Jesse Newman (left), David Rogers-Berry, Greg Jamie, Gabe Darling and Bob Pycior are thrilled that O’Death are the first roots act signed to Kemado.
O'DEATH with ELLIOTT BROOD and HOOTS AND HELLMOUTH at the El Mocambo (464 Spadina), Tuesday (November 4), 9 pm. $10. 416-?870-?8000.
If you pick up a recording by a group called O'Death, you should expect to be confronted with a body count and, perhaps, your own mortality.
Not that the thrashy New York crew, whose ramshackle take on roots music really needs to be experienced in the flesh, obsessively dwell on the dark side. But they certainly don't shy away from the unsavoury bits when it comes to compositions.
Some artists steer clear of grand-scale real-life tragedies when looking for ballad material. Not O'Death.
Fire On Peshtigo, from their swank new disc, Broken Hymns, Limbs And Skin (Kemado), is about the devastating Wisconsin firestorm of 1871. That blaze wiped out 12 towns and claimed as many as 2,500 lives, many more than the infamous (and infinitely better-known) inferno that destroyed Chicago on the exact same day at almost the same hour.
"The song started out with just the refrain ‘Lake on fire.' That's all we had," says banjo-bashing ukulele strummer Gabe Darling. "We were trying to flesh out the rest of it when I called up a friend of a friend from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, who is knowledgable about historical matters and asked him if he knew of any fires on the Great Lakes. He said, ‘Well, there was the Peshtigo fire.' I'd never heard about it, so I did some research, and the more I read, the more I wondered how I couldn't have even heard a mention of one of the largest natural disasters in U.S. history.
"I also found these crazy stories about the Peshtigo fire - a whole mythos has been built around these different theories about how it began and why it happened at the same time as the Great Chicago Fire. Some believe that both fires were touched off by pieces of a meteor that split off a passing comet when it entered the Earth's atmosphere. It was all very intriguing."
Evidently, one particularly vivid eyewitness report inspired O'Death to take Fire On Peshtigo beyond a straight recounting of the horrible events and into a much more relevant commentary on religious fundamentalism. You might miss the subtle shades of meaning amidst all the hollering.
"The account of Father Pernin, the Catholic priest who actually survived the fire, was very strange and amazing. He claimed that the fire was God's retribution for the townspeople's hubris and greed. I think we may have half-lifted one or two lines from him.
"Every time we play it, I get the urge to tell the audience what it's about, to see how many people, if any, have heard of the Peshtigo fire. When I tried it once, our bass player (Jesse Newman) admonished me for it because he said it was cheesy to discuss what a song is about."
Banjo basher Gabe Darling recalls the group's closest brush with death while playing music occurred during a recent performance in the Bermuda Triangle.