Breakmen break rules of traditional bluegrass

An auspicious meeting with Yukon musician Bob Hamilton five years ago has pulled roots group the Breakmen up to Whitehorse. Archie Pateman, lead vocalist for the quartet, travelled to Atlin a few years ago to play the summer music festival with an earlier band of his, the Boot Screefers.

An auspicious meeting with Yukon musician Bob Hamilton five years ago has pulled roots group the Breakmen up to Whitehorse.

Archie Pateman, lead vocalist for the quartet, travelled to Atlin a few years ago to play the summer music festival with an earlier band of his, the Boot Screefers.

Pateman had long been a fan of Hamilton, admiring his work in the Undertaking Daddies. But he’d never actually met him.

Then, just as Pateman and his band took to the stage in Atlin, he saw Hamilton pull up on his Harley.

“Archie was preparing to sing a song called Isabel and he saw Bob and refused to do it because Bob was in the audience,” said Matthew Lawson, who plays upright bass for the Breakmen.

After the show, Pateman ended up meeting Hamilton.

“Bob was really gracious and said, ‘On your way back to town, why don’t you stop by,’” said Lawson.

And Pateman did, kicking off a friendship that has lasted since then.

The rest of the Breakmen eventually hooked up with Hamilton during a yearly bluegrass festival in Sorrento, BC. Hamilton was teaching a workshop.

“We’ve always clicked well with Bob and had fun, going back to the (festival) bus, having a whiskey and shooting the shit,” said Lawson.

“And we’ve always aspired to his style of music and professionalism.”

Now, Hamilton has invited them back into his home.

Last week members of the Breakmen arrived in Whitehorse to start recording at Hamilton’s Old Crow Recording studio.

It’s the first time the band has travelled to the Yukon together.

The four musicians are working on their third album since they started playing together in 2005.

Their first two albums, When You Leave Town and The Breakmen, feature rolling banjo picking, booming upright bass, mandolin and harmonized vocals that stray from traditional bluegrass songs.

The energy and enthusiasm of their shows has led people to compare them to bluegrass giants, Old Crow Medicine Show.

“I think it’s the younger energy and the string band thing we have going,” said Lawson explaining that musically, the band doesn’t mirror the sound of Old Crow Medicine Show.

For their third album, the band is trying to move even farther away from traditional bluegrass and roots and cross their music with other genres.

It will have more of an edge because of the new elements we’re adding, said Lawson.

That includes adding drumbeats to each of their songs, when with their earlier work, drums were only an afterthought.

“The result is a sound that’s really up front, rhythmic and driving,” said Lawson comparing the recent recording to “roots soup.”

The band is hoping the extra blend of music on this record will make the Breakmen more appealing to a general audience.

Not that Canada’s bluegrass scene is struggling to attract listeners, it’s actually bigger than it’s ever been, said Lawson.

The motivation to make its sound more accessible is more about the band wanting to branch out creatively than thinking the bluegrass genre is dying off, he said.

“When you’re not restricting your songwriting and song structure to a traditional (bluegrass sound) you can do so much more with it.”

The geographical distance between band members has also forced the musicians to be more creative.

A year and a half ago members of the band scattered from Vancouver to different towns in Canada and the US with Lawson living as far away as Ontario.

But the distance hasn’t been an issue for them, said Lawson.

“It creates an interesting dynamic,” he said.

Good musicians should be practising on their own anyhow, he said. So when one of the members of the band has an idea, they write the music for it, throw down some bass, guitar and vocals and send it to other people in the band and ask what they think.

“That’s the power of e-mail and modern technology,” he said.

When the band showed up in Whitehorse last week, the musicians had a sense of what they were going to play but didn’t have their record completely mapped out.

“It’s been an experimental process and it’s been pretty exciting like that,” said Lawson.

“When you record that way something happens that isn’t rehearsed and it’s, well, magic.”

The Breakmen play the Old Fire Hall Saturday night at 7:30 p.m.

Contact Vivian Belik at vivianb@yukon-news.com

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