Which is why I get really excited upon the discovery of pop bands who don’t easily fit in anywhere, and are able to — if not reinvent it — at least give the wheel a furious and energetic spin. My latest and greatest finding lies in Royal Canoe, a group of musicians from the uncommon birthing ground of Winnipeg, Canada. While undoubtedly considered “indie pop” by any wide-casting use of the term, Royal Canoe aren’t actually easy to define, especially with non-abstract terminologies. With two drummers, two keyboardists, and four vocalists, the six-member band is kind of all over the place stylistically — yet somehow, it just works.
After talking to Royal Canoe’s vocalist and guitarist Matt Peters, I came to realize that what sets Royal Canoe apart from other indie pop bands is not exactly the genre tags they fall under — of which there are many — but their fascinating communal character. For a pop band, they are remarkably tenacious. They make a point of having extremely high standards for creation and performance, in service of being the best musicians they can be. Any self-imposed rules they have set for themselves are balanced by a willingness to share artistic duties, as well as an openness to inspiration and experimentation.
Today We’re Believers (2013)
Tracklisting & Lyrical Analysis
About the Album Title
“Today We’re Believers is our way of trying to capture the moment on the first day of spring when the snow has freshly melted and everything comes alive. No matter where you are and no matter what you had to endure to get to this point, everything is forgiven and makes perfect sense, and your capacity for joy feels endless.” — Matt Peters
1. “Today We’re Believers”
We’re not leaving until at last a flower pushes up above the tiny garden.
Open petals are filling bright with color as they wait to catch the collar of the wind returning
And then again, a flower pushes up above the tiny garden.
Open petals are filling bright with color as they wait to catch the collar of the wind returning.
“That part’s a really strange metaphor for our town and just the way that people… want to leave, but they can’t leave. It’s like a strange thing; it’s not just me. There’s a whole bunch of people staying there, because you know there’s something special happening there, and you want to see it through.” — Matt Peters
2. “Hold on to the Metal”
Hold on to the metal
Collide with the arms beside you
Be afraid of what’s behind you
Get inside of what’s inside you.
“When I lived in Haiti, to get around anywhere, we would travel in the back of this open-air truck. The only way not to die was to hold on for your life to the one big metal bar curving over the top of the truck box. There were often as many as 5 people you barely knew in the truck — cruising around curves, almost falling off of the mountains, and hitting each other’s elbows. You never looked behind you, you just kept on riding down the mountain. It was a good metaphor for me at the time: holding on for dear life, trying to get over some things in my past, and just allowing Haiti to alter my perspective.” — Matt Schellenberg
3. “Just Enough”
No one’s really swimming anyway;
Someone’s talking in a regular way,
And I’m forgetting what to say.
We show, show just enough.
Every tremble is a code.
We’re not alone in the dark;
This is how we assemble.
“This song is about late-night skinny dipping a couple years ago with a big group of friends. The line, ‘No one’s really swimming anyway; someone’s talking in a regular way,’ sort of sums up the skinny dipping experience to me: everyone tries to act as casual and relaxed as they can, yet it’s all a bit of a show. But somehow in spite of that, with everything out in the open you feel strangely connected in a ‘primal way’ (if I can use that phrase) when you’re standing around shivering naked under the stars, bodies glowing.” — Matt Peters
4. “Exodus of the Year”
Flat on my back,
Afraid to admit
I’m getting older now.
It’s calling you out;
Calling you out;
Calling you out at night.
“Winnipeg has been my home base for a long while even though I’ve spent a good percentage of my life in the last 12 years doing the band guy thing, on tour, away from home. At some point, if you live in that city long enough, you’re going to see friends embark on a grad-school relocation, a career move, or hipster processional to Montreal, NYC, Toronto, LA, Berlin or wherever. In the face of that after having your friendship base purged and refilled several times over, you can’t help but wonder what the fuck you’re still doing there. But you’re not going to do anything about it, because you’ve been there so long that you’re all-in.” — Matt Peters
The bathtubs in the hallway
Are here to stay, are in the way…
Our dusty organ keeps them company.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven missing keys.
Our dusty organ keeps us company.
“It’s just about our practice space, to be honest with you. It’s in a dingy part of town, and there’s a whole shitload of bands that practice in there. [The bathtubs] used to be in these little tenement flats, where you have a little room and a bathroom… [The former owner] put these out there, saying, ‘I think I’m going to remodel these; I’m going to re-do these, and I’m going to sell them for a huge profit.’ Of course, he didn’t do that, and instead they just ended up being really fucking annoying for the next two to three years, because we had to load our gear around these dumb bathtubs.” — Matt Peters
6. “Button Fumbla”
If we ever get through the rushing water,
I know, I know, I know we’ll make it all the way.
“Three of us in the band grew up in a small Bible Belt town 45-minutes [away from Winnipeg] in southern Manitoba, called Steinbach, which we have a bit of a love-hate relationship with. It was actually an alright place to grow up, but in your teens, as you started working your way through each and every one of the taboos on the ever-expanding list, you realized that there was way more to the world than you thought and you wanted to experience all of it… And now, as you see other people from the town out in the world doing regular things, there’s always a knowing glance, a sort of, ‘Oh, you made it out too.’ This lyric is about the optimism found when you realize the potential the future contains, if you can trudge through the shit holding you back. ” — Matt Peters
7. “Show Me Your Eyes”
Time’s crunching like a carnivore;
I see you see me sneaking javelin glances;
Almost looks like we’ve done this before.”
“This is about that moment we’ve all had when you’re out dancing, and you know she’s going to be there, and she knows you’ll be there. You catch each other throwing those “javelin glances”; the eyes you rip away as soon as they’ve been found out. It’s not the first time you’ve been there, and it probably won’t be the last.” — Matt Schellenberg
It’s not about you; it’s gonna happen without you.
“That’s kind of a cryptic one. That was actually written a while before the rest of the song, and as we were working on ‘Birthday’, it kind of just seemed too perfect not to use… The pronoun ‘you’ is more a sneaky way to say ‘me’; the ‘you’ is a royal ‘you’ more than anything. It’s that feeling of, if you don’t act — if you don’t change your mind — at some point, everything’s going to change around you, and you can’t control it, and you’re just going to be left standing there. That’s a really bad description of it, but I think it kind of speaks for itself.” — Matt Peters
Shadow on my shoulder nightly:
This could be a working holiday;
You don’t say a word; you’re dreaming
Of something for our hands to do while we wait.
“This particular line is about that feeling that sometimes emerges deep in a relationship when you lose a sense of separation from your partner and even small physical connections seem to infringe on your space. But in the end, more often than not, it’s you, not them.” — Matt Peters
No words to say; in the heavy light, our bodies shake.
“When you’re alone together with someone you love for the last time and you’re saying goodbye, every sound, movement, and look, and all of the smallest things seem like these enormous monumental earth-shaking actions and years later you can still remember every second as if it just happened.” — Matt Peters
Do we have time to learn the syllables born on our tongues
And left for the air?
Let’s say them back enough,
Let’s say them back,
Make them hold on.
“This stanza depicts that beautiful breakdown in communication we have all felt at one time or another — the time of night where all the flirtatious words and inside jokes or little anecdotes become irrelevant and words become just sound. Syllables that float off your tongue and hang in the air waiting to be crushed by the inevitable embrace. But there is also a hesitancy. A bit of fear brought about by the vulnerability that comes along with not hiding behind anything, without those words to hold on to.” — Matt Peters
12. “If I Had a House”
Don’t you ever think about, think about, think about it.
“The ‘it’ in this line is the list of expectations you or others might have for your life that you haven’t got around to fulfilling yet (get married, get a proper job, buy a house, have kids, settle down, and get on with it). For me, time just keeps chugging along, and in some ways, now that I’m in my early thirties, it’s become easier not to think about it, but still you can’t help but be aware of what’s expected of you. I’ve always liked how in the choruses the line is equal parts command and equal parts question, but by the end of the song it morphs into more of a desperate plea. Don’t you dare think about it.” — Matt Peters
Royal Canoe Band Interview (cont’d)
What Royal Canoe do behind the scenes may be the most important detail in defining everything else the band does. Their approach to production and arrangement is quite different from that most bands; they don’t really jam or write songs by playing instruments in the same room, but take a more hands-on and meticulous approach instead.
“I think a lot of what we’re doing is very orchestrated — or, we’re trying to be as orchestrated as we can be, always approaching [songwriting] like hip-hop producers,” explains Peters.
Their process changes from track-to-track, but according to Peters, “the arrangement side of things is just as much a part of the songwriting as the chord or the words.”
“We’re sort of creating layers, as opposed to, ‘Here’s some chords; let’s see how cleverly we can align them with our stringed instruments,'” he continues somewhat jokingly. “It’s more… figuring out, almost after the fact, what chords they are. And then trying to figure out what kind of strong melody you can put over that or what kind of beat to put on top of that.”
It may seem difficult to arrive at an agreed-upon stopping point when a band has such, to use Peters’ words, “gratuitous membership”. But call it good chemistry, teamwork, or just plain luck, for one discovers soon after talking to Royal Canoe that these things just more or less just work out for them.
“I think everyone definitely has an appreciation for letting their voice be heard but also trying to reach a greater good — if you can call it that…” he explains of their songwriting process. “There’ll be some songs where some people aren’t doing a ton — not playing a guitar, or not [singing] a ton of vocals.”
Deconstructing & Reconstructing Their Sound
Royal Canoe’s give-and-take relationship in the studio ultimately also affects their live performances. Because they never truly craft songs together in a room, all songs need to be retrofit as they move from recordings from the studio to the venue.
“We don’t really jam songs to begin with,” explains Peters, “so we don’t really know how we’re going to pull them off — or even if we’re going to be able to pull them off… when it actually comes time to playing [live], we actually have to figure out, ‘Okay, who’s going to do this there? Who’s going to sing that then?’ And it’s all about sort of putting together that puzzle.”
Having six members offers Royal Canoe quite tangible musical and performative benefits, by opening up different avenues with which they can recreate their songs live. In the studio, band members trade parts and instrumentation as they please, but on stage, they more or less have assigned roles. Certain sounds and effects may also be limited to the studio environment, so that compromises, additions, and subtractions are inevitable during the transition process. Nonetheless, Royal Canoe go the extra mile to stay as true to their original sound as possible.
For starters, they aren’t shy about using their gear. With every North American tour, they accept the hassles and expenses of towing an extra trailer, just so they can bring their most important equipment on the road with them. These include a Prophet 08 keyboard, a particularly “cranky” Korg PolySix keyboard, and their “secret” aka “not-so-secret” weapon, a BOSS VT-1 Vocal Transformer pedal, which features a distortion so brilliant they use it on not only their vocals, but on many other instruments as well.
“It becomes a huge headache, but it also feels good to be able to use the instruments that you work with. It feels good to be able to not just pull out a compromised machine,” Peters says. “Maybe we’re lucky because we have six members and have the gear to begin with, but I’m proud that we put the effort in every show and bring the big fucking keyboards everywhere — because they’re not cheap, and they’re not light, but they sound awesome, and I think they provide a chance to do a more accurate representation of what the album is, what the songs are.”
But even having expensive gear and six members sometimes isn’t enough to adapt a recorded sound into a live performance piece. In last ditch effort situations, Royal Canoe search for new and constructive opportunities to build upon their previous work.
“We try to make compromises that don’t negatively affect the songs as much as we can,” says Peters. “If we’re going to compromise something, we want to use it as an opportunity to do something different, just as cool, or more interesting.”
Dedication to Music as Performance Art
Royal Canoe erect yet another hurdle for themselves in their very intentional decision to play all of their music live, thus separating themselves from laptop-wielding musicians who queue sampled instruments and DJs who literally only DJ. No matter how complex the sound they are attempting to recreate, there is “never a performance element that [Royal Canoe] will just get lazy about” — which means no static reliance on drum machine programming or pre-recorded samples which are queued and then forgotten about.
“For us, it’s actually very, very important that we are able to play everything live,” explains Peters, “and I think that’s part of what keeps it interesting. It’s what keeps me coming back as a musician. If all I had to do was press the play button or tweak one knob every chorus or something, I think I would be pretty disillusioned and disappointed by the end of the tour.”
Royal Canoe certainly don’t eschew the benefits of computer technology — that’s how they initially compose their music, after all — but in a live setting, they consider computers to be performance devices to be played as instruments, rather than machines dictating beats at a pre-programmed and flawless rate. Inherent charm lies in approaching music that does not have locked-in safety mechanisms, for they open up the very humanistic possibility for mistake.
“[Live performances are] always kind of teetering on that edge of everything kind of falling apart — [and] I think on that edge, on that point, is where magic can happen…” says Peters. “Where there’s room for errors, and there’s room for mistakes and the possibility of disaster, that always, always is what makes it exciting.”
Falling Flat While Hanging On
For any artist that wants to learn and grow, making mistakes is a continuous part of the process. The best songs are sometimes sparked initially by vague feelings rather than clear visions, and it is the experimentation and lessons learned from errors — which sometimes even includes discarding songs you had worked on for days — that ultimately lead to the fully-realized products you hold onto.
“I usually have no idea what the fuck I’m doing when I actually write something I end up liking,” Peters admits candidly. “Then suddenly — when I can completely turn my brain off — something happens that I’m satisfied with.”
“You definitely have to have that moment of letting go and giving in,” he continues. “And then after that, you have to be willing to put in the time and the effort, the hours of making mistakes and of doing stupid things… All of that work [makes it] feel like you’re just a data entry clerk… [but] after a while, when you had a good [initial] idea to work with, you can somehow suddenly step back and say, ‘Oh, this makes sense now. I see what was underneath all of that.'”
Perhaps it is this sense of flowing into “anything goes” territories that leads to the diversity of sound on Royal Canoe’s latest record, Today We’re Believers. During its twelve-track duration, lyrical cadences pop quick and flow slow like rhythms, sometimes made to span three harmonizing octaves and sometimes made to bend and distort in space and time. Listeners are taken on a journey across noisy background textures, psychedelic vocal effects, glittering synth lines, traditional indie rock riffs, and hip-hop beats. Somehow, by incorporating six people’s-worth of diverse musical influences, Royal Canoe sift and edit their catch to rise to the surface of the indie pop pool.
Royal Canoe’s Band Members
Matt Peters (vocals, keyboards)
Matt Schellenberg (keyboards, vocals)
Bucky Driedger (guitar, vocals)
Derek Allard (drums)
Michael Jordan (drums)
Brendan Berg (bass, vocals)
Royal Canoe –
Extended Play EP
Released on May 13th, 2013 via Nettwerk Records.
Their Today We’re Believers full-length album will be released on September 3rd, 2013 via Roll Call Records.
Influence-Mapping Royal Canoe w/ Infographics
Observations & Patterns
Shared influences converge most in the area of film, suggesting that perhaps the band’s theoretical vision for art and mood may be their most unifying quality. Their musical tastes do find some important overlap in well-regarded and innovative indie rock acts like Beck, Radiohead, The Flaming Lips, and Dirty Projectors, but are otherwise wide-ranging and diverse, like their sonic output.
Drummer Derek Allard seems to be the great band unifier, showing up in literally each and every one of the band’s shared eighteen influences except for Stanley Kubrick. His influences are split almost equally with the rest of the band, but most often with vocalist Matt Peters at six, followed by guitarist and vocalist Bucky Driedger at five.
Royal Canoe’s two drummers, Derek Allard and Michael Jordan, share the fewest overlapping influences at four — of which only Beck is a shared musical interest. Likewise, the band’s two keyboardist-vocalists Matt Peters and Matt Schellenberg, share no influences at all, with Peters tending towards hip-hop and experimental indie and Schellenberg towards more traditional indie rock influences. The band’s other vocals are contributed by guitarist Bucky Driedger and bassist Brendan Berg; both have some musical overlap with Peters and Schellenberg, but not with one another.
The band has no shared influences in science, only one in literature, and two in philosophy and social sciences.