Rocky Mountain Rebel Music makes a stand — musically and politically
On a misty fall day in Victoria, music swoops over the downtown harbour. A cluster of musicians jump around a stage, bouncing between laid-back reggae jams with burbling keys, and blistering punk riots. The crowd responds to every stylistic switch, swaying to the beat one second, swirling in a circle pit the next. This sounds like a sweet concert, but it’s actually a political rally. Legions of Victorians spent all day protesting the Enbridge Pipeline in front of the provincial legislature, and now they’re dancing to one of Victoria’s most energetic acts: Rocky Mountain Rebel Music.
Rising from the Roots
The band was formed in 2008 by vocalist Andrew Murgatroyd, guitarist/vocalist Greg Szabo, and guitarist Jesse Horwood. They eventually ballooned to 10 members over the next year, adding a bassist, a female vocalist, two percussionists, keys and a two-piece horn section. “[The band] was just a ball of positive energy we wanted to keep rolling,” says Murgatroyd, 29, a high-school teacher. It was also around this time that they chose a name. “‘Rocky Mountain’ represents our west-coast roots,” says Murgatroyd. “And ‘Rebel Music’ references Jamaican ska and reggae, the roots of our sound. It’s music that challenges the status quo.” The group embraces social issues, playing fundraisers as well as protests and rallies such as the aforementioned Defend Our Coast this past fall. “You bring people together with music, first and foremost,” says Murgatroyd. “But once those people hear your message, and they see that they’re among likeminded people, it’s empowering and it leaves it up to them to take action.”
Though RMRM plays a mash-up of genres such as Latin, jazz, punk, hip-hop and funk, the foundation of the outfit is Jamaican-inspired, channelling the syncopated grooves of reggae, and the frantic intensity of its predecessor, ska. This allowed the band to get involved with promoter Dane Roberts and his Victoria Ska Festival.
“Dane was always this big figure,” says Szabo, 31, a graphic designer. “We always knew we wanted to play the festival; it was a goal.” The members also had previous connections to the festival: Murgatroyd attended the first one as a high-school student, and saxophonist Andy Bishop played it with his previous band, Chocomo Sound. Roberts gave them a shot in 2009, placing them on a bill at Sugar Nightclub with Victoria’s Brave New Waves and Vancouver’s Los Furios. “I heard positive things about them so I decided to give them the opening slot,” says Roberts. “That night turned out so well. I got a great vibe from the band.”
Roberts then booked the group onto Skafest that summer, playing the free kick-off show. RMRM has played the festival every year since, as well as various mid-year shows promoted by Roberts, allowing them to share the stage with international artists such as The Black Seeds, The Aggrolites, and Ky-Mani Marley. “They’ve become such a big part of the ska community,” continues Roberts. “The local scene gains so much by having a band like them. Not only does the band put on a great show, they have an amazing social network of people that create friendship[s] in the scene.” Yes, RMRM has a strong connection to the ska and reggae community; however, the band doesn’t want to be pigeonholed. “Victoria’s the only place we’re known as a ‘ska’ band,” says Szabo. “Everywhere else we’re just known as an instant party.”
On top of the Jamaican influence, Szabo and Horwood pull a lot from punk bands like Bad Religion and Rancid. Though punk only forms a fraction of their sound musically, the band adheres to punk’s do-it-yourself mentality. Szabo designs all the band’s art and merchandise, all recordings have been self-financed, and their last five summer tours were deliberately self-booked. “We try to keep everything in the band,” says Szabo.
Roaming New Routes
Perhaps the band’s most important endeavour is their self-booked summer tours. They’ve gone as far as Quebec City and back, expanding their listenership by playing both small venues as well as large festivals like Cumberland’s Big Time Out, Kelowna’s Keloha, and Salmo’s Shambhala, which despite some obstacles, the group considers to be their best show ever. “We had equipment malfunctions,” says Horwood, 27, a music student at the University of Victoria. “The crew never received our information so I had to mark out our stage plot in the sand.” Horwood was also sick, and their trumpet player, Carol Fong, slipped and fell before the performance, needing nine stitches in her leg. “It seemed like everything went wrong,” continues Horwood. “But as the show progressed, the crowd was so stoked and dancing and singing. It was incredible.”
Remodelling, Revising and Recording
The band now stands in a period of transition. In 2011, vocalist Niska Napolean moved to Vancouver to explore a solo career. Then this past winter, bass player Eric Wickman and keyboardist Martin Schoeps left to focus on their other band, Everybody Left. To make matters worse, original drummer Simon Bailey left to teach in Vietnam. “We love all of our past members,” says Szabo. “But they had new time-consuming changes in their lives.” The band’s current lineup features bassist Fred Burgess, and drummer Dana Tower. The group is also preparing to release their third studio album, which features a recording philosophy different from past efforts.
“The biggest difference with this album is that it was [recorded] live off the floor,” says Murgatroyd. The previous two releases, 2009’s self-titled and 2011’s Vic Sound System, had the musicians record their parts separately to be mixed later. It’s standard practice, but Murgatroyd feels it didn’t capture the band’s vibe. “It was difficult to capture our live energy,” he continues. “This time we [could] feed off each other’s energy and listen to each other. In a band this big, it’s all about listening.”
The album is slated for release May 30 and is titled Don’t Let the Team Down, sharing the namesake of a band chant. “[It] means just man up and do what you got to do,” says Murgatroyd. “Whether you’re checking the van’s oil, finishing a drink, slangin’ merch or carrying a massive amp into the back of the van, it takes every member pulling together to make it happen.”
Massive amps or not, they may have to leave some room in the van for some protest signs. M
Don’t let the team down
Rocky Mountain Rebel Music’s new album Don’t Let the Team Down sees the group breaking the mold of what could be your average ska band.
Uncharacteristic to the genre, the album features longer compositions, with two breaking the eight-minute mark. “Master of Disguises,” an upbeat track bookended by atmospheric dub, is one of these two; with its varied tempos and moods, it never exhausts. Same goes for “Away,” a four-movement piece with an infectious chant chorus and a chaotic syncopated outro.
However, this isn’t to say there isn’t any good verse-chorus songwriting going on. “Vegetable” features a super-catchy chorus and a fun dancehall break, and first-single “Crack the Window” is equal parts fat funk and groovy reggae.
Unfortunately, with these triumphs come a few missed chances. For a band with three singers, harmonies aren’t utilized as frequently as they could. Also, the two tracks in the middle of the LP, a didgeridoo-beatbox jam and an afrobeat interlude, are fun in concept, but both overstay their welcome, trapped between being intermissions and full songs.
That being said, this is an impressive studio album that shows the band bottling their live energy, blending loads of musical styles along the way, and giving the listener a lesson in fusion music.
I don’t know about the team, but as a listener, I was not let down.
Rocky Mountain Rebel Music’s CD release show is Thurs., May 30 at Upstairs Cabaret. Doors at 10pm. $15.