A journey in a canoe in unknown waters and winding up in an empty cabin formed the basis for a pivotal song on Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra’s latest disc.
The band, which hails from the west coast, plays The Vat Jan. 10.
“By feel we found this empty cabin and stayed the night,” recounts Ian Griffiths, accordionist. “I lay there and looked at the silhouette of the trees and I felt like it was the ancestors looking down on me. I found out later from my dad that our family had stayed there, in that very cabin.”
Though drawing on flamenco learned in Spain, on African percussion, on bluegrass and other roots music, TMO has cycled through influences and forays into sounds from all over.
Friends and family, ancestors and wild characters are all honoured on Follow My Lead, Lead Me to Follow, the band’s third studio effort.
“Our sound comes from spending a lot of time together. It’s a creation of living,” explains Kurt Loewen, the band’s guitarist. “The process with all the songs was so organic. But at the same time, 90 per cent of them took a long time to get into the repertoire. It took two full years of touring, of us being together all the time, rehearsing, recording, leaving things off and putting them back on the set list. These songs are a creation of living.”
Griffin said when people ask about what influences him the most, he points to the band. “There are other meta-influences in the background, but the biggest influence is the band itself. Our life together, the people we meet inspire new tunes.”
This kind of close-knit co-creation had humble beginnings. Griffiths had just returned from two years in Spain studying flamenco guitar, and ran into percussionist Paul Wolda who had grown up playing with African and hand-drumming ensembles.
As their usual gig involved another guitarist, Griffiths decided to teach himself accordion. “There were too many guitars, so I grabbed the accordion we had sitting around our living room. It was a little, kid-sized accordion that I picked up in Barcelona. You had to smile when you played; it only had major chords.”
A local impresario took notice of Griffiths and Wolda, gave the projects its name, and then booked show after show.
On one of these marathons, they met up with Kurt Loewen, who had been recruited to play djembe but became the band’s guitarist and one of its main songwriters. The guys came from different backgrounds, listened to different music, had different ideas. Yet somehow they clicked.
“There were a bunch of bands who were playing acoustic music in Victoria at the time,” recalls bassist Peter Mynett. “Those were very formative years. We got lots of support, very early on. That scene gave us a certain energy, energy we could take out touring, then bring it back.”
TMO toured cities, playing club dates and living in vans, like many young bands. But they also found themselves playing smaller towns and venues, places where the local population would gather for a show—and then demand they play all night.
The spirit of these places and these audiences left their mark, especially the Gulf Islands in B.C.’s Strait of Georgia, an archipelago harbouring beautiful spots and wonderfully eccentric people (as well as being home to Wolda, who hails from Cortes Island).
“Playing gigs in places like the Gulf Islands, on islands like Lasqueti, has had a deep influence on our music,” notes Mynett. “A big part of that comes from the Gulf Island third set, when you’ve played all your material, and the audience still wants one more set of music from you. On the islands, they know what good and bad music is, they have relatively good taste, but they also love anything you do. You can go further, try new things.”
The band evolved, refining their burst of quirky, spontaneous jams, where songs in Spanish might alternate with bluegrass numbers and waltzes might segue into percussive folk-punk.
“You have a certain idea of how things should be,” Griffiths muses. “But then you release your intention and stuff turns out better. It wouldn’t be a band if it were all my way; it would be my solo project. I bring one wall, and other people bring the others, and the music grows and changes and ends up better.”
The musicians spent months together, playing, arranging, discussing, before hitting the studio to record Follow my Lead, Lead me to Follow. The long spell together lent a new tightness to the band’s performance.
The Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra has also turned truly roots, finding inspiration and hope in tracing the impact of past lives, past minds.
“Our common thread is the place, the people,” he adds. “When we’re out on Cortes Island or in Saskatchewan, it’s the sense of place that are the common threads. There’s a place, there’s the sentiment that connects us.”