There was a time when Stephen Pitkin, percussionist for Elliott BROOD, used a suitcase in place of a bass drum on stage. In their earlier recordings, the Toronto-based, three-piece band produced a similar effect by stomping together on a wooden floor. The quick and heavy rhythm added energy to their acoustic guitars, banjos and ukuleles.
Like Ambassador and Mountain Meadows before it, their 2011 release Days Into Years has been nominated for a Juno award in the Roots & Traditional Album of the Year category.
Roots is not a label that Casey Laforet – who plays guitar and ukulele, sings background vocals and shares songwriting duties with front man Mark Sasso – thinks quite applies to their sound. The band once called themselves “death country” – “country” as a reaction to critics who called them bluegrass, and “death” because of their lyrical depth and alternative style.
They no longer describe themselves that way. (On their website, they contend that their latest record “put a knell to the ‘death country’ tag.”) But despite the evolution in their instrumentation, Laforet still embraces the roots/traditional genre.
“I don’t know if we necessarily belong in the sound category of what roots/traditional is, but if you look at folk music and the importance of folk music, it’s good story telling. And that’s sort of what we pride ourselves on,” he said.
Days Into Years favours distorted electric guitars over the softer stringed instruments of their previous records. Along with the change in sound came more introspective themes of getting older – hence the album’s title.
The band was inspired during their first tour of Europe, not long before their 2008 release of Mountain Meadows. They had five days to drive between tour stops in Amsterdam and Barcelona. To save money, they avoided toll roads, which took them through side streets along the French coast. They came upon Étaples Military Cemetery, a plot of more than 11,500 graves of Allied soldiers of the World Wars, including some from Canada.
“We stopped and spent a couple of hours walking around, really being hit by the intensity of that place. All the stones are the same – it’s a pretty remarkable thing to see,” said Laforet.
Back in the car, they began to reflect on what they’d seen at Étaples during rush hour in Paris.
“In the perspective of the war, that influence on the record, it was that idea of the young kids going over and thinking they’d be going over for a short time and coming back. That’s how they were sold on it – propaganda telling them that you’ll get to Europe, you’ll meet some girls and then you’ll go home and this war will be over. But four years passed by, and that’s a lifetime, seeing what they had to see.”
“If I Get Old” is written from the perspective of those young soldiers. It yearns for a peaceful old age without taking it for granted, and it laments that “I’ll never be the same again without my youthful heart.”
The opening track, “Lindsay,” also sets the tone for the album. It’s a story of the crumbling home in which the narrator grew up. The house is being vacated before its demolition. The rooms have been emptied, but heights marked on doorframes and hung family photos remain.
In “Northern Air,” Laforet remembers a close friend who died in a car crash.
“Strangely enough, we just got back from Europe, and on our last day of tour, which was pretty much the last day on our international tour for the record, we were in Belgium and we came across another Canadian cemetery. That was odd that it happened that way… I thought that was kind of poignant.”
Elliott BROOD played two shows at Hamilton’s This Aint Hollywood on March 15 and 16. The sold-out performances were particularly meaningful to the band, as Pitkin and Sasso have relocated from Toronto to Hamilton in the last couple of years.
Although Laforet remains in Toronto, he thinks of Hamilton fondly. His mother grew up in the east end. The Mountain Meadows track “The Valley Town” is a reference to Dundas, Ont., where he used to visit his grandparents.
With most of their Days Into Years touring behind them, the band will turn their attention to new material this summer.
“I have a feeling that the upcoming album might step back a little bit towards an acoustic sound, but I’m not sure yet,” said Laforet. “We really haven’t worked out the songs yet. I mean, it’s more about the subject matter than about what instruments we’ll use. On that last record, electric guitar was what it was messaging.”