The Straight reaches Bison on the road between Saskatoon and Winnipeg, the band on a Hard Core Logo–style there-and-back-again tour to guitarist-vocalist James Farwell’s old stomping grounds in Manitoba.
“We’ve just passed by the Truck Saver parts and service,” Farwell notes, peering out the van window. “There’s lots of John Deere greens, and there’s a really comfortable overcast. The whole spectrum of grey is represented.”
In short, it looks a bit like the cover for You Are Not the Ocean, You Are the Patient, Bison’s new full-length, with grey-, black-, and silver-hued landscape images based on photos by both Farwell (the front) and new bassist Shane Clark (the back).
The tour—the first Bison has undertaken in two-and-a-half years, Farwell reckons—has not been without setbacks, like a seven-hour detour the band had to take to get to Calgary, when it turned out all the highways were washed out.
“Mother Nature fucked British Columbia hard,” Farwell says happily, adding that, even out in Saskatchewan, “the highway is a piece of garbage, because it’s a Canadian highway that gets extreme cold and extreme heat. Y’know—it’s fuckin’ Canada!”
But Bison has made all the gigs more or less unscathed.
“People love the new stuff, surprisingly,” Farwell reports. “Some of it you need a bit of patience with, but people are patient.”
When I note that the album took a while to grow on me, he replies with “Yeah. This one’s a grower, not a shower.”
In part that’s because of a new approach to writing music, informed by the departure of long-time bassist Masa Anzai—who remains on good terms with the band—and the arrival of 3 Inches of Blood’s Clark. The result is songs that are more bass-driven, an observation Farwell agrees with.
“Stylistically, Shane’s playing is more like a solid, insistent presence. Masa had bass lines that were very intricate, were very written. Masa’s a great bass player, no doubt about it in my mind; Shane is also a great musician, but he’s more of a meat-and-potatoes, ‘rock-solid foundation’ guy. That lent to it being a part of the actual sonic quality. That’s why it’s a little bit more up in the mix. It’s like, ‘This is adding to the heaviness.’ It’s not lending to the ethereal sense of atmosphere, like Masa was. It’s actually adding to the girth of this fucking music!”
“Tantrum”, the longest track on the album, even features Clark overdubbed on himself, bass on bass, during an extended, swirling interlude that also features violin courtesy of Terence O’Shea (Bison drummer Matt Wood’s brother-in-law) and flute, courtesy of Sarah Jane Truman. But don’t come expecting any Ian Anderson flourishes.
“My instruction to her,” Farwell says, “was ‘You can play the flute, that’s great, I don’t care; I don’t care if you do melody or all that shit. Just play it like something is cutting your fucking stomach out of you. Play it scary!’ ”
Other highlights include “Raiigin”—pronounced “Reagan”—which reworks a song from Farwell’s mid-1990s band Idahoan, and touches on his mild obsession with the president who launched a thousand hardcore bands. Then there’s the driving, anthemic “Anti-War”.
“It’s about trying to fit into your life,” Farwell explains, “trying to keep going with sort of pretending you’re able to do it: it’s about love and family and being the standup good person that you’re trying to be, but in the back of your mind you’re thinking, ‘I’m just a fraud!’ ”
That observation obviously has a personal basis: You Are Not the Ocean, You Are the Patient invites listeners deep into the morass of Farwell’s darkness while detailing his struggles to keep his head out of it.
“It’s sort of an ongoing thing,” the Squamish-based musician explains, “where I’m constantly trying to make myself a better person. I’ve met this beautiful woman, I’ve decided that I’m going to have children with her, I decide what’s best for my children is to move out of the fuckin’ just gutting nightmare that is Vancouver, and I move up to this beautiful place where there’s space and fresh air and beauty surrounding me. And it’s slower, and there’s fewer people, and the people that are there, they doff their hats at you and say ‘Good morning’ and whatnot. But there’s still something inside of me that’s just ‘Fuck you, this is garbage, the whole thing is garbage.’ That’s kind of what it means for me, anyway. It’s control, it’s the feeling of you’re helpless. You’re at something else’s mercy, constantly.”
The title of the album comes from that experience. “You see the beautiful vista, and you see what’s happening in your life, but there’s always this uncontrolled brutality.…Like, you’re not in charge. You don’t have anything—you have nothing. You can have your house and your car and your loves and your pets. But you don’t have it. You are not in control.”
Farwell has taken time off from his work with the disenfranchised in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside so he can participate in raising his five-month-old youngest, Charlie; he’s on parental leave, which he likens to “welfare for dads”.
Like Matt Wood and co-guitarist-vocalist Dan And, Farwell has added fatherhood to the list of changes that have rocked his life since 2012—from losing Anzai to being dropped by Bison’s former label, Metal Blade. The band is in a great space for rebuilding, however (and has, after a year of shopping around, been picked up by German label Pelagic Records; Farwell says he’s pretty much done with the U.S. music industry).
Soon enough, however, he’ll be back at work, dealing with the addicted and homeless. (Parental leave runs out in December.)
What’s that like, anyhow, having to drive every day from his beautiful home and family to the devastation of Hastings and Main?
“It just fucks with your head,” he answers. “It’s great! You get a lot of time to think about songwriting.”
Bison plays the Rickshaw Theatre on Friday (June 16).