To kick off my Arboretum Fest I decided to check out an amazing up and coming local band, The Heavy Medicine Band, at a smaller new Ottawa venue, Bar Robo. Although this four-piece band had to squeeze their gear onto the smaller stage, they matched their intimate playing quarters with an intimate set. Starting with an instrumental track, the group kept it ambient and interesting with guitarist, Rob Cooke, on harmonica, playing a sort of “lead vocal.”
As they lead into the second tune, HMB quickly built its way into a full and powerful chorus. On the track “Speak Light [dear one],” vocalist and guitarist, Keturah Johnson, gave us some seemingly Jefferson Airplane-inspired vocals over a mellow grunge-meets-surf guitar lick. Johnson mentioned that they just wrapped up recording on a new album and played a song from that, with a notable drum corps-esque rhythm, courtesy of percussionist, Chris Di Lauro.
After their awe-inspiring set, I sat outside with the band to have a chat and learn more about their time at Arboretum, and their musical process.
How did you guys feel about kicking off Arboretum?
Sean: Pretty excited! We haven’t played Arboretum before so this is good for us. We’re getting to play with some bands and to some crowds that I think we might not normally get the chance to in our normal circles.
Do you have certain venues that you play at more often than others?
Chris Di Lauro: We play House of Targ quite a bit, I’d say.
Sean: We’re not really a resident anywhere, that’s for sure.
Do you have a favourite venue that you’ve played?
Keturah Johnson: House of Common is really cool.
Sean: We’re really into, right now, trying to find more alternative spaces like that. Don’t get me wrong, we love supporting the local bar scene, but we’re kind of thinking about the production value of our shows a bit; The visual elements and the venues that will support that.
Keturah: That being said we’ve played The Record Centre a lot because we’re on their label, and that’s obviously a completely different thing. It’s not a bar scene, nobody is drinking, they’re hovering around a bunch of records, it’s midday, bright out.
Rob Cooke: It’s just an excellent sounding room, like they’ve got the golden ratio or something.
Sean: The guy who owns the place, John, is a buddy of ours. He’s supported us very well and he’s been great to work with.
Will you guys we sticking around to see other bands throughout Arboretum?
Chris: I’d like to!
Sean: We’re going to try and see as much as we can.
Are there any bands that you’re specifically looking forward to seeing?
Rob: Olivier Fairfield.
Sean: It would have been great to see Evening Hymns tonight. I’m down to see everything, really. That’s the great thing about this, having the advantage to go and see things we wouldn’t normally see.
Chris: This show in particular too, it’s not so often that you get to play a gig where you’re performing with bands who are playing a show that you would go see otherwise.
Are you fans of the other bands?
Rob: We came across them as we were getting this show offer.
Sean: We heard the names and checked out their albums, and definitely enjoyed what they’ve been putting out and I’m excited to be a part of it.
So you guys have a really distinct sound that kind of bridges shoegaze and that 60s sounds. [To Keturah] I feel like your voice is similar to Grace Slick.
Chris: We’ve definitely heard that one.
Keturah: Will you marry me? [laughs]
While you were singing I kept thinking back to Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” Do you guys have any specific inspiration?
Keturah: I’m sure that we each have our own with each different instrument that we play.
Rob: There’s definitely a wide swath of influences, I’d say, but I don’t know if there’s any particular band that each one of would sit down and say ‘Let’s sound like this.’
Sean: But there are some pretty key inspirations with the 60’s vibe that we have. I would say Lee Hazlewood, and Nancy Sinatra for sure. I think Jefferson Airplane, whether it’s intentional or not, is pretty on point.
Rob: Bands from the 90’s, too.
Keturah: Jeff Buckley, as well.
Sean: Brian Jonestown Massacre, that 60’s revival is inspiration for sure.
Chris: And a lot of bands that are heavy on texture.
Going off of that then, do you start at a certain point when writing? Do you start with the lyrics or a certain instrument, or do you all have ideas and bring them together?
Keturah: We all make voice notes of things that we’ve been working on and send it in a group email, then someone will say ‘oh I’ve been vibing off of this’ and we all just work it out during jam and it slowly comes into form.
Sean: Initially when we got together we had more songs that came from individuals, but as we go now, we don’t really have a set routine. Things come into the jam room a lot earlier these days, a lot more development happens in the jam room as opposed to one person bringing in a song.
Rob: This record that we’ve just finished…
Sean: The one that’s yet to be released [laughs]
Rob: Yeah, it’s kind of songs that Keturah put on the table with all the lyrics and guitar parts written that we were able to pick up and play, but there were also instrumentals that almost started with just a couple riffs and we jammed them out and developed them while recording.
Sean: the songs on the last record were originally recorded in a batch of pre-production that the new record was done in as well, but basically we immediately left that pre-production session and started new sessions to redo some of them and that became our current vinyl release. The rest we revisited as a new record.
Chris: There’s definitely no set path for each song.
How long have you been playing together?
Sean: So we’ll be nearing our third year.
Do you find it gets easier to play together? Can you tell what each other is going to do, especially writing together?
Sean: Communication has gotten better and there are certain things we know we can do to illicit a response from another member of the band in writing a song, or in bouncing ideas around. You know when you bring something to the jam room, you know what to expect from another person a little bit more. That informs our process a bit too.
It was so great to be able to chat with a newer local band, and especially to hear how their work comes together and has been supported by the Ottawa music community. Cheers to Mar Sellars, media coordinator for Arboretum Music Festival, and Sean Cooke, Bassist for The Heavy Medicine Band, for coordinating this opportunity to take a little peek into their process!
To hear The Heavy Medicine Band’s most recent release, check out their Bandcamp at https://theheavymedicineband.bandcamp.com, and for more information on Arboretum Fest visit the official website, http://www.arboretumfestival.com.