Pretty Archie are a folk/country/bluegrass band from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia who came to Toronto to play NXNE. They write honest and fun music with a goal of connecting with their fans. They achieve this with their dynamic live shows and relatable subject matter. Formed by childhood friends Brian Cathcart, Matthew McNeil, Colin A. P. Gillis and Redmond MacDougall, the foursome have fun together onstage and off. I caught up with them before their set at the Cameron House a couple of weeks back to chat with them about their music, where they’ve been, where they’re going and why people love Pretty Archie.
Stephanie Beatson: You guys have been friends since you were children. How do you find having a long history and such close bonds with each other affects the band dynamics?
Brian Cathcart: I think it’s great. It’s perfect because we’re not afraid to tell each other anything since we were friends before we were band mates. That goes a long way with being able to be honest with each other fully and not be afraid to hurt anyone’s feelings. Sometimes when you play with someone you don’t really know that well you don’t fully vocalize your feelings. With being super close friends, it’s okay to say, “hey man, that’s not working out. Try this.” You can talk easier.
Collin A. P. Gillis: It helps too if you’re spending long hours in a van together if you can joke around with one another. With being long-time friends too, you can do stuff like, “hey, remember that time in grade nine when you did this? I’m calling that card now!”
Can you tell me about your songwriting process? Does one person take charge or do you typically co-write?
Gillis: It varies a lot. With a lot of songs Brian will come with the lyrics and then we make the song as a band. Other times we sit down, if we have something we want to write about, we write it together.
Cathcart: It’s easy to write something if you know what you’re talking about. It’s easier to explain yourself. I feel like we take our songwriting ideas from stuff we’ve gone through or that we know well enough to be able to be a source on that subject, as opposed to making up a song about a situation. We have a couple of songs that do that, but it’s better for us to have the realness and the actual experience behind it so it’s believable.
Gillis: Too real sometimes!
When you’re writing, do you have a certain goal in mind or do you tend to write more of a happenstance?
Gillis: Again, it varies a lot. If someone’s going through something in their life that’s cathartic… a lot of our songs are cathartic, so it’s easier to write then. But a lot of them come because we decide to write about something. Like a big brainstorming clinic. I think that’s good because if songs came the exact same way, I think it would be boring.
Cathcart: Our type of music is not the type where you play somewhere and everyone automatically likes you. You play a bar and maybe ten people are actually listening. It’s really cool when people come up after and say, “we really connected with that,” and so it’s a slow building process.
Playing away from home, how do you find reception has been? Does it vary in the different places that you play?
Cathcart: We played in Alberta up through Calgary, and they loved it. They’d never heard it before and were really appreciative. I feel like there are more players or maybe more music the further east you go, and the sound is more similar, so we get a lot of, “you sound like these guys,” or, “you sound like my cousin’s band.” Maybe there’s just more players out east, but out west people were like, “woah.” On the whole, I feel like our music style is well received.
Gillis: It’s pretty bare-bones, roots music. I think anyone from a heavy metal rocker to a rapper still appreciates to some degree folk-based or roots music because they realize there’s no BS.
Cathcart: We had a tattooed biker from Hamilton who came up said he really dug our music.
Can you tell me what some of your musical influences are?
Gillis: It varies a lot. In terms of what the band sounds like, somewhere in between The Avett Brothers meets Old Crow meets Wilco. Kind of country folk with a little bit of extra on top of it. We write the song in a folkie sense where the lyrics are the focus, then because of our individual backgrounds and influences when we come together and put the stamp on the tune, it ends up coming out as country and bluegrass stuff. It’s a combination of our influences. It’s not something we purposefully do, it just comes out.
One of my favourite things about your music are the vocal harmonies. It adds a depth that I think people connect to.
Cathcart: That was one of my inputs coming into the band. We have to have good harmonies. They draw me in.
Gillis: You need harmonies, almost like another instrument. Plus, Brian’s the lead singer, but as a listener it goes from him singing about whatever the song’s about to the band singing about whatever the song’s about. Making it a real band thing. It’s fun. Everybody’s involved and a part of it.
How much do you guys rely on social media? How has it helped your career?
Gillis: It helps us tremendously, being able to reach five thousand people in a second.
Cathcart: It’s one of the main reasons why we can make a band at our age, where people our parents’ age wouldn’t have been able to get out there in the same way. It’s everywhere. Over-pollution sometimes, but it’s a good way to get out there.
How do you feel you’ve been able to differentiate yourselves when you’re in a sea of thousands of bands?
Cathcart: To be honest, I’m not sure we even think of that. I don’t think of that personally. When you walk through the city of Toronto, you see posters for hundreds of bands on the walls. I think being from the east coast, we don’t think about that. It would be very discouraging. You just have to make a plan and trust that what you’re doing is good. We’re very committed to our music. It’s our life, it’s our religion. Lots of bands die and go away, and we may too, but you’ve got to believe in it when you’re in it.
Gillis: You make the music without that in your thoughts. If people like the music, they’ll buy it.
Cathcart: We’re going in a show-to-show, grassroots kind of way. You should be making music to make music.
Do you have a certain goal in mind when you’re playing live shows?
Cathcart: Absolutely. We love when audiences are up dancing, screaming, singing, partying. Even if someone’s just sitting there mouthing the words, it’s an adrenaline boost for me personally. You feed off each other. Crowd is hugely important to our type of music.
Gillis: We come from this dive bar/folk/playing at pubs background where we were playing three sets to keep the drunks happy. That’s our background as performers so when we get up now, our goal in mind is to make everybody have as much fun as they possibly can. And make them connect with the music as much as we possibly can. We lay it all on the line every night, emotionally. We sweat it out and have a good time and usually people do the same.
Every night you have to play and kill it. Give it your all because you never know who’s going to be there. I don’t mean in terms of a big shot, but someone might be there who will love your music forever, and will keep in touch and sometimes become a friend.
Do you find that you’re exhausted at the end of shows?
Cathcart: Oh absolutely. By the end of the show, my shirt’s soaked and I’m tired.
Gillis: That’s the way we do it. We’re an all-out group of labourers.
Pretty Archie have released one full length album to date, Steel City, and are recording a new album in September with an estimated release date of October 2014.
Photos by Chris Zacchia.