The Sun Also Rises
Accompanied by glowing reviews, Matador Sunset, the latest recording from Warped 45s, offers a profound understanding of blue-collar consciousness that few Canadian songwriters currently match. Jason Schneider sits down with cousins Dave and Ryan McEathron.
It’s become a cliché that bands led by two gifted songwriters are like a marriage. But whether those relationships go on to thrive after the honeymoon (Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor) or abruptly end in bitter divorce (Uncle Tupelo’s Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar), there is never any doubt that such creative partnerships always add more to the music than if each party were working on their own.
Dave and Ryan McEathron of Toronto’s Warped 45s seemed predestined to work together—they’re first cousins—although each had been working on developing his own distinctive songwriting voice before first joining forces for a brief stint as an acoustic duo and then forming the band in late 2007 with keyboardist Kevin Hewitt, bassist Alex Needleman and drummer Hamal Finn Roye.
Once taking that plunge, they approached John Critchley, former front man of 13 Engines and now renowned producer for Elliott Brood and Dan Mangan, to make an EP. That soon led to a deal with Pheromone Records, run by one-time Warner Music Canada and Maple Music head Kim Cooke, and the release of the Warped 45s’ first full-length album, 10 Day Poem For Saskatchewan.
Upon first listen to that record, it was no surprise why so many significant CanRock names had thrown their support behind the band. 10 Day Poem For Saskatchewan remains one of the most accomplished Canadian roots rock debuts in recent memory, with its dynamic, wide-screen arrangements driving the McEathrons’ highly literate and richly detailed storytelling. These are elements over which critics commonly gush, yet the Warped 45s’ live show has also earned equal respect, as evidenced by the band winning the Fan’s Choice Award at the 2009 North By Northeast Festival in Toronto.
This spring saw the arrival of the Warped 45s’ sophomore album, Matador Sunset, again produced by Critchley, and accompanied by even more glowing reviews. “When we released our first record, the great reception really caught us off guard,” Ryan McEathron says. “The fact that Matador Sunset has been getting even more attention is really exciting. It is quite rewarding to have the support of so many music fans, radio hosts, journalists and concert promoters.”
Dave McEathron adds that although the heavy touring they embarked upon in the year following 10 Day Poem For Saskatchewan’s release did indeed help them road test a lot of new material, they are continually discovering new facets to their sound, especially now that the band is emerging from the club scene and onto bigger stages.
“I think we have grown as musicians and vocalists after playing a few hundred shows together,” Dave explains. “I feel like our sound is expanding but I guess I would attribute it to more experimentation in all kinds of settings, from stripped down house concerts to giant festival stages and everything in between. I think it helps with building the dynamics. It is hard to deny the power of standing on a big stage and creating this massive wall of sound, though. That can definitely be inspiring.”
When the subject turns to how their songwriting has evolved on Matador Sunset, Dave—who writes the lion’s share of material—says that there is a friendly competition between he and Ryan on some level, but it’s something that the cousins have never openly discussed. “It’s not a competition, but at the same time we’re doing this because we believe we have it within ourselves to write really good songs. I think you have to have that attitude when you form a band, or else what’s the point, you know?”
Dave continues, “I also work really hard to do whatever I can to make Ryan’s songs better through instrumentation or harmonies. I think he’s a great songwriter, whether we’re in the same family or not. I wouldn’t be in a band with him if that wasn’t the case.”
To illustrate that, Dave notes that one of his favourite moments on Matador Sunset is Ryan’s track Grampa Carl, based on the exploits of one of their real-life ancestors. “I used stories I was told growing up to put that song together,” Ryan explains. “The rumour goes that Carl was caught with a large shipment of contraband while crossing the Detroit River from Ontario into Michigan during Prohibition. In order to get rid of the evidence, Carl set his boat ablaze and jumped into the icy water.”
Dave has no reason to sell his own songs short, though. As he did on 10 Day Poem For Saskatchewan, he displays skills at plumbing the depths of the blue-collar experience that few other Canadian songwriters at this moment can match. The track of which he is particularly proud is Pale Horse, the tale of someone haunted by nightmare visions, even when he is in beautiful surroundings. “I wish I could say it wasn’t autobiographical,” he says. “It came out of a rough time right after I had been working in the industrial paint shop of a bus factory. I believe I may have been a little too attached to the paint thinner.”
Two more humble guys than the McEathrons probably don’t exist in the Canadian music scene, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t set the highest possible standard for their work. It’s another clear sign that Canadian songwriting traditions are in good hands with a new generation of artists, and the Warped 45s are quickly forging their own strong link in that chain.
“I always try to measure myself against the giants in songwriting that we all love,” Dave says. “Am I ever going to get there? I don’t know, but that’s what I’ve always wanted to be. So I try to read, write, and just generally live my life in a way that will allow me to express myself in the most honest way there is. I’m not trying to copy anyone, and I don’t think Ryan is either. We’re both just striving to get as close as we can to that place where your work represents who you are as accurately as possible.”