A Q&A with Brian Buchanan
Of Enter the Haggis
By Geoff Gehman
The five members of Enter the Haggis like to make records that test the faith of their fiercely faithful fans. Two years ago the Celtic-infused fusioneers pushed the loyalty of their loyalists to the metal by asking them to help fund an album of songs riffing off items in one issue of The Globe and Mail, a major newspaper in their home city of Toronto. The project was risky because (a) newspapers tend not to be popular with pop-music fans and (b) the musicians chose the issue before it was published, without knowing if that day’s news would be compelling enough to be musical enough.
Those fiercely faithful fans, also known as Haggis Heads, refused to “jump ship,” says Brian Buchanan, the band’s fiddler, keyboardist, co-writer and director of promotional videos. They exceeded the group’s Kickstarter goal of $20,000 in less than half a day, eventually contributing another $46,035. It was their typically zealous sign of support for rare musicians who are equally adept at punking up jigs and jigging up punk, who make music that’s made for dancing and thinking, who genuinely enjoy thanking their fans as their bosses.
Haggis Heads naturally enjoy “The Modest Revolution” (Firebrand Entertainment), released in 2013 and based on the March 30, 2012 issue of The Globe and Mail. The CD is a vibrant, vital portrait of a newspaper as a vital, vibrant forum. There are songs about a fabled medical sled dog (“Balto”), the ordained death of the penny (“Copper Leaves”) and a person who climbed mountains to forget traumas (“Can’t Trust the News”). One of the more inspired adaptations is “Footnote,” Buchanan’s fictionalized version of the obituary of an ordinary woman, narrated by a long-lost lover mentioned in the obit only as her children’s father.
Buchanan and his ambitious, generous comrades will sample “The Modest Revolution” on March 28 at the Mauch Chunk Opera House, a hot spot for Haggis musicians and Haggis fans since 2008. In a recent interview from his home in Guelph, Ontario, Buchanan discussed the challenges of musicalizing news items; breaking boundaries as a serious band with a not-so-serious name, and making “The Penny Black Project,” a record of songs based on the stories of, yes, fans. He also discussed being a long-suffering fan of the long-beloved, long-underachieving Toronto Maple Leafs, which have turned hockey misery into merriment and commiseration into a spectator sport.
Q: It was extremely brave of you guys to choose an issue of The Globe and Mail before it was published, not knowing if it would be a dull news day, a middle-of-the-road news day or a news day dripping with excitement. Why didn’t you take the safer route of an already digested news day?
A: That was kind of the point: trying to make the statement that it didn’t really matter what day it was, that there are enough stories on any given day that we could find inspirational. We were a little worried when we found out the issue we had chosen was devoted to an analysis of [the Canadian] federal budget; we worried that it would be too dry. I actually felt bad when I learned that Earl Scruggs [legendary banjo player and bluegrass patriarch] had died; I was actually happy to read his obituary because I had the feeling it would make a colorful song [laughs].
We’re so caught up in the 24-hour news cycle that we forget that there’s so much news in an international newspaper, that you don’t have to digest all that information at once. You can wait a few days and read the stories you missed, or re-read stories more carefully, instead of just reading headlines and basing your opinions of the world on one-inch summaries.
Q: Did you have any rules or regulations for making “The Modest Revolution”? Did you set out to mix good, bad and neutral news? Did you choose stories that could produce songs both introverted and extroverted?
A: Nothing was that hard and fast. We knew we didn’t want to be negative. We try not to be too introverted or a downer; even if we have a minor-key song it’s usually higher energy, with more playfulness. In some cases I’d come up with a line and then I had to find a story and shape the lyrics accordingly. We definitely wanted to avoid a book report.
We’re not interested in being a concept-album band. We’re doing “The Penny Black Project” because Trevor [Lewington, guitarist, vocalist and co-writer of “The Modest Revolution”] came up with this idea of making a record based on letters from our fans; we have about 500 of them. We’re not planning to write songs based on one specific letter, but on a theme—let’s say, if we had 20 letters on betrayal or loss.
I think people will listen to songs trying to hear the personal voice of the songwriter. If you remove yourself entirely from the process, the song loses some of its resonance. A good example is one of Trevor’s favorite songs, Stan Rogers’ “Northwest Passage. “ The joy of the song, what makes it resonate, is that Stan took the familiar story of the maiden voyage through the Northwest Passage and twisted it back so it reflected on him–which is the same thing listeners get to do when they listen to a song. I’m rambling but the point is we don’t want our music to be impersonal at any level.
Q: I’m glad you recorded two songs inspired by obituaries, which are among the favorite and most important features of any paper. When I worked for newspapers, I wrote obits to cast a new light on the deceased. I treated them very seriously, as a person’s last public will and testament. You did something similar in “Footnote” by writing not from the perspective of Cheryl, the dead woman, or “the man of her dreams” or her children, but the father of her children, who was evidently long gone from her life. Why did you choose him as the narrator? Do you have a particular, peculiar interest in romantic exiles, in people banished from the family circle?
A: I come from a divorced family and I’m adopted, so my life has been very painful at times. But I wouldn’t say I write heartbreak songs that much. I only approach love songs from the perspective of loss, whether you’re losing someone or the hopelessness that comes near the end, or the end, of a relationship. I like to be outside, looking in.
Still, the story in [“Footnote”] is completely fictionalized. After we released the album, a couple of our fans tried to find out what happened to Cheryl. I didn’t want to know what happened: I’m perfectly happy with my tragic version of events [laughs].
Q: Earl Scruggs stars in the other obit-riffing song, “Down the Line.” Is he a hero of yours or a hero of other band members?
A: None of us are particularly well versed in the bluegrass world, although we have played on a singer-songwriter/folk-grass cruise. [“Down the Line”] is more a tribute to one of these pioneers who invented a sound that we kind of take for granted, who invented techniques that are considered cliché.
We take artistic license as songwriters. For example, a lot of people think that I wrote “The Death of Johnny Mooring” based on the story of this fiddle player killed after a gig in Cornwall, Ontario. But I wrote the song based on a story told to me 15 years before by my stepfather. Members of Johnny’s family corrected me on the more specific, finer points of the story. I don’t think anyone was upset with me; they just wanted to make sure I knew the story as it really happened.
Q: “Blackout,” another song on “The Modest Revolution,” concerns concerns about concussions in hockey and includes a slap shot at the Toronto Maple Leafs, which are loved by Canadians like you despite not winning the Stanley Cup for 46 years, a record drought. Do you belong to any Maple Leaf self-help groups? Do you like to commiserate in misery?
A: A lot of our devotion to this pain has to do with the Canadian personality, our ability to laugh at ourselves. I was streaming the [Maple Leafs] game last night and most of the chat window was fans making disparaging comments about the team and themselves. I think we enjoy complaining more than the Leafs winning [laughs].
For me, being a Maple Leafs fan was a way to keep in touch with home when I was away 250 days a year. It gave me something to talk about with my friends and my girlfriend, to keep in touch with the reality of home. Although my passion for the team has gotten a little too serious for my health [laughs].
Q: Have any of the songs on “The Modest Revolution” received any truly memorable reactions? I heard along the way that a listener at a concert in West Virginia misinterpreted a key line in “Copper Leaves”—“We can’t afford to keep the change”—as an endorsement of the Republican Party.
A: That was pretty funny. I wish I could say I had more anecdotes but it seems like we can’t shake people. We think every album will freak everyone out and make them think we’re not the band they love anymore and jump ship. But that hasn’t happened. They continue to fund our records far in advance of their release. At the same time we feel a real responsibility to buckle down and make not only the best record we can make, but something our fans will like. They seem to like “The Modest Revolution,” even though we went into it thinking we would have a unified sound and we ended up with 12 songs that sound like they come from 12 albums.
Q: How has “The Modest Revolution” changed you as a newspaper reader and a newspaper subject? Do you feel a closer kinship between your clan of professional musicians and my brethren of professional journalists?
A: I definitely feel closer to journalists, whether they’re working in traditional media, like print, or people who want to see their books bound and not on Kindle, or people dedicated to finding new revenue streams on the Internet. We’ve gotten lots and lots of thank-yous from newspaper people. They like that we took a step back and paid tribute to what has been one of the most important media forms in human history.
Q: What was your toughest time in the music trade? Were things ever so bad—financially, musically, emotionally—that you considered getting out of the trade?
A: I think anybody who questions the validity of their chosen profession doesn’t really last long enough to bear the consequences. I think you need to be blindly devoted to the romanticism of playing music for a living. There was a time when I was so poor that I went to the streets and opened my fiddle case and played so I could get money to buy ramen noodles and bottles of water. There have been times that have tested my patience, but never to the extent that I thought I would quit. Playing music is all I ever wanted to do since I was a 10-year-old kid.
The fascinating thing is that the hardest times tend to be the most exciting. When I was poor and virtually homeless and playing on the streets I was also writing songs and playing with a band for people who liked what I was doing. At the end of the day, at the end of my career, I’ll be happy if there are a couple of albums I like, that I made without corrupting myself terribly.
Q: Can you put your finger on three pivotal decisions that improved the band?
A: One of the pivotal decisions was focusing on performing in the United States instead of just playing Canada. Being exposed at festivals in the States gave us the confidence to grow outside the Celtic bar sound. Another pivotal decision, which we made about 12 years ago, was not changing the name of the band. We decided to stick with it because we had already played a festival and made an album and attracted a good group of musicians; we already had a reputation and a following.
We do always wonder whether it’s been a blessing or a curse or a mixture having such a bizarre name. It sort of stigmatizes us as just another jig-punk party band. The albums we write today don’t sound like they come from a band with our name. We’ve never been a group that’s been presented with grand opportunities. We’ve always been outside of the industry, outside the mainstream, and rolled with the punches. Maybe one day we’ll decide if sticking with the name was a pivotal decision.
[With a little coaxing, Buchanan reveals that rejected band names include the Strolling Drones and the Lewd Reeds, both of which were proposed, naturally enough, by bagpiper Craig Downie].
We’ve grown up together and we’ve made mistakes together. There are things that haunt you, especially today, when nothing ever goes away. You’ll go to a venue and see this old image of yourself when you were 19 years old and wearing a kilt. One of my problems with YouTube is that they don’t always find the most relevant content; they’ll find the oldest, or most watched, content. Sometimes it’s tough, because you only get one chance to make a first impression, either with people in the media or bookers. But the last thing you want to do is tell YouTube to take off fan videos from 10 years ago, even though you think that maybe you could have made that festival or gotten that interview if you were represented by a video that makes you proud instead of embarrassed.
Another pivotal decision, which is always evolving, is coming to terms with this musical/technological revolution, this embarrassment of riches. It’s quite a challenge to get people to listen to our album when they’re carrying around 150 gigabytes and 15,000 songs in their pocket. We’re competing not only with their five current favorite records, we’re competing with Bruce Springsteen’s entire discography and every album the Beatles and the Stones ever recorded. That’s why you see bands developing a much wider relationship with their fan base. Our very wide relationship with our fans comes from 15 years of life on the road. For the first five or six years there was no green room, so we were always hanging out with fans between sets.
Fans are my bosses, basically. They’re the reason I don’t have to work at Starbucks.
Q: Your Kickstarter campaign for “The Modest Revolution” had many nice incentives, including a copy of the March 30, 2012 issue of The Globe and Mail and a $100 pair of tickets to attend a recording session for a live CD. So why weren’t there any outrageous bonuses—like a smorgasbord of whiskey and haggis?
A: [Laughs] We did consider a whiskey tasting. But we didn’t have that option because Kickstarter doesn’t allow [alcoholic incentives]. We did get an email from a gentleman asking if any member of the band wanted to participate in a haggis-eating contest. That was horrifying to me—not just the idea of eating haggis, which is not part of my menu, but trying to eat the largest amount of haggis in the shortest period of time.
Q: So, Brian, how about starting a Kickstarter campaign for the re-minting of the penny?
A: That would be very funny. I think Trevor is more of a champion of that underdog. Today, I was in a store and I pulled out a handful of change and perhaps half of it was pennies. And the girl behind the counter got big eyes and said: “I haven’t seen that many pennies in a long time.” My pockets are heavily weighted down by these discs; I’ll be happy to see them go.
Brian Buchanan: The Scoop
His first truly influential song was Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android,” which he first heard on a radio in a car driven by his father. Parent and child liked the tune enough to detour from their destination, a ski area, and beeline to a record store. There they bought the Radiohead CD, “OK Computer,” with their first mutually favorite number.
His musical heroes have ranged from Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan to champion fiddlers he competed against on Canada’s traditional-music circuit. One of his current heroes is Chris Thile, the genre-hopping mandolinist of Punch Brothers, with whom Enter the Haggis shared the 2012 edition of MerleFest.
He designs the band’s graphics and directs the band’s videos, including promotions for Kickstarter campaigns.
His tips for musicians include (1) write music you’d be proud to play for your heroes; (2) don’t take promotional photos by brick walls, train tracks and other boring sites; (3) always thank bartenders, and (4) don’t drink tequila shots until after the show.
His favorite concert at the Mauch Chunk Opera House doubled as drummer James Campbell’s farewell to Enter the Haggis. Haggis Heads came from all over North America to give gifts to Campbell, who always wore a black shirt tucked into black cargo pants and black socks tucked into white sneakers. For the encore, “Long Way Home,” Buchanan and his mates honored Campbell by changing into Campbell-inspired outfits—“our James costumes.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. Like Brian Buchanan, he was baptized as a Radiohead fan by “Paranoid Android.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.