The word honesty comes up a lot when talking with the Harpoonist & the Axe Murderer, which makes sense, considering the genre Shawn Hall and Matt Rogers have chosen to work in.
So, fittingly, the two answer all questions openly when tracked down to discuss their excellent new album, Apocalipstick. Hall (the harmonica-wielding Harpoonist) and Rogers (the guitar-slinging Axe Murderer) hold forth on everything from being white Canadians riffing on black American blues to the years it’s taken them to build a following in their hometown of Vancouver.
The bandmates are equally generous when pressed for details about their personal lives. Bring up the fact that Apocalipstick contains more than one reference to liquor, sin, and scarily black days, and Hall makes no attempt to take the Fifth.
“I’m the more unpredictable of the two of us, it’s safe to say—the one with the larger appetite for, um, things,” the singer and harp player admits, on the line from a northern Ontario tour stop. “At different points, that’s taken me down some pretty deep walks in the woods. I’m thankfully not in the woods anymore, but I was for years and years. The drunkard’s laments on the record—none of that’s fabricated, man.”
Ask Rogers about the various references to salvation that pop up on Apocalipstick, and you’ll discover that he has a complicated relationship with religion.
“I was raised in North Van on a cul-de-sac with a pretty happy childhood—nothing too bluesy about it,” says the guitarist, who adds that his folks have been wonderfully supportive of his musical career. “The most notable thing was that, when I was about eight years old, my parents split up for a while, but got back together by finding Jesus together. It was a strange shift—like, all of a sudden I wasn’t allowed to play with G.I. Joe toys and we were going to church all the time, which I absolutely hated. When I got into teenagehood, I think it was a funny thing for my dad, because he’s a musician and definitely the one that got me into music—I was inspired by seeing him play and by going through his record collection.
“There was a lot of stuff that he threw out because he deemed it too secular,” Rogers continues, “so that was kind of a bummer. It was funny, because he was really excited to show us things like Led Zeppelin beats on the drums, but at the same time would be like, ‘But don’t listen to their lyrics—they’re talking about drugs and sex.’ ”
Since coming together in 2007, Hall and Rogers have positioned themselves among the city’s finest purveyors of grittily authentic blues—the kind of stuff you want blaring in a grimly retro strip club. The Vancouver-spawned duo has specialized in a raw, bourbon-scorched take on the genre. Think R.L. Burnside, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Jack White back when Meg White was still behind the drum kit.
On Apocalipstick the Harpoonist & the Axe Murderer also pull off the admirable trick of bringing something new to a famously tradition-bound genre. So, as much as Hall and Rogers sound like they’re happy drinking moonshine out of Mason jars on “Save Me From Another Day”, a lot of the album shoots for something more opulent, whether it’s the Vegas-revue backing vocals on “I’m Back” or the moonlit Muscle Shoals keys on “Running”.
But even if the Harpoonist & the Axe Murderer have mixed things up, in one way the song remains the same. “When we started doing this, the idea was ‘Let’s keep it simple,’ ” Rogers remembers. “At that point it was actually much more of an acoustic thing. It was meant to be fun and about the really early blues, which was what grabbed me. The rawness of that stuff was what drew me in—it was about the songs and not so much about flashy playing. Since then, we’ve tried to keep things as honest as possible. So even when it kinda got louder with more electric guitars, it still really felt honest to me. And now it really feels like we’re playing the music we were meant to play.”
Apocalipstick has moments that the ghost of Robert Johnson might approve of—check out the Mississippi-moonshine shack-burner “Pretty Please”. But mostly the record has Hall and Rogers writing their own playbook, helped out by a support cast that includes drummer John Raham, keyboardist Geoff Hilhorst (the Deep Dark Woods), and vocalists Dawn Pemberton, Alexa Dirks, and Ben Rogers.
“Promises, Promises” is laced with Stax-brand horns and ’70s-porn keyboards, while the classic country of “Treat Me Kind” is built around tequila-sunrise acoustic guitars. “Forever Fool” finds the missing link between Exile-era Stones and ’80s-vintage Phil Collins, while the psych-king workout “Fragile” is prog rock layered with freakily disembodied vocals and what may or may not be regal harpsichord.
“This is an outside-the-box album,” Hall admits. “I think we were going for, like, this thing of like, ‘Keep the rhythm section as off-the-floor as we can.’ But in terms of production and stuff it definitely leaves the world of blues. We didn’t care about the blues and how strict it is, except for one’s love of tube mikes, tube preamps, tube compressors, ribbon mikes, and all that super-nerdy, lo-fi stuff.”
Right from the very beginning days of the Harpoonist & the Axe Murderer, Hall and Rogers understood that—nerdy or not—they were two Canadian boys playing a traditionally black form of music.
“We used to look like fucking Mormons,” Hall remembers. “We wore white shirts with short sleeves, buttoned down, with vests and ties. But I guess we also had jeans, so I guess we weren’t total Mormons. We thought it was kind of cool for the first couple of years. Also, it made it easy for us to find each other. The blues world is very conservative, and the dress code was too much for us to completely buy into. But at least we made an attempt.”
The two met at the turn of the century. The son of a professor dad and an ESL–teacher mom, the Ontario-raised Hall moved to the West Coast in 2001.
“I was working for CityTV, MuchMusic, and all that stuff behind the scenes,” he says. “But TV scared the pants off of me—I was working in news and was too young and fragile. I’m a very sensitive person, so I wasn’t the right fit for a news job.”
Getting his walking papers came as a relief, as it enabled him to concentrate on music. He enrolled in Vancouver’s Columbia Academy for sound engineering, and while writing a radio jingle for a restaurant called Jamaican Pizza Jerk in 2002, he found himself in need of a guitarist.
A Columbia classmate arranged for him to meet Rogers.
“I hired him for free to play the guitar while two white dudes sang the jingle for a Jamaican restaurant,” Hall says with a laugh.
Rogers was a shit-hot guitarist who’d been around music his entire life. He’s the son of a daycare-operating mom and a dad who played steadily in cover bands back in the ’70s, a time when performing other people’s hits in bars was big business.
“He had a lot of brushes with potential success,” Rogers says of his father. “Like, Bryan Adams auditioned for his band when Bryan Adams was 17.”
Rogers’s dad switched gears after the future Axe Murderer was born, taking a job with Canadian Airlines. With his mom and grandmother both classical pianists, piano was Rogers’s first instrument. By the time he was 11, Rogers—a talented producer today—was making recordings around the house. He remembers cutting DIY rap tracks with his then six-year-old brother Ben, who today makes killer country-blues records, including 2015’s The Bloodred Yonder, under his own name.
Rogers began playing guitar seriously at 13. His dad turned his son on to the blues at an early age by taking him to shows by the likes of the legendary B.B. King.
Fastforward a few years after the Jamaican-pizza-jingle experience, and Rogers was living in Montreal, where he caught a show by fingerpicking blues guitarists Ken Hamm and Michael Jerome Brown that changed his life.
“I got out a technique book and picked it all up pretty quickly,” he says. “Then one day I got the idea for the band and phoned up Shawn. I was like, ‘Let’s do something that’s just the two of us, something where we’ll keep it simple and it will be easy to rehearse and it’ll be fun.’ Our very first record [The Blues Can Kill] was something I made in my kitchen in Montreal. I sent Shawn all the files and he recorded his vocals over the top of them.”
That was a decade ago. Since then, the Harpoonist & the Axe Murderer have moved from opening slots in small Vancouver clubs to headlining the fabled Commodore Ballroom. There have been invitations from festivals across the country, largely because of a blistering live show where Hall and Rogers give ’er on harp and guitar while triggering big-boom percussion with their feet.
And along the way there have been changes, and not just the ditching of the Mormon-chic clothes.
Follow-up releases to The Blues Can Kill—including 2012’s Checkered Past and 2014’s A Real Fine Mess—saw the Harpoonist & the Axe Murderer morph into something transcending their acoustic beginnings. That’s led to Juno nominations, soundtrack placements in movies and TV shows, and, most of all, steady touring—which has taken a toll, considering both Hall and Rogers now have kids.
Perhaps tellingly, the album’s penultimate number, the dust-bowl downer “Situate Yourself”, has Hall ruminating “You’re shaking with doubt/Throw your arms in the air/Put your shit on a shelf and just figure it out.”
Asked if that song is a tip-off that, after the release of A Real Fine Mess, he and Rogers found themselves taking stock of their lives, Hall responds: “Yeah, no one sat down at the fucking piano to write that. It was just something that popped into my head, and it was enough of a statement that we threw it on the record. It was very much in the tradition of a blues lament. I’ve had lots of times where I’ve had that narrow feeling of hopelessness where I’m spinning my wheels.”
But tough out the hard times, and sometimes there’s redemption.
“We’re really lucky—so, so lucky—to be doing what we’re doing and have it be a career,” Rogers offers. “It feels like we’ve been given this golden ticket to do this, and that if we didn’t take advantage of it, it would just be stupid of us and we’d regret it.”
And if the idea of a couple of white guys putting a boundary-pushing spin on old blues is working, there’s a good reason for that.
“We’re very honest with what fits and what doesn’t,” Hall says. “Remember when I was telling you about how we looked like Mormons back in the olden days? That was because we didn’t feel authentic and genuine doing, I don’t want to call it a shtick, but instead the blues tradition of the suits and all that kind of stuff. We also knew early on that I wasn’t going to be doing Howlin’ Wolf, and that I wasn’t going to try and sing like him. We know what genuinely feels like it’s ours, and we don’t try and do stuff that isn’t. What it comes down to is that you’ve got to try on a lot of pants.”
Apocalipstick is out Friday (March 24).