by Mike Wohl:
feature photo by Mary Matheson
(ed. note: Contributor Mike Wohl caught up with Vancouver, BC based The Burying Ground band leaders Devora Laye and Woody Forster to talk about making the crossover from punk to folk, historic inspiration, and political motivation. American Standard Time is proud to Present The Burying Ground, Annie Ford Band, and Michael Wohl live at Conor Byrne May 25th in Seattle)
AST: You and Woody both come from a common punk background. When I first met Woody years ago he was playing in a crust band. How was it that you both came to be playing folk blues & ragtime tunes all the way out in British Columbia, so far from the Delta, having been so deeply immersed in punk culture? Especially when considering how tremendously talented you all are, coming from a punk background where musical ability is perhaps even frowned upon, this is very interesting.
Woody: I have always played in punk bands since i was 13 or 14 years old and it wasn’t until my early 20’s that i started being exposed to some of the old country and blues that i listen to now. A friend showed me Woody Guthrie and i was just blown away by the passion in his politics. I had never really heard that kind of message outside the punk scene and was drawn deeper into it. Some years later I started up a band with some friends of mine playing mandolin and focusing on the blues mostly, and began learning about the old pre-war string bands, and all the music that was played in that era. As time passed i realized that this was really where my heart was musically and left the punk band i had played in for 13 years. Not an easy decision but in hind sight it was the right choice. I started playing finger style guitar almost 5 years ago now when the string band i was playing mandolin in broke up, and just got obsessed with the history and all the different playing styles.
Devora: Growing up, I took classical flute lessons, my dad played guitar and wrote folk songs, still does. My flute teacher first introduced me to the musical saw. I was exposed to lots of different types of folk music. In fact, it was my parents that first took me to a Folk Life Festival when I was a kid. I remember it fondly. I got into punk when I was a young teenager and taught myself drums, some guitar.. lived in punk houses, I traveled.. ya know how it goes! Sitting around camp fires with acoustic instruments singing folk songs was a big thing in my early 20’s! I had a boy friend who played old time music and I guess that’s how I got way more involved with the more traditional side of music.. I also started playing the washboard around that time..
Honestly, I think being a politically conscious person, involved in counter culture, and having a great love for music and community is what led me here.
AST: I find that as I’ve gotten older, a lot of people I grew up with playing punk music have gravitated toward roots and folk oriented music. Why do you think that is? I’ve long thought that the regional variations between punk styles mirrors how folk music develops, as well as its accessibility. Any thoughts on that?
Woody: I guess I never really thought of the regional variations of punk music and folk music as having similar paths. but you might be on to something there. For me it started with the politics of artists like Guthrie and John Prine, and the feeling that the music created for me. I definitely see parallels in the rawness and emotion of both punk and folk music style’s though, for sure.
Devora: Yes to it’s accessibility.
AST: Your most recent record, Country Blues & Rags, is a collection of your interpretations of traditional tunes, and you represent your influences like Blind Blake and Skip James well. I’ve been told that your forthcoming full-length will feature entirely original compositions, and your first record, Big City Blues features a mix of both originals and trad tunes. What can you tell us about the differences in the creative processes when making these three records? Was it a natural progression in which you began writing songs that show your influences, or was there a deliberate decision to move away from interpreting traditional material?
Woody: The first record “Big City Blues” was definitely somewhat of a learning experience, we were very new to starting the band and still trying to figure out our sound, but the record really gave us a drive and focus to start taking our music more seriously. After that recording me and Devora worked really hard on our chops as musicians and I started really wanting to write more original songs and explore the styles we loved to listen to. We ended up learning a whole slew of traditional songs in that time, and were planning on doing an all original album, but weren’t quite ready so decided to record some of those traditional tunes, we felt our sound had experience had changed a bit since the first album and wanted to have something that was more representative of what we were doing now. Country Blues and Rags was recorded in Devora’s living room in Gibsons, BC at the end of 2016 and was finished up real quick, we had already set a recording date for the new year for our full length and that was the album we wanted to put more into as it is going to be all of our own tunes. This new album that we will be releasing in May 2017 will be a record with 11 original songs ranging in styles influenced from the country blues and jazz music we love, but also it has our own take on the styles both musically and lyrically. As for your question on whether we are steering away from traditional songs I would say definitely not, we are constantly learning new ones and adding them to our repertoire but at the same time want to add something of our own voice to the music.
Devora: writing our own tunes is really important to me. Music is a way of sharing stories and connecting with others however, we will definitely continue to carry on the tradition of learning and sharing/passing on old songs and helping to keep them alive!
AST: The bulk of your music is influenced by American music, primarily from the 1920s and 30s. Being not only far away in time, but geographically, from this period, do you find influence from any Canadian musicians, contemporary or from that same period?
Woody: I would say most of my influence has not come from BC or Canada but through the old records i listen to on a daily basis, but saying that there is also some musicians who i know within Canada who i have definently learned a thing or two from aswell as been inspired by. Blue Moon Marquee, based out of Vancouver Island, are a great blues duo who are always a pleasure to see perform, we have played a number of shows with them and I am always blown away by how tight there music is –fantastic musicians with a really cool style. Ryan McNally, who we have played with a lot as well, is based out of the Yukon way up north and is one of my favourite finger style guitar players in Canada. He can play a wide variety of styles and really knows how to make that guitar sing. Another one is Jack Garton who occasionally joins us on trumpet in The Burying Ground, he is such a great performer and is real fun to see live. There is a lot to be learned by his genuine ease in front of a crowd and musicianship.
AST: Do you find audiences in BC and Canada in general to be familiar with a lot of American folk music? Or is part of the fun that you’re presenting something that they haven’t necessarily had a lot of exposure to?
Woody: There is definitely a large group of our audience who are not all that familiar –if at all– with this era of music we lean on. At our shows I try and make a point to explain a little bit about some of the artists we take our influences from. It also give’s me an excuse to ramble on of the history behind it all which i love to keep learning about.
Devora: Yeah, Woody does a great job at introducing some of the artists that we get inspiration/songs from. It’s always nice when someone knows a song or artist we cover..but it doesn’t happen all the time. It can be some of the fun. Many people have never seen a washboard as a percussion instrument, or a musical saw for that matter.
AST: A lot of bands that draw from the same time period have a sort of museum-like quality, like they’re an exhibit — historical re-en-actors, people mostly paying tribute. I don’t see you guys that way. While acknowledging your influences, the music is vibrant, and while rooted in firm tradition, still a living thing. How do you see yourselves in that context?
Woody: I am glad you see our music as a living thing as i hope to be adding to the genre, and not just taking from it. I don’t pigeon-hole my writing or try to write in an old style, it’s just the music that I love and feel passionate about, and am always trying to improve upon. The respect i have for the musicians who paved the way for these style’s runs deep in our music and I am always educating myself about the history of what, and who, created it as I feel that’s as important as playing the music itself.
Devora: We don’t want to pretend to live in a different era. The music of that era is amazing and so incredibly moving but I think it’s important not to glorify that time period. We don’t want to take anything away from the experience of others but rather do our own thing and pay respects to our influences.
AST: In Seattle our arts community is visibly struggling right now as a result of breakneck-speed development, and the skyrocketing cost of living & paying rent. How is Vancouver treating you guys? I know there are a lot of the same problems, and from what I understand, perhaps even to a greater degree. How are artists getting by — are they being forced to leave the city? Are venues generally supportive? Is there any silver lining?
Devora: Rent has gone up everywhere…countless evictions..some of the main mid sized venues in Vancouver have closed down due to rent increases and gentrification..liquor licenses are really uptight. Perhaps because of all of that it seems there are many smaller pubs, breweries, etc. that want to host live music. There are some really hardworking musicians and supporters of live music in the roots and old time communities that have started more regular weekly and monthly gigs.
AST: What’s in store for The Burying Ground after the forthcoming record?
Woody: Like I said earlier, we do have a brand new record that will be released by May of 2017 that I am eager for people to hear, as well as some tours and festivals in the spring and summer.
Devora: We’ll be playing at Folk Life Festival, Vancouver Jazz Festival, and some other more grassroots festivals in BC throughout the summer. We are also just in the process of getting paper work done in order to tour in the USA and plan on touring in Europe next year. Of course, we are also working on songs for the next one!