The Dead South
Grit and Glory
by Michael Dawson for The Session
July 27, 2017
The Dead South is perhaps one of the most recognizable bands in the country. This could be in part due to their strict policy on stage attire, their coarse melodic vocals over gritty bluegrass, their tendency to crack open cold cans of beer in time with the music, or the simple fact that they are literally everywhere all of the time – they have a knack for playing shows less than 24 hours apart on different continents. (A tangible proof of this work ethic is their receiving the Canadian Independent Music Association’s “Road Gold” Certification 2014-2015, meaning they sold over 25,000 tickets in Canada within a 12-month period on the road.)
They are also one of the hardest-working bands I’ve ever met, but rather than spell that out for you I hope this conversation with frontman Nate Hilts sheds some light on the commitment and passion behind the band.
The Dead South formed in 2012 and featured Nate on guitar and lead vocals, Scott Pringle on mandolin and vocals, Colton Crawford on banjo and Danny Kenyon on cello. Founding member Crawford stepped away from the band last year and notable Saskatchewan musician Eliza Doyle is the new banjoist. Due to professional commitments as an engineer, Kenyon’s availability to tour is limited, so live performances often feature Erik Mehlsen on cello. Mehlsen is also an accomplished author and songwriter, performing as Del Suelo. If you’re lucky, you may catch a rare performance featuring two cellos where Hilts, Pringle, Kenyon, Mehlsen, and Doyle all share the stage together. Do you have all that straight? It’s a bit confusing I know, but without that preface the following is going to be harder to keep straight than all characters in Game Of Thrones.
I can’t begin to count the times I’ve watched The Dead South perform over the last few years. My best bet would be around 100, ranging from huge festival sets to intimate shows in pubs. At every single one of those shows they filled the crowd with smiles and dancing. They put the same energy into every single show. In fact, I once saw them at Folk Alliance in Kansas City and that energy carried through about a dozen performances over three straight days. For anyone unfamiliar with Folk Alliance, it’s an influential folk music conference where hundreds of musicians take over three floors of a hotel and hold showcases in actual hotel rooms. It runs from dawn until REALLY late at night, every night. Beyond their scheduled showcases, while other artists were desperate to catch naps, The Dead South led the charge in a backstage greenroom working out new songs, meeting with new artists, taking lessons on various instruments, and ushering in a seemingly endless jam session that they seemed to only sit out of when they had to rush off to their own performances. It was very apparent that weekend that they love what they do.
In this interview, Nate offers some sincere and interesting insight on what it means to be a touring band. The Dead South performances are joyous and celebratory, and it’s reassuring to know that the joy extends down to the trials and tribulations of one of the hardest-working bands in the province.
The Session: Let’s start at the very beginning. How did the band come to be?
Nate: It was actually kind of an idea I had with two roommates of mine and Colton Crawford. They brought him over one day and I was listening to Trampled By Turtles and he goes, “I love this band. My mom bought me a banjo for Christmas and I’ve always wanted to play it. I’ve always wanted to play in a band.” So the next day he comes back over and they started jamming and I was like “Oh, yeah…I’ll be right back,” and I ran upstairs and wrote some lyrics down. I never thought we’d ever use them, just something we could jam to, but that song became Every Man Needs A Chew, which is on our most recent album.
It’s weird, from the beginning a lot of the lyrics I wrote were just nonsense because I thought they were funny or the other guys were just goofing around thinking that nobody would ever listen to it. At that point we had a drummer and electric guitar and we were just messing around - Gaelen from Descalso (who now plays with Étienne Fletcher), who moved to Montreal with Descalso, and his brother Connor, who moved to China. So Colton and I just started playing open mic nights. From there it was like, “Oh! I’ve got a buddy who plays cello. Danny Kenyon. Let’s see if he wants to come hang out.” And he did. So from there it was more open mic nights and then we were all “What’s Scott doing?” We texted him, threw a mandolin in his hands and that was the beginning of what we are today.
So you already knew Scott?
Scott and Danny; we went to school from Kindergarten though high school together. I met Colton that day I mentioned in university when my roommates invited him over.
I dabbled with the guitar but I wasn’t good. I’m still not good, but my playing has come a long way. Scott has come really far on the mandolin just from playing all of the time and writing lyrics and trying out new things. Danny had to adjust his style quite bit because he was classically trained. We did some basement recordings when we first started and Danny pretty much bowed everything. It’s come so far. And Colton just picked up the banjo right away. He’s that guy who can sit down, repeat the same thing for 13 hours and just master it.
Colton left the band in 2016; do you still keep in touch?
Yea, he’s doing awesome. He’s teaching and he’s doing jiu jitsu. He won a gold medal the other day in one of his competitions.
Let’s talk about the thing I imagine you’re sick of talking about…where did the idea for your wardrobe come from? It sticks with people and has become a huge part of your brand.
That was an evolution as well. We started out wearing whatever and not being concerned about it. From there we had the idea to all wear the same things at different shows, so it was like ‘Ok, we’ll all wear a plaid shirt and look stupid’ or we’d all wear a hat. Or wear red shoes. And then I think it was Colton that had the idea that we should wear suspenders and white shirts and we all thought ‘yea, sure. Why not?’ That progressed into black pants with the suspenders and white shirts and from that everyone put their own take on it. Danny always wears a tie. Scott used to wear a tie but he’d lose it every show, so he just leaves his shirt unbuttoned and shows his hairy chest. Colton found the Colonel Sanders sort of tie which is awesome. I liked the bolo because I didn’t want to tie it every night.
I think that’s so interesting. And it feels like each of the outfits everyone arrived at suit each member’s personality in their own way.
Yea. Well even Scott’s…he always gets these outback hats that are crushable and they look like they’ve been through the desert and back because that’s how he treats it. My hat was handmade in Oregon by some old guy named Gene Baldwin and I try to treat that thing as good as I can. I have this huge hatbox for it. And Colton got that little top hat. I think we paid like ten pounds for it in England. We just found it but it worked so well.
Do you ever regret the look?
Yes and no. It’s nice to dress up for shows but it’s actually kind of annoying sometimes when you’re on tour and you have three pairs of black pants but you’ve played thirteen shows already and haven’t had a chance to wash your clothes.
It suits what you guys do so well but it also makes every show ‘a show.’ It’s an event. You come out on stage as part of the reveal.
One thing that I’m not sure if I regret…one time we were in Lloydminster and someone came up to us and said “I heard that you guys all left your Amish colony and are rebelling about what the Amish are about now.” So….
The thing I don’t like about it is that it creates a lot of racist comments. It absolutely doesn’t come from that place, so it can be hard to deal with.
(The conversation took a sharp left turn as we began to discuss the unfortunate nature of internet trolls. Now that the band’s YouTube channel has become so popular Nate made mention of vulgar slurs in the comments section that have absolutely no context and don’t pertain to the band or the videos.)
What a waste of time. Go outside!
How many shows do you think you guys have played?
Woah! Oh man… (sigh) Since the origin of the band? Pffff. I don’t know. We’ve played a few thousand shows for sure. A few thousand. Some days you just keep playing sets. Like tomorrow we actually play three.
What are some of the things you’ve learned the most about making music and touring? How has touring and performing impacted how you write songs?
That really does correlate, because a lot of time we’ll write songs and feel like we have this complete product, then we’ll head out and test them by playing live shows and (they change). Gunslingers Glory is 7 minutes long when we play it, but it was probably 10 when we first played it live! We’ve sped it up since then. When we first started, we’d play everything we had; as we started to write more songs you have the option to pick and choose which songs to fill your set. We’d think ‘we just have to play the bangers, and only the bangers.’ After awhile we grew to understand that sometimes it is ok to have a breather song and slow it down. Whether you let someone grab a drink or feel a little bit different, it’s also good for us. In that aspect I think playing the show definitely impacts how the songs are written. You learn how to control the room.
Let’s talk about the touring. Historically, I think playing live has been the tried-and-true way to build a career in the industry, but it can also be exhausting and frustrating. It feels as if The Dead South have been on a steady arc of growth.
It’s definitely been a steady arc. We definitely grind. We released the first record in 2014, so we’ve been playing those songs since early 2014 or even 2013, and we were playing those songs well into 2016. We wrote and started playing some new songs in between but it was, ‘we need new songs and a new album like yesterday.’ We were all tired of them. It’s good to play them now because you can put certain (older) songs in and it feels refreshing. Even now - we only released “Illusion & Doubt” at the end of 2016 - I’m ready to write and release new songs. We’ve been doing this (album) for a steady year and a half of touring, and I’m ready.
I think it’s probably really healthy if you’re eager to start the cycle all over again. Lots of times there’s the opposite feeling at the end of a tour, and people just want a break.
Yea, I think so. We all come back and the break is nice, but we all feel inspired to be better at our instruments and better songwriters. We’re interested in trying out new things, so on Illusion & Doubt, throwing in a pedal steel was such a nice breath of fresh air for us. Colton was trying out all sorts of different styles and our songs were a little less party, and more about making an intricate and weird song.
For that album, did you consciously look at what you had for songs?
Definitely. We had already been playing and touring six songs off that record, including Every Man Needs A Chew, which has been there since our very beginning –that song has progressed 100% but it also progressed on the recording. And then we had to go in and write six more songs. That was interesting, and good, and stuff. We had never done that before. Previously we had always been able to work parts out on the road or at shows or just jamming; this one we had to go with a skeleton of a song and add parts that we weren’t comfortable with yet. That was really interesting.
Your new record is more expansive and more intricate. It shows so much growth. Your first recordings had this great rough energy, which I think is such an important component of your live set, but the new one captures how much the band has grown as songwriters and players.
We still want to have the grit and everything in there, but it’s good to settle down sometimes. Our EP and “In Good Company” we did live-off-the-floor with Orion (Paradis). We’d just basically go in and find good tempos and then play through a couple of whole takes. Some vocal harmonies were added in but (otherwise) the vocals were live. And then going in with Jason (Plumb) at Studio One it was go in, show him the songs, go out and track what we had, and then go in and look at what was there. Jason would go through and run over suggestions and ideas. So that was an interesting process. We’d keep the bed tracks and go back to multitrack everything, which was very different for us, but worked well in progressing the parts.
I always find it interesting to get a perspective about what it’s like touring to different places. To an outsider it seems like you are doing as well in other places of the world as you are in Canada.
Oh, we’re doing way better in Germany than we are in Canada. Hands down. It’s crazy. We actually haven’t even really toured in the States yet, but we’re going to do that in the fall and already the response we are receiving from the States is way better than it’s ever been from Canada. It’s awesome.
(The conversation took another meandering turn but eventually circled back to performing in rural areas of Canada for all age groups. I noted that they must have blown some unsuspecting people’s minds wide open.)
The number of times we’ve heard that is crazy actually. People will tell us that don’t listen to music like ours at all but now we’ve opened the door, and they want to find other bands in our genre or slightly outside of our genre.
That’s interesting because what you do is very unique. The sound is just immediately identifiable at The Dead South. You’d be hard pressed for someone to hear a song and mistake it for someone else.
It is interesting, you know. I think the reason is that we play bluegrass music and none of us (originally) knew how to play bluegrass. No one was very good at their instruments so we compensated, (instead each) bringing in what it was we were good at, so everyone brought in something special and it built our own thing.
What have some of your experiences been like overseas? Didn’t you play a huge metal festival?
Ahh…We got invited to play Wacken Open Air (Germany) but couldn’t make that one, very unfortunately. Maybe another time.
But you did play late night television over there?
Inas Nacht, yea. I think they have 4 million viewers or something like that. We’ve done really, really cool things in Europe that we’d never even be considered for in Canada, so it’s been really interesting.
Do you have enough fingers to count off all the overseas countries you have performed in?
Switzerland, England, Scotland, Germany, Austria, Denmark, France, Luxembourg, and Czech Republic. And that will expand when we go back in September. Oh! And Netherlands! So that’s ten unless I’m missing one?
Speaking as a musician: how do you navigate the logistics of sometimes having interchanging members on different tours? Was it complicated at first? Is it still complicated?
Yea, that was always tough. Danny was always like “Do it even if I can’t, say yes and we’ll find someone.” But the problem with that is Danny is a cello player. Every other person we’ve had fill in, have been people who had to learn to play the cello. Our first go with that was a trade mission in New York, an event in Toronto, and then a show in Montreal, and Danny could only make the first two. So that time we called up Graham Tilsley and asked if he’d learn how to play cello and meet us in Montreal. The guy is actually such an incredible musician. One time we were in the UK and a cello string broke when we were running through the songs in some small town. We were phoning everywhere trying to find a string and the closest we came was some woman who wanted us to drive out to the middle of nowhere to meet her. We didn’t end up doing that and (Graham) was like “just get me a bass.” We got him a bass and he played every song note for note, including solos he would normally bow. We played with Graham for awhile, and Danny to the point where he just couldn’t do it, but we still had so many opportunities coming. Luckily, Erik (Mehlsen) agreed to come on. This came at a time in his life when he’d just quit his job and wanted to become a full time musician.
You seem to have always kept a healthy balance between necessity and feelings. I’ve seen many bands implode because one member’s personal commitments limited their ability to tour, but as an outsider it always appears as if your rotating cast of members are a happy family and genuinely happy to see the band succeed.
It’s all willpower. This band could have folded years ago when Danny couldn’t make shows work because of his career (as a structural engineer) but we all knew we had to keep going. The toughest one though was when Colton had to step back from the band. We had a huge European tour lined up, the biggest we had ever done, and after the first show he told us he had to go home. All I could think was “holy shit, not only is this tour cancelled but we another that follows it across Western Canada that we’ll have to cancel. What the hell are we going to do?” There’s always hiccups.
It seems like you’ve always dealt with them in a healthy way. I’ve seen many bands implode over lesser things. I’ve been in bands that imploded for lesser things.
Yea, yea definitely. There’s never any bad blood with anything. We are all logical people. We are all diplomatic. We actually just made ‘rules of negotiation’ the other day because we were doing band agreements. We are setting out to have it so there are steps to take before anything ever blows up.
Step 1. Everyone have a beer and talk about it. Step 2. Two week cool down period. Step 3. Have a beer and talk about it. Step 4. Mediator. Step 5. Whatever happens after that I guess...
So let’s talk about your viral video, “In Hell I’ll Be In Good Company.” This is such a unique scenario. What was the plan when you released it?
We released it late - after “Illusion & Doubt” came out (even though the song is on the previous album, “Good Company”) because it was the only window we could find to do it.
You guys put in a lot of legwork well before this thing went viral.
The funny thing is that a lot of that work just gets (dismissed). It’s all I’ve been hearing from people…‘These guys just caught a lucky break.’ Yea, sure we did. Absolutely we caught a lucky break and that doesn’t happen to everyone. But we also worked our asses off.
You’ve also been smart about it. While in the UK, I attended a panel about viral content, and there were several stories about artists who would blow up overnight and get millions of views, but play a show the next week where there’d be 5 people there. A lot of work went into the video, but also a lot of work went into the band and a lot of work has come because of the video – you’ve been smart and been able to capitalize on it.
It’s funny, the only time I’ll reply to comments on the video is when people start claiming that it’s a green screen. I’m like, “Hrmmm. Nope.” Then a new guy is like, “ohhh at two minutes and this many seconds it’s obviously green screen.” Sorry man, that is NOT green screen because we literally did that stupid dance in so many locations that I couldn’t handle playing it anymore. We had played that (song) for so long, had already moved on to the new album, and then realized we needed more videos from Good Company and decided to go with that song because it’s one of our more popular ones, yet we had never done a video for it. We almost didn’t. The idea behind that was that Brian (Hetherman), our manager, had organized us playing 8 shows in 8 hours on the back of a flatbed truck going around Toronto during Canadian Music Week. He wanted to video it, so we contacted Zach (Wilson) and he said that since we were going to be there anyway, why didn’t we film something for In Hell. So after we played those 8 shows in 8 hours we went and played another show that night, and then the next day we went around Toronto all day and filmed different locations for the video. Then we went and played a show that night and left on tour. A couple weeks later we got back and filmed two more full days around Regina and rural areas. It was just grueling. At the end of it everyone was, “F*ck, let’s just go home.”
The video itself did alright off the bat. It got a good amount of views and then we caught a fortunate break when someone decided to put it on the front page of Reddit. That helped spike it, and from there it was posted on other blogs. That increased the views enough that it became a suggested video on all these different pages on YouTube. It’s still going. I don’t even really know what to say about it – we didn’t expect it to happen, but we’re happy that it did. I think we had 9000 followers on Facebook and a week later we had 50,000. I think everyone is dumbfounded by it.
When it first started going viral, around 9 million views some bigger labels were (approaching us) but nothing has solidified as of yet. The concrete things to come out of it have been in the States and Europe. We just saw a huge growth in those places where venue sizes were doubling. In September we’re going to tour the States for a month, and opportunities have been getting thrown at us. Nothing life-changing, but it really reached around the world and has created more opportunities to go play.
Did you notice a difference on the last European tour (since the video)?
That’s actually a perfect example of how it has helped. It’s almost a blessing in disguise that the last tour was delayed, because now this one will be the biggest we’ve seen. Last time we had pre-sold Berlin and other shows were looking good; this time, those club shows that were sold out before have moved into bigger venues, and some presales are now sold out in Denmark as well.
How do you see the next 12 months shaping up?
The objectives are to keep expanding into different markets. We’re really excited to start getting into the U.S., and doing it properly. It’s still going to be a grind and we’re probably going to come back broke after those first shows, but it’s not going to be nearly as bad as if we’d have tried doing it a year ago. We hope it can become a consistent thing (to tour the U.S.). We’ll keep doing Europe. There are some other potential opportunities in new places but I’m not sure I’m supposed to talk about them yet. Ideally we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing, (we) like being on the road but we have to find a balance.
I think sometimes people outside of the industry don’t realize how much you’re gone and how much work it is. If you go on tour for a month it’s more like you’ve worked 5 work weeks straight and you’re away from home that entire time. It’s not like a normal work week where you’re home at 5pm. You’re working through every weekend, through every holiday, you’re travelling and it can become exhausting.
Thinking back on that hotel green room in Kansas City, it seems unimaginable that The Dead South could ever step back to only 30 shows a year. You probably played the equivalent of 30 shows in that 72 hour period during Folk Alliance.
Well, on our most recent tour we played 26 shows in 29 days. The first 16 shows were with zero days off. Then we had 1 day off and played another bunch of days straight. That’s one month. There are some successful artists who play maybe 30 shows a year. We do that in a month. I have an old school way of thinking about it, where I appreciate the grind of it. It sucks sometimes. Man, it sucks sometimes. But that’s how you get better. That’s how you find what’s good.
The Dead South have recorded and released three albums. Their most recent, “Illusion & Doubt,” charted at #2 on the Bluegrass US Billboards and won SaskMusic’s “Best Saskatchewan Album of 2016.” Their debut “Good Company” (2014) is still making waves and continues to climb the charts at #3 Alternative Albums US and #32 All Categories Top Album Canada, while their official music video to “Good Company” currently has over 16M views. Follow them online including www.thedeadsouth.com for upcoming tour dates.
Band member photos, pg 24-25 L to R: Nate Hilts, Scott Pringle, Danny Kenyon, Erik Mehlsen, Eliza Doyle.
Photography by Chris Graham