United Steel Workers Of Montreal – Up from the subway
Glance around the website of the group United Steel Workers of Montreal and you’ll find a “dead members” page devoted to mock missing-kid milk cartons, each container adorned with the name of a departed band member. Fourteen names are listed there, and band spokesman Gern f. (with a small-F, that’s how he prefers to be known) claims the page is already out-of-date. “We could have had six or seven more there, if you want to nitpick,” he says.
Considering that the band’s current lineup boasts six players, including three vocalists, that’s a lot of talent passing through a loose collection of self-described “city grass” purveyors, in a city best-known these days as a hotbed for hipper-than-thou acts like Arcade Fire. But a groundswell of acclaim for their raucous live shows and their sophomore album Kerosene & Coal (recently released on the band’s own Weewerk imprint) has coincided with stabilization in the group’s ranks. “As the band became more serious, the commitment became more serious,” Gern says. “What we have now is the six folks who said they were coming along for the stretch.”
Gern relocated to Montreal from Toronto in the early ’90s and first found employment pouring ales in local bars. “That’s when I started meeting musicians. We got together for a Sunday jam at a local brewpub,” he recalls. “Meeting all these people, having opportunities to play, we were saying, let’s make this a little more legit. Less jam, more band.” Early gigs were Tuesday-night busking sessions performed under the unofficial name the Congregants in Montreal’s Metro subway system, where the trains roll on rubber wheels. The gendarmes decreed that — even for an unplugged bluegrass act — they were too loud.
Throughout the early days, the band’s original repertoire consisted of guitarist Gern’s hoarse, torqued Tom Waitsian folk ruminations and, later, rhythm guitarist Shawn “Gus” Beauchamp’s plaintive working-man laments. In Gern’s words, “We can be the loudest fucking string band and turn our acoustic guitar up super fucking loud and play fast, but it is still roots music.”
Eventually they decided to add a female presence to the act and invited Felicity Hamer, who’s blessed with a captivating, bourbon-basted voice that draws comparisons to Janis Joplin. “She can really knock it off the back wall,” Gern says. With Matt Watson on Telecaster, Kevin McNeilly on mandolin and banjo, and Roger Dawson on bass, the drummerless lineup was complete.
Kerosene & Coal was recorded at the band’s own multimedia studio, which is built inside a former neighborhood pub in Montreal’s hardscrabble Little Burgundy neighborhood. “We had a factory up against us for the first six years, and now that has become a drug rehab clinic, which at least is a hell of a lot quieter,” says Gern. “We told them we do make noise, so don’t put residential beds on this side of the building.”
Having three alternating front persons is a key strength, Gern contends. “Part of the strength of the band is the variety,” he says. “We are changing the dynamics in between three people in a 45-minute set. It comes out of the jam aspect, open mike and circle jams and kitchen parties and back-deck parties, passing the guitar around. This band could support any one of us for a set.”
The mixture of tradition and aggression makes for some strange soundchecks. “We come in and it will be some rock guy [soundman], and he doesn’t see drums but he sees our big bass rigs, and so they want to kick in the subs,” Gern recounts. “Or it is a folk guy who sees we have guitars, banjo, mandolin, and they try to make us sound folk. And we come up and play 150 beats per minute and zoom through drag-race songs. We are developing strategies for dealing with that sort of thing.”