At the tail of their live set, Cowpuncher will sometime dive into a tight, smackdown of the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” revealing and proving, for an audience unfamiliar with who they are, that the band definitely has a pulsing rock ‘n’ roll heart. It’s also when their wirey frontman, Matt Olah, ventures out into the crowd, his guitar thrown around on his back, mike clutched in his hand—a curious cross between a very lean, I-walk-the-line Johnny Cash and Iggy Pop stalking the stage, a street-walking cheetah.
The crowd ate it up and Olah began roaming the stage more frequently, dropping the guitar altogether, crawling up amps and onto PA columns, steeple-chasing and pouncing like a cat burglar from one position to another. Then on one particular occasion, he miscalculated a Peter Pan move and took a spill, a big tumble down.
At a country bar in Edmonton, guitarist Ryan Kelly remembers Olah as he came careening down a PA stack “like a wrestler flying off the top decks” smacking his ribs on an iron guardrail at the front of the stage, then slowly rolling off. “I could see the faces in the crowd winch like, ‘Ooooh, that hurt. That one hurt.'”
No one else in the band saw the incident as clearly as Kelly and they thought Olah was joking, grabbing his guts, mocking the pain backstage. But when he stayed doubled over and started to vomit, they fled to the hospital where Olah received attention for his freshly cracked ribs.
“Another shitty thing about all that,” adds Kelly, “is that we all had to get back to day jobs in the morning and couldn’t stay. We dropped Matt off and just left him there. We felt bad about that, but that’s all we could do.” Kelly and Olah, nod towards each other in unison, recalling events while having a late afternoon drink. The waitress jumps in and flirts a tad with her customers… “You guys are Cowpuncher, right?” she smiles.
Not quite just another night on the town during that Edmonton stint, but one that wasn’t too far out of character for this tough and tumble five-piece outfit who refer to themselves as the Commando Unit. It’s a long, painful way to the top, if you wanna rock ‘n’ roll. Indeed.
The current push for the band is to move beyond its local and regional playing field and sync into the MO of a full-tilt touring band. Something its members are committed to and fully realize the demands of.
“We want to bring our sound our songs to different cities,” explains Kelly. And that means we have to play less in Calgary, which is difficult. This city has been good us, so it’s an effort to turn down shows here.”
“If you love to play, and we do,” adds Olah, “it’s hard to just say ‘no’ and be selective about the shows in town so we can out be on the road as much as we can.”
In pursuit of busting out, one wonders if Cowpuncher’s hard-work ethic is a labour of love or that grinding, necessary evil where no pain is no gain. It’s certainly not about making money, the mere mention of breaking even with out of town gigs result in a chorus of groans, eyes rolling upwards.
“The whole thing can be a chore, to be frank,” states Olah. “It’s like the porn business, everyday a new 18 year old kid wants to shine in the light. Everyday there’s a new, fresh-face kid on the scene who writes a batch of songs and wants to hit the road. But we’re not super young guys anymore, so it is a grind. We still have the dream in our hearts, but it’s a hard life out there.”
Someone at the table laughs and quips, “Matt, I was wondering where you were going with the porn star bit.” Olah takes it in stride, grins and twists the handles on his well-groomed moustache. Porn star, rock star. They go hand in hand.
Scott Martin, who put in eight solid years as the guitarist for the Smokin’ 45s, perhaps the most manic work-hard, party-hard band to scour Alberta’s secondary highways offers some insight to taking the high road out of town.
“There’s no point being Calgary famous,” claims Martin. “You never no how good you are until you challenge yourself and approach a new audience. Go to a new city and a new bar where no one has much of an idea what you’re about. If you win them over, then that’s a real victory. And if you lose, then you need to be honest and say, ‘OK, what did we do wrong?’”
Collectively, the band feels that at one point they were well on the road to ruin. A rock ‘n’ roll outfit that came out of the gate as a die-hard party band, they have streams of tales filled with carousing and drunken debauchery —getting lost wandering strange cities with strange women, missing schedules, missing trains, missing a piece of their mind the morning after. While war stories make for superb journal entries, a lost opportunity isn’t quite the living the dream.
Originally from Saskatoon, bassist Harley Hoeft has a lead hand in directing Cowpuncher and doesn’t shy from expressing his no-bullshit prairie philosophy. “You have to have a realistic approach. I think we all have a lot of experience, and have been through this more than once before. We’re not blind walking into it. But you need to have a real inventory of what it will take to make it work, and know the level of dedication is going to be there from each person. Otherwise what the hell are we doing here? We’re wasting each other’s time.”
The Commando Unit is a lean, mean driven machine these days, focused on writing, rehearsing, recording and touring. Yup, it’s a long way to the top, and Sargent Harley is determined to get them there.
The blender effect
Cowpuncher began with Olah leading what essentially was a scruffy, hayseed, country, bluegrass hoedown. Five years later, it’s difficult to label their sound with the term “country” in it. Olah agrees and says matter-of-factly, “We’re a rootsy, raunchy, rock ‘n’ roll band.” Fair enough.
The evolution of their music rests largely if not entirely on the different tastes and influences of individuals in the band, which also contributes to the songwriting process. As such, you have a very broad spectrum of styles coming together, thrown in a blender, resulting in a progressive and dynamic form of modern roots rock.
“Art punk, Sure, that makes sense, says drummer Jeff Sulima, whose jazz training, a fondness for ‘90s alt-rock and his grueling apprenticeship sweating it out night after night on cruise ships across the globe, makes him worthy of the same class and quality that Muhammad Ali was blessed with… Floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee. A fierce one at that.
“Guided by Voices, Built to Spill, June of 44, Archers of Loaf. Sure, you can call that art-punk. Those are the kinds of bands that Matt and I have listened to forever and brought in their influences,” reveals Sulima.
Although Kelly plays a baritone bass, hinging on the root note and probably the most country sounding of the lot with his big hooky riffs, as a strip-club DJ he’s listening to a vast cross-section of pop and dance music some of which is crass commercial crap but a lot also have well-crafted grooves.
“On this record, I put lots of effects, distortion, and pedals on the bass and really wanted to fatten it up, give it some depth,” says Kelly. I really like rock ‘n’ roll. I know, I said that already. The Sadies are one of my all-time favourites. I like the way they go from twang and psychedelic country to garage rock to the Sex Pistols all in one night. I like that you can throw a whole bunch of things together and still make it rock ‘n’ roll.”
Martin, the veteran blues and rockabilly player, seems to be the one most likely to still be entrenched by country music. While the ghost of Chet Atkins and Duane Eddy certainly channels across his fretboard, Martin’s solos are not the flashy, shoot-from-the-hip 12 bar blues attacks. Rather there’s a structured intricacy in his playing guided more by hypnotic surf and melody lines that are fresh and contemporary.
“All those bands that Jeff just listed, I don’t know a single one of them,” admits Martin. “I also forget a lot of what I used to play. So right now when I’m tossed something from these guys, most of it is completely new, and it comes out that way for me as well. I’m growing as a musician.”
Tying the process altogether is the Sarge. Hoeft points outs, “We all have pretty eclectic tastes. It’s a lot of people coming together and yeah, mixed with each other like it’s in a blender. You can bring an idea to the table, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to look anything like that on the other side. It’s taken a part, picked apart and then put back together by each individual person, and then by the group itself. So if there’s a blending effect, that would be it.”
A real mouthful
One big slice of Cowpuncher that doesn’t get divided up is Olah’s lyrics. Cheeky, witty, confrontational and, as he freely admits, his lyrics, “they’re antagonistic.” On one level he’s a romantic, on another he’s a smart-ass not willing to put up with assholes nor concede to being the sucker in love. All of which make for stories that are a bit twisted leaving you feel more uneasy than they do settled and secure.
“Yeah, it’s kind of funny watching people dancing and getting into it at the front of the stage,” remarks Kelly. “They’re having a great time, singing ‘there’s a hole in my mouth where your tit used to be.’ Weird. But it’s honest. I think Matt writes very honest words.”
The track leading off their new release, Ghost Notes, is “Raised on Rock & Roll” which romps through Olah’s upbringing hinting at the trashy outskirts of town he occupied and not afraid to claim.
“Back of Vans” follows. While it appears this is in praise of smoking pot, it actually takes aim at potheads, dimwit outlooks and cheap thrills.
I got a little older, it don’t always work
But you can give it a tug, you can give it a jerk
We got big mouths and small words
We got clean plates and dirty girls
We got big dinks, they don’t make ‘em scream
We hit their faces cumming, just to hear their teeth stink
Closer to the heart and heartbreak is “Bridesmaids,” another convoluted tale that has the girl leaving probably because her man won’t commit. There’s anger, tension on both ends and resolution in the split, although a sadness too. All that complexity in just a few lines.
Always the Bridesmaid, never the doom
I’m saying the C-word, it’s the last time you’ll hear it
I’m giving my heart away, I’m giving my heart
I’m giving my heart away, it’s the last time you will seek it
Rock ‘n’ Roll Marriage
Being in a rock ‘n’ roll band is often compared to being in a marriage. Some marriages are more loving than others, some are more dysfunctional, others remain together because the partners are too scared to leave or they’re hanging in for the kids, the money, the sex. And some marriages are just dead and should be over. One thing certain about Cowpuncher, they are dedicated to each other and the development of their craft. And they love putting out records, their little babies. Is that enough to keep these five eccentric souls from flying apart? Is it enough to propel them that long, long way to the top? For the moment, there’s only one answer — you cannot win, if you do not play.
Join Cowpuncher at the Palomino Nov. 22 for their Ghost Notes album release.
By. B. Simm
Photos: Sebastian Buzzalino