The winter climate of Winnipeg can be cold, crushing and claustrophobic. But its harshness is balanced out by the region’s warm, euphoric summers and their seemingly-endless blue skies. These cyclical extremes, and the effects that they can have on one’s psyche — both positive and negative — are reflected in the music of Royal Canoe, a six-piece band that calls the city home. Featuring Matt Peters (vocals, keyboards, acoustic guitar), Bucky Driedger (electric guitar, vocals), Matt Schellenberg (keyboards, vocals), Brendan Berg (bass, keyboard, vocals), Derek Allard (drum kit) and Michael Jordan (electronic drums), Royal Canoe’s sound is a unique fusion of indie rock, jazz, pop and hip-hop that is, at times, difficult to define, but is nonetheless remarkably cohesive and crackling with an infectious energy.
Formed in 2010, the band followed up their debut, Co-Op Mode, with a pair of independent EPs in 2012 — Extended Play and Purple & Gold — and released their first full-length album, Today We’re Believers, in 2013. They took part in Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s New Music Festival, arranging and performing a portion of Beck’s Song Reader, an album released as sheet music and published by McSweeney’s. The band has since taken their tenacious live shows across Canada, the United States and Europe, and have landed on numerous “Best Of” lists, including those of The New York Times, KCRW and Consequence of Sound.
For more information, including upcoming tour dates, check out www.royalcanoe.com.
What was your childhood like, and how did it shape who you are today?
Matt Schellenberg: I’d like to say I have some great rags to riches narrative of hardship, but truth is, childhood was really kind of idyllic. I’m not sure if hindsight is inherently nostalgic, but I spent my youth building forts out of sticks in the backyard bush, diving into gravel pit waters with friends. My time in high school was near perfect and unlike any of the coming of age films. I never saw them. A title like Dazed and Confused didn’t appeal to me. I saw The Breakfast Club last week for the first time. I suppose as for how it shapes how I am today, I feel like I’ve been given a pretty rich bank account of resources to live, perhaps I’ve spent some of them in the last two years of intense touring, there has certainly been loss, but yea… okay, I’ll get up off the couch now.
Musically and/or creatively, who are your biggest inspirations?
Matt Schellenberg: Musically, I think it’s stupid not to mention The Beatles and Radiohead. They are the most boring answers, but they sort of made pop music and then redesigned it. I’m not a guy who can play every Beatles song from start to finish, but certain members of the band could. I think the idea of experimentation with a reverence for catchiness was created by The Beatles and then refined by Radiohead. You can reduce a lot of the sounds you hear in modern music to some sort of origin in one or the other. I suppose if I was to add one more, it would be Outkast, who made hip-hop their own thing, something we’re trying our best to do as well.
Do you recall the first song you learned to play? If so, what was it?
Matt Schellenberg: The first song I learnt to play is so uncool. It was a praise and worship song for my parents’ church. G C and D, though, it could have also been “Free Falling” or entire Green Day records, those would come soon after.
How did the members of Royal Canoe initially meet?
Matt Schellenberg: Winnipeg has a pretty incestuous music scene, and we sort of all met through that. Bucky and I went to high school together. We had a Christian band that sounded like Weezer and then a better band that sounded like Wilco, and then finally found our musical spot in Royal Canoe, but we’ve been playing music together for nearly 15 years. Michael Jordan was a childhood family friend of mine, Derek and Brendan played in another previous band called Tele that toured a lot in the early 2000s. Matt Peters sort of called us all into the fold to play his side-project album Co-Op Mode.
How did you guys settle on Royal Canoe as a band name, and were there any other interesting options that were ultimately rejected?
Matt Schellenberg: Royal Canoe the name is an unremarkable story. Matt Peters was looking for a name at a cafe doing a crossword; he mentioned it to the waitress and she pointed at the headline in the paper. Something about the queen visiting Winnipeg and going on a canoe ride. I wonder if the Queen ever gets sick of that shit. She must. Anyways, it’s an awful band name, but it’s what we got and we hope to fill it with our own meaning.
What goes through your head in the moments before you go out on stage?
Matt Schellenberg: The moments before stage are always an interesting emotional roller coaster. Around dusk, you always get this worry that no one will come to the show. You fall back into yourself and wonder what the hell you’re doing with your life. Then you go to the green room and there’s maybe 18 people in the room and you wonder who they are and if that’s all that will come. Then as of late, people actually come! You bounce back up, make some sort of vague go team gestures with your band mates, and walk out. If it’s a big show, you put your hand up to wave.
What challenges have you faced in bringing your songs to life in front of a live audience? Has the process gotten smoother over the years?
Matt Schellenberg: When we’re writing songs, we don’t worry about how to play them live. We multi-track them into our recording computer over years. Inevitably, we have to go back and learn the parts we wrote at like 3am the previous year. The plus side is we have 12 hands and as much gear as any band could ever want. We have no excuses to not pull it all off. Sometimes some things that are recorded fall by the wayside if they’re just impossible.
Royal Canoe played both SXSW and Bonnaroo in 2014. What were those experiences like?
Matt Schellenberg: SXSW is a madhouse. Cramming all our gear into tiny spaces, sweating a lot, eating lots of tacos and drinking lots of beer. It’s always really hectic, but really fun. You see lots of bands you love and play shows in weird and wonderful places. That said, there is definitely a collective exhale when we leave.
Bonnaroo was next level awesome. We were constantly choosing between a few different shows to go see. It’s kind of unreal. Our shows were really fun and rewarding. It was really cool to have fans from all over the US and Canada packed into one space to party with us. Our main set there was very memorable.
What’s the best album you’ve heard recently?
Matt Schellenberg: The new Spoon album sounds promising. I haven’t heard the whole album but I loved what I heard of Sinkane’s Mean Love. Also this band Adult Jazz out of the UK, but best by far is TuneYards new album Nikki Nak.
What’s your favorite kind of soup?
Matt Schellenberg: One of my many jobs going through school was working for a modeling company that did contract work in Safeway doing taste-this-food sort of promotions. There was this Safeway brand tuscan tomato soup that I ate way more of than I gave away. I still buy it when I have money.
What is the best thing about living in Winnipeg? How about the worst?
Matt Schellenberg: The best thing about living in Winnipeg is the people. We all live in this shit hole together, and we’re trying to make it better. There is a strong artistic community, people are easy to get along with, and making friends is easier than in any city I’ve visited. We’ve all sort of been fighting the winters and the shitty closed-minded city government for years, it’s fun; it feels like you’re part of a very special community that is making gains.
The worst thing I’d say is the systemic racism when it comes to the aboriginal population. A lot of people in the downtown core are having a very hard time and a lot of them are aboriginal, and there is a certain racism outside of racism here, almost as if it doesn’t count. No one here would ever dare say something racist against a black person, but the native population gets verbally beaten, if not physically, daily. It’s a shit situation and our city is just mostly ignoring it.
What’s next for you and the band?
Matt Schellenberg: We currently have two shows left on a 48-day North American tour. This will be the last run on the Today We’re Believers album. After this, we will hole up in Winnipeg for the winter and continue working on our next album. We are really excited to really dive into that.