By Vanessa Markov
“If we’re not risking career suicide in one way or another, we’re not trying hard enough.”
I have a stockpile of Jon Landry quotes large enough to publish one of those obnoxiously oversized coffee table books, but this is by far my (latest) favourite.
I’ve met with The Stanfields frontman several times throughout his career, and this time around there was something different about the way he addressed my questions. His philosophy of the band and sense of self was substantially stronger, clearer, and more developed than ever before; his energy was that of being thoroughly fed up with the mechanical politics infecting every aspect of his career, and his usual dark and subtle sense of humour had now taken precedence over the anxious uncertainty that I had sensed in him in years prior.
This refined attitude is omnipresent in the band’s latest album, Modem Operandi – a wittily calculated “fuck you” to the critics and their righteously overbearing, contradicting, hypocritical expectations (my words, not his!) Love it or leave it.
“One fan rated the new album a dead zero, and someone else wrote that this album is NOT for sitting around and throwing back pints at the pub. It was beautiful!” – Jon
The backstory here is that The Stanfields have been pigeonholed as “sounds like Dropkick Murphys” ever since their 2009 hit “The Dirtiest Drunk (In The History of Liquor)” blew up radio stations across the country. While quite successful in the Maritimes and Northern Europe, their debut album Vanguard of the Young & Reckless was totally overshadowed by the hit single, and the band was dismissed by many as (a damn good) one-hit wonder within a genre that’s been done before.
I recall the first time I met them in Toronto during their 2011 tour, where the band’s tour manager at the time practically ambushed me pre-interview to insist that The Stanfields were so much more than their strong first impression of Celtic punk party rock. This sentiment was repeated several times by various people close to the band over the years in an attempt to distance them from the song that started the whole stereotype to begin with, but the subtler nuances that distinguished the band were more or less ignored.
The mind-numbing irony here is that, while the whole country dubbed “The Dirtiest Drunk” the kitchen party song of the century, the song was originally written on a harmonica and the actual subject matter is (quite literally) depressing as shit:
“I can’t tell you how many times people have come up to me saying, ‘Oh man, that song is all about me! I’m the dirtiest drunk!’ And I’m like, wow, that’s really shitty. You missed the point.” – Jon
Their second album, Death & Taxes (2012), was a harder, more coherent and poetic dimension of The Stanfields identity, yet despite all efforts the superficial comparisons raged on. Reasonably speaking, most would agree that being compared to great bands is not necessarily a bad thing (I’m more than guilty of doing so), but when you’ve been ultimately typecast as something you know you’re not, you’ve basically got two choices: run with it, or stick it on the mantle and start over.
Enter For King & Country (2013), the band’s third release – this time a completely acoustic album, which took a healthy step back from their typically thunderous rhythms and brought their technical instrumentation – those beautiful layers of strings – and Jon’s divine prose to the forefront. And while this collection of songs is a crucial component in understanding the evolution of The Stanfields sound, the band continued to be bracketed into Celtic folk rock (at least they weren’t re-typecast as an east coast acoustic act!)
A fourth album was in the works by 2014, and at that point it was anyone’s guess what the band would do next, but I don’t think anyone outside of the band and their families saw what was coming…On June 15 of this year, Jon wrote a lengthy and emotional Facebook post on behalf of The Stanfields, announcing that two original members, Jason Wright (bouzouki) and Craig Gene Harris (bass), have decided to leave the band.
While the note promised the Jon, Jason “Jmac” MacIsaac (guitar), and Mark “Murph” Murphy (drums) would go on, it was a shocking and tear-inducing revelation for fans across the globe. Nobody knew when they’d be back, and if it’d ever be even close to the same. But then, in no time at all (like, literally a week later) Modem Operandi’s first single, “Fight Song”, was released along with a music video featuring the two new members, Calen Kinney (fiddle) and Dillan Tate (bass). It was the most graceful and seamless transition a band could make, with Jay and Gene proudly championing the new single and album (which they played on) as if they’d never left. As of today, they continue to actively promote and cheer on their band brothers during their current tour. This is The Stanfields way.
Both new members are from Halifax’s The Fourth Well, a funk rock band that Calen says was raised by The Stanfields and had a lot of potential, but in a twist of fate they disbanded just around the time that Jay and Gene decided to leave. Calen and Jon admit the timing was something of a cosmic sign.
“We’re like a new band now, it’s not just one new guy. We’re a whole new unit.” – Calen
But by no means does that mean The Stanfields abandoned their musical roots on Modem Operandi. Instead, after experiencing the in-and-out pressure of recording with legendary producers like Mike Fraser (AC/DC, Metallica, Aerosmith), the guys chose to go home and take matters into their own hands, producing and engineered the album themselves with the help of good friend and declared best-in-Halifax, Darren Van Niekerk.
Armed with the gift of time, added creative freedom, and a healthy dose of frustration, the band freely toiled with new styles and structures, experimentally displacing all musical influences from their native ecosystems, and pushing all limits with volume:
“After putting out an acoustic album, we wanted the first thing people heard to be the loudest, most obnoxious noise we could come up with…notes that don’t even make sense. We had 3 amps in at any given time feeding back the whole studio.” – Jon
I can only describe the result as a masterfully Frankensteined collection of raucous emotion; an eight track kaleidoscope of severe instrumental anarchy that is, from my own eyes and ears, the band’s most passionate and distinctly proprietary work to date.
(Jon and Darren work as team outside of The Stanfields as well, producing about four records per year, among which include The Fourth Well and two of my favourite Halifax bands, The Stogies and The Town Heroes.)
And despite the fact that not a fan on earth was happy about saying goodbye to Gene and Jay, Calen and Dillan are hands down the best possible outcome you could ask for in this parallel of The Stanfields evolution. They don’t just belong on that stage; they add the exact right amount of purely manic energy that would make you think Modem Operandi was written in psychic anticipation of their arrival.
But I don’t expect my word to be enough to convince all you diehard fans, so in lieu of you seeing for yourself, here’s what Calen had to say about joining The Stanfields:
“These guys suck and I hate their music so much, but people kind of know them so I took a leap of faith.”
Yep, that’s some first class Stanfield sarcasm if I’ve ever heard it!
What this all comes down to is this – the story of how one band is handling the reality of the industry: the relentless and often physically torturous touring, the disappointment of driving 18 hours to play to an apathetic bartender (rinse and repeat), the virtually nonexistent pay, the mental and emotional toll of being judged and juried by lazy critics 24/7…this is the reality, folks. This is where we’re at, unless you’re one of the 0.001% that gets the million dollar record contract (for the very low promotional price of your integrity, but that’s a whole other story). Truly, there is little to gain from being a touring musician than the art of its creation.
Yet amid all the chaos, The Stanfields press on in service of that art, and breaking ground in their ever expanding quest to assassinate the insolent categorization of music that takes away from all they have left.
“If you’re in this for money, go work at the bank. Get out.” – Jon