Looking Forward and Backward with Elliott Brood
by Brett Leigh Dicks
There is a sense of timelessness with Elliott Brood. Whether it’s the dusty trails the band’s stories often roam or its rustic embrace of music itself, Elliott Brood is a breed distinct from the rest. For almost four years, the Canadian three-piece — composed of bassist/guitar-player Casey Laforet, percussionist Stephen Pitkin, and lead vocalist and banjo player Mark Sasso — has been releasing impeccable recordings and delivering vaudeville-tinged live performances. Be it a suitcase or a slaughterhouse, for these boys, everything is a source of musical inspiration. In preparation for the band’s first appearance in these parts, Brett Leigh Dicks recently caught up with Laforet.
Your music has undertones of nostalgia, but the themes it embraces — murder, betrayal, and longing — are just as relevant today, don’t you think? Lyrically, those are timeless ideas. Murder ballads can be attributed to the old bluegrass players. It’s just that gangster rap conveys it now and, in so doing, is accused of being too violent or degrading. Sure, there are violent gang songs, but you had the Stanley Brothers singing about killing wives a long time ago, too.
“Death country” seems to be a term that constantly arises in conjunction with Elliott Brood. Is “death country” a style, a nomenclature, or a rural premonition? When we started out, people were always labeling us country or bluegrass or even alternative country, and we didn’t feel as though we were any of those. Then the term “death country” surfaced. It came out of that creepy, Old West film imagery — creaky old trees and dilapidated saloons and the like. And it has become a moniker that has followed us around.
But it’s a moniker that certainly offers some wonderful texture. Texture is important to us. We have always tried to be a visual band. We approach our music as though we are writing soundtracks to something the listeners have to imagine for themselves.
One very strong visual is those suitcases you employ as drums. Was the inspiration for that sonic, aesthetic, or practical? On the first record, we used a large peanut butter jar to get the stomp because we didn’t have a drum. When Stephen became the drummer, he wanted to do something different and he had those old suitcases and they just sounded amazing. The benefit of that is, of course, when you’re on the road, all the gear for the drums can fit right inside the suitcase!
I heard your latest album, Ambassador, was recorded in a slaughterhouse. Not an obvious choice of recording location for most bands, eh? There was actually a studio in there. But it was set up in an abandoned abattoir in Toronto. We were looking for a place with a certain atmosphere because we had a pretty good idea of what songs we wanted to be on the record. When this place came up, we had to check it out. It was a dirty and dark warehouse where you could still smell the death from all those years ago.
How did the location infiltrate the music? It’s a big hollow room and it was perfect for what we wanted to do. The room actually became an instrument itself on the record. It gave the recording space, and opened up the sound into something larger. But it was a little creepy being in there at night. There were troughs running around the walls that used to collect the blood and channel it out of the room. It was definitely strange.
The album features a little more instrumentation than what you employ live. Do you ever feel constrained by being a three-piece? We have always wanted the recordings to be playable live, whether it’s an exact representation of the recording or not. Onstage, I play bass with my feet at the same time as guitar and we also switch instruments a lot. But the show is very strong with just the three of us there. Who knows? One day we might become a six-piece group, but we’re really happy as a threesome right now.
Stay away from those even numbered lineups. Bands always function much better with an odd number, as there’s a built-in deciding vote. That’s true! And we produce and engineer everything ourselves. We have our hands in every aspect of our music; we all make the decisions and we all trust a 2-1 decision is the best decision for the band. And, so far, it has worked out just fine.