Winnipeg alternative sonic indie band Royal Canoe paddles its own river. Their first full length album, Today We’re Believers, was lauded by critics who had trouble slotting it into a specific music genre (dance, disco, funk, slow jams, mix of Broken Social Scene and Stars and Prince and Bon Iver and…) and happy to label it a hybrid. The ever on the go band glides into Montreal to open for Bombay Bicycle and we took a few minutes to talk to vocalist/percussionist/guitairist Bucky Driedger about the sextet’s secrets for making such complex, layered music that still manages to be thoughtful in its lyrics and fun in its execution.
Rachel Levine (RL): I haven’t seen too much information about how Royal Canoe started. How did you guys come together in the first place?
Bucky Driedger (BD): We were all kind of playing in other bands in Winnipeg and knew each other through that scene. Matt Peters had some songs that he’d written that he wanted to play live and he got together a bunch of people from the scene in Winnipeg to play them. After we did that, we started trying to write songs together. We got pretty excited about where things were headed and started shifting our focus to this band from our other projects.
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RL: Is there a lot of Winnipeg in your music? Do you still feel like you are Winnipegers or has touring around changed your identity?
BD: I think sonically Royal Canoe isn’t like other things from Winnipeg. It doesn’t line up with what you would think of sonically from that place. The lyrics are a reflection of the city we live in. We often talk about how the huge weather shifts, from the big high awesome summers to the annoying awful winters, kind of affect your psyche. These are huge kinds of ups and down. Also, the people that we hang out with in Winnipeg and that spirit of Winnipeg is a big part of the lyrical theme on our record.
RL: A good deal has been said about the approach you take to making music in layers. I read in an interview that you guys approach songwriting like hip hop producers. Can you expand on that a little more?
BD: I think that comment was alluding to the fact that we don’t ever start the song writing process by getting into a room and jamming. Nor do our songs start with someone having a full song on acoustic with a vocal that the rest of us fill out. It’s more about us going to our rehearsal space and recording on our own or in groups, recording weird sounds and drum loops and things like that. Once we feel like we have something, that we start developing a tone or an identity that we’re excited about, we build the song on top of that. We definitely approach our writing process and production at the same time. It’s very different from the other bands we were in that used a more traditional songwriting process where someone writes a song on guitar or piano and brings it to the group. This method is more like an explore and explore and mine ideas until something feels like it is heading in the right direction and then you build on top of it.
RL: Can you give me an example of a song that went through this process?
BD: I’ll try and think, what is a good example. Maybe Button Fumbla. It started with Michael [Jordan] loading some samples into our drum pad and Michael playing with the drum parts for an hour or so and we recorded it. In all of that, we found a five second piece that we were excited about and looped that over again. That became the foundation of the song. Then people added a little guitar part and melody ideas. There was no order or form. We just threw as many things onto it as we could. Then, we began slowly peeling away those things to create different sections and moving the melodies around and building it into some sort of song format. Button Fumbla took the most time to construct out of all the songs of the record. There was a break through point where we moved one vocal into a different section and all of a sudden the song made sense.
RL: How do you handle lyrics, then, if lyrics are so significant to the band? Surely they don’t come out of the same process.
BD: The lyrics come early on in the process. Sometimes we’ll write a verse lyrically and based on where where we’re going to next, and the kind of ideas we should be conveying next. Then we make the next part of song. The lyrics mostly come form the two Matts (Matt Peters and Matt Schellenberg). A few of us chip in here and there as well. Lyrics are often written in pairs or groups, and its usually people talking through their issues, like therapy, and flushing that out.
RL: How do you move a song that is constructed to a live performance?
BD: When we’re recording we’re not thinking about how we’ll do it live. We figure out what we can do live after the fact. We try and play the songs as close as we can to what we did on the record as possible. We spent so much time getting those tones and making them the best thing we thought for the record. There are obviously limitations. As a result, there’s a bunch of gear. But we’re six people with two arms and two legs each. There are lots of limbs to cover all parts. Even though we start off pretty close to the record, there are changes that occur. The song morphs over time as we play them live, adding sections. It keeps things exciting for us.
RL: How important is the gear? Is something in particular crucial?
BD: Pretty much everything. One piece goes down, and it’s pretty detrimental to the set. There’s constant upkeep and repair of keyboards., but that’s what we want, and that’s how we do it. We have this vocal transformer pedal that can morph Matt Peter’s voice around, so that’s integral. We tour with two of those in case one goes down. Also, our drum pad. There’s a lot of interplay between electronic and acoustic drums. Our electronic drum pad is an important piece.
RL: What are the highlight and lowlights of being Royal Canoe?
BD: There are lots of them. The highs are pretty high and the lows and pretty low. It’s a pretty crazy time. Probably a lowest was on our last tour within a 48 hour span of time and within a day of being done with a 96 day tour. In last 48 hours, our trailer snapped off the van on the BQE (Brooklyn Queens Extpressway) of New York and then a few days later, our van got broken into and we lost passports, clothes, gear, and laptops. That was low moment. But, highs… honestly, anytime we get to a show and there are people there who are into what you doing, whether new fans or people who have listened to your music before, it’s a great feeling. It’s fuel that gets you through all the sitting in the van time.
Royal Canoe opens for Bombay Bicycle Club on May 4 at Virgin Corona Theatre (3490 Notre Dame W). They’ll be back for Osheaga August 1-3.