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Brooding Prophecies

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.

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