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Big Top: Sound poems from the underbelly

Tuesday 03rd, March 2015 / 20:21
By Tiina Liimu
Photo: R.D. Cane

Photo: R.D. Cane

VANCOUVER — Artist-musician Scott McLeod does not hear songs. Instead, he sees them and like a twisted synesthesia he sketches words and paints soundtracks of clandestine oddities. This is not punk rock, but the attitude is there. “I liked what it did because it cleaned the house of rock ‘n’ roll and it changed everything,” says the guitarist and storyteller. When his band of players roll in and set up Big Top, they create and carve out a distinctive territory that not only “entertains” but also challenges the way we experience these stories. Not as a standard band, instead with spoken word, instrumentals and sound.

Joining McLeod, is Stephen Graf on bass, Gordon Rempel on piano, Ed Goodine on drums and Marc L’Esperance on guitar. On lap steel is John Wood and he also produced Big Top’s latest release, Jo Jo The Dog Faced Boy.

“I read a lot, so I’ll find a character, that interests me,” explains McLeod. “I think the reason why I picked the circus first, is that the circus signifies entertainment, and way before the Internet, we went to the circus for entertainment. I believe there is the nice side of the circus and there is the dark side.” The latter is where these narratives live.

“I really bit into it, it was like the characters that surround the circus, the carnies, the barkers, the people that hang out outside [of it], the grifters, the guys that work on the trains and hobos. It can take on so many different tones. There is still the circus today, but the sideshow is gone,” he explains.

Entertainment and media are like odd coupled siblings connected at the hip. McLeod points to the radio and it was the radio that would advertise the circus. Then TV came along and wiped it out, enter the computer and again it would change how we see things. “What Big Top means to me, it’s more than just the circus, and it’s where we get ourselves entertained. In comes film, I’ll watch a movie, and turn the sound off and see a character. I’ll be playing the guitar and write songs,” he says. “It’s like I see the story and I see the music in the story. I’m not hearing it, I’m seeing it and that’s the part where the inspiration comes.”

McLeod pays homage to soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone and it’s not necessarily what he played, it’s that he used a symphonic orchestra that employed folk music keys. “All the guitar chords,” he says and this is what he works with. Sound and music can manipulate in subtle ways transcending most art forms.

This story is told by spoken word, taken from a poem, written by traveler Ed Graf, the bass player Stephen Graf’s father. Laid against a soundtrack that opens with the sound of a buzzing fly leading you in. “La Mosca,” is the fly. “You can feel the heat in that song,” says McLeod. “The Mexican circus is full of masks…” Stories also move away from the shtick. “I love Film Noir, [the time] ‘while the city sleeps,’ [is] like the circus of life, the characters that work at night, taxi drivers and midnight cowboys.”

“It’s kind of like what Miles Davis said, it’s not about what you’re playing, it’s what you’re not playing,” he adds. These characters are a sideshow, like Jo Jo the Dog Faced Boy; he is a circus performer who wears a mask. When Jo Jo wakes up in the morning, he is fucked up, a mess and drinks, but once the curtain goes up, the show is on.

Big Top performs at the Emerald on March 12.

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