The Burt Neilson Band Is Back, Looking Forward
The Burt Neilson Band has simply seen it all. They have toured from Vancouver to Halifax an astounding thirteen times, made steady inroads throughout the Northeastern United States in the 1990s, battled through several band member changes, fan outrage and even a year long hiatus, all while growing into one of Canada's most interesting musical cult acts. Beginning in late 1995 at Lakehead University in frosty Thunder Bay, Ontario, the Burt Neilson Band, which was originally a septet, began touring after leaving school to make the band their full time job. Their unrelentless touring schedule throughout the latter half of the 90s spawned two impressive studio releases, one live album, and the birth of a brand new improvisational scene in Canada, one that was built on the backs of the young septet.
Unfortunately, the financial and emotional burdens of living in a van for half a decade began to creep in around 2002, and the band unanimously decided to declare an open-ended hiatus, shortly after percussionist Jeffery Kornblum departed the band to pursue other endeavors. With their fanbase sour over Kornblum's controversial departure and the band utterly exhausted from the years of touring, April 2002 saw them embark on a final farewell tour throughout Ontario, before the four remaining band members packed up and moved away from the band, for an undetermined period of time.
The hiatus lasted a year.
In January 2003, the Burt Neilson Band returned with a newer, more mature and more refined sound. After half a decade of virtual mainstream ignorance amidst their underground cult acclaim, the quartet emerged anew with a whole slew of songs that were slick, short, marketable and most importantly, noticeably different from their older sound. By spoon feeding their fans a hefty helping of funk, jazz, and improvisational experimentation throughout their history; the newer, alt-country influenced rock signaled the end of an era, amidst the beginning of another.
Since the return, the band released By The Door, a seven-track, thirty-two minute EP that has served as a timepiece of their aforementioned change. The record is dominated by the band's songwriting rather than their improvisational prowess, which differentiates the record from their older, more experimental studio efforts. Still, the result is a concise, polished and heartfelt set of songs, which verbally and musically explore the band's change, both as individuals and as a band.
Over the past few weeks, I sat down with keyboardist and vocalist Jeff Heisholt to discuss his thoughts on the band's change, how to accept and learn from their past, and what to look forward next from the Burt Neilson Band.
Shain Shapiro: When you took a break from performing live and resorted to re-working material privately, was there any expectation on how you thought others would want you to sound, or was the change a somewhat unconscious decision?
Jeff Heisholt: I think one of the things that gave us a new found interest in BNB was the fact that we decided we would not conform to what others might have wanted us to. Our sound is basically whatever comes out, reflective of course on the music we listen to and the events of our lives. In the earlier days we might have been afraid to write the kind of stuff we really wanted to. I can sit down and write a funk song, but that might not be what is actually inside me trying to get out. It might have been 5 years ago though. I think as the years went by we began to realize we did not have to write songs that followed the path we had already set. We could expand and grow and start to be a bit more honest and play the music that is actually us. I do not think we had a defining point where we changed. Our music can change drastically from one song we write to the next, but I think it was just the natural progression and evolution of the band. In all honesty, I would be worried if we were writing the same songs we were 4 years ago.
SS: Is the tighter, more composed and emotional Burt Neilson a break from the past, or just a reworking of your ideals and experiences over the past eight years?
JH: The way things are going these days is just where we have wound up musically. After playing together for nine years (we first jammed in 1995), it has taken time for things to fall into place. I am not sure we were capable of sounding the way we do now back then. Even if we had just met last year, we could not sound the way we do today. It is taken all those years of good times and hardships to give us our sound.
SS: Explain the decision to only release a 32 minute EP style album? (2004s By The Door). Why did you approach the release in that way?
JH: We began the recording and planning of the CD back in July 2003. We recorded the bed tracks for the songs we had that we wanted to release and decided we would add the new ones at another session later on. When we got to working on the tracks we had, releasing them just seemed like the natural thing to do. That collection of songs felt to us like it had an overall feeling to it that none of out previous studio CDs have had. We had always wanted to release a recording that was not just a collection of songs, but one unit that had its own vibe. When we considered adding more tracks to what we already had, we felt it might have broken up the consistency of what we had. Plus, now we can get to work on the fifth album all the more sooner.
SS: Now that you look back on it, what are your feelings towards the hiatus you took? Was it the right decision? Did it help you formalize and re-define your future within BNB and through your other projects?
JH: Definitely. We needed a break. A real break. We could have taken time off but I am sure offers would have come in that we would not have been able to turn down, thus not giving us the break we needed. So we broke up. And we did not plan on getting back together. We did do the two shows after the break up (both Festival dates), but we had no long term plans. Then I went and worked for five months in the Caribbean playing keys on a cruise ship. That gave us that forced time we were looking for (although we might not have realized it at the time). While we were apart, we had the chance to grow up a bit. We all quit university and went straight to heavy touring back in the mid 90s, so when we ended BNB, we were all a little puzzled as to what to do. We all settled into Toronto and got a good footing and something we needed, stability. Still, you do not realize what a good thing is until it is gone, so we were lucky enough to be able to bring it back. We all agreed that since we were all still talking to each other, we might as well be playing together too. Without the break I think we would have crashed pretty hard – but now we are recharged and ready to go at it again; the right way this time I might add, without killing ourselves!
SS: How has the response been from the fans and press towards By The Door?
JH: We have been getting great response towards the CD. People seem to like it. And the press has seemed to be able to latch onto it a bit better than our past efforts so far. We are all real pleased with the feedback we have gotten.
SS: I know you wrote ‘In the Belly’. The song describes the past and the band’s laborious traveling throughout the years. I was wondering if that song grew out of resentment towards the road or more of an ode to you past and how the road has shaped you as a musician and human being?
JH: Ah… In the Belly'. That song is really about Canmore, Alberta and the time I spent living out there. It is about being there, leaving, coming back, and then finally moving back East. I mention a lot of places in that song – Canmore, Vancouver Isle, the rooms above the bar, and the mountains in the morning sun… So to sing that song for the first time and actually be in those places was amazing. I cannot even describe it. That was probably the best time of my life. And every time I sing that song it gives me shivers.
SS: If and when will there be American touring plans? Is that an important next step for you guys?
JH: We always joke that there is as many places to play in New York State as there is in Canada. And actually, that is no joke. Having criss-crossed the country thirteen times and driven about 500,000 kms doing that, we realized a while back that Canada unfortunately has its limits. So yes, the USA is definitely in our future. It is going to take a lot of time, effort and patience to get things started up, but they have got a whole lot of places to play down there, and that is pretty much all we want to do anyway. Having just got back from a great full Canadian tour, all we want to do is play more shows, but there just are not the venues and cities in Canada to make that happen without overplaying.
SS: Yeah, how was the month long tour? I know that was the first time the band has traveled out to the west coast in a few years, so how was the response out there? Has Burt Neilson still retained its ‘cult’ like following out west?
JH: The tour was fantastic. Although we have been going to the Maritime provinces over the last few years, it never lasts more than a week, so being out on the road for a month was wild. I love playing multiple days in a row. I feel as a player and as a part of a group that we jump up a level in our playing when traveling. So to get 18 shows in that short a time was great. We were not sure if western Canada would remember us when we were headed out there, but indeed they did. We had a bunch of sellout shows in our favourite cities and had a lot of people glad to see us. It has interesting to see the crowds change after the two and a half years and especially after the six years that we have been going out West. There are now 2nd and 3rd generation fans, meaning people who tell us their older brother or sister said they should check us out as well as folks who had been out there for years and had only heard our CDs and stories of late night debauchery. But still the only way our name has been spread is basically by that type of word of mouth.
SS: Finally, as you continue to tour more, will the band continue its individual side projects, as I know that has become a big part of each member’s life when you guys were taking a break.
JH: Yeah. We will all still keep up our side projects. It is healthy for us to be able to express all our musical tastes, or do things we might not do with BNB. The more musical outlets we can have, the better. But Burt Neilson is back to number one with us.