Motherhood’s Exuberant Art Rock is Rooted In Fredericton, New Brunswick’s Underground Scene

Motherhood_Emulsion_Lab_KyleCunjak
Motherhood, photo by Emulsion Lab/Kyle Cunjak

Motherhood is a trio from Fredericton, New Brunswick in eastern Canada that has been developing its unique and eclectic sound since 2010 when its members met while at university. When critics and fans make unusual and diverse comparisons between a band and personal musical reference points, you know the band in question is onto something refreshingly different from prevailing trends. For this writer, hearing Motherhood there are resonances between the band’s music and the otherworldly, carnival-esque sounds of a Danny Elfman soundtrack, the frayed folk art punk of the Mekons and the strongly thematic and sonically diverse yet focused conceptualization of Rubblebucket. Some might hear in its songs the sort of amalgam of slackery looseness and precision that has made Pavement so interesting and unpredictable. Of course Motherhood, as you’ll see in the interview below with bassist/keyboard player Penny Stevens, doesn’t really sound like any other band touring in the underground precisely because its influences are so disparate even as the alchemy of its creative process and its evolution over several years has resulted in music that one might expect from artists who developed early on in a small city (Fredericton even now has a metropolitan area population of under 110,000) with no entrenched musical sub-scene to easily access.

On March 1, 2019, Motherhood celebrated the release of its new album Dear Bongo (out on Forward Music Group) and its songs informed by humor and brimming with tender emotional immediacy even as it explores the folly of seeking and demanding perfection in our lives whether through our relationships, our psychology or in our creative work. Motherhood is currently on tour throughout North America including the following shows coming up in Colorado and at the Treefort Music Fest in Boise, ID.

Sunday | March 17 at Lion’s Lair, Denver
Tuesday | March 19 at Seventh Circle Music Collective
Thursday | March 21 — Treefort Music Fest, 8 p.m. at Boise All-ages Movement Project
Saturday | March 23 – Treefort Music Fest, 9 p.m. at Tom Grainey’s Basement

Queen City Sounds: Your band has been around longer than I had assumed. Has it been around for about eight years?

Penny Stevens: Yeah, Brydon [Crain] and Adam [Sipkema] have been playing together since high school and I joined them during our university days. 2019 will make nine years since we formed Motherhood.

How did you meet them?

They’re from a small town kind of in the middle of nowhere and they moved to Fredericton, which is where we all live now, to go to college. I needed a place to live and I ended up moving in with them and we started jamming in the basement.

Did you grow up playing music?

S: Yes, I’m the only one that took actual music lessons in band except I took a semester in classical guitar and Adam took two drum lessons, I think. I took classical piano lessons while growing up. So I write the piano stuff. When we started out we had a bass player and when he quit I took over bass duties and had to pick it up pretty quick. We’ve been playing music all our lives. I guess a lot of it has been at this point in Motherhood and we learned to play instruments while in this band. A lot of of artists have had other projects that they developed in and formed something later on but we kinda grew up with Motherhood. It’s been a constant for a long time. We didn’t experiment too much outside of Motherhood so we spent our experimentation years inside this band and we sound completely different now than when we started out. Now we can identify what we’re going for. There’s a more clear vision of where we’re headed next.

We all had little projects in middle school and high school but this is our first “real” band that played actual venues. It took us a long time, when we first started out, to figure out how to BE a band. Coming from a really small town with not a lot of other bands around it took us some time to learn how to book a show, make a record and stuff like that when there’s not really anyone else to follow.

Was there a local music scene and places to play for you starting out?

There’s one sweet venue where we booked one of our first shows, The Capital. We were horrible but they kept booking us and asking us to come back. We still play The Capital all the time. The record label that we’re on now, Forward Music Group, is based out of Halifax but it was formed in Fredericton and a lot of bands that were on the label we consider kind of the grandfathers of the music scene there. A lot of them are still playing in awesome bands. They’re older and have families now but we kind of came up going to see those bands play and watching them. Grand Theft Bus is like a prog jam band, they’re pretty cool and still playing. Bands like Force Fields, Share, The Slate Pacific—they’re not as active anymore but those folks are still around and will come and see us once in awhile. That was the only record label we were familiar with coming up so nine years later we’re working with them and it feels pretty good to be a part of the family after all these years.

Is The Capital an all-ages venue?

No, it’s a bar. Some friends of ours started booking there in the late 90s, taking a risk because there wasn’t really any live music happening in Fredericton and touring bands weren’t coming through much but they begged the owner to have a show there and it went really well. The guy that started booking the shows now owns the bar and he’s a huge supporter of the music scene and keeps the Fredericton music scene alive and he does a lot for other bands too.

Did you get a chance to see many bands not from there coming up?

It comes and goes. There’ll be a few years when a lot of touring bands are coming through and there’s a lot of activity. We’re in a little bit of a quiet space now. I lived in Fredericton when I was a teenager and I would sneak out of my mom’s house and go see all-ages metal shows when I was 14 or 15. Those were my first shows and I didn’t even know you could do that thing. That scene isn’t really alive in Fredericton anymore. When we released our record Dear Bongo on March 1 we put on a big all-ages show and we had probably close to seventy high school kids come out. It’s pretty rare to have an all-ages show in Fredericton right now but I hope they’ll be able to have the kinds of experiences I had when I was a teenager going to see all-ages shows and thinking, “Oh, I should be in a band!” That show was at the Charlotte Street Arts Centre, which is a community art center that has a big auditorium.

Presumably this isn’t your first big tour.

This is the biggest we’ve done yet, it’s six weeks long. Last year we were gone a month. We came through Denver [at Seventh Circle Music Collective] and across to Idaho and Northern California and up the coast and back. We won’t have to drive as long this time but we’ll be out longer. Our music is diverse so we can fit into a lot of different places. We can play a legit venue and we can play a punk house and it’s not really that different for us. It translates to a lot of different audiences. In Boise we’re playing at Treefort on Thursday and Saturday. We played Treefort last year at Neurolux and another place. It’ll be nice playing with DIY bands we’ve been in contact with across the US like Charcoal Squids from Missoula, Montana and Lloyd and Saviour from Idaho.

Dear Bongo is not your first full-length.

We’ve had two full-lengths and put out our first in 2013.

Dear Bongo is a name I associate with something people might name their dog but I assume that isn’t the case here.

No, but a lot of people make that association. The dog’s name is Tesla.

You made a video with footage from a GoPro attached to Tesla?

Yeah, we made the video for “Bird Chirp.” We shot that in one of our favorite places in the world called the Nashwaak Flats. You gotta know it to know it, you’ve got to know where the little path is but it’s very close to where we all live. We can bike there from where we live in a few minutes. You basically leave downtown and follow a little path for a few minutes and come out onto this huge, open field. It’s close to downtown Fredericton but it’s quite secluded so we spend a lot of our summer there hanging out and having fires and stuff. We took Tesla down there, she loves it there, and she rants around for twenty-five minutes and collapses and has a naps. So we just strapped a GoPro to her and took her off leash and had a really good day at the Flats. She’s a greyhound and she’s so fast so it kept flopping onto the side so we had to stuff socks between the leash and her shoulder blade so it would stand up.

Kyle Cenjuk took photos and did some performances on the new record?

Yes, he co-produced the record and he runs Forward Music Group so we asked him to produced the record not having any knowledge of how we were going to put the record out. When he came to produce the record he kind of fell in love with it a little bit and asked to put it out on Forward Music Group. We were super stoked about that, obviously. He plays in a bunch of Canadian bands and he plays upright bass so we had him play upright bass on a couple of tracks. He helped with vocals and arrangements. Right now he’s touring with David Miles, who is a pretty well-known folk, pop artist. He also plays in Olympic Symphonium, which is a five piece chamber folk group and he plays in Force Fields, a really intense post-rock band. He has his fingers in many pies as far as East Coast music goes.

When people hear your music they probably accept it for what it is but it gets interesting comparisons like The Mekons, which seems fitting.

Usually when we get comparisons a lot of the time we don’t know the projects. I don’t know who The Mekons were until someone wrote that about us and I checked it out and thought, “Okay, I can kinda see that.” We get Primus a lot, which is fine. I don’t think that makes a lot of sense but I can see where they’re coming from.

There’s some playfulness in the music and it’s not obvious if there’s some genre it’s coming from.

Yeah. When we write something with an obvious influence we like to make it very obvious. Our influences are thinly veiled but very diverse. On Dear Bongo we have a song that we were like, “Let’s try to make this sound as much like a Beach Boys song as we can.” Because we all love the Beach Boys. There are songs like that throughout the record, homages to artists we really care about. Either way, we’re not trying to sound like any particular band but there are bands we like to pay our respects to for really setting the stage for us.

On the Forward Music Group there was a reference to a story associated with the new album about a painter who was pursuing perfection, which is something many people aim for but don’t really find.

S: Pretty much every album we produce is conceptual and completed in one album. So there’s a running theme that carries through every song lyrically and sonically. The lyrics for sure play a part in telling the story but also in the music we have themes that will repeat in different songs in different ways to add cohesion and completeness on the album. This record tells the tale of a painter who is going through a horrible breakup of some sort, falling out of love with someone. He uses painting to try and solve his problems, to paint the world that he wants to see but perfectionism doesn’t mean it can be too perfect. There’s a lot of metaphors and it’s not just one kind of painting. He paints lines on the highway, his house and pictures. By the end he’s playing every blade of glass, tree trunks, trying to paint the world as he thinks it should be but he’s never going to get it quite right.

Author: simianthinker

Editor, primary content provider for this blog. Former contributor to Westword and The Onion.