The canoe slid through the dark, unknown waters, a lake they had braved on a lark, and eventually became a song that could anchor an entire album. “By feel we found this empty cabin and stayed the night,” recounts Ian Griffiths, accordionist of BC’s Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra. “I lay there and looked at the silhouette of the trees and I felt like it was the ancestors looking down on me. I found out later from my dad that our family had stayed there, in that very cabin.”
By stumbling through a strange place, by bumping up against and buoying each other, The Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra has found home.
The acoustic ensemble has wandered from the underground of bohemian Victoria, in Canada’s lush west coast, to a new, refined sound crafted by years of constant performing and touring together. Though drawing on flamenco flourishes learned in Spain, on African percussion, on bluegrass and other roots music from across the Americas, TMO has cycled through far-flung influences and youthful forays into sounds from all over, finding new vistas of creativity that bring them closer to their own beginnings, to the people and places that have shaped them. Friends and family, ancestors and wild characters are all honored on Follow My Lead, Lead Me to Follow, the band’s third and most mature studio effort, with a sound that’s distinct, earthy, and solid.
“Our sound comes from spending a lot of time together. It’s a creation of living,” explains Kurt Loewen, the band’s guitarist. “The process with all the songs was so organic. But at the same time, 90 percent of them took a long time to get into the repertoire. It took two full years of touring, of us being together all the time, rehearsing, recording, leaving things off and putting them back on the set list. These songs are a creation of living.”
“When people ask, ‘What influences you most?,’ I have to answer, ‘Being part of the band,’” Griffiths adds. “There are other meta-influences in the background, but the biggest influence is the band itself. Our life together, the people we meet inspire new tunes.”
This kind of close-knit co-creation had humble, funky beginnings. The band crossed paths at a notorious illicit open mic under the sidewalks of Victoria, a cramped, raucous spot that nurtured the local scene. Griffiths had just returned from two years in Spain studying flamenco guitar, and ran into percussionist Paul Wolda, who had grown up playing with African and hand-drumming ensembles from an early age. As their usual gig involved another guitarist, Griffiths decided to teach himself accordion. “There were too many guitars, so I grabbed the accordion we had sitting around our living room. It was a little, kid-sized accordion that I picked up in Barcelona. You had to smile when you played; it only had major chords.”
An eccentric local impresario took notice of Griffiths and Wolda, gave the projects its cheeky literary name, and then booked show after shifting show, sometimes several dozen in a single month, with two to eight musicians. On one of these marathons, they met up with Kurt Loewen, who had been recruited to play djembe but eventually became the band’s guitarist and one of its main songwriters. The guys came from different backgrounds, listened to different music, had different ideas. Yet somehow, clocking thousands of shows and busking their way across several continents, they clicked.
TMO toured major cities, playing club dates and living in vans, like many young bands. But they also found themselves playing smaller towns and venues, places where the entire local population would gather for a show—and then demand they play all night. The spirit of these places and these audiences left their mark, especially the Gulf Islands in BC’s Strait of Georgia, an archipelago harboring beautiful, peaceful spots and wonderfully eccentric people (as well as being home to Wolda, who hails from Cortes Island).
This close rapport—and willingness to take on the third-set challenge, to listen to the spirit of place—shaped TMO. The band evolved, slowly refining their initial burst of quirky, spontaneous jams, where songs in Spanish (the hot “Xo Tango”) might alternate with funny bluegrass numbers (“Sadie”), and wry waltzes might segue into percussive folk-punk. The band’s consensus-based, thoughtful process of arranging, shifting, performing became a crucible for mellowing and combining the group’s scattered musical influences.
“You have a certain idea of how things should be,” Griffiths muses, “but then you release your intention and stuff turns out better. It wouldn’t be a band if it were all my way; it would be my solo project. I bring one wall, and other people bring the others, and the music grows and changes and ends up better. It’s humbling, but it’s always better when it goes through the band.”
These relationships—with new fans, old friends, and striking landscapes—sparked new approaches. A bon vivant and artist friend and long-time supporter in the rugged, gorgeous Kootenays of southwestern British Columbia helped birth “Mountains on Fire,” opening his art-filled home to the band, who found a new approach to the high-speed tune Griffiths first envisioned. In the relaxed, open-ended atmosphere, the song went from quicksilver to lyrical and meditative, a tone that matches the song’s origins in a striking dream.
While the band’s original youthful, playful energy remains palpable on Follow my Lead, Lead me to Follow, the band channels all that heat and light into firm, elegant boundaries. The musicians spent months together, playing, arranging, discussing, before hitting the studio to record the album with David Travers-Smith (Deerhoof, Kiran Ahluwalia, Wailin’ Jennys). The long spell together lent a new tightness to the band’s performance, a focus and sixth-sense responsiveness that resonates on the album (“Lives be Brave”) and on stage. As a result, the group sounds truly orchestral, with rich arrangements that take full advantage of their instruments’ unique colors.
The Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra has also turned truly roots, finding inspiration and hope in tracing the impact of past lives, past minds. The rousing “Canoe Song,” inspired by Griffiths and Wolda’s strange lake journey, brought this past home to Griffiths and generated the name of the album, a possible credo for the band: “It’s a big cyclical thing; to lead you need to follow and to follow to lead. When you reach that point, you’re just confronted with yourself all the time, and you begin to see those around you in a different light.”
Loewen found a similar source of inspiration for “Nose Hill,” a song for one of Calgary’s main landmarks and greenspaces. Returning to his old stomping grounds, Loewen was startled to find himself disoriented as he considered the changing lay of the land: “I was feeling sentimental about the land where I was from. I thought about who had lived there before and what the land looked like. For millennia, buffalo came and rubbed themselves on the stones there, and it blew my mind, that these animals had migrated through there, their ancient paths. It spoke to me of a larger idea: That we can think we’re in one place, but we’re actually in another.”
This pensive engagement with the past may be bittersweet, but it underlies the band’s tight and joyful ties to a vibrant sense of place, whether it’s a farm on the Canadian prairies or an idyllic rocky island. “Our common thread is the place, the people,” Griffiths smiles. “When we’re out on Cortes Island or in Saskatchewan, it’s the sense of place that are the common threads. There’s a place, there’s the sentiment that connects us.”
This is more than connection and art simply for its own sake. The Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra’s creation of living has gotten the band passionately involved in a variety of causes, from protesting unwise logging practices in old-growth groves to bringing organic food sellers to their shows. They are also heavily engaged in working with at-risk children, in part through the Legacy Children’s Foundation’s highly successful Gift of Music programs in Loewen’s hometown of Calgary.
Charged with leading a songwriting workshop for the program, the band, faced with a roomful of kids ranging in age from 10 to 18, was nervous. But within the first two hours, the young musicians broke out of their shells, egging each other on, crafting heartfelt lyrics and great hooks. The workshop left a lasting impression: Even a few of the quieter children involved went on to get music lessons and kept in touch with the band. But it was more than the mentoring that moved The Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra’s musicians. “That childlike openness will pick up whatever is at hand,” Griffiths says, “and honest and unpretentious music pours out. The kids just said what was happening, just reflected of their lives in their work.”