The story goes that Bob Dylan accused folksinger and peer Phil Ochs of not being a singer, but "a journalist". He meant it as a term of abuse. It seems anything but, when applied to Vancouver's Jeff Andrew—a fiddler and folkie whose own background includes journalism, which doubtless informs his narratively-driven, socially conscious songwriting. One guesses that Ochs himself (author of "Cops of the World") would get a charge out of Andrew's own anti-cop song, "Professional Asshole", from his 2013 release, Tunnels, Treehouses, and Trainsmoke.
Certainly Todd Serious—the departed singer of punk band the Rebel Spell—was a fan of Jeff Andrew. Along with the Fight United and the Pink Floyd-influenced Drum & Belltower, Andrew was one of a list of musicians Serious would advocate for on the occasions I interviewed him. (My Straight review of the Fight United CD stems directly from Todd walking up to me at Funky's, one night the Rebel Spell was playing, and plunking it into my hand).
Unlike the Fight United, however, Andrew had the privilege of co-authoring a song with Serious, "The Tsilhqot'in War", off the Rebel Spell's final album Last Run (2014). He even got to play it live with them on a few occasions, before Serious' untimely death in a rock climbing accident in March 2015.
It may not be the biggest influence the passionate punk vocalist and activist had on Andrew—who has gone vegan and taken up rock climbing, in honour of his friend—but it's up there.
"It was the first time I'd ever written with somebody else," Andrew tells the Straight in a call from Lillooet, where he's been treeplanting. "I'd never even wanted to, before that, or thought about it much. It seemed strange. I didn't know how to do it."
The writing of the music, Andrew tells, began with a "fiddle riff that had been kicking around—the one the song starts with—and a couple of chords I thought could go underneath it, so they started playing those. We kinda jammed on that for a bit, and then I went off treeplanting and they kept working on it. The next time we got together, they had this whole song written, with all the music and chords and the riffs and everything laid out. They just didn't have any vocals on it. So these are the spots, spaces that they've got for the words..."
Andrew and Serious then exchanged emails for a couple of months, researching the story of an 1864 uprising to stop the building of a disputed road through Tsilhqot'in territory. The verses, sung by Andrew on the record, were mostly written by him, while the chorus was provided by Serious.
Were there ever any areas of disagreement between the two songwriters, in hashing things out?
"I remember the main thing was, the last lines are: 'the T'silhqotin never ceded/ and this fight will never end/ it's a legacy of struggle/ and what it means to stand.' It's the end of the story, after the chiefs are all hanged. They die, but they basically ended up winning, in a sense, in that the road was never built, at that point. The companies gave up on it, probably because the terrain was so difficult and they were bleeding money, but also because they realized it wasn't worth it, trying to punch it through when there was so much hostility, starting wars over it. There's a road there now, but it was a hundred years later, it didn't get put in until the '50s or '60s. So in that sense, they won, and it's one of the things Todd was attracted to about that story. It's one of a few successful examples of indigenous resistance to colonial settling. They won the battle."
But they didn't win the war. "They got just as brutalized and screwed around by colonialism as people everywhere else, so it wasn't a huge rah-rah victory," Andrew says. He wasn't comfortable making the song too much of a celebration, when the struggle continues to this day. Around the time the song was being written, Andrew remembers, "the Tsilh'qotin won title to their land in a Supreme Court decision, which I think is the first time that's ever happened. It was the clearest legal decision on Aboriginal rights to their own land that's ever been put down. We talked about that. We actually finished working on the lyrics the morning of the day that we recorded them. I was working up in Quesnel, treeplanting, and we found a guy who had a recording studio in his basement. His name was Wes, a really nice, interesting dude. So we went in on a day off to record it. Todd and (Rebel Spell guitarist) Erin drove up, I guess from Vancouver. We still hadn't quite finished it, so we sat in a park by the river, with, like, half an hour to spare. 'We've got to nail this down, figure out what we're going to sing.'"
Of course, the song is meant to have an application to proposed pipelines across British Columbia; a hotter issue when the song was written than now. "There's no specific mention of it, but that was definitely in my mind. It looked at the time like there were going to be blockades and people lying down in front of bulldozers. That's the big deal with the Tsilhqot'in getting title to their land, because it sets precedents in the struggle against capitalist industry being brought in against their will, and it gives First Nations people up along the pipeline route way stronger legal challenges against Enbridge and all the pipeline companies. 'You have to recognize us, you have to consult.' It gives them a lot more clout in court."
Andrew admired Serious's commitment to his political causes, but also appreciated his encouragement and support to continue making music. "With the stuff he loved, he talked about it to everyone, and he gave everyone big boosts, helped us book shows, went way out of his way to help people out. When he died, Brent"—that is, Brent Morton, who performs as Drum & Belltower—"was on a two or three week tour of B.C. and Alberta, and Todd had booked the whole thing for him, just because he wanted to help out. After he died, Brent and I both found out just sort of how much Todd was into our music, to the point that he really studied it, he'd listen to the albums all the way through, listen to lyrics—he really dug into it. It was nice to learn that. It was kind of shocking, I knew he liked it but I didn't realize how deep it went."
He's going to miss his friend's support and encouragement. "What I've tried to get out of it is, I've got to try to be that voice for myself," Andrew continues, "to find that kind of strength that he had in myself, and to try and be that for other people as well."
The Todd Serious Memorial shows take place at the WISE Hall on Friday (May 20) and at 1739 Venables Street on Saturday (May 21). Jeff Andrew will be performing "The Tsilhqot'in War," with original Rebel Spell drummer Stepha filling in for Todd's vocal parts, at both venues. Andrew is also slated to do an opening set on May 20 (tix still available.)