Banff-based acoustic trio pay tribute to the region and its people with their latest album Sleeping Buffalo.
It’s a year in which we should revel in what makes us, well, us.
As Canada celebrates 150, the people, their stories, the sounds, what made us who we are, what continues to define us, are the things that we should be embracing.
That’s what makes the release of Banff-based roots act The Wardens’s new album Sleeping Buffalo all the more notable.
It is Canadian. Canadian to the core.
That’s because the band is very much of this country’s making and, more specifically, of this region’s history.
The acoustic trio, featuring Ray Schmidt, Bradley Bischoff and Scott Ward, sing and strum of the tales of Mounties, bandits, cowboys, coal miners, train men, musicians, hunters and park wardens in an incredibly honest and western way — as sweet as the sweetest sweetgrass and as fresh as the iciest mountain stream
And adding to the charm and authenticity of the band is that, yes, they did serve Parks Canada — even forming in 2009 during the National Park Warden centennial — with Schmidt, a former trapper, joining up in 2001, Bischoff beginning his tenure in the service in Jasper two decades earlier, and Ward a Governor General’s Award-winner for Exemplary Service as a Peace Officer with 30 years in the field in Banff National Park.
Prior to the release of their Leeroy Stagger-produced second full-length Sleeping Buffalo with a number of Southern Alberta launch dates, including Thursday at the Rolston Recital Hall in Banff, Friday at Calgary’s Woodcliff United Church and a sold-out show Saturday at the artsPlace in Canmore, Ward spoke with theYYSCENE. Here are excerpts from that chat.
Q: Congratulations on the record. It’s an album that is very particular to this region yet I don’t think that limits its appeal. But is that ever a worry for the band?
A: I thought at one point it might be, but the concerts we’ve done all over western Canada and even the U.S. now it seems like the appeal is there, broadly so. I think it’s just the songwriting and the musicianship, that helps it stand alone, aside from being local or regional. I think it’s sort of a refreshing change from a lot of songs that have been written about love and that kind of stuff. It is regional but it seems to have a broad appeal. We’ve played in some pretty crazy places (and) we’ve done some corporate gigs here in Banff, too, where people have come from different places in the world and still been interested.
Q: I think part of the charm it is is how honest, simple and traditional it is. It must be difficult to do something original while being true to the old time sound and feel?
A: It is tough sometimes, but it just seems to be the way we naturally write songs. Brad and I write more full-ahead, full-on ballad songs and Ray, his songs are a little more artistic and take a few more twists and turns, but all three of us write quite differently so it makes for good variety when the songs are put together on an album.
Q: And all three of you have three incredible backgrounds. It’s fascinating. And that, to me, makes the music make even more sense, even more authentic.
A: Yeah, it makes for authenticity because we spent 35 years in the trenches, Brad and I, of being park wardens and working back country districts. Myself, I worked on mountain rescue a lot and I was the park dog handler on the mountain rescue team for 17 years and worked over 20 winters on avalanche control for Parks in the winter, (and) I worked many years in the back country horse work. It gives you incredible fodder for songwriting, and storytelling especially.
Q: You’re obviously very drawn to the stories of the region and there’s obviously research done. It seems like it’s important for you to tell them, keep them alive.
A: Yeah, that’s right. I don’t think we’ll ever run out of material for stories, that’s for sure. (Laughs) Or songs. It’s endless. Some of the stories we can’t tell (laughs), but a lot of them we can, for sure.
The songs I write about other people are people I worked with early in my career or I actually worked with people that actually worked with them a generation before, so the stories were passed down directly by people that know, if I hadn’t experienced them myself …
The story of Bill Neish, for example, The Ballad of Bill Neish, I actually was drawn to it because Bill was a park warden like we were and it’s a gripping story. (In 1935, Neish, a former sharpshooter in the First World War, and then a Banff park warden, helped end a standoff with three bandits that had killed four Northwest Mounted Police officers). But I actually talked to Dave Neish right here in Canmore, who’s a nephew of Bill Neish, and, of course, he knew all the intimate details of the story, so it was great to have him for research.
Q: You took these songs to Leeroy Stagger to produce. What was that experience like?
A: I love his music. I’m a huge fan of Leeroy as well as being a friend … He’s a very relaxed guy to work with in the studio — he never gets uptight, he’s got infinite patience. It takes awhile to do this, we spent three weeks in the studio in three different sessions to accomplish this. Plus we worked with a lady from the U.S., Vicki Ambinder, who’s a performance consultant and producer down there. We worked with her for four months in pre-production, so we actually Skyped with her once or twice a week, we went through the songs, she gave us suggestions, and we worked on arrangements with her, she helped us tremendously. And then with Leeroy’s magical touch in the studio, it was a great collaboration all around.
Q: Does this mean you guys think you can take this a step up, take this even further?
A: This is our goal. We’re really, really happy we’ve made it as far as we have in the western Canadian music scene. But I think like any band we want to get to the next level, so we’re definitely hoping this CD takes us to that level, and we’d like to branch out … I don’t know what the ultimate goal is, but we just want to keep improving and keep bringing the word to the folks, I guess.
The Wardens release their new album Sleeping Buffalo with a show Friday at Woodcliff United Church (5010 Spruce Dr. S.W.). For tickets call 403-249-3121 or email email@example.com.
Mike Bell has been covering the Calgary music scene for the past 25 years with publications such as VOX, Fast Forward, the Calgary Sun and, most recently, the Calgary Herald. He is currently the music writer and content editor for theYYSCENE.ca, and the co-host of the show Saved By the Bell, which airs Wednesdays from 4-6 p.m. on CJSW 90.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter/@mrbell_23 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He likes beer. Buy him one.