Wintermitts has a way of making the complicated seem irresistibly simple. The bilingual 6-piece has gone through a few lineups in their 3 year history, but rather than being lost in sound, each member’s techniques and style rings clearly throughout each record. On “Birds”, off their 2012 album Oceans, guitarist Shane McMillan’s folk rock arrangements sound like something we would hear from Neil Young, while “Sharks” shows off fantastic brass and percussion work that brings to find fellow folksters Good for Grapes. Even “A La Fraiche”, a French folk song, is made anew by the bands chiming and haunting rendition. Switching instruments almost as much as they switch between styles, the multi-instrumental band is raring up to tour Nunavut and launch a new tour of shows in Vancouver and beyond.
We caught up with singer/flute player/guitarist Lise Monique Oakley and banjo player/probably everything else Aaron Pettigrew to chat about being bilingual, Jay Z, lobster, and how to tour with a band that plays around 20 instruments.
So, what’s going on with Wintermitts right now?
L: Wintermitts I feel is back! We had someone in our band who just had a baby in December, and Aaron just become a dad.
A: Breeding the next generation of Wintermitts.
L: I think it kinda started with being accepted into a festival in Nunavut this summer, which got us really excited, so now we’re back to booking and playing some shows.
A: We also have a show coming up at the Olla Urban Flower Project down in Gastown around the end of May, and then we have a slot at the Alienate festival in Nunavut at the beginning of July, and then we’re gonna go into the studio at the beginning of fall to start recording a record of our French material.
L: And outside of music, our video just got nominated for a Leo.
Has anyone gone that far up north before?
L: We haven’t, which is why we’re really excited.
A: It’s gonna be amazing!
L: And Aaron and Tess in the van are gonna be bringing up their babies!
You guys sing in both English and French. Do you have a preference towards singing in either language?
L: I think I prefer to sing in French, just because i feel it’s more guttural and I can channel more emotion with it. But I think I prefer writing in English because I’m a stronger writer in that language.
A: I don’t sing in the band, but when I sing backups I like to sing in French because I don’t speak French, so I don’t really know what I’m saying most of the time, so it’s really fun [laughter].
So Lysa, how did you learn to speak the language?
L: I grew up speaking French, my mom is from New Brunswick–she’s Acadian. She moved out here in her 20s. My dad was anglophone. When my brother and I were growing up, my mother put us in an immersion program, so it was my first language. I went back east for a bit and hung out with family that spoke French, spent some time in Montreal…I’m also a huge momma’s girl, so I talk to my mother almost every day on the phone [laughter].
Awww, that’s cute. One of the songs off the last album, “A La Fraiche” is actually a French folk song. How’d you guys stumble in on that?
L: At one point, we had a dear member- Swanm Baratt- in our band, and she played with us for I think almost 5 years. Recently she had to leave the band, because she’s a professional soundcheck and is on tour with Hannah Georgas and lots of other fine folks. She’s francophone and is actually from France, and she found that song- or she grew up listening to it– and apparently Nana Mouskouri sings it. That’s the only place we could find the song, because were were trying to find out who wrote it so that we could give the songwriter credit.
A: It seems to be French traditional.
It’s your song now, think of it that way.
L: Swan sings it on the album, and it’s really just so beautiful. It’s really heartfelt because it’s a song that her parents would sing to her, and her parents are no longer with us. It was a pretty emotional time in the studio when we were recording.
So Swan now works with Hannah Georgas, your audio technician Sean Penner has a history with Hannah, and you yourselves have shared the stage with her a few times. Is touring with Hannah gonna become a regular thing.
L: I don’t think It’ll ever be a regular thing, our genres are really different. Hannah is a really good friend of mine, so I think theres the connection there, and the local music scene does seem to be pretty small.
A: We both grew up around the same time in Vancouver in the same music scene, so we had the opportunity to play shows together earlier. She’s moving in different circles then we are now, mind you, and doing wonderfully!
You guys are very multi-instrumental, but I notice that on “Birds” and “People of the Eternal Sun”, you almost have a sort of blues rock thing going as opposed to the usual folk arrangements. How did those songs come up in recording?
A: It’s intereasting that you pick both of those songs, because they’re written by Shawn, who is the other singer in the band. And to my recollection, he brought those songs sortof partially formed to the stuido. It really lays bare his influence, the 70s folk rock kinda thing. Bowie, Neil Young…these kinds of influences are really big for him. “People of the Eternal Sun” I think is one of the older songs we had worked on for the record, and “Birds” was an older tune.
The band is insanely multi instrumental. How many instruments do you guys actually play collectively?
A: We’ll have to count.
L: I’d say roughly 20? Maybe 25?
A: What’s on the record? Guitar, bass, drums, glockenspiel, trumpet, accordion, trombone…
L: Flute, singing…
A: Banjos, shakers…
L: I guess a lot of us can play each others instruments too.
A: Piano, sax…yeah, like 15 or 20. We don’t always have 15 or 20 instruments with us onstage. We have to arrange the songs for different occasions.
I was gonna ask how you guys pack that many instruments into a van.
A: We’re actually going through that right now as we pack for Nunavut. We’re trying to figure out if, like, we have banjo on just one song, is it worth bringing it, or can we do that part on another instrument? It’s a different decision making process for each venue, trying to figure out what resources we have. What kind of setting it is, what kinds of things we can really bring, and how we’re going to do the changes between songs.
L: And last time we went across Canada we just had a family van, 6 people, and all of our gear in the back with a soft top carrier on the roof. Every night we’d take it down. It became a bit gruelling. It’d be nice to have a good 15 passenger van if we’re gonna tour Canada again anytime soon.
A: But it was pretty cool that you could do 6 people and all that gear in just a Dodge Grand Caravan.
L: Also with gear switching, it helps now that we have a permanent drummer- our drummer just does drums and our bass player just does bass. I don’t move a ton either; I switch up guitars and pick up my flute. But now it’s mostly Shane, Aaron, and Tess who switch up quite a bit.
A: There’s a lot of walking back and forth across the stage. People seem to like it.
Do you guys have any favourite touring stories?
L: There are some earlier stories with some earlier members. I think for 3 of the 4 tours that we did, we had this mannequin head with us to kill the time. So we’d just yell random things out the window with the mannequin head sticking out. [laughter]
A: That’s the thing about touring. Trying to think of the actual stories they all seem just ridiculous because you’re crammed into a van together and nothing makes sense after 3 or 4 days, so lots of things are really fun to us but not to anybody else. Like we’d go to the borders between provinces and take pictures of our butts in front of a bordersign. But I don’t know if that’s a really great story [laughter]. I guess one cool thing is when we went to New Brunswick and hung out with Mike.
L: Johnny in our band’s second cousin or uncle- I don’t know, he’s related somehow- is this gentleman in his early 60s who really wanted us to come over. We didn’t arrive until like 11 at night, but he had lobster for us, a whole feast, beer in the fridge. And now he’s like our dad. Like, he thinks of us as his children, has ordered stuff, he writes to me, he named his dog after us and his late wife. It’s so sweet.
A: Shout out to Mike!
L: And he’s an interesting character. He’s chainsmokin in his house, his dog has like…I dunno. He’s awesome.
A: You know what else was cool? On the last tour, being in Montreal during the student protest. We walked through part of the giant teeming mass of people that was moving throughout the city.
L: I was with Aaron and there were about three or four of us there and we were just like “Hey, we’re walking, why not walk with the protestors?”
A: Never seen anything like that. Every street, every direction, people just congregating and making noise.
L: The cars were with it too. No one was honking or anything.
You guys have a track called “Basquiat”. Would it be fair to say that you started the rapper-trend of giving shout outs to Basquiat in songs?
L: I didn’t realize that was a thing.
A: Man, Jay Z is always biting our rhymes.
A fun question now. A lot of bands go through some pretty bad names before they figure out one that they want to use. What’s the worst name you’ve ever performed under?
L: Wintermitts is actually my first band ever- no wait! Actually, in grade 9 I was in an all girls band called Pandora’s Box. That was pretty bad. And Damsals in Distress.
A: I was in a band called Nonoxynol-9, which is chemical used to lubricate condoms. That was in grade 9 too.
That’s just dirty.
A: [laughter] Yeah, that was pretty bad. I was also in Marinol, which is another chemical- I guess chemical band names just come up in high school. It’s like a marijuana chemical that makes you high. Showing my true colours here, it was about drugs and sex. [laughter]
So what’s next, and anything to say to the fans out there?
L: I think the recording of the new album is kinda the focus right now. We’d like to do a full francophone record on vinyl and get out to the east with that and do some touring in Europe over the next couple years. Not that we don’t like Canada, but it’s tough to tour when you’re a bilingual band here. We’re also selling tickets to our show on the 24th on our Bandcamp page and through Olla Urban Flower’s website, and we’re looking to sell at Red Cat and Zulu.
A: It’s gonna be a great show too. It’s us and Wood Pigeon in this beautiful place in Gastown surrounded by these gorgeous flowers and Fair Trade plants. It’s beautiful!