Time For a Riot – A Sit Down With Jubilee Riots

Jubilee Riots (formerly known as Enter the Haggis) made a return trip to Saranac as part of the brewery’s Saranac Thursday Concert Series on July 23. Hailing from the greater Toronto area, Jubilee Riots have made it a tradition to perform at Saranac the Thursday prior to the Great American Irish Festival in nearby Frankfort. While the band wasn’t performing this year’s Irish Fest, its traditional set on the brewery stage attracted many Enter the Haggis/Jubilee Riots faithful.

Jubilee Riots is a band that is constantly working, constantly thinking, always thinking of its fans. The last three albums recorded have all been funded through crowd sourcing. There aren’t many working bands today that can say they’ve been able to produce three straight albums funded exclusively by their fan base. The band’s most recent release, Penny Black, is the first under its new moniker, Jubilee Riots. The first video from this release is an entertaining gospel-like animated take on the song “Trying Times”.

The band began as Enter the Haggis in Toronto in 1996, playing a mix of Celtic and modern rock music. It toured the Celtic festival circuit extensively, building a sizable and loyal fan base along the way. Over the course of seven studio albums, two live albums, a performance on Regis and Kathie Lee and a live DVD filmed for PBS, the band’s sound transitioned to where the Celtic sound was becoming less prominent. The Celtic core was still there but listening to each successive album revealed an evolution to a more mainstream northern roots rock sound. To get a true feel for this transformation, one must listen to the catalog from its beginning to the present release. Doing so reveals a band that has matured in songwriting style and musicianship while still maintaining the feel good presence of the original Haggis sound.

Eventually, a change in the style of music, prompted the band to consider a name change. This was something that didn’t come easily to a band with an already established and enthusiastic fan base. However, as piper/trumpeter Craig Downie, the only original member of the Enter the Haggis, mentioned in the press release announcing the name change, “We toured and recorded as Enter The Haggis for a long time, but that name no longer represents the music that we’re making.”

On Sept. 8, 2014, it became official. Going forward, Enter the Haggis would now be known as Jubilee Riots. The final show as Enter the Haggis occurred at the Westcott Theatre in Syracuse on Oct. 11, 2014. A show that was billed as Exit the Haggis. To celebrate the one year anniversary of that show, the band is returning to the Westcott Theatre in Syracuse for a show on Oct. 9.

Prior to the recent Saranac show, NYSMusic sat down in the 1888 Tavern with lead singer/violinist/man of many hats, Brian Buchanan, bassist/vocalist Mark Abraham and drummer/percussionist Bruce McCarthy to discuss the band’s direction, crowd funding, technology, the writing process, a little hockey and what thought goes into changing a band’s name midstream. Original member Craig Downie and guitarist Trevor Lewington round out the band’s lineup.

NYSM (to Brian):  You’re a Leafs fan, have you seen the news today that they hired Lou Lamoriello as the new GM?

Brian: I hope you’re joking. ARE YOU SERIOUS? WOW! (gives a background on Lamoriello’s background building the New Jersey Devils franchise)

NYSM: He’s got a Utica tie-in as well. He used to be the GM when the Devils had a team here. 

Brian: Wow, what a weird combination of people. You’ve got Brendan Shanahan as President, Babcock as coach and Lamoriello as GM. That’s pretty powerful stuff.

NYSM: Speaking of change, how are you guys doing with the name change? You’re not the first established band to do it. The Who did it. They were The Detours and The High Numbers. The Beatles did it. They were once The Quarrymen. So you’re in good company.

Brian: It’s a challenge. We knew it was gonna be a challenge. We didn’t make the decision because we thought it would be the easiest business decision in the world. But, also our fans have really been supportive and have been behind us. I think some people are still really confused, saying “I’ll call myself a Haggis Head til the day I die,” and that’s absolutely fine with us. So in some ways it was kind of an artistic decision more than anything else and it still feels good and it feels like it was the right decision to make…”

[Interrupted by a fan looking for a selfie with the band, handled very deftly by Brian “Good times. Good times.”]

NYSM: Obviously you have a huge loyal fan base. When you started doing crowd funding for your albums, it took you, what, eleven hours to reach your goal?

Brian: The first one, yeah. This last one was just about as good too. And we raised about the same amount of money. It’s incredible. Over three records, we’ve raised over $150,000 from the fans, financing the records, the promotion of the records.

NYSM: So you’re not beholden to a record company…

Brian: No, and there’s not a lot of bands out there that can say that. The crowd funding thing is getting a lot more mainstream and a lot more popular, but you still need the fan base to step up. And I know lots of bands who are objectively bigger names than we are who can’t get crowd funding campaigns off the ground. Because they just don’t have that kind of personal loyalty.

NYSM: Well you guys kinda did that through the ground roots anyway, traveling around, meeting your fans, engaging them…

Brian: True, every fan we have is one we’ve played for and shaken hands with. It’s definitely  been one fan at a time.

NYSM: You guys are an easy band to like anyway. You’re so cordial to deal with, taking selfies with fans in the middle of interviews…

Brian: We’re Canadian…(laughter)

Bruce: That’s what we’re constantly telling one another too, “Man, you’re a really easy guy.”

NYSM: You guys are all kinda separated now? As far as where you live?

Brian: I live in Philly now. Three of the guys are still in Ontario. From where Trevor lives to where Craig lives is like four hours and then Bruce is kind of in the middle and Mark’s in Maine. We’re definitely spreading out further and further as time goes on.

NYSM: Of course it’s a lot easier now with technology for you to collaborate, as we were saying, with Dropbox and Skype and Google Docs, your Patreon thing…

[Patreon is a crowd funding platform that Brian uses to release music and blogs that he otherwise wouldn’t do within the context of the band, with the eventual hopes of putting together his own traditional fiddle album, covers album or “bizarre and overwrought theatre-pop.”]

Brian: There are so many avenues to generating interest and as a nice by-product, generating income, but even as a band, even though we’re spread out as far as we are, when we were getting ready to put together the last album, we set up a Dropbox account.  Trevor and I or anyone else, could record a demo and stick it in Dropbox and the rest of the guys could open it up and listen to it and add their comments. We did all the lyrics and artwork through Google Docs and people could add their thank yous and change lyrics and do everything through there and keep everything updated. The tools that are available for free now are mind-blowing. You think back twenty years ago, the things that we take for granted now as a band; tools that we use every day that didn’t exist. Things that would have taken a team of people to do. You’d have to lick 20,000 envelopes. Now I can spend 20 minutes writing an email and get the same reach.

Bruce: We have a WiFi hub in the van that we use to broadcast. It broke and we haven’t had it fixed yet so we had to grab one of those tourism books and that was the beginning of us driving around just trying to find a hotel; which is how the band used to do things once upon a time before Priceline and Hotwire and all that. It was a sobering experience.

Brian: The fact that we have internet accessibility in the van, when you’re on the road for twelve hours in the van, it’s not twelve wasted hours. We can actually get a lot of work done. You can be interacting with the fans. We’ll do live streaming conversations with the fans while we’re on the actual road.

NYSM: So when you do record, you said you just kind of drop things into Dropbox. Do you still get together in an actual studio to do the recording or is it mainly all Dropbox then putting it all together?

Brian: Even if we did use that, it would be the roughest of rough demos. Then, for the last couple of records, we got together at Bruce’s house. He’s got a studio in his basement. So we’ll do comprehensive demos there to nail down a playlist and then book a professional studio for a month to finalize everything. It’s a nice luxury to be able to do that. My girlfriend’s band, they’ve been trying to put together an album for over a year, because they all have jobs. They all go to school. So they try to find a weekend here or there where they can get into a studio. We have a nice luxury to be able to do it this way.

NYSM: On to your latest album, Penny Black; it’s kind of fan-based project where you asked fans to submit letters and the best thing about it, again, going back to the technology thing, you kind of reversed things. The submissions had to be hand-written and sent via snail mail in order to be considered.

Brian: Analog!

Mark: It was probably close to 500 letters. I still used technology to scan them in and put them on Google Docs. It was cool because I got to read all of them.

Bruce: It was sort of very convoluted that way we set it up, just to end up scanning  the stuff anyway.

Brian: We did a video and sent out emails telling people to write us letters by hand, which they would mail to us so that we could scan them into Google Docs then use them to write the album. (laughter)

NYSM: So, why mail? Why that way?

Brian: We just liked the idea of seeing people’s stories in their own handwriting.

Bruce: Well it’s also the whole Penny Black idea.

Brian: The Penny Black was the first mass-produced postage stamp, so we just liked the old idea of people taking the time and writing a letter and really thinking about writing a letter and not just instant messenger. Writing it out in your own words and sending it to somebody. I’ve talked to a few people who said they wrote multiple drafts before sending them. When you’re doing it by hand, ya know, that’s a commitment.

Bruce: Some of them were like ten pages long, double-sided, small print…

Brian: Some of them were anonymous, some put their names to them.

NYSM: So when you looked at some of them, could you tell right away who it was writing?

Brian: Oh yeah, sure. Definitely.

Bruce: Some pretty intimate stuff too. A lot of people signed their names. That’s a lot of trust.  We know who these people are.

Brian: These people are bearing their souls and it was pretty heavy at times. They said they’ve never told their story to anybody so it was kind of therapeutic. Then they’ll come up to us after the show and say, “I was the one who wrote such-and-such letter” and you say to them, “I’ve never met you before but I feel like I know a whole lot about you now.”

NYSM: I think that just speaks volumes about how you feel about your fans. You actually kind of put it back on them. It was an album for them.

Brian: Oh yeah, absolutely. That was the whole idea. We meet so many people from so many different walks of life. The best stories are people stories. Everybody you meet has one story you can write a song about. And if they don’t, you can write a song about that.

NYSM: So you had 500 or so letters, do you have enough for another Penny Black in you?

Brian: We could easily write another album. I don’t know if we will but it’s possible.  A lot the songs weren’t inspired by just one letter. There were certain themes that emerged; losing a loved one, meeting the love of your life, some coming-of-age story…

NYSM: The release you guys put out when you announced the name change, I think it was Craig who said, “The name just doesn’t fit what we’re doing now.” Kind of de-categorizing yourself in a way, where you’re not pigeon-holing yourself into being just an Irish-style band. We’re not just doing Irish songs, we’re starting to broaden and become un-categorizable, if that’s a word. Is that an accurate description?

Brian: Yup, definitely. We got to the point where we felt the name Enter the Haggis was a perfectly appropriate and suitable name for about 15-20% of the music that we were playing. And, sort of extension of that was the worry that the name was sort of limiting the audience to about that 15-20% of the people who would like what we do.  The name is a great name for a certain style of music but it puts a picture in people’s heads before they even hear a note of what kind of music it’s going to be.  And you only have so many opportunities to get people’s attention these days.

Ya know, if I hated metal and I heard the  name Cradle of Filth, I would never even put the record on. But maybe years later I’d find out that I was completely wrong about that band and the type of music they were playing. It’s always kind of been in the back of our heads that our name might be limiting our exposure to people who wouldn’t even give us a chance based on the idea that they wouldn’t like it before they even heard it.

You hope that people would be open-minded. We’re competing with so much these days, it’s hard enough to even get people to listen to just thirty seconds of a song and if you’re already having to break through a barrier before you even get to that point, then it’s that much harder.

Bruce:  Also, 80 percent of the band is  different.

NYSM: Right, Craig’s the only original member of Enter the Haggis left, correct?

Bruce:  Right. That original, if you want to call it, that Enter the Haggis sound, we don’t play any of those songs.  Not a single one. It just got to the point where we still play plenty of Enter the Haggis songs and they still make up the majority of our set.  It just got to the point where that first incarnation of the band, Craig was the only remaining member of that and we don’t play any of those songs. I’ve never even heard most of those songs. So it just got to a point where it kind of didn’t make sense. That duality that didn’t kind of meet anywhere in the middle where it was reconcilable.

Brian: We’ve had the luxury of  being able to grow up as a band, learning what kind of band that we want to be and we’ve done it in the public eye. I liken it almost to a child  actor who became really popular  who became known for a certain thing and as they get older and start getting serious, branching out to different things, it’s difficult for them because if you go on YouTube and search their name, all they see is that sit-com, that catch phrase. It’s really hard for them to break away from that and do different things because everybody likens them to that original thing. That’s kind of what a band name is like.

If you go on YouTube and search “Enter the Haggis,” the way YouTube works, the oldest videos are the ones that have been watched the most times and those are what show up at the top of the search. You’ll find videos of ours that are 9-10 years old and that’s not representative of where we are now. We’re not ashamed of our legacy, but we’re definitely competing against it.

Bruce: You know what’s interesting though? Since changing the name and kind of getting a little distance from it, I think we’ve all gotten more interested in the Celtic stuff. More so than we have been in some time. It’s kind of like when you feel you have to do something, it’s an obligation, whereas if you have a choice to do something. You tend to enjoy it more. It’s two very different things. We’re starting to embrace that Celtic element of the past, even a little bit more than we had in the past five years or so.

Brian: Subconsciously, I think we were  feeling the pressure as Enter the Haggis to constantly prove that we weren’t just that type of band. So we were almost pressured to move away from it. Who knows what will come next? Maybe we’ll release a trad album. (laughter)

NYSM:  Do you have new venues you’ve been playing that you like, that maybe are attracting new fans?

Mark: There are a lot of people who have discovered us since the name change that didn’t even know of us before. I don’t think it was so much changing venues though.

Brian: We’ve had more radio play from this record than we’ve had before. We hit number nine on the U.S. Billboard Heat Seekers chart when the album was released, which we’ve never done before. We finally got played on the biggest rock radio station in Canada, which has never happened before. It was in a like a next big thing type of contest, which we could only enter because they didn’t know we’ve been around for fifteen years.

Bruce: I think you said it was “like” a next big thing contest. It was literally called “The Next Big Thing.” (laughter)

Following our interview, Jubilee Riots went on to perform before one of the largest Saranac Thursday crowds of the summer to long-time, dedicated fans as well as those who had never heard them before. By the end of its second set, the band had the Utica crowd dancing along. It was a night much like what was discussed in the interview. Many there had never heard the band in their previous incarnation and were won over. Such is the life of this hard-working Canadian band.

Jubilee Riots are kicking off its fall tour at the Westcott Theatre in Syracuse with a recording release show on Oct. 9. The band is releasing the historic “Exit the Haggis” from last fall’s Westcott show that night as well as performing. Julia Weldon is the opening act.

Jubilee Riots fall tour dates:

10/9/15 – The Westcott Theatre – Syracuse, NY

10/10/15 – The Town Crier – Beacon, NY

11/5/15 – Flower City Station – Rochester, NY

11/6/15 – The Putnam Den – Saratoga Springs, NY

11/13/15 – Infinity Hall – Norfolk, CT

11/14/15 – Higher Ground – South Burlington, VT

11/20/15 – The Strand Theatre – Rockland, ME

11/21/15 – Stone Mountain Arts Center – Brownfield, ME

11/27/15 – World Cafe – The Queen – Wilmington, DE

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