Last month, I had the pleasure to speak with Charlie Angus, the frontman of the alternative country/folk band Grievous Angels. He is also a sitting federal Member of Parliament of the Timmins—James Bay district (Ontario). The band released their much anticipated eighth full-length album, Summer Before the Storm, on January 15th. We discussed the brand new album in great detail. From what differences there were from their past seven albums to now, their influences, collaborations, and much more. As well, we did touch on their storied thirty-plus long career from busking on the streets of Toronto to performing in dingy bars, all the way to touring western Canada in 2014.
How did it finally come to fruition to write and record the first Grievous Angels record in eight years, was there anything with the pandemic that lead to its conception?
Life always has a way of getting in the way of the band. But the troubles of life have always brought out the best in the Angels. And nowhere is this more telling than on Summer Before the Storm, which some are calling a roadmap through this era of uncertainty and dissonance.
So first off, we never thought there’d be an 8-year break since our last album. We were pumped by the release of our last album, Great Divide, and the western tour in 2014 that followed. But then I got fully consumed by my work as MP for the north. In my absence, bassist Tim Hadley stepped up as bandleader with his own side combo Bad Tractor. In 2017-18, he invited me to play some shows with a variation of the Angels. We had so much fun that it got me writing some new songs.
The album was recorded literally in the summer before the COVID crisis. There are a number of dark themes being confronted -conspiracy theory, social upheaval, refugees, environmental crisis. You’d think we were channeling the year that lay ahead. Instead, I think I was picking at the dark threads that have been weaving themselves into our lives over the last few years. COVID has just made those threads that are in our world so damned obvious.
Grievous Angels released their brand new full-length Summer Before the Storm on January 15th. How do you compare this record to any of the previous seven releases? Anything different this time around that sets it out from the rest?
This was the first Angels album that was largely put together on the floor of the recording studio. We had initially hoped to record just a couple of songs but once the band was assembled I could feel the incredible energy of the musicians to get as much accomplished as possible. It meant pulling together new and old song ideas and seeing if we could whip them into shape. I did a lot of the writing in between takes. Over three days we recorded nine tracks.
For example, “House Where Love Died” is a song that had been kicking around for a long time but it never felt right. We decided to give it one go through with a big change-up -Janet Mercier and I would treat it as a duet. It became a couple talking to each other about their break up. In my head, I heard a sad ballad but the band decided to put a rocking drive to it. Boom -the song sprung to life. It made the cut.
That‘s how the whole thing came together. The songs, lyrics, and musical groove formed in an atmosphere of almost magical spontaneity. You can feel it as you listen to the recording. Once the initial session was finished I was really pleased with what we had accomplished but I had a nagging feeling that a key song was still missing. I was haunted by images of truck convoys of grown men raging against Greta Thunberg, a teenage environmental activist. At the same time, I was inspired by the incredible Indigenous youth marches that were shutting down Canada in the months prior to COVID.
With these thoughts in mind, I began writing the lyrics for the song “Summer Before the Storm.” In January 2020, we went back into the studio to put it together. At the time, the musical sound was just a sketch in my head. We did a lot of experimenting thinking we would have the time to come back and do retakes. But then came to the big COVID shut down. The rest of the year was spent working long distance with engineer/producer Nik Tjelios on mixing and getting the songs to sound right. We realized we had an enormously strong base to work from, and the focus shifted to placing the songs into a coherent ambient and thematic form.
Are there any particular artists and/or acts that you have listened to regularly since a young age that has helped influence the band’s overall sound?
The Angels formed at the same time as the Skydiggers. We learned our chops in the same Toronto clubs and played numerous shows together over the years. We always wanted to do something with them. Getting Andy Maize to join us on a number of tracks was a real thrill. Recording with Andy has been on our bucket list for a long time. Another artist we loved was Ron Hynes. Our accordion player Peter Jellard learned the Ron Hynes song “Iron Workin’ Man” at a kitchen party years ago. It was part of our setlist back in the bar band days. It was only recently that we learned that Ron -the man of 1,000 songs- had never actually recorded the song. Few of his fans even knew about the song. We were determined to get our version down as a tribute to him.
As an active member of the Canadian Parliament, I take promoting, performing, and touring an album -if touring was still an active possibility- is a lot different than it was before winning your seat in 2004?
The Angels built our sound as a live band. We started out street busking and playing punk rock dives. We played folk festivals across the country as well as shit-kicking country bars. Our last tour was in 2014 -playing our way up from the Vancouver Folk Festival to Calgary where I was invited to be guest host at their summer festival. Politics has obviously taken a huge bite out of the touring and gigging. My focus is serving a region that is bigger than the United Kingdom. Even though we don’t play many live shows the anarchic spirit of a Saturday night bar band sound remains rooted in how we approach entertaining people. I host an annual show at the Horseshoe Tavern every year where I invite a variety of artists to play on the bill. When the COVID crisis lifts we will love the chance to play this album for a live audience.
Looking back on your already storied music career from busking in the streets of downtown Toronto in the mid-1980s, performing in venues, and all the way to performing duets with the late-former leader of the NDP party Jack Layton, what has been your most cherished moment along the way?
Over the years, we have had the opportunity to play with some incredible artists at folk festivals across the country. I remember incredible shows with artists like the Waco Brothers, Buddy Guy, and Utah Phillips. But I think of some of the best memories were when we were playing five sets a night a northern punch-out bars or playing without microphones on the back of a truck at a picket line. We have been privileged to watch the lives, dramas, and celebrations of people being played out on the dance floor in front of us. I write their stories in my songs. No offense to the middle class or wealthy people, but I find the lives of working-class people so much more real and interesting. I didn’t get into songwriting to explore my own feelings. My focus is always on the struggles and hopes of the people I am fortunate enough to meet.
Last year we played one of our most touching shows when we were flown to an isolated northern reserve to spend a week with the survivors of the St. Anne’s residential school. They weren’t there to hear singer-songwriter stuff. They wanted an old-fashioned fiddle dance. We were joined on stage by some great Cree musicians. We played a night of country and fiddle tunes. It reminded us that music is an incredible gift. It can bring healing and build community.
The line up of Grievous Angels has changed over the thirty-two years together, is there any new members in the group that appear on Summer Before the Storm?
The Angels remain rooted in the three key members: Charlie Angus on vocals, Tim Hadley on bass, and Peter Jellard as a multi-instrumentalist. On this album, we invited bluegrass singer Janet Mercier to join on a series of duets. This has been something the band has wanted to do for a long time. Tim put the rest of the band together. Some like Ian McKendry are members of Tim’s alter-ego band Bad Tractor. Ian not only played killer guitar, but he did the arresting artwork for the cover.
While society is certainly having quite the large conversation on topics of conspiracy theories, climate change/global warming, mental illness, and violence, a few of these topics have yet to be addressed largely in music. Why did you feel inclined to write a majority of an album on these topics?
The song “The Morning After” opens the album. But it wasn’t planned for the initial recording session. I wrote it on the morning after the killings of Parliament Hill in 2015. Part of the song is about the dissonance and dangers of conspiracy theory that led to this terrible killing: “On the morning after we woke from a fever dream where the world had turned flat and we learned just what this nightmare means.” But I wrote the song to capture the incredible social solidarity and bravery that I witnessed on that day. As we deal with the aftermath of the violence in Washington, this song is feeling very prescient. But the reality is that I presented an unfinished version of it to the band in the studio, and they gave it a ferocious drive. That led me to tightening up the lyrics. Those lyrics feel very real right now.
Once the album was done I realized that the songs were interwoven with repeating themes -war, conspiracy theory, refugees, [and] climate crisis. But those songs were held together by strong feelings of hope, solidarity, and just plain human decency. This all came together in a studio in the summer before the COVID storm. Honest to God, we didn’t set out to present a political analysis of the times. But what I have learned about the power of songs is that sometimes they touch the root of things we feel but don’t know how to articulate.
Is there any particular tracks from these aforementioned topics that if you’d like listeners to hear before all, in theory, they don’t listen to the entire album?
I would suggest people listen to “All Night Depanneur.” A depanneur is a corner store in Quebec that sells wine and beer. The song is about trauma and memory set in the depanneur during the endless snowstorm of a Canadian winter night. I had the idea for the scene for years but had never done anything with it. During a break in the recording, I filled in the blanks with lyrics and chords. The use of a minor chord on the chorus transformed it: “When I see the snow I see Saravejo and a village burning by the road.” The band learned the parts in the backyard on a beautiful summer’s evening. We went in and recorded it in two or three takes. I think the sensitivity of the acoustic instruments and the group vocals captures the haunting power of this song.
Finally, I’m sure it’s stressful trying to release any type of new music during these unprecedented times. Has it impacted the process of releasing Summer Before the Storm in any way, shape, or form?
COVID upended all plans for the album just as it has upended our whole world. What we learned from it was that timelines and deadlines don’t really matter as long as we have health and family. The mixing and planning of the album were dragged out much longer than any of us could have imagined, but I think in some ways, we were mixing and perfecting the album that was reflecting in so many ways the struggles we were seeing unfold all around us. I am hoping that for some this album will be a testament to a time of testing, at a time of hope.
Thanks for the time, Charlie! I hope you and the rest of the band are staying safe! Is there anything else you want to add?
There was a time in the Angel’s career where it seemed we were poised to go to the big leagues. But life happens. Band mistakes, lost opportunities, the vagaries of fortune. It’s the story of every rock n roll band. But the band made a decision a long time ago that what mattered wasn’t success but the songs. We stayed together through the highs and lows because we care for each other as friends and love playing together. I think the album captures the integrity of the sentiment. As for looking back on a 30-year career of highs, lows, and dead-ends. I wouldn’t change a thing.