Thursday, July 14, 2011

Stalwart Sons - Split 7"s w/Slates + Union of the Snake + Kevin Stebner interview

Here's a re-posting of a review/interview I did recently for FFWD Weekly, with Calgary's Stalwart Sons. Check out their tunes on Bandcamp, or grab the vinyl from Revolution Winter. If you're in Calgary, you could also try Sloth Records or Hotwax.

(image courtesy of

Calgary’s Stalwart Sons has followed up their debut LP from last year, Burn Daylights Like Torches, with a pair of excellent split singles. The first, shared with Edmonton’s Slates, makes a lot of sense: Both bands are from Alberta, play aggressive-yet-tuneful music and fit perfectly on a bill together. Stalwart’s “The Shared Cup” and “Steady on the Plough” are passionate, post-hardcore rockers with a strong sense of melody (see the bassline that fades out “Steady”), with the latter song adding a little Mission of Burma influence to the fold. Slates contributes “Fabian,” a dynamic, slow-burning track that’s quite different from the rest of its oeuvre, and “Chinook,” a thirty-second song about cold weather and wanting a Chinook. OK, maybe not the timeliest song in July, but this split single is certainly a worthwhile sampling of two of Alberta’s most exciting bands.

The second single is the more aggressive of the two, paired with a new band from Halifax: Union of the Snake. UOTS’s tracks remind me of The Jesus Lizard/’90s Touch & Go Records bands, but with just an extra hint of art damage (see the foreground guitar noise on the second verse of “Flitcraft”). Both UOTS songs are fantastic, and I can’t wait to hear more. The Stalwart tracks are also a bit more aggressive — “Garden of Paths” is my favourite of the Calgary trio’s four songs on these splits, with a lot of start/stop rhythms and triumphant guitar string bending. I like this split just a smidgen more, but both records are entirely worth grabbing.

Tell me about Slates and Union of the Snake. How are you all connected?

Kevin Stebner: Well, my old band totheteeth/tothehilt had played with North of America a few times, so we were pretty good friends with the band members [author’s note: Jim MacAlpine from North of America drums in Union of the Snake]. I used to play in totheteeth/tothehilt with Stefan Duret, who now plays bass in Slates. We’re best friends from way back when. totheteeth/tothehilt also played with all the previous bands of the members of Slates — Last Deal and Fractal Pattern to name a few. How did we hook up with them? Two like-minded bands, I guess. Had I not been friends with these bands, these would have been my favourite bands, regardless. They’re both bands that are able to actually rock, but are also writing very strongly — they’re not afraid to “give it,” but they aren’t just like flippant about it.

You mentioned being especially proud of “Shared Cup.” Could you explain why?

“Shared Cup” in particular is sort of in reference to the time I spent in totheteeth/tothehilt. Particularly when I was about 16 when I put on my first punk show. The song is about how I have not been able to give up punk rock: I haven’t outgrown it. It’s not a phase for me; it’s something that’s continued to be important to me a decade on. That song in particular is sort of about how I’m still wanting to do it, and still active, and how it’s not just something I can outgrow.

I’ve heard Stalwart Sons jokingly referred to as “crop-rock” and images of seeds, prairies, growth and open space often appear in your lyrics. Would you care to comment on this, farmer Stebner? Or, more politely, when you write lyrics, what kind of voice are you intending to communicate?

Well, in terms of “voice” or “tone” or whatever, it’s purely an honest one. I think you can pretty much tell a dishonest voice immediately, if you’re actually reading carefully. I purely try to be honest in that respect — sort of reflecting on what you see in front of you, reflecting who you are and where you’re from and actively engaging with it — your community, or your landscape, or your past, your family’s past, or the present right now or exactly what’s happening in your area. It’s really important to have your songs actually be about something, instead of just making up all this nonsense, because every track is definitely about something I feel very strongly about.

“Crop-rock” is funny, but I feel it definitely ties to Alberta and the prairies in particular. I’m not exactly singing about farms all the time, though! (laughs) But yeah, it happens.

When I listen to these songs, I hear influences like Mission of Burma, Fugazi and the Constantines, but there’s also these subtle Can-rock undertones that gives Stalwart Sons’ songs a few extra shades of colour. What are some of your favourite Can-rock albums, and why?

Well, I’m sure it’s obvious but the entire Constantines discography. Now that they’re broken up, we even cover a Constantines track. That band, in particular, has always rung true for me, ever since I saw them, heard them. Specifically, Tournament of Hearts, when they’re at their most subdued and subtle. The Tragically Hip’s Phantom Power is an incredible record and probably the best in their discography — but skip “Poets”, because it’s annoying. They finally got out of their bar-rock past, and thankfully it’s prior to their terrible Bob Rock phase. I realize it’s not cool for punks to be into Can-rock, or rock n’ roll at all for that matter, but it just goes back to the actively reflecting on who you are and where you’re from, and the only bands that really do it are these bands. I also really like Eamon McGrath’s 13 Songs of Whiskey and Light.

In addition to music and bands, would you consider yourself influenced by literature?

Of course. I published a book of poems, and a large chunk of the poems are dealing with Canada itself. My lyrics, in particular, are rife with literary allusion or references to Canadian novels, biblical passages or references to other songs. The term “Steady on the Plough” is a biblical reference. “Shared Cup” is a reference to a sort of retelling of the Gideon story, where instead of people drinking from a shared cup or drinking with their hands, they just put their mouths to the pool. “Garden of Paths” is in reference to a Borges short story, Garden of Forking Paths. And, a lot of the lyrics on “Steady on the Plough” are in reference to the Walt Whitman poem “America,” but I sort of changed it to be about the Canadian landscape.

You just toured Canada for the second summer in a row, this time driving all the way from Calgary up to St. John’s, N.L. What was that experience like?

Well, it’s great. Just being able to put the country under your feet is an awesome thing. We live in a beautiful place, and I feel pretty privileged to have the opportunity to go all the way across it and dip your leg in the ocean, proverbially and literally. Touring Canada is tough. As far back as Canadian literature goes, there’s always this idea of the landscaping as a crazy, daunting thing that is sort of like an enemy to overcome, and I think touring bands are some of the few people that will understand that. It’s tough, but it’s fulfilling. It’s rewarding, not purely just for playing music for people, but being able to actually engage the country.

So, what’s next?

We’re going to be doing a few dates with this band Town Ship from Toronto. I’ll be putting out a 7-inch for them — they’re formerly of the band Ancestors. And from this last tour, we’ve got a ton of new songs, so hopefully coming into the fall or the new year we’ll be recording a second record.

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