It's no surprise that this reporter had to conduct his interview with Enter the Haggis on the road. With hundreds of gigs each year that include headlining spots at some of the nation’s largest Irish and Celtic festivals, the road is their home.
As the tour van rambles through Grand Rapids, singer Brian Buchanan is clearly excited to talk about their new album, "Gutter Anthems."
“We’re in the honeymoon phase where the songs are still fresh to play, which is great,” he says. “Our fans are fantastic and are responding to the material very well. They allow us to experiment, and they don’t really freak out after we try to do something for us.”
For anyone new to the Enter the Haggis scene, prepared to be overwhelmed by a relentless assault of inventive power chord progressions, bagpipes that sound like screams from hell, and thunderous drumming. This is easily one of the greatest Celtic rock bands working the circuit today, and they have deftly captured their live magic in the grooves of "Gutter Anthems."
“The gutter is the place where we make our stand/and with a smile on my face and a bottle in my hand/you’ll find me in the gutter in the morning,” they shout on the boozy anthem “The Litter and the Leaves.”
You can tell these rockers are from the Great White North. You can hear elements of great Canadian bands like the prog rock chord sequences of Rush and the sunny harmonies of Great Big Sea in these fresh melodies.
The band draws favorable comparisons to Horslips on the foot stomping “Did You Call Me Albatross” instrumental, with fine fiddling trills bopping around echoed rock drum beats. The strings and bagpipes in modern rock instrumentals like the furious “Murphy’s Ashes” make for a Scotch-Irish vibe that makes the songs on "Gutter Anthems" a winner.
They keep the traditional Irish musical storytelling alive on tracks like “The Death of Johnny Mooring,” a song about a famous Canadian fiddler that met an untimely death after an altercation outside of a bar. “On a day like any other day/pavement turning red/Johnny laid down in an alleyway/died with a song in his head,” sings Buchanan.
“The bagpipes are a bigger part of the arrangement and we were definitely influenced by more traditional Irish and Scottish folk music,” he says of the song. “We are telling stories, which is exactly what Celtic music is all about. It is a huge part of folk tradition: passing stories on.”
You are likely to found plenty of garbage in the gutter, but there is not a bad song on "Gutter Anthems." I spoke with Buchanan about life on the road, recovering from throat surgery and how the economy is impacting their road party. Here’s how it went:
I read about your throat surgery online. You sound okay. Are you feeling well, and how did this affect the recording process?
It forced me to slow down. I have been fighting my throat for three years, no alcohol and all steam. My voice had no stamina. We would have to alter the set list so that I would not have to sing on multiple nights. Luckily, we have more than one lead singer.
I had a vocal polyp removed and could not sing for eight weeks. I wrote a song a day so that I wouldn’t go insane. Within a few weeks, I could tell that the vocals coming easier to me and I was able to do things in fewer takes. I didn’t have to worry about if I was going to make it through the recording of the tracks. Some of the vocals on this album are raspier than on previous records, but that is by choice.
You say that the fans have stuck with you when you tried new things. What would a longtime fan expect to hear that is different on this album?
It’s not that we picked a new genre and went with it. We hinted at some directions in the past and then we went with it. We have progressive rock tendencies that we just indulged ourselves in a bit. The last song is seven minutes, and it’s more of a jam with a three minute instrumental. It is out there, as is “Suburban Plain.” It has this Paul Simon African vibe to it. They’re not huge departures, but it does sound different and you hope you progress.
Was a lot of this cut live? It sounds very immediate.
Thanks. We wanted to record all together. There’s not a studio out there that can fit five guys at the same time. We did go in with more songs that we needed and then settled on 15 tracks.
We went to a cabin in Toronto and did pre-production, and we took a lot more time preparing to go into the studio. Because of that preparation, there is less editing and less stitching together sound. We took the time to make it come together better.
You have some of the more rocking reels I’ve ever heard. I loved “Murphy’s Ashes.” Do you improvise those jams in the studio or are they written out in advance?
Thanks! “Murphy’s Ashes” is pretty written out beforehand in terms of the melody, and then the band improvises on. It is an intense, heavy tune that people like to play live.
Did you road test any of these songs before recording the album?
We did that more with an album like "Soapbox Heroes" where we toured for a few months and tried some things out. We did debut a few songs live, but most of these were done fresh in the studio.
How has the album been received?
We have been bouncing around the Top 10 World Music charts on iTunes since the last album came out. Apple is great about supporting new independent music, so we have no complaints.
How has the economy affected the band? Some folks report that the downturn is good for live music because people want to escape a bit. Is that what you are finding?
Some of the vendors tell us that things are bad. The Canadian dollar is falling against the American dollar, which helps us when we bring the dollars back home here. The price of gas is a huge help to us with it falling.
We have actually been seeing better crowds lately because I think people want to escape the fiscal woes. When people pay $80 or $90 for a weekend pass, it will be interesting.
"Gutter Anthems" can be found on iTunes through United for Opportunity Records. They will be playing the Warehouse in Hartford, Connecticut on April 16. For more information, log onto enterthehaggis.com.