To most people, serving as public relations for the bagpipes must seem an unenviable position. They're loud, hard to ignore and, thanks to pop culture, all but demonized as an instrument of torture as much as one of music.
But in a rock-music context, they're right at home, said Brian Buchanan, fiddler/vocalist with the Canadian Celtic rock band Enter the Haggis.
"They're 90 decibels unplugged, and they're brazen and loud. It seems like a natural fit," he said. "It's almost seems like the louder we get, the more it makes sense.
"It's harder to fit bagpipes in a ballad or a pop tune, but for the punk stuff or hard-rock stuff we play, it makes a lot of sense."
Enter the Haggis will take the stage at Miller Plaza tonight as this week's Nightfall headliner.
The current iteration of Enter the Haggis began in 2000, a reconfiguration of a bar band formed by bagpiper Craig Downie in Toronto in the mid-'90s, Buchanan said.
Buchanan and Downie are the only two members of the band who were raised in a traditional Celtic atmosphere. The rest came from a variety of styles, including jazz, Latin and prog rock, said Buchanan, who cited his own influence by artists such as Radiohead, Tool and Rage Against the Machine.
Despite the hard-rock trappings of many of their songs, there's an element of Celtic at the core of all of Enter the Haggis' music, Buchanan said.
That could manifest as pairing tin whistle and guitar or framing the lyrics to tell a story about drinking, brawling or beautiful women. It doesn't have to be a piping solo, Buchanan said.
"It's an easy thing to layer Celtic influence atop other things," he said. "More and more, we're starting to realize that you can get pretty far away from anything someone would call Celtic music and still resonate with people who like that music if you keep yourself to something like that."
Enter the Haggis might not have set out to win converts to Celtic music, but Buchanan said audiences are always expressing pleasant surprise at the band's new take on the genre -- even with the bagpipes.
"It seems like, sometimes, it's people's perception of something that limits it as opposed to going out there and trying it," he said. "Audiences are more receptive than I ever thought they would be."
RELATED LINKS FOR WEB:
IF YOU GO
* What: Nightfall concert featuring Enter the Haggis.
* When: 8 tonight. The Tammys open at 7 p.m.
* Where: Miller Plaza, corner of M.L. King Boulevard, Cherry and Market streets.
* Admission: Free.
* Phone: 265-0771.
n Venue Web site: www.downtownchattanooga.org.
n Related links at fyi.timesfreepress.com.
Online: Hear fiddler/vocalist Brian Buchanan talk about Enter the Haggis' latest album. Read a Q&A. Comment.
"We've come to the point where there's generally some sort of Celtic element at the core of a song. We have a lot of fun seeing what other genres can blend, what else we can do." -- Enter the Haggis fiddler Brian Buchanan
1998: "Let the Wind Blow High"
2003: "Live at Lanigan's Ball"
2004: "Casualties of Retail"
2006: "Soapbox Heroes"
2009: "Gutter Anthems
Chattanooga Times Free Press music reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Brian Buchanan, vocalist and fiddler with Canadian Celtic rock band Enter the Haggis, about why their newest album is so Canadian, if bagpipes work well with rock music and making Celtic music accessible to younger audiences.
CP: A description of Enter the Haggis' last album, "Gutter Anthems," calls it "more distinctly and unapologetically Canadian" than your previous albums. Can you elaborate on that?
BB: Well, it's funny because a lot of times, it's easier to see things like that in retrospect. We didn't go into the album intending to write a Canadian album, but when you pull together the collection of songs, we paired it down from about 25 songs to the 15 that made it, and the ones we picked just seemed to have those kinds of themes.
In folk music, a lot of times, the strongest songs are the ones with stories. Trevor (Lewington) had been reading a lot of Canadian histories, and there are a lot of stories that are from our own lives that were told to us by family members and things like that. It kind of became a theme for the album. Being a band from Canada, there were a lot of stories to get out there, that touring almost exclusively in the U.S., none of our fans would know.
CP: Has it been received better by your Canadian fans as a result? Is there a difference from the subject matter being different?
BB: Maybe there's a difference in Canada. We're getting more support from college stations in radio play and from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, so there's definitely been more support that way. I don't know if that's specifically to do with the subject matter.
It's something that, over the last few albums, we have been streamlining and honing the craft of songwriting. We started off almost as a jam band. We would write instrumental tunes on stage and just jam through them because that's kind of what Celtic music does, the whole ceili atmosphere.
It's only been since two studio albums before "Gutter Anthems" that we started to listen to the bands and songwriters that we really liked and tried to figure out what it is about their songwriting that we like. There are lots of bands out there - The Dave Matthews Band is a great example - where the virtuosity of the musicians is always a big part of the sound, but at the same time, they're memorable songs that get into your head and walk away whistling.
CP: I read that the band formed originally in 1996, which is about the same time as Flogging Molly, The Dropkick Murphys and other Celtic rock bands. Since Enter the Haggis was involved in helping the charge on kickstarting this subgenre, who were some of your influences?
BB: The five of us came together in 2000. Before that, Craig (Downie), our piper, is older than us and had a bar band called Enter the Haggis up here in Toronto that played a bunch of pub gigs and put together one album. That's where the name came from, but, I know that when Craig got the idea, he wanted to start a Celtic rock band, a bagpipe rock band. He was listening to bands like Silly Wizard and probably some of the Jethro Tull, the early Celtic prog rock stuff that was going on in Europe.
One thing that differentiates us from other bands in the genre is that, for the most part, we weren't really influenced by Celtic musicians. There are a couple of albums like Ashley MacIssac's "Hi How Are You Today?" that, as a fiddle player growing up, were a big part of the way I looked at Celtic music to be when you blended it with more modern things. I listened to Radiohead and Rage Against the Machine and Smashing Pumpkin and Tool and these other heavy bands.
Our drummer and bass player went to school for Latin and Jazz. They were very schooled musicians, and I'm sure none of them had any real experience with Celtic music at all. Our drummer grew up in Cape Breton, so it was around him, but it wasn't really a part of his life.
Trevor was the kind of folky guy. He still listens to everything from Bob Dylan to The Band and kind of folkier rock like Neil Young. There's a band up here from Blue Rodeo that can sell 30,000 seats in Canada and 30 seats in Georgia. Up here, not knowing who they are would be like not knowing who Tom Petty is. Trevor definitely listens to them a lot, and they've influenced his songwriting a fair bit.
That's the thing. We're a band with a couple of traditional instruments and people like Craig and I who did grow up with traditional styles, but most of the other influences in the band came from way outside that. It's not like we're sitting around listening to Dropkick Murphys or Flogging Molly.
CP: And yet some of your songs, particularly on earlier albums, would fit right in with those bands. It's strange that you developed concurrently with when that style started gaining momentum but came at it from a different angle.
BB: That's the thing. I always tell people that our music is eccentric, like an iPod on shuffle. When you listen to one of our albums, it almost feels like each song is almost by a different band. There are different genres and styles, even my vocals change significantly from one song to the other. It's not an intentional thing like we're all about diversity and can't have anything sound the same.
Basically, we've come to the point where there's generally some sort of Celtic element at the core of a song core, maybe lyrically or melodically or just the instrumentation, but after that point, we have a lot of fun seeing what other genres can blend, what else we can do.
Celtic music is such a broadly defined thing. It could be that you're playing a tune in Mixolydian mode so it sounds like a bagpipe tune or the instrumentation has a tin whistle in there, so all the sudden it sounds like Celtic music or its about drinking or death or beautiful women, so that makes it sound Celtic. It's an easy thing to layer Celtic influence atop other things. More and more, we're starting to realize that you can get pretty far away from anything someone would call Celtic music and still resonate with people who like that music if you keep yourself to something like that.
CP: Growing up in the traditional style have you experienced resistance from many strictly traditional musicians to your genre exploration? Have they been as open to it as you?
BB: We've kind of run parallel to the trad world. We haven't really intersected it all that often. There have been one or two festivals we've done where we've felt like the only rock band, but it always seems to go over well. Because we've never really positioned ourselves as a traditional Irish or Scottish music band, we've not really had to face that backlash.
We used to play more rocked-up covers of traditional tunes before we'd written enough original music to be able to tour on. When we moved away from that, there were certainly fans who missed that, who wanted to hear "Star of the County Down" and "Minstrel Boy" and these other songs. It's not like Bela Fleck getting boo'ed off stage at a bluegrass festival for playing electric banjo or something. It seems like most of the biggest Irish and Scottish and Celtic tradition festivals, at least in the United States, have already come around to accepting that Celtic rock sound as part of the culture.
Certainly, there are shows where you get up on stage and you look out at the crowd and it's all older people so you feel like you're going to lose half the crowd as soon as you kick into a song, but sometimes, you're surprised, and they are the ones who are there afterwards buying CDs for their grandkids they want to encourage to get involved in the culture. It seems to be a fairly open-minded world at this point.
CP: Have you found that Celtic music blends fairly easily with rock music? Is there a lot of adjustment you need to make to fit something like the bagpipes into that style?
BB: It's definitely been a real challenge and something that I, personally, as a musician, have had to taking a long time to figure out ways of doing. Bagpipes play nine notes and that's it, just over an octave range with no accidentals, so everything you write for that instrument has to use those nine notes. You end up writing in unusual keys and modes to try to fit the bagpipes in and find different ways to work melodies so it sounds like a natural melody only using four notes. That's definitely been the biggest challenge.
Craig has gotten pretty good on harmonica, and he plays tin whistle, too, so that gives us a little flexibility, but I've found that bagpipes are rock instrument. They're 90 dB unplugged, and they're brazen and loud. It seems like a natural fit. It's almost seems like the louder we get, the more it makes sense. It's harder to fit bagpipes in a ballad or a pop tune, but for the punk stuff or hard rock stuff we play, it makes a lot of sense. For the punk rock or hard rock stuff we play, it makes sense.
A few weeks ago, we were doing an encore at a huge festival up near Utica, N.Y., and we knew in advance it was going to be a huge show, so we hired a light show and brought everything in. We decided we needed to do something really explosive as an encore, something that would blow people's minds. So we covered "Bulls on Parade" by Rage Against the Machine with a bagpipe solo, and it worked fine, it was great. It seems like, sometimes, it's people's perception of something that limits it as opposed to going out there and trying it. Audiences are more receptive than I ever thought they would be.
CP: Do you often have people come up to you after a show and say that they wouldn't normally give Celtic music a chance before they heard you?
BB: Sure. It's funny, that happens almost more online through services like Last FM or Pandora when one of our songs will get thrown into a playlist with a bunch of other stuff. Then, I'll get an e-mail from someone saying they haven't bagpipes used that way or heard a fiddle used in a rock song or that it opened up their eyes to what Celtic music could be. For us, a big part of our touring comes from Irish festivals and Scottish Festivals and clubs where bands like Flogging Molly have played.
We don't get in front of people as something completely new as often as we might if we were playing straight rock clubs or Bonnaroo or Coachella or those kind of festivals. I love that, though. They had us do a show at the Albuquerque Zoo a few weeks ago of all places. They had us come in and do this summer concert series, and there were 4,000 people there who had just learned that the zoo brings in interesting music. After that show, we had tons of people coming up saying they'd never heard anything like us and "What did we call the instrument with the drones on it?" That's kind of cool. At certain spots in the states, you run into that. At the Indiana State Fair a few years ago, it was the same thing. People's minds were blown because they'd never seen anything like. That's kind of funny because in a lot of parts of the U.S., especially the East Cost, it's certainly not a mainstream thing, but it's something people have become familiar with because of bands like the Dropkick Murphys. It's becoming a little more a part of people's consciousness, I guess.
CP: Do you feel like you're playing a role in bringing Celtic music to a new audience?
BB: I think a big part of it is that people are coming around and starting to understand that in order to keep these festivals alive and this culture vibrant and relevant, they need to attract younger people. When all a kid listens to is rock music, it's hard to convince them that a band like Solace is worth listening to. But if you throw an Audioslave riff in there, like in the song "The Death of Johnny Mooring" on our new album, with a big, heavy hard rock tune written by a traditional fiddle player with a lot of fiddle in it and built on that culture, maybe it'll speak to the new generation a little more.
CP: What is your writing process like? You and Trevor share that duty, for the most part. Do you do a lot of collaborative work and how would you compare and contrast your approaches to songwriting?
BB: That's evolved, too. Trevor and I lived together for a few years. We would jam stuff out and write a little more collaboratively at that point, but our songwriting styles are very different. He tends to be a fair bit more pop-sensible than I am. I guess that comes from that he grew up in the songwriter tradition of Bob Dylan and that kind of stuff, whereas I came from a progressive wave like Radiohead or Bjork or Tool. In general, either of us would write most of the songs. We have most of the melodies and scratch lyrics or no lyrics, the melody and the basic arrangement.
For this album, we each put together a list of tunes, and the five of us went up to a cottage two hours north of Toronto for a week with our producer, who brought a Pro Tools rig up there. We spent the week playing through and arranging the songs. We try to get everybody's voice in the arranging process, and a lot of times, the coolest parts of the song come out of that.
The meat and bones of the song, being the lyrics and the melody and the basic chord changes, are generally fairly figured out before it's brought to the band in the first place. A big part of that is that now, none of us live in Toronto. Our bass player lives in Maine, and none of us live within an hour of each other. We don't get together for weekly songwriting sessions. We come together on the road when we're talking about working on a new album, and you have your one shot to play your song through for the other guys and try to impress them with it so it makes the list. It's become something where I have to have a song pretty well figured out before I bring it to the guys so it's not just me showing them a few chords and saying, "I have this idea for a tune."
CP: Does the challenge to "make the list" create a sense of competition within the band? Is there a lot of head butting involved with trying to get your stuff listed?
BB: I won't say there's no ego involved. Generally, by the time you finish writing a song, you're so close to it that it's hard to accept that it might not be appropriate for the band or the album or be the best choice. Maybe we've just been lucky, but we all try and do what's best for the album as a concept. Sometimes, that means Trevor writes a song and I end up singing it. It doesn't feel like we're competing with each other to get more songs on the album or anything like that.
I think when I bring songs to the band, they're generally even more complete than when Trevor does. By this point, we've got a good sense of what will and won't work with the band. So Trevor will bring 15 songs, and I'll bring five, and all my five will make it and maybe seven of his will. Many times, I'll have completely demoed a song on my studio set at home and think that it's a pretty complete thing, and I won't even bother bringing the others unless I'm fairly sure, whereas Trevor usually brings them earlier in the process sometimes. He's definitely more prolific than I am. He write a lot of songs. It doesn't really seem like there's any overt competition that way.
CP: "Gutter Anthems" has been out since May. Are you already considering your next album?
BB: Yeah, you're always kind of thinking. By the time you finish one record, you're already thinking, "OK, this what I wish we'd done differently," and "These are the things I enjoyed about this process so let's make sure we bring that to the table next time." It's always a learning process, but I don't think any of us are seriously thinking about recording any time soon.
Right now, we're trying to become more sophisticated in the digital realm. We're doing a lot of interesting things that way like trying to build Twitter and our Facebook profile. On top of that, we're doing stuff like having Web cams and microphones and trying to stream our shows live when we do club shows. You get 200 people watching live on top of the people in the venue, and all the sudden, you've doubled your crowd.
You want to talk about competition? Trevor and I are having a competition to see who can get more friends on Facebook. (Laughs.) I'm crushing him. It's the strength of the new model of the music industry, that removing of those layers of separation between the artists and the fans. We'll be driving down the highway, and we've got a wireless card we'll stick in and go online for a couple of hours to spend time chatting with fans and answering questions and doing interviews. It's so easy. It's free, and the benefit to you as a band is incredible because you develop this closer relationship with your fans. In a time like this when everyone is feeling the squeeze economically, it's harder to convince people to commit money or time to come out to the show. You definitely feel like being able to show your appreciation and sit and chat with them for a little while is appreciated and helps people make that commitment.