The ugly history (and questionable haircuts) of Canada’s Compadres

It’s like being caught in the crossfire between an old married couple. In this corner from his home in Winnipeg Manitoba James Keelaghan. In the far corner relaxing in his Calgary digs Oscar Lopez. Connected in the middle via Skype a Bragg Creek journalist who quickly gives up on keeping score.

The pair interrupt each other and finish each other’s sentences. And like an old married couple the two halves of the musical duo called Compadres can’t even agree on when they met.

“It was at the Northern Lights Festival in Sudbury Ontario in 1980” Keelaghan says.

“No 1988” Lopez contradicts. “I hope you didn’t tell (another paper) that.”

“Let Oscar tell you while I check his facts. Oh you’re right it was 1988.”

“July!” Lopez interjects.

“Yes Oscar it was July” sighs Keelaghan. Then there’s a cellphone ringing followed by a hello. Keelaghan mock loses it. “Turn off your phone! Jesus Christ!” And so it goes.

If the Compadres’ relationship is marked by dress-up disharmony then their music is all the sweeter for it. The duo just released their second album Buddy Where You Been? a full 10 years after their self-titled debut. The 13 tracks are a breezy joyous blend of Lopez’s exuberant Spanish vocals and flamenco-kissed guitar with Keelaghan’s tuneful airy Canadian tales in the middle. It is the kind of disc that makes you smile all the way to work in a blizzard on a Monday morning.

In reliving the duo’s history Lopez has a confession. “I have many VHS tapes” he says. “I was watching one with my shows and interviews when I started in Canada and I saw Lopez and Keelaghan.”

“And they were sporting pretty ugly mullets” Keelaghan interjects.

“What our private life?” asks a confused Lopez.

“No Oscar our haircuts.”

“I can tell you this baby” says Lopez. “You looked like a million bucks. I looked like a million bucks. I hate to contradict you but my wife was beside me [and she agreed].”

“History is ugly” Keelaghan retorts.

If the sparring is marked by a sense of exuberance well all the better. It was just a few years back that Lopez was squeezed in the vice of depression so powerful that he could not even pick up his beloved guitar. He credits Keelaghan whom he refers to throughout the interview as his brother with helping pull him back out. The fact that this album arrived exactly 10 years after their last one is mainly coincidence they agree.

“I am not trying to contradict my brother but it was time” Lopez says. “He knew it and I knew it. I am not trying to be the guy in here who needs compassion because I don’t need that but I went through a very rough time and my brother has always been there for me. He said ‘Oscar this is going to be very good for you it’s going to turn your life around.’ I realized it was the most important thing for me to come back to music when my brother invited me to play it with him.”

The two scheduled time during last year’s tour of Australia to write the songs that would show up on the new album. On sunny beaches surrounded by their families (Lopez’s son is now 14 months old Keelaghan’s is 21 months) the two traded riffs. “You wanna know what really helped us?” Lopez asks. “The sun was like rain for the brain. It made us feel alive and feel good.”

Long distance relationships can be a challenge. The two often run into each other on the folk fest circuit and Keelaghan figures they see each other about once a month at rehearsals sessions or just going out for dinner. As Lopez says “Somebody told us we are so different they don’t know how this works. The reason that I know why it works is we need each other. We are friends. We love to play music together. We have the same passion the same soul.”

When asked what people think is different enough about the two of them to make them an odd couple they jump over each other to answer. “Oscar is the straight man and I’m the funny guy. That’s obviously the first difference” Keelaghan says.

“I am not trying to contradict but it’s the other way around honey” Lopez responds.

“He’s beef and I’m green curry” Keelaghan shoots back. “I tend to be more direct and Oscar tends to ramble.”

“Hey I’m sorry. This is a tough crowd” Lopez mocks. “Are you still there Mary-Lynn?”

“She’s starting to drift off Oscar.”

“I don’t care. I’m gonna keep talking on the phone.”