For the Boom Booms, joining a band means seeing the world

For the Vancouver-based Boom Booms, travelling the globe is almost as important as making music
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If there’s one thing that comes up repeatedly during a gorgeously sun-soaked lunch with members of the Boom Booms, it’s the importance of seeing the world. This won’t surprise anyone familiar with the East Vancouver sextet’s debut, ¡Hot Rum!, which is packed with feel-good songs that suggest someone’s been crate-digging in the world-music sections of finer record stores.

Even before the first round of umbrella drinks lands on the table of Commercial Drive’s Caribbean-themed Reef, it’s obvious that singer Aaron Ross and bassist Geordie Hart have plenty of wanderlust in their DNA.

Countries that they’ve managed to cross off (both together and separately) during their short time on Earth include, but are hardly limited to, China, Brazil, Cambodia, England, Vietnam, Laos, Panama, Mexico, Cuba, Australia, and, of course, the United States of America.

After graduating from high school on the honour roll, Ross wasn’t interested in applying to university or scouring the classifieds for steady work. Instead, inspired by the ’50s beat-generation classic On the Road, the raspy-voiced frontman was determined to embrace his inner Jack Kerouac.

“What I was getting set to do was go hitchhike,” Ross says. “I was all hopped up on Kerouac and was super into that. So I was like, ‘I’m going to go across the States. I had the knife and the tent and a bit of money.”

That’s right: a knife.

“They talk about a knife in the book,” he says with a laugh. “My grandpa said that I should get a knife. He was like, ‘Truck drivers might try to kill you.’ ”

Hart was also on the road, hopping on a train to Chicago to hang out with members of his family, and then relocating to Montreal, where Ross would change his travel plans and then join him for a year. The temptation is to suggest that the seed of what would become the Boom Booms was planted there, partly because Ross was writing and stockpiling songs. That, however, is oversimplifying things.

“In Montreal we sort of marinated in music for a while—got into songwriting and jamming a bit,” Ross says. “And then, when we were 18 we drove down to Mexico for six months and played in some hostels and jammed some more. We always schemed about making a band.”

Hart jumps in: “But I don’t think we had a sound in our minds until we went down there. We realized that this music we were interested in went really well with a certain geography that we wanted to be a part of.”

The Boom Booms bassist is basically talking countries where flip-flops and shorts are year-round attire, and (fine-dining and funerals aside) shirts are completely optional. A subsequent swing through Cuba would convince Hart and Ross that they were meant to live every day like an endless street party.

“Cuba, especially, really lit it off for us,” Hart reveals. “Cuban music really made us realize that we just needed to do something where we could dance. It inspired a whole lifestyle from that point on.”

“The deep-down joy that people get from music was definitely a seed for this band,” Ross concurs.

Fittingly, then, right from their beginnings as a three-piece playing Commercial Drive cafés with conga player Theo Vincent, Hart and Ross didn’t just sound like they were having a great time, but also looked like it. The fledgling group quickly built a reputation for live shows that weren’t performances so much as sweat-drenched on-stage parties.

“When we started, we compensated for the music with a bunch of dance moves,” Hart explains with a laugh.

“We straight-up did,” Ross continues. “The music was pretty crap, so we had to balance it off with something. And then, eventually, we got good.”

To truly understand where the expanded-to-a-six-piece is coming from on ¡Hot Rum!, one has to take years of experience into account, not all of them spent in exotic locales. Ross and Hart spent good chunks of their teenage years hanging out at the East Van home of local keyboard ace Simon Kendall, whose son Levon is a close friend of both Ross and Hart.

“We’d go over to Si’s place, and he’d be giving us tips on how to play the skank on ‘No Woman, No Cry,’ ” Hart notes with a laugh.

Flash forward a bit and, after returning from Cuba broke, Ross and Hart would put in a couple of summers tree-planting in northern B.C. That would give the two lifelong friends an implicit understanding of what it’s like to be part of a tight-knit and, more importantly, welcoming community. It was there they’d make the connection with future bandmates, jamming at night while bonding over everyone from reggae giant Bob Marley to world-music mashup king Manu Chao.

The sense of joy projected by such world-music legends is splashed all over ¡Hot Rum!, a record that makes you want to cash out of the western rat race, buy a plot of land on the beach somewhere close to the equator, and open up a bar with bamboo stools, a sand floor, and a thatched-grass roof. That’s another way of saying that, when the heavy rains start to descend a month from now, feel free to stave off the inevitable depression by spinning the spliff-tastic reggae jam “Lonely”, which contains such uplifting lines as “My mother she said ‘Son. Go fly with the eagles. Go and chase the moon out of the sky.’ ”

Seconds into the en-español “Vamos” and you’re riding shotgun in a battered ’57 Chevy through the back streets of Havana, while “Rock Slow” serves as a good reminder you really need more vintage Studio One 45s in your diet.

Seemingly as inspired by João Gilberto and Tabu Ley Rochereau as by Sublime and the Buena Vista Social Club, ¡Hot Rum! ultimately sounds nothing like a byproduct of the usually grey Wet Coast.

Capitalizing on that, the Boom Booms—who include guitarist Tom Van Deursen, drummer Richard Brinkman, and cavaquinho player Sean Ross—have been able to spend as much time blending in with the locals abroad than they have performing locally. Since forming, the band has not only done the European circuit—playing Spain, Holland, France, Germany, and England—but has also toured hard down south, including in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.

If you’re listing all-time favourite countries of the group, put the birthplace of bossa nova right at the top. When the Boom Booms took home a $75,000 second-place prize in the 2011 Peak Performance Project, the band’s members didn’t spend the money re-creating scenes from Mötley Crüe’s The Dirt. Instead, they immersed themselves in the culture of Brazil, not just touring the country but actually taking up residence for four months, partying in the big cities while educating themselves about the environmental damage being done in the Amazon.

Extensive footage from that extended stay can be found on the Boom Booms’ website . The plan is to turn a pilot episode into a full-on series.

“The first time we went down to Mexico, we had this idea that we half-hashed out, and put together for a proposal for a grant,” Ross says. “It was for a travel-slash-music show. So when we won the money, we were like, ‘Let’s do the show—a pilot.’ Honestly, it’s our dream to travel around and get paid to learn the culture and the music of a place—And then put it on video so people can check out someplace new. It’s like we’re on a mission from God, Blues Brothers–style. To bring a Latino-African love of music to North America.”

If only by having you fire up the laptop or cue ¡Hot Rum! up on the iPod, Ross and Hart hope to drive home the rewards of exposing yourself to another culture. If you’re thinking about where to go on that next vacation, you could do worse than let the Boom Booms be your guides.

The Boom Booms play a tour-kickoff party at Club 560 on Thursday (September 13), and Sarah McLachlan’s Voices in the Park at Brockton Cricket Fields on Saturday (September 15).

Follow Mike Usinger on the Tweeter at twitter.com/MikeUsinger.

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