Call In The Back-Up

Adding more musicians maximizes TH&TAM’s onstage awesomeness

Music | by Gregory Beatty

Photo: Jodie Ponto

The Harpoonist & The Axe Murderer
Broadway Theatre
Thursday 6

Long celebrated by their fans as a hard-driving blues/rock duo, Shawn Hall and Matthew Rogers — a.k.a. The Harpoonist & the Axe Murderer — recruited reinforcements for their follow-up to 2014’s Juno-nominated A Real Fine Mess.

Apocalipstick’s 13 tracks include contributions from John Raham (The Be Good Tanyas) on drums, Geoff Hilhorst (The Deep Dark Woods) on keyboards and Andrina Turenne and Alexa Dirks (Chic Gamine) on lead and backing vocals.

“A lot were people who we’ve met while on tour or at different festivals,” Rogers said via phone from his Vancouver home before the band’s April 6 gig at the Broadway Theatre. “We loved and admired their musicianship as part of the broader Canadian roots music scene, and felt it would be awesome to have them spice up our sound.”

Song-writing for the album was a group effort too, says Rogers.

“Shawn, my brother Ben and I all came to the table with a bunch of ideas. Ben’s really great with lyrics, and we can bounce ideas off him. He serves as a bridge between Shawn and I so we don’t just argue like an old couple. It was a collaboration we’ve done on previous albums, but not to this extent.”

Apocalipstick was recorded at historic Afterlife Studios in Vancouver.

“It used to be Mushroom Studios, which is pretty well known,” says Rogers. “My favourite story is that with Led Zeppelin’s “Bring It On Home”, there’s this bluesy intro, and it was recorded with just one mic outside this reverb chamber that they have there.”

In addition to drumming on Apocalipstick, Raham served as co-producer.

“We gave him a rough idea of the beats we liked, but he had some pretty strong ideas himself,” says Rogers. “So as far as the grooves and rhythm section goes, it was definitely a collaboration.

“Then with the vocals, it was a collaboration between Shawn and the women. He really loved being in the room with them, and not just laying their parts over top of what he’s doing. It really changed the way he sang. It’s also just the energy in the room with a bunch of people making music together rather than being on your own while everyone else is in the control room critiquing.”

As might be expected from the album title (at least, the first half), Apocalipstick delves into some dark themes — most inspired by the current state of the world.

“A lot of the events hadn’t taken place when we were working on the album, but the feeling was definitely in the air,” says Rogers. “We start the album off with a tune called ‘Get Ready’ which sounds like an ‘up’ number, but we actually conceived of it more as a warning sign to our children.”

The album is far from defeatist, though. That’s where the “lipstick” part of the title, and the accompanying cover image of a pair of psychedelic lips on a black background, comes in.

“It represents the idea that even though things are going to hell in a handbasket, something like a night on the town or enjoying something fun or frivolous can juxtapose how dire things feel sometimes,” says Rogers.

“To me, that’s what music is — especially the blues. You take all the shitty things that are happening and turn them into something enjoyable.”

Hitting The Road

Hall and Rogers won’t be joined by all their studio collaborators on the tour but they will have a juiced-up line-up.

“Normally, we record albums, and make them the best that we can, then we have to learn how to translate that to just two people,” says Rogers. “On this tour, we’re doing something we’ve never done before, which is adding a drummer. Usually, it’s just me playing drums with my feet. I’m still going to do that, but we’re adding a drummer who also plays keyboards so he’s another multi-tasker.

“We also have a vocalist named Dawn Pemberton. She’s sung with us for awhile now, and is on the record, and is absolutely fantastic. That will help us represent what we recorded, instead of coming up with new arrangements. That’s really exciting for us. It’s like new ground for us and our fans.”

The tour stretches from B.C. to Ontario and goes until late April. After that, says Rogers, the plan is to play some Canadian festivals this summer, then head over to Europe in the fall.

“We recently toured the UK with a band called St. Paul and the Broken Bones. We were opening for them, so were playing some of the biggest shows we’ve ever played and reaching a lot of new fans.

“With the rest of Europe, we have pockets of support, because we also toured with one of our favourite bands in the world called Dr. Dog. In places like Berlin and Amsterdam, there are people who have heard about us. But Europe’s a big place, and we’ve just got to keep hitting it and see where we land.”

One place Hall and Rogers won’t be touring any time soon, though, is the United States.

“Getting out has always been difficult, especially when the name of your band is The Harpoonist & the Axe Murderer,” says Rogers. “We’ve had mixed results down there, and it just feels like it’s not the right time for the USA.” ❧