Brasstronaut

Being in a young, up-and-coming band, it’s a virtual guarantee that you’ll find yourself playing some pretty interesting and unlikely locations. For members of Vancouver’s Brasstronaut, that’s meant gigs headlining packed mountain huts and empty student union bars (though, to be fair, the audience was accidentally locked outside during the set). But perhaps no shows have been more improbable than the ones they were invited to play at the Airwaves festival last October. That’s the Iceland Airwaves festival … in Iceland.

“We got accepted to Iceland Airwaves, which is a massive international music festival in Iceland, off of an EP of four songs that was two years old,” says Brasstronaut drummer Brennan Saul.

 

“Somehow, over, like, 30 or 40 bands from Canada … [it was] like, ‘Brasstronaut, you guys should go to Iceland,’” he laughs.

 

I’m in a Kitsilano bagel shop interviewing Brennan as well as the band’s lead singer and co-founder, Edo Van Breemen, and its clarinet/EWI player, Sam Davidson, just as the indie rock six-piece prepares for a 33-date North American tour highlighted by four shows at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. Though they speak excitedly about the tour ahead, the band is clearly still enjoying the afterglow of Reykjavik, where they played in front of 2,000 people and shared the stage with the horn section from one of Iceland’s biggest bands, Sigur Rós.

 

The Sigur Rós meet-up was the work of Bryan Davies, Brasstronaut’s trumpet player and other co-founder. Edo relates returning to the cramped apartment they were sharing with 10 other people and finding Bryan “totally loaded” in the kitchen.

 

“He goes, ‘Hey, you know, I got something to tell you. How would you feel if I told you that the horn section of Sigur Rós is going to play with us tomorrow?’ And I was like, ‘I wouldn’t believe you,’” Edo recounts. “Sothe next day these guys came over — they did all the horns on, like, all of the Sigur Rós albums … They played with us on stage. It was great.”

 

He adds, “It was recorded by national radio. We’re way more well-known in Iceland than we are in Vancouver.”

 

 

Cold, wintery climates are really nothing new for the band. Last year they spent three months living in residency at the prestigious Banff Centre, and it was there that the songs that make up their new album, Mt. Chimaera, came into being.

 

The new album expands on the indie-rock-with-keys-and-a- trumpet sound introduced in 2007’s Old World Lies EP. In the time since that earlier record was released, Brasstronaut integrated two new members — Sam (who was studying at the Banff Centre at the same time the band was there), and Tariq Hussain, the band’s guitarist (the sixth member, yet to be mentioned, is bassist John Walsh.) Adding new instrumentation and new ideas seems to have paid off. While the EP largely kept to a mostly quiet, melancholy groove, Mt. Chimaera’s songs are livelier, more expansive and more diverse. Once again, the horns provide bursts of colour and energy, most notably the trumpet on standout track, “Hearts Trompet,” and the brass freak-out coda of “Six Toes.” But, despite the presence of horns and the jazz pedigree of some of the members, they are quick to point out that Brasstronaut is not a jazz band. And they really don’t want to be called one.

 

“It’s tough. Because there’s a trumpet and a clarinet people start to associate it as, ‘Oh, it’s a jazz band,’ not influenced by jazz,” explains Brennan. “And we’re like, ‘No, no, no. Holy crap. We’ve no jazz in the damn thing, alright?’”

 

“I think it’s experimental pop,” says Edo. “It has choruses and verses and things like that, but we’re bringing in a few other elements to tweak it, and, I think, to make it interesting for us to play.” One of the more interesting elements is the EWI, or electronic wind instrument, that Sam picked up shortly before heading to Banff. It’s a sort of a very sensitive breath-controlled synthesizer known mainly for having contributed some of the worst 1980s era jazz- fusion solos in the history of online videos.

 

“It’s not represented well on YouTube by any means,” Sam says, laughing.

 

On Mt. Chimaera and in the live shows the EWI is far more complementary than it is on YouTube — rest assured there are no nine-minute EWI solos on the album, nor did Sam attempt to wow the crowd with his best Michael Brecker impression (you may have to look that one up) at the show I attended. With Brasstronaut, the EWI is really just another element in a generously overflowing bag of tricks. While the breadth of instrumentation helps elevate the songs on Mt. Chimaera, it also makes the live shows look like an absolute party on stage.

 

In fact, after seeing Brasstronaut live, you’ll wonder how other bands make do with less than six members. Or how Brasstronaut once made do with just two. Live, there’s really not much that can beat the band in its current incarnation. If the current tour goes according to plan, they’ll have converts from Fargo to New York, Texas to L.A., and dozens of places in between willing to attest to that fact.

 

But if you’re a resident of one of Canada’s top resort destinations, you might have to wait a little bit for a return performance from your onetime (for three months, at least) native sons. Though the band members sing the praises of the Banff Centre, when it comes to the town itself, they are somewhat less complimentary.

 

“It’s a real mess …” says Edo. “There’s just like a bunch of totally wasted Aussies and guys from Quebec just going apeshit in the village every night at this one terrible bar and I’m not ashamed to say it, it’s just like a fucking mess. It’s the dirtiest place and the dumbest people who are all trying to fuck each other, and there’s like six dudes to one girl.”

 

Strong words, but then when you’ve already conquered Iceland, who needs Banff?

 

Brasstronaut’s debut album, Mt. Chimaera, is available now.
[www.myspace.com/brasstronaut]

 

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