In the middle of a freewheeling conversation that covers everything from circa-1900 architecture to the genius of the Clash and The Lost Boys, Ballantynes singer-keyboardist Jarrod O’Dell pauses to make a serious point. What he says goes a long way to explaining the appeal of his band, which has quickly gained a reputation as one of the city’s must-see live acts.
To hear him argue things, the Ballantynes are firm believers that there’s no point stepping on-stage unless you’re willing to aim for all-out mayhem. But what really might be connecting with audiences, O’Dell suggests, is the fact that the seven-piece is working in what might be the least-polarizing genre in pop.
“Everyone fucking loves soul music—there’s just no way around it,” he says matter-of-factly, interviewed at the Straight offices with Ballantynes singer and self-described theatre nerd Vanessa Dandurand. “That’s why it’s in every other commercial. That’s why it’s been used ad nauseam in sitcom previews. I always obsess about this, because the first time I remember hearing really good soul music was when Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper’s theme song in the ’90s was ‘Soul Man’ by Sam & Dave. I remember really loving that song, but not being old enough to be able to contextualize what I liked. It was like, ‘I like this thing, because it bounces like this.’ ”
Just getting warmed up on the subject, he continues excitedly: “Then you had the California Raisins’ Christmas special with all this R&B that I didn’t understand the concept of. Soul has this weird undercurrent in our culture—everyone knows it, and everybody likes it. I swear to God I can find a soul song that any human being likes, from the biggest fucking death-metal grinder on down.”
The Ballantynes, who released their debut EP, Liquor Store Gun Store Pawn Shop Church, this past fall, sprang out of a long-running night devoted to the sound that Stax helped make famous. O’Dell has spent years deejaying at East Van Soul Club, formerly at the Astoria and now running at the Biltmore. Dandurand was a regular.
“Soul Club was something that I kind of stumbled into, and felt a really strong draw towards,” she says. “I think it was probably two-and-a-half years before I missed a Soul Club. I was there every month, part of a regular crowd right from its inception.”
After quitting local vets the Tranzmitors and having his next band, the Parallels, break up, O’Dell found himself looking for a new project. He had a vision for the band, and pretty quickly realized he was going to have no problem finding people to buy into it.
“When the Parallels dissolved, it was the first time in 10 years that I hadn’t been on-stage in any way,” O’Dell says. “I was chomping at the bit enough that, when I started talking to everyone else, we had a real immediate ambition. It was like, ‘Do this now, now, now!’ ”
When the Ballantynes hit the rehearsal space, it was in the form of an old-school soul-obsessed septet. In addition to O’Dell and Dandurand, the band would include bassist Max Sample, guitarist Corey Poluk, vocalist Jennifer Wilks, and dual drummers Michael McDiarmid and Trevor Racz.
The first order of business was honing an attack that draws heavily on gin-still rhythm and blues and 45 rpm single–era soul.
“We took time in terms of how we went about it,” O’Dell says. “We recorded our first single before we even played a show.
“I think we spent almost a year before getting out there—almost a year,” Dandurand continues. “We were working on the formation of the band—the writing and the recording, rather than playing shows.”
But even in the practice space, it was obvious that the Ballantynes were going to be more concerned with making a connection with their live show than hitting every note.
“This is the only band that I’ve ever been in where we’ll be practising on a Wednesday night and all sharing the same mike,” O’Dell notes.
Dandurand adds: “We have a lot of cheerleaders within the band.”
That’s abundantly clear on Liquor Store Gun Store Pawn Shop Church, which—with producer Felix Fung keeping things proudly analogue—sounds like a fevered, gloriously lo-fi love note to the early ’60s. Things get off to a gold-star start with “No Love”, propelled by the inventive drumming of McDiarmid and Racz, with O’Dell sounding like a man raised on the teachings of Otis Redding and James Carr. Dandurand and Wilks take centre stage on the swaggering grrrl-group great “Sickos”, which boasts such lines as “I’m green at the gills/From your liquor-store kisses, honey.”
“Morning” sounds like waking up in a pile of leaves and empty beer cans just outside James Brown’s garage, while “Night Gospel” boasts an organ-shimmered country undercurrent that gives you a good idea what Neko Case might sound like attending Sunday church service in rural Alabama.
Liquor Store Gun Store Pawn Shop Church’s energy captures what tends to translate on-stage for the Ballantynes; no one in the front row at the group’s live show stands there with arms crossed.
“I want a degree of abandon from what people in the audience are giving back, and also how we are engaging with each other,” O’Dell says.
Dandurand chips in: “When you go as crazy as we do on-stage, it’s knowing that, whenever you make that first move, you’re giving permission to people to follow suit. A big thing about Vancouver is that a lot of people don’t want to look foolish. If you can be the first one to start dancing, other people will feel okay doing it.”
Proving, one might argue, that we’ve all got soul in us. It just takes a group of obsessives like the Ballantynes to help get it out.
The Ballantynes play the Arrival Agency’s NYE at the Hotel Vancouver on December 31.