Building a Future Based on the Present
by by Chris Istace
October 6, 2013
It’s been less than two years since a quartet of Saskatoon musicians tossed a pebble into Saskatchewan’s live music scene.
In 2011, Vaero Poulin heard a performance by Neusha Mofazzali and Kuba Szmigielski. The Francophone violinist liked how they sounded and joined them, adding violin, keys and vocals to Mofazzali’s guitar and vocals, and Szmigielski’s drums.
In February of 2012, bassist Brynn Krysa – an acquaintance of Mofazzali’s from high school – completed what became Young Benjamins, a band that is now garnering national attention for a catchy brand of folk pop; a style of music they consider simple, but thoughtfully arranged and full of energy.
The pebble was tossed two years ago, but the ripples from that metaphorical action are now waves lapping live local music scenes as far away as British Columbia to the west and Quebec to the east. Music fans with a variety of tastes and backgrounds are appreciating the group’s music, propelling Young Benjamins through the release of their first LP and a pair of tours in 2013.
That momentum is partially due to their songwriting philosophy. Mofazzali said their ability to reach a wider spectrum of music enthusiasts comes by remaining intentionally unfocussed on the genre of the music they are creating.
“We went to Olds Alberta, which is a country town with a university that’s focused on agricultural studies. We were nervous about it. During the first sound check, we played ‘Out There (In the Wild).’ I’ve gotten pretty good at picking (the guitar) and the people were dancing and loving it,” Mofazzali said over the telephone recently. His voice is soft and patient with the hint of an English accent. The 23-year-old moved with his family from the United Kingdom to Saskatoon about five years ago.
“Then we went to Vancouver and had an indie-rock crowd rocking their heads up and down. We have found that sticking to one genre is too minimal. You won’t get the whole country listening to you. If you open up your writing skills, you’ll hit fans from all genres. We didn’t come by that purposefully. We just hit upon it.”
It seems to be working. Although it has been less than two years since the band was fully formed, 2013 has garnered national recognition and an impressive tour schedule.
In February, Young Benjamins were among those representing Saskatchewan at the 2013 International Folk Alliance Conference in Toronto. The conference includes shows by folk music performers and dancers for industry stakeholders including record company representatives, publishers, presenters, agents, managers and manufacturers. Three months later, the band released their debut LP “Less Argue”. (Their previous recordings included a pair of independent EP releases; one in 2011 and one in 2012.)
With the new project in tow, the group toured Ontario and Quebec this summer, with shows in Guelph, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Windsor. They maintained their cross-country trek in September and October with a Western Canadian tour, interrupted momentarily by a one-night stand at the POP Montreal International Music Festival.
That second set of shows began on September 25 in Regina at the Lieutenant Governor’s Arts Awards. By the end of October they had also performed in Saskatoon, Calgary, Revelstoke, Kelowna, Vancouver, Olds and Banff.
Mofazzali admitted that the foursome toured on the cheap. Most of their road trips took place in a simple Dodge Caravan, but they have travelled in a Chrysler Town & Country minivan when they feel they require more “luxurious” transportation. Regardless of how they get to their performances, Mofazzali says maintaining their homebase in Saskatoon has more advantages than disadvantages.
“We are pretty central here and sometimes, it’s not beneficial to stay here. But to be honest, we are better off than anyone else. Sometimes, it’s just a one or two-hour plane ride and we can be anywhere compared to someone who has to fly out of Vancouver,” he said.
“We also have the advantage of SaskMusic. They’re gold for us and really help us out…So the travel is easy, the music scene here is amazing and the support is great. For anyone starting out, it’s a good place to come from and a good place to come home to. It’s not as loud as, say, Calgary or Vancouver.”
The entire band now calls the city home. Mofazzali, Szmigielski, Poulin, Krysa and stand-in drummer Tyson Goodyear all hold jobs in Saskatoon outside of their work in the band.
“We all knew each other before (the band was formed),” Mofazzali said. “In the Saskatoon music scene, you get to know everyone.”
When EPs are not enough
Although the Young Benjamins garnered substantial bookings – including the 2012 Regina Folk Festival – based on their live performances and shorter recordings, Mofazzali said it was only natural that they would ultimately produce a full album. After all, it’s the next logical step for a productive band, he said.
The group is constantly writing, even when it appears they are at a standstill. Mofazzali admitted that he comes up with a majority of the ideas that become Young Benjamin songs – he is the lone member who does not play in musical projects outside of the quartet – but the entire group plays a role in producing the finished product.
In fact, they were so proficient at songwriting, they needed to get the best of what they had recorded so they could move on to new ideas, Mofazzali said.
“I think we’re just following the evolution of being a band. We actually didn’t believe (a full album) would be necessary in the beginning. We didn’t have good enough exposure to make it worth our while,” he continued. “But the album allowed us to get even better opportunities.”
Less Argue was recorded at Avenue Recording Studios in Saskatoon and mastered by John Keane in Athens, Georgia. Keane has worked with internationally recognizable bands like the Cowboy Junkies, REM and Indigo Girls.
Young Benjamins’ debut album contains 11 tracks, opening with Poulin singing “The Colonial Pt. I (You’re Only Twenty)” in a haunting, high-pitched intonation over a distinctive percussion line and Mofazzali’s unique licks on electric guitar. The pace picks up when Mofazzali takes over lead vocals for “Out There (In the Wild)” and “Jasper, Ab.”, where the group takes a more rock-oriented turn.
Midway through the album lays “Green Eyes,” the shortest song at 57 seconds, but the number with the clearest example of Mofazzali and Poulin’s harmonic abilities. The lyrics are based on poetry translated from Farsi written by Mofazzali’s grandfather. Less Argue goes on to close with “The Colonial, Pt. II,” where Poulin’s widely recognized abilities on violin step even further into the spotlight. “Whenever we jam, there’s a new song written. With having the new album, it’s nice to get them down so we can move on to build on something else,” Mofazzali said. The basics for many of the songs on the album were set down before the full band was established. Mofazzali said the addition of Poulin and Krysa were instrumental in getting the songs the best they could be.
Poulin is a classically trained pianist and violinist who is also establishing a solo singing-songwriting career. She was recognized for her work in the 2012 “Best Of” edition of Planet S, an alternative arts and news magazine in Saskatoon.
“We were all going through something weird with our lives, all having to do with the heart,” Mofazzali said about the theme running through Less Argue. “Most of the songs were written before the full band was formed. But ‘Jasper,’ ‘Colonial, Pt. II,’ ‘Out There (In the Wild),’ weren’t fully finished and were not as good as they are now that we have the full band.”
Mofazzali’s own songwriting habits are sporadic. Ideas will pop into his head randomly, forcing him to drop what he is doing, pick up his guitar and get them on paper or recorded on digital file. He is particularly attentive to catchy melodies with simple verses.
“Sometimes, I just sing a melody or a phrase that sounds really nice into a recorder,” he said.
He admits he has been more productive with his work since forming Young Benjamins, where the passion and excitement of collaboration has motivated him to write down his song ideas when he really doesn’t feel like it.
“Putting ideas down and finishing songs is something we all seem to be good at together,” he said. “When I used to play solo or in the duo (with Szmigielski), if I couldn’t finish a song in a half hour, I’d just forget about it. With the band, we get all of it down and we just kind of go for it to finish it off and add in the details.”
The song becomes what it is naturally meant to be through the band’s songwriting method. Mofazzali said they do not set out to write a specifically folk-rock, folk-pop, roots, country or alternative song. It simply becomes what it is as the process unfolds.
“The motive we have is to play really simple music with really simple structures,” he said. “We have bridges in our songs because we like having moments where we can jam a bit. We actually laugh sometimes at how simple our music is. ‘Into the Wild’ sounds complicated, but we’re actually just repeating two chords.”
Mofazzali’s musical influences are somewhat geographically specific. Although he picked up some traits by listening to Pink Floyd and Simon and Garfunkel – music his father appreciated – much of what he does is based on a foundation built by members of Saskatchewan’s independent music community. That includes bands like Rah Rah and Library Voices of Regina.
Instrumentally, Mofazzali is a self-taught guitarist who found his unique sound through independent learning. Originally a piano player, he picked up the guitar about three years ago and began learning from CDs by musicians like Jack Johnson. He said if he had tried to copy what he was
hearing on traditionally popular music for guitarists – The Eagles, The Rolling Stones or AC/DC for example – he would not have the simple-but-original sound he produces with the instrument.
The impression or message the band wants to leave with people is yet to be determined. “As long as people like the songs, that’s a bonus. I would keep doing it even if people didn’t like the songs,” he said. “On the musical spectrum, we’re not even near ‘there’ (where bands are concerned about the impact of their music on their fans). There’s so much more to do. We are moving pretty fast, but it seems to be working out okay.”
Mofazzali wants to continue to see and enjoy the wave that has taken them across Canada in 2013.
“We love what we do and we love each other. We really look happy and smiley on stage,” he said. “We love playing as a band and that gives us the high energy.”
Their accomplishments since Less Argue’s release in May keeps them moving forward while focusing on the present. This, said Mofazzali, is fundamental to their long-term, well-planned success.
There are discussions about American and European tours and talk about releasing CDs with foreign labels (having released Less Argue with Canadian independent label Dollartone Records), but Mofazzali’s instinct says Young Benjamins should take these steps tentatively and only with a solid foundation under them. No one should lose their standard of living while attempting to force the band’s success, he said.
“We just want to make sure everything is done correctly at this moment,” he said. “Everything we do now has an affect on our future. People who think too much on the future lose contact with what they are supposed to be doing now.”
After a break from their recent swing across Western Canada, Young Benjamins are returning to the studio to record an EP. Mofazzali said they may try something different, as well.
“We might go the music video route,” he muses. “We’ll release a single and if it does well, we’ll build another album around that.”
For more information on Young Benjamins, visit www.youngbenjamins.com or www.dollartone.com.
Originally published Autumn 2013. This article is posted as initially published. For reprint/usage permission or any other questions, please contact SaskMusic.