Q & A with Matt Rogers of Canadian rock duo Harpoonist & The Axe Murderer

The Harpoonist & The Axe Murderer are a prominent West Coast two-piece band. Their punchy blues-soul sound grabs listeners’ attention and doesn’t let go. They are about to start playing shows in B.C. in support of their third full-length album A Real Fine Mess. The band has received widespread recognition for their work, including winning the “Blues Act of the Year” award at the SiriusXM Indies in 2013. They’ve shared the stage with legends such as Taj Mahal and Booker T. Jones, as well as with prevalent newer acts such as Serena Ryder, Mother Mother and The Sheepdogs. The band is playing at Distrikt on January 24th. The Martlet’s Emmett Robinson Smith caught up with Matt “The Axe Murderer” Rogers on the phone.

E: Are you stoked to start playing some shows?

M: I am! We’ve had a little bit of a nice break over Christmas and whatnot, so yeah, I’m stoked to get back on the road. This time on the road, it’s not three weeks, it’s only three days.

E: What are you looking forward to the most?

M: Island folk are great. I would say that’s what I’m looking forward to the most. Just the people. Beautiful people on the island. I’m also very much looking forward to the shorter drives than we’re used to [which is] driving eight hours, getting drunk, waking up to drive eight hours again.

E: You guys are just staying around BC this time?

M: Yeah, this weekend is just three dates on the island and then next weekend we have some dates… I think Whistler… Then we’re doing interior BC, and the drives are getting longer. This weekend I’m looking forward to the less distance. I think we’ll be in much better shape for the shows and not have to drive for eight hours and play.

E: What do you think the best sort of venue is for you guys?

M: Ruckus bars are great, but where people pay attention at the same time. I dunno, we like them all! We’ve played them all, too. We’ve played in seniors’ centres. I can’t think of too many that I dislike.

E: And you’re doing some shows with Miss Quincy and the Showdown?

M: We have in the past, not on the island. She’s not with us in Victoria, but she has joined us a bunch in the past. She sings with us, sings backup with us often.

E: You produced her latest album, right?

M: I did, yes.

E: How did that come to be?

M: We had a lot of mutual friends, and really liked each others’ music. We had actually gone to school together ten years prior to making the record, and I first met her at a topless party. [laughs] I didn’t see her in six or seven years and just ended up in kind of the same circle and had a lot of similar taste in music and decided it would be a good idea.

E: Your website mentions you guys wanting to up your game on your new album. Why did you feel that need?

M: I think up our game songwriting-wise is what we felt, and everyone’s always [upping] their game. It’s sort of a constant thing for musicians. But we really felt the need to up our game songwriting-wise ‘cause we did a lot of workshops with people like Jason Collett [and] Whitehorse. Singer-songwriters that could sit there on an acoustic guitar and really connect with the audience… We would follow that with something upbeat. Our songs needed to rise to the challenge a bit more. And that’s a constant thing, too. It’s not like we feel like we’ve definitely got there now. It’s something we’re continuously working on to be better songwriters.

E: What do you think that involves?

M: I think it involves doing it often, just writing a lot so that it’s not such a foreign thing to you. I think that writing songs is a lot like working a muscle. If you leave it for too long or are only touring and only playing live shows on the road, [you] forget to work that creative muscle. I think you lose it a bit. Probably the same with writing of any type. You just gotta keep it rollin’ so that you can sort of work the spirit of creativity when it’s there. Not  to get writer’s block or things like that. Lots of the best songwriters I know are people that write… every day. Which to me is crazy. [Laughs]

E: Do you think it’s paid off so far?

M: I think we definitely upped our game on the last record… Like I said, it’s a constant evolution and I think we’re trying to work it even more in the future and hone in more on the craft [of] songwriting. I think as a blues band, songwriting often sort of falls by the wayside.

E: Lyrically, you mean?

M: In any way. Lyrically, or melodically, or whatever, just because there’s more of a focus in the blues on the playing. And people do play a lot of covers… The blues songwriting is great; it has a deep history of songwriting, but speaking more to the contemporary blues songwriting, it’s easy to try and get by without even songwriting. So we consider ourselves more of a songwriting-type blues band than a blues band that will get up and play hot licks for two and a half hours.

E: You guys do have some pretty catchy riffs, though.

M: [laughs] Thanks.

E: With your last album it seems like you have an endless supply of just really tight riffs. Where do you think you get those?

M: I don’t know! From the well of creativity that you try not to let run dry. You never try to get too conscious of it or whatever. It’s something you try not to think too much about.

E: I was watching your video for “A Real Fine Noise.” It’s pretty trippy. Who was behind all that?

M: It’s a good pal of ours named Mike Southworth, who has done actually all our music videos. We kinda just let him take the reins. We wanted something trippy, cause we thought it was a bit of a trippy song, and that’s where he took it. We told him we wanted it trippy and he came back and he said “How bout trippy with a bit of a James Bond thing to it?” and we were like, “Yeah, perfect, sounds great.” And honestly, we had very little to do with it. We showed up for the shoot, and one morning before jumping on a plane to go to Winnipeg or something, and we didn’t even make the cut. He didn’t even end up using the footage of us in it. So we let him have the reins and that’s what he did.

E: Were you frustrated that you didn’t make it?

M: No, not at all. In fact, to be honest, in the first place, we were kinda like, “Well, I don’t really see us being in this.” And he said, “It would be good just in case. Let’s try it and see what happens.” So no, it wasn’t frustrating to us at all. And we’ve had two or three music videos that have us featured prominently and we just kinda felt it was a chance to do something where we weren’t so featured.

E: Your website also mentions there was a lot of back-and-forth and arguments and conflict when you made A Real Fine Mess. Can you elaborate on that?

M: Yeah, sure. I think it’s like any creative process, you know? When you take more than one person, [with] different ideas on what we want, and it’s part of the struggle of making something creative. And it’s a natural part of the struggle… It was tough. We were in two different cities, and that’s what made it a little bit tough. So we’d have these text arguments about why a bass part should be a certain way, or whatever, and it just seemed ridiculous. At points, we were like, “Why are we arguing over text?” And then we’d jump on the phone and we’d work it out. But we’ve been a band for eight years now, so we’re a little bit like an old married couple in a sense. We tend to get by by arguing quite a bit. We’re very different people and that comes out a lot in the creative process. But that’s just a natural part of it. It’s what it takes to make music together.

E: Maybe that distance is good sometimes, ‘cause then you’re not always caught up in being in the same space all the time.

M: To be honest, it would have been good if we were in the same space. It was tough. That distance did make things tough. Even in other ways, cause we’d spend so much time together that [in] the rest of our lives there was a bit of separation. But being in the same room together was just not a reality with how busy our lives were at that point. So we just had to make it work. It was just what had to happen. So it would have been easier being in the same room. We’re gonna try and do that for the next record. Just go off into a cabin in the woods for a month or something like that.

E: For the actual recording were you guys in the same place, or did you do that separately?

M: A lot of it we did together, but I did all my guitar completely on my own. I kind of wanted to have that space and that freedom of time. That non-pressure situation where I could take a whole day on a guitar part if I want to. So that was nice. Even if there’s one person sitting there, you feel the pressure of time weighing on you. Even if they’re in your band and don’t care. But yeah, to answer your question, it was definitely a mix. I did my guitar parts on my own, Shawn did his harmonica parts on his own, and we’d send them to each other and say, “What do you think?” So yeah, we’d just have to make it work that way.

E: Do you think that you’ve come out on top from it?

M: Yeah, I think it just took a different approach. It took longer in certain ways. I think it was more just the time involved and how it worked out time-wise than how the actual finished product turned out. If that makes sense. Sometimes it took more time, and more back-and-forth, less immediate feedback, and whatnot.

E: How do you feel about the album in relation to your others?

M: I feel like it’s a step forward for us. Like I said, we really tried to up our songwriting and we wanted to do something that was a little more soulful and I think we accomplished that. Especially with things like the addition of backup singers. That was a big part of what we wanted. I think we created an album that we were both really proud of.

E: Were you listening to any other artists specifically at the time when you were writing?

M: Yeah, there was a wide variety of stuff, and I’m sure Shawn would have a totally different answer than I would. But yeah, we were inspired by a lot of Joe Cocker[’s]  Mad Dogs & Englishmen, especially for the backup vocals. And songwriting-wise, we’ve been listening to a lot of non-blues stuff that’s more lyric-based, like Hayes Carll. He’s a country singer-songwriter. And Jason Collett, Canadian singer-songwriter. And, you know, doing that to try and infuse a different approach to our songwriting and the world of blues music.

E: There’s a lot of talk about rock music as sort of this dying genre, but it sounds like you guys are sticking up for it pretty well. Do you ever doubt yourselves, or is there ever a lack of confidence?

M: In terms of the music, or in terms of us?

E: In terms of the music.

M: The music industry is dying, but I don’t necessarily think rock music is. Making money is just a necessary part of life. But that’s not why we’re doing it. So the fact that the industry is failing is sort of too bad, but it’s not a reason to get too put down. Just gotta try and make the best of the time that you’re living in. Try and make something that feels like it means something for the time that you’re in that isn’t sort of a relic of the past.

E: You guys are coming to Victoria on the 24th?

M: We are.

E: What can people expect when they’re showing up?

M: They can expect an arousing, exciting blues show. Hopefully it will be sweaty and enjoyable. A few jokes, probably. The opener is actually my little brother whose record we’re working on right now, and he’s phenomenal. I think people that are coming to see us will also really like him and be in for a real treat. A real surprise.

E: What’s the name of his act?

M: Ben Rogers. It’s more country than we are, but good country. [Laughs]

Head to Distrikt on January 24 and see Harpoonist & The Axe Murderer live. Tickets available for $18 at Lyles Place, Ditch Records and online at ticketweb.ca

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