Henrys and Silver Hearts eschew beaten path
FFWD Magazine- Mary-Lynn McEwen

Posted by on 10 May 2004

Preview - The Silver Hearts and The Henrys

It’s fitting that Wyatt Burton, electric guitarist and lap steel player for Peterborough, Ontario’s The Silver Hearts, calls from a cellphone as he’s travelling to Nanton on Route 564 while surrounded, he says, by nothing. After all, the band’s music – sometimes swingy honky-tonk ragtime, other times weeping, sweeping ballads, but more often something else altogether – dwells at a neighbour-less address in a wilderness of harmoniously conflicting styles. That and their most recent album is titled No Place. Burton is getting tired of the way-off-the-mark Tom Waits references some people repeat to try to hang a label around the band’s neck. For one thing, Waits is a vocalist, not a singer, and the reference degrades the marvelously melodic and direct vocals shared among most of the band’s 12 members.

"It’s sort of a dogged obvious comparison, a straw for people to grasp at due to the eclectic nature of the music we play," Burton says. "I’m pretty sick of the Tom Waits comparison." Indeed, the music is so delighted in its selfness that the most one can say is that a whiff of eau de Band drifts through it now and then.

"It’s difficult for me to draw comparisons because I know everyone in the band so well," says Burton. "It’s a mixed bag of influences – everyone from Kraftwerk to King Crimson to The Stooges to Joni Mitchell to Nick Drake. There’s so many diverse influences at work at any time…. We are a conflagration of 12 interesting and spirited people playing music that’s written in a fairly honest and hopefully unpretentious way."

The band with the unlikely sound evolved from the unlikely circumstances of a Monday night jam in a medieval pub in Peterborough. The four core members eventually began adding about one musician a month, providing musical saw, sousaphone, viola, Theremin and other instruments until there were 14 players. They shrank back to 12, but the band’s sound was further diversified by the fact that almost all of the members write songs for the group. Their first project was also unlikely – writing soundtracks for a friend’s spaghetti-western cowboy plays.

"Originally the material we performed would only feature the word ‘silver’ or was written by a dead blind person. That became somewhat limiting. It did start out having a slightly spaghetti-western feel to it, so we used the name Silver Hearts, a euphemism for a sheriff’s badge."

Another band that slips between genres is Toronto’s The Henrys. A few vocals by Mary Margaret O’Hara stop their most recent album, Joyous Porous, from being completely instrumental, but O’Hara won’t be joining them at the festival this year. Don Rooke, who plays guitar, lap steel, kalimba, steel drums and kona (add the Mellotron, modcan, toys and pump organ contributed by some of the other four members and you start to get an idea of why they slip between genres), says the 10-year-old band is welcomed by folk and alternative venues alike, but that jazz audiences listen with the most wide-open ears.

"Usually the audience is open to hearing music that’s not easy to categorize," says Rooke. "I’m tongue-tied to describe (our music), and I don’t mind that…. The melodies define how they’re treated, and they evolve and that changes (our) approach. "Say it’s kind of a countryish melody – I do have it in the back of my mind that I don’t want it to come out like traditional country. I really don’t want to see any of that, so on that level there is a conscious effort not to play anything too obvious or anything that would constrict the parameters of the tune. It’s a little bit conscious, but at the same time we’re getting to the point where we approach it as The Henrys, and it will turn out that way almost in spite of us."