March 28, 2020

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Icemen cometh

Royal Canoe mixes instruments, sounds from frozen source

The members of Winnipeg indie band Royal Canoe are no strangers to working with experimental sounds, but figuring out how to create instruments from ice and make music with them is unlike anything they’ve tackled in the past.

Event preview

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Glacial by Royal Canoe

Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m.

The Forks

Free

In the last month, the six-piece group has carved blocks of ice into instruments, including a xylophone, kick drum and hi-hat. The sounds they make will be used in reimagined versions of 10 of the band’s songs, which will be performed at two free shows at The Forks on Friday and Saturday.

"We were in (guitarist) Bucky Driedger’s garage during the first week of January. We got a whole shipment of ice and we were just throwing ice around and recording it and scraping it and banging it, but also being mindful of the things we could actually do live, because that’s what people are most interested in, and what we’re most interested in, too," says vocalist Matt Peters.

Michael Jordan (left), Matt Peters, Bucky Driedger and Matt Schellenberg of Royal Canoe test out their ice instruments at The Forks. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Michael Jordan (left), Matt Peters, Bucky Driedger and Matt Schellenberg of Royal Canoe test out their ice instruments at The Forks. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Sputnik Architecture had asked the band to be the invited artist at the Warming Huts v2020: An Art + Architecture Competition On Ice. The band was asked to create a concert similar to one performed by Norwegian ice musician Terje Isungset at the Winnipeg New Music Festival in 2019.

"It seemed like the perfect idea for the kind of things we like to do, and the challenges we like to have, and how difficult we like to make things for ourselves," Peters says with a laugh.

A week before the show, dubbed Glacial, Royal Canoe seems to have a handle on at least two acoustic icy elements as they rehearse in an empty train car at The Forks. It was the only spot they could find that wasn’t heated and was fully contained. Every sound, aside from vocals, heard during the rehearsal had originated from ice and was processed through electronic equipment.

Some concept sketches the band used before carving instruments out of blocks of ice. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Some concept sketches the band used before carving instruments out of blocks of ice. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

A few steps away, Italian-Norwegian ice architect Luca Roncoroni, famous for the Icehotel in Sweden, was building the stage he had designed for the show. The original plan was to hold the concert on the frozen river, but it didn’t freeze uniformly because of high water levels in the fall. So, a Fortress-of-Solitude-esque ice stage is being constructed on the stairs of the Johnston Terminal instead.

Peters, Schellenberg form production team

Matt Peters and Matt Schellenberg of Royal Canoe have long collaborated outside of the band. Earlier this month, the pair made things official with the launch of Deadmen, their new music production company.

The culmination of two years of writing trips and work in Winnipeg — including co-writing credits on Begonia’s debut album, Fear, as well as work in film scoring and band production — Deadmen is a way to formalize a partnership that has strong roots.

Matt Peters and Matt Schellenberg of Royal Canoe have long collaborated outside of the band. Earlier this month, the pair made things official with the launch of Deadmen, their new music production company.

The culmination of two years of writing trips and work in Winnipeg — including co-writing credits on Begonia’s debut album, Fear, as well as work in film scoring and band production — Deadmen is a way to formalize a partnership that has strong roots.

“I would say that’s exactly what it is,” says Peters. “Matt and I did the Begonia album together with Alexa Dirks and Marcus (Paquin), and doing that was this feeling of like, ‘Oh yeah, writing songs with people, producing songs with people together, working with other artists for them, and maybe even for our own project, is something that we really want to do more of, and taking that as a focus. It was a bit of an epiphany for us.” 

Deadmen released its debut single, I Could Spend a Lifetime featuring Begonia and E.GG, and the plan is to continue releasing singles every six weeks. The next track on deck will likely feature Emily Wells, a multi-instrumentalist and experimental musician based in New York City.

In addition to the music they are releasing as Deadmen, Peters and Schellenberg produced a number of records that are expected to be released in 2020 and wrote tracks that will appear on other artists’ albums. They are planning another writing trip to New York City in the fall.

“I think we’ll just put out singles and slowly group them into EPs and albums and see what happens,” says Schellenberg.

To create the staging and the instruments, 125 massive blocks of ice, one-metre long by one-metre wide by 50 centimetres thick, were harvested from a lake at FortWhyte Alive.

During the show, which will run about 45 minutes to an hour and and will start promptly at 7 p.m., images will be projected onto the ice surfaces and a "full, elaborate" series of lights will be triggered when the band hits specific instruments.

Despite the obvious challenges of working with a material as temperamental as ice, Peters says the music-creation aspect of the project was relatively simple once they figured out how to raise or lower tones (by changing the length or depth of the pieces of ice) and after Roncoroni clued them in to using ice as mallets to make the loudest, clearest sound on the frozen xylophone.

"We knew what we wanted to do, we knew we wanted to deconstruct these songs, do something more minimal, lower in key, slower in tempo. We don’t want it to be a sleepy set, and it won’t be by any means, but just the idea of reapproaching the songs with a blank slate and a completely different set of instruments, what will come out of that process and that mindset? That process came pretty naturally," he says.

"There will be someone there to make sure there are triplicates of all the xylophone notes tuned and ready to go, though," he adds. "So all of the things outside of the music, on the technical side, are the hard part. As it usually is."

erin.lebar@freepress.mb.ca

The band and ice stage crew members work on the outdoor stage at The Forks (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

The band and ice stage crew members work on the outdoor stage at The Forks (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Twitter: @NireRabel

Erin Lebar

Erin Lebar
Multimedia producer

Erin Lebar is a multimedia producer who spends most of her time writing music- and culture-related stories for the Arts & Life section. She also co-hosts the Winnipeg Free Press's weekly pop-culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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