Innerviews, music without borders

Royal Canoe
Going Down Rabbit Holes
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2017 Anil Prasad.

Royal Canoe

It’s a warm fall evening in San Francisco and just a few hours before the expansive Canadian rock band Royal Canoe is set to take the stage at the Brick and Mortar Music Hall. Lead singer, keyboardist and founder Matt Peters and Innerviews are having trouble finding a suitable environment for an interview here in the seedier end of the Mission district. Our options include loud bars of either the dank or nouveau-yuppie variety, bus stop benches or a nearby skate park. We choose the latter.

Seated at the edge of a constant stream of kids attempting all manner of flips and spins, with the occasional curse-laden wipeout, Peters is happy to take a break from the tour routine. He’s enthusiastic about exploring the group’s eclectic musical worldview and the challenges for a successful Canadian band attempting to take on the daunting U.S. market.

The redheaded, bearded singer is clad in denim, sneakers and a black long-sleeve t-shirt. He’s laid back, focused and passionate about the band’s inventive new release Something Got Lost Between Here and the Orbit. The record focuses on the mediating presence of technology in our lives. It also poses difficult questions about the trade-offs we make when we’re connected to all manner of mobile devices 24x7.

Musically, the new album, as with all of Royal Canoe’s output, reflects the sound of surprise. The band willfully breaks boundaries and convention within its eclectic and entertaining song structures. Influences from across the pop, rock, electronica, hip-hop, and avant realm abound, all held together with addictive melodies and hooks.  

The current incarnation of the Winnipeg-based band formed in 2010 after Peters wrote an album’s worth of material while wrapping up his time in his previous group The Waking Eyes. Together, Peters, guitarist Bucky Driedger, keyboardist Matt Schellenberg, bassist Brendan Berg, and drummers Derek Allard and Michael Jordan, have achieved revered rock act status in Canada with a devoted national fan base. The U.S. is gradually embracing the band as it builds a following through regular coast-to-coast tours.

Royal Canoe Matt Peters

Tell me where your instinct for taking such an expansive approach to song structures and arrangements comes from.

It’s down to the computer in a way. It’s borne out of necessity because of the kind of music we want to make. The computer is our medium. It’s what we use for recording and really dictates a lot of how we work. It gives us all these opportunities to create things that are large. It lets us tell more of a story with our music. It also allows you to take risks. You can try something and if it falls really flat, you just delete it and try something else. I don’t mean that you can’t take risks when you’re jamming or writing using an acoustic guitar, piano or another harmonic instrument. But your imagination has to be really intense to try and do something expansive in that context. There’s imagination in our process, too. We go down all kinds of rabbit holes when we work. This album and the previous one really reflect the end result of going across a field of rabbit holes, coming up with lots of ideas, and piecing them together to create something we’re really proud of that tells stories.

Describe the band’s mission.

Royal Canoe is about trying to do something that we haven’t heard before, whether it’s through structure, tones or lyrical content. We don’t align ourselves with a lot of other bands or genres. If you’re a punk or country band, you have traditions you respect. It’s usually not about trying to break new ground, but trying to tell stories inside of traditions. We don’t have those anchor points where it’s easy to say “Okay, we’ll write one of those kinds of songs now.”

The new album reflects on the impact of technology on relationships. Elaborate on the overall narrative.

We were away from home for a lot of the last four years. We have a really tightly-knit community of friends and relationships in Winnipeg. Some of those relationships have come and gone during that time. What we’re writing about a lot on this record is dealing with the inevitable disconnections that occur when you don’t have face-to-face interaction and aren’t able to spend time together. For all the benefits technology provides us, it also results in compromises. There’s a separation between you and the message you’re sending people. You can only maintain that for so long with long-distance communication.

I think the more we dive into the future with mobile devices, the more we’ll be confronted with the inevitable challenges of trying to figure out if what we’re saying has the meaning we intend it to. I’m one of the worst addicts there is when it comes to this stuff, but sometimes I ask myself questions like “Am I really talking to anyone? Am I just writing into a machine that then makes a little blue bubble pop out in response? How does that make me feel? Is this meaningful?” I don’t think all of those questions are necessarily answered on this record, but they’re asked.

Having said that, social media has provided musicians with fantastic opportunities to reach listeners.

Absolutely, but I think social media is a useful tool when it’s giving you bonus lines of communication. It’s compromising when it affects your regular forms of communication. We sometimes use Facebook Live for our fans, which is a really useful way of letting people into your world that they could never experience otherwise. So, there are benefits, but also concessions. As a society, we have to determine what we’re willing to sacrifice for the conveniences these technologies deliver.

You launched the album in Winnipeg by hand-delivering copies of the album to fans at their homes by bicycle. Was that a reaction to the dilemma you’re describing?

I don’t know if we thought about it that deeply, but yeah, I think a little bit. It ended up not being as bike-centric as we wanted it to be. There was quite a bit of demand and we realized we couldn’t get to everyone who wanted to be a part of it if we rode bikes everywhere. So, we only did a small portion of it on bicycle, but it was really cool. It was a much bigger experience than I ever thought it would be. Going to someone’s house and saying “Hey, here you go. Here’s the record. Let’s hang out” was great. We only had 15-20 minutes at everyone’s place, but that was enough on a superficial level to get to know people and make a connection. Even being on a stage and singing the songs isn’t as meaningful as shaking someone’s hand and being in their home. It takes something to invite someone into your home. Everyone really got into it. People went all out for us. Someone even brought a giant canoe into their house. The whole thing was surprising in the best possible way.

What evolution do you feel the new album represents for the band?

I think we were more intentional on this record. We were more confident about our decision-making and clearer with the lyrical themes. I love the last record, but I feel like we were figuring out what we wanted to say, what we want to sound like and who we were. We explored a wider range of possibilities on this record. So, I think the album reflects more maturity and the experience of working together for a few more years.

Royal Canoe

Let’s discuss a few of the key songs that relate to the album’s narrative.

The album title Something Got Lost Between Here and the Orbit is in the lyrics of “BB Gun.” It’s all about the narrative. “How Long Is Your Life?” is also a part of it. The song is about a relationship slipping away and asking yourself “How long can I keep propagating these cycles that involve not giving in all the way one way or another?” There’s something from every song that connects to the larger theme. What’s also interesting about “How Long Is Your Life?” is that it’s dressed up in an almost ‘90s Nate Dogg G-Funk sound, particularly with how the song ends. It has two distinct parts. I don’t think we would have ever got to the second half if we didn’t have the tools we have to try anything and see what happens.

“I Am Collapsing So Slowly” is also part of the narrative. Everyone in the band are all kind of marching into our 30s. I’m in my mid-30s. For better or worse, the business of dare I say rock and roll isn’t exactly a young person’s game. I don’t think that argument holds up as much as it previously did. There are a lot of man-child tendencies out there. More and more people my age are still pursuing their dreams unapologetically and I like that. But inevitably, I do ask myself things like “What am I doing here? Am I still doing this? Is this valid? Is this worth all the time and effort I put into it? Should I just accept this isn’t happening and move on? Will all of the energy I invest into this be validated in some way? Is it validated right now?” That song asks those questions too.

One of the lyrics in that song goes “I am collapsing so slowly, you’ll never see me falling.” It was the last lyric written for the song. My girlfriend and I do these stream-of-consciousness poetry games in which you come up with a title for someone and they then have to write a poem with that title. They get three minutes to do it. So, they’re just responding to the title. I gave her “I am collapsing so slowly, you’ll never see me falling” as the poem title. I remember liking it a lot and wanting to use it in some way. So, in a weird way I kind of stole it back from her.

“I Am Collapsing So Slowly” takes many twists and turns. Describe how you put it together.

We have this trick of recording guitar into an iPhone and then playing the recording into the mic. It gives the recording a really unique sonic flavor. So, we were fooling around with this guitar and really, it was initially one of the worst things ever. It was really bad noodling. But at one moment we heard something and thought “Wait a minute, there’s something there.” So, we actually used part of it at the beginning of the track where you hear an angular chord thing looping. After that, you hear a weird drum loop we threw on top of it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I cut it into where the end of the guitar loop was and it worked perfectly. It wasn’t a perfect four-bar loop, though. It was a fraction of a beat shorter, which gives it a weird, anxious feel because it never completes itself or resolves rhythmically. So, we had that part of the song for a while and then we really threw a whole bunch of stuff at the wall. It took so long to get to the point where we had the chorus. After I wrote the chorus, Bucky was there and we didn’t know what we were going to do with it. I grabbed a mic and started recording the chorus as a scratch vocal. For all the intentional work we do, I’m surprised by how many first takes we keep in the end. The chorus you hear on the album is that scratch vocal. When you write and record at the same time, you sometimes have no idea what’s going to happen. Things you believe will be terrible can often surprise you and be great. If you go too far down the path of “I’m going to get this so right,” you can lose the spark.

You explore myriad vocal approaches not only just within the album, but within the songs themselves. Tell me how you choose which approach to take.

Maybe some of it is self-consciousness with my voice, but it’s related to the mission discussion. There has to be a quality to a sound that validates us using it. We apply that same philosophy to the vocals. It’s nice to have a clean, dry, strong vocal, but I also love the sound of vocals with effects and treating vocals in a way that puts the singer into a character. It lets you tell more of the story and broaden the possibilities.

On stage, you use two separate vocal mics. Explain what they let you do.

One mic is a dry, standard, traditional mic. The other goes through a Roland Boss VT-1 Voice Transformer. I use it as a second mic to process the vocals in a way I want to on stage. It’s an old pedal they don’t make anymore because it’s great. [laughs] For some reason, gear makers don’t like continuing to produce pedals that are functional and awesome. Any time we find one, we try to buy it, because they go for quite a bit online and they’re very faulty. They always break down. We’re always happy to get backup units.

The VT-1 has four faders. One of the faders is a mix between the effects and a normal vocal sound. One fader manipulates the pitch of the vocals. If you go all the way to the top, it’s an octave up. If you go all the way down it’s an octave down. It also has a secret weapon, which is a formant fader. Formant refers to the shape of your voice. The pedal lets you transform your vocal shape into a meaty, low vocal or a chipmunk-like high vocal by speeding it up or slowing it down. It also has a pretty awesome reverb. We’ll also run guitars, keyboards and drums through this pedal. It’s our secret weapon.

Royal Canoe

How democratic an entity is Royal Canoe?

It’s exactly as democratic as it needs to be. [laughs] I think everyone has their turf and jurisdiction that they really care about. We respect each other a lot. I can’t imagine having five other people I would want to do this with. We give each other the right amount of space to work. Sometimes there are times when I say “It has to be this way.” But if someone else feels that way, I’m more than willing to take a step back and say “Wow, maybe they’re right. They’re more passionate about this than I am. Let’s do it. Let’s explore this.” We’ve all learned over the years how to function in a way that’s incredibly productive and allows everyone to have their voice heard and contribute in a really meaningful way.

We take a communal approach in Royal Canoe. We all really contribute and sacrifice a lot. We’re all mature enough as artists and people to accept that if someone comes up with a keyboard part or lyric that’s better than I would come up with, we use it, and vice-versa. Everyone in the band is willing to step outside of their comfort zone and be objective. It’s a rare thing to have.

It’s also important to state that there are two worlds in a band. There’s your “on the road” life when you’re in the van, everyone smells bad and you’re all together for 7-10 hours at a time. Then you get up on stage, make music together, go eat together, go sleep somewhere, and do it all again the next day. Then there’s your “at home” life which is very different. When we’re at home and working on music, everyone is doing their own thing and then we come together as small groups of people. It’s rare that we’re all working on a song together. It provides a sense of balance and relief.

Provide some insight into the making of the Royal Canoe Does Beck's Song Reader album from 2014. The project saw you taking Beck’s sheet music and building arrangements around them.

I don’t think we totally knew what we were getting into when we did it. We thought it would be fun to try and record an album based on it. We were going to do all of it at first, but it became very evident that we’d only be able to do 9-10. I love those songs. Listening to the chords and melodies, it’s different from a lot of Beck songs he previously wrote. It’s like he was harkening back to the songbook traditions of the 1930s. That was how songs got released then. You’d put out a book of songs and someone who plays piano would perform them for the family. It’s how the latest “hit” would make the rounds. I think he was stylistically nodding to that. For us, it was a challenge to take those songs and ensure they stylistically fit in with what we are doing. We took the chords and melodies and then went nuts. We also didn’t have a lot of time for it because we had to perform the songs live relatively quickly after completing them. We worked our tails off trying to create something we would be happy with in the end. It was a very fun process and different from what we’re used to.

Prior to Royal Canoe, you were in a Winnipeg band called The Waking Eyes that released three major label albums. Explain how that band led to the release of the first Royal Canoe album Co-Op Mode in 2010.

I was one of four guys in Waking Eyes, along with Rusty Matyas, Steve Senkiw and Joey Penner. It had more of a rock bent than Royal Canoe. The first and third albums had the seeds for what Royal Canoe would later become. The second album was more straightforward. The band existed for 10 years and we got to the point where we wanted to try doing something else. I started pursuing co-writes with other people at the end of it to broaden my writing experience. Co-Op Mode was recorded between 2006 and 2007. But it sat around for a few years. We did the last Waking Eyes album after it and realized we were going on an indefinite hiatus which led to breaking up. At that point, I had Co-Op Mode completed and released it. I wanted to play the songs live. Bucky Driedger was a touring member of Waking Eyes and I said “Hey Bucky, do you want to do it?” He did and suggested Matt Schellenberg, who he also worked with in another band called The Liptonians. It sounded like a great idea, so the three of us started working together. Joey from Waking Eyes played bass in Royal Canoe for a bit along with a revolving door of drummers. But after a few months, it became the lineup we have today with Derek Allard and Michael Jordan on drums and Brendan Berg on bass. It evolved in a pretty organic way.

Describe Winnipeg as a creative environment for those unfamiliar with it.

I think Winnipeg has always been an isolated DIY scene and that our approach is heavily indebted to that element. We prefer doing everything ourselves. We’re heavily involved in the photos, videos, bookings, and everything that has the Royal Canoe stamp on it. We want everything to be an honest reflection of who we are. People making four-track weird noise, punk and hardcore records have always been a pretty big deal here. I think there’s also anger informing that because Winnipeg is so cold. It forces you to get really creative because you’re so confined and isolated sometimes. In a city like San Francisco, there are probably 1,000 things going on during any given night. In smaller cities like Winnipeg, it isn’t like that. We really depend on people who want to make a difference—people who put on music festivals, throw their life savings into bars, or hold house parties. Sometimes you have to be that person. There are a lot of people who are creative about how they have fun and create experiences here. In Winnipeg there are less obvious things to do here and it forces your hand a bit to make things happen.

Royal Canoe

The first song I heard by Royal Canoe was “Exodus of the Year” from your last album Today We're Believers, which explores your thoughts about life in Winnipeg. Expand on what it communicates.

It was written at a time when it seemed like all my friends were leaving Winnipeg. That’s another Winnipeg trait. Because it’s so isolated, people leave, but a lot come back too. The truth is I started wondering “What’s keeping me here? Why can’t I leave?” Those were the big questions in that song. The last lyric in the song “Shaking in the cold so gallantly, the advantage of withholding your honesty” is a comment on a relationship I was in at the time, but it’s also about settling for life there. Life in Winnipeg involves settling for the city’s advantages and disadvantages. Everyone who lives there understands that. People often say “I hate this place, but I love it so much too, including all the people who live here.” That collision between resenting your environment but loving the prisoners is something we all struggle with. It doesn’t mean it’s not a beautiful place or the environment is all bad. But we’re constantly confronting these questions.

Why can’t you leave?

It really is the people. My family and the band are all based there. I also get to leave frequently. I’m gone six months of the year sometimes. That makes where I’m based less relevant. If I didn’t have a lifestyle that allowed me to go elsewhere regularly, I probably would have permanently left by now.

“Exodus of the Year” is fascinating in that it has many layers that build up and it’s in a unique time signature. Talk about its construction.

I remember when we first wrote it that we didn’t understand the whole song was in an obtuse time signature like 5/4. We like the fact that it’s unfamiliar. People are used to 4/4, 3/4 and maybe 6/8, but 5/4 is different. I feel there’s groove, rhythm and swagger lurking in other time signatures that people have abandoned. This song really tries hard to make the 5/4 rhythm catchy. It starts out with a Rhodes part and really nice, atmospheric guitar swells that kind of wash over everything. It has the same harmonic movement throughout the piece until the bridge, and then we’re constantly bringing in other textures and layers on top of it. We have some harmonica and trumpet on that one, too. We pulled out all the stops on it and I love playing it every night.

Royal Canoe is popular in Canada, but has been grinding it out in the U.S. on a smaller level for several years. Describe the desire to create a larger following in this very difficult market.

We love coming to America. As a Canadian, the traditional Canadian approach to America is to have a bit of an aloof position. We’re politically a little further to the left in some ways, but we think it’s a mistake to paint all Americans with the same brush. That’s a tendency some Canadians have. I lived in the States from age five to 10 in Pennsylvania. I always understood it’s one of the most diverse countries in the world. It’s enormous, complex and there are some disturbing aspects to it, particularly when it comes to decision-making on the part of the electorate and those that are running the show. But despite all of that, there is still something captivating and remarkable about it. It’s the center of North American culture and we’re addicted to it.

Also, there are 325 million people in America and 36 million in Canada. It’s an enormous population right underneath our feet. We’d regret it if we didn’t take a stab at that market and see what happens. Also, when we come to California, we can play six shows. We can go to the East Coast and go to New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, Pittsburgh, and Boston, and they’re all a few hours away from each other. In Canada, we have to drive so far to get from point A to B.

What’s your sense of how things are going in the U.S.?

We feel it’s going well, but it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge in Canada and everywhere else, too. We’re lucky that as Canadian musicians we have some grant-based government support. Whenever we tell Americans about that, they say “Are you serious? You can get money to tour and make records? The government pays for some of that?” [laughs] I don’t think we could make the music we do without that. Going back to your question about Winnipeg, It’s such a cheap place to live and a supportive community. The expansive—some might say indulgent—music we make couldn’t be done in any other place by us. We’re not trust fund kids. Everything we need is available to us here, including cheap practice places, people to collaborate with on videos and so much more. Those things combine to help us approach the U.S. market, too.

We’re lucky. We’ve done a couple of really nice headlining tours in the U.S. that have opened up a whole bunch of new fans to us. The market is growing. Have we reached the point when that one lucky thing you need to push you over the edge to secure a career long-term has happened? No. But you can’t depend on that. It’s one part of the quest. If we don’t achieve that, I’m not going to be unsatisfied. I still enjoy the small minutiae of the touring life involving waking up in a new city every day, meeting new people, and going venue to venue. We make the most of touring and in-between show moments. We explore the cities we travel to and live a fulfilling life on the road. I still believe that traveling and playing music is as good as life gets. We want to keep doing it as long as we can and for as long as there are people who want to hear the music we create.