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Sitting in a Mount Pleasant group house in front of Monday Night Football and plenty of beer, Canyon vocalist-guitarist Brandon Butler voices his wishes for the future: “I’d like to be a little more clean [on tour]. I want a little more comfort, and a little bit more money.”
There’s a good chance that Butler will get what he wants. In January 2001, when Canyon’s self-titled debut album was released on the Dischord-distributed Slowdime Records, its classic-rock vibe and bluesy balladry seemed a little out of place among such noise-prone labelmates as Crom-Tech and All Scars. But three years of touring have exposed the group to a wider audience than D.C.’s post-hardcore set, drawing praise from everyone from the online ‘zine Naughty Secretary Club to the Washington Post Weekend section. And the group’s soon-to-be-released new LP, Empty Rooms, has found a happy home on eclectic New Jersey indie Gern Blandsten.
The album will mark the unofficial coming-out of Canyon’s current lineup of Butler, guitarist Joe Winkle, pianist/accordionist Derry deBorja, bassist Evan Berodt, and drummer Dave Bryson, who have been performing together since December 2000. Butler and Winkle, however, began their musical partnership over a decade ago; they’ve had what Butler describes as “a beautiful marriage for 11 years”—even through periods of separation.
“Brandon and I used to be in a band in Kansas City, [Mo.], and we broke up, and he moved here and I moved to San Francisco,” says Winkle, 27. “I was in San Francisco when Brandon called me and invited me to come out and try to be in a band again,” he continues. “What I was listening to at that time was a major thing in what we were trying to accomplish. I listened to the Beatles nonstop, Pink Floyd, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and I realized, God, these records are, like, 40 years old and I love them to death. So I think the main musical influence for Canyon is stuff that’s timeless, whether or not it was recorded last year—stuff that’s going to be relevant in 20 years.”
“We get pegged all the time as an alt-country band,” says Butler, 28. “People who like us, they don’t know about Ryan Adams, they don’t know about Wilco, they don’t know about stuff that’s supposedly this alt-country hip thing that we really don’t fall into.” One album the group cites as an influence is Nebraska, though “as soon as we say ‘Nebraska,’” Butler complains, “people just automatically go, ‘Oh, they’re like Bruce Springsteen,’ or ‘They’re like Neil Young.’ We don’t sound like Neil Young at all.”
Winkle adds, “But what’s cool about the bands they’re talking about—it’s like, well, look at Neil Young’s catalog of music: What does ‘Neil Young’ sound like? Or ‘Pink Floyd’?”
Like their musical heroes, Butler and Winkle hope to keep evolving with each album—and even with each show. The goal isn’t necessarily to sound different, but, as Winkle says, “not being afraid to sound different, not being afraid to take an idea that’s off the beaten track of what you’ve been known to do.”
The band tried to stick to that ideal when putting together Empty Rooms, which was recorded from October 2001 to May 2002 at Uncle Punchy’s Studio in Silver Spring. “A lot of songs got changed in the studio,” Winkle says. “We’re definitely a much tighter, more cohesive, altogether different band after finishing the record.
“The shows we’ve played since the record’s been finished, I think we’re a completely, completely different live band now,” he adds. “It’s a little scary that [our quality] keeps going up a notch. I guess it’s good. But shit is getting hectic now.”
Though Butler writes all the band’s lyrics, “musicwise, it’s all pretty collective,” Winkle says. “I think we also learned that as much as you try to write a really good song, we’re trying to write a really good texture in general, away from the lyrics or the first chorus or whatever else, but writing a texture that’s cohesive.”
Titling their songs, however, is a different story. The guys admit that it’s the last part of the creative process, and one they don’t seem to care much about—which has led to such what’s-that-got-to-do-with-the-words? titles as “10 Good Eyes” and “Magnetic Moon.”
“We have on the set list what we call them, when they’re really named something else,” Butler says. “It’s a funny thing when you play a show when someone who’s heard the record will come up to you and say, ‘Man I loved that song “Blah Blah Blah,”‘ and you’re just staring at them like, Yeah, how’d that go again?” adds deBorja, 29.
Although such adoring fans have yet to make Canyon Gap-commercial huge, the bandmates are pleased with what they’ve achieved so far, especially on the road. Winkle says, “Playing at Iota is pretty much unheard of for bands of our age and our background. We have the same thing going on in New York as we do in D.C. We seem to draw really well—we always have really amazing New York shows.”
“Some people will come to see us because we were with another band before,” Butler says, “but then there are these weird people after the first tour….There was this 60-year-old hippie guy with 10 pounds of turquoise on him in Phoenix wearing a Canyon shirt that he bought at the first show, and you’re like, What the hell?
“Or in Baltimore, there was this older couple who told us, ‘We’ve never seen rock music like that since we saw…’ and they started listing all these shows, like Neil Young in ’74, all this crazy shit,” Butler adds. “We did a couple of covers that they knew, and they were just happy as hell.”
“The first record did OK for no radio play whatsoever,” Winkle says. “We were playing live shows, and I swear to God it would get through the Internet and through friends [that] we have a fun live show,” Butler says. “I’d like to see our show.”
Accordingly, the group plans to release a live CD early next year, which might give it a chance to showcase the gong that has become a regular part of its stage show, courtesy of Bryson’s day job as a roadie with Drums Unlimited Rentals in College Park. “If Dave keeps his job, we can keep the gong,” Butler says—at which point Bryson huffs, “Wait, I don’t have to keep my job there. Let’s make some money and buy the gong!”
If things go really well, the band might even be able to fulfill deBorja’s dream of having two—”like a pair of maracas or something.” Butler adds, “It can shut the crowd up real quick.” —Tricia Olszewski
Canyon holds a CD-release party at 10 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 17, at the Velvet Lounge, 915 U St. NW. For more information, call (202) 462-7625.