By Kelly Dearmore
(LSM Jan/Feb 2013/vol. 6 – Issue 1)
Earlier this year, as the Departed put the finishing touches on their second album, Cody Canada told LoneStarMusic that he was certain “that a lot of people want to hear what we have to say.” And with the November release of the band’s hard-rocking and soulful Adventus, it’s quite clear that Canada, Seth James, Jeremy Plato, Steve Littleton, and Chris Doege have a lot to say. The record is a forceful, triple-vocalist assault that switches sonic and thematic gears with an agility and confidence only a group of men with true conviction — and many miles on the road under their collective belts — can accomplish. Although Adventus might be the Departed’s first album of their own material (following their all-covers debut, This Is Indian Land), this is by no means a new band. But it is, as Canada adamantly insists, a brand new beginning and a clean break from the past. While it remains to be seen if fans of Canada and Plato’s old band, Cross Canadian Ragweed, will follow the Departed into the future, Canada makes it clear in no uncertain terms in his lyrics to the new album’s “Cold Hard Fact” that he’s not looking back: “It’s a cold hard fact/It won’t be comin’ back/Rolled its last credit/played the last act/That’s a cold hard fact.”
Here’s further proof that the Departed is now very much a band with its own identity: Although Canada and Plato both take turns singing on the new album — just as they did back in the Ragweed days — the man responsible for many of Adventus’ hottest licks and most soulful vocals is James. The soft-spoken (offstage, at least!) Texan had an impressive resume of his own going into the Departed’s forming two years ago, having forged a long-running solo career and even shared many a gig with Ragweed back in the day, but for many fans both inside and beyond the Texas/Red Dirt music scene, his star turns in the Departed’s spotlight will likely be a real revelation.
We caught up with both Canada and James on Election Day, the week before Adventus’ official release. Naturally, we talked a little politics — or tried, to at least — along with their take on their new album, touring, Nashville, the state of the Texas/Red Dirt music community and the freedom that comes from having no one to answer to creatively but one’s own muse.
It’s Election Day across the country. Any thoughts on the significance that such a day carries?
Canada: This might make a few people mad, but I really don’t get involved. I’ve seen too many people argue over politics and I’ve seen too many friendships lost over arguing about politics. I feel like we are free to either vote for who we choose, or choose not to vote at all. I do understand each side of the argument. Once upon a time, I was going to vote for a specific candidate and I didn’t and I’m glad that I didn’t because it didn’t work out very well for the country. As for today specifically, I did a few things around the 36D office, and because it’s Guy Clark’s birthday, I listened to some of his music and I just let everyone else vote. I got into an argument a long time ago with a close friend of mine in Stillwater where it almost turned into a fistfight because he was so mad that I hadn’t voted that day. It’s my choice and we’re all free to make that choice. If you want to do it, then do it, if you don’t want to, then don’t.
“Flagpole” and “Cold Hard Fact” seem like they could be political songs, given the defiant nature that’s clear in each tune.
Canada: Actually, the thought for “Flagpole” started by my being annoyed by a song I had just heard on the radio one day. I was angered at how it was written, performed and just done overall. It was just soulless and you could tell it was done for money and popularity. It wasn’t what music is supposed to be about, in my opinion. That’s why “Flagpole” starts with “Tell me how to feel, because it doesn’t matter anyway.” I got really upset about it and I kind of let it sit for a while, and then we were playing this gig at this place in Colorado called Mishwaka, and I brought up the song that pissed me off to Seth and we finished “Flagpole” there, because I got mad about it all over again. I know tons of people like the song I’m talking about, but the way it supposedly represents a genre and a certain part of the world just made me mad.
Any chance you’ll mention which song upset you?
Canada: No, man, I don’t want to get into that part. I just know that I got something from it and I turned it into that song. As for “Cold Hard Fact,” that was really written for Shannon [Canada, his wife and the band’s manager]. Before we got started on this album, she was getting hit really hard by people still trying to book Ragweed or trying to get her to do a million other things that we just weren’t going to do. That song is about defining what is done and over, and deciding to move forward. If some don’t want to move forward, then we’ll move forward without you. One of the reasons I decided to talk about Ragweed’s break-up a few months ago was so that it could all be laid out and we could move forward, and hopefully, others will do the same.
It seems like “250,000 Things” is another tune that’s extremely personal to you, since it clearly discusses being away from your family. What’s it like to be on the road so much with a young family at home?
Canada: Leaving is always the hardest part, that’s for sure. I wrote the song for Willie, my youngest son. At times, he’ll act like I’ve been gone for a month, when I’ve only gone to the store for a few minutes. My oldest son, Dierks, is now 7 and he understands what me leaving means now. He knows I’m coming back as soon as I can. Of course, kids are resilient, and they wake up the next morning after I leave and they’re fine. I always send pictures to them, and we use FaceTime a bunch so that we can stay in touch and for me to let them know that I’m thinking about them. Once I get home from a stretch of shows, I put away my phone and my wallet, and it’s all about them. That’s when we’ll just be a family for a while. As they each get older, they do understand it all better, though. My dad is still in the oil fields, and when I was young, he was gone all of the time during the big oil boom of the ’80s, but when he was home, he was with me. When I was 5, he would take me fishing all day and then I’d spend all night with him. Coming from that type of upbringing, it’s easy for me to understand, and so I help the boys understand how it works. When I get home on a Sunday night, I’m ready to hop into bed with them, wake up, make the pancakes and take them to school on Monday morning. I love doing that stuff.
Seth, you’ve spent time in Nashville and you’ve teamed up with some great writers, specifically Trent Summar for your last solo album. Nashville isn’t so bad is it?
James: No, Nashville isn’t all bad. There are some people that get a bad taste in their mouth because they go up there and it doesn’t work out for them. But there’s a whole lot of the world’s greatest writers and players of all kinds that live there. I like working there, because I’ve picked the people that I like to work with and I’ve learned from them how to work in Nashville.
Is Trent Summar as much of a madman in real life as he is when he performs live? He’s one of the craziest performers around.
James: Oh, he’s a lunatic! And he’s a sweetheart and I love the guy to death. If you sit down to write with him, whether there’s an idea established or not, you’re going to get a song written because he’s such a cheerleader. He makes a killer cheese sandwich, too. And he’s got the meanest dog alive. I’m shocked that anyone even goes to his house. [Laughs]
Cody, with Ragweed, things started out well in Nashville, but things went south after a while with your record label. What was the tipping point in the wrong direction?
Canada: The major thing about all of that was Tim DuBois and Tony Brown were the ones who signed us to the record deal and they were the ones who let us have our artistic freedom. Once they were gone and the new clan came in, things were very different because the new regime didn’t feel the same way. They wanted us to change the way we did things pretty drastically. They wanted us to record other people’s songs and other things like that, which we didn’t want to do at that time. When the new guys started meddling, things went south.
So, is it safe to say that there’s a good and bad side to doing business in Nashville?
Canada: I’ve learned over the last couple of years, specifically, that you don’t have to run your business from there. Yes, there are tons of great writers and players there and I’m just now appreciating that part of Nashville, because in the past I was in the middle of the messy, business end of things. I don’t have anyone to answer to in that city now; I get to see the real people for who they are.
Adventus is being self-released, just like other recent albums from the likes of Reckless Kelly and Ryan Bingham. Why is it easier to self-release an album now than it was a decade ago?
James: I think it has a lot to do with the age of the guys doing it and the fact that they’re fans of doing things on their own terms. That’s the main attraction to releasing albums this way. Major-label business has changed so much in the last few years and most of us in the band have been involved with a major label in some form, and we know that it’s almost impossible now to sign a deal, record an album and actually see the record be released. It’s a business model that hasn’t been working for a long time for the labels, not to mention that it hasn’t been working for the musicians for even longer.
Cody, your old friend Mike McClure has been doing the indie thing with his 598 Recordings. How cool is it for you to see that a hero of yours, Tom Skinner, has a new album coming out on your friend’s label?
Canada: It’s great. We ran into Skinner a few weeks ago when he came to see us play in Tulsa. I had seen a quote online where Garth Brooks had said some great things about him, and when he told me he had seen that and that it was a legitimate quote, I was blown away. You know, Tom played bass for Garth before Garth left for Nashville and got a new band. Tom stayed in Tulsa and around Stillwater and Norman. So, Mike and him got together and finally put a record out. I don’t want to assume anything, but I think that our putting his songs on our Indian Land album helped nudge him towards putting another record out. He’s a very humble, sweet man, and he recently said to me, “I can’t thank you guys enough for what you’ve done for me,” and these are his words, “Instead of being the fat guy playing guitar in the corner, I’m the ‘Skyline Radio’ guy.” That’s great, and that’s what the scene needs to be about — everyone helping everyone else out.
The term “scene” is one that’s been used to describe the group of Texas/Red Dirt artists over the years. Is there really a scene these days, or is it just a business now?
James: I could go on for quite some time on this subject. But I’ll say that today, things are starting to point back into the direction of there being that type of scene that Cody just mentioned. Just judging from some of the bands that we’ve played with and have gotten to know on the road recently, like Uncle Lucius, ShinyRibs and Jonathan Tyler, it’s clear that there are bands that care about other bands. It’s just starting to get that way again, though. Of course, there are still bands like Reckless Kelly, who we’ve been close with, but I’m not just talking about bands that I’m a fan of, but bands with grown men in them that act a certain way and see the bigger picture. Some of the younger guys, especially musically, aren’t going to be able to build a doghouse, let alone a family of musicians, out of what they’re doing. I think we have to start over as far as building a scene is concerned.
Canada: Ditto on everything Seth just said. I’ll also add the Turnpike Troubadours to the list of young bands that are actually doing it the right way. That’s not just my Oklahoman bias, it’s because they write real music about real subjects. They do it for themselves first, and then they play it really well and that’s the goal for them. I guarantee you that the Turnpike Troubadours’ goal as a band isn’t to be famous.
Seth, “Hard to Find” has a real R&B-style groove throughout the tune, as do many of your other songs from the new album. Was showcasing a ton of groove a specific goal as you wrote for this record?
James: I’m always a sucker for groove. That’s what I look for first, whether that’s good or bad, I’m not sure, but when I write, it’s usually in there somewhere. My wife told me one time that everything I write is like the funk from back in the day and that not everyone likes that, but we embrace that as a band because we’re good at it.
Along with funk and groove, your songs tend to showcase a great deal of religious themes and imagery, especially “Better Get Right.” Is your faith always a driving force for you?
James: You know, I just want to be better at the things I do every day, and living is one of those things I do every day. I do try to sit back from time to time and see what I can do to be less of an ass and that’s really what that song is about. It’s hard to write stuff like that and not sound preachy, but I’m really talking to myself in that case. I do write about that type of stuff more than I realize and I’ve thought a lot about that recently. I am a God-fearing man, and I guess that comes out from time to time.
The album features songs that are sung by three different lead singers. Is there any concern among the band that such a dynamic might keep people from fully connecting with the band at this pivotal point?
Canada: Well, I’d like to play guitar some more, but as soon as I do that, Seth gets to sing more [laughs]. I really think there’s a good balance on the record and within the band. Also, there’s not a lot of concern over anything with this band, because we’re a pretty laid-back, confident group. When someone hears one of our songs, regardless of who’s singing, I feel like they’re going to know it’s us, and that’s the whole point. The next record might be different and have a different amount of songs sung by a different amount of singers, but we always want to make sure it feels balanced.
James: The songs that Cody sings, in my mind, are 100-percent natural Cody songs, and the songs I sing sound like ones I would naturally sing. I think that’s the great thing about this band and the grown-up communication and the lack of any ego involved.
Cody, when the band had just finished recording Adventus, you told us that “a lot of people want to hear what we [the Departed] have to say.” Now that it’s out, what does this album say?
Canada: It says that this is an album by a band. Not by a guy and some other people. If you say you’re in a band, then you should make it sound like a band. This is the beginning of us as a band.