The Tom Fun Orchestra with The Strumbellas at the Horseshoe Tavern (370 Queen W) today (November 8) at 9 p.m. $10 HS, RT, SS. 416-598-4753
Sydney, Nova Scotia indie-rockers The Tom Fun Orchestra's Warren Bruleigh- and Gordon Gano- produced 2008 debut You Will Land With A Thud earned the band two East Coast Music Awards, two Nova Scotia Music Awards; it also garnered critical acclaim and comparisons to Tom Waits, The Pogues, folk and Celtic swing music.
For their sophomore album, Earthworm Heart, the seven-piece band opted to stay close to home, sharing production duties with Jamie Foulds of Cape Breton's Soundpark Studios (who had also helped with overdubs for YWLWAT).
The result is a tighter, harder-rocking acoustic/electric collection, with singer/songwriter Ian MacDougall delivering grim and dramatic tales in a gritty voice (that doesn't sound much like his speaking voice) backed by Arcade Fire-like backup vocals and weirdly appropriate instrumentation: drums, bass, guitars and synths but also trumpet, accordion, violin and banjo.
Over the years, MacDougall explains, they have become adept at van Tetris. They were in the process of loading their van in Montreal when we spoke.
It's been four years since you released You Will Land With A Thud. What have you been up to since then?
We did a lot of touring - we've been to the U.K. and Ireland and Australia and across Canada many times.
We made little efforts to work on the [new] album, but what happened for the first little while is that we had a revolving lineup, so, whereas most bands would be spending time working on new material, we were teaching old songs to new players.
The nice thing is that we have a steady lineup now -- it's made a big difference in our world. We've recorded this album, now we can work on new tunes right away, which is kind of exciting.
You recorded You Will Land With A Thud with Warren Bruleigh and Gordon Gano of Violent Femmes in Connecticut. Where did you record this one? And who did you record it with?
We did it all in Cape Breton, pretty much on our own. We had a co-producer [Jamie Foulds, owner of Soundpark Studios]. We did some overdubbing for our last album at his place.
The whole thing was just our own project, there wasn't really help from outside; we're pretty proud of that.
We had a lot of our old band mates and touring mates: [violinist] Colin Grant, who's toured with us a couple times and plays with us around the Maritimes when he can; and Carmen Townsend (who used to play with us) is on a couple tunes, and our old bass player, Donnie Calabrese, plays some upright bass on it. We also gathered a group of whoever was interested to come in and sing with us. It's just all our pals.
How would you describe the difference in sound between the two albums?
Those were the first batch of songs that we ever had, and while some guys in the band were experienced, there were others - half of us - who were total novices. It was the first thing we ever did and we had different notions about what we wanted to do. I don't have any problem with the first album, but it doesn't really represent the kind of music that I'd like to be making now, and I think the new album does, more so. There's more care put into it, more thought as far as arrangements go. Whereas once we would have said, "well, there's no lyrics here, so everybody just play something;" we put a little more care into now.
To me it sounds like you were experimenting with different genres on the first album, with some songs having a swing feel. I don't think anyone would call your new album swing music.
I don't know if that was a conscious thing last time, I think it was all a process of just learning to play music and learning to write songs. It was maybe representative of things I was listening to at the time. I was really surprised when we started getting those comparisons, because I didn't really have a concept of it sounding like that. It makes sense that we were getting that categorization of being a gypsy jazz swing band, but I didn't hear it personally. I was just blind to it.
Would you say there's an overarching lyrical theme in the new album having to do with death, mortality and rebirth?
Maybe - I think there was even that on the last album. I like the juxtaposition of writing sad songs that are kind of bouncy. There's one song that came out of a family member going through an illness.
I've written several songs about Cape Breton, or any given place, being swallowed up by the Ocean. So I have a series of flood songs, which is maybe appropriate. But it wasn't like I was setting out to make a statement or anything, it just happened. Floods are on my mind, I guess.
How about Animal Mask? That's about methadone users, right?
It's a sad song about drug addicts, but it sounds so happy. I wrote that one on a keyboard with a looper pedal and it was just the hook came from that. That was probably the quickest I've ever written lyrics to a song, in about five minutes. I don't know why or how.
The main character is James Earl Jones, but not the actor, another guy with the same name. It's just a story, I like stories like that.
...There is a pretty big drug problem in industrial Cape Breton, in particular, so you do see it. I don't think that is specifically what I was going for. But yeah, I've certainly witnessed it and known people who've been in that situation. I guess it's something that is present and maybe on your mind sometimes.
What I do hear on the album is more classic rock and roll. Are any of you big Bruce Springsteen fans?
I think it's pretty much safe to say that all of us are. He just played in Moncton and none of us were willing to pay the $150 to see him, but barring that we still are pretty big Boss fans, I'd say.