Some punks come to roots music by a circuitous route, after years on a steady diet of hardcore, spent growling things like “Country music sucks.”
But not Nick “the Fang” Smyth, guitarist and vocalist of Vancouver’s “world-core clusterfolk” champions the Dreadnoughts. He was raised on “Stompin’ Tom Connors and Stan Rogers and the real heroes of Canadian folk music”, he tells the Straight, on a Gmail phone call from Rhode Island, where he is neck-deep in doctoral studies.
“The stuff my parents listened to when I was a kid was really awesome. There was never a time when I thought, ‘I gotta go off and listen to something else now.’ ”
When he heard the Pogues, Smyth “realized you could sort of ‘punk up’ that traditional sound. And ever since then, it’s just been a really long, crazy journey through the genre. You discover new folk styles and think, ‘Man, what could we do with that?’ It’s really liberating. It can help you break out of the standard mode you get stuck in if you play punk rock all the time.”
Early Dreadnoughts albums, like 2007’s Legends Never Die and 2009’s Victory Square, are steeped in Pogues-style Celtic punk.
“But then you realize, as you get older, even a band like the Pogues had a lot more going on than just ‘Let’s drink whisky, fiddle-dee-diddle-dee-dee.’ ”
By the time you get to the Dreadnoughts’ third full-length, 2010’s Polka’s Not Dead, you see a real broadening of their musical spectrum: there is still a Celtic edge, but also generous helpings of eastern European folk, from Roma (“Gypsy”) music to klezmer to, indeed, polka.
“The funny thing is, polka is really just a beat, a one-two beat, as a dance style. So anytime you’re playing punk music, you really are just playing the polka beat; you’re just doing it really fast. So it’s easy to take that style and merge it with punk.”
As for the band’s fondness for what he calls “dorky old-man polka”, “We did a lot of touring in Poland and the Ukraine, and we’d go to old houses where they’d been having dances for hundreds of years. Once you hear that sound, with three or four accordions going, at full speed, with this incredible traditional music, you just can’t help it, you think ‘Man, I gotta get this into punk music somehow.’ ”
The Dreadnoughts’ epic tours of Europe are in part documented in the book This Place Is Awesome, by local photographer Adam PW Smith; it is a funny, caustic, warts and all memoir of a week on the road with the band in 2009, during the U.K. leg of a nonstop three-month tour.
“He sort of wanted to portray the downside of touring,” Smyth recalls, “but he and I had a wonderful drinking day in Newcastle that never made the book. It was one of the most enjoyable days of my life.”
Smyth and Smith argue to this day about his not including stories like that—“but we’re still friends,” Smyth says.
And there are plenty of crazy stories from the road besides those in Smith’s memoir, like the time the band set their mandolin player, Drew “the Dread Pirate Druzil” Sexsmith on fire. “There was a gig in Poland—a pretty big club show—and Polish TV wanted to interview us beforehand. The woman asked us, ‘So what crazy things can we expect of you tonight?’ And I just jokingly said, ‘Oh, we’re gonna light Druzil on fire.’ And we laughed. But she sort of looked at us straightforwardly—‘Good, good, that will be fun,’—and they shut the camera off. And it was live!”
They felt compelled to live up to their promise. “We had to figure out a way how to do it. It was in the middle of the song, we had his leg all wrapped up in newspaper. It was not the safest thing; we didn’t have a way of extinguishing it, we just hoped it would go out. And the crowd went absolutely apeshit.”
Smyth laughs. “Later on, you’re reflecting on it, and—we thought, ‘Man, you shouldn’t light someone on fire just because you said you would.’ ”
As the Dreadnoughts’ 10th anniversary approaches, Smyth and his colleagues (mandolinist Sexsmith, fiddler Tegan “Wormley Wangersnitsh” Ceschi-Smith, accordion player Kyle “Seamus O’Flanahan” Taylor, drummer Marco “the Stupid Swedish bastard” Bieri, and bassist Andrew “Squid Vicious” Hay) are preparing to record a new album, a concept album that will see them broaden their musical spectrum in even more surprising ways.
“We’ve been listening to a lot of Queen, for example, and how they would work four different songs into one song, how they would layer vocals on top of each other and sing about really deep stuff and get really poetic. We kinda thought we would move a bit in that direction. It’s ambitious, because it’s not usually what we’ve done—it’s a little more thoughtful, maybe, than our other stuff, which was mostly about travelling and drinking gin, eating poutine.…But you’ve gotta push the envelope, I guess!”
Meanwhile, Smyth will continue with his studies. He’s pursuing a PhD in philosophy—because, as he puts it, “they’re opening a philosophy factory down the road in Abbotsford, so I’ll have a job as soon as I get home.” For those curious, he’s focusing on Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th-century German philosopher, one of whose preoccupations was Dionysian intoxication in music and the arts.
“He was all about chaos and destruction and creation and all this crazy stuff he wrote. You see a little bit of it, I hope, in the Dreadnoughts’ live show. That’s my intellectual justification for what is really just getting drunk and shouting at people!”
The Dreadnoughts play 10th-anniversary shows at the Rickshaw on Friday and Saturday (March 17 and 18).