THE NEW WILD WEST
July 31, 2013by Craig Silliphant for The Session
The Canadian modern country music scene is a pretty well oiled and organized machine, with a ton of local bands and artists getting great support from the industry and the fans. There’s a Saskatoon country band I’ve been hearing about for years, first from country fans in Saskatchewan, then later from across the wide expanse of Canada itself. They happened upon their name after an early recording session where they defined their ‘gunslinger’ sound, naming themselves Wyatt, after the old west hero Wyatt Earp.
That being said, the band doesn’t really consider themselves ‘full on’ country music; more like a rock band that plays country, which can be quite a different distinction if you remember that guys like Garth Brooks grew up on bands like Kiss and wanted to emulate them to a degree. I caught up with one of the guitarist/singers from Wyatt, Danny Fortier, to talk to him about the ups and downs in their eight-year career so far, modern country vs. classic country, and how social media is changing the landscapes for bands like Wyatt.
CRAIG SILLIPHANT: Tell me how the band came together.
DANNY FORTIER: [Singer/guitar player] Scott [Patrick] and I originally met at a songwriters’ open mic that I was hosting with Carrie Catherine in Saskatoon back in 2005, which was actually sponsored by SaskMusic. After hearing the music we each performed we decided to get together and started rehearsing as a duo. Our first performance together we realized that there was definitely some magic in the collaboration and started working on developing the music. We were fortunate to get a Rawlco 10K20 grant which put us in touch with Jason Plumb [The Waltons/Jason Plumb and the Willing] who produced the first record. Once we had recorded the album, ‘Hard Road,’ we realized that the music [had a bigger sound] than just the duo [could manage alone] and we needed to put a band in place so we went recruiting. Just before the release of ‘Hard Road’ in 2007 we approached Bray Hudson to co-manage and play drums. Our first bass player was Sean Dancey out of Star City, but with the commute and time restrictions he had, we approached Cam Ewart to [join]. Interestingly enough, both Cam and Bray said, “No, I’m too busy,” when we first approached them. However, once they heard the music we were writing and recording, they changed their minds, and the four of us have been the core of the band ever since.
CRAIG SILLIPHANT: Going back to the idea that you’re a rock band that plays country --- how would you describe what you do to someone who had never heard it before?
DANNY FORTIER: One comment we get a lot from people who aren’t necessarily country music fans is, “I’m not a big fan of country music, but I really like your music!” And from country fans we get, “I love country music, and you guys know how to rock it!” I guess you could say we’re ‘rock-n-roll with a country soul.’
CRAIG SILLIPHANT: I even noticed in the video for your single, ‘Jesse James,’ one of the band members is wearing a Motorhead t-shirt. So what would you say are some of the band’s main influences?
DANNY FORTIER: If you look at the backgrounds of the individual members there many different influences that come into play. Cam has played with a number of bands from The Flaming Zambucas and Line Up in Paris to his rockabilly band Hot Rod Hullaballoo; Bray grew up on Aussie Rock and was influenced by his mom’s taste for Aussie country artists; Scott grew up on AM country radio and 80s rock; I grew up in a house of blues and did an opera degree in University. Collectively, we listen to everything from Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, and Bryan Adams to Motorhead, System of a Down, Jeff Beck, Prince, and Tom Petty. I think having a wide spectrum of influences make us a little more versatile and open to new music as a band.
CRAIG SILLIPHANT: In terms of country music, what do you think about more modern country vs. old school classic country?
DANNY FORTIER: It’s interesting when we get asked that question. If you look at country music as a whole, it has become a very broad genre. There is outlaw/roots-country, pop-country, rock-country, honky-tonk country, swing-country, just to name a few. I’ve found that people who say they aren’t a fan of country music haven’t listened to the entire spectrum of music and tend to focus on one aspect of it. In Nashville there is a real push back by the ‘traditional’ country artists and their fans against the so-called ‘evolution’ of country music by new artists. The music should be judged on the quality of the songs. There are artists out there right now that are pushing the boundaries of traditional and contemporary music in our genre. American artists like Miranda Lambert or Canadians like Blue Rodeo and Corb Lund. I think you have to respect the traditions of artists that have come before you [and] start to blaze your own trail. We recently had the opportunity to open for Kenny Rogers in Regina. It was a retrospective of his music and the funny thing was, he didn’t start out as a country artist, but was certainly embraced by country music fans.
CRAIG SILLIPHANT: Wyatt has been together a long time in ‘band years,’ which is quite an accomplishment. What advantages are there to knowing each other really well? Are there any disadvantages?
DANNY FORTIER: The main advantage is confidence. We know what to expect in every aspect of our stage performances and if something goes wrong, we know how to compensate. We have been through a lot of ups and downs together but we have always been able to keep each other grounded and moving forward. A band really is the dysfunctional family you choose, and you come to learn the ins and outs of interpersonal relationships. As with any family, you butt heads occasionally because you are passionate about what you’re doing and each person has their own way of doing things. But underneath it all, we all know that we are working towards something bigger than any one of us and [we] believe in the music. I think that keeps us all focused and drives us to keep getting better.
CRAIG SILLIPHANT: In 2009, you won Big Dog 92.7’s The Next Big Thing Contest, which had some perks. How was that experience? What do you think it did for your career?
DANNY FORTIER: [It] was great for us on a number of levels. It put us in front of some industry people we wanted to make an impression on, it gave us some funding to push our album, ‘If I Had a Dollar,’ but I think most importantly it gave us a bench mark for where we were at in terms of our stage show and industry support. It put us in a position to be ready for this type of competition, and it came right at a time when we needed it.
CRAIG SILLIPHANT: I actually work for Fahrenheit Films and used to write quite a few videos on VAP [Video Advantage Program] grants from CMT. As I already mentioned, I’ve seen the video for ‘Jesse James,’ directed by my good friend Tony Hrynchuk, and I think it has a cool sepia-toned look that fits your vibe --- modern and classic at the same time. How was the experience of making the video? What did it do for your career?
DANNY FORTIER: The making [Jesse James] was an amazing experience. We had originally applied for VAP funding and were turned down. The video we were going to make had a budget of $30,000. When the funding didn’t come through, we sat down as a band and made the decision to invest in some sort of video product to promote the single and the band. It was important that we have something professional to give agents something to sell the band with and for us to show to fans and the industry at large. We approached Tony at Fahrenheit to see what we could do on a shoe-string budget. We had wanted to work together for some time, so Tony helped us [out].
While Tony took care of things behind the camera, it was up to us as a band to put together all the production elements for the shoot; location, lighting, food, crew, costumes. Our first choice for location was the Western Development Museum [WDM] in Saskatoon due to the content of the song. When I called them up, their reaction was, “Well, it is not our policy to allow video production in the museum, but I am sure we can work something out for you guys.” The staff at the WDM were absolutely amazing. We had ten different locations to shoot within ten feet of each other. It raised the entire production value of that video. Thinking back, the whole shoot was very much entrenched in the Saskatchewan philosophy of working together to get it done.
When we pitched the video to CMT, our label [MDM Recordings] warned us that they may not pick it up for a couple of weeks if they decided to pick it up at all. I still remember getting a call an hour after he told me that, saying they were going to throw it into rotation the following week! We have already noticed a positive shift in how the band is perceived by fans and industry just from releasing the video.
CRAIG SILLIPHANT: What has changed for the band, both personally and musically, between the release of ‘If I had a Dollar’ and the new record, ‘Should’a Been There Last Night!’?
DANNY FORTIER: I think the biggest change is confidence and clarity of vision. With the last two albums we really learned about the process of making an album. There is a comfort level you achieve when you work together over a few albums where you say, now that we know what we want to do and how to do it, let’s make the album we want to make. It’s like you grow into your sound. The first few albums you are feeling things out and learning the ropes. I think this new album will see a more mature sounding album that unapologetically captures the live dynamic of the band.
CRAIG SILLIPHANT: Has the band ever had dark moments? When you thought things weren’t going anywhere and that you might just pack it in?
DANNY FORTIER: Absolutely. I think every artist has that moment when they do a gut check and ask, “Is it worth doing this? Is this going to go anywhere? Can we do this?” We had that very gut check coming back from Nashville the first time. We had it again after some disappointments in 2010, both personal and professional that made us re-evaluate things. If you can’t answer ‘yes’ in those moments, that’s when you pack it in. I still remember having a conversation with the band in 2010, and we came away saying, “This is worth it, we still have more to say, more to do, more to accomplish. Only this time, we take the lessons we have learned and we do it our way.” If you can make it through those moments, you come away with a little more determination and drive and, for us, greater clarity and wisdom on how to move forward.
CRAIG SILLIPHANT: Other than some of the things I’ve already mentioned, what are some big successes that the band is proud of?
DANNY FORTIER: We are very proud to have been named the Saskatchewan Country Music Association ‘Group of the Year’ for the last 5 years. Having the recognition from your home province is key. If you can’t get success locally, how are you going to do it nationally or internationally?
One of the biggest successes we had was winning the ‘National Hoedown Showdown’ on ourstage.com. After over 197,000 votes, [and] over 103 artists from across Canada, we were one of 3 bands selected to fly to Ottawa to compete in a battle of the bands. We were able to win that and go on to open for Rascall Flatts on the site of the Ottawa Blues Festival for over 10,000 fans. It was a real taste of what we are trying to achieve.
CRAIG SILLIPHANT: After all this talk of your gradually escalating success, and knowing that the record industry is a lot different than it was even ten years ago, I wonder, how do you measure success?
DANNY FORTIER: Success for us comes in the form of the opportunities we have. With radio numbers comes the shows, with the shows comes the opportunity to meet and make new fans and sell our music. With the sales of music and the opportunity to perform comes the sustainability of Wyatt and the opportunity to continue making and recording music and performing. If we can get to a point where we are making our living writing, recording, and performing that will be the greatest measure of success.
CRAIG SILLIPHANT: I saw an online chat with the band being advertised and I noticed that you have a pretty big social media component. How important is that for a band these days?
DANNY FORTIER: Social media is key to reaching out to fans. Online chats, concerts, contests, Facebook, pictures, [and] Twitter are all opportunities to engage fans outside of physical concerts. Touring in Canada is hard to do, especially with winter six months of the year; this is a way to connect and stay connected.
The nice thing about social media now compared to even two or three years ago is that everything is becoming more user friendly and connected. You can tweet from Facebook, pull in all your tour dates to all your sites from Sonicbids or Bands In Town applications, there are widgets that allow you to make your songs available from mobile devices. Branding these days is not about making an impression; it is about making a connection with your fan base. Without social media, that would be very difficult to do.
CRAIG SILLIPHANT: Do you still intend to stay based out of Saskatoon? Is there ever pressure to relocate? If so, what do you think of that?
DANNY FORTIER: Saskatoon is our home, and I can’t really see us being anywhere else. There isn’t as much pressure to relocate due to technological advances such as SKYPE and such. It means traveling to major centres like Vancouver, Toronto, [or] Nashville for different opportunities, but most of the day to day work can be done from here. The main pressure to relocate is winter [laughs]. We take opportunities to travel and grow, learn, make art in other places, but in the end, it is always good to come home.
CRAIG SILLIPHANT: Let’s switch gears and talk about the fun part --- seeing Wyatt live in all their glory, doin’ what they do. What do you think puts rear ends in seats at a Wyatt show? What makes it a unique experience?
DANNY FORTIER: The show is very high-energy, fun, and exciting, but that in itself isn’t what makes it unique. What makes a Wyatt show unique is the personality of the band, the musicianship, and of course, the selection of music we play. We ride a sharp edge between rock and country and are comfortable there, and it seems to really connect with audiences. There aren’t a lot of bands in our genre that can naturally fit there, but it is where our music and image likes to live.
CRAIG SILLIPHANT: What is the band’s favourite thing to do when they’re goofing off?
DANNY FORTIER: Anything from video games and UFC to drinking $10 wine and playing pranks on Cam.
CRAIG SILLIPHANT: Anything I’ve missed?
DANNY FORTIER: We signed with MDM Recordings in May 2012 and have developed a great relationship with our new label. It’s nice to have a solid team in behind the band to open some doors and use as a sounding board to make decisions.
We are gearing up for our new album to be released in May 2012. We were very fortunate to receive a RAWLCO 10K20 award and FACTOR album support on this record. We recorded the new project in Vancouver with CCMA Award Winning and JUNO Nominated producer Mitch Merrett at The Armoury, which was amazing. A lot of our idols had recorded in the very space we were tracking! It’s been a pretty wild ride and we can’t wait to release it. Jesse James is the first single off of that album, and gives you a bit of a preview into the gritty sound we like.