No stopping The Trews
The Trews (Handout)
The Trews are one of the hardest working bands in Canada. Since releasing their first full length House of Ill Fame nine years ago the band has spent their time touring this country relentlessly, amidst US, European and Australian dates. Between the band’s four albums, two live albums and a brand new EP ...Thank You and I’m Sorry, they have amassed 13 top ten singles and a loyal following across the country. MSN caught up with Colin & John-Angus MacDonald at a coffee shop in Toronto to discuss the EP, their next album, touring and songwriting.
Do you ever take breaks? You’ve basically been touring non-stop since I met you 8 years ago.
John-Angus: Longer than that really. It’s probably been about a decade. I mean, we stop to make records. There’s the odd vacation in here and there. We haven’t done anything significant. We haven’t taken six months ever.
John-Angus: We could. I think we bore easily. We’re always eager to get back to one or the other. Whether it be back on the road, or back to writing and back to recording.
Recording was very quick this time, from what I read.
Colin: Well, the EP is kind of a stop-gap move. It’s like clearing the slate before we start again with the writing. These songs were hanging around for a couple of years. It was good to get them out. Now we can concentrate on a new set of songs.
Have you been working on new songs? Can you write on the road?
Colin: We don’t really write too much on the road, but we’ve always got stuff we’re working on. There’s always a couple of days here and there where we’re either at the jam space and somebody’s always got ideas. I find everybody in the band is writing a lot more on their own now.
Lyrically as well?
Colin: Not so much lyrics. Melodies, and riffs. They’ll bring those to the table a lot more. Sean and Jack will bring a lot more to the table. When we get together, I think everybody does their homework a bit more than we used to. We used to always sort of go in and just try and hammer something out on the spot. I think everybody’s doing their homework now. There’s always stuff to work on, which is good. It gives us something to start with next year when we make a new album.
Has the resurgence of classic rock influences in popular music done something for you guys?
John-Angus: It’s like a new guard. We’re moving into something else. I think we’re moving into an established phase of the career. Like bands that stick around for a long time, like Great Big Sea or Sloan, they eventually move into a phase where they just tour and make money, and make records. They’re not riding the coattails of a scene anymore. I think we’re moving into that phase of our career. Especially with the acoustic side of things, where we can put these shows on sale, and people want to come and see it. There’s no hype driving it anymore. I just think it’s a function of the hard work we’ve put it. Touring over and over for the last ten years. Building a trust that the fans have that we’re going to give it 100% every night. I think that new bands don’t have that luxury. They’re constantly fighting and pushing. That gives them a certain fire, but you can’t do that forever. You have to move into a second or third phase of your career, where you’re just yourselves, and people trust that you’re going to do you’ve best, and that you have a stamp.
How is that phase working internationally?
Colin: Australia’s going well. Canada’s one the only places that we’ve been established and are making money. It sounds like I’m just being business-minded, but it’s the way we make our career. We have to play an ‘X’ amount of shows. It’s a small country. We love touring it. It’s a huge, small country. You have to shake it up. You have to get into some rooms that aren’t the thing you play every time. You have to give people a new angle on the band. We try and shake up our shows every time we go on tour. Right now, on the acoustic tour, we’re doing our whole second set as an all-request show via Twitter. Fans can tweet in a request, and we play it. They write our whole second set. We’ve toured the country so many times, and I’m sure people have seen us hundreds of times. It’s just changing the venues, like playing a small seated theatre. Acoustic show versus playing the big sweaty rock club, versus opening up the big arena for another band. We’ve just done it all. There is something cool about that because you’re always shaking it up. It’s good for keeping things spontaneous and exciting.
How are the new songs coming out acoustically?
John-Angus: We’re playing them all.
Who’s playing the riff on ‘Oblivion’?
John-Angus: Rich Robinson [from The Black Crowes].
That must be interesting to play live on an acoustic.
John-Angus: It’s done with a B-Bender guitar. That’s what gives it this half pedal steel kind of sound. It’s funny, when Rich told us he was going to come up, he said, “I’d love to come up, but you have to find me a B-Bender.” I don’t know why he wanted it, but it turned out to work perfectly for that song. It was like a simple twist of fate. It worked out good. He didn’t even know the song. He just wanted to play a B-Bender.
Where did that come from? Why is he on this record?
John-Angus: We met Rich back in 2006, when the Crowes first got back together. Actually, I met him before then. We met him when he was doing his solo thing through Gordie Johnson who’s been a good friend for a long time. We went for dinner. He was playing bass in Rich’s band. We all had dinner. We met him, and caught a couple of shows. We sort of stayed loosely in touch. When the Crowes got back together he would hook us up with tickets. We’d hang out and have some drinks. Always sort of stayed in touch. I’d text him if we were playing Atlanta or New York. but musicians are always like ships passing in the night. You’re never necessarily in the same place at the same time. Ramping up to making this recording, Gordie just thought ‘Not Yours to Love’ is kind of Crowes-y. It’s very Rich Robinson-esque in a way. He said, “Let’s just see if Rich is available.” He called him and Rich said that he’d love to come. He was there like two days later. It just really worked out. There was a lot of synchronicity going on. Things were just falling into place very quickly. I think that’s why it was made so quickly.
What about writing for you guys?
Colin: We’ve had different ways of making albums over the years. We’ve written a lot of song, just the four of us in a room. These songs on the EP were the four of us and Gordie. We wrote them in Austin, TX. These were co-written with Gordie Johnson. That was also the idea of bringing Gordie into the fold again. They were all songs we worked out with Gordie. They were all done in Austin, in February or March of 2010. We thought they were all pretty strong tunes. This an example of the kind of songs we write with Gordie. Hope & Ruin is the kind of songs just the four Trews write together. That’s pretty much the dynamic of the band. It’s been that dynamic since we started.
What does he bring to the writing process?
Colin: It’s all lyric writing.
John-Angus: One thing he really wants to do, and it’s actually to his credit as a producer, he really wants to distill the essence of the group. Like, “What is it that you add to music that’s uniquely yourself?”
What’s uniquely The Trews?
John-Angus: He has these theories on it. It’s a lofty thing to try and tackle. As a good producer, you should. I think he really wants to bring out a sense of humor. He sees us as a bunch of funny guys. We spend most of our time joking around with him. One of things he adds to the lyrics is he tries to inject as much humour as he possibly he can, which we don’t necessarily gravitate towards.
Colin: But it ends up just coming out. When he starts encouraging that, I’ll just end up writing a whole bunch more funny lyrics. Without sounding too self-absorbed, it’s almost like it’s just a concept of The Trews when we work with Gordie. It’s like this certain way. For some people, that just does the trick. That’s what they want from The Trews. Other people, they like it more when it ventures out and we try different things. I find there’s a certain perception of The Trews that comes out when we work with Gordie. I’m happy with it. It’s fun-loving. It’s rock n’ roll. It sounds good with a beer in hand. You don’t have to think about it too much. There’s other sides of me that want do different things and not be The Trews. Try to write songs that aren’t The Trews, because that’s a part of being in a band. You don’t want to just keep writing your band. You want to write the future of your band and keep evolving.
John-Angus: That’s what the next record will be.
Colin: That’s what it’ll be if we’re allowed to keep indulging ourselves. [laughs]
Those joke-y songs, like ‘Herm-Aphrodite (She Was a Guy)’.
Colin: Yeah, I wrote that song, but that was all because I was so encouraged by the vibe we create with Gordie. We had this really nice song. It was actually a really nice song.
John-Angus: The melody and chords are really pretty.
It’s very fifties sounding with the harmonies and sha-la-las.
Colin: Yeah. It was nice fifties thing. We just started laughing about this one incident that happened to our keyboard player, Jeff in San Francisco. Nothing serious happened. I don’t know if I should be saying this our not. He was propositioned by a transvestite in San Francisco. We were just laughing about it. Nothing happened. It was just one of those funny things that happens on the road. We were talking about that and I started singing about it. Just the stupidest thing in the world. Half the people that hear it are just like, “I can’t believe you guys recorded it.” Then the other half are just like, “This is hilarious.” It’s definitely not on the fence. It’s also definitely not revolutionary either. It’s just one of those weird tunes.
Jeff’s been touring with you for a few years now, how does it change the dynamic for a band live?
John-Angus: He adds so much colour to the music. He lets us be more sparing guitar players. Piano takes up a lot of room. So can an organ. He plays it all. He’s a pretty brilliant, creative guy too. You can throw anything at him, and he’ll figure out how to do it. Like for all the guitar flourishes… I went a little overboard on Hope & Ruin with guitar overdubs. Like every song has more overdubs than I could possibly play.
Colin: Hope & Ruin, that one the guitar player’s producing the record.
John-Angus: All I did was tell Jeff to just figure out a way to recreate it, and he’ll actually have the tones from the record on like key samples. Just a real creative guy. He’s great to have in the band.
What was opening for Springsteen like?
John-Angus: I was in the audience watching the show with somebody who has seen him about twenty times. He played so incredibly well in Moncton. I think it all boiled down to a question he asked the audience, about the third song in. He asked the audience, “How many have never seen the E-Street Band?” This huge roar came out. He looked back at the band and said, “I guess we’ve got our work cut out for us, boys.” Sometimes you’re playing for people for the first time, and it just doesn’t feel that way. We might have played Vancouver 35 times in our career, or whatever. That doesn’t mean on the 35th time you’re not playing for 50% of the people who have never seen you before. I think you can’t take that for granted. You have to put your best foot forward all the time. Even at 62, this guy who has been touring the world for 40 years is playing for 10,000 who have never seen him. I was one of them. I had never seen the E-Street Band. It was an incredible show. A lot of people can learn a lot from Bruce Springsteen. A lot of twenty year-olds can learn about how much energy that man puts in a show, at 62.
Does watching a show like that inspire you to change your live show?
John-Angus: I like how much of a juggernaut the show was. How it kept going, and going, and going. Every song seemed to bowl over into the next. I liked that aspect of it. I thought that was really cool. And then there were really brilliant, dynamic moments when Bruce would play a song by himself on the piano. You’re always learning. You’re always stealing stuff from other artists.
Colin: When you see a great band like that, it definitely energizes you all over again. You do it for so long, and you go through moments where you’re not as inspired to do it as other times. The next bunch of shows we did together after that, we were raging!
Let’s go through some of the songs on the EP. “Done some wronging, done some writing.” I like that line.
John-Angus: There’s a saying about how you’ve got to do some wronging before you do some writing. You have to have something to write about. That comes from that.
So you’ve done a lot of wronging these past ten years?
John-Angus: Reference from Aphrodite. I don’t know. I guess we have.
Colin: The age old questions of do you imitate it yourself, or do you just write about it through hard work. Some people didn’t write and create a whole story for themselves. It’s just based on their own hard work, and knack for a melody. There are other people that just go out and fall apart, and they come back and write a couple of great songs in just a few minutes. It’s that age-old struggle between the hard working writers and the total f*ck-ups that manage to get together some nights. We try and fall somewhere in between.
You sing in that song ‘I Don’t Even Know Myself’ a lot too. Were you feeling lost? Or were those words that just happened to fit into the song?
Colin: Probably a combination.
John-Angus: I think those lyrics came with the melody.
Colin: Sean brought that melody in. What Sean will do, when he does write songs is he’ll sing a melody and then say something that just sounds like that. Like he’ll sing, “Lately, I don’t even know myself.” He’s not saying that necessarily, but I’m sure he’s saying that somewhere inside. As I’m sure all of us probably do.
John-Angus: It’s a song about redemption so a line like that fits.
There’s a cover on there as well by Australian songwriter Paul Kelly. What struck you about that tune?
John-Angus: It’s a great song. We fell for it pretty hard on our second tour of Australia. It was on in the van all of the time. We wanted to do something for the Aussie market. We were off album cycle, as happens a lot in international tours. Our first release there was a compilation, and it came out around the same time as the acoustic record we did here. We had quite a lot of success with the single ‘Hope & Ruin’, so we wanted to follow-up it with something specific for Australia. We decided to cover ‘Leaps and Bounds’, and stick it on the EP. It’s a great song, and why shouldn’t it be on there?
The record closes out with ‘...And We Are The Trews’ an almost marathon list of shout-outs to other Canadian bands. Has any band come back to you upset they weren’t mentioned.
John-Angus: The Poor Young Things. The Stanfields. We’ve had a few. [laughs] The Poor Young Things, we should have fit them in.
Five quick questions. One word answers.
Road or Studio?
Colin: Both and neither.
Lennon or McCartney.
When you hear a song, what usually hits you first: Lyrics, melody, or rhythm?
John-Angus: I think I’m lyrics.
Colin: It depends on the song. Some songs can just really move me because of the rhythm. Other songs can be because of the melody or lyrics. It depends on the tune. I don’t listen to Led Zeppelin for the lyrics. I listen to led Zeppelin for the riffs. I don’t listen to Bob Dylan for the riffs. I don’t listen to Led Zeppelin for the lyrics.
John-Angus: I can’t see past bad lyrics. It can ruin an otherwise perfect song. I’m a guitar player so it’s kind of a paradox. I can love the groove. I can love the riff. I can love the melody. But if the lyrics are really bad, I can’t see past it.
Song you’ve written that you’re the most proud of?
John-Angus: I didn’t write it solely, but probably ‘Highway of Heroes’ to have been a part of it. That or ‘Ishmael and Maggie’.
Colin: I think mine is ‘Hope & Ruin’, and ‘Highway of Heroes’. Those are my two favourites.
And in one word, The Trews.
Colin: One word. The Trews. Family.
John-Angus: That’s pretty good. I’ll take his answer.