MIKE BELL, CALGARY HERALD
Published on: May 13, 2016 | Last Updated: May 13, 2016 3:00 AM MD
Good can be very good with a little help.
And in some cases, very good can also become great.
Such is the case with the songs of Calgary vets Cowpuncher and the addition of Toronto producer Derek Downham into the mix.
It has, admits frontman Matt Olah, been the key ingredient helping get over that hump, helping them get even better than they are, become, on record, something better than they imagined.
“Working with a producer is the best thing we’ve ever done,” Olah says sitting in Inglewood’s Hose and Hound Pub.
He compares it to getting a tattoo. “It’s like . . . ‘Oh, I have this idea for a tattoo,’ and you go into the tattoo place and he’s like, ‘Oh, OK, let’s do this,’ and they make your vision way better than your idea was.
“That’s what Derek did, where he just said, ‘Oh, I see where you’re going with this,’ and then just made it way better than we could have on our own. To me, that’s a great producer.”
And that producer has now had a hand in the two best albums released in the city so far this year, with Evan Freeman’s monumental Luna and now Cowpuncher’s gobsmackingly excellent rock opus Hustle.
It’s an album that amps up everything that the quintet have been cultivating for the past seven years — raggedy-ass, swaggering singalong rock with a slight rural gait — and gives it a polished yet still somehow gritty psych sheen, bumping it into the ballpark of the best of, say, the Sam Roberts Band or Bare Jr.
Olah admits they specifically sought out Downham, best known for his work with Serena Ryder, Jim Cuddy and By Divine Right, and went out to T.O.’s Canadian Music Week in 2014 with the express purpose of meeting with him.
The night before, Olah got the “s—t kicked out of me” during a full-on brawl at a Hogtown club — “These two guys took on the whole bar. And won,” he says — and he showed up to chat about working with the producer with a broken nose and two black eyes.
“I was totally out of it,” he says. “I had to leave the meeting and sit outside.”
Downham was intrigued enough to come out to one of Cowpuncher’s showcase shows, which he couldn’t get into so he stood and listened from the door.
That, and some demo tapes, were enough to entice him back to Calgary for sessions at OCL Studios in November of ’14, where he worked closely with the band — Olah, Ryan Kelly, Jeff Sulima, Scott Martin and Shari Rae — on making their vision that much clearer and considerably more.
In fact, Olah says Downham became “part of the band on this one,” noting he played on every track and totally changed some songs, including giving the song Incision a Tomorrow Never Knows, eastern feel to it.
He also gave the band some songwriting advice that’s stuck with them, basically just to, “cut the fat, get to the point, make it faster.”
That said, the relationship wasn’t entirely a smooth and nurturing one, with Olah admitting that Downham was a “f—king a—hole to work with,” and who let it known quite vocally when he wasn’t happy with takes or directions the band was going in.
“After awhile of being yelled at all day long, it’s like a yappy dog or living under a jet path or something, you just tune it out after a while,” Olah says, noting that the producer even sent the record in to be mastered without Cowpuncher’s approval.
“But he got the results so I guess that’s why he gets away with being who he is. But, yeah, he did a great job.”
So much so that when asked if they would work with him again, Olah doesn’t even pause.
“One hundred per cent,” he says.
In fact, that’s already in the works as Downham will actually be in town this summer, performing with Freeman’s band during the Calgary Folk Music Festival, and Cowpuncher are keeping him here for an extra few days for some more OCL sessions.
Hopefully they’ll get some more magic out of their work together, something as good as Hustle, which the band will finally release this Saturday with a show at the Nite Owl, a full year-and-a-half after it was finished.
The reason for the delay is also a case of making the package great, as the band was waiting on friend and album designer Geoffrey Hanson, who not only made their last cover, Ghost Notes, which earned a Western Canadian Music Award for best album design, but has also done album covers for international acts such as Alabama Shakes, Kings of Leon and Robert Plant.
“We’re smart enough to know to wait for him, for sure,” Olah says, explaining that Hustle was further delayed as they waited for it to be printed on gorgeous, see-through vinyl — another wise decision — and they participated last year as one of the 12 finalists in the Peak Performance Project.
Now the band is getting set to give it the push that it deserves, with a cross-country mailout to campus stations and a possible August tour of the Pacific Northwest.
They’ve also just taken on a new member, with Martin having left the band recently, being replaced by Garrett Thorson from the Alright Gents, who is “bringing in this great new energy.”
Still, despite how remarkable an album Hustle is and how refreshed Cowpuncher now are, Olah says, only partially jokingly, that he’s been at this long enough to count on nothing from the music industry except “heartache and loss” and is consequently keeping expectations modest.
“I don’t think you can expect too much when an album comes out, really,” he says.
“Every time we put out an album, it’s like, ‘Oh, thank god, my life is going to change for ever,’ and then it’s the same.”
He laughs. “This is our fourth album … just add it to the pile.”
Just make sure it’s at the top.
Cowpuncher release their new album Hustle with a show Saturday at the Nite Owl.