Jigs, reels, and Megadeth?

Kate Bevan-Baker, Tom Power, Rich Klaas, and Ed Squires

Well, no, not Megadeth.

Local group of 20-somethings The Dardanelles firmly believe Newfoundland traditional music doesn’t have to be limited to either loud, boisterous bar scenes or the solemn concert audience. Instead The 7-piece folk dance band draw from the canon of traditional Newfoundland jigs and reels and reinvent it to make accessible music for dancing that speaks to their own generation.

Elling Lien asks them about the band, and how they’ve managed to make traditional music that young people are latching onto without going electric.

Photos by Adam Penney.

Fergus Brown O’Byrne – Concertina/Accordion
Josh Ward – Mandolin/Guitar
Kate Bevan-Baker – Fiddle/Vocals
Rich Klaas – Whistle/Percussion
Tom Power – Guitar/Banjo/Vocals

Not interviewed:
Andrew Dale – Bouzouki/Vocals
Ed Squires – Percussion

So, Megadeth?

JW: Easily the best first question I’ve been asked in my life. What about Megadeth?

Well it’s listed under influences on The Dardanelles MySpace page.

TP: That’s exactly what I was talking about when I said I was into really old stuff.

JW: I guess that would be me that brings in the Megadeth influence. Not that it comes out in my mandolin playing or anything.

TP: You’re the most metal mandolin player I’ve ever met in my life.

Okay, who are you? Who are the Dardanelles?

RK: It’s kind of weird because it’s the first time we’ve ever had any questions like this or an interview.

I think it started off with the idea of being a bluegrass band. Tom and Kate and I got together one day just for fun to play some bluegrass and it didn’t really work. We weren’t really feeling it. But Kate plays traditional very well.

KB: Bluegrass is not my thing.

RK: So she made it clear. (Laugh) The next time we got together it was full on traditional, just playing tunes.

TP: It was because I got asked to do this MUN Folklore Society benefit. I had just gotten into the program at MUN and they have Mary Griffiths Night every year. And they said “Could you put together a band for it?” Because they remembered I used to play bluegrass. I just started getting into trad music again, mostly Irish music at the time, but a little bit of Newfoundland music and I thought we could transfer it over. So I got everyone together and I remember Rich mentioning “if you ever need a bodhrán player…”

Working for Young Folk at the Hall I was working for Fergus’s dad (Fergus O’Byrne) a lot and we’d run into each other at the odd session. Looking for a young accordion player his name came immediately to mind.

And then I guess Ed really wanted to be in something. He was really dying to be playing. So we all stepped together, and it worked out.

How about the name?

JW: It’s the one street in St. John’s that doesn’t actually have any houses on it. That one little street off Barnes Road. The Dardanelles—what the heck is that?

TP: It’s also a strait of water in Turkey or something, from the First World War. Hotly disputed.

JW: Hotly!

TP: Did you get that? Hotly. (Laugh) Hotly disputed.

I really liked the old 80s bands like Rankin Street and Rawlins Cross. I thought using a street name was a cool way to be not spell it out explicitly like the “Dory Mates”, you know? Still having something do with St. John’s. Especially talking at the beginning we were trying to get these press photos taken, but we wanted to show we weren’t an outport Newfoundland traditional group. We’re from St. John’s. We are what we are. Kate’s from PEI and Rich is from Dartmouth.

So The Dardanelles is the perfect name. It’s a plural street name. How often do you find a plural street name?

And it has ‘The’ at the beginning too.

JW: Built in!

TP: We didn’t have to do any work for it.

JW: Except there’s a bunch of other bands around the world called The Dardanelles.

TP: But we like to think we’re better than them. (Laugh)

Who is classically trained among you?

TP: Andrew our bouzouki player is.

And Ed.

Everyone but me and Fergus, actually.

RK: I hadn’t really done much bodhrán playing before I came here where the teacher at MUN is Rob Power. He makes a good point of trying to get everyone well-versed on a lot of things. There’s a lot of sessions. He did congas once, and he did bodhrán once and I really enjoyed it so he helped me out and got me a lot of materials to work with. And that’s when this whole thing was starting. That’s how I got involved in traditional music. I hadn’t played it or listened to it much when I lived in Dartmouth. But when I moved here I heard it a lot more. I really enjoy playing music and that’s when I looked at going on the band with Tom.

KB: I grew up playing folk, classical and traditional, but through high school and when I got older it was more classical. Fiddling was just a summer thing. I’m really happy playing in this group now because it’s a totally opposite, different style than what I’m doing in school. It’s a good balance.

And you Tom? How did you learn to play?

TP: I don’t know, I guess I started playing music in elementary school like we all do.

But in high school in band I got really into folk music—bluegrass especially—and it’s all I really listened to. I thought traditional music was really uncool. I used to think it was really cheesy, but I started listening to really old Newfoundland and Irish groups that I never knew existed. I remember hearing Towards the Sunset that album with Pat & Joe Byrne and couldn’t believe that this could be in Newfoundland traditional music. My mind immediately opened up. Duane Andrews was a huge influence on that too, because he knew I was into bluegrass and he was like “Tom man, there’s so much more.”

He gave Andy Irvine and Paul Brady’s record, and those were kind of my bible to try to learn traditional music. I got more and more into it. When I started to play with The Dardanelles, I was talking to Fergus (Brown O’Byrne) about what it was like to go to sessions and all of that. I started going to them, and now we’re both there every week.

And Fergus, I imagine your father encouraged you to play music…?

FB: Yeah. I got started in music early. I couldn’t have been much more than three and I was doing piano here. I did that for about five years. Then when I started getting into stuff like Royal Conservatory exams it became more of a pressure thing. I backed off from it. Then I got into playing some violin with the early grade school bands and stuff.

When I was around 14 I went to some of the bars that are restaurants too, you know, where I could sit in on the sessions for a bit. Matt Molloy from The Chieftains was in town playing a session, and making really good, solid live music. And at that point it went from “I kind of like it but I’m doing it because I’m being told to” to myself actually having a more aggressive interest in it.

I remember, same as Fergus, being really young and being in piano lesson and violin lessons and not really digging it. I even actually bought a guitar when I was really little and remember playing it, and put it away and never touched it again until my older brother started playing guitar too. Then I was like “oh my god that’s the coolest thing! I’ve got to do that again!”

But as far as the traditional stuff I was never really not into it. Ever since I was born my nan has played accordion for 80-plus years and my mom has been playing too. It’s been around me constantly. Like Tom mentioned it’s one of those things where it’s just around you so much you don’t even really notice it, and you kind of think it’s cheesy when you’re young. Like, when I bought my first Sex Pistols tape I wasn’t really digging the traditional thing at the time, but I’d still go jam every Sunday when we’d go for dinner. Not because I was really digging it, but because that’s what you do. It seemed natural to me.

But I don’t think it was until we moved away when I was in Grade 10—I lived in Vancouver for a year —that was the first time I didn’t have that around me all the time and it was such a shock. Like cold water in the face! I realized “Man, people who live here don’t have the same experience. They don’t have aunts and uncles and cousins come over and play music all the time. Man that’s weird.”

When I moved back home I started playing mandolin and going to hang out and learn these tunes.

It was something that was so natural at first, but then when it gets taken away, it’s like “oh my God bring that back! I need it, I need it!”

Fergus Brown O’Byrne and Josh Ward

Did any of the rest of you have a similar experience with your families playing music?

TP: My family sang old Newfoundland songs, but I never thought of it as anything. Just old songs my parents sang. I definitely grew up with it, but not with tunes or anything.

I was talking to Daniel Payne about this. He grew up with a lot of traditional music around him, but it wasn’t until he got into Irish music that he realized he really liked it. Then he was like “hold on, we’ve got our own Irish music that exists around us. We’re kind of privy to it where no one else is.”

And I kind of realized it’s pretty cool.

Is there a core idea or philosophy behind The Dardanelles?

TP: I think the whole goal is to make traditional music cooler. A lot of people think the way we thought—that traditional music is really uncool. I think the way a lot of people treat it is like something to be put away in a glass case. But it’s really wicked, fun, dance music.

I mean, seeing people dance to the Idlers is great. I love the Idlers, or some little bands that just started up… what’s the name… Josh’s group Hey Rosetta! (laugh)

But traditional music can do that too.

I guess the real goal is to make traditional music cool again, not just for the generation above us who danced to The Duff, but for our particular generation.

JW: In a lot of cases the perceived atmosphere of trad music is one of two things: loud, boisterous bar tunes, or stuff for the solemn concert audience.

But I think we’re more of a happy medium. We just create a fun atmosphere, and it’s broad and accessible.

RK: I find people have different perceptions of traditional bands. This band is mainly my first exposure to traditional music. But what we try to do through our arrangements is it more complicated sometimes or make it interesting to us. You know it’s not just that we’re trying to play traditional music. It’s not that we’re not trying to play traditional music. Whatever we do we try to make it interesting.

We’re trying to make the music interesting the way we are, and we’re not trying to be a rock traditional band, and we’re not trying to be a straight up traditional band.

TP: That’s where the music nerdy thing comes in because we’re always playing a tune and saying let’s drop a beat here. Let’s put this in 7/8.

We turn into Rush every now and then. The King Crimson of trad…

How do you make it okay for young people to like traditional music these days?

TP: The foundation is there. The same beats that we bring are the same ones the Idlers bring, or any other kind of band brings.

Just like a few years ago there was a need to modernize folk music by mixing it with rock music. But up to that point folk music was just kind of preserved away in a glass container. With a newer generation of folk musicians—not just us—but bands kind of like us all over the place, you can take different elements of folk music and put them all together.

We do a tune where we do an old Cape Breton reel over a bluegrass tune to kind of a more Irish reel, while at the same time having a different kind of percussion going on.

So traditional music and folk music in general is becoming a more accessible—I notice even around St. John’s trios of guitars and banjos and mandolins starting to play around. I don’t think that would have happened a few years ago. It’s nice to see.

If all of these other folk acts can get people out we in Newfoundland have such a great opportunity presented to us. We have this canon no one else has. When we have a dance floor and an old Emile Benoit tune and the music is there again, it’s living and breathing that old music from the 40s and 50s or even further back and people are dancing to it again it’s the best feeling on the face of the earth.

RK: I think we do owe a lot of people’s perception of the music to the audience. I feel a world of difference when we play for people and we really feed off of them. When people are dancing and stuff, it’s just a world of difference when you play for people and I think people can see it.

It’s like when you listen to song by a band and its okay and you see that band live and the song is a hundred times better? Same kind of thing. If somebody has their reservations about folk music and sees us and sees what it can actually be like in a live setting I think that can really affect their opinion. They can enjoy the music more.

KB: I’ve always been a huge classical music dork orchestra geek, and I love that kind of stuff, but I’m so used to playing for big serious concerts where everyone is just sitting there watching… But it’s so fun to play this sort of stuff. It’s really brought me out of my shell. And it’s great we have such a following. My friends will come downtown to see a show of traditional music!

Did you even imagine that kind of thing would happen?

KB: No! But I’m so glad it did.

It’s so cool to see people getting up and dancing to traditional music. Playing Newfoundland singles or Newfoundland jigs or Irish jigs. People use to dance to this music out in Aquaforte and then it kind of appeared ten years later—as a very deliberate dance and deliberate performance as a deliberate preservation of folk music.

To see it kind of come back and see people really get into it—that’s really what the whole band is all about. Getting people back into it. Not for any ethical or historical reason. Just because it’s great music. Appreciating the music on its own basis as great music and not necessarily because it should be preserved.

How do you dance to your music?

TP: You just give er’!

How do you dance to any music? There’s no difference. It’s cool being a Newfoundland dance band. Absolutely.

KB: You’re not going to find people dancing to this in many other cities across the country.

What percentage of your fans are your age?

JW: It depends on the time of the night. (Laugh)

If we play early then it’s slightly different. 50/50 maybe? It depends on the venue too.

It’s great. You get the kind of intellectual elite coming down. You get the white hairs coming down. They’re very excited and attentive to what we’re doing. Then the younger crowd will come in and have a few drinks while they’re enjoying our music and then when we start blasting out the second set they all go home because it’s too late.

What was the switch inside of you that made traditional music okay? There must have been a moment.
JW: For me it was when I moved away. That seems like the most logical thing. And again it’s around you so much it just creeps in and eventually that’s okay. I can remember distinctly missing traditional music and that was thing I felt like I needed to get back and be a part of me again.

FB: I’m a unique case, because for me it was almost the only thing I heard.

TP: I’m surprised you are actually playing Newfoundland traditional music, Fergus. I’m surprised you aren’t playing Megadeth!

FB: I can probably count the number of non trad like tapes I had on one hand. Dance Mix 95… because everybody owned it… and one of the old Oasis tapes.

TP: For myself, I got into a band called The Duhks and they’re killer. They’re brand new and they’re playing living and breathing tunes from Ireland and I remember listening to one of their early, early demos which had the “Meech Lake Breakdown” and I was like “that’s our tune!”

FB: It’s true in a way though. There’s a lot of it and its good stuff. If someone’s not playing it someone’s going to start. People are always looking for different sounds.

TP: And it may as well be us. We used to spend a lot of time playing Irish music but now we spend a long time rearranging Newfoundland music. We discovered doubles—this great sort of double jig that really gets you going.

We played those a few weeks ago with Dan Payne at a CD release. Those are the tunes that got people going. Those rhythms are inherent to dance to. We have our own music to play why not play it?

You can catch The Dardanelles at the North Atlantic Fiddle Convention’s Celtic Crossings at the Arts & Culture Centre on Tuesday, August 5 at 7:30pm and at the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival on the afternoon of Sunday, August 10. See listings for more details.