Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Music Interview - Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir

Canadian Band Combines Blues, Bluegrass for Raw, Honest Sound

By M.D. Spenser

Out of Canada, howling like wind through the chinks of a cabin, comes a sound so traditional it evokes something primal and yet so new you’ve never heard it before.

It is the Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir, a four-piece band from Calgary that combines Blues, bluegrass, Appalachian folk and attitude into a rough, raw sound all its own. At its best, this music creates a hypnotic effect in which players and instruments and audience all become one, where nothing else matters but everything is included and you don’t wake up until the music stops.

The band was formed early in 2001 and played its first gig on only a week’s preparation – three rehearsals. Members had in mind playing small clubs in the area, nothing more.

“We accepted from the start that our music is, well, odd – by which I mean it’s not ever going to be popular, exactly,” said Judd Palmer, one of the founders.

But after that first impromptu gig, people kept asking them to play more. And more. So, three or four gigs down the road, the members started to talk seriously about what direction the band should take.

Nearly seven years later, AMGC’s music is still odd. It’s never going to outsell Britney Spears, nor even, for that matter, Keb’ Mo’. But the band has moved far beyond the local club scene. Based in part on its 2005 release, “Fighting And Onions,” and in part on the intensity of its live performances, AMGC has won an international following – not least in the U.K., which it toured in September.

“The U.K. folks seem to like us,” said Bob Keelaghan, another of the band’s founders. “We get a lot of interest. We haven’t had a stinker of a gig over there yet.”

The band’s origins lie in a near-hallucinatory experience Palmer had one day as he staggered around the mountains, perhaps in the grip of altitude dementia.

“I found myself bellowing oaths at the crags that there were Gods in the rocks, and that they deserved a gospel music of their own, a mountain gospel, in fact,” he said.

But this wouldn’t be the same as the traditional gospels, he told himself. This would be an agnostic gospel. As the dementia really took over, he imagined he could form an agnostic mountain choir, good people who would join in loud and raucous hallelujahs – not exaltation of religion but enthusiasm for mystical feelings, the kind that can grip us all, religious or not.

“I clambered down from the mountaintops,” he said, “with this big plan for a huge band of people who would stomp and holler and bang and clang and shout and therefore be overwhelmingly entertaining.”

In the end, only four people showed up for rehearsals. The huge choir remains more an aspiration than a reality.

But bang and clang they do. The first drummer, Jason Woolley, who plays on “Fighting And Onions,” had a drum kit that included pots, pans and, said Keelaghan, “a big piece of metal that looked like an Italian car’s muffler.” Woolley left, having felt the need for a more stable job. But his replacement, Pete Balkwill, is no more conventional. On one of his cymbal stands hangs a Belgian army helmet.

And the band stomps and hollers, too. Palmer and Keelaghan handle the lead vocals; neither will ever be mistaken for Sinatra. With voices that sound like five miles of gravel road, their singing can evoke wind howling at the mouth of a cave, or maybe someone in therapy giving a primal scream.

Keelaghan, a guitarist, never sang until he got into Delta Blues, songs that didn’t work without vocals.

“Since it was the Blues that got me going, I wanted to get a throaty resonance,” he said. “Many stores don’t sell throaty resonance, so I had to find it on my own.”

But he found inspiration in the singing of Don Van Vliet, otherwise known as Captain Beefheart, and that of the renaissance Bluesman Alvin Youngblood Hart. And both of them, Keelaghan believes, were influenced in turn by the great Delta country Blues singer Charley Patton.

Keelaghan describes his own style as “Delta Blues yowling laced with high lonesome wailing.”

Patton was active in the 1920s and ‘30s. And, for all its volume, clatter, Italian mufflers and Belgian helmets, AMGC’s music has the feel of that era. Palmer plays banjo, harmonica and fiddle; Keelaghan contributes his Delta Blues guitar; Vladimir Sobolewski anchors the mix with his upright bass; and all of this is played, of course, over the clang and bang of the current drummer.

Four of the 18 cuts on “Fighting And Onions” are covers. One, “Look Up Look Down That Lonesome Road,” is traditional. The others were written by Son House, the Rev. Gary Davis, and Skip James – all Bluesmen whose careers date to the ‘30s.

But these covers are not musicologists’ cerebral revivals, faithful note-for-note to the originals. Far from it. These are old Blues songs warped through the unique sensibilities of this band.

For Keelaghan, the process of making someone else’s song his own starts with mistakes. He doesn’t sit with the CD and try to get every note perfect. Sometimes he learns the song from memory, as it has been filtered through his mind, then revises it later when he learns the lyrics. He’ll turn a major chord into a minor, or change the tuning, using a drop-D, for example, instead of an open tuning. But he does want to keep the feeling of the original intact.

The sound of these covers, traditional yet original, can best be described as Delta Blues meets old-time Appalachian folk.

“Those types of music have a lot of crossover,” Keelaghan said. “Both are intense forms of music. Many of the songs are modal, in that they mess with major and minor while hanging on one or two chords. Our theory is that, at some point in the evolution of those musics, they mingled and interbred, but for political and social reasons, America split them apart. I guess we’re reconciling that.”

The originals are in the same style. The album “Fighting And Onions” opens with a violin slowly sawing out of tune, as it might sound on the front porch of a tumble-down shack. The song, with no words until it is reprised to close the album, is “Stay Here For Awhile – fittingly, an invitation.

Some cuts are frenetic, bluegrassy, rough and noisy, like “Buried Them In Water.” The music to that song is original but the lyrics are from the late Howard Finster, a minister and acclaimed folk artist who lived in north Georgia, in the American South. Finster lived in the grip of life-long obsession – or inspiration, if you prefer – creating art like a madman and painting pictures, his own words and biblical verses over anything in his path – bicycles, automobiles, buildings and what have you.

Finster and AMGC make a good fit – inspired, artistic, crazy perhaps but eclectic and utterly unconcerned with fashion.

Other originals – “Oh Sorrow,” for example – are slower and more haunting, Bluesy but still twangy.

There’s no template here. Five of the cuts on “Fighting And Onions” are under a minute long; a sixth is only 1:04. The longest is 5:25. This band does whatever the hell it wants, whatever feels right – a lot like Finster. There’s freedom in knowing you’ll never outsell Britney.

The music is so rough and genuine that almost every note, intentionally or not, carries with it implied criticism of the glossiness and shallowness of contemporary culture.

“I’m not a fan of consumer culture,” Keelaghan said. “The masses get hung up on the product and not the ingredients. Sugar and fat are no good for you? No kidding! And it’s in nearly every damn pre-packaged food product! Do they realize that many celebrities are retards and what they do in their personal lives means not a stitch more than what regular folks do in theirs?”

And so it is with popular music, too, he said. People who listen to what’s on the charts give no thought to how the music is made, what the ingredients are. They don’t know that some bands don’t play their own music, that some singers have their voices altered with pitch correction, or that the musicians aren’t even in the same room at the same time.

But the ingredients affect the music. “To me, most of it sounds devoid of feeling,” Keelaghan said.

The album title “Fighting And Onions” comes from “Under Milkwood,” the radio play by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (from whom Bob Dylan took his adopted name). In the play, a sea captain is haunted by the spirits of drowned sailors. They come to him in the night and ask if life is still as they remember it, if their favourite things are still around.

“How’s it above?” one asks.

“Is there rum and lavabread?” asks another.

“Bosoms and robins?” asks a third.

Yet another, thinking of what he misses most, asks, “Fighting and onions?”

These are symbols of life. This is a music that is pungent, flavourful, full of life and full of fight.

But what is AMGC’s music, sometimes cacophonous, always off the beaten track, about? It’s not dance music; it’s not meant to soothe the savage breast; these are not love songs or serenades.

What, to these players, is the purpose of music?

It’s a hard question to answer directly. Keelaghan and Palmer have talked about boogie hypnosis, the trance that rhythmic, one-chord songs bring on. And the music is about communication, too – union, a form of oneness.

As Keelaghan studied pre-World War II Blues, he was struck that no one sang or played half-heartedly. AMGC wants to communicate that same intensity – whether the emotion is sorrow, fear or joy – without relying too much on amplification. When audience members sing along, or stamp their feet, or roar with approval, then that has been achieved.

“For the last few years, I’ve been big on the idea of transcendence through music,” Keelaghan said. “Those are the moments when we play, or I play, that are so good nothing else is noticeable until the song ends. The fingers and the strings are one. You don’t make mistakes. You take musical chances in the moment and they succeed. Everyone is on the same page and you know it. The audience knows it, too. That’s pure communication through music. It doesn’t happen very often, but I’ve had that more with this band than any other.”

Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir will record over the winter and hopes to release a new CD next spring or summer. They hope, also, to visit the U.K. in 2008, this time for a longer tour.

The band’s success has surprised its members, given that their ambition was just to play local clubs. But they know they’ve got something going.

“We’re in it for the long haul,” Palmer said. “I think there’s plenty more to explore about the forms of music that inspire this band.”

1 comment:

Your friend forever said...

Dear M.D. Spenser,
I saw your name in Blues Matters today!
Your interview is very rich in information. You give such a colourful picture of the band and its songs and aspirations.
That's great!!!