by Mark Teo
November 21, 2013
Cowpuncher embrace change on new Ghost Notes album
If you go by their live reputation, Cowpuncher are a fire-starting live fiasco, the type who slot in admirably with Calgary’s fun-time beardos — think Chron Goblin, Napalmpom or HighKicks. If you’re willing to judge Cowpuncher by their name, or their last LP, Call Me When You’re Single , they’re a Stampede-ready quartet who play hard-strummed, punk-tinged country songs. But give their new album, Ghost Notes , a spin, and it’s evident that Matt Olah’s one-time bluegrass project has evolved into something else altogether: Interspersed among its bangers is a burgeoning interest in atmosphere, tone and texture.
Which isn’t to say that Cowpuncher are experimenting with soundscapes. But it’s also clear they’re not simply a rough-hewn country band anymore. “Well, we lost our pedal steel player [since Call Me When You’re Single ], and even when he was with us, he was struggling with his role in the band,” says Olah. “There’s still some twang in there, I guess, but we’re exploring sounds. Do any bands really say, ‘We’re this kind of band, or that kind of band?’ I guess some do, but we’re just a band.”
A band that’s growing out of its roots, as evidenced by Olah’s reaction when we mention their similarities to avant-country acts like The Sadies and The Beauties. “I’m glad you mentioned them,” says Olah, “because we love those bands a lot. Also, [drummer Jeff] Sulima and I, we grew up with ’90s indie rock, like Archers of Loaf. Harley [Hoeft, upright bass] and Scott [Martin, electric guitar] like traditional stuff, country and blues. And Ryan [Kelly, baritone guitar] is a strip club DJ. And I guess we were listening to a lot of Ladyhawk when we wrote the record.”
That influence shows, too — Ghost Notes ’s tracks, like “Bridesmaids” and “Ho Hum,” are spiked with scruffy, anthemic gang vocals. Not only does it add a distinctly live element to Cowpuncher’s most thoughtful album (and we mean that in a good way), but it also adds depth to a band that recently slimmed down to a five-person affair that they call their “commando unit.”
“The gang vocals, those were an idea from our engineer,” says Olah. “He was just like, ‘Can you bring 20 people over on Tuesday?’ So we had this old RV, and we just showed up with all these people and brought beer. We didn’t even give them any of the song’s context. We just told them the lyrics we wanted to sing.”
That explains why songs like “Backs of Vans” (or backs of RVs, more like) sound like the Cowpuncher live experience. Yet their paint-peeling live show — which is so intense that Olah once vomited onstage in Vancouver after breaking his ribs in a botched stage dive attempt — has become so revered in their hometown that the band’s been careful not to overplay Calgary.
Calgary’s party-starting rock scene , which’ll be on full display at their upcoming album release, clearly adores Cowpuncher. “Calgary loves riff-rock bands right now. I wonder if we’re ahead of other places,” he says. “I don’t know why, but we’re a little more edgy, we’re a little more boisterous — a lot of the independent stuff that’s popular is so fey. It’s sensitive and mellow. But when I go to a show, I like to pump my fists.”
So, too, does Calgary. But, as the band said in a recent interview, Cowpuncher doesn’t simply want to be “Calgary famous” — they want to spread their music outside city limits. Not that they don’t love their hometown. “I mean, you can get comfortable here,” Olah tells us. “And that’s a dangerous place to be, especially if you want to grow your band. We’ve very much laid our groundwork here, and Calgary’s a great home base. You can play tons of different nooks and crannies in Western Canada, too. But we want to get the word out about what we’re doing, and we want to go east.”
That ambition is backed by the best album Olah and crew have ever written. “We started this thing as a Stampede Party band, and didn’t put the band together envisioning it being what it is now,” he says. “We just wanted to be in a band and play shows. And it’s more than that now.”