In the same boat Like many other bands, Royal Canoe finds triumphant tour cut short by COVID-19
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Ten years have gone by in a flash, and Royal Canoe keeps on paddling.
The Winnipeg indie-pop group, like so many performers in all musical genres, continues to overcome the many barriers the COVID-19 pandemic has erected.
They’ve fought back with their synthesizers, releasing a second album in as many years and getting the band, and its bus, back together to tour across Canada.
“We weren’t sure what sort of response there would be, and it’s been really encouraging to see that our music, it’s still resonating with people,” Matt Peters, Royal Canoe’s vocalist and keyboardist, says. “And that’s a huge part of it, knowing there’s an audience out there who appreciate what we’re doing and anticipate what we’re up to.”
Vault (2011-2021) is the new record, a combination of five songs that didn’t fit on the band’s previous nine albums and EPs, and five other tracks that sat in the members’ hard drives waiting for final pieces to their puzzles.
Royal Canoe solved those musical mysteries in the studio last November.
”It was a lot of fun, actually, to take these ideas we loved but we never got around to completing and going to the studio with a different agenda than we’d usually have, just literally finishing up songs,” he says.
Those final touches will create some surprises for Royal Canoe’s most loyal fans, who began following them in Winnipeg nightclubs a decade ago and have watched them become leaders in the city’s latest musical wave.
“There’ll be a song or two where I’m singing a vocal; in the first verse it’s 2011 Matt and in the second verse it’s 2021 Matt. It was weird but (there’s) also a therapeutic quality to it,” Peters says.
One song on Vault, Apriltime, is an upbeat track that almost feels nostalgic for Manitobans who have been battered by April 2022’s storms and blizzards, when some folks could use a real canoe as much as Royal Canoe.
“That’s a song that I think goes back to 2013, and it’s about the feeling of spring, getting out and meeting new people,” Peters says.
“Coming back to material, it takes a while. What headspace was I in? Where was I going with this? Who was I when I made this?”
The band has been performing across Western Canada this spring — dodging COVID-19 as best it can along the way — and the elation of being back onstage after two years of pandemic silence has taken the edge off the usual touring grind.
“A couple of years go by of not playing shows, not getting in front of people, not being onstage, not performing, and you kind of lost touch of that side of yourself in a way,” Peters says. “You’re so used to the hustle, making stuff happen.
“It was this beautiful moment for me, and I think all of us in the band… just getting to know that side of yourself again and knowing it was always in there, just waiting to re-introduce itself to you.
“Playing those shows was such an incredible experience. That makes me hopeful for the future, playing music, listening to music, being at a show; there’s still something very pure at the core of that experience and that hasn’t changed.”
Driving from gig to gig across Canada’s vast Prairies, along twisty mountain roads or via Maritime trails is a challenge at the best of times for music groups large and small, but COVID-19 — lingering in the background, yet seemingly affecting more people than ever — has added another layer of difficulty.
”We had to cancel three of the western leg shows because of COVID stuff. It never ends.” – Vocalist Matt Peters
Shellac guitarist Steve Albini, also known for producing records for Nirvana and the Pixies, took to Twitter on April 19 to plead with music fans to wear masks when attending shows.
“Lots of tours already underway are being aborted when someone tests positive, and having to do that is ruinously expensive for the band,” Albini wrote. “Remote isolation, lost gig income, additional carrying, medical and travel expense amount to more than the tour was worth, or worse.”
Unfortunately, Peters and the rest of Royal Canoe — Bucky Driedger, Matt Schellenberg, Brendan Berg and Michael Jordan — have first-hand knowledge of those risks.
”We had to cancel three of the western leg shows because of COVID stuff. It never ends,” Peters says from the Kamloops, B.C., hotel room where he is isolating after a positive test. “All the other guys are back in Winnipeg and I’m just waiting for my negative test so I can come home.”
Peters’ encounter with the virus has also led to the postponement of two sold-out shows at the West End Cultural Centre scheduled for Friday and Saturday. They have been rescheduled for May 18 and 19 at the WECC.
“It’s a labour of love, but there’s now this extra added variable that when you were a kid just getting started playing music that you never thought you’d have to worry about,” he says.
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.