By Paul Rodgers
CALGARY — Ask any musician friend: maintaining a band is no easy feat. Whether there are two people or six people in your band, there are a lot of factors and variables that can impede being able to get a group of people together, and stay together long enough to write some songs and play shows for any substantial length of time. It’s a massive undertaking to make a decent living solely as a musician, especially in this difficult economy, and new opportunities arise drawing members to new ventures.
For the Bitterweed Draw, this weighs even more heavily. The six-piece honky tonk band has seen numerous members come and go and they have overcome many hurdles since their inception in 2009, but have triumphantly released their sophomore album in October of this year and things have begun to solidify to the point where they can look forwards with greater confidence.
“We’re currently on our fifth drummer, that’s Travis Miller; our fourth bass player, that’s Daniel Bourassa,” says founding vocalist Mike Corbiell.
“They’re both great. It’s been a transition time, in the last few years. In 2012 we toured Canada with our original six-piece lineup. After that, our original bass player moved to Vancouver and our original drummer didn’t want to live that kind of road life, he didn’t have time for the band. It’s always a bit challenging to be in a transformation.”
Bitterweed’s present incarnation all contribute to vocal harmonies and features Corbiell on lead vocals, banjos and electric guitar alongside Mario Casagrande a.k.a. Freddy Knuckles on acoustic guitar, Daniel Bourassa on double bass, Wayne Garett on electric guitar, lap steel and dobro, Cathy Billington on fiddle and mandolin, and Travis Miller on the drums.
With the release of the band’s newest and most unified record Dynamite Mountain, there were other factors at play as well. Their production engineer had a baby right before they commenced recording, adding to the already lengthy process.
“Now that it’s done we’re super pumped on it, it feels like a really reinvigorated project,” says Corbiell enthusiastically as he casually swigs a Caesar at a Kensington watering hole. “Just having that album and playing shows and having a lineup where people are really on board and a rhythm section that’s dedicated and on board is really great: it’s a new energy to the band.”
The band has come along way from their 2009 formation. The band was born from bluegrass jam parties that took place every Friday night at Corbiell’s place.
“It was a really great creative environment and it allowed a lot to flourish out of it,” remembers Corbiell.
The new album is a strong indication that the band has solidified both musically and in terms of having a consistent lineup without forgetting their roots. Muddying the lines between country, bluegrass and honky tonk and even rockabilly, it’s an unexpected joy and ode to the nitty-gritty bits of life.
“From a musical standpoint, it’s definitely better recorded and it’s a better album, I do believe that,” states Corbiell. “When we recorded the first album I’d only been playing banjo for like a year. You can, I think hear a fairly definitive difference between that and this one.”
Corbiell says that he grew up playing guitar, but after seeing the band The Old Crow Medicine Show in Missoula, Montana in 2008 he was “blown away” and was inspired to purchase his first banjo.
The band’s regular touring schedule has also impacted the creative process. Given that bluegrass and country music is about telling stories as much as it is about the music itself, the colourful new release spins tales of drinking, drugs, and heartbreak.
“As far as a reflection of how the band’s changed, it’s still probably a whiskey swigging album, but maybe this one has a little bit more story telling on it. It’s written from a first person perspective, but it’s not necessarily all written about personal stories. It’s branching out, it’s from meeting different characters, different people that we’ve met in playing a lot within Alberta, [British Columbia], Western Canada. Just meeting people and hearing their stories and some of those get put to pen and get put down on paper which is pretty exciting.”
In the six-piece ensemble, the writing process is shaped by the vast collective influences that each individual member brings to the table. As well as traditional blue grass music and guys like Hank Williams III, who paved the way for some of the band’s lyrical content, Bitterweed also pays homage to their collective love of rock ‘n’ roll. For example, the group is known to put their own spin on tunes like Mötorhead’s classic “Ace of Spades” in their live shows.
“There’s a lot to writing a song, not just based around the lyrics, and sometimes they’re a collaborative effort,” explains Corbiell of their original tunes. “A song like ‘Moonshiner Blues’ is a very collaborative effort, where we just went away to a cabin for a weekend and called it a song writing weekend and we came out of it with that one.”
Dynamite Mountain lyrically tackles a huge range of content, often delving into the seedier, darker realms of life. However if you’re looking for clarification on a specific lyric, you may want to avoid their Bandcamp. For it, the group sang all of their songs into their phones, resulting in some hysterically funny resulting translations from the voice recognition software.
It’s a perfect footnote for the album and for the Bitterweed Draw. Although the band waxes poetic on the darker side of life, they do so in a playful and riotous fashion, pioneering on despite member changes and whatever else life might throw their way. While the band’s long-term forecast may be hard to predict, Corbiell says the song will go on and on. He’s ready, as always, to get back on the road with his five best friends, and see the pals across the country that he’s cultivated along the way.
The Bitterweed Draw play Vern’s Pub in Calgary on Saturday, December 12th with Robot Workers, Lasercake, and The Wheel.