Since 2000 Toronto based band The Srumbellas has been performing their own brand of music. Just exactly what you’d call their music, however, is hard to describe. A fusion of alternative country, folk and pop, The Srumbellas have been called “popgrass” by previous writers. But with the use of traditional bluegrass instruments such as the banjo and fiddle, brought together by a more modern rock undertones, The Strumbellas have become one of Canada’s most celebrated alt-country bands. There debut album, My Father and the Hunter, was nominated for multiple Juno Awards in 2013, raising the exposure of the group to a wider audience.
Made up of songwriter Simon Ward on vocals and guitar, David Ritter on vocals and keys, Jon Hembrey on lead guitar, Isabel Ritchie on violin, Darryl James on bass guitar, and Jeremy Drury on drums, the group finds its roots in the Northern Ontario town of Lindsay, Ontario, but grew organically in the city of Toronto, but the small town roots feel of The Strumbellas can be heard in every note of their music. In late 2013 The Strumbellas released their second album, We Still Move on Dancefloors, with great praise and anticipation. With success in Canada, The Strumbellas also decided that it was time to bring their brand of music into the United States on a short American tour.
I spoke with singer/songwriter Simon Ward just prior to their American tour. A good natured and laid back guy, Simon was talked about about the band and their music, as well as being part of the growing alternative-country scene in Canada.
Sam Tweedle: So you have been touring the US. Is this your first foray into America?
Simon Ward: We played a show in Chicago a month back, but this is our first tour of the US.
Sam: Do you have much of a fan base South of the border?
Simon: I don’t know, but we’ve been getting a lot of messages from the States so we shall see.
Sam: Tell me a bit about your own personal journey in music. What were you listening to when you first started doing music and how does that influence the music you write now?
Simon: I used to listen to hip hop religiously in high school. I was even in a hip hop group. I was hard on it, and then in my twenties I got switched on to Ryan Adams and I got really fascinated with alt-country. I’ve been there ever since. I listen to a little bit of everything, but that was the trend I took.
Sam: Alt-country has become an interesting sub-genre of music in the last five years. It’s really growing to be one of the most prominent genres in Canadian music today.
Simon: Yeah. Definitely.
Sam: The Strumbellas are smack in the middle of it and becoming one of the most important Canadian groups in the genre. What do you feel is the reason it’s being embraced by Canadian listeners?
Simon: I don’t know. It’s a really good question. I definitely think that there are some bigger bands that paved the way for us little guys. I think it’s just a great genre. It’s so assessable and people are doing a great job at it, which is why it’s coming back. People are just taking traditional country music and doing some really fun stuff with it.
Sam: I find that in today’s industry of auto-tune and insipid lyrics, that it seems to be a genre where the singer/songwriter is able to create something honest.
Simon: For sure. Totally. It’s really traditional, and I think people really connect with it.
Sam: One thing I find interesting about The Strumbellas is the fact that the music soundsuplifting and fun, but the lyrics are really dark. It’s a strange juxtaposition of sound vs. content.
Simon: You’re right on. Its super dark lyrics, but more fun, upbeat music. I don’t know why that is exactly. I was a big Shannon Hoon fan at one point in my life, so maybe that had an influence because he sort of had that thing too. I find that it’s just naturally the way it comes. I love upbeat music and that’s what I like to wit I can’t write a happy song for the death of me.
Sam: How did The Strumbellas come together?
Simon: I’ve been writing songs since I was ten, but I never really got into a band. It took me until I was twenty five to figure out how to start a band. I didn’t know what to do, because I was in Toronto and I didn’t really know anybody. So I put an ad out on Craigslist and it went from there. I had a bunch of people come to my apartment and after some people came and went, and that’s how we formed. Two people in the band right now are still from that original Craigslist ad. Then through people coming and going, three other guys are from my hometown, Lindsay Ontario, who came to Toronto and joined the band.
Sam: Lindsay is just around the corner from me. We were practically neighbours.
Simon: Yeah. We’re old Lindsay boys.
Sam: You’re doing a residency at The Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto. This is the second time you’ve done this. Do you find it a rewarding experience doing a residency type gig?
Simon: Yeah. It’s great. It’s kind of cool to see it grow. As the month goes you see more people come and the familiar faces. It’s almost like an episode of Cheers. It’s like getting together every week with all the people that want to her you play. I like it for that reason a lot, and then I don’t have to travel. It’s great. Its really fun and comfortable and home.
Sam: The new album has gotten a lot of support and you’ve been getting a lot of play on CBC. I also saw you featured on the Galaxy Cinema Pre-Show last time I went to the movies. How has that helped expand your audience?Simon: It’s been fantastic! We’re having a blast hearing people tell us that they saw us at the movie theater. [Our music was used] on Hockey Night in Canada! We’ve worked really hard for five years and it’s just started to pay off. A lot of people are listening now. We’re just enjoying things as things come along.
Sam: Both of your albums have also been released on vinyl. Vinyl is really making a huge comeback these days. I can’t resist buying vinyl when I see it being sold at a concert.
Simon: It’s funny that you say that because I was the only one [in The Strumbellas] that was anti-vinyl. I said “You guys are crazy. Nobodys going to buy vinyl.” Dave, who like you, always buys records, said “No. We got to do it.” So he and our bassist backed the money for it. But you’re right, man. I’m surprised how many people buy vinyl. It’s absolutely doing very well, and its caught me off guard. I guess people like the sound of the records. I’m starting to come around.
Sam: So what’s next for The Strumbellas? Are you just riding on the new album?
Simon: Right now, man, that’s about it. Our goal right now is to play shows and tour the album and our main focus is to break new ground in the States. We have lots of festivals in the summer. Right now we just want to play shows until we’re ready to do our next album.
Sam: Do you have any new songs for a new album?
Simon: Writing never stops. Theres a lot of songs. I’m always writing. That’s my favorite thing to do. It ever stops, and I don’t think it never will. That’s my biggest passion in music.
High energy with a tinge of darkness, We Still Move on Dancefloors is a fantastic album that mixes traditional country with a new energy without making it sound like the standard “pop” country often heard on the radio. Worth buying for those who are tired of electronic music and studio tricks and want to listen to something more honest and homegrown. For more information on The Strumbellas visit their web-site at http://www.thestrumbellas.ca/index.jsp.