Walking the tightrope between live shows, painting the town red, and hundreds of hours spent between nine people in a tour van, Canailles managed to arranbge for the launch of their third album, Backflips, which comes out April 28, 2017. We met with Daphné Brissette (voice, melodeon) and Erik Evans (mandolin, voice) over great pints of a very floral IPA, as they – the musicians, not the pints – explained how folk/bluegrass musicians often have much more rock ‘n’ roll lives than rock stars.
“It’s when we play live that I’m reminded what we do is super-cool. I can’t imagine doing anything else, but still… Despite all the great times, I often wonder what I’m doing with my life,” says Brissette.
Not to worry, though. This kind of existential reflection occurs early in our conversation, simply because it’s related to the new album title. “To me, doing backflips is a way to let loose and be happy, a moment that’s very similar to madness,” says the singer. “It’s a way of letting go that’s typical of our lives within Canailles. We surf on that constantly, onstage and in real life. But backflips also give way to doubts: Should I let go? Do I have the right to let go? Am I having too much fun? Am I going to regret this tomorrow? Am I doing the right thing? I’m constantly thinking those things, and I know most of the other band members tackle those dilemmas, too.”
Without being unduly melancholy, several songs on the album touch upon that very subject: “Gna” (a stompin’ bluegrass number), “Tête en lieu sûr” (a nod to old-time Appalachian folk music) and “Backflips” (the title track, with vintage blues licks) all go there.
“Being a musician is f__ked up. You’re constantly giving. The only moment you’re not giving is when you’re writing. And the fact that your career can be over tomorrow is always in the back of your mind. You never know when everything is going to come crashing down.” — Daphné Brissette
What about the rest of the album? It’s imbued with all those magical moments Canailles has lived through by allowing themselves to do backflips, night after night. “I’m not very anxious by nature,” Erik Evans readily admits. “I understand Daphné’s worries, but I’m more in denial about them than her. If we’re going to crash into a wall, well, so be it; I’ll get back up. I only worry about not living the moment to its fullest. I constantly feel like I need to live today as if it’s my last day. Being a musician is a life of opportunities. When we’re on tour, I want to see everything, even if we’re only staying in that town for 24 hours. That’s what gets me going. It’s energizing, even though I always come home completely exhausted.”
The Belt of Shame
Luckily for the band members, this lust for life creates just as many memorable moments as it does doubts. “Our first album, Manger du bois, was quite a naive little number,” Evans recalls. “We wrote songs for the sake of writing songs. It’s a mish-mash of feelings, and we never expected anyone to actually listen to it. The second one, Ronds-points, is calmer. We worked with a deadline, we had to write. So we wrote about our hardships before and during Manger du bois. We got rid of our shit. For this third record, we took our time, and we focused on the fun we’ve had with Canailles since we started.”
The song “Margarita,” an eccentric country number, talks about alligators, a volcano and a Belt of Shame. It’s a compendium of glorious, or inglorious, memories, depending on the point of view, that are part and parcel of the Canailles mythology. It’s a spirit that’s earned a few members of the band (Bressette, Evans, guitarist Olivier Bélisle and percussionist Annie Carpentier) a unique nickname as “the shit team.” “The shit team is whoever can’t be found the day after a gig,” Brissette explains with a grin. “It’s the kind of people where you never quite know where and how they’re going to spend the night. Are they going to sleep outside, end up in the hospital, or puke in a corner? They’re the unreliable ones.” Vaguely related to Canailles, Bernard Adamus is also a member of the S Team. “He’s the Obélix of the group. He fell in the vat when he was a wee one!”
“The Belt of Shame is a typical shit team story,” adds Evans. “It happened at an outdoor music festival in Saint-Gédéon. We shared the stage with Québec Redneck Bluegrass. All the ingredients were there for an after-show party that would take no prisoners. We were supposed to crash at a nearby hostel, but, obviously, the shit team decided to not get on the shuttle and keep partying on-site. I got to the hostel at 9 a.m., I had no idea where my room was, and it doesn’t matter anyways, since we have to be outta there by noon. I decided to go swim in the lake, in the meantime, and I lay down on a picnic table. I haven’t slept all night. It’s 11 now. I fell asleep on the table bare-chested with my arms cross over my belly. At noon the sun hits hard, especially on a redhead. I got the worst sunburn in my life, except on my belly, where my arms had rested. It looked like I was wearing a white wrestling belt over my red body. Those marks were visible for a year. Even the next summer, the Belt of Shame would re-appear whenever I would catch some sun. That’s what being in the Shit Team is all about.”
Other members could resent the four S-Teamers, but Canailles is a close-knit group. If you ask them what makes them happy as a band, they’ll talk about their gigs, and those weeks spent writing in a cabin. As a matter of fact, even though the songs are mostly written by Brissette, Evans and accordionist Alice Tougas St-Jak, all songs are attributed to all the members of the band. “Regardless of who came up with a song, we always split the royalties in eight equal parts,” Evans explains. “We don’t care. We’re all in the same boat. Besides, each band member is in charge of their own arrangements. Our double-bass player, Antoine [Tardif] wanted to bring in a Hawaiian-inspired song. We assembled it together. Our drummer Étienne [Côté] came to the studio with new rhythms for the album. And pretty much everyone pitches in for the lyrics. We’re not about to start bickering about who did what to split the royalties.”
There’s a notebook entitled Code of Living in the glove compartment of Canailles’ tour van, and it’s another good example of the band’s esprit de corps – including the one member not named so far in this story, guitarist Benjamin Proulx-Mathers. The book is used to keep track of everyone’s good and not-so-good deeds, all of which are attributed a score. “So, if someone does something for the good of the band, they get points for that,” Brissette explains. “You bring a set of [the] pétanque [game] with you? Five points. Cleaning the van is also a good point earner. But you can also lose points if you do stuff that’s not in the band’s interest. Farting in the van loses you half a point. At the end of the tour, there’s a prize for the band member with the highest score. It may seem trivial, but we get so bored in that f__king van that the silliest thing entertains us.”
But according to Evans, what that game does, mostly, is turn the “unreliables” into ass-kissers. “I try to earn as many points as possible so I can fart,” he laughs. “Half a point might not seem like a lot, but when you’re nursing a hangover, it can add up really fast.”