Elliott Brood: Stranger Than Fiction

By: Sarah Hagerman

And how we love the evening
The gaslight flooded streets
We pour into the dance halls
The floors jump through our feet

Elliott Brood
If the geographic west has long been settled, the idea of the west remains strong, whispering its promises in everything from country songs to road movies. It is still an imaginative place where we long to spread our blank pages, and this idea of absolute freedom has informed our national identity to the point that it's thought of as a birthright. But broken dreams litter the settlement of the west; at best, mere disappointments, at worst, sheer brutality. It's the latter that initially inspired Elliott Brood's superb Mountain Meadows (Six Shooter), an album which evokes both that journey of renewal and the darker realities that often lie beyond the beckoning horizon. On it, the trio from Toronto, Canada speak to clean slate hopes, blood-stained floors, and bullet-riddled dust with more atmospheric might and emotional thrust than bands that get too hung-up on nostalgia usually muster.

"I think it's the traveling; it's that spirit of pioneering, getting out west," Casey Laforet (guitar, bass pedal, vocals) reflects, speaking over the phone before a gig on Prince Edward Island. "That's always been something that's interesting to us, that journey that people take. Sometimes you make it, sometimes you don't. That's how the record flows as well. It jumps out of the gates with that excitement about making the trip and then, as the record goes, you get into trouble, you start feeling homesick, you see new things, and it's not as easy as you thought it would be. It's the journey. I know lots of people, including myself, who've gone out west, with much more comfort than people had back then, and it's not always as great as you think it's going to be. There are lots of challenges."

It's fitting that I'm talking to Laforet and Mark Sasso (guitar, banjo, ukulele, lead vocals) on Neil Young's birthday. Rounded out by Stephen Pitkin (percussion, vocals), the Brood look to Shakey when it comes to their road map, as is apparent on Meadows, which saw a U.S. release this past fall after meeting great critical acclaim in Canada in 2008. There's real Crazy Horse electric muscle weaving through the roots at their music's core, with grunge caked in the spokes at its folkiest turns. Delivered in aching Marlboros-and-whiskey-for-breakfast vocals, there's no doubt that you are in the presence of some powerful spirit. The Brood's sound is an unruly beast and they own it completely.

Elliott Brood by Rock Paper Pixels
Although often pegged as alt-country, or even occasionally by particularly ignorant music writers, bluegrass, the Brood doesn't hearken to these touchstones.

"We've been called blackgrass and different things like that," Laforet says. "I don't think we're necessarily influenced by roots music all that much, other than maybe Neil Young, Bob Dylan and The Band. But we've been introduced to banjo music like Bill Monroe and The Stanley Brothers since. I didn't know any of that stuff before we were in this band, and it's come to us after [the fact] because people figured we knew them because of the kind of music we're playing."

Although Sasso had named their music "death country" for awhile ("Even though the songs are upbeat, it has that kind of Clint Eastwood vibe to the music," Laforet adds), their influences come from outside the world of cowboy boots and weeping pedal steels. Sasso and Laforet both grew up in Windsor, Ontario, located across the Detroit River from Detroit. As Laforet explains of his hometown, "There's a lot of Motown influence and a lot of classic rock. That's kind of the stuff that we mostly listened to as kids. There was no country music; even roots or folk weren't the genres that we grew up on at all. So I think that's also why the blend of folk and rock that we play is a little different from the box, the general idea of alt-country."

The Backstory

Laforet and Sasso attended the same high school in Windsor, but didn't connect until later when they both found themselves in Toronto. Sasso was playing solo gigs, and he and Laforet bonded over shared musical interests. In 2002, they began playing as a four-piece, but the other two members quickly dropped out, leaving Sasso and Laforet to continue as a two-piece. Pitkin came on as a drummer officially in 2005, but he had been involved with the band as a co-producer on their debut EP, 2004's Tin Type, and had been a supporter of the band since mixing sound for the duo one night at the Cameron House in Toronto.

Elliott Brood
"As opposed to everybody making the exact same music, there's a lot of support for whatever music you create. That's where the scene is," says Sasso of the creative sparks that fly in Toronto. "You're allowed to go and create and people support that. There's tons and tons of bands, amazing bands, in Toronto and there's tons of clubs to go and play at. That makes it vibrant. People feed off of each other. We have some bands that are larger than others in Toronto – Broken Social Scene, Metric – and that are bigger on an international scale, but there's also smaller bands in Toronto that are making waves in Canada. It's nice to see. You get inspired by somebody else and then you go out and make a band. I think that's the best thing about Toronto, the support network and the amount of amazing musicians."

The band has made headway in Canada, touring heavily and filling up rooms across the country on their latest tour. Meadows was even nominated for the prestigious Polaris Prize, an award given to a Canadian band solely on the basis of artistic merit. Although still flying under the radar in the U.S., with their energetic, rousing live shows, hopefully, it shouldn't be long before many Stateside are hip to the Brood.

"Mark calls it a revival," Laforet says of their shows. "A lot of the material lyrically is darker, but when we play it [live] we really want to get people moving and dancing. We hand out instruments to the crowd to play and sing along with us. I think the aim of our show is for people to go home never forgetting what they saw. There's very few bands that I've ever seen that have done that for me, so we really try to put on a show that's memorable so they can go home and tell people, 'You should have been there, you should have seen this.' We're sweaty messes by the end of every show."

A notable feature of their shows, however, was retired in June 2008, namely Pitkin's percussion work featuring him battering a suitcase to produce a distinctive thump.

"It just started getting too much for us to find replacement suitcases," explains Laforet. "They started getting broken because the shows are pretty energetic and it was just hard to keep finding suitcases that actually sounded good. Montreal was the last time we used a suitcase, and it was sacrificed to the gods at the end of the show. It now resides in a bar in Peterborough [Ontario] on the wall, as a little trophy."

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