Bison B.C. explores violence, death, and love

    1 of 2 2 of 2

      The press release for Bison B.C.’s fourth studio album, Lovelessness, describes the homegrown metal heavyweights as a “downer foursome” and likens the disc to a “lunatic writing their opus on the bedroom wall with their own shit”. Such language falls far enough from the ecstatic PR–speak one expects that it seems a safe bet someone in Bison wrote it.

      Indeed, in a call to the Straight, James Farwell, the Manitoba-born cofounder of the band, cops to doing exactly that—which is appropriate, because he also wrote every song on the album: “The thing was kinda my baby,” he reports.

      Normally, Bison albums have a few songs by cofounder Dan And. While less prolific than Farwell, he’s penned two of the band’s best-loved tunes, “Wendigo Part 1” and “Fear Cave”, on which he sings and takes lead guitar parts. Although he reassures fans he has “every intention on the next record of stepping it back up again”, he has an explanation for his lack of presence on Lovelessness.

      Interviewed earlier, in a “houseful of women” in Kelowna while planning for his wedding, And reveals: “I had a lot of health issues and stuff I had to deal with. I had to take a step back from the writing and let James take over.”

      The imposing, part-Algonquin guitarist helped arrange songs in the studio, alongside Bison bassist Masa Anzai and new drummer Matt Wood, but songwriting and lead vocal duties fell to Farwell.

      The resulting album is one Farwell describes as “dirtier and more desperate-sounding” than past Bison releases.

      “I wanted it to be raw, I wanted it to be violent, I wanted it to be like vomiting,” he says. “There’s ebbs and flows, and there’s quiet bits, but it still is wretched-sounding, even though a lot of the content—to me, anyway—is emotional and melancholic and personal. It’s about as sappy as I’m going to get—or possibly as I’m allowed to get, given the genre we’re working in.”

      Sappy? There’s definitely a powerfully cathartic element to Lovelessness, with the band’s bloody, dripping hearts hanging off their sleeves, but sappy isn’t one of the adjectives that springs to mind when describing the group’s third release on California’s Metal Blade Records.

      “To me, it’s just melancholic and sappy,” Farwell insists. “No doubt, it’s still violent and heavy and stuff, but it’s coming from a different place. It’s been a tough year. I had a bunch of people die on me. My dog passed away. It’s been rough.”

      Milo, Farwell’s Husky–Great Dane cross, inspired the opening track, “An Old Friend”, and features prominently in the album art; the visceral, red-hued cover is a photograph of the tumour that killed him.

      “It’s violence and death and love all together in one,” Farwell explains. “Milo was the one sort of link I had to all that could possibly be good in this world, because he was the most loving and loyal and gentle being I’d ever been around. He taught me patience and love and all that good stuff. He was a good fuckin’ dude, man, and he was stoic until the end: didn’t show me pain, didn’t show me any suffering. Just a beautiful creature that got taken way too soon for no fuckin’ good reason that I can see.”

      Even Farwell’s day job factors into the songwriting; “Clozapine Dream” is inspired by a powerful anti-psychotic some of his clients are prescribed, as part of his gig as a “budget social worker” on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

      Besides the Farwell-centric nature of Lovelessness, there are other changes from past Bison releases. Original drummer Brad Mackinnon and long-time cover artist Mike Payette are absent; so is Jesse Gander, who recorded the last three Bison albums at the Hive. Instead, the band set out for Chicago, to record with producer Sanford Parker, noted for his work with Yob, Nachtmystium, and Unearthly Trance. The resulting release—out now on CD, with a red vinyl gatefold in the works for War on Music—combines grandiose, heavy-as-fuck sludge metal with rough-hewn, wrathful thrash, often in the same song, as on “Last and First Things”.

      Farwell says it was difficult for the band to come to the decision to work with someone other than Gander.

      “We all agreed that we wanted to go with someone else other than Jesse,” he reveals. “It was difficult to come to that decision, but we were in a rut. Our albums were all sounding the same. They’re great-sounding albums, but they weren’t really translating the urgency that we have with our live set, and we weren’t getting a super-organic sound.”

      Furthermore, the band decided it “needed to leave the comforts of home”, he continues. “We needed to be uncomfortable, we needed to be in a place where that’s why we were there, and that’s all we did. We would wake up and go into the studio for 10 hours, and then go to the floor that we were sleeping on and not have our girlfriends rub our backs or have to pick up a shift at work or any kind of bullshit. It’s different, it’s uncomfortable, and it gives you a different kind of energy.”

      As wretched and melancholy as Lovelessness may be, there’s a fundamental contradiction between the emotional tone of the album and the ultimate effect the music has: because few bands play with the same exuberance and joy in music-making as Bison, the pit at a Bison show is a strangely positive, if not ecstatic, place. Given this, Farwell calling Bison a “downer foursome” seems somewhat unfair.

      “It feels really good fucking bellowing this shit out—and seeing people’s reactions, too, is really good,” Farwell assents. “And when I see people enjoying themselves, that joy is lovely, and I recognize it to a point. But there’s still the matter of where it comes from. If it translates into joy—is that some kind of therapeutic thing, that I take the garbage and I put it out, and it sort of gets turned into this…

      “I don’t know,” he continues. “It’s powerful, but it’s also sort of, like, the last-ditch effort that I have; it’s the only thing I have. And therein lies a bit of a sadness, too.”

      Bison B.C. plays a Lovelessness album-release party at the Rickshaw Theatre on Saturday (December 1).



      St. James Infirmary

      Nov 29, 2012 at 10:14am

      Remember James Farwell's bands in the 90s? When he was a Weezer sweater rocking emo guy?

      Why has everyone gone "bro"?

      Why do all these "new school hipster metal whatever the fuck it's called" all dress the same? What are those keys dangling from the back of the jeans?

      I'll be back soon to post a link to bulk rates for sleeveless jean vests.

      someone elses 2 cents

      Nov 29, 2012 at 12:29pm

      They were called the St. James Infirmary, or Idahoan, or a bunch of other 90s emo bands. Where were you in the local scene from 94-98?

      A. MacInnis

      Nov 29, 2012 at 12:43pm

      Nowhere! I was around in the late 80s and early 90's - lotta shows at the Cruel Elephant and Town Pump - but around '94 I detoured heavily into free jazz and avant-garde music, then from 96 to 2002 I saw almost no live music at all in Vancouver, as I was focused on school and work and living in the 'burbs. Saw a ton of bands in Japan during that time - lived there for three years - but none here. I am totally unsurprised that James might have had an emo period but I want to see photos of these sweaters...


      Nov 30, 2012 at 5:27pm

      I remember St. James Infirmary. Emo wasn't all a dirty word in the 90s. Gravity bands were good and St, James had no skin tight pants or romulan haircuts. They weren't pretentious either. The mid to late 90s Vancouver punk scene was pretty damn bad. I don't know what was worse, the arrival of pop punk or the total kiljoys of the East Van hippy scene and their politics.

      I read your website there Mr. MacInnis, I don't see where someone called James a "poseur" though unless you deleted the offending comment. In fact I don't see "St. James Infirmary" as slagging Farwell either but definately slagging the scene that Bison plays to.

      What's a poseur to a 40 year old man that was in "the scene" back when it meant something. As someone that's known James for almost 20 years I can tell you that even his friends aren't going to call him a nice guy but nobody is going to call him a "poseur" regardless of how much they like his current band.

      It's funny seeing someone post almost your exact same thoughts on a message board though regarding sleeveless jean vests and tattoos and stretched lobes though. It means I'm not alone. Punk is so totally meaningless these days. More of a reason to finally put that shit to bed.

      A. MacInnis

      Nov 30, 2012 at 11:05pm

      I didn't say that anyone called James a poseur, but the first dude commenting here says pretty directly that Bison are proponents of hipster metal, then proceeds to make fun of Dan's wardrobe; and he's surely implying something beyond a mere statement o' the facts in his mention of the Weezer sweaters...!

      Mostly, tho', the term hipster has always annoyed me, and I ran with an excuse to rant about it. I brought up the word "poseur" because it seems to me that people now use the word "hipster" in a very, very similar way, whereas once they did not. It wasn't really supposed to all tie back to Bison, tho'...

      Stretched earlobes either look gross or fucking ridiculous, depending on the ears in question. No real quarrels about tats or jeans or so forth. These indeed do not mean very much, so perhaps we should not make too much of them? I mean, I don't know what the keys sticking out of the back pocket are about, either, but then again, who really cares?

      On the other hand, I'm now totally curious to hear St. James Infirmary, or Idahoan, or whatever. Do recordings exist? There seems to be very, very little online about this band/ these bands...

      A. MacInnis

      Dec 1, 2012 at 1:49am

      Actually, I'm not sure how useful or even coherent my rant about hipsters-dissing-hipsters was. Nevermind. Here are some Bison outtakes - stuff that I just couldn't wedge into the finished piece, with some great live shots of Bison at the Red Gate by Femke van Delft. (Note: Brad was the drummer then - can't afford to squander current photos of the band...!).


      Dec 1, 2012 at 3:50pm

      very obviously a jealous comment from someone in a band that no one likes.