Canadian stories fuel Real McKenzies' songs
Believe it or not, local Scottish-punk mainstays the Real McKenzies are celebrating their 20th anniversary this year. Given that the Vancouver crew’s reputation for pounding booze is as legendary as its brash, bagpipe-powered bangers, it’s not exactly surprising that frontman Paul McKenzie can’t believe it either. Or maybe it’s just that he can’t remember the bulk of the past two decades. Let’s not forget, the outfit shilled for Kokanee in the ’90s, and it’s no coincidence its first concert LP was called Pissed Tae Th’ Gills.
“Where the fuck have I been?” the singer says on the line from the group’s tour van, which is heading down a stretch of highway en route to an Ottawa-area club. “You see what happens? If you drink half your life away, that’s all you remember. It doesn’t seem like 20 years to me, it seems like maybe about five.”
Despite the hard-partying rep, McKenzie maintains that his band has eased up some from its alcohol-driven days—“Last night I had a James Bond martini, two rusty nails, a rum and Coke and about five beer and I was keeping it together behind the merch booth,” he states gregariously of his newfound moderation. With that in mind, the band is letting the music take centre stage on Westwinds, its recently released seventh studio set. “It’s actually a cryptic reference to the flatulence of this band,” the vocalist jokes of the album title.
While the kilted act is heralded as a progenitor of the Celtic-punk movement, well before the Dropkick Murphys or Flogging Molly came a-callin’, the new disc puts the Canadian portion of its Scottish-Canadian heritage to the forefront. Perhaps, as McKenzie explains, this is why the response to the new material has been great on the group’s current cross-country trek.
“Canadians are realizing that we’ve been international ambassadors for them for 20 years,” he says, before outlining the album’s lyrical ethos. “We like to take Canadian stories and old Scottish stories and put them to music, which is actually quite a challenge: to take a whole story and try to condense it down to the lyrical format.”
McKenzie successfully summarizes the story of our nation’s finest and fastest schooner of all time, the Bluenose, on the Westwinds track of the same name. Atop a seafaring 3/4 time signature, wall-to-wall guitar crunch, and, naturally, the jovial Gaelic wail of the pipes, the singer sounds off on the ship’s racing career up to its dying day, sinking off the Haitian coast with a bunch of bananas onboard.
“Best thing about Canada, in my opinion,” McKenzie recalls of the dime-gracing boat. “In her class, no one was ever faster, even to this day. It was a pleasure for me to write a song about that because I really love sailing and that’s a really, really great history.”
The Real McKenzies keep up the nod to the Great White North on “My Head Is Filled With Music”. The similarly driving anthem is based on the story of Bill Millin, the Canadian-born piper who marched at the front of the charge put on by the British Army’s 1st Special Service Brigade during the D-Day Invasion of Normandy with his instrument proudly pumping. The group’s musical take on the tale adds in some machine-gun guitar shredding and bombs-bursting cymbal shots for good measure.
Notable off-topic numbers on Westwinds include the believe-in-yourself folk shuffler “I Do What I Want”, the pint-raising loser’s waltz “My Luck Is So Bad”, and the raucous, three-chord pop-punk blazer “Secret Song for Mike”. The latter is a tribute to Fat Wreck Chords founder and NOFX leader Fat Mike that has McKenzie wailing “Yakety Sax”-style on a newly acquired bamboo saxophone.
The group brings it back home, however, on an a cappella version of Maritime troubadour Stan Rogers’s signature song “Barrett’s Privateers”. McKenzie is particularly proud of the group’s fine-tuned harmonizing on the cover, which they fearlessly feature on-stage.
“Sometimes the audience is like dogs,” he explains. “If you’re afraid, or if you falter at all, they will eat you alive. So you have to have a lot of balls to just get up there and belt it. You have to let them know that you’re in control of this point in time. A lot of people confuse that with unmitigated arrogance. I suppose there is an element of that, but it’s not meant in a negative way.”
Though it’s been touring around the world on Westwinds since the beginning of the year, and will only be on home turf for a couple of days, it’s prime time for the Real McKenzies to be back in Vancouver. With the controversial, temporary ban on bagpiping buskers now lifted, the band could conceivably play a third set outside of its two-night stand at the Red Room.
“We do our share of busking. Whenever I have the opportunity to do that, I really like it. It’s a really great way to publicize the band, and you get right down to the people,” McKenzie allows of street performing. “Not to mention, it’s a fast way to pick up some beer money.”
The Real McKenzies open for the Reverend Horton Heat at the Red Room next Tuesday and Wednesday (May 15 and 16).