vocals. The music takes on an almost progressive quality because of the band’s penchant for layered melodies. “At the very base of this band, we’re looking for the best melodies, the best rhythms” says Gilbert.

“The best melodies on top of the guitar melodies. But we consider vocals the entire time, and they kind of interweave with each other. Shane’s contribution musically changed a whole lot because he was there. With the first record probably half, or three-quarters was written before Shane was even involved. On this record, Shane’s voice, his range, his abilities (were) considered the whole time.”

The band’s collaborative writing style is evident on both albums. After his arrest Lambesis claimed that he was the primary songwriter of As I Lay Dying. It’s a claim that seems difficult to back up based on how the members of Wovenwar work together.

“It’s easy to just say ‘Ah this guy was the mastermind,’ because that’s what that guy would say” remarks Gilbert bluntly.

“But for us it’s always been collaborative. Everybody’s always contributed to the writing process and with Wovenwar it’s the same way. Everyone in this band contributed to this last record. For us, that’s testament enough to the myth that maybe there’s one guy, that was (laughs), was the mastermind of every piece of music that came out from that band.”

The legacy of their former band, does at times, loom large over Wovenwar’s existence. It’s recently come to light that Lambesis has been released from prison early, is getting re-married, and may have a record deal. There were more than a few fans wearing As I Lay Dying shirts at the Toronto show. It’s a situation that most would probably feel awkward about.

“We’re all comfortable with that. It’s completely acceptable. We more than anyone understand, there are these fans of our last band that are diehard,” says Gilbert earnestly.

“The still support us, they still wear the shirt. They still love the music, we still love the music! Sadly we can’t play the music and feel OK about it at this point. But we still love the music, and the fact that they’re here shows that they support what we’re doing now. It’s easy to just, as a fan of As I Lay Dying, look at what we’re doing now as ‘these guys are spitting in the face of what As I Lay Dying did.’ For us, we appreciate anyone who’s here, even if they’re wearing an As I Lay Dying shirt. That shows that they’re supporting us as musicians which is, amazing to us. We definitely don’t discriminate based on the shirts that the fans in the audience are wearing (laughs). It makes sense, As I Lay Dying was a band for a decade, Wovenwar’s been around for two-and-a-half years. We get that people are still coming around to us and we’re still earning fans. That’s what we want to do. We want to earn fans, we want to go on tour, play in front of them, blow them away, have them buy a Wovenwar shirt, and wear it the next time we come.”

Wovenwar’s second album Honor Is Dead is available now, and you can stream it in full below.

 

The Tool frontman talks about his Canadian connection and his new biography ahead of his Toronto appearance with Alan Cross.

Alternative rock icon Maynard James Keenan (vocalist for Tool, A Perfect Circle, and Puscifer) has just kicked off the book tour for his new authorized biography A Perfect Union of Contrary Things. This includes a stop at Toronto’s Convocation Hall for a sit down with Alan Cross on November 14th. In anticipation of his return to Canada, I thought it would be appropriate to speak to Keenan about his past experiences north of the border. I also wanted to know how he felt about confronting his audience up close on the book tour after cultivating a such a mysterious image through his music.

“I get the mystery part a little bit in terms of me never explaining what the songs were about” he says.

“But as far as being out there and talking, I’ve been talking pretty much the whole time, storytelling. That’s kind of your job, as the entertainer, as the lyricist, as a winemaker, as a chef, you’re the storyteller. You’re out there. I think making people have to decide things for themselves I guess would be perceived as a mystery, so we’re not really giving anything away with a story like this. This is just a story and it’s not the whole story. Those stories are in the songs, those stories are in the wine, they’re out there.”

To Keenan, it seems that the story is out there regardless of whether its meaning is perceived by one person or millions. I point out that this book may now be the most direct way for people to begin to understand where his art comes from. “Some of this is a map and it has to do with intuition, and listening to it” he says with a calm and sincere tone.

“I think the purpose of it from the beginning has been kind of a life journey. If you were forced to read The Iliad and The Odyssey in school then you get the heroes’ journey. You understand that there’s different phases and there’s an arc. So these stories will probably resonate with people who want to hear it at this particular moment. If you wanna focus on the older things, that’s fine. Those things are there for you. But other people are on a journey, and there’s things that resonate with them at different parts of their lives that they can build on. There are conscious people and there are unconscious people I think. You do your best to lift people up, but at some point you just have to... you know, there are people from your childhood (that) I’m sure you don’t speak to anymore. You couldn’t quite get on the same page as them. You can show them things and you can do the whole ‘lead a horse to water,’ but until they’re ready to drink on their own... just make sure that the water’s available, basically.”

In terms of conscious people, Keenan counts many Canadians amongst their number. “There’s a definite connection between physical activity and oxygen to the brain, and then your ability to kind of solve puzzles and do things, and be aware, and conscious, and present” he says when asked about his travels across the country.

“Having grown up in Michigan I’m basically Canada’s little snot-nosed brother. We’re snow-shovelers. You can’t get where you’re going without getting the snow out of the way, or cutting the wood to heat the cabin. I think in general the people that I’ve met in Canada, just because they’re snow-shovelers they’re breeding more and they have more oxygen in their brain. So I found that travelling through Canada, there’s a nice resonance. People get what you’re saying.”

One stop on Keenan’s journey that stood out to me was Tool’s appearance in Toronto a week after the events of 9/11. That night he encouraged the crowd to take their hate and anger and focus them into positive action. It sounds like a simple idea until you hear how Keenan vigorously approaches it. “You’ve heard the cliché, ‘if life gives you lemons, make lemonade?’” he asks.

“I’m the kind of guy that goes, ‘well if life gives you lemons, take some of that and make some limoncello, take a couple of lemons and plant more lemon trees, open up a farm, create an entire industry out of your lemon tree. Don’t kill your chicken and eat it, have the chicken lay eggs because then you have something to eat tomorrow.’” 

I was also curious about the differences he’s observed between his Canadian and American audiences, but Keenan sees a different kind of divide. “There are definitely differences of course, but I see the bigger difference in being population centers vs. non-population centers” he says.

“There is that perception that when you’re in an isolated area where you don’t see a lot of culture coming through, of course your opinions, and your attitude, and the way that you go about your day-to-day business is gonna be different than a person living in a larger city who sees lots of culture coming through. In ways you become tuned to that other culture, it opens up your mind to other ideas. You tend to compromise a little bit more, but in a good way, you just coexist with different ideas. The dark side of living in the middle of nowhere is that you can be close-minded because you haven’t been exposed to anything. The bright side of that is that you get to focus on a particular activity without anybody corrupting your process. So there’s some ups and downs. Those differences between the big city and rural I think are more glaring than Canada vs. U.S. Today’s modernization, there’s mini-malls and there’s malls, there’s fast food joints and there’s fine dining, you know they’re everywhere.”

It’s keeping people on the bright side that Keenan seems concerned with. The new book brings him closer to his audience than ever before. Perhaps for those who need a push, Keenan wants his story to be a motivational one. “I’m hoping that this book will just basically be a chronicle of decisions, and those repercussions, and then the choices that follow. The gist and thrust is that you’ll land on your feet at some point. If you fall, get up, keep going. No decision is a bad decision.”

You can grab tickets for Maynard James Keenan’s conversation with Alan Cross in Toronto here.  

A Journal of Musical Things 

Photo by Andrew Epstein

The first time I interviewed The Trews it was by candlelight during the great blackout of 2003. The band was getting ready to play the record release show for their debut album The House of Ill Fame. At the time I found a band from Antigonish, Nova Scotia that played melancholic yet upbeat-sounding bluesy rock, and who were eager to start earning a faithful fan base.

Now just over thirteen years later The Trews have proven their longevity, having developed a trademark sound and consistently maintaining a solid group of fans. Their songs are also far more diverse than it seems on the first listen. This is perhaps the most evident on their new best-of release Time Capsule, which features four new songs, as well as sixteen hits and fan favourites. 

I went record shopping with guitarist John-Angus MacDonald ahead of the band’s in-store performance at the HMV Superstore on Yonge Street in Toronto, and while geeking out on some of our favourite albums we managed to talk about how the band has managed to retain their sound and their fans since I first met them that afternoon in the darkened front room of The Horseshoe Tavern.

 

For the record I did end up grabbing that copy of Björk’s Vulnicura Live, as well as a vinyl copy of Royal Thunder’s Crooked Doors

The Trews have four tour dates lined up in the North-Eastern U.S. in early October, followed by a coast-to-coast Canadian tour starting later in the month. Time Capsule is available in stores and online now. You can have a listen to the new track “Beautiful & Tragic” here.

 

A Journal of Musical Things