Great Big Sea
David Lee Beowülf
I was introduced to Newfoundland’s Great Big Sea about a year ago by a friend who specializes in promoting Canadian bands. The trouble was, I thought the Great Big Sea were from Ireland… Which, as we shall see isn’t quite so far off the mark. Their music isn’t necessarily “Celtic,” though Newfoundland certainly has a claim to that heritage. The Great Big Sea, comprising four old friends, Alan Doyle, Sean McCann, Bob Hallett, and Darrell Power, play music that, it turns out, is native to Newfoundland. The Great Big Sea have two albums that both went platinum in Canada, and are currently promoting a USA-only collection of their Canadian hits called Rant and Roar .
During this interview with the versatile Bob Hallett, I learned some serious North American history; indeed, Newfoundland is one of the oldest continuously settled areas on the continent. (They even filmed Orca there!) And the Great Big Sea are dedicated, it seems, to spreading the Newfoundland gospel (their web site, http://www.greatbigsea.com, has extensive Newfoundland links). I conducted the interview between sets on St. Patrick’s Day in New York City’s Bottom Line. And for the record, St. Patty’s Day in New York City is usually a good time to hide. Surprisingly, the crowd at the venue seemed to be there to hear this band play their “traditional” Newfoundland rock rather than get loaded and wear green, although plenty of Guinness did manage to flow up to the stage.
Hi, Bob! So what do you do in the Great Big Sea?
Bob Hallett : I play the violin, the accordion, everything. I’m the utility guy. Early on we decided we’d pay each other by the instrument. So I have a self interest in playing more instruments.
How long have you been playing these instruments?
Since we were small kids. Everybody in our families played music, our uncles and aunts. Every day of my life I heard somebody playing. It’s not in a formal setting, it was just there, the instruments were there. Some of the guy’s families were all singers. Some played different instruments. Sean and I have know each other since kindergarten and we all have a great commonality in that we’re really into playing this music. We played together since we were kids and most of the bickering we’ve figured out ways to get around years ago.
According to your history, the band was put together around a “kitchen party.” What’s a “kitchen party”?
In Newfoundland, traditionally the biggest, warmest room in the house is the kitchen, so parties we went to when we were kids and still go to would focus around the kitchen. The kitchen would be a big, warm room where everyone would gather. In ordinary parties the people filter into cliques, at a good kitchen party that doesn’t happen. At good kitchen party, all the music happens in the kitchen, too. There’s associated a certain vibe to it.
Doesn’t cooking get in the way?
Cooking is not essential. Definitely music, drinking and conversation.
What about the appliances like the oven? Doesn’t that get in the way?
Well, traditionally in Newfoundland, there weren’t a lot of those so you weren’t dealing with a lot of garbage disposal units.
Are you guys all sons of fishermen? [Newfoundland’s primary source of income is through fishing]
Well, not directly, there’s certainly lots of people in our families who fish. Early on we decided we didn’t want to make a living fishing. It’s a pretty gruesome lifestyle and there’s a lot of variables there you can’t control.
What are your cultural backgrounds? Is there a big Irish community in Newfoundland?
Certainly there is a big Irish community in Newfoundland. But it’s not like the Irish communities that’re found in America and Canada. They’re different in that the Irish who came to Newfoundland came long before the potato famine. And there’s also a lot of English people from Devonshire, where a lot of my family came from and a lot of French people and a lot of Scottish people. But they all came over in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s.
That’s a good Celtic mix.
There was very little immigration after that. Newfoundland’s culture is very homogenous with these four groups and they kind of intermingled and contributed to each other’s culture in a funny way. And this is where the distinctive Newfoundland accent of music and food and art and theater came from; it’s the melange of these four things.
So you all get along even though they’re English and Irish and French?
Well, I’m sure in the beginning there was sectarian grief, but that was 400 hundred years ago! But not only that, you’re not talking about hundreds of thousands of people, you’re talking about four or five thousand and who had little choice but to get along, you know? They’re stuck in this really desolate place with no one else to rely on. It was all fish and trees.
Are you guys fiercely Canadian?
We identify, but Newfoundland became part of Canada in 1949. All eight of our parents were born citizens of Newfoundland, not Canada. Their birth certificates say “Republic of Newfoundland,” not “Dominion of Canada.” We’re first generation Canadians, but we didn’t immigrate there.
What if there’s a war between the rest of Canada and Quebec? Which side would you take?
We’re an island, we’re just going to stay there and let them fight it out! Our allegiance is to Newfoundland. We’re Celtic, English, French, Micmac [Indians]. There’s all kinds of elements there. In America, we often end up under the label of “Irish,” but that’s not how we’d describe ourselves.
It’s interesting that you recognize right away that, for instance, the Irish communities in New York and Boston are very fierce, but since they all came after the potato famine and were, in a sense “forced out” of Ireland…
They still look to Ireland as a place of real cultural resonance, but it’s not the case in Newfoundland. I mean, we’re so divorced from our roots, even though the food, music, and architecture harkens back to the Irish culture, it’s the Irish culture of the early 1700’s, not the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. All the shamrocks and leprechauns… all that just doesn’t exist in Newfoundland. St. Patrick’s Day is a religious holiday with heavy drinking associated with it, not the green hats, green beer and all that shit. For which we should be grateful!
There’s evidence of Viking settlements in Newfoundland…
Yes, there is.
You know the Vikings had tremendous influence over Ireland until Brian Boru kicked them all out…
They’re a fairly unpleasant crowd, you can’t blame them for that.
Have you considered playing any traditional Viking songs?
The Vikings didn’t stick it out! Contrary to their reputation of being fierce and tough they found the Newfoundland winter a little to hard for them! Then again, they did settle in one of the bleaker corners of Newfoundland. It’s pretty harsh, but they came, settled for three or four years, I guess they contributed to the gene pool, but other than that, who knows what happened to them?
I wonder if there’s some Micmac/Vikings out there?
There’s certainly some evidence that people from the Hebrides had some trade with the people on Newfoundland and all the stuff with St. Brendan and that. There’s no hard archeological fact, but there’s Celtic crosses on Newfoundland that predate the 1400’s. There are carvings of monks found all over Labrador but there’s no historical evidence of any settlements. Due to the climate and lack of forests, nobody knows.
Is this something you studied yourself or learned in school?
Newfoundland history is taught in school. We have our own books, TV, theaters… We came from a place where our own culture wasn’t something that we did one year and then moved on.
Did you watch Orca being filmed?
I was aware of it, it was a big deal. Alan [Doyle, vox, guitar, bouzouki, mandolin] was actually in a scene. He’s a kid on a bridge. I can’t say it portrayed Newfoundland in the light we’d like… The only thing I can say about Orca is that it’s better than A Whale for the Killing . Orca at least is so bad it’s good.
Is Newfoundland known for whaling? I didn’t think so… Big black dogs, yes…
Not particularly. The fishery traditionally in Newfoundland was an in-shore, small boat fishery, cod, flounder, lobster, and it’s only in the last twenty years that we’ve diversified, since we’ve fished out all the cod.
You played a rousing version of R.E.M.’s “End of the World” in addition to the Newfoundland/Celtic tunes. How much did you have to pay Michael Stipe to cover his song?
He’s getting all of it, we don’t get anything. Well, their last album bombed, and it’s not a secret that we’re doing everything we can to help them out. I had to do my bit. They have heard it. They didn’t say they did like it, but they didn’t say they didn’t like it. He made a very enigmatic remark. Our take on the song is a different take on the irony of the song.
Now, I understand in Canada, you play big venues. Whereas I’ve seen you in smaller clubs here in New York.
We’re in hockey arenas. It would not be wrong to say we’re famous in Canada. In Boston, we can sell out the Paradise Theater for two nights. And places that benefit from the Canadian media, like Cleveland, Buffalo, the Rochesters of the world we also do quite well. Since June of last year, we’ve really tried to come down in the states at least two or three weeks just for something to do. It’s been quite successful.
During your set, all the people were singing along, so it’s pretty obvious to me that you’re picking up fans.
A lot of these people are fans now. We’ve achieved a large part of what we wanted to in Canada, and we felt we can take this music to the States. We looked at this wonderful music we have on this island, and we could’ve stayed home and played out every night and made a living, but we wanted to take it out to a wider audience. The logical next step was America. We’ve played all over Europe, too. I mean, from Newfoundland to England is a four-hour flight, from Newfoundland to Toronto is a four-hour flight!
How’s Europe treat you?
Germany’s good, there’s cities were we can do 1500 people, some where we can do 250 people, but we still sell our records and just before we went into the studio we were a month in Germany. For some reason we are really big in Denmark.
Did you think it would come to this?
We certainly wanted it to! But every band wants it to. Who knows what’s going to happen? It’s these little victories, these tiny shows, these little things and that 45 minutes out on stage breaks the tedium of touring. You don’t get to go to great restaurants or climb the Eiffel Tower. You drive and you play. Drive and play. So for us, there was never a point where we went “wow, we’ve made it.” To be a star in Canada doesn’t have the impact on us it has in the States, it’s not to be famous like the Tragically Hip or Blue Rodeo or one of the other Canada bands; these guys can still go into an airport and go up to the counter and get their own tickets or go shopping and not get hassled. It’s a little different for us since we’re the most well-known people in Newfoundland, and it’s not a very big place, but I can go anywhere and not worry about my privacy.
Now, you’re supporting Rant and Roar …
Rant and Roar is a states-only comp that’s the best things we liked and that we still played and the crowd reacted to. We’re hoping our new album comes out in the summer. The tentative title is Turn , though we have another three days to argue about the name. I think we’ll take ’em!
Let me put it this way, my exposure to Canadian music was mostly through the hardcore and punk of Teenage Head, Nomeansno, Annihilator, and the Day Glo Abortions. Being turned on to a rocking, rustic band like Great Big Sea was a real breath of fresh air, as I found myself really enjoying just kicking back at the show instead of kicking out… Great Big Sea are special in that they, as not so much a rock and roll band as a “traditional” band, have firmly set themselves a place in the world music scene. Don’t be surprised if they make even bigger waves this summer.