A 1979 Winnebago land yacht looms large in Washboard Union’s band mythology. The Vancouver-based outlaw-country act has posed for press photos on its roof, for example; the band also shot a video for its cover of Alton Delmore’s country classic “Midnight Train” in its comfy interior. And when the Georgia Straight catches up with members David Roberts and Chris Duncombe, they’re taking their boxy gas-guzzler north on the Sea-to-Sky Highway, destination unknown.
Or at least not quite nailed down. “We might go up the Squamish River and just park by the water,” says Roberts, the singer, songwriter, and washboard player whose instrument gives his band its name. He, banjo picker Duncombe, and guitarist Aaron Grain—who is also Duncombe’s stepbrother—are having a little adventure, but their wanderings have a purpose: they’re looking for a quiet spot where they can work on new material for Washboard Union’s sophomore full-length. The sessions start this fall, and at the helm for the second time will be an unlikely collaborator: producer GGGarth Richardson, the man behind chart-topping efforts from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against the Machine, and Nickelback.
Why would the renowned rocker want to work with Washboard Union’s seven urban hillbillies? (Apart, that is, from a possible connection through CFOX, where Duncombe is program director.)
“I asked him the exact some question,” Roberts says. “‘GGGarth, what got you interested in us?’ And he said we made him smile. He said ‘You guys just felt good.’”
Richardson’s not the only technological wizard who contributed to Washboard Union’s self-titled debut. Based on his younger colleague’s enthusiasm, industry legend Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd, Kiss, Peter Gabriel) lent his production talents to standout track “Half Cree”, in the process giving the fledgling band some occasionally painful advice.
“We were in the studio with him, and he was talking to Chris about one of the songs we were playing,” says Roberts, to the sound of laughing from elsewhere in the RV. “He said ‘You know what’s wrong with this song, Chris?’ And Chris thought about it and said ‘No, not really.’ And Bob said ‘You. You are the problem with this song.” It was pretty funny.”
Ezrin and Richardson did more than identify problems, however. They also proposed workable solutions, in the process giving The Washboard Union a remarkably punchy sound without compromising any of the band’s campfire-friendly intimacy.
“Working around that kind of professionalism was eye-opening,” says Roberts. “There’s no ego involved when you’re working with those guys.…They basically tear you down and build you back up again, which is an amazing experience to go through.”
No wonder the band doesn’t want to change its production team when it comes to the new record. Some other aspects of the Washboard Union will be transformed, however, most notably the way it writes songs. While Roberts, Duncombe, and Grain all contributed individually penned tunes to the debut, the next disc will feature a more collaborative approach—as suggested by the three tunesmiths’ weekend retreat.
“How it started is that each singer would come in with a completely finished song, or part of a song, and then the band would pick up on it if they liked the song,” says Roberts. “Right now, we’re doing a lot more writing together, which is really enjoyable. It’s really just about sharing ideas.”
“Our styles have really merged,” adds Duncombe. “Before, I think Aaron and I were both mainly storytellers. It’s been the storytelling song that I’ve identified most with and that has been the most important part of my listening—as a fan, I mean. I’m a huge Townes Van Zandt, Buck Owens, and Marty Robbins fan; those are some of the earliest records I remember listening to. David is a little more abstract, though. David is a real image-based writer, which I find totally different to what we do. He has a really cool sense of how to turn a phrase and have it really mean something. We’ve all got our unique tinges.”
The banjo player adds that the new record might not be quite as bouncy as its predecessor. Despite its tales of love gone wrong and ill-fated outlaws—not to mention bassist Scott Paulley’s “Three Day Road”, inspired by the haunted Joseph Boyden novel of the same name—The Washboard Union was a decidedly sunny affair.
In contrast, says Duncombe, “there’s a solemnness to the new material. There’s probably 15 songs written right now that’ll end up becoming nine on the record, and although there’s hope in some of the songs, there’s also a lot of regret, a lot of loneliness... There’s a lot of everything. But already it feels like it’s twangier, it’s darker, and it’s more soulful than the first record.”
“Again, they’re very story-based songs, told from a first-person point of view,” Roberts says. “So it’s about personal experience. One song, ‘Too Far Gone’, is definitely about that experience of crossing a line and not being able to make it back. Everything’s changed after you cross that line, and you’ll never, ever get back to what’s gone.”
One way to interpret that theme is that the members of Washboard Union, bolstered by their enthusiastically received debut, have decided to become musicians for life.
“Yeah, I think we have,” says Roberts. “Although we always have been, really, ’cause we’d be doing this no matter what.”