Canadian folk-rockers Elliott BROOD have been stompin’ across the globe for the better part of two decades, earning fans and acclaim with fearless songs and marathon energy. Drawing from multiple inspirations including family, film, history, and the darkness that weaves through it all, the power trio of Mark Sasso, Casey Laforet, and Stephen Pitkin defy simple classification. They’ve have been referred to as blackgrass or death country, but while either label might allow for a quick summation, neither encompasses the band’s inherent light and reach. On Keeper, the outfit’s seventh release, Elliott BROOD continues to challenge genre and explore human bonds with banjo, reverb, and heart. Soaring vocalist and multi-instrumentalist (every member of EB plays everything) Mark Sasso took the time to talk about the new album, the silver lining of being at home, and how musicians in Canada are maintaining under the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic.
AI- Let’s talk about the new album Keeper. If I understand it right, you’ve had a lot of these songs for quite some time. Is it one of those deals where you’ve had an opportunity– well, I should say pre-COVID– to play those out and see what the crowd favorites were before you laid them down?
MS- Only a couple of them actually. A few of them were sittin’ around for a while. They didn’t fit on the last record or whatever, but only three. The one that we actually played with live that felt really good at a festival or just like it was goin’ so good, we decided to take a chance, we were like, “Let’s play “Bird Dog” and see how it goes.” And the crowd was goin’ off the hook! Like right from the first couple of notes! And I was like, “Oh, this one feels really good!” ‘Cause you never know! It could die out on the vine– especially at a festival– but I think we understood the chance we were takin’ there. But it was really good!
That’s the one that kicks off the album, sets the whole tone with a western-style, murdery, ballady kind of thing. A lot of your songs have that feeling as I was going back and diggin’ into your back catalog. Are you a fan of that frontier notion and westerns in that regard?
We’re kind of new to the alt-country thing, even though we’d been doing it for like 20 years. Growing up in Windsor, Ontario/Detroit, Michigan, we grew up on hard rock and Motown. But I think we were just drawn to western films. So that’s what we started to write about it. And then you realize that there’s like the Louvin Brothers and all those guys that have already previously done it. But I think we’re drawn to that notion of characters in our music. We like the darkness and we like playin’ with those fictional characters and putting our own emotions into them.
You’ve said that this album, at its heart, is about loyalty and relationships. And I’d wager that that’s half about the actual personal relationships you talk about and half about the music itself. ‘Cause you’re running into… This is your 18th year in the music business? Do you feel like there’s a certain amount of loyalty for you towards the music?
I think we’ve always had the loyalty towards the music. Even though we’re three members, we’ve always taken ego out of it and the song has been the most important thing. I think we’ve always tried to be true to that as best we can. When we’re writing, we hope that people love our music, but we kind of write it for ourselves. We’re selfish in that way. We don’t write pop music or anything like that. We write the tunes that we write and hopefully there’s an audience out there for them. So yeah, we try to be as true as we can to our music. That’s for sure.
You bring up the fact that there’s just three of you. Each of you play multiple instruments. And I don’t just mean on the album. I mean live at the same time…
Which is amazing! Is that a holdover from being kids and literally not having any choice but to do it all yourself?
You know what? It just felt so good as a three-piece when we first started out. And then Casey added in playing bass pedals with his feet. He’s like, “Well, we kinda need the low end.” That just kind of worked. And then we didn’t realize until almost like five or six years into the band that our drummer is actually a classically trained pianist! He didn’t tell us! How do you not tell somebody that? That’s important information, you know? So we were like, “Screw that! You’re playin’ the piano now with your left hand while you’re drummin’ with your right! Plus singing!” Everybody sings. I think it works for our music because it’s so sparse at certain times. Forcing the drummer to play with his left hand, piano, even though he’s an amazing drummer, it forces him to kind of slow down and play a little bit less on the drum. So there’s space for other things. I dunno? It just works for us, but yeah, there’s a lot to do on stage.
Keeper also finds you back with a Six Shooter Records. What turned you back that way?
We had gotten management at a certain time and they were like, “We need to move away and go with a different label. There’s different offers…” And we did that, but we always felt at home with Six Shooter. Not that the other label didn’t work hard for us or push our career along, but it just always felt like [Six Shooter] got us the best. We had other offers out there to go with on [Keeper]. We just felt like going home. Sometimes you move away and you’re like, “No, we wanna go back home.” So, much like people nowadays, it’s like, “Go back to your hometown. Go back to the people that know you the best and you feel comfortable.” And that’s where we’re at.
You are in Hamilton, [Ontario]?
We don’t have any live shows going on here right now. Small things but of course, no touring is going on. I’ve been fortunate enough to speak to people that are releasing new albums and that’s been great, but one of the things I’ve been trying to do is create a chronicle of what’s going on for artists while they’re dealing with COVID-19. You would be the very first person that I’ve spoken to who was not from the United States… I think Fred Eaglesmith was actually the last non-American I spoke to on March the 12th, right before everything shut down.
Oh really? He’s great too!
Another Canadian! But I wanted to see how things are goin’ there in Hamilton or in Canada overall, as far as being a performer, being an artist. Are things locked down there like they are here? Some of our bars are open, but nobody’s having music. And of course, none of our theaters or venues are in operation right now.
We are the exact same. Just as we speak right now, there’s venues in Toronto that are dying, ones that we’ve loved playing, where you can go to a small club and try out music there. There’s word that they can falter in the next month or so. I’ve gotten, actually, two emails today on clubs, one club in Vancouver that our sound tech actually works at when he’s not with us. That’s possibly faltering in the next month. And then another one out East. There’s all these small clubs that it’s just like, [they] can’t get insurance, I guess. A lot of people have lapsed on their insurance and the insurance companies are not supporting them in their bid to get more. And it’s just brutal! I think it’s pretty much akin to what you guys are seeing in the south. And right now our cases are starting to go on the rise, which means they’re going to lessen the amount of people that are allowed in clubs.
That’s something that has been a big deal– the number of people allowed within any business. I’ll wager you’re sharing some of our pain there because folks don’t want to be told where they can and cannot go. And the venue thing, that’s a very big deal here as well. We’ve been a part of a huge push here too with saveourstages.com. I don’t know if there’s a Canadian component to that?
Trying to get all of our representatives to push through some relief for particularly small venues like what we’re used to having here in town. But what about the artists? How are you guys holding up not being able to perform?
It’s tough for us. We’re kind of stuck in limbo anyways, because Casey, he’s moved to L.A. a couple of years ago. So he’s not able to cross the border right now and get back to his family. At the moment, we can’t even perform, really, other than to do Zoom calls and stuff like that. For the most part, there’s a few bands that are playing drive-in shows, but that’s very few and far between. I’ve heard of people that are on the cusp of making it/not making it that are having to call it a day because they can’t survive right now. There’s nothing for them. Like proper gigging musicians that play all week long in small towns– they can’t do it! We’re lucky enough that we can survive right now. I don’t know how long we can survive? Hopefully, we can sustain ourselves until all of this is through, but you never know. Who knows how long this is gonna go for? It’s brutal on so many levels.
When, initially, were you planning on releasing Keeper? Are you actually still on schedule for that?
No, we delayed it. It was supposed to come out in April, then in May, then they decided in June that they were going to put it out in September. We kept pushing it off and then there’s like a drop end date where you gotta put it out. What are we gonna do? We’re not going to sit on it for two years, you know? People wanna hear music, people need something to distract themselves. Not to say that our music is the be all, end all solution to that, but at least put it out there and let people enjoy it. Maybe by the end of this thing, maybe we have another record. Who knows? I think we got to focus on those things, right? What can we do in these times to keep ourselves active and moving?
So you are indeed working on new material? I’m assuming through Zoom and whatnot? Or are you just writing separately and waiting for the time to get together?
Yeah. We’re writing separately and waiting for the time to get together because you need that. I don’t think Zoom is the proper way to write an album. You have to be in the room, you have to play it and feel that energy. Right? So you can be like, “Okay, this is the way to go,” and work things out. But we’re constantly throwing ideas back and forth. In the grand scheme of things, we’re just working this record as much as we can. There are announced shows [for] a tour in Europe next spring… But who knows? The way Europe’s going, I don’t know if we’re gonna get there. It’s pretty daunting. You have to get up and just know that life is good either way. Hopefully, we can battle through this. Everybody together.
Something that I feel very strongly about is the caliber of music that has been comin’ out this last six months during the pandemic and quarantine. I’ve truly been amazed at how good everything has been. I’m curious to know, have you found yourself listening to music more? Because I know that when you get out on the road and you’re workin’ and you’re writin’ and you’re recording, sometimes you get away from the actual listening part. Have you found yourself becoming the fan again?
Yes, 100%! We decided to buy a camper because we can’t really travel or go anyplace. And as I was redoing, renovating the camper, I found so much new music. Like just recently, Cut Worms. Are you familiar with Cut Worms?
I am not.
That stuff has come up on my playlist and just been blowing me away! And stuff that you don’t get to listen to because you’re working on your own stuff and listening to it ad nauseam. I think it’s nice to have an open ear again. So yeah, totally 100% listening to new stuff and feeling good about it. Like you’re saying, there’s so much stuff out there to be discovered. And that’s a great thing!
Have you been doing any streaming shows?
It’s hard for us. We can’t really stream because Casey’s in LA, so we can’t play simultaneously. It’s such a battle that way. Whereas, if he was actually back here in Hamilton with us, we could do live streaming shows and do more stuff like that. We’re tryin’ to figure out a way to get around it. We’re supposed to do an Instagram Live presentation next week. So we’re tryin’ to figure out how we’re gonna make that seem as though it’s real (laughs), but it’s not! It’s a battle for us at the moment.
If there’s been any silver lining outside of the new music that’s being released, a common thread that I have found with a lot of musicians is that those that have families have had an opportunity to spend time at home doing things that they never really get to do. Tell me about your family. Is that something you’ve been able to enjoy?
Yeah, I’ve been a full-time dad for the last six months! My wife is the only one that’s really been working.
What’s she do?
She works in documentary film. She’s an archivist researcher. Right now, she’s working on a ton of stuff. She’s been working away from home, and I’ve been with the kids 24/7, which is amazing and hard at the exact same time! But that’s where I look at this whole thing– that’s the silver lining. I get to watch my kids grow up on a daily basis, get to interact with them, take them to do different things.” Yeah, it’s not normal. But it’s the new norm. That’s the way it is. Just being with one another hiking, enjoying each other’s time– that’s why you have kids, right? You want to pass on your knowledge, experience stuff with them. That’s been an amazing thing for me.
How old are they?
My daughter’s ten and my son is eight.
Do they have your taste of music?
My daughter is really into music. Her knowledge or just the way she picks up songs and like lyrics– which is not one of my strong points– is phenomenal! My son, he’s not too into music. He’s more into Minecraft. But that’s alright too. Maybe he’ll find music down the road? But he just brought it up last that he wants to go to MinecraftCon, and if we could do that, and I’m just like, “Oh my God, here we go…” [Laughs] But that’s his love! Whatever passion it is, I’m all for it! It doesn’t have to be music or anything like that, ’cause whatever they love doin’, I’m gonna go along with them and enjoy that ride.
I read something, it was a book review, that you had recently done for Patrick deWitt [French Exit]. I think it was 2010, you had done a soundtrack to Grown Up Movie Star and you had mentioned, in the course of talking about Patrick’s book, he’d written The Sisters Brothers and you had always wanted to do the soundtrack to that. Of course, that didn’t work out– but what other soundtracks have you worked on?
We worked on a TV show called Bellevue. We did all the soundtrack work for that. Those are the two major ones. Grown Up Movie Star and Bellevue are the two where we actually had enough time in between tours and all of that stuff to actually sit back. They would send us the episode, we’d work on everything, and it’s a quick turnaround. It was pretty insane, but it was great! We enjoy that. We enjoy that aspect of it because it’s a different way of writing. You’re not writing lyrics, you’re creating emotion just for emotion’s sake, which is a beautiful thing! Casey and myself as well as Stephen would definitely love to do more of that, for sure. If the opportunity arises and we’re not doing other things.
What kind of project would you like to be involved with? Goin’ back to the whole thing we were talking about with westerns, and then of course you had expressed interest in The Sisters Brothers, which by the way I thought was an amazing movie. I turned it on, not expecting to love it and I did. I can definitely hear you guys puttin’ together something underneath all that dialogue. What would be your dream project?
My dream project? I haven’t thought about that! Something that’s not necessarily a western. Something that pushes your brain into a different spot. I read the book and funny enough, we have a connection to it… I’m Thinking of Ending Things just came out. That would be an interesting one. I had read that book. We’d met the author [Iain Reida] a long time ago. That one just came out on Netflix. I would like to do something like that. That’s more of a thriller. That might be an interesting thing to tackle. For myself anyways.
COVID-19 notwithstanding, Casey being in L.A., notwithstanding, tell me what the next thing that you’re looking forward to doing with Elliott Brood?
Playing a live show! Well, first off, hanging out. Hanging out, the three of us, and just having a nice pow wow, a nice dinner– along with our sound tech, Noah Kamis! Doin’ that and then just gettin’ ready to go on tour. Havin’ some rehearsals and going out and playing our shows! ‘Cause we’re a live band. That’s where we thrive. That’s where we feel alive and true and full. That’s what I’d like to do. Nice dinner, maybe a steak dinner, depends on whatever you want, and then just go out. I stopped drinking a few years ago, so I don’t need any booze, but those guys can have a whole bunch of wine and whiskey, and then we can go hit the road!