Gimme Your Answers: An Interview w/ The Strumbellas

The Strumbellas
It’s wet, the mosquitos are festering and The Strumbellas are the only performing artist at the Winnipeg Folk Festival with an empty void in the merch tent.

They’ve completely sold out of the Juno Award-winning ‘We Still Move On Dance Floors’, an album that packages a mere dose of the expansive clammer of positivity that had audiences wrapped together during their live performances over the weekend. It’s no doubt that their personal and musical growth is a collective experience, felt strongly in this post-Mumford world, that celebrate the idea of togetherness while shouting out words that bear simultaneous feelings of escapism and homebound comfort. These feelings that are provided by The Strumbellas in such a seemingly simplistic form are so honest that an overwhelming analytical description will not fulfil an explanation that steers anywhere near.

On their mission bound to push their names to the top of the festival poster, frontman and chief songwriter Simon Ward and his trusty multi-insrumentalist Dave Ritter join us for some record diving as shelter from the storm. We spent the afternoon discussing both of their musical heritages, from Simon’s high school days as a hip-hop emcee to the creative frustration with songs and melodies that continue to expand, while on the road away from his family.

AMBY: Do you boys get enough time when you’re on tour to go record diving and check it out?

DAVE: Occasionally!

SIMON: (LAUGHS) You picked the two best guys in the band to have this interview with because he is a record junkie and I am anti-record.

AMBY: Anit-record? How’s that? Vinyl or just in general?

SIMON: I don’t do any of that because I’m too lazy and because you have to flip it over, I don’t have a record player. But he loves records so it is literally going to be the best interview ever. We are going to fight the whole time.

DAVE: While this is going on, I’m looking at the soul section thinking that I’m happy doing an interview but the soul section is where I want to be right now.

AMBY: Well, let’s combine two in one then! Let walk on over to the soul section. When you’re going into a shop, what do you have in mind?

DAVE: Well, this isn’t particularly connected to The Strumbellas, but I’m a big funk and soul guy. I’m a big Al Green fan. I’m a big motown fan. So I’m always crate digging for a few things, it’s a lot of old stuff for me. It comes into the band sometimes when some people say that the last record has a bit of a Beach Boys influence and that is partly from my direction. A lot of people have a lot of phases in the band.

AMBY: Simon – if you’re not record diving, then what is your means of accessing music?

SIMON: I usually just buy an iTunes song or something. I am terrible. I won’t divulge all the ways that I get music, but I trade CDs and stuff. I don’t know. Anything but records!

AMBY: Back when you had your hip-hop crew in high school at I.E. Weldon Secondary School in Lindsay. Were you not into collecting vinyl then?

SIMON: I did try and buy turntables once, thinking that I am going to be a DJ. That lasted about eight minutes!

DAVE: You’d spin this though, right? [Holds up Outkast’s ‘Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik’]

SIMON: Ah, that’s a great record!

DAVE: Why are The Strokes in the funk, soul and reggae section?

AMBY: Don’t question it!

DAVE: [LAUGHS] Don’t question it. Nobody tell Julian Casablancas that.

AMBY: Do you both remember the first time that you bought a record?

SIMON: I think that the first record that I bought was Capone-N-Noreaga. It’s a hip-hop group from the nineties.

DAVE: Seriously? [LAUGHS]

AMBY: Is that how you first checked into music by starting up a hip-hop crew?

SIMON: I wrote songs when I was really young, I wrote the first song for my dad’s birthday when I was like ten. After that phase, it was straight hip-hop. High school was hip-hop.

AMBY: What did you call yourself?

SIMON: I was Bones and our group was called Clip Squad. As in “gun clip” and I had never seen a gun before.

AMBY: This is in downtown Lindsay, Ontario.

SIMON: This is in downtown Lindsay. We played one show and we immediately got suspended right after, because we did it at our high school and the band completely disbanded after that one show. We had one show and that’s it.

AMBY: Where did you perform at?

SIMON: In the auditorium in our gymnasium at Weldon! As soon as we were done the show, the principal called us in and we got suspended. It was a planned thing, they just didn’t know the things that we would be saying and we didn’t say very appropriate things for a school environment, so that’s what caused the suspension.

AMBY: Then the next logical step would be folk music. How did that transition go?

SIMON: Yeah, I literally know the moment. I was out for a jog, which I don’t do anymore and Ryan Adams and his ‘Cold Roses’ album. A song called ‘Easy Plateau’ came on. My girlfriend got me really into it. As soon as I heard ‘Easy Plateau’ that was a complete change and that was all I listened to and wrote was folk and country music. It was weird. I don’t know why. That one song, I was like, ‘Holy crap. That’s what I want to do.’

AMBY: Have you seen Ryan Adams play before? What was that like?

SIMON: I have seen him play and that was at Massey Hall. But I’m not really a live music guy. I actually like records more. Not like record records, but I’m an album guy. I want to go down in history as writing an album, not a live show.

[DAVE LAUGHS]

AMBY: Are you to say that you’d be satisfied creatively by writing that masterpiece of an album, burying it away for nobody to hear and be satisfied?

SIMON: Yes. Yes. No, I’d want people to hear it. I want the album to be greatly large in the worldwide scheme of things.

AMBY: Well, let’s walk over here to The Strumbellas section. Do you ever go into a shop and check out how many are in stock, what price point they’re at?

DAVE: Yeah, it’s like Googling yourself.

AMBY: And when you see that album art, do you think about how the art and the way it might stand out amongst the others?

DAVE: Yeah, I do. I mean, [We Still Move On Dance Floors] artwork was made by a Regina artist named Joel Hustak and we’re really proud of it. I like how it is colourful and it is a little confusing, you have this natural setting but the disco ball rises above the mountains. People often ask us about it or they think that it is a bit strange, I  think we are a bit strange so it kind of makes sense.

AMBY: Has the meaning behind it all turned into somewhat of a myth opposed to its original intent?

SIMON: There is a reason why. It is because I had seen the mountains for the first time in this band and as soon as I saw those mountains in British Columbia for the first time, it was like ‘BOOM. Album cover.’ That was literally it. We stole the album idea from an old Yukon patch, like a ski patch. That’s where the inspiration came from. We sent it to our dude and he created that. That is his artwork, but that’s where the inspiration came from for sure.

AMBY: After going to the mountains and finding inspiration, how do you go back home?

SIMON: Pretty easily. I mean, I think it was that I don’t really care where I am. I don’t really care where I am. It makes no difference to me. Everybody back home will say that it is cool that I am going to this place and this place, I love that. Man, I just don’t care where I am. I could be in a concrete jungle or I could be in the wilderness and it doesn’t really effect me and I don’t know why.

DAVE: It was fun being there, the first time that you saw the mountains though. We were just driving up into Canmore and we’re all weary eyed in the van then Simon looks out the window and says, ‘Hey!’ Like he had never seen the Rockies before! [LAUGHS]

SIMON: It was magical. It was magical. Yeah, I had never seen anything like that before.

DAVE: But this is what I mean, you’re kinda saying that you don’t care where I am but there are these moments.

SIMON: Dave, don’t ever disagree with me again! I’m just joking. He’s right. I liked it.

AMBY: Do you keep searching or chasing after these moments? Or do you feel that if you search for it that you’re going to be disappointed?

DAVE: I think that the road kind of gives it to you. When we went up to see the sky highway in British Columbia and stopped and looked out over the ocean, I don’t think that you have to go and search for them necessarily because travel is so amazing. But also, we’re on the road for maybe eight hours a day in the van, maybe ten, so it is also that we can’t take it all in so you kind of have to wait. You’re going to be tired. You’re going to be hungry. You’re going to be sleeping through four hours of gorgeous terrain, so you’re going to have to wait and things will come to you.

AMBY: Do you play music along the ride?

DAVE: We do now. Our old van, the radio was broken and that was a real bummer. Now the driver picks the music and everybody else suffers.

AMBY: Are the interests within the group that different?

DAVE: Most of the time, yeah. I don’t know why. We agree on Fleetwood Mac and we agree on a lot of bands, but most of the time Isabel is driving and she is playing pop country records or I’m driving and I’m playing something like New Order from the eighties and everyone hates it. Then also, everyone is kind of watching a movie on their laptop so it doesn’t really matter.

AMBY: How does the shift go from being on the road and shutting things down to write your record?

SIMON: It doesn’t. I think it’s really hard to sit down and write music, stuff just comes up when you’re brushing your teeth and there is a melody in your head and you put it down on a voice memo and that’s going to be a song. There’s no sit down and write a record business for us, it is a scatterbrain of different things that happen along the course of the six months or year that it takes.

DAVE: What I would say, from my perspective, is that Simon is writing music all of the time, everywhere that he is going. Whether he is on the road or soundcheck, he is picking away at something or whether he is at home with his kids and we’ll get an email with a little demo in it. He’s writing music all the time. I don’t know if it particularly effects his process whether he is on the road or else.

AMBY: Do you delete any of the voice mails or do you keep them all?

SIMON: I’ve definitely lost a few, but I have probably about two thousand on my computer right now. I have a lot of voicemails, most of it is probably crap. I keep everything.

AMBY: How do you choose what is good enough to stick with?

SIMON: You just know. Only if it impresses you. If I go back into my voice mails, like we have a song called ‘Sailing’ on our record and that was an old voice memo from like five years ago. I just found it on an old computer and was kind of like, ‘Yeah. That chorus kind of sticks to me.’ So we created a demo out of it and lo and behold, it got on the record. I do keep everything. It’s actually one of my favourite things to do every month, once a month I’ll sit down and dig through all of my voice memos and listen to make sure and see if I had anything and that’s when our songs get formed, from voice memos.

AMBY: A mood could be so subjective to the mood, the setting, what happened the night before.

SIMON: Not for me, man. I feel like I fight my band all the time when they think that I have to listen to a song over and over again. Not me, man, the first time you can tell whether it is a good melody or not. As soon as I heard ‘Let It Be’ for the first time, I was sold. I don’t have to hear that eight times. I don’t have to be in a mood. I don’t have to be in a certain environment. ‘Let It Be’ is the best song, ever or ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. For me, you just know whether something has potential or not right away.

DAVE: Yeah, Brian Wilson said that if it doesn’t have it in the first eight seconds, it doesn’t have it.

AMBY: How do you know when you have enough material to have the new album, the new chapter? Especially if you want to write that perfect record that you’re talking about.

SIMON: Yeah, that’s true actually. I guess you don’t. I will never make a record until I know that it is good. I guess the time to do it is when you know it, when you know that it is going to be a good record.

AMBY: Let’s walk over here to the “classic” records: The Beatles, Led Zeppelin. When you’re looking at these and talking about making a classic, perfect record, is there something that you hold up as the calibre of that example?

SIMON: Yeah, we do actually. We have major fights about this all of the time. You’re going to open a can of worms here. I actually don’t think that The Beatles ever wrote a ten out of ten record.

AMBY: Is that what made them The Beatles?

SIMON: I think The Beatles are the best thing in the world, don’t get me wrong. Their catalogue of songs is beyond me, but I don’t think they ever made a ten out of ten record. I don’t know if anybody has and I don’t know if that is possible. Ones for me that are close are The Offspring’s ‘Smash’, which is very close.

[DAVE LAUGHS]

SIMON: Meat Loaf’s ‘Bat Out of Hell II’. Not the first one, the second one. Weezer’s ‘Blue Album’ is close.

AMBY: Pinkerton?

SIMON: No! It’s a good record, but not anywhere near a ten out of ten, for me. And then The Beatles’ records are so close, the first six songs are eleven out of ten and I’m like wow, you guys aren’t human writing some of the best music that I’ve ever heard in my life. Then there are two or three that I don’t think are ten.

DAVE:  You heard it here, folks. The Offspring are better than The Beatles.

AMBY: Dave, having been a music blogger previously, how does that translate to being in a band? Are you as critical?

DAVE: I think that it is weird moving from being a critic to making music because having a critical mind gives you anxiety about your own music. You think about all of the things that a critic might say about the music that you make and in a sense, you have to turn off that part of your brain in order to be able to make something. If you’re constantly saying that isn’t good enough or that’s strange or that doesn’t work, then you can’t make music. I definitely think there has been a mental shift and it has actually made me a lot easier on other bands that I feel that I am a lot friendlier. Now when I watch something, rather than saying that this stinks for these various reasons, I think that is actually really good. I think that I am more open-minded to what other musicians are doing and more appreciative of different styles and things that might necessarily not be to my taste, but I can understand now more of the talent, the effort and the work that goes into it. Being in a band has softened me up a lot and you have to tell the inner critic to go for a walk sometimes.

AMBY: Does the critic always go for a walk or show up unannounced for dinner?

DAVE: Simon has a different process, but I have to tell him to go away for a while.

SIMON: I agree. [LAUGHS]

***

Thank you The Strumbellas, for giving us your answers!

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Interview by Colton Eddy |

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