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Cuff love

Five years of relentless touring and a natural evolution have paid off for alt-country combo Cuff the Duke. Balancing control and excess around an emotional core, cuff the duke is one of the year’s best records.

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Cuff the Duke frontman Wayne Petti is sitting in a ferry terminal in Kitchener. Together with drummer Matt Faris, lead guitar player Jeff Peers and bassist Paul Lowman, he has just finished a 26 hour haul from Winnipeg and is waiting for a boat to take him to play his slot at the Wolfe Island Music Festival. “We’ve been driving around the clock to get here,” he says, speaking into a cell phone. “Sometimes it gets pretty intense like that.”

While supporting its brand-new self-titled second album, the group will continue to keep up a similar schedule over the next three months. The line-up of dates will see the band work its way from its native Ontario to the east coast and back, stopping everywhere from Charlottetown to Sudbury. Still, as Petti speaks, he sounds remarkably upbeat for someone facing such a daunting travel itinerary. In fact, despite the noise of screaming of children and angry parents all around him, it’s hard to miss an almost giddy tone in his voice as he ponders the situation he finds himself in.

There is good reason for this. With the early reviews of Cuff the Duke containing words such as “haunting,” “brilliant,” “sophisticated” and “triumphant,” most people in Petti’s position would have trouble hiding their grin. Add to this the fact that the album will be the first outside release on Hayden’s Hardwood Records (the baritoned troubadour has long been a hero of the band’s), and you can see how Petti can shake off a solid day of driving through Canada’s farmlands in a well-worn van.

“I have to say, I genuinely don’t take it for granted,” he says. “We still feel really lucky to be able to do what we do and be able to travel the country and have people come to our shows.”

Canada is in the middle of a musical revival. While the scene has gained attention due to the success of Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot it in People and The Arcade Fire’s Funeral, that interest has been sustained by countless other excellent releases from artists that range from Calgary’s Chad VanGaalen to Halifax’s Burdocks. Sadly, all of these bands battle with the harsh reality of touring a vast country with a minimal audience. It’s a life that is filled with part-time jobs, strained personal relationships and “driving, hours and hours of driving,” but Petti wouldn’t have it any other way.

Cuff the Duke began in an Oshawa basement in 2000. Starting as a four-track experiment by Petti and guitarist Jeff Peers, the duo soon enlisted bass player Paul Lowman and original drummer Brad Fudge to start translating its recordings into a live setting. After playing a series of shows in local clubs, the newly-formed band went into Toronto’s House of Miracles studio to begin working on songs for its debut album.

“There was a lot of weird shit going on in the band at that time regarding what we wanted to do,” says Petti. “We’d never been in a studio, we’d never toured, basically we didn’t know what the hell we were doing.” The band describes the period as being akin to “Walking around in a room with the lights out.”

The resulting album, Life Stories for Minimum Wage, was an instant classic. Merging suburban paranoia, depression-era folk and indie-rock all into one remarkably fresh sound, Cuff the Duke came out of the gates running.

Soon after, the band found itself playing to ever-growing acclaim in the Toronto area. It was during one of these performances that Three Gut Records operator Lisa Moran happened to see the band.

“She saw us and was blown away,” Petti says. The band had previously sent the label a copy of its album, and after a brief email exchange the following day, their relationship started to fall into place. “It just kind of went from there. It was really quite genuine.”

In its time with Three Gut Records, Cuff the Duke grew to be one of the label’s most beloved and acclaimed artists. Life Stories for Minimum Wage created an uproar of support from media all over the country. During that time the members earned themselves a reputation as true road warriors, playing several successful tours across the country. They also began work on their second album with Halifax’s Paul Aucoin, of The Hylozoists and Nervous System Sound recording studio.

“It was good because it was open and we just discussed things and really figured out what we wanted, and Paul would really help us capture that vision,” Petti says. “It was enjoyable. Far more enjoyable than the first time around, that’s for sure.”

The band headed back out on the road midway through working on the album. The tour would prove to be a pivotal one. Cuff the Duke made a favourable impression on Canadian musician Hayden, touring with him as both his opening act and backing band.

Soon after, when the band learned of the impending demise of Three Gut, Hayden invited the band to join him on his label Hardwood Records, distributed by Universal Music.

“He just said ‘I’d love to put it out. I’ve never put out a record before, but I’d really like to put out yours,’” says Petti. “So we were like ‘Fuck yeah! Sounds like a plan.’”

The band returned to the studio to complete Cuff the Duke.

“I still think it’s kind of alt-country,” says Petti. “I really don’t know how to pigeonhole it. I think it’s good, it’s a good record. If you went to the ‘good’ section of a record store I think it would be there next to Peter Elkas’ record.”

Good is an understatement. The album is the work of a band that is taking itself to the next level in every way. Life Stories thrives in complex instrumentation and epic song structures— but after listening to Cuff the Duke, that sound seems almost guarded. The band is more confident in letting the emotional core of the songs shine through in the new album, letting each track take on a life of its own, travelling wherever it needs to. Album highlights “The Ballad of Poor John Henry” and “No Heat, No Sleep” show the importance of this evolution at both ends of the spectrum. While “John Henry” moves from bouncy country-pop to a grinding guitar assault, “No Heat, No Sleep” stays submersed in a brooding fog, progressing through varying instrumentals that tell as much of the song’s story as Petti’s vocals. Both tracks highlight the band’s ability to balance control and excess, and ability to tell when either is necessary.

“Because we had three years of touring under our belts we sort of had a definitive vision of what kind of band we wanted to put out there,” Petti says. “Which I think is why we self-titled the album. We really felt like this is Cuff the Duke, this is where we really are at right now.”

With a new album and record label behind the band, Cuff the Duke is ready to test the roads of our nation once again. While it’s a difficult reality that includes day jobs, unsupported tours and the general struggle to continue to make music, the band never seem anything less than thrilled to be able to do it. “We consider ourselves extremely lucky to be doing what we’re doing,” Petti says. “You just try to soak it all in, the good and the bad.”

As he sits, still waiting for the ferry, he sums up his band’s situation nicely. “There are a lot of unbelievably talented musicians in this country and some of them don’t ever see the light of day,” he says. “You’ve just gotta play for the people while you can.”

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