Royal Canoe: Of bathtubs and drum beats

The musical mad scientists in Royal Canoe rehearse in their practice space. Matt Peters. Dylan Hewlett
Brendan Berg and Matt Schellenberg. Dylan Hewlett
Michael Jordan and Derek Allard. Dylan Hewlett
Bucky Driedger. Dylan Hewlett
Royal Canoe. Supplied

Royal Canoe’s new EP is all about Winnipeg, but instead of referencing the Golden Boy and provincial highways, the local rock band sings about bathtubs.

Bathtubs is the name of the second song on the disc, and with its refrain of “The bathtubs in the hallway are here to stay / The bathtubs in the hallway are in the way,” the song is, on the surface, about the building where the band rehearses – an apartment block whose suites have been converted into jam spaces for local bands.

At one point, the building’s owner took the bathtubs out of each suite and moved them into the halls. The members of Royal Canoe found themselves struggling to get their gear past the tubs whenever they had shows to play.

“I’m sure they put the bathtubs there with some thought that they might sell them at some point, but (they) just didn’t,” keyboard player Matt Schellenberg explains. “We were thinking, those great intentions are a great metaphor for Winnipeg, where you have to work really, really fucking hard at surviving the winter and getting through the obstacles that Winnipeg provides.

“I love this town, but we were just thinking how we would love to get past the bathtubs in the hallway.”

At the same time, guitarist Bucky Driedger points out, the lyric “There’s still a degree of celebration” shows that the song isn’t merely an indictment, but a celebration of Winnipeg’s complexities.

“It’s a pretty joyous-sounding song,” he says. “There is a sense where you can get slogged down, but there’s still some reason why we keep coming to this shithole (practice space) and keep wanting to write the best songs that we can even though there’s a lot of things in the way.”

The exuberant ode to surviving this city is a key track on the EP, titled Extended Play, which the band - Schellenberg, Driedger, singer Matt Peters, bassist Brendan Berg and drummers Derek Allard and Michael Jordan - will release with a show at the West End Cultural Centre on Friday, Feb. 17.

Extended Play is the follow-up to the band’s debut album, Co-op Mode, and even though it contains just four songs, it’s an eclectic EP.

But then, people familiar with the band shouldn’t find that surprising.

Those great intentions are a great metaphor for Winnipeg, where you have to work really, really fucking hard at surviving the winter and getting through the obstacles that Winnipeg provides.

Matt Schellenberg, Royal Canoe

Over the past three-and-a-half years, Royal Canoe have established themselves as musical mad scientists, throwing rock, pop and hip hop into a blender to create catchy-as-hell, dance floor-ready songs with odd time signatures and distorted vocals.

Think of them as the child that would result, however inexplicably, if the Beatles, Peter Gabriel, Vampire Weekend, Outkast and Fever Ray had a hymn sing followed by an orgy.

When writing songs, the band usually starts with the drum beat. Building songs around rhythms is different from how they approach songwriting in their other bands, which include The Waking Eyes and The Liptonians.

“The idea of being in a band where the rhythmic aspect is not only a big focus but often the genesis of the song was just an exciting experiment at first,” Driedger says. “Through that, (I realized) how important rhythm is in pop music—almost sometimes more than the chord progression and the melody. The melody and the chord progression, that’s the stuff that grabs your ear, but it’s the rhythm that really energizes the song.”

Some of the songs took two-and-a-half years to perfect, with the band working 60 hours a week in their rehearsal space at certain points.

They tracked over a dozen songs during the two months they spent recording at Private Ear with co-producer/engineer John Paul Peters from November to January. They’re saving the rest of the songs for an album that will come out later this year or next.

For now, the band will drag its gear through the hallway where the bathtubs used to be to the West End Cultural Centre for the EP release show, and then on a tour that will take them across Western Canada, then to South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, and then to Canadian Music Week in Toronto.

“We want to do this, and we want to do it for a living,” Peters says. “We want to travel as much as we possibly can, we want to get our music out to people and we’re all really confident about what we’ve made.”

Now that’s cause for celebration.

Related articles:

Catching up with John Paul Peters: The local recording engineer talks about working with Royal Canoe and Propagandhi - Feb. 17, 2012

The Uniter 30: Matt Peters - Dec. 2, 2010

Five local artists to watch in 2010: Royal Canoe - Jan. 20, 2010

The liberating shift into co-op mode: Waking Eyes frontman Matt Peters discusses his new band, Royal Canoe, and the future of the Eyes - Sept. 9, 2009

Published in Volume 66, Number 19 of The Uniter (February 8, 2012)

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