Spoon River dips into classic-rock inspiration

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      Well aware that the key to being a good substitute teacher is having the ability to win the kids over early, Tavis Eachan Triance has developed a strategy. If he’s learned anything about walking into a high-school classroom cold, it’s that a little name-dropping will earn you plenty of goodwill.

      “The first thing I do is look for a Priestess shirt,” says Triance, on the line from his East Vancouver home. “Then I go, ”˜Hey—we shared a jam space with them when they were the Dropouts.’ ”

      Give things a year or so, and Triance—who subs as an English teacher in Greater Vancouver—might very well find himself getting the same level of instant respect by mentioning his own band, Spoon River. The group’s debut disc, Kingdom of the Burned, is something of a shocker, mostly because it sounds like the work of seasoned vets who’ve been at it since Dylan was first thinking about going electric.

      That’s no accident. Spoon River may be new on the Vancouver music scene, but Triance is anything but a neophyte when it comes to the music business. For much of last decade, the Western Canada–raised singer-guitarist was based in the indie mecca of Montreal, where he fronted the Royal Mountain Band.

      Had that project got off the ground in the early ’00s, when the Kings of Leon, Drive-By Truckers, and My Morning Jacket were all topping the Hot List in Rolling Stone, the RMB would today share a pedestal with fellow hometown heroes Wolf Parade and Arcade Fire. Instead, the group got together to celebrate the gorgeousness of Americana-tinted ’60 and ’70s rock at a time when Montreal was garnering the world’s attention for its indie underground.

      “The stuff that was really focused on while we were starting was the stuff that was more orchestral, kind of a little bit electro,” Triance says. “You know, the Arcade Fire, the Dears, Stars, the Stills. They all got really big, and there weren’t so many kind of rootsy-oriented bands coming out of Montreal at the time. So we struggled with that a little bit.”

      Still, the Royal Mountain Band didn’t spend its entire time together hoping for a break that never came. The group was tapped to play the role of the Band in the Todd Haynes bio-flick I’m Not There, backing up Cate Blanchett’s Bob Dylan. But what would eventually prove frustrating for Triance and keyboardist Jason Kent (who joined him in Spoon River) was the Royal Mountain Band’s inability to move forward.

      “We couldn’t agree to even take it on the road—there were so many arguments about that,” Triance says. “We had a lot of big personalities in the Royal Mountain Band—people who had a certain amount of exposure through touring as hired guns with big bands through the ’90s. They wanted major label [interest] or nothing, and that’s not reasonable. You kind of have to just get it out there at this point, and work it yourself a lot more than you would have had to in the past.”

      And that’s exactly what Triance and Kent have done with Spoon River, whose Kingdom of the Burned is loaded to the teeth with shimmering Hammond, dust-bowl guitars, and vocals that sound distilled from backwoods moonshine and unvarnished southern rock. From the loose-limbed country rambler “When the Doctor’s Gonna Come” to the roadhouse boogie of “Fool” to the golden-sunset lament “California”, it’s brilliant stuff.

      After briefly performing as a duo post-RMB, Triance and Kent (who also plays with the Dears) hooked up with siblings Seamus (bass) and Jeff Cowan (drums), recording Kingdom of the Burned quickly, working live off the floor in Montreal.

      “I just wanted to put something out, get it out to people,” Triance says. “I was tired of sitting on my songs. That was really a big focus for me. I had lots of material—that’s never really been a problem for me. I just knew from the Royal Mountain Band that it had to come out.”

      Part of his determination to get things rolling might be explained by the fact that, despite playing in a band when he was younger, he only got serious about writing and performing later on in life. Triance notes that his father had a profound impact on who he is as person; for one thing, his dad was an English teacher too. The sudden death of his father, who drowned in Mexico, would indirectly lead him to the sound he’s embraced with Spoon River.

      “I’ve always been a huge music fan, but I was going to school, so I put things on hold,” Triance says. “Then my father passed away and I sort of fell back in the love with the music that he grew up with, and that was always in our home and in our family. Dylan, Neil Young, the Band—a lot of the Band—Tom Petty. I fell back in love with all that around 2001, and that really focused me. I start writing and playing in that vein.”

      For a good idea of how serious Triance is about Spoon River, consider that he currently has two versions of the group on the go. When the band plays in Montreal and Eastern Canada, he’s backed by the Cowans and Kent. On this side of the country, Spoon River includes ace guitarist Jon Wood, drummer Ed Goodine, and Triance’s wife, Rachel Horst, on keys.

      The way the singer sees things, he’s in a great spot today. Because he’s not tied down to a full-time job, he’s free to tour with a vengeance both out West and back East, something that he’s more than up for with both versions of Spoon River.

      “We’re going to try and slowly conquer the whole country,” he says simply.

      With Kingdom of the Burned, he’s got the ammunition for a full-on assault. So here’s a bit of advice for the impressionable high-school students of Greater Vancouver: forget being impressed by one degree of separation from Priestess, because this might very well be your chance to be able to say “I knew Tavis Triance back when”¦”

      Spoon River plays a CD release party at the WISE Hall next Thursday (February 18).