Enter the Haggis has been one of my favorite bands, and it’s been a thrill to watch them evolve from a popular local Canadian band to an established international touring act over the course of a decade and five albums.
Their formula for success has been a simple one -- record great music, back it up with inspired live performance and tour constantly.
It’s this uncompromising commitment to their music and fans that has seen the band garner Top 10 charting positions on Billboard, Amazon and iTunes; major television appearances such as A&E’s Breakfast With the Arts and Live With Regis and Kelly, and their very own PBS special.
They’re back with Whitelake, a complex blend of sounds that stretch their Irish and Celtic roots into new territory.
Old fans of the band shouldn’t be too freaked out by this. Songs like “Follow” are one of a handful of toe-tapping tracks that blend the Irish melodies with the warm harmonies and stomping drums that you’ve come to expect at their legendary live shows.
Haggis has shifted their songs away from an overtly Celtic vibe, yielding a sound that touches on folk, classic rock, and country blues.
“The Flood” is a gorgeous ballad anchored by nothing more than a fiddle and banjo riff, while “Devil’s Son” is a back porch stomper. This standout track is a complex masterpiece.
There are cheerful harmonies masking a story of a troubled household. “I called it out/my father’s name/the boys in blue they came/but now I feel so ashamed,” they sing.
Whitelake is full of experimentation, and it doesn’t stop at the music. The band left their record label and management team last year in favor of forging a path that led them directly to their fan base.
“We paid for Whitelake thanks to fan fundraising,” explains singer and guitarist Trevor Lewington.
“It was a bit of a crapshoot, but we were amazed by the generosity of our fans. They supported the project by purchasing packages; anything from a signed pre-sale copy, to coming to the studio to perform on the record, to getting a matching tattoo with Brian.”
“This is the start of a night on wheels/it’s all or nothing, beginning or end/we can’t slow down,” Lewington sings on “Headlights 1&2,” an autobiographical epic tune about life on the road. With the banjo and fiddles propelling the rhythm it could double as a southern fried trucker anthem just as easily.
The band has definitely changed it up significantly and yes, that might take a bit of time for long-time fans like me to get used to.
But now that I swam some laps around Whitelake, I’ve toweled off and am convinced that this is the group’s best effort yet.
Lewington is joined in Haggis by Brian Buchanan (vocals, fiddle, keyboards, guitar, mandolin, accordion, banjo), Craig Downie (bagpipes, harmonica, whistle, trumpet, vocals), Mark Abraham (bass, vocals, ukulele), and Bruce McCarthy (drums, percussion).
Their live shows are the kind of hot, sweaty affairs that peel the paint from the walls. If you don’t believe me, you should download their classic live album Northampton and hear for yourself!
Cover of Enter the Haggis's new CD 'Whitelake'
I spoke with Lewington as he was packing his bags for a fan trip to Ireland. Here’s how it went:
How would you describe Haggis music to someone who has never heard it?
It's the musical equivalent of a 10th grade chemistry class. Everyone has just enough knowledge to know what they're doing is probably dangerous, but no one cares.
How would you describe Whitelake's sound to a Haggis fan who has a certain expectation of your sound?
I think by this stage in our career, the one thing our fans expect is something different every time we release a record. Whitelake is no exception.
The main difference this time around was a concerted effort to let the songs tell us what they needed. Whereas on previous efforts, we made attempts to squeeze bagpipes into songs just to have them in the mix.
On Whitelake we expanded our sonic pallet to include instruments such as trumpet, mandolin, accordion. As a result the arrangements came across more organically.
You guys have been plugging away for some time. You hear all the time how the music business is getting harder and band dynamics are always full of drama. How do you keep it together?
I wouldn't say the music business is getting harder, but it's definitely changing. Like our music, our approach to the business continues to be an experiment as well. We left our record label and management company in 2011 and have reinvented our business model.
In terms of band dynamics, it's never been a serious issue. We have great respect for one another, both personally and artistically, and that goes a long way.
When conflict arises it's because we're all heavily invested in the music and the business, and the end decisions can be stronger for a little bit of push and pull.
Tracks like "Devil's Son" and "The Hunter" have a more countrified roots vibe. Was there a conscious effort on your part to plug into U.S./American roots since you spend so much time touring here?
It's definitely not a conscious thing. We've been adding country elements into the mix since "Another Round" and "Gasoline" on 2004's Casualties of Retail. Any of these elements stem from listening to Americana/roots music but, as you suggest, our exposure to this music is increased by the amount of time we spend in the U.S., listening to radio or playing with other bands.
What are your plans for touring the East Coast?
The East Coast has always been a big focus of ours and will continue to be. Our tour schedule is filling in now with summer festivals, clubs and performing arts centers. Folks can tune in to the tour schedule on our website for more info. Next stop is actually Ireland. We leave next Wednesday!
Festivals? Any more Rootstomp compilations?
The Rootstomp compilations were fun for us to put together. It was really born out of an interest in doing something with our friends on the Celtic circuit.
Problem is, it's a relatively small genre so we only know so many bands. I think if we were to do another one, we'd have to widen the scope to include friends of ours outside of the Celtic world -- Larkin Poe, Ryan Montbleau Band, Adam Ezra Band. The ideas are coming!
Any fan reaction to the music so far?
Of Whitelake? Yeah, for sure. It's been very positive. Being that it's not as overtly Celtic as our previous offerings, it's had a little more crossover appeal.
"Getaway Car" has had some reasonable attention from radio, which has brought a lot of new fans into the fold to explore the other sides of what we do.
In general, I've been surprised how many songs we've managed to incorporate into the set. We've released albums where we only really ended up playing half of the album live, whereas this time around there are seven to nine songs (of 12) that often make the set list.
It's been like adding extra cashews to the trail mix bowl at a party -- people don't necessarily want some random person putting things into the snack bowl with their grubby hands, but if it's cashews you can't really complain.
Enter the Haggis will be playing the Historic Blairstown Theater in Blairstown, New Jersey on May 4 and can be seen at festivals this summer. Visit www.enterthehaggis.com.