"You can write a love song a million times," says Casey Laforet, guitarist-singer-songwriter for Toronto alt-country trio Elliott Brood. "Our tastes are geared to storytellers like The Band, Neil Young. It's not for everyone. We love a cool story and to tell that story with instruments. I don't think we can write super-catchy pop songs."
Cool stories told with instruments is what the Brood does best---its thrilling second LP, Mountain Meadows (like its predecessor, Ambassador, a Juno nominee), launches from the back of a sordid piece of American history: on a fall day in 1857, a group of 120 people emigrating from Arkansas to California was cut down by a consortium of Mormons and Native Americans. The 17 children who survived the attack were then adopted by the people who murdered their parents and raised in the church.
"It's a pretty name about something terrible. For what actually happened, the name makes it sound like a beautiful place," says Laforet, who notes that most of the album's 13 songs had already been composed before he and guitarist Mark Sasso tripped across the tale independently of one another. "We look at the record as the story of anyone who went out west---the people who made it, the people who didn't. It worked really well."
Things have been working out well for Elliott Brood since its inception in 2002. The six-song Tin Type EP, released in 2003, got mad play on college radio, and a sellout show in the unlikely town of Lethbridge, Alberta---"we were almost gonna skip it," says Laforet---begat a relentless touring schedule that has taken the band, rounded out on drums (and formerly Samsonite suitcase) by Stephen Pitkin, across this country seven times. It heads back to Europe for trip four after this east coast run.
"We didn't know what Lethbridge would be like but we knew Calgary was gonna be our best night," says Laforet of that fateful gig. "If we had skipped Lethbridge we would've given up. There was one guy in Calgary and he was my buddy from high school."
Elliott Brood doesn't necessarily sell a lot of records, but their string of packed gigs all over Canada comes from old-fashioned word of mouth, propelled by the strength of their performances. The trio wears three-piece suits on stage---an accidental trend started by a Halloween show---throws auxiliary percussion into the audience and creates a distorted, foot-stomping, egg-shaking, clap-along scuzz-country revival each night.
"We're thrift store guys for sure," says Laforet, revealing that the band's favourite places include the Value Villages and dollar stores of the nation as suppliers of costume and props. "We've started bringing dishware with us so the crowd can play along. When Steve was playing the suitcase, we were always on the hunt for those. We like to find those little junk stores. That's where the true treasures are and it's sensible economically as well."
As for the dapper duds, "It's like we're going to work. When he first joined the band Steve didn't wear the suit so the idea was we picked him up on the side of the road and he became our drummer. Steve has gone suited with us, so we're three dapper dudes. I went to a Catholic high school and it's a lot easier to know what you need to wear."
Now that the band has established itself, it doesn't really need the crutch of the mythology it used in the beginning, when the myth of Elliott Brood, a roughneck from the 1920s, helped to cement the trio's country-callback image. But the spectre of the legend continues to loom.
"He's kind of a made-up character, like Iron Maiden's Eddie," says Laforet, adding with implied eye roll that each of its members is confused for Elliott. "The three of us are the holy trinity of Elliott Brood. We even get email: 'Elliott I love your music!' A lot of times if there's three of us there and someone says, 'Which one's Elliott?' we point at each other."