ROOKS’ Masterpiece in the Making: Calgary rock trio takes the High Road with debut release

Calgary’s ROOKS, you gotta love ’em. You gotta to love a band that rummages through the great ’70s rock garage blow-out sale, picking up cool analogue-kissed sound layers and rank riffage for, well, for a song – make that for eight songs on their debut album, The High Road, released Nov. 6 – all while referencing Woody Guthrie and Gord Downie in the process.

You’ve gotta love a band that dresses up smart, sometimes political but never preachy lyrics in serious melody, serious hookage, serious seasoning without sounding rote, and in spite of the three members’ combined decades involved in various aspects of the music industry, without one speck of jadedness.

And you gotta love a band that passionately rails against being human jukeboxes, as on first single Yeah: “All they wanna hear from me is something they already know/I don’t wanna sing no more songs played on the radio,” followed by, “I sing my own Goddamn song!” in a catchy rhythm, thereby ironically making Yeah a song that is likely to be demanded by audiences and thus covered by future human jukeboxes.

Yep, you gotta love ROOKS. 

Speaking from a band meeting/practice in Calgary, where they formed a COVID cohort and used the time to, amazingly, get even tighter than they are on the album, drummer Darryl Swart — who also works as a sound tech at the King Eddy and as a tour manager for JJ Shiplett, Corb Lund, Lindi Ortega and others — reflects on why guitarist/lyricist Jay Bowcott’s words deserve this primitive-man-begets-Stones-while-hunted-down-by-T. Rex kind of music.

“It’s very important to me. I’ve been a recording engineer for many years, I’ve produced a few albums, and I understand the lyrical content is very important. If I don’t believe in, or disagreed with, what’s being said in the song, I’m not sure I could really be on board with or playing on it. So it’s vitally important.

“And I’m stoked (Bowcott’s) not just singing about drinkin’ beer on the back of a truck, you know what I mean, unless he wants to. He’s singing about stuff that means a lot to him, you know, LGBTQ stuff, political stuff that’s going on all around you.

“We can’t ignore that. And music’s a sound check; it’s always been.”

Just as Swart makes a full-time living in music, so does Bowcott, who’s released solo albums and hosts open mics at Mikey’s on Wednesdays and Brickwell Taphouse on Sundays. In addition, bassist Brent Rossall is a sound tech at Mount Royal University. The drummer reflects, “With all the experiences we have of being on the road or playing shitty bar gigs or doing sound, we take all that stuff and we apply it to us.

“We learn from all those (aforementioned) people which gives us sort of a head start I think.”

They came up with the name ROOKS partly due to so many corvids being in Calgary, partly because of the philosophical debate over the job of the rook in chess, and also because of something that was happening in a session Swart was producing.

“We had a funny thing. We worked on a song for an artist that was awesome. There was another person, I’m not going to mention names, playing on the song.

“So we did the song, mixed it, and I sent the mix out to the band. Everyone, including the artist, really loved it. And the session player who was not part of our band or anything on the record, I don’t wholly understand why but said, ‘Man you guys sound like you’re a bunch of rookies.’ ”

Swart grew up in Durban, South Africa, dropping out of college in his third year of a personnel management degree to play five nights a week in a cover band. He eventually ended up in Nashville where one of his bands was signed to a record deal. Love brought him to Calgary and he commenced work as a session drummer. Two children later, love obviously worked out. Finding a band to be “married” to was tougher.

“I always struggled being a session hired gun because I’d been in a band my entire life, and I never quite fit into that scene, you know, just showing up with a chart and playing some Top 40 song, that doesn’t have a whole lot of heart and soul connection with the people that you’re playing with.”

After some hits and misses, he met Rossall through their shared work as sound engineers, then Bowcott came their way when introduced by another musician. Initially, ROOKS were a four piece when they formed in 2018, but the loss of one player made them a trio, which works out just fine when you consider that makes it cheaper to tour, more lucrative to divide your nightly gig wages, and, one less person to play band politics with. Oh. And when you consider that they may be three but they sound like six when they play.

At their CD release show at the King Eddy Nov. 6, their enhanced COVID cohort connection was no doubt in full glory due to over six months of having not much to do but rehearse. Swart acknowledges that’s had a massive impact on the band.

“There needs to be something besides, like, showing up and playing the right note. There needs to be a connection with the guys onstage. I don’t know if you want to call it spiritual, emotional, whatever it is, there’s some kind of telepathic thing that happens once you repeat over and over again.

“So what it’s given us really is a lot of freedom to explore the songs, explore ourselves, get tighter, obviously, on a technical level. Nowadays we know how the song ends, we know how it starts, we know what happens in the middle, and then there are some grey areas where it could go anywhere.

“And because of physically just playing together and being together, that connection puts us on a wavelength. If Jay’s doing a solo or something and can look over, there’s a certain look I’m gonna know this is what he means. I know that sounds funny but really, that just starts happening naturally.

“It’s like when you hang out with someone with a different accent for a long enough; you start picking up on the nuances of the accent. It’s the same with us with the music.”

ROOKS’ The High Road is available now.

Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer.