Winnipeg sextet Royal Canoe have had quite a year, for better or worse. The hard-to-define experimental pop group recently embarked on a North American tour to support the release of their sophomore LP, Something Got Lost Between Here and the Orbit. In the middle of the tour, they lost all of their equipment in a deplorable case of thievery, but they rebounded with style, continuing their tour with some of their most vibrant performances, along with their recent release of a live recording on Audiotree.
The former Juno Award nominees are constantly busy with touring, recording and side projects, but we managed to catch up with frontman Matt Peters early in their recent tour for a chat about creativity, home, and life on the road.
A lot of people ask you guys to describe your sound, but your music doesn’t really fit into any neat genre. Do you think it even matters anymore to talk about music in terms of genre?
For some artists, I think it does. It can be a good way to let people know what you’re going to sound like, and it kind of speaks to the traditions that you adhere to. For what we’re making, it’s a little more difficult because it shifts from song to song.
On the topic of genre, there seems to be heavier jazz influence on the new album than on the last one, with the song “Bicycle” in particular coming to mind. Do you think jazz is making a resurgence amongst younger listeners?
Maybe. Jazz is so strange because at one point it sounded like it was the most cutting edge thing that people had ever heard, with interesting new harmonies and different melodic sensibilities. And then the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s happened, and the popular perception of jazz as an innovative sound kind of took a back seat. I think there are a lot of really cool bands, like BADBADNOTGOOD, some of the new Kendrick stuff, and Flying Lotus, that you can call jazz. But they’re doing it in a way that sounds really fresh and new, and the tones that they’re using are not like your conventional jazz references. They’re using synthesizers, affected vocals and drum machines, so I think that’s kind of helping to push that sound into a new place.
Would you consider those acts to be some of your musical influences?
Yeah, I think on this record. Those were some of the things we were listening to, for sure.
What are some of your other personal musical influences?
We’re pretty all over the place. To be honest, when I’m at home working on an album and I’m in a creative headspace, I’m not listening to a ton of other music. I wish I was one of those people who has an enormous record collection and just listens all the time. There are guys like that in the band, and they introduce us to a lot of great stuff, but I’ve kind of drifted away from that, especially in the last five years. That doesn’t mean that I don’t try to stay on top of things, which is obvious from things that I’m listening to. But I guess I’m appreciating it in a different way now, so when I hear something new that excites me, it’s really awesome and I can’t get enough of it.
Royal Canoe has a very democratic songwriting process, with six members who are full of ideas. Does that process ever slow things down when you’re working on new material?
I think so, but not for the worse. Everyone knows their place. I don’t think anyone would ever intentionally derail a song just so their idea would get used or something. We all respect each other a lot, and I think we’re all trying to work towards making the best song possible. Sometimes that means going down a rabbit hole, but honestly, I don’t think it matters how many members there are in the band. For the kind of songs we’re making, it would still take a ridiculous amount of time. We’re at the point now where we’re thinking about the next record already, and we’re trying to think of how we can speed up the process without compromising the end results. We work on a computer quite a bit, and we orchestrate everything that way. If you suddenly change the tools you’re working, is it going to disrupt the process? Or will it push you to a new place that you never could have dreamed of going, had you just worked with your old tools? Some answers we have to figure out in the next little while before we keep working.
Royal Canoe is known for having a fairly relentless touring schedule. Is there any place in particular that you really enjoy visiting and performing in?
We love going to the west coast of the States, and New York is always a highlight for us. We have a bunch of friends in New York, and we try to go there as much as we possibly can, even when we shouldn’t because it costs too much money. We find a way. Touring isn’t always the best way to travel and be a tourist because you have a schedule that you have to adhere to that usually means going to a club or a venue, which is not a great way of seeing a city. At the same time, you’re kind of forced to meet new people, and when you do have some free time you go and do your own thing. We’ve had the chance to do Europe a couple of times and that was pretty amazing. This answer is so long because I like a lot of places. We went to Iceland a few years ago, and I think we all feel the consensus that it was our favorite place to go. We went to a festival called Iceland Airwaves. Iceland is a pretty magical place. I’ve never been to any place like that in my life.
I keep hearing great things about Iceland.
Yeah, it’s worth going. Even if it’s expensive, go. It’s crazy.
You’ve said before that you don’t write songs with the intention of live performance in mind, so it always takes a while to figure out how to play them on stage. In that regard, how do the new songs compare to the old ones?
Surprisingly, it fits together. We didn’t know going in. We were like, “man, are there more things now, or less things?” But I think it fits together quite smoothly, and I think it all miraculously sounds like a band. We’ve also brought in a couple of extra tools. We have these midi-controlled lights that we play that also play midi-controlled sounds. We’re trying to bring in a new layer of performance to the show, so that we can trigger sounds that we just don’t have enough hands to play. I think it’s hard for people to realize this because there are all these dudes on stage and we’re all hunkered over our gear, but we are trying to play everything and trigger everything. If it’s not playing the guitar or another instrument, we still want to trigger it live, too. We want to make sure that people can see the performance aspect. Everything that’s happening is being created at that moment.
What about Winnipeg? What’s it like playing in your hometown, now that you’ve achieved a measure of success?
Winnipeg’s always been the best place for us to play. For some bands, maybe things don’t happen in their hometown, but we’ve been lucky, and our hometown has been so supportive. All of our friends and family are there, and the artistic community is really incredible to be a part of. At the beginning of this tour, we did an album release show at a theatre in Winnipeg. It’s a larger performance venue, and it’s called the Burton Cummings theatre, because Burton Cummings gave it a bunch of money a few years ago, which is kind of funny. It’s a stupid name, or a great name, depending on how you see Burton Cummings. [laughs] Anyway, it was a night that I think we’ll all remember for a long time because we had the whole city coming together to support us. It made for a great send off for this whole tour.
You’re pretty involved with the arts and music scene in Winnipeg. Is there anything else that you’re working on right now?
There are a few things that we’re all part of. There’s a project that I produced a few years ago called Smoky Tiger. It’s this guy who records on his laptop, and he makes psychedelic raps that he burns onto CDs and releases at parties. He wrote some songs that are kind of like history lessons of Manitoba, for lack of a better term. [laughs] It’s all about bandits, vagabonds and historical figures in Manitoba’s past, and I helped produce that. There’s another artist in Winnipeg that Matt [Schellenberg] and I both worked with called Begonia. She’s a friend of ours named Alexa, who sings on a whole bunch of Royal Canoe songs. Matt also did a soundtrack of songs for a film, and I worked with a friend of mine on creating a musical adaptation of a novel by a Canadian author named Elizabeth Smart. All that stuff is hopefully coming out sometime soon.
There are also some other things we’re working on as a band. We’re partaking in a stage production of Richard II. It’s going to be an original telling of the story through a concert. The same friend of mine from the novel adaptation will be playing Richard. He and I wrote the songs a while back, and now the band is working on moulding them into Royal Canoe songs that we can integrate into the theatre show. We’ll be performing it in Winnipeg from December 14th to 18th.
That sounds amazing.
Yeah, we’ll see. [laughs] I’m terrified and also really excited about it.
Your lyrics often deal with the difficult realities of life in Winnipeg. Do you ever think of relocating?
Yeah, all the time. [laughs] We’ve all spent time outside of Winnipeg because we’re touring constantly, and we’ve done some stretches living elsewhere. But you know, Winnipeg is a great centrally located place for a touring band. On this tour that we’re on, we did a figure eight. The first part of the tour was the western part of the continent, and the second part was the east. That allows us to stay at home for a week or ten days or however long we want right in the middle of it. It splits up the tour well, and we can do shorter bursts.
Also, for our style of production, we need a space that’s kind of cheap because we spend a lot of time working in it. If we lived in Toronto, our practice space might cost five times as much money, and everyone would have to have intense full time jobs just to afford their apartments. Winnipeg is actually a great place to be if you are an artist because it’s affordable. And it also doesn’t hurt that all of our friends and family live there. But who knows? I’m constantly appreciative of everything that Winnipeg is to me, but I also love travelling and I love other places, so I never want to say never.
You guys started writing songs for the new album very soon after Today We’re Believers was released. Can we expect the same level of productivity this time around?
Yeah, except hopefully it won’t take three years [laughs]. That’s something we really want to try to avoid. Even though we started working on it after a little ways into Believers, it still took so long because it’s so hard to just be focused and in one place. On this album we’re going to try really hard to work on the road or work quicker or something because we want to keep putting things out in a more timely fashion, if we can.
Royal Canoe are set for an extensive tour, starting at the West End Cultural Center in Winnipeg December 14th, and ending at the Berghain Kantine in Berlin.