Case in point: Ottawa-based band MonkeyJunk.
The trio consisting of drummer Matt Sobb, lead guitarist Tony D, and frontman Steve Marriner has been a staple of the Ottawa blues scene for nearly five years, and in that short time they’ve got their paws on fifteen Maple Blues awards and a Juno for Blues Album of the Year in 2012.
They’ll be swinging into Saskatoon to play the Jazz Festival on Sunday, June 23 at the free stage. We recently caught up with vocalist and baritone guitarist Steve Marriner over the phone to chat about the band’s influences, their creative process, and their upcoming, currently untitled third studio album.
“I think the main strength of our band is the versatility,” said Marriner. “As much as we love old Chicago blues, like you said, we [also have] New Orleans influences, Memphis soul, and Texas rock and roll.”
When the band gets on stage these styles each bubble up to the surface at just the right moments, resulting in a tasty, soulful, sometimes even swampy kind of sound that’ll make you want to get up and dance. This is the cornerstone of MonkeyJunk’s vibe: they’re not too interested in showing off their more than ample instrumental skills with eight-minute solos — or “guitar wanking,” as Marriner put it. They’d rather “write cool tunes and make grooves that move people.”“We have tunes that, without copying them at all, I would say … are kind of closer to The Black Keys than they are to Muddy Waters”
And write cool tunes they do. All hailing from Ottawa, the blues has been home base for the MonkeyJunk guys since they each got into music in their teenage years. For Marriner, 28, playing the blues has become second nature.
“I started playing the blues when I was 11… and got really into playing blues harmonica. [Now it’s] a big part of what I do. It’s so ingrained in my brain it kind of comes out when I’m not consciously thinking, ‘oh I want to make this sound like somebody bluesy’.”
Tiger In Your Tank, MonkeyJunk’s first album, was released in 2009. “It’s even more kind of a traditional bluesy record,” said Marriner. And while still referring back to their bluesy roots, the band shifted gears in 2011 with To Behold. That album, according to Marriner, was a deliberate step outside their traditional, established sound, aimed towards a newer, more original feel.
Building on this momentum, pushing towards a hip, modern sound has been the driving force for their next album as well, due out on September 24 of this year. The band’s will to explore new sounds stems from not wanting to be shoehorned into one specific genre of music.
“I personally don’t even really consider us a blues band,” said Mariner. “I consider us just a band like any other.” That said, arguably some hints of the blues could be found in any of their tracks — at least on Tiger In Your Tank or To Behold. But unusual creative decisions like playing without a bassist allow MonkeyJunk to scheme up interesting ways to fill out their sound, and often bend the boundaries of the blues. For example, Marriner describes one tune on their new album, with a Hammond organ line and soul jazz throwback feeling, as “totally Booker T on acid.”
Marriner and his colleagues invested much more energy producing their latest record than the previous two. It’s recorded analog onto two-inch tape, and yet, says Marriner, “the sounds we came up with are what I consider to be more full. A lot more bottom end, bigger drum sounds… but still vintage sounding.” The band also emphasized vocals, backup singing, and more thought went into the form and structure of the new tracks, especially how each chorus fits into the song.
“You know, it’s funny,” said Mariner, wondering aloud how MonkeyJunk fans will react to the new album. “Your own perception of your music versus other people’s perception of your music are often way off. Way off. There’s a big disparity between them. [We] really feel like this is a very different sounding record, but a lot of people in our close circle that we’ve showed it to don’t think it’s all that different.”
Putting out a new album, with a newer sound, can be a tricky task for any band to pull off successfully, but Marriner’s not too worried.
“I don’t know if there is a ‘Canadian Sound’ but it’s our version of all [our] influences coming out. It’s as original as we know how to be. And if you’re doing that people are going to like it or they’re not. You gotta be true to yourself, you know?”
MonkeyJunk’s new album hits record stores and the Internet on September 24. You can also check them out live this Sunday at 9:00 at the Jazz Festival Friendship Park free stage.